Processing Harvard’s Race, Equity, and Leadership Institute

I recently had the opportunity to attend Harvard’s institute on Race, Equity, and Leadership in Schools along with a substantial portion of my district’s leadership. The group included my superintendent, members of cabinet, and a building leader from each school. While there were some logistical challenges inherent to running anything for the first time, I must say, the Harvard Graduate School of Education puts on a good show.

There were 12 90-minute sessions across 4 days with a continuous stream of HGSE’s heavy hitters. There were too many different threats to try and bring together any sort of holistic summary beyond the obvious: equity work is difficult work that requires continuous attention and a coordinated approach. Equity work is also absolutely critical to the success of our public schools and our fundamental tenets of democracy and justice.

What follows below are 4 daily summaries that I originally sent as emails to my team at the end of each day. They are somewhat informal and written while in the flow of the institute so they have an immediacy that I think is valuable. I’ve edited some of them for length.

Day 1 – 21, March, 2017
I’m writing this at 2:45 AM because I’m so excited that I can’t sleep and I process things through writing. If I write a bunch of it down now then I can go into the next day confident that I won’t forget as much of what I already learned.

(Please don’t send me a stack of messages about sleep and self care. I’m typically pretty good about sleep. My wife is also away so there’s no one to kick me back to bed.)

We’ve only scratched the surface of what this week has to offer and I’m already spinning with ideas about what we can do in the district to move our equity work. I hope you’re all taking good notes because we’re getting gems by the second and I know it will take a long time to process all of this material.

What a way to begin. Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot is absolutely the national treasure that Dr. Jewell-Sherman said she is. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s frame using View, Voices, and Visibility immediately landed with me and I think we can learn a lot from her encouragement to proactively find examples of positivity while still remaining honest and critical. She also took a very powerful both/and approach to her work encouraging us to look at cases for their ugliness alongside their beauty and how we can be analytical while we build solidarity. Avoiding either/or thinking is revolutionary in itself because of how directly it pushes back against a dominant narrative of scarcity and otherness.

In the second session, Dr. Jewell-Sherman echoed this both/and thinking by encouraging us to think of our work as containing challenges and opportunities together. That we can be busy and excited. Her sentiment that we need to find individual measures of success in addition to the measures we can’t control was also particularly resonant for me as professional learning can often be very intangible.

As I expected, Dr. Tatum was remarkable. She is a legendary name for good reason. I appreciated hearing her confirm many of the messages she spoke about when she was with us back in November. It was helpful to hear her reiterate the ABC of Affirming Identity, Building Community, and Cultivating Leadership. As always, Dr. Tatum’s metaphors are spot on and this time around the antibiotics metaphor really struck home. I think our district is still early in the course of antibiotics and we’re seeing some of what she described. Some people are starting to feel better and it could be easy to stop taking the medicine, others have backed away and are feeling uncomfortable and need to press on, while still others perhaps haven’t really begun to take the medicine.

This is lifelong work in many ways while at the same time balanced by great urgency to serve our students in a way that supports each and every one of them.

If I take a pile of notes they will be there for me six months from now when I’ve forgotten 80% of what I’ve heard. I’m excited to be a nerd with all of you this week so we can learn some things to help every one of our students get the kind of school experience we would want for our own children.

I hope Wednesday has just as much material. I hope that I end the day feeling just as full with a burning desire to write down every single phrase, idea, possibility, and metaphor.

I hope my hand hurts from taking another pile of notes. That’s what we’re here for.

See you all in a few hours.



Day 2 – 22, March, 2017
Figured I may as well do this again after the positive response from so many of you. Here goes:

Day 2 left me wanting more time to talk with all of you about how to take this massive amount of new learning and turn (some of) it into action and opportunity for our students. It will be critical for us to make sure that this week doesn’t die on Friday afternoon in the same way we had to be vigilant after the PD day back in November. The continuation of this work lives in our daily actions and our ordinary choices. I expect many conversations with all of you to unpack your ideas and contextualize them for your place in the district.

More intellectual heavyweights today. I expect nothing less from Harvard.

I really appreciated Dr. Murnane’s economic perspective and it aligns with a lot of other things I’ve been reading lately, though from another perspective. In particular I’ve been thinking about which knowledge/skills/behaviors schools reward and which knowledge/skills/behaviors we punish. I think schools disproportionately punish social behaviors and reward them inadequately. I think the claim that “social skills aren’t on the test” is a red herring. As schools, and leaders, we can create ways to recognize and values social skills. If we let ourselves get beholden to the MCAS, or SAT, or College Board exams I think that’s like the carpenter who blames their tools. While those external measures are important and cannot be ignored, they are only one aspect of what we can assess. We still choose how grades work in our schools and I think Dr. Murnane made a strong economic case for developing our students social abilities.

Dr. Allen was incredible. I find her argument for a more connected society to be deceptively simple and I still haven’t spent enough time marinating on the idea to really know what to do with it. At the same time, I find that the concept aligns effectively with my lived experience. I am a better, more ethical, and more knowledgeable person for the combined bonding and bridging ties that I hold.

I’m a fan of metaphors so here’s a picture from my notes. You have the assimilationist melting pot, the multicultural tossed salad, and then the connected society woven tapestry in the middle. We know the melting pot and in the salad each ingredient retains its structure and can be pulled apart. In the tapestry the different threads retain their color, but you can’t pull one out without destroying the tapestry. Enjoy:

Dr. Lahey – good lord. I had a powerful experience with my partner and I definitely got to a place I wasn’t originally expecting to get to. I was struck by how complex and highly individual transformative work is and it made me think that we can only tolerate so much change at once without completely freaking out. I can’t imagine processing more than one or two items in this fashion and this experience is helping me realize the importance of doing a smaller number of changes and taking the time to process those changes deeply. My initial goal is tied to an extremely powerful piece of my identity  and it will take a great deal of thought, reflection, and energy for me to unpack whether I’m up for making that kind of change.

I think it will be important to figure out how we dedicate the time and space necessary for thinking through the complexity of the kinds of adaptive changes necessary to make the institutional changes required to ensure that our most vulnerable students are getting the experience they need to achieve excellence.



Day 3 – 23, March, 2017
I imagine you’re expecting this by now. Here’s day 3:

If you’re planning a conference and you know it’ll be seriously content heavy how do you ensure that your participants will stay with you on the third day? You lead off the day with Karen Mapp.

Dr. Mapp is not here to play around and I deeply respect that of her. I think more than anything she made the work to engage families so completely tangible and accessible. Take the time you already have and repurpose it. Stop vaguely encouraging teachers to connect with families – teach them how to actually do the work. Throughout her session Dr. Mapp took a straightforward approach and operated from a clear position that this is work to be done. She didn’t get overly technical or bogged down in unnecessary details. I also appreciated her reliance on family and teacher voice to make her points in a way that only those doing the work can really do. I ended that session thinking that her premise is just so obvious that I can’t imagine not making some changes in our approach to family engagement.

The Panel impressed me and while the panelists had a host of powerful advice and information I was particularly impressed by Dr. Mason the moderator. Moderation has an enormous influence on a panel’s usefulness and Dr. Mason balanced expertly crafted questions with her own input and levity to great effect. I appreciated each panelist’s immediate honesty and willingness to speak from their lived experiences. I was particularly struck by Dr. Gutierrez’s story of returning to her own community and still needing to earn family trust, acknowledging that by taking a job within the system she became representative of the system.

I was (over?) hyped for Dr. Lee’s session on the legal history of integrated/segregated schooling. As an undergraduate history major and an educator this is 100% my jam and Lee did not let me down. From the beginning I appreciated Lee’s stance that combined a powerful and righteous outrage at injustice with a deep critical hope that there is opportunity for progress. I knew some of the history (see bonus section below) and he also introduced me to some new cases like Rodriguez (1973) and Millken (1974). Overall I think it’s critical that educators have this historical knowledge of how schooling is structured and I’m thinking about how to develop a PD series for our educators on this topic. I also LOVED the question about how we might intentionally create areas of convergence in order to facilitate civil rights improvements. There’s so much here to unpack.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Irvin Scott as his session title was released late and there was no pre-reading for the session. In general I think it was a solid introduction to the concept of using stories to open dialogue. I definitely appreciated the that he built in a good amount of discussion, though it left me wondering if the structure was more suited to a smaller group or a longer session with more opportunity for depth. I was fully engaged throughout the session, but my notes are very sparse being mostly limited to my own story notes and the 7 points from Denning’s Telling Tales article that Scott referenced.  For now I’m thinking that the session might inform my stance and how I open dialogue but I don’t have anything terribly specific to point to just yet. That may change with time and processing.

(Tangentially related: the poem “Opportunity” that Scott read made me think of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” or “My Shot” from Hamilton which could be more relevant if you wanted to use them with students.)



Day 3 Bonus Section:
Lee’s recommended reading included Ian Haney-Lopez’s White By Law and I can also recommend it highly. (Dr. Tatum recommend another Haney-Lopez book Dog Whistle Politics.) The text is a brilliant history of the legal construction of race in the United States. My wife put it in front of me after she read it for a law school class and I fell in love with her all over again after I read it. (Yes – I am a colossal nerd.)

Day 4 – 24, March, 2017
A short day with only 2 sessions so I may as well finish the job:

Dr. Jewell-Sherman and Dr. Grassa-O’Neil kicked off the morning with a very tangible session that covered ways to open up a safe space. I was already familiar with the Courageous Conversations agreements and compass and I agree that they are extremely helpful tools. (That was my introductory book to equity work.) I hadn’t considered using the compass for a 4-corners activity and I think that could be interesting to help people think about the different ways we process using moralizing, feeling, action, and thinking. Race the Power of Illusion is a remarkable documentary. I’ve used it before and it’s also used in the IDEAS course to great effect.

In speaking with a couple other participants, we agreed that this could have been more useful at the beginning of the conference as a way to set the tone for other discussions and potentially limit the norm-setting time in the small-groups.

Dr. Barth’s session surprised me. I’ll be honest that I was a bit skeptical when he started and through the multiple small discussions I really learned a lot and I appreciated how he used the participants’ words to make his points. I’m definitely curious about unpacking methods of school governance and working more to increase opportunities for student talk – especially in the upper grades. In addition, I was struck by how forcefully he made the argument for removing tracking systems that gate entry into the most rigorous high school classes by naming tracking as the most important lever toward equity. I also think that in many ways it’s one of the easiest. (I use easy with a giant grain of salt because I know the many implications for students, educators, and families involved with AP access and how it relates to personal identity. I do think that AP access is easy relative to some other variations of systematic oppression.) I thought it was a good choice to bring Dr. Barth in to the conversation and I always make a point of listening closely to elders so that I can learn from their many years of experience before me.

General Summary:
Overall I am so appreciative that all of you took four days away from your buildings and other work to step into this space together. And I am thankful that I work for a senior leadership team who is willing to commit that kind of time, attention, and money to this work.

I have 46 pages of notes and I know that it’s going to take me some time to sift through out and figure out my next steps. I am hopeful that this shared experience can galvanize us toward making changes for the betterment of our most vulnerable students in our schools and the students we are currently underserving. The data that Dr. Scott shared Thursday afternoon isn’t all that far from our data.

No one should pretend that this work will be easy or that we will solve things quickly and I hope that despite these challenges you can all remain engaged and committed to the urgency required to help each student who comes through our doors.

See you on Monday to debrief and discuss,



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