The education that all students deserve: racial equity and PBL
In this episode, our guests, Carlos Moreno and Dinah Becton-Consuegra explore the topic of equitable education and what we can do as teachers and leaders to close the opportunity gap. They speak about the sorts of schools they’re working for, how they are redesigning them with equity in mind, and the important hallmarks of equitable education. They also offer advice to teachers and leaders about what they can do to make PBL more accessible and how they can begin to make a shift toward more equitable outcomes for Black and Brown students.
About our guests
Carlos Moreno is an educational trailblazer committed to supporting school and district leaders in creating high-quality, non-traditional schools designed to tackle systemic issues related to equity in education. He currently serves as Executive Director for Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit organization that, since 1995, has developed over 150 such schools in the United States and throughout the world.
Dinah Becton-Consuegra is currently an equity consultant for PBLWorks, and previously served as the organization’s Director of Partnership Development. Prior to her roles with PBLWorks, Dinah was the West Regional Director for EL Education, a K-12 PBL-focused non-profit partnered with more than 150 schools in 31 states. A focus on closing the opportunity gap has been a primary driver in Dinah's 20 years in education.
Laureen: Today on The Project, we're here with our guests, Dinah Becton-Consuegra, and Carlos Moreno.
Stanley: Carlos Moreno is an educational trailblazer committed to supporting school and district leaders to create high quality non-traditional schools designed to tackle systemic issues related to equity and education. He currently serves as executive director for Big Picture Learning, a non-profit organization that since 1995, has developed over 150 such schools in the United States and throughout the world.
Carlos is an author and a speaker, but is happiest as a roll up your sleeve, let's get it done, expert practitioner, designing highly engaging schools and environments for youth, particularly those who have not been served well by traditional schools.
Laureen: Dinah Becton-Consuegra is an esteemed colleague of ours here at PBLWorks. She joined PBLWorks in 2018 as director of partnership development. Prior to her role here, Dinah was the west regional director for EL education. A K12 PBL focused non-profit, partnered with more than 150 schools in 31 States. Closing the opportunity gap has been the primary driver in Dinah's 20 years in education. Welcome to The Project.
Carlos: Thank you for having us.
Dinah Becton-Consuegra: Thanks. Glad we could be here.
Stanley: So I'm going to have the first question. I heard that both of you are real big hip hop fans, so we're curious, who's your favorite rapper? And also a follow up question, in your opinion, what's one of the best hip hop lines ever? Let's start it off with you, Dinah.
Laureen: No pressure.
Stanley: No pressure at all.
Dinah Becton-Consuegra: Gosh, best rapper. I'm going to have to go with Tupac. I think, a living rapper, I'd probably say Kendrick Lamar, so I'm kind of cheating on the question here, but I'll focus on Tupac. I mean, best song and best line probably come from Changes, he has so many good jams on Changes. I think one of them is where he says, "Let's change the way we eat. Let's change the way we live. Let's change the way we treat each other," and I'm giving you multiple parts because it's a question that's so hard to answer.
"I see no changes, all I see is racist faces." So a reminder of the world we're living in today.
Stanley: Yeah. I appreciate that. That's deep. Thank you.
Laureen: Thanks you. And how about you, Carlos? Your favorite rapper and best hip hop line.
Carlos: I think this is where my sister Dinah and I are going to show our coastal biases. I'm a New Yorker born and raised, so a favorite rapper of all time is Jay Z. But my favorite line comes from his mentor, which was The Notorious B.I.G., Christopher Wallace, the late great Notorious B.I.G., who was actually really good friends with Tupac Shakur for a number of years and was mentored by Tupac.
That line, which isn't really a full verse or line, but it's just a phrase that I, and a number of folks carry all the time, it's just the, "Was told in shootouts to stay low and keep firing," and less about the actual act of shooting a gun, but more so it was just like, no matter what you do, you stay low, you stay engaged, you stay moving forward. So, "Stay low and keep firing," would be the line.
Laureen: I love that.
Carlos: Love that. Thank you so much.
Laureen: Thank you. All right. So Carlos, as executive director of Big Picture Learning, your focus is redesigning schools with equitable education in mind. What types of schools are you working with and what are some of the hallmarks of equitable education?
Carlos: Yeah, so I think we'd all agree that education around the purpose of education and that education should prepare young people for life, work and citizenship. I think the question still remains and often even in more kind of innovative, non-conventional circles is, whose life, whose work and citizenship that is truly in service, of who.
So our schools at Big Picture Learning are charters, and they're also district schools and serve any combination of the following, I'd say groups, and I'll use some more familiar labels that are out there, which are, we serve students of color, students that qualify for free or reduced lunch. English language learners, students with learning disabilities and students that are living with trauma. We like to think of our young people as learners a little bit differently.
We talk about our young people as young folks who come from incredibly culturally rich communities, caring and well-grounded homes and families. They're learners who are brilliant. They're loving, talented, and all around badasses that are just hungry for a window of opportunity. That's a little bit about... I mean, I could go in a little bit more, but I think it's worth mentioning that just when you say "the hallmarks" of equitable education, I shared recently, the sister Bell Hooks, said that education at its purest is a practice of freedom. A form of teaching and learning that is engaging and exciting for both teachers and learners.
So in this practice of freedom, both parties need to be equal players in contributing and sharing in the learning experience. And then adults who educate as a practice of freedom, teach, not merely to share information, but to share in that intellectual jujitsu and spiritual growth of our babies. So when students are taught in this liberatory manner, the lessons they learn carry over into their lives outside of the classroom as well.
I do also want to talk a little bit about... I've said it a few times, that I just feel like equitable learner center education feels and looks like love, and when we talk about what love feels like, we've all been in love at some point. I hope we've all been in love at some point, right? You bounce between a series of emotions from exhilaration to euphoria to increased energy, to sleeplessness, to loss of appetite or racing heart. And just, you get accelerated breathing and then you also on the flip end of it, you experience anxiety and panic and feelings of despair when your relationship suffers, even from the smallest setbacks.
So think about when, in, in terms of the teacher and learner, that series of emotions, those of us that have worked in and have taught in those settings, we've felt all of that for our young people in those settings, all right, and that comes from we pay attention to the whole learner. Focusing on the learner's interests, their passions and experiences.
It looks like beginning our work by focusing on students' strengths and not their quote unquote deficiencies. And it looks like young people learning outside in the real world and engaging in really through their own selective and their choice, internships, apprenticeships, shadow days, and learning expeditions and just having an opportunity to work alongside adults around specific areas of interests while also having an opportunity to expand and build their own professional networks and their social capital.
That's kind of when I think about all these components that leads me to the one and only response is that just real, equitable learning looks and feels like love.
Laureen: Okay. Thank you. Dinah, what about you? What do you think are the hallmarks of equitable education?
Dinah Becton-Consuegra: Yeah, I just love so much of what Carlos just named, particularly love and social capital. I mean, I think those are definitely components that I can vibe with that I feel like students really need. The other piece that I feel is important is, really, access. That's the first word that always comes to mind when someone says, "What does educational equity mean?" And when I think about access, I think about access to amazing teachers, access to resources, access to that love, access to the social capital and really having students feel that people in the building show deep, deep care and compassion, and once they feel that, I mean, sky's the limit, right? Anything is possible.
I think on another level we're looking at systemic equity and when I say systemic equity, I really mean like the intentional design of deliberate access to learning, to resources, to support, wraparound services, right? I mean, getting kids food on their plates, making sure that they've got appointments to the doctor and the dentist and all of those things covered.
And the instructional pedagogy, of course, I mean, this will be a little bias on my part, but I really do wholeheartedly believe that PBL can be a liberatory vehicle for Black and brown students. And the last I would probably say is engagement, right? If we look at all the diagrams, the charts that when students start their journey in kindergarten, you're looking at high levels of engagement, high levels of interest. And as you trace that journey through 12 through 16, you really start to see it drop, right?
And so that really, as a former high school teacher and principal, really affected me, and I always kept that first and foremost. What can we do to get kids to care, to be into education, to be into the sharing, to contributing, and really just making the world a better place?
Laureen: All right. So we're going to transition and bring Project Based Learning into the conversation. And Dinah mentioned earlier that she believes PBL can be a vehicle for liberatory education, but Carlos, you once said that PBL isn't just curriculum for some students, it's a lifeline. Can you tell us what you meant by this?
Carlos: Yeah. Well that was a few... You all are digging in the crates for those, right?
Laureen: Just a little bit.
Stanley: A little bit. We did some work.
Carlos: I think it was at PBL World I might've said that, and I'll preface what I shared before I actually made that statement. I showed a brief clip from one of my favorite -- I'll just go out there and say probably one of the best series ever created, period -- which was The Wire. And in season one, man, that was so awesome, in season one, Wallace, that's played by a very young Michael B Jordan was like, he was a corner kid and he was caring for a lot of the other younger corner kids that were essentially hustling.
And, there's a lot of activities they're living in this abandoned house. One of the younger corner kids that couldn't be probably older than eight, nine years old comes up to Wallace and shows him this math problem and it's your traditional math problem. It's like, you have 18 quarters, someone takes away seven, how many do you have left? And the young man is having the hardest time figuring it out. And then Wallace just goes, "You know what, close your eyes." And then he gives them a real grimy, but very real, scenario which is just like, assume you're making a drug transaction right now and you're exchanging money and vials with someone that pulls up.
And it's super complex, and the young man works it out in his head. Wallace then turns to him and says, "How come you can do all that math in your head and you can't work out this math problem?" And he says, "Because if I mess up the count, I'm going to get my butt beat." Not necessarily in those words.
And it's a crude example that I wanted to use but one that was very real in terms of the relevance around it, right? The difference here is that in situations where students are just numbers in most places and not seen as valued individuals with their own interests, it is easy to use PBL as another item to check off a list. And for other students attending other schools, like more innovative schools, is that one opportunity where they are finally able to explore their own interests and curiosities without being told exactly what they should be doing, what the product should exactly look like and not taking into account the process and learning that is happening throughout the experience.
So these interests that the students bring into the project, into their work, then spark the initial lifelong learning journeys for students post high school, potentially post high school, and then the work they are engaged in becomes important and provide students with a meaningful experience and an interest field to potentially pursue after high school.
So that's a lot more detail that I think I had offered when I shared it at PBL World but that was the thinking behind it.
Laureen: Brilliant, thank you.
Stanley: So let's talk a little bit around the challenges that we're experiencing right now with this pandemic. What does meaningful learning look like with all this emergency remote learning and how can we support equitable access to it? Let's start off with Dinah. What are your thoughts around this?
Dinah Becton-Consuegra: I'm laughing because I'm like, I know what it doesn't look like. One of my really good friends is a teacher and she just was like, "I'm in Zoom meetings all day." But in all seriousness, I mean, I really feel like meaningful learning right now, there's no better time for PBL to support that equitable access to authentic learning for students.
I mean, I think the first thing is that it really looks like being able to listen to not just the students, but the families and really take stock of what do people most need right now? What comes up? What's most salient? And for teachers to build learning opportunities to support those needs. I think allowing students the opportunity to thrive, even given our current circumstances. Letting them get creative and being able to be adaptable and flexible and using various ways to teach and learn. I mean, we're stuck in this mental model that tech tools and Zoom are it, right?
Because it's almost the same thing, the same flawed design we've used for decades to build schools, right? It's just like, we got to seize this opportunity to really be able to reimagine what school looks like and get creative and that means just rethinking how we engage students and finding solutions that are not in our comfort zone.
They may be things that we never learned about in school, but we're willing to try it anyway and figuring out... My big thing right now is just that so many of our students, I mean, I live here in Oakland and I'm seeing these discrepancies between students that don't even have internet or tablets or laptops. And then teachers just insisting that this is what happens, right? Like this is the way you learn. And so, I mean, it means figuring out ways to go no tech and to tap into students.
And so, I mean that's equitable access because so many of our students that are situated in poverty need that right now. They need to find hope and they need to find love and we need to really hear them and really build, again, it goes back to the personalized learning. We need to create opportunities that can connect to them, not just connect to them, but help them feel like they have agency in our world to make a difference, and to move us beyond this into forward thinking and to making the world a better place, as I mentioned before.
Stanley: Carlos, what about you? What does meaningful learning look like with remote learning and how can we support equitable access?
Carlos: This is why I love my sister Dinah, because she always just brings it home and speaks the truth, straight out. The talk about the challenges that we're experiencing right now with this pandemic, I just got to say to be truthful, even at my own organization, we've been grappling with the question of what the future can and should look like, and I'll say that just the most important step for us as an organization was to first take a deep breath and acknowledge that this was something very different than anything any of us had experienced and make sure that our families were safe and healthy.
Then we immediately focused on being with the schools in our network, making sure that they knew that we were there in support of them and then to breathe again. And then now beginning to try to figure out how our work changes and pivots to support schools and systems, which is really the state that we're in now. And I'd say in addition to... What I've enjoyed seeing is just that while it's too early to think of silver linings, we're beginning to hear from a number of educators and students and families from more conventional schools and systems who are trying to navigate how to learn without being physically in a school building.
And there are unique opportunities, I think, for the spread of Project Based Learning and for a much more learner-centered approach that focuses on more student interest-based real-world connection, connected learning. Also just, I need to shout them out because they work so hard. I'm incredibly proud of the work of our schools and other learner-centered schools for their increased efforts and work during this time to stay connected to their young people and their families in this moment where we still have hundreds of thousands of young people who remain unaccounted for, and what many of our schools, our staff are become like... Folks are starting to move into true partnerships in this work with their district colleagues and figuring out how to engage with young people in the midst of this.
We know that students of color, young people living in poverty are suspended and disciplined at an alarming rate compared to white students and we know that black girls are punished more than any other group. So one of the things that in this moment that I think is just super important is we need to be clear that there cannot be true, meaningful learning without equity at the forefront and this must be equitably available to young people who have historically been kept from this same opportunity.
And a big part of this is about economics. As sister Dinah was saying before, and resources being deployed equitably, not equally. We have to show that all of the strengths, challenges and opportunities that come along with these awesome groups of young people in communities that they belong to are being considered in every fabric of this new design that folks are working on currently. School buildings, for too many of our young people, are traumatic places, and their families. The big homie who Dinah knows well, Chris Emdin, recently mentioned... he reminded a bunch of us that not having to return to schools which are places that implanted a lack of value of ourself for so many young people is a small victory.
And then what I'll add to that is, sadly, that the folks that have contributed to that trauma are not the students, it's the adults in those places. So kind of off script, but so I'll share just what I've shared with our very own schools, is that if you love your content more than you love working with young people, especially young Black and brown students living in poverty, you shouldn't be teaching in communities of color.
And to our school leaders, superintendents, we all want folks who are bright and intelligent and energetic and masters of their content, but let's make sure it's never at the expense of our young people. In terms of emergency remote learning, young Black and brown people have been doing emergency remote learning forever, sadly, and oftentimes not by choice.
My boy, Andrew Frishman, who I co-lead Big Picture Learning with, shot me a story that I didn't know about, about Chance, the rapper. Y'all may have heard about it, right? The fact that his first brilliant album called 10 was something that he wrote while on a 10 day suspension from school. So it's a small, but super pointed example, of what can happen when young people are allowed to pursue what they're passionate about, what they're curious about, and that these conditions do present actually, I think a perfect opportunity to continue to rethink the role of schools and what learning can look like outside of the school building.
Laureen: All right. I have the final question. What advice would you give to a teacher or leader about the one or two things they can do to begin making a shift toward more equitable outcomes for Black and brown students? Let's start with Dinah.
Dinah Becton-Consuegra: So before I answer this question, I got to tell you, before I couldn't love you more, you have now got more points for talking about Chance, who's from Chicago, my hometown.
Stanley: The Chicago connection. I forgot about that too. Nice.
Dinah Becton-Consuegra: So back to your question, Laurie, it's a good one. Gosh, there's a lot of advice, but we are on limited time here. I mean, I think one of the pieces that really struck me about what Carlos just shared that unfortunately I see so much is bias, right? Is hidden bias and just blatant racism from the adults in the buildings, from teachers, from administrators, suspension rates, I can just keep going. I think the first piece of advice I would give teachers or leaders is just to start with yourself, start by looking at yourself in the mirror, stop blaming students, right?
Do the internal work of examining your own racism, your own hidden biases and how they're impacting your teaching or leading. We all have them. We all have biases that we may not even be aware of, or have surface, that we don't have people to keep it real with ourselves. And so that is, I think, the most important thing we can do even in this country to start to really look at ourselves in the mirror and do that work.
And that's something that I'm really proud of PBLWorks that we're in that journey right now and it's starting with us as a staff. And sometimes those conversations are hard, they're not pretty, but we have to be able to move past that, to be able to give students the opportunity to shine. so I think that's the first one.
I think my next piece of advice I would borrow from the brilliant social justice activist, Bryan Stevenson, who says in his Ted talk, one of the points he makes is just get proximal, get close. I can't stress enough, particularly in this time of COVID-19 ravaging our black and brown communities that we really need to love. We need to make time to hear stories from each other. We need to build deeper relationships with our students. We're all missing that physical contact, the touch, the hugging, the being in a room with people we love and having conversations.
And so now it is particularly important that we find creative ways to continue to do that by getting close to our students. And then I think of specific moves in the classroom or in Zooms or wherever these conversations are taking place right now is just to pay attention to power dynamics, pay attention to who speaks, pay attention to who doesn't, pay attention to what students are engaged, which ones aren't and why they're not.
Do some followup, outside of whatever it is you're working on and just strive to be constantly adaptable and be willing to make shifts. To be able to be more equitable and get all the students to deeply care about the work they're doing and feel like their own personal lives are able to be brought forth, and that their authentic selves can come forth and that they can be vulnerable with you as a teacher, as a leader and with each other. So I think those are the three things I would tell teachers and leaders.
Laureen: Thanks, Dinah. You gave us a bonus one. So check your biases, get proximal, and pay attention to power dynamics. Carlos, what would you say?
Carlos: I think Dinah should have had the last word on this one. That was a mic drop for me. If there's anything to be shared, I would definitely co-sign on everything that Dinah just shared. I'll add that I talked about this notion of love and just that these times, different times, it just requires teachers letting go of the structured power dynamic, where they feel like they have all the answers or need to have all the answers and young people's must just have to sit and receive information. I think that is a mental shift that is absolutely necessary and one that requires that adults just do their "me work" and for each individual that looks different. So it's hard to say what that me work is for folks.
If I had to point folks in a particular direction, I would say, the brilliant sister, Dr. Bettina Love, had shared that for Black and brown children in the US, a major part of their schooling experience is totally associated with white female teachers who have no understanding to their culture. So something about diversifying who your young people are coming into contact with, and also that before teachers even step into the classroom, it's just important that they need to work and spend time in urban school communities to understand the beauty and just the difficulty of teaching in that environment, and to examine how racism functions to allow schools to be under resourced and students labeled at risk.
So I just think this time calls for an increased willingness to challenge our assumptions about the true purpose and function of education in schools. We got to keep doing that.
Stanley: That reminds me of what you were saying earlier about, you got to love students more than the content, and just thinking about that. So I just wanted to bring that up too.
Thank you so much for taking the time out of the day to be able to talk to us. I've loved our conversation. I think it's just been such an incredible experience, so thank you.
Laureen: Thank you, both.
Dinah Becton-Consuegra: It's our pleasure.