Monday, October 2, 2017

Taking on Something New

Working Together to Make the Digital Portfolio a Success

Photo from City University of Seattle, Creative Commons
Background: As the co-chair of our school improvement committee I was tasked with leading our freshmen class (about 300 students) and high school teaching & administrative staff (about 60 adults) in the development of a school-wide initiative for the individual creation of a digital portfolio. Each incoming class will take part in the digital portfolio experience so that within four years, it will be a school-wide program. We hope to advance our program at the middle school as well. The connections to our high school curriculum and the post-high school planning for our students is being defined and developed by our high school building leadership team with staff input. The school district I serve includes one high school (approximately 1,200 students) and one 6-8 middle school (around 800 students). There are three K-5 elementary schools and a Pre-K program as well.

Before I dive in, I want to thank my colleagues for adding ideas to our framework and challenging my thinking about the digital portfolio experience. Your questions led to the creation of this blog post. In this post, I am intentionally going straight from my heart to explain the intended “learning targets” associated with the digital portfolio experience. I decided that reviewing research and our school improvement goals for this blog post would take away from the authenticity these topics require.
I hope my explanations below will help you find meaning in the digital portfolio experience.  

Why are we doing this?

Great question and perhaps the most important place to start. My work with our staff last week opened my eyes to how important it is to have the “why” in place before taking something like this on as an entire staff.

Part of my story going back to Ionia, Mich. and my family. By sharing our stories,  
we are more likely to connect. I am on the far right sitting in my mom's lap  (first row)
TELL A STORY: A digital portfolio is intended to tell a story. The portfolio itself is the medium to tell that story. The creation of the portfolio is the learning experience. A digital portfolio is a learner-led experience that can be shared easily. We are all unique and those traits that make us the “characters” we have turned into over time add to the personality of our school culture. The question, “Who am I?” is the beginning of our story for the digital portfolio experience. All of our stories will evolve over the life of the portfolio. Sharing who we are enhances the learning environment, making our school a more welcoming place where building positive relationships is embraced by students and staff together.  

REFLECTION: Any experience that helps us reflect on our learning and our role as educators is positive.The portfolio emboldens each of us to dig in on that reflective practice on our own terms and at our own pace. We spend hours planning and teaching. We dedicate time to professional development and we can all agree that the PD we get the most out of usually involves the experiences we choose and the experiences that are closest to our hearts. A digital portfolio can be the launching point for each of us to dig in and share with an audience those learning experiences we are most passionate about and eager to explore deeper.

Photo By Nick Gregory
TECHNOLOGY ADVANCES DIFFERENTIATED LEARNING GOALS: The creation of a digital portfolio helps the creator develop useful technology and storytelling skills on the learner's own terms. Perhaps more importantly, the digital portfolio experience allows the creator to highlight and explore several disciplines, learning styles and methods of communication simultaneously (writing, video, audio, graphic arts, etc.). A digital portfolio is fluid in nature so investing in this medium encourages risk-taking, trying new things and manipulating technology. Twenty-first century skills benefiting everyone naturally translate into a digital portfolio learning experience. The digital portfolio is a dynamic work in progress. 

CLAIM YOUR EXPERTISE: We should celebrate the fact that our students have talents and passions that span a wide spectrum. As we claim and share our interests we are empowering our students to place some trust in us to do the same. Everyone reading this is an expert in something. Beyond that, TEACHERS ARE EXPERTS in the craft of teaching. We should claim our expertise and share it with an audience. We invest ourselves in a multitude of professional endeavors related to helping youth and leading others.

We all know of colleagues who are doing awesome things professionally that are worthy of shining light upon. In order to build a culture that is based upon collaboration and risk-taking, claiming expertise will help our school continue to improve. If a portfolio can be one vehicle where we re-frame expertise as an asset to our learning community and dismiss the idea that it is bragging, we will exponentially add value to our school culture. Taking advantage of this opportunity to remind our students and others that our passion and drive extends beyond merely showing up is a win for education.

For our diverse student body, the digital portfolio encourages them to explore and claim their own expertise. There is tremendous educational value in explicitly identifying interests and claiming expertise.

SHARED LEARNING EXPERIENCE: Our mission to build positive relationships with students and among our staff is enhanced when we share a learning experience. Navigating the challenges together and even calling into question the value of this experience makes our learning valuable. My favorite part of leading this endeavor has been leaning on my colleagues for advice and having my ideas challenged. For many people on our staff, the digital portfolio will offer an in for us to help one another. Many of our students will thrive as they see opportunities to help classmates and adults with portfolios. Start where you are on this experience. The best conditions are set for learning when we get out of our comfort zones and share in some collective vulnerability.  

My Professional Portfolio:

My next blog post will include the following digital portfolio topics:
  • What is my role as a teacher? 
  • How do I start? 
  • Who is my audience?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

An Open Letter to Students Who are Tackling Racism

A letter written by me to our high school drama students in response to their incredible performance of Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird. I am posting it here to spread the great news about the impact engaged students have on the world. It is our responsibility to foster a culture in schools where ideas turn into action. Kudos to teacher-extraordinaire Lori Thompson for her direction of this production and her remarkable leadership helping all of us make meaning through our struggles. This letter was given to each member of the cast and production team.
The Dream is Now, Detroit. By Nick Gregory

You are an all-star.

I figured since a few of you have been on the receiving end of my high-fives in the hallway or praise in my classroom, you should know why I am so fired up about your role in the FHS performance of, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I am writing this letter to you because you pulled something off that some people spend a lifetime trying to do; you significantly moved the needle toward progress. I do not say that lightly.

Working for progress is tedious work and it tests our patience.

The fight for progress can make us feel isolated. Striving to get to a better place can be lonely.

A true commitment to progress makes us vulnerable as we reflect on our own imperfections and flaws.

The process of making progress can be discouraging at times.
Voice of Hope, Detroit. By Nick Gregory 
Your performance and the honesty with which you delivered it brought all of the above truths about progress to light. You revealed the complicated layers that make confronting bigotry and racism challenging. All aspects of the evening - the acting, the character development, the video montages, the set and direction, the Q & A - it came together remarkably. You reached hundreds of people directly from the theatre alone. Add to that your interactions with guests, in Flint, with your families and among your peers and the scale of your influence expands dramatically. More importantly, you will continue to fight for good ideas and so will many of the people who shared this learning experience with you.

Never underestimate the power of ideas and our capacity to evolve as human beings.

Your effort, focused study and the exhausting rehearsal that went into authentically delivering To Kill a Mockingbird demonstrates respect for your audience and your belief in something bigger than the “show” itself. I admire your dedication. Truths about hate and love that have existed for more than the eighty years since the story was set, came to life in the theatre Saturday night.   

You did that. You helped people think and feel the tough stuff. Your work creating positive change in our world is only beginning and that excites me.
A few other ideas came to mind in the days since I enjoyed your performance.


Judge Not, Detroit. By Nick Gregory
Putting yourself out there to be a part of a team is a risk. Collectively, you got to a deeper level of understanding by opening yourself up to learning from new experiences and difficult conversations. It is inspiring to me and makes me want to keep reaching for more.


We can never have too many reminders about the importance of “walking in another’s flip-flops” and opening our hearts and minds to the experiences of others. Empathy is a function of love and there’s no such thing as a surplus of love. You reminded me that empathy is greater than a set of actions or deeds. Empathy can be taught and modeled.  As a teacher and a dad, that’s a reminder I appreciate. Thank you.


We have the power to change. Every person, regardless of age or background, is capable of change and forgiveness.

When I was in college, my uncle referred to a good friend of mine as a “Sand-N-word”  and it shook me up. My friend is Indian and has dark skin. My uncle was looking through some spring break photos I brought to a family gathering and he spewed his hate so casually that it caught me off-guard. He said it as though he was describing an obvious feature like his jet black hair or his goofy smile and I remember feeling helpless. My uncle’s bigoted slur hung in the air the entire day. I struggled for a long time with the fact that I never spoke up back then. I don’t remember exactly, but I am sure I was weary of creating tension with someone I loved.

At that time, I was not willing to go there.

I told myself for a long time that my uncle was just set in his ways and he was still a good guy (which is true). I questioned why he volunteered his hate so easily when it was not even solicited. It’s not like there was a heated discussion or a relevant topic that at least provided some context for his toxic attitude. Years later, the stench of his insulting remark has mostly evaporated, but traces of it still hang around in my mind. I began challenging myself to think about things like, how do we unlearn hate? I never wanted to feel helpless about speaking up again.     

Fast forward seven years and I had fallen in love with Beata, now my wife of eleven years. Beata is a first-generation Iranian-American whose parents immigrated to the United States in 1978. Like my college friend, my wife has dark skin, dark hair and her ethnic features are striking. By the time we got married, I decided that the discomfort my uncle might feel around my wife’s family with their accents and cultural customs was his burden, not mine.

Horrible slurs and insults like the one I heard years prior would never happen again in my presence. At first, I was not sure if my uncle changed or if he just toned down his rhetoric around me. Today, I believe that he has changed. He thinks differently than he did a decade ago.  

As I have fallen more in love with my wife and her beautiful family (they’re now my family too), I appreciate how their unique life experiences as US immigrants have influenced Beata. My in-laws have opened my eyes to an American Dream that I never had to contemplate growing up. They have also opened my eyes to valuable experiences that have shaped their view of our nation’s struggles. When we gave birth to our own children, I began re-thinking my own ideas about love and hate; bigotry and inclusion. I guess you could say that like my uncle, my ideas are evolving.

What has changed most for me is that I no longer feel that the racism others have learned is their burden alone. The hate and baggage others carry is my burden too. It is also your burden.
Racism and prejudice are rooted in sins that our nation has been living with for centuries and acknowledging that truth is a critical first step. This hatred cannot be denied, nor can it be justified. As we have learned, silence in the face of hate is support. Sometimes the bigotry is softly disguised as indifference, but it is still wrong. We know that prejudice can be  expressed in both subtle and overt ways. Neither are acceptable. I am learning though that there is such a thing as a “recovering racist” and that people can change. People do change. We learn how to change - some slower than others - but we learn with experiences and we learn with practice.

Your performance was a testament to that practice. It takes practice. The work does not end with one act or an epiphany. Commitment to helping others doesn’t really end,  it just changes as we grow. You reminded me of that truth. Thank you.

You appear to have examined so much of this long before many adults do and I am grateful. It helps me remain optimistic. Hopefully your feelings about diversity and tackling our differences by listening with open hearts is reflective of your generation. We, the adults, need your help. I got to witness your leadership on stage and in the conversation that followed.

One Step at a Time - Building Bridges, Detroit. By N Gregory
Keep this conversation going.

The good ideas will always be worth fighting for, even when all of the usual indicators might say those good ideas are losing. The ideas only lose when people give up. You put on display a favorite quote of mine: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” (Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt and I believe the origin is from a Chinese proverb).

You reminded me Saturday night that it is important for me to keep my candle lit, especially when the nasty winds of hatred are swirling all around us. I am committed to contributing to “going there” to “get there.”

I am inspired that you are elevating your voices and providing the light we need so badly in our nation right now.

Grateful. Proud. Fired up.


Mr. Gregory   

Michigan Students are Depending on Educators to Lead

Teachers & Administrators need to Join Forces and Act Decisively to Tackle Systemic Challenges in our Schools

Educators are uniquely positioned to lead. We impact more lives than anyone outside of students’ homes, and in communities all over Michigan we have immense social capital.

That capital doesn’t do much good, however, if we fail to cash it in by advocating for fundamental changes within our profession. Teachers, school leaders and boards of education throughout Michigan must turn their social capital into political capital and fundamentally change our approach to teaching and learning.

The Michigan Department of Education (MDE), led by Superintendent Brian Whiston, has set out on an ambitious goal to make Michigan a Top Ten state for education within ten years. Considering that Michigan ranked 41st in fourth-grade reading in 2015 and 22% of of our students failed to graduate on time, it will take bold action to solve our challenges. In a state where more than 70% of eighth-graders aren't proficient in math, Michigan educators have an awesome opportunity to change the future of our state by demanding drastic changes to the way we approach education. (Detroit Free Press - June 22, 2106)

For our students to realize their potential, educators spanning the ranks of the profession need to responsibly address the problems that have been holding us back for the past two decades. We need to devote our collective energy to improving our education system and spend less time assigning blame. The way we do K-12 education in this state needs an overhaul, and recognizing the current landscape requires honesty about our failures. We need to stop paying lip service to collaboration, long-range planning and the value of teamwork. We can start by dedicating our resources to four areas where we struggle most.

Consistent Collaboration 

The finest school districts in Michigan have mastered collaboration among staff, students and the community. Unfortunately, these educational hubs of innovative collaboration are the exception not the norm. In some of our poorest schools collaboration occurs out of desperation to make up for a lack of resources, but that’s not enough. Teachers want to plan and work in effective teams, and unfortunately we lack content-driven, expert-led collaboration with peers. (Education Resource Strategies, April 2017).

It is rare for school administrators to have both the resources and expertise to work alongside teachers collaboratively. Teachers would embrace collaborative planning time, peer accountability and teacher observations with constructive feedback yet we find ourselves mired in school business driven by a compliance mindset.  

Our energy is devoted to meeting requirements for teacher evaluations designed to score us so we can be ranked and sorted rather than helping us improve instructional delivery. There is little time to work with other professionals on the craft of teaching or to develop unit plans for learning that transcend a traditional classroom setting. In Michigan schools, there is a premium placed on things like obtaining, “State Continuing Education Clock Hours” or attending required professional development sessions that do not involve clear goals. Far too often teachers struggle to connect mandated professional development  to student learning.

Every profession has its share of compliance issues, but from their inception schools were not designed with change and collaboration in mind. In tight financial times, there does not seem to be much interest in investing in leadership training and collaborative strategies that will improve the culture of learning. Schools are brimming with talented professionals whose ideas live in isolation. Veteran teachers lose interest working in small confined spaces and beginning teachers struggle to get their footing when there is little in place to unify teachers. As school systems try to catch up with a changing economy, dedicated professionals are handcuffed by old thinking.

Clear Targets

Most veteran teachers will admit they feel the education policies coming down from Lansing are the result of political battles that have little to do with student outcomes. School leaders react to the legislation accordingly and priorities shift without much explanation. Teachers, administrators and school boards are on the same team, yet we struggle to pull together and advocate for sensible legislation.

Teachers, administrators and school boards are on the same team, yet we struggle to pull together and advocate for sensible legislation.

There are more than 100 games that can be 
played on a standard pool table. Wouldn't 
you want to know which game you are 
playing before starting the game? 
At the building level, ideas that actually hold important meaning become “buzzword victims” every school year. Our acronyms have a nine-month shelf life and become fodder for staff lounge laughter. One year it was HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills), then Differentiated Learning, and finally RTI (Response to Intervention) the next year. Necessary concepts and stated goals are fleeting because we fail to examine how these concepts might fit within a bigger framework. Simply put, that bigger framework just does not exist in many Michigan school districts.

It is difficult to find meaning in ideas that stand alone. Integrating our “buzzwords” into relevant practice is not a realistic target. We lack the ability in education to measure meaningful progress in relation to our new buzzwords and, quite frankly, I am not sure we’re all that interested. Educators lack confidence in a law-making process that usually does not include a seat at the table for teachers. A clear vision for education is hampered by all the uncertainty in Lansing.

Ironically, for the last couple of years Learning Targets have been a popular point of emphasis in our instructional delivery across the state - just another moving target to fit in with our other buzz words and a confusing teacher evaluation process. I am, however, encouraged by the MDE Top Ten in Ten campaign because there are clear targets. Now we must find the political will to support the MDE plan in order to achieve the ambitious goals outlined.

Short-term Thinking

Educators have grown so used to survival mode that our default setting is often indifference when it comes to long-range goals. Think about it: Education is the subject of incredible public scrutiny and divisive political battles. Educators are operating in an environment where pay freezes, health care and pension uncertainty, and public criticism are the norm. Having little sense of control takes a toll.

At the local level, many school buildings operate with a weekly or day-by-day survival goal. Even in high performing schools, when plans from the top roll down to teachers they often die on the vine. Great ideas can struggle to gain traction if they require long-term planning or too much risk. Teachers passively fill up their inboxes with a new “something” confident it will drift away soon enough. It pains me to admit this, but it’s the truth.

It goes something like this: An educator, sitting in a staff meeting, nods in agreement about mapping out a new mission statement for the school about developing reflective, caring and principled learners for a global society. Meanwhile the copy machines are down, two students were added to your crowded classroom and you’re wondering if the rumors about another round of layoffs are true.  

So, we function, because that is what we have learned to do best. Some school leaders are more supportive than others, but uncertainty has stunted the educational leadership capacity in Michigan. For many reasons, educators are deeply concerned about the future of our profession. Building leaders cannot adapt to new accountability measures and best teaching practices within a system burdened by decades of institutional norms. We are tired, and sometimes we’re infected with a short-term mindset presented too often as cynicism.

Educators must stamp out cynicism so we can make the kind of progress our students deserve. A short-term mindset  is one of the most difficult challenges facing our profession, because it has been developed as a coping mechanism - a survival tool of sorts. The problem is that short-term thinking robs teachers and students of creativity, innovation and the ability to build trust. School leaders and teachers who fail to collaborate on long-range goals eventually suck the life out of learning for everyone involved.  

A short-term mindset is one of the most difficult challenges facing our profession, because it has been developed as a coping mechanism - a survival tool of sorts.

Mentorship and Feedback 

The absence of mentorship and feedback is the unfortunate result of the three previous failures. Teachers in Michigan are adapting to a teacher evaluation process that is designed to provide continuous feedback, but instead sorts and ranks teachers. In addition, many schools did away with mentorship programs after the economy tanked in the mid-2000’s. As a result of both of these developments, outdated instructional methods persist and evidence-based teaching practices lag.

This energy conservation report is the extent of feed-
back a teacher might receive in some Michigan schools.
Feedback aimed at supporting best teaching practices has a ripple effect. As I struggled through my first year of teaching, the assistant principal took the time to mentor me and help me develop meaningful units of instruction. We had a teacher induction program to support new hires, so our successes were shared. These experiences led to meaningful conversations and contributed to better classroom instruction. Fast forward more than a decade and I have witnessed the responsibilities of the assistant principal role double and support for teachers cut in half.  

Some Michigan school districts invest in instructional coaching and promote feedback among staff and students. We need to step up our game in Michigan when it comes to promoting, funding and adopting best practices state-wide.

Students are left behind when we fail to realize the impact school leaders and master teachers can have as mentors. Most administrators were classroom teachers and most would prefer to devote their energy to mentorship. Teachers thrive in school cultures where collaboration, risk-taking and new ideas are celebrated. Continuous feedback is the lynchpin for improving instruction. We know leadership quality and teacher performance drive student learning, and it is our responsibility to urge our schools to do more on both fronts.

We know leadership quality and teacher performance drive student learning, and it is our responsibility to urge our schools to do more on both fronts.

The worst part may be that no one is paying much attention to the cost of our indifference as school employees. Improving our teacher evaluation system is a great opportunity for educators to collaborate, and that opportunity demands we set aside old labor disputes and animosity. Inaction hurts morale and hinders student learning.

Teachers are rarely invited to evaluate school leaders and provide feedback regarding employee engagement. One of the best ways to ensure we are engaging students is to make sure the staff is professionally engaged and eager to learn. We should be working together, but we can’t do that if we allow frustration about outside factors to stall progress.  

Cowering in fear before these obstacles is cheating our children and diminishes our profession. Michigan communities need teachers and school administrators to consolidate our political will and deliver on our commitment to Michigan students. Michigan needs bold leaders, energized teachers and a unified voice advocating for students. Unless that happens, the MDE Top Ten in Ten plan will serve as the evidence of our collective failure and inaction in the face of adversity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR of CIVICS ENGAGED: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and high school journalism teacher since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2003. Gregory is an America Achieves Lead Fellow and he has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students find their passion for learning. You can follow him on Twitter @CivicsEngaged.

DISCLAIMER: This blog includes ideas and topics serving as a composite of issues from various sources. The issues raised in this blog are not specifically or solely motivated by the policies within the author's own school district.

Monday, February 20, 2017


Lessons from a water crisis, an eight-year-old boy and a bunch of high school students

Tackling Racism in My Classroom and My Home

Sitting at the kitchen table this morning with my laptop open, my eight-year-old son Kavaun looked up from his plate of pancakes and asked, “What are you doing?”

This drawing by high school student Cam Hartley depicts poisoned 
water from a hand labeled, "Land of the Free."
Normally, we don’t allow screen time during meals, but today I was camped out in the kitchen before the kids rolled out of bed.

I closed my laptop and glanced over at his syrup-covered face and told him I was learning more about the water crisis in Flint. I was finishing my first read of the recently published report, The Flint Water Crisis: Systematic Racism Through the Lens of Flint by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (Click to see the report).

After about ten seconds of silence, Kavaun responded with a quizzical expression and asked,


“They still don’t have water?”

My son has some understanding of the crisis because we attend church in Flint and signs remind us every Sunday not to drink the water. There was also that time about a year ago when we were stuck in traffic on MLK as people scrambled to get water from Flint Fire Station # 3. It was a snowy day and cars were stopping in the middle of the street to load their trunks with bottled water. Kavaun was puzzled by the spectacle of people lugging water up and down the street in the freezing temperatures.

Flint, Michigan. By Nick Gregory            
By the time we turned around in a vacant lot that had been turned into a makeshift loading zone for vehicles, my son had a glimpse into the suffering of others that he had gone his short life never knowing existed. The suffering was not confined to only African Americans or only white people. Poor people and middle class people of every shade lined up for water. Kavaun had a lot of questions and my incomplete answers did not satisfy his curiosity. How do you explain to a child that we let this happen and there's no confidence it will be corrected anytime soon?  

I felt like we were gawking at an accident scene as we tried to get out of there. Instead of a dead body or mangled car, we were looking in on a different kind of anguish - slow and methodical, like when an ill grandparent is placed in a nursing home waiting to die. The humiliation was indescribable. The pain raw. The agony that was put on display for the world to witness through news reports was even more uncomfortable up close.

Flint distribution site by Nick Gregory 
Our experience brought the angry and tired faces from our living room TV into closer view through our car windows. As huge snowflakes fell to the ground, children followed in tow as adults loaded their sleds and their wagons with cases of bottled water. There were no snow ball fights or children laughing.

Trying to describe the situation to my son left me angrier about a system that allows this to happen. Flint is about 60% Black and more than 40% of its residents live in poverty according tot he US Census Bureau. It would be far too simple to claim the Flint Water Crisis is all about race or all about poverty, but those statistics remain a big part of the story. I told Kavaun that this should never happen to anyone, anywhere. He agreed and we drove fifteen miles home trying to make sense of what we had just witnessed.

I was relieved he interrupted me this morning because I was struggling to map out this blog entry. Trying to connect classroom conversations about privilege, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission Flint report and our recent high school production of To Kill a Mockingbird was difficult. Trying to come up with creative ways to bring the lessons identified in the report into my classroom is challenging enough and blogging about the topic of racism is messy.

Teachers Should Influence the Conversation about Racism

How can anyone dismiss the role of poverty and race in a long history of environmental injustice in the United States? The Michigan Civil Rights Commission report is full of historical references that help us understand how systemic racism works. Fact-based sourcing we rarely find in textbooks and analysis that news reports do not deliver make the report a valuable tool for teaching. Among the report’s conclusions, there’s this:

“It is not sufficient to view the pumping of contaminated water into the homes of Flint families as an engineering failure.”

That statement alone is a great start to a classroom discussion that will encourage questions about several topics we see in the news on a regular basis. Prior knowledge about lessons from history and fresh ideas about how to solve these problems will give students a voice on relevant issues.

A water bottle floats down the Flint River. This was one of the images from 
my photo essay project about Flint titled, "Why Can't Us" that is linked here. 
The 130-page report is full of facts about Flint and Genesee County. It is a must-read for educators in Michigan and educators all over who care about social justice, the environment and lessons from American history.

This report has pushed me to learn about more social studies and humanities topics in Detroit (See my photo-essay about Detroit and racism titled, Split by clicking here). We could even look to the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy and the lessons playing out there to apply modern day events to the study of prejudice and racism.

Bigotry is as much a part of the American story as the Declaration of Independence and World War II. We need to go there.
Most of my students have never had to live through acts of hatred like the one from the Flint Water Crisis Report described below. This will be one of the examples I will use in my classroom so we can explore racism in a more meaningful way.

“Perhaps the clearest message of how Flint viewed black people’s 'position' was the one sent by the Bernston Field House public swimming pool. Six days per week the pool was for the use of whites only, while black children were relegated to sprinklers the city would set up across the street.

Blacks were allowed to use the pool only on Wednesdays. Every Wednesday night the pool was completely drained and everything was cleaned, so the facility would again be ready for those who were allowed entry on Thursday morning. The 'necessity' to empty and clean a swimming pool based on the skin color of the previous users was an outright symbol of racism.”

Going there to get there

Protestors at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Mich. 
By Nick Gregory
Kavaun’s simple questions remind me not to complicate what is plainly obvious: It is never too early or too late to go there.

My son is curious about how an entire city was poisoned and he has provided several openings to talk about big topics like promoting the common good, poverty and human rights. Sure, he’s eight years old but his questions make more sense to me than the finger-pointing and excuses we've grown used to hearing through press conferences and criminal indictments of lower-level Flint city employees.

Following the discovery of lead contamination in Flint water, people have been forced to endure the blame game, disputes over federal money for relief and short-sighted solutions that ignore historical context. We are familiar with the story, but like most people who do not live in Flint, we can only imagine the challenges. I want my son to continue to imagine the challenges faced by others and put himself in their situation, at least for a few minutes.

This morning, Kavaun left the table and played nerf basketball for a while before coming back into the kitchen to ask me, “How can they trust anymore?”  

That is a damn good question. How can the residents of Flint trust anymore?

Fortunately, several students in my high school were asking the same question about trust, but there question was about more than Flint. With incredible precision, our talented students brought hundreds of people along with them on a journey to explore racisms grip on our nation.  

How can they trust?

I was profoundly moved by the Fenton High School performance of Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird a couple of weeks ago. Our high school actors, under the direction of Lori Thompson, delivered a performance and talk-back session afterward that left audience members inspired.

Their mantra, “Sometimes you have to go there to get there” was a shared commitment for the cast and crew as they researched, interviewed class guests and visited Flint to try and understand the deep-rooted challenges of racism. They brought their audience along on their journey through a story set more than eighty years ago in the deep South. In a unique twist, they set the stage so that we could examine racism and prejudice in the modern world.

Waiting & the Flint River. The man on top is walking away, out of the frame, 
as the man sitting by the water waits. By Nick Gregory
Mockingbird was performed in a small theatre with 360-degree seating for about 200 people. The intimate setting allowed about a thousand people take in seven separate performances.

I imagine that many audience members contemplated the dual roles of trust and justice as Tom Robinson faced his accuser. Kavaun's question, "How can they trust anymore?" has a legacy stretching back centuries in the United States.

We practically joined the actors on stage, making the story one that belonged to everyone. Many questions about injustice and the racism that we’ve been witnessing in Flint and Detroit and Saginaw and Benton Harbor and Fenton and Ionia where I grew up  - well, you get it - it all played out on that stage. We all know that racism is not confined by geography or a specific time period and it inspires me that young people are willing to go there.

We need young people to help the adults on this one because going there can be more difficult as people get older. Talking about the reality of racism is the best way to start advancing progress. We have to find ways to constructively solve our problems by trying to understand others experiences.

Modern day struggles like the ones in Flint, Ferguson, Mo. , Detroit, Charleston, SC and Baltimore were included in the performance along with moving musical selections. Black Lives Matter, law enforcement, mass incarceration and modern political struggles revolving around Muslims and refugees were part of the conversation with Mockingbird. The nasty wounds of racism and prejudice were put on display for everyone in the theatre.

Without prompting, my son is analyzing many of the same questions in relation to the Flint Water Crisis. Questioning ow something like this could happen in Flint point out the inequity that exists in our world. These questions have gone unanswered in our nation since well before To Kill a Mockingbird was set in the 1930’s and we have largely failed to go there in public education.

Flint in crisis, by Nick Gregory
The questions Kavaun and my students are asking about trust need to be addressed in our classrooms. We cannot afford to have these questions looming over our children for the next eighty years because we lacked the courage to acknowledge the tough stuff.

My high school students remind me that they have the courage to address tough topics in hopes of making progress. I am inspired by their performance, our conversations in class and their expressions through art. When we get right down to it, we are addressing the importance of empathy, justice and opportunity. Those values should have a safe place in every classroom and school.

In the recent Flint Water Crisis Report, the conclusion was drawn that the people of Flint,

"... have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes, for generations."

I accept that finding. I am encouraged because I think young people are more likely to fight for progress than dispute facts like I have grown used to seeing on cable news networks lately. Big ideas and a willingness to listen matters more than being right.

Many of us will spend a lifetime trying to move the needle on progress in meaningful ways. While some of us will occasionally succeed, it is quite another thing to influence a thousand people over the course of five days. Our high school students did just that and it gives me some optimism.

The power of great teaching lies in building relationships based on trust - the type of trust that encourages students to address their own flaws and embrace the vulnerability that comes with taking risks. Great teachers model risk-taking with skill and they embrace vulnerability in order to advance learning. Lori Thompson and the students she leads taught their audience about the value of self-examination.

In your own community, there are people who help us see the possibility in the world and I hope you will take a minute to reach out to them and join their efforts if you haven’t already done so. Fighting for progress is tiring. The people working hard need a hand and some encouragement.

Help racists get on the road to recovery

The Mockingbird performance and the honesty with which our students delivered it revealed the complicated layers that make confronting bigotry and racism challenging. More importantly, our student actors will continue to fight for good ideas and so will many of the people who shared this learning experience with them. Their lesson:
Never underestimate the power of ideas. Human beings have incredible capacity to grow.

We can never have too many reminders about the importance of “walking in another’s flip-flops” and opening our hearts to the experiences of others. Empathy is much greater than a set of actions and it can be modeled and learned.

We can all learn from the lesson’s our young people seem to be grasping quicker than many adults do.

The racism and hate others have learned is not their burden alone. The hate and baggage others carry is my burden too. It is also your burden. It is the burden our nation has been living with for centuries and acknowledging that truth is an important first step.

A wall built in Detroit to segregate black and white neighbors. This wall was
featured in my photo-essay titled, "Split" that is linked here. 
We have to ensure our children to not get programmed to fight the reality that racism exists. The hatred cannot be denied, nor can it be justified. Students and adults who believe a colorblind society exists today need to learn from others.

Empathy can be modeled. I have learned from people in my life that that there is such a thing as a “recovering racist” and that people can change. People are willing to change and ultimately, some people really do change.

We learn how to change - some slower than others - but we learn with experiences and we learn with practice. The student performance of Mockingbird was a testament to that practice. The work does not end with one act or an epiphany. Commitment to helping people through a struggle doesn’t really end,  it just changes as we grow. My students and my son have reminded me of that truth.

Ugly truths came to life in that theatre.  The collective effort of the cast, focused study and their exhausting rehearsals demonstrated respect for their audience and belief in something bigger than the “show” itself. A bunch of talented students helped people think and feel the tough stuff and their work is only beginning in this arena of creating positive change in our world. It is inspiring to me and makes me want to keep reaching for more.

We should be encouraged when young people are examining these topics now when they will have the energy to fight for change. I am grateful I work in a profession where I can experience this first-hand. Hopefully the feelings about diversity and honestly tackling our differences that I see from my students is reflective of a generational shift toward more open-mindedness. We, the adults, need help navigating these things as we have a long way yet to go.

Good ideas will always be worth fighting for, even when it appears that those good ideas are losing. We only lose when people give up. The cast and crew of To Kill a Mockingbird put on display a quote attributed to of Eleanor Roosevelt: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

It is important for us to keep our candles lit, especially when the nasty winds of hatred are swirling all around us. Be inspired by young people, activists and people from all walks of life who are providing the light we need so badly in our nation right now.

(More PHOTOS included below)
The Water Crisis Through the Eyes of a Child - Flint street art.
By Nick Gregory
Detroit message. By Nick Gregory
A message expressed in street art, Detroit.                                                             
By Nick Gregory