The Power of Librarians and the Learning Commons

Today is National Librarian Day. It’s a day to celebrate the nerve center of any school: it’s library learning commons and the educators that facilitate the “magic” within it.

The Learning Commons is the place where learning isn’t about collecting dots but rather connecting them through cross-curricular partnerships that boost critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and communicating abilities. It’s an experiment lab, an R & D Center: a place where kids and adults can take risks and experiment with new ways of doing school. A place where educational research can be played with and developed into programs that not only impact students but also provides “road maps” for teachers: this is what innovation looks like to us in the Learning Commons, this is how it engages students and this is how you can implement facets of it in your own classroom.

Keechlin, Rosenfeld and Loerttscher define it as “a learning “space” that is both physical and virtual – a place to experiment, practice, celebrate, learn, work and play. In the Abbotsford School District, we have undergone a seismic shift in transforming every library in every school into a Learning Commons. Within it, co-planning and co-teaching is the norm, and our librarians are our “new ways of doing” champions. On a daily basis, they put into place structures that support a collaborative culture of co-planning and co-teaching and act upon the premise that the acquisition of knowledge is now an open, transparent, non-hierarchical, interactive and real-time process.

To all of our Learning Commons teachers, and to Tracy Krys, our District Principal who provides them all with endless support, a big thank you on this, your day.

The Brotherhood of the Grape

A few months ago, I committed myself to my 10 for 1 journey in which I read a book every 10 days and post about it. This week I put forward something really special, a book I re-read every year in February to celebrate my birthday: John Fante’s, The Brotherhood of the Grape.

As a young man, I hung around the libraries during the day and the bars at night. I read and I read and I read. Then I ran out of things to read. I kept pulling the books out of the shelves again and again. I could only read a few lines and I felt the fakeness and I put them back. It was a real horror show. Nothing related to life, at least not to mine and the streets and the people I saw in the streets and what they were forced to do and what they became. And one day I happened to pull out a book by somebody named Fante. The lines leaped at me. Fire. No bullshit. But I’d never heard of Fante, nobody spoke of Fante. He was just in there. A book. It was called Ask The Dust. I didn’t like the title but the words were simple and honest and full of passion. Holy shit, I thought, this man can write! Well, I read all of his books that I could get hold of. And I knew that there were still some magic people on the earth.    Charles Bukowski

So spoke Charles Bukowski from a long-forgotten interview in Beat Scene/ Transit Magazine. Like so many others, I came to John Fante through Bukowski. In 1990, while teaching English in Turin, Italy (pre-Olympics, pre-McDonald’s, pre-corporate mass marketed Turin), I found the Luxemburg Bookstore: the only place you could buy English literature.  It was there that I purchased a copy of Wait Until Spring, Bandini (I was intrigued by the title).

Fast forward 4 years (1994) and I’m sitting in Main Library at UBC, I’ve just finished writing a paper on Edith Wharton’s, Custom of the Country, and as a result of having spent three months immersed within an examination of the Gilded Age, I am experiencing the disquieting sensation of wanting to politely ask the student next to me for some grey poupon.  Wanting to take a break, I reached into my knapsack to grab my Bukowski Reader and was once again reminded of how the author, as a young man, first discovered the work of Jon Fante in the Los Angeles Public Library. In stumbling across a copy of Ask the Dust by accident, he immediately knew that he’d discovered something special:

Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it.  The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it.  And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion.

I walked into the UBC stacks looking for Fante and found The Brotherhood of the Grape.  Rather than acquainting myself with the character of Arturo Bandini, I immersed myself in the world of his more mature autobiographical counterpart, Henry Molise.  I sat down and spent the afternoon reading the novel and, like Bukowski, felt “like a man who had found gold in the city dump”.

Last week, as I reread The Brotherhood of the Grape for the 28th time, I found that what moved me in my late twenties continues to resonate with me in my mid-fifties. Typical of Fante’s novels, it’s autobiographical, and brimming with love, death, violence, and religion.

If you’re Italian, know an Italian or for some crazy reason are considering mating with one, this is the book for you! The novel follows Fante’s character, Henry Molise, a 50-year-old, successful writer, who returns to the family home in Colorado to help with the latest drama: his mother, once again, wants to get divorced from her husband.

“I´m so tired”, she moaned. “Oh. Blessed Lord, deliver me from this cross. I just can´t take it anymore. Fifty-one years I´ve done my best, and now I´ve run out of patience. I want out. I want some peace in my old age.”

If mom thinks she has a cross to bear, dad is no different and in fact is even more explicit with his crucifixion metaphor. In bemoaning a reality that has him living his own father’s life, he cries out that “i figli erano i chiodi che lo tenevano crocefisso a mia madre.” Roughly translated, “The children were the nails that kept him crucified to my mother.”

Although weak and alcoholic, Henry’s tyrannical, stonemason father, Nick, can still strike fear into the hearts of his sons. His mother, Maria, eternally ill but still devout to her Catholicism, retains the power to comfort and confuse her children. Typical of the role that food plays in an Italian family, much of the passion in the book finds it’s setting within Maria’s kitchen:

The kitchen. La cucina, the true mother country, this warm cave of the good witch deep in the desolate land of loneliness, with pots of sweet potions bubbling over the fire, a cavern of magic herbs, rosemary and thyme and sage and oregano, balm of lotus that brought sanity to lunatics, peace to the troubled, joy to the joyless, this small twenty-by-twenty world, the altar a kitchen range, the magic circle a checkered tablecloth where the children fed, the old children, lured back to their beginnings, the taste of mother’s milk still haunting their memories, fragrance in the nostrils, eyes brightening, the wicked world receding as the old mother witch sheltered her brood from the wolves outside.

Like any Italian mother worth her salt, Maria engages in histrionics, only tells half of any story and is a master at projecting Catholic based guilt on to her kids. Although she never uses the classic Italian mother’s line of “you’ll know what it means to have a mother when I’m gone,” she plays with her kids’ psyches to the point that you can’t help but humorously recall the character Isaac Davis in “Manhattan” who, in commenting that his own child is now being raised by two women, raises the concern that “very few people survive one mother”.

What I love about Fante is his ability to be self-deprecating, finding comedy in himself and his own heritage. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his relationship with his mother-in-law. Hilda Dietrich is a housewife and mother, married to the Reverend Herman Dietrich, pastor of the Lutheran church. She pronounces his last name as “malice” and believes that “all Italians propagate large and offensively dark families and build Roman churches to administer to their primitive superstitions.” In his succinct style, Fante captures Hilda’s beliefs and humorously turns the lens on himself:

“Mrs. Dietrich was fully persuaded that Italians were creatures with African blood, that all Italians carried knives, and that the country was in the clutches of the Mafia. It was no extremist theory. A lot of worried people believed it, particularly Italian-Americans.”

With all that Henry must balance upon his return to his childhood home, the novel is really about his relationship with his father, reconciling himself to or at least trying to understand the Molise patriarch. He’s a tough guy to appreciate:

He disliked almost everything, particularly his wife, his children, his neighbours, his church, his priest, his town, his state, his country and the country from which he emigrated. Nor did he give a damn for the world either, or the sun or the stars, or the universe, or heaven or hell. But he liked women.

Within the first two days back in Colorado, Henry gets hoodwinked into helping his father build a stone smokehouse up in the woods at a friend’s cabin.  The project, meant to be a culminating act of some sort for the old man, turns out to be a drunken fiasco that both aggravates and unites father and son in unexpected ways, and leads to old Nick’s eventual collapse and death. Though this may not seem a likely scenario for comedy, and it isn’t entirely, Fante’s instinct for farce tempers the agony and travail. The description of the wake at the family home, for anyone who has attended an Italian funeral, is sheer comic brilliance grounded in reality:

Italians loved their living, but sometimes they loved their dead even more, specially like these womenfolk gathered in every room of the house, swarming about my black-draped mother like dark ants around their queen, sobbing, rattling their rosaries, rolling their necks, embracing the distraught widow, pumping grief into her and intoxicated by the grief she pumped back.

Charles Bukowski wrote that “Fante was [his] god.”  Like Bukowski, I too tend to throw out the small “g” god designation for writers that move me: novelists that, to borrow from David Daiches, “understand that aesthetic significance is human significance, a way of presenting insights into the human situation, so that there is no simple and mechanical means of divorcing one’s attitude as a reader of a work from one’s attitude as a contemporary human being.” John Fante is one of these novelists: one who, through his characters, reveals to us that the business of art is not reinforce conventional morality but to test it.

The Brotherhood of the Grape – a truthful and sincere book that delves into the process of understanding and appreciating one’s own identity within the context of family.

Why Coach? The Julia Factor

It’s now early February and the day’s darkness is beginning to sleep in, not really pulling back the sheets and stretching it’s arms until about 5:30 pm.

With no basketball during COVID, winter has been really tough for me. I’ve always enjoyed basketball season for its ability to get me through the darkest months of the year: you start the day early, in the dark, you end the day late, in the dark. But in between these bookends is the joy of running practices, coaching games, the squeaky reverberations of sneakers on hardcourt, and the familiar ringing in the ears brought to you by the student scorekeeper who hasn’t figured out how to turn off the clock at the end of the quarter.

This is the time of year when playoffs should begin and within a few weeks comes that cathartic moment when, as you’re leaving the gym following a game, you realize that the sun is still out. Any one who’s either coached basketball or served as a referee will tell you that there’s a Zen like feeling when you have that first post 7 pm walking into the twilight experience. If you’re an educator, it’s even more spiritual in that you realize that Spring Break is around the corner and the school year is practically over!

The strategic placement of basketball in the winter months notwithstanding, what I miss the most right now is the opportunity to coach kids and through basketball impart knowledge, values, the concepts of sportsmanship, team, and appreciation of both self and others. As a basketball coach, I believe that I am given the significant opportunity to engage in a form of deep, meaningful servant leadership.

In his essay, “The Servant as Leader,” Robert Greenleaf provides a fairly long list of attributes associated with this role which include: listening and understanding; acceptance and empathy; foresight; awareness and perception; persuasion; conceptualization; self-healing; and rebuilding community. Greenleaf describes servant-leaders as people who initiate action, are goal-oriented, are dreamers of great dreams, are good communicators, can withdraw and re-orient themselves, and are dependable, trusted, creative, intuitive, and situational. In short, all of the qualities that make up a great basketball coach.

As a coach, I realize that basketball is not only a sport but a vehicle to help my players understand who they are, help them grow in self-confidence and appreciate how they can contribute to the success of a team. It’s a personalized inquiry for each athlete and within it the coach plays a significant role in creating the environment wherein this learning can take place and flourish. It’s a heavy responsibility that calls for emotional balance and intellectual agility on the part of a coach. I call it the Julia Factor:

The score is 18 – 12 for us: 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter and emotions are flying high on the Home team’s bench. Coaching my club team, and sitting on the Visitor’s bench, I look incredulously down the sideline at the other coach: this really is a U12 girls basketball game, isn’t it? Why is that coach yelling angrily at his team?

Following the game, I am approached by Julia, a child on the other team who I previously coached. We talk for a few minutes, but this is the part that I remember like it was yesterday:

Julia: Our coach is pretty intense.

Me: Yah. But I guess he just wants you to be the best you can be. You had a very good game.

Julia: (quietly, with her head down) I don’t think so. He got mad at me.

Me: Have you told him that this makes you sad?

Julia, not having the emotional wherewithal to make sense of this statement starts to well up. I put my arm around her, and I don’t say anything; I just keep her close. In this moment, there’s nothing that I can say to her. She just wants me to know that I know how she’s feeling. What she doesn’t know, the conversation I’m going to have with the opposing coach, she doesn’t need to know.

Coaching for me is more than an extracurricular activity: it’s a transformative experience. Through basketball we teach a few technical skills but more importantly we provide joy and a safe place wherein we can help kids discover their own admirable purposes within the context of a larger community. It’s so much more than the pursuit of victory:

  • It’s about recognizing the profound difference one person can make within a group context;
  • It’s about receiving mentorship and wrap around care from healthy well-intentioned adults;
  • It’s about developing in ourselves and others the capacity to show compassion, empathy and understanding so that, when called upon, each of us will be able to throw one of our arms around the Julia(s) of the world and help them appreciate that they are individuals of worth and distinction.

I miss the game of basketball but most of all I miss the coaching. I miss the connections and the opportunity to impart empathy as a means to help kids understand feelings and perspectives. I miss the Julia Factor.

#6 in the 10 for 1 Journey: Democracy in Schools

Photo courtesy of

There is a proverb about the difficulty of seeing the wood because of the trees . . . The problem of education is to make the pupil see the wood by means of the trees.

Alfred North Whitehead

This week, as part of my 10 for 1 journey, I picked up an old book off of my bookshelf, Dr.Philip S. Gang’s, Rethinking Education. In light of the political landscape south of the border, the book made for compelling reading.

The year of publication is 1989 and yet the first line of the Introduction could have been written in 2021: “Transitions. It seems that many of us are contemplating or experiencing transitions in our lives as we approach the last decade of the 20th century”. Gang poses the question that as educators we continue to wrestle with today:

What about education? Can we continue to prepare the rising generation according to old principles and old guidelines? What form or structure must education take? What is the nature of adolescence and what special role is there for secondary education?

Gang explores the very issues that have served as the foundational basis of our new curriculum with its foci on the development of competencies in the service of personalized learning and the development of “the educated citizen”. He asks a question in 1989 that continues to drive our present-day professional inquiries: How can we design experiential learning strategies that enable students to interface academic learning with practical application?

He puts forward the premise that it is the doing (one could argue, the personalizing) that actualizes the experience and demonstrates the relationship between body and mind. It is an actualization that has embedded within it an emphasis on the reality of living in a state of flux. Gang explains:

The teacher who explains, “This is what we know about the universe today, but tomorrow a new discovery may come which will transform our viewpoint,” is helping to prepare students for change and adaptability.

To address this emerging paradigm (interesting because 31 years it’s still emerging), Gang introduces a new conceptual framework based on a holistic, experiential, democratic and humanistic philosophy. 

With the emergence of this framework there is an emphasis on a systems view of life, one  that frames the world in terms of relationships and integration.

Rather than review Gang’s exploration of all four relational threads, I will summarize his belief around democracy in education and then you can decide if you want to read the book.  In a statement that lays bare the why behind public education, Gang writes that “education must enable the rising generation to embody the democratic ideal.” Therefore, he proposes the following goals for democratic education – as you read them, ask yourself if they serve as the foundation for what you do as an educator:

  • Enable students to experience freedom of choice in an atmosphere that emphasizes personal responsibility.
  • Education is not a series of adult impositions on the child, but a conquest of freedom secured by the learner.  To be free individuals need to develop and exercise their freedom and recognize their responsibilities. The school environment should therefore encourage personal choice in an atmosphere that holds the children accountable for their activities.
  • Encourage self-respect and respect for others, underscoring the meaning of “all people are created equal”.
  • Self-respect is an outgrowth of family and school experiences that dignify the opinions and attitudes of the individual. It emanates from a caring-loving environment wherein adults recognize the worth of the child. One does not educate for self-respect but enables self-respect to develop. Students will have difficulty valuing the contributions of others unless they feel their own worth, so the family and school must provide the first steps towards developing respect for others, by valuing the worth of the individual.
  • Education for democratic citizenship means teaching young people about the ways of society and enabling them to participate. This evolves when the educational process stimulates self-direction and independent thinking. Young people are to be encouraged to make choices and to reap both the positive and negative consequences of those choices. It is in this atmosphere that mistakes become opportunities for further learning.
  • Independent thinking is the consequence of self-directed behavior. Schools that are socially and academically alive permit students to engage in dynamic interaction at all levels of the school community; that is, student to student, student to faculty, and student to administration. Through active participation, young people test out newly acquired capacities and develop the skills necessary for functioning in a democratic society.
  • Students should emerge from formal schooling with an open mind – one that can appreciate a range of solutions for a set of given circumstances. Individuals so educated, are not stuck with linear logic; they are not just focused on their own idea, their own solution, but can appreciate other points of view.

In a sense, schools that best teach students the skills to participate actively in democracy are themselves institutions that reflect democratic principles not only in word, but also in deed: they support students as co-constructors of their own personalized inquiry, an inquiry that reinforces the fundamental values of our society; they acknowledge that every child is unique and celebrates the diversity of their learning styles; they help every child learn about themselves within the context of community; they facilitate engaging interactions that lead to the development of positive, caring and contributing members of society. As Dana Bennis asserts, democratic education is both a means and an end in itself:

In the long-term, it helps develop well-informed citizens who work toward creating a democratic, vibrant, and just society. In the immediate term, it nurtures self-determined and caring individuals who enjoy learning for the sake of it.

Yes, in our care students learn how to learn but they also need to learn how to choose. To borrow from Yonatan Gher, as educators we have a responsibility to ensure that “our students grow up knowing that they have rights, and that they have an obligation to stand up for those whose rights are violated. They grow up knowing they hold agency over their own lives, and that they are able to effect change, in their own lives and in society.” One only needs to reflect on the past four years to appreciate the fact that this is why democracy in school matters.

Dr. Philip S. Gang’s, Rethinking Education: a great read that you don’t even have to buy – it’s online.

ESC: A View from the Periphery

“Mr. Bondi?”

As an educator for 20+ years, hearing my name in public, in the form of a question, always triggers one thought: I’ll recognize the face but I’ll stumble on the inevitable follow up question, “Do you remember me?”

Let me set the stage. It’s Wednesday evening and I’m in the cereal aisle at Costco. I don’t want to be here but my wife claims that ever since they’ve removed the product tasting tables, I’ve become less hostile while pushing the buggy.  In terms of how I look, I’m a walking billboard for public education: my sweatpants are from Van Tech, my sweatshirt from John Oliver and my toque from Burnett (3 schools I’ve worked in, 3 pieces of clothing).

This guy calling me by name could be from anywhere. I turn around.  Not only do I recognize the young man, I remember his name: Adam. When he was with me at John Oliver he was, as his English teacher humorously put it, the first man of mania.

“Adam, how could I ever forget you!” He stands in front of me, a big smile on his face and a little blond Cindy-Lou Who look alike nestled in his arms. Adam is a young man of about 27 or 28 but in being a parent myself, one who always sees the four-year-old in his own children, what I see at this very moment is the seventeen-year-old boy from 10 years ago, sitting in my Principal’s Office.

February 16, 2011, 12:35 pm.

I’ve just entered the office following my post bell, lunch is over, get to class walk of the hallways – a conspicuously lively event that has me exhorting students to start moving to class: a “let’s go, 2 minutes to learning” accompanied by the street cred move of placing my arms into the letter L and explaining that L, that’s upper case, capital L, is for Learning.

I stop by a locker where a gaggle of girls has migrated. Boldly and with attitude, I step within their circle, make a teenage angst comment about how ‘no one understands me’, open the locker wide and while looking at the obligatory teenager’s mirror affixed on the inside, lift my hand to my hair, stop, and say “no, that’s about right.” Giggles and awkwardness, “you’re so lame, Mr. Bondi” inspires the placement of one foot in front of the other and the gaggle starts to waddle away.

I turn to the boys across the hall and walk towards this historically apathetic collective. I brush my foot back and forth on the ground in front of them. I tell them that it’s ok now; I’ve removed the invisible circle of salt that has rendered them immobile (they don’t get the slug reference). I take a different tact and tell them that we don’t offer Hallway Aesthetics as an Independent Directed Study course – we offer it supervised, off timetable, after school, with me. Semi-appreciative smirks from a few but for the boys who don’t get it, I just stop and stare– I won’t explain the IDS or for that matter the slug reference: I refuse to dumb down my material!

So, you get the picture: high intensity, high humour and extremely high engagement with students. It’s what my wife likes to refer to as my Johnny High School time of day and it’s one of the things I miss most about being a High School Principal.

February 16, 2011, 1:10 pm. The school office. 

There, sitting in one of the chairs, is Adam. I know Adam very well – his mistakes are generally of biblical proportion. The snake that tempts him?  Boredom.

Adam is a student with a behaviour designation. He has had numerous issues throughout the year and he frequently comes down to my office for a timeout. I really like Adam; he’s got grit, the kind you only find in the inner city.

I take a few steps towards him: “Adam, welcome.”

He looks up briefly.

“I can’t say that you’re a long-time listener, first time caller but your visits are often the highlight of my afternoons”. I know that he gets it because his teacher tells me that Adam keeps announcing to his English class that he’s a part of “Mr. Bondi’s Afternoon Show”.

Adam follows me into my office. He takes his seat, the one closest to the door. He looks at me and I notice that the knuckles of his clenched right hand are alarmingly white – not a good sign.

As he sits with me in my room, sullen and ill-humoured, I sit quietly across the table from him – all he needs right now is a safe space and the belief that right here, right now, he has an adult in his corner.

“Well Adam. What happened?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbles. “I was just typing”

“Yah but I have a note here from Mr. Jones that says you damaged a computer. Do you want to tell me about it?”

Adam looks up for the first time.  

“It wasn’t the computer. It was the keyboard.”

“What did you do?”

“I took off a piece.”

“Well, maybe we can fix it.” Staring at his clenched fist, at this point dangerously devoid of any blood flow, I ask, “Are you holding the piece right now?”


I ask him if he will let me have the key . . . maybe we can fix the keyboard together.

He opens his hand and gives it to me.

I look at the key, one of a hundred and one, and I ask “why?”

His response is immediate: “I was bored.”

The key? A grey ESC.

January 13, 2020 7:20 pm. Back to Costco and the present moment.

Adam and I exchange a few pleasantries as we both wait for our wives to return with the mass quantity items that we will be consuming over the next month and a half. He’s now a finishing carpenter, been married for two years and his first born, Charlotte, just turned one.

At this point, I reach into my pocket and pull out my key chain. Affixed to it is a keyboard piece that I’ve carried with me for close to ten years: the grey ESC key.

Adam let’s out a loud expletive which leads to an instinctual “earmuffs” movement of his hands over Charlotte’s ears. We share a few more laughs, I answer the obligatory questions about former teachers, our wives return, and we wish each other well as we depart.

Adam, the student with a behavioural designation, grabbing at ESC, looking for a way out, because he was bored.  I always questioned if he understood the statement he was making. Now I know that he did. I wonder how many students today wish they could press a magical ESC key to get out of their classes.

Every morning, for the past ten years, I’ve placed that ESC key in my pocket to remind myself that in all that I do, in every conversation I have, in every school visit I go on, in every meeting I chair, I aim to always reframe the process of learning for those around me – from doing school to engaging with it. I am cognizant of the Adams in our system right now: the voiceless, the struggling, the ones on the edge. How do we ensure that their voices are heard? How do we create a system where they can co-construct their own personalized learning experience? How do we change thoughts of escape into a greater desire to immerse oneself into work that’s worth doing, learning that worth’s mastering?

Since I recently finished reading Jeffrey Krames’ Lead with Humility, who better than Pope Francis to succinctly address these questions. In one of his first homilies after the papal conclave of March 2013, Pope Francis stated that the great changes in history are realized when reality is seen not from the center but rather from the periphery. Adam went through high school, like so many others have, on the periphery. But his are the types of experiences that need to be shared because they question the comfortability of a center that does not ensure equitable experiences for all students.

My hope for 2021 is that we all start at the periphery; we examine our practices so as to provide the Adams of our worlds with voice and agency; we create a system, not just one school or one classroom, in which escape is no longer a part of anyone’s educational plan.

Leadership when Bubbles of Certainty Explode

In this historic moment, we live caught between a worldview that no longer works and a new one that seems to bizarre to contemplate.

Margaret Wheatley, 2006

In thinking about 2021 and dealing with COVID-19, it’s hard not to continue to be overwhelmed by the amount of change, at all levels, with which we will be dealing with in our sector.  However, as Margaret Wheatley’s 15-year-old statement makes clear, change is universal, it’s historically ubiquitous, and it’s not unique to us as educators.  Two things I read over the holiday break brought this point home to me.  Rem Koolhaas has been, after Frank Gehry, the most influential architect of our age.  In an article from way back in 2010, Architecture in the Age of Gehry, Koolhaas said something that still resonates today:

The areas of consensus shift unbelievably fast. The bubbles of certainty are constantly exploding.  Any architectural project we do takes at least four or five years, so increasingly there is a discrepancy between the acceleration of culture and the continuing slowness of architecture.

Photo courtesy of TomFalconer on Flickr

With an appreciative sense of professional irony, we could substitute the word architecture for education.  Our bubbles of certainty will always be exploding because teaching, like leadership, is not a process of moving incrementally toward a pre-established or provided solution: it is, if nothing else, open-ended, exploratory and emergent.  However, amidst the daily pull between acceleration and slowness, in a year where we will be continually facing new and unpredictable challenges, where will we find our professional balance? 

In connecting with staff, students and parents in the Abbotsford School District, what I have come to appreciate is that change is a process of learning best understood as knowledge creation within the context of human relationships. Michael Chabon, in his essay, “Sky and Telescope” from his collection of autobiographical stories, Manhood for Amateurs, helps me make this point.  Chabon writes of stargazing with his son.  Looking into a telescope, he talks to his son about the sensation of feeling like he is four hundred million miles away, orbiting a star:

It kind of freaks me out to think about that, Dad,” my older son said after I had him look through the telescope at one of those endlessly deep and star-packed regions of space that look empty to the naked eye.  “I mean, we’re so small.”

“True,” I said.

We’re, like, nothing.”

Well, yeah.  Except to each other.”

And then I pointed the telescope at Jupiter and its brood of moons and had him take a look, and he did a little thrilling himself.  It’s just so shocking somehow to see them there, plain as stars, when you can look at the same spot with no telescope and see a solitary speck of gold. “Think of Galileo,” I told my son. “You and I know those moons are going to be there, but Galileo had no idea when he first saw them that they were going to be there. He just had the weird inspiration to point a newfangled set of lenses at the king of planets and check it out.  Think how surprised he must have been!”

“Okay, that’s awesome,” my son agreed, backing away from the eyepiece. “What happens if we point it at the moon?”

Maybe he or one of my children will turn out to have the gift of stars.  He or she will be able to look up at the sky and see not myths and legends and a history of failure but information, gases and voids, cold, infernal, luminous and pure.  Or maybe my children will just look up and remember the weight of my hand on their shoulders as they stood beside me on a warm summer night, the rasp of my beard against their cheek, my voice soft at their ear, telling them, Look.

The one constant in Chabon’s life is the lived relationships with his children.  As it is for him, so I believe it is with all educators as we constantly manufacture opportunities to build understanding and new ways of doing within the context of our relationships, not only with students but also with each other.

Abbotsford Secondary School Principals and Vice-Principals, pre-COVID, modeling “listening leadership” with Shane Safir

Initiatives and directions will always change.  However, if we as leaders continually speak to the hearts of all, addressing not only what they do but also what they feel, we stay committed to the promise that those we work with will always remember how we took the time to reassuringly ask them to “look”, how we helped them understand that “we’re, like, everything to each other.”

What both Koolhaas and Chabon allude to is the fact that sustainable change can only occur when leaders engage both above and below the green line. How then do we operationalize this relational-based leadership when our bubbles of certainty are exploding? In short, we first decide whether through change new meaning via deeper learning is available and desirable and if it is so, we connect all that is above and below the green line to more of itself.  As Robert Gass rightfully asserts, “the heart of transformative social change is the intimate connection between the outer work of strategizing, organizing, and campaigning, and the inner work of who we are as human beings”.

The Six Circle Model adapted from the Dalmau Network Group

I started with Margaret Wheatley, and so I’ll give her the last word:

In order to change, the system needs to learn more about itself from itself. The system needs processes to bring it together…to facilitate self discovery and create new relationships simultaneously…to develop greater knowledge.

As we begin 2021 and reflect on our responsibilities as leaders, Koolhaas’ and Chabon’s prose coupled with Wheatley’s advice provide the impetus for a few processes that can help district and school leaders create new relationships (while deepening existing ones) in the service of developing greater knowledge during these uncertain times:   

1. Structure meetings and school/classroom visits with a purpose of connecting everyone to the fundamental identity of your District: Who are we? Who do we aspire to become? How shall we be together?

2. While engaging in a myriad of changes (co-constructing new timetables in partnership with students, new courses, blended learning, embedding social and emotional learning in all that you do), work to establish multiple participation patterns that will allow all stakeholders to share and connect, system-wide, to new information. Ensure that these patterns are equitable and give voice to the historically silent and underserved. Be prepared for a reality that what you need to know may not be comfortable to hear.  

3. Model symmetry and strategic resonance by aligning your various District Operational Plans as a means to model for those in the field that now is the time to reach past traditional boundaries and develop relationships with people anywhere and everywhere in the District. Ask the question: who else needs to be here to do this work with us?

4. Nurture emergence not for the purpose of idea/program replication but rather diffusion of best practices and processes. Encourage risk taking by promoting leaders as the human mops (!): try it, don’t worry about the mess, we’ll be there to help clean it up.

Here’s wishing everyone a successful and rewarding 2021 and the hope that our bubbles of uncertainty will not explode but rather, in quietly popping, will make us happy, make us feel fine.

Courtesy of

#5 in the 10 for 1 Journey: Why Men Lie

In her March 2020 HBR Article, The Case for Reading Fiction, Christine Seifert asserts that when it comes to reading, we may be assuming that reading for knowledge is the best reason to pick up a book. Research, however, suggests that reading fiction may provide far more important such as predicting increased social acuity and the development of a sharper ability to comprehend other people’s motivations. I agree with Seifert because to borrow from DH Lawrence, the novel is the book of life. In his essay, Why the Novel Matters, Lawrence argues that the novel helps to develop an instinct for life. This is because the novel does not advocate a right path or a wrong path. Instead, it portrays the unpredictable and varying nature of life making the reader realize that life itself is the reason for living.

To celebrate the case for reading fiction, back in November I embarked on my 10 for 1 Journey: one book read every ten days and shared with all of you. This is the fifth stop in my year-long journey – you can find the first four entries in my 10 for 1 Folder.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,”Four Quartets

In Why Men Lie, Linden McIntyre’s use of T.S Eliot as a frontispiece to the last section of his novel serves to frame the whole experience for the reader. Reading this poem way back in the 90’s when I was still a graduate student, I remember being taken by Helen Gardner’s analysis of the poem:

The virtue to which Burnt Norton points us is the virtue of humility: a submission to the truth of experience, an acceptance of what is, that involves the acceptance of ignorance . . . If we pass then to the use of theological terms we may say that mystically the subject of Burnt Norton is grace: the gift by which we seek to discover what we have already been shown.

The truth of experience, the acceptance of ignorance, discovering what we have already been shown: this is what McIntyre’s novel is all about.  Although a grabbing and provocative title, the novel is certainly not a documentary or an explanation of why men do indeed lie. This is a well-crafted story that follows the life of Effie MacAskill, a professor of Celtic languages.  A present-day Torontonian and a Cape Breton native, Effie is middle-aged and content within her rather quiet and solitary lifestyle.  She proudly asserts, early in the novel, that “the difference between solitude and isolation is autonomy.” She believes that “love, friendship, loyalty aren’t real; they’re only qualities.” What’s real is “our solitude . . . the moment.”

Effie however begins to question all of this upon running into an old schoolmate, JC Campbell, on a subway platform in Toronto. In building a new and intimate relationship with this old friend, Effie  continues to come to terms with three previous relationships that have shaped her life (with her first husband John, her second husband Sextus, and her long-time partner, Conor), navigates the charged emotional ties she has with her daughter, and sorts through the unresolved tensions she experiences in coming to terms with the relationship she had with her now deceased father.

As we get to know Effie, we see that her life is marked with relationships through which she frequently “touches base without the peril of engagement.” She is “attracted to the idea of being someone new to someone new, unburdened by a history. Attracted to the future, in a way.”

However, as it is in the beginning of Burnt Norton, Effie avoids the truth of experience. There is an uneasiness about her evasiveness, and it surfaces in her moments of quiet reflection. An example of this occurs when her former husband, Sextus, gives her a copy of his manuscript entitled, “Why Men Lie”:

She loved her books as she loved the knowledge they bestowed. But she was afraid of what he’d written; afraid of what he knew; afraid of why and what he wanted her to know – the power his knowledge gave him. What is the point, she asked herself, of knowing all the generalities if we are in the dark about our own particulars. Life is but an aggregation of particulars. But must we know them all? Is forgetfulness not merciful? She well knew how one particular of a forgotten part of life, suddenly remembered, could ruin everything.

For Effie, there is a fear in too much knowledge (ironic in that she makes her living in academia); there is relief in forgetting and, to put it bluntly, staying in one’s lane. She is unwilling to submit to the truth of experience’ she seeks not to discover. Her brother, Duncan (The Bishop’s Man), ultimately and humorously addresses this fear with her:

“I always thought that age would bring more clarity.”

“And it doesn’t?”

He laughed. “I’m learning that men are different in that regard. Women, it seems, mature, accept things. Men just age, grow anxious.”

Effie does indeed accept things but at what cost? She lies to herself so as to avoid the impact of buried secrets; she lies to herself because the unquestioned life is easier to survive; she lies to herself and in so doing fails to see herself as the vulnerable being that she is in actuality. McIntyre succinctly captures all of this through one of Effie’s poignant reflections:

Effie had learned that one must never assume that she knows anybody. The human personality is like a wardrobe, with varied ensembles of expression to produce reactions in another, or a slew of others. Love me, need me, fear me, laugh or cry with me, obey me. We rarely see another human in his moral nakedness.

Effie is right: we are all actors and the world is our stage but she is clearly comfortable on this stage while she is wearing her borrowed robes. When given the opportunity to delve into someone’s “moral nakedness” as with Sextus’ manuscript or her relationship with JC, she retreats into her “solitude as autonomy” cocoon. If everything points to one end, if everything is always present than as Helen Gardner so powerfully writes, we must acknowledge the truth of experience and delve into what we have been shown. Effie never acknowledges her truth and, as readers, understanding her loss only serves to reaffirm our own commitment to live a life that leaves no stone unturned, regardless of what we continue to find wiggling around underneath.

Why Men Lie: a powerful novel that reinforces the importance of truly trying to connect, exploring self within the context of relationships, and committing fully to each other in the here and now.

Being “In It” (Experiences that Matter)

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately; to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.     Henry David Thoreau

Over the past 10 days, as part of my 10 for 1 Journey, I read Mark Sundeen’s, The Man Who Quit Money: a book that upon completion had me thinking about how we do school.

If there is a person whose life fully captures the essence of Thoreau’s words, that person is Daniel Suelo.  In placing his last $30 in a phone booth in the year 2000 and living penniless, off the grid, Suelo has indeed gone into the woods, lived deliberately and to this day continues to learn what life has to teach him.

Daniel Suelo was raised a Christian Fundamentalist. An important fact in that his quest to live moneyless is inexorably linked with his passion, at times mystical, to discover the purpose of life.  According to Damian Nash, Suelo’s best friend, The Man Who Quit Money “captures the highlights of each major stage in Daniel’s spiritual journey, showing his growth from an enthusiastic fundamentalist to a serious Old Testament scholar to a mystical cultural anthropologist to a gifted student of world religion to a disillusioned social worker to a desert naturalist to a beloved hobo to a profound visionary in our troubled economic times”.

Having given up money and living in a cave in Moab, Utah, Daniel is far from a hermit. He has his own blog and website, Moneyless World – Free World – Priceless World and Living Without Money, that he maintains out of a public library. He volunteers at a community garden and a domestic violence shelter, has many friends, a family that loves him and displays a knack at engaging people from all walks of life.  The details of how he survives serve to furnish a plot for the biography. What drives this book however are Daniel’s economic, philosophical, and religious ruminations. In speaking of his unique life choice at the outset of the book, the explanation of his “path” seems to weave together all three of these themes:

If we’re following our path, then worrying about what could or should happen is a worse illness than what could or should happen. And it’s more likely we’re going to be out of balance if we worry. The idea is that the future will take care of itself if we remain in the present. I really don’t know what I’ll do and I don’t think about it that much. Some might call that irresponsible. But that’s part of the path I’m on.

It is the ever-present and being in it that drives Daniel Suelo. He explains:

Before, my hardships were long-term, complex anxieties,” he says: “What am I going to do with my life, how am I going to pay rent or pay insurance, what’s retirement going to be like, what am I going to do for a career, what are people going to think if I do this or that? To me that stuff is actually unbearable. And I think most people are dealing with it. Now my hardships are simple and immediate: food, shelter, and clothing. They’re manageable because they’re in the present.

In making his life manageable by giving up money, Daniel can peel away the artifices of consumerism and in doing so live within the eternal present, the place where he deems true enlightenment can be achieved:

The only way for him to live ethically in this corrupt world, he felt – the only way to access that eternal present that he’d found in the monastery – was to abandon money. Suelo wanted neither to own nor to be owed. In the words of Christianity, he wanted the Lord to forgive him his debts, and he forgave his debtors. In the words of the Bhagavad Gita, he wanted to release himself from the fruits of this labor. To give freely without expectation of receiving. Only then could he break free of the Western concept of linear time. Credit and debt kept us fixated on the past and the future. In the words of the Buddha, Suelo wanted to cut the tangle of attachments, to break the circle of reincarnation and dwell in the eternal present.

The biography is well written and Mark Sundeen, in his non-intrusive analysis, raises broader questions about our own relationship to work, compensation and happiness.  I especially like the fact that when the book is about to take off into the nether world of New Age mysticism, the author himself keeps us grounded with his light touch and humorous anecdotes:

After our Qigong Session as we sat outside the cave and watched the sun hover over the opposite cliffs, I pulled lunch from my pack. I had brought cheese and crackers and chocolate and an avocado. I watched Suelo closely. With all the talk about Jesus and ancient Hindus, I expected him to grind rice-grass seeds into flour with a mortar and pestle and then bake unleavened bread.

He revealed a clear plastic jar with an aquamarine lid that I recognized as the vessel for Skippy peanut butter. Instead of brown goop it was filed with brightly colored gemstones, red and yellow and orange and green. Crystals? He unscrewed the lid and extended the jar.

“Gummi bear?”

Photo courtesy of

The narrative of how Daniel Suelo lives without money is indeed fascinating; however, as mentioned, it’s the philosophy, the why behind what he does, that proves to be so enlightening. I appreciate that through Suelo I am introduced to the feminine theory behind the Holy Spirit; that I am now reading Pierre Tilhard de Chardin’s, The Phenomenon of Man; that I’m beginning to see that living in a minimalist fashion does indeed help us appreciate the immediacy of our lives.

Living in the present: it means that your awareness is completely centered on the here and now. You are not worrying about the future nor thinking about the past. You are doing what you have to do now and doing it well which in turn guarantees a good future. Call it providence, call it the back-packer’s guide to survival, call it what you will; regardless, Suelo’s story shows us that we can live in the present.

In the end, Suelo’s journey in search of the essentials of living a happy and meaningful life had me thinking about our school system and the importance of creating experiences that truly matter for students and staff. And the experiences that matter are the ones in which everyone is “in it”. I’ll let Sean Penn help me make my case:

“If I like a moment, like me…personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera…I just wanna stay in it”

It goes without saying that Penn would hate school bells and PA announcements. But listen to what he says: he refers to his one tool, his camera, as a distraction when confronted with a real moment.

In borrowing from Suelo’s minimalist way of being, our instructional approaches (now more than ever during COVID-19) need to be stripped bare in the service of helping our students have these in it moments. In facilitating learning that will be transferable in this time filled with anxiety and ever changing, increasingly sophisticated product, our schools need to do one thing exceptionally well: they need to be places where students can discover and pursue their passions and in so doing engage in ways that will allow them to discover and develop their own admirable purposes.

Where to start?

  • We move from a focus on content retention to a focus on skill acquisition;
  • We move our students from doing school to engaging with it;
  • We minimize prescribed learning and maximize possibilities for innovation and creative thinking;
  • We ignite passion in students by building a culture that invites teachers to bring their own passions to school;
  • We inhabit learning spaces instead of learning places and emphasize real world contexts and global modalities;
  • Most importantly, we help both staff and students move from finding information to discovering knowledge.

Ultimately, what we want to give to our students is what the world has provided Daniel Suelo: moments … a collection of connectable “in it” moments.

Thà:yt te Xàxlh: Make a Path

A few weeks back, I had the good fortune to visit Abbotsford Senior Secondary School and speak with Georgia Fadden and Sameera (Sam) Daraska from our Indigenous Education Department. The two of them have been developing an Indigenous Leadership course: Thà:yt te Xàxlh. Just over a month into their meetings with students, meetings which always begin with a provided lunch, land acknowledgement and check-in, the course has now transformed into a weekly family gathering in which the sharing of cultural learning has lead to an awakening of curiosity, a sense of pride and an understanding/appreciation of self: there is honour and pride in  identifying as an Indigenous youth.

In working with Bea and Peter Tallio from the Sumas First Nation, Georgia and Sam chose the name Thà:yt te Xàxlh which means Make a Path. The goal of the course is to increase an appreciative understanding of Indigenous ways of doing/being and in so doing, through action, making a path for others in the school and the Indigenous community to follow along, supportively, together.

Georgia Fadden and Sameera (Sam) Daraska in the Indigenous Room at Abby Senior

When I sat down with Georgia and Sam, they had already met a few times with the students. Georgia spoke of the joy these students exhibit when they trust and connect with a significant adult in their lives. I asked her how she builds this trust, and her response was classic “below the green line” stuff:

You know, I share my vulnerabilities with them – they need to know that despite our differences in age, background, stage in life, we are still more alike than different. We all work to ensure our positive mental and physical well being. So in working on social and emotional learning within our group, we participate in deep breathing exercises when we need a break or when our discussions “get real”. I struggle with anxiety and “I’m terrified sometimes”. I share this with them. I do deep breathing one or two times a day – you don’t know that I’m doing it. They can’t be vulnerable with us if we aren’t honest about ourselves with them.

Sam spoke to me about the amount of trauma these students experience and how it manifests itself in everyday routines and interactions:

A lot of our students are reserved – they tend to make poor choices for themselves because they don’t have the confidence to say ‘no’ or the sense of self-confidence is not there or their sense of self-worth is not there. Knowing they can talk about it with someone like me who has similar experiences, is comforting to them. We’ve done a lot of good work in supporting the trauma and getting them here. Now it’s also about building and championing their confidence in their own abilities so that when they graduate they have a sense of agency that has been developed by the deep learning experiences that have come in exploring their culture and identity.

And it’s the learning that is of paramount importance. In setting up this course, Sam had the brilliant idea of ensuring that the development of leadership would be fostered by students’ discovery of the four learning areas within the traditional medicine wheel: heart, mind, body, and spirit. This vision of self-discovery is supported by the structure of the syllabus which in being extremely flexible is geared towards student-driven, personalized inquiry.

Medicine Wheel adapted from “The Shaping Influences of a ‘Capable Person’: A Narrative Research of Elders’ Stories of Raising Children to Inform Aboriginal Education in the Northwest Territories (courtesy of

What follows is a breakdown of the big ideas/curricular organizers within Thà:yt te Xàxlh:


Big Idea:
Leaders seek out new challenges, possibilities, and opportunities. Our spirit enables us to see and have vision and our knowledge is revealed.

Students will choose a specific cultural knowledge goal. Throughout the year students will work with school staff and community members to nurture their culture goal. It will be a primary goal of the program to connect the student with a mentor to gift knowledge and support cultural growth. During lessons and class time, students will learn through Indigenous principles of learning and develop an understanding of specific cultural norms and teachings.


Big Idea:
Support and empower others to make a difference. Our heart allows us to feel and know through relating.

As a group, students will choose an issue/obstacle/problem affecting Indigenous people in Canada. As a team they will analyze the issue and create a plan to attempt to mitigate the issue/obstacle/problem. The goal of this assignment is to have the students analyze local/global issues, collaborate with others, and foster the development of key leadership skills while they actively participate in the empowerment of Indigenous people in Canada.


Big Idea:
Enables us to act and do; to learn and grow through responding to benefit community.

Students will work individually or as a team to organize activities and learning opportunities for the school to integrate Indigenous culture into the school climate.


Big Idea:
Allows us to identify a need, a vision and create strategies to resolve/create it through thinking, learning/knowing resulting from reflecting.

Students will track learning and reflection in a chosen medium throughout the whole course. This can be in a journal, blog, video, or another medium approved by the teacher. Students will observe the development of their leadership skills through the growth of connection to Spirit, Heart, Body, and Mind. The course will involve a variety of thought-provoking reflection questions and personal inquiry. Ending in a conversation to discuss personal growth during the year.  

Students gather in circle

When the students met on November 10, they focused on the “heart” and through shared discourse, analyzed and enhanced their understanding of local and global social justice issues facing Indigenous youth. They explored issues that could lead to service opportunities that would in turn help facilitate positive change. The list of concerns and problems that Canadian Indigenous people are facing, a list, impressively, created solely by this group of grade 11 and 12 students, is both daunting and overwhelming:

  • Pipelines
  • Living conditions on Reservations
  • Health care
  • Land rights
    • Mi’kmaq; Metis do not have promised land
  • Cost of living in the North
  • Clean water needs
  • Intergenerational trauma
    • high mortality rate
    • missing and murdered Indigenous women
    • abuse
    • suicide
    • addiction
  • Loss of culture
    • role models; leaders
  • Educational needs
  • Representation in foster care
  • 7% of kids in Canada are Indigenous and yet they represent 52% of those in care

Following the conversation, what became apparent to both Georgia and Sam was that these issues couldn’t just sit as a list on the classroom white board. Prior to any discussion of moving ideas into action, what was required was a focused, collective, “care conversation”. Georgia led the group through some deep breathing. She then asked them to use their emotion and feel what you’re sitting with right now. She shared with them what she herself was sitting with and in their circle, they went around the room and shared their feelings, grounding themselves through connection to each other. Without knowing it perhaps, both Georgia and Sam were involved in an exercise that had the group moving from self-actualization to the beginnings of community actualization with the goal of attaining cultural perpetuity.

Borrowing from the Blackfoot belief, as described here by Barbara Bray, the notion of self-actualization (one which Maslow culturally appropriated) is not a triangle but a tipi where the tipis reach to the sky:

Self-actualization is at the base of the tipi, not at the top, and is the foundation on which community actualization is built. The highest form that a Blackfoot can attain is called “cultural perpetuity”. Cultural perpetuity is something the Gitksan people call “the breath of life”. It’s an understanding that you will be forgotten, but you have a part in ensuring that your people’s important teachings live on.

As part of their initial steps in moving from self to community actualization, Georgia and Sam invited me to participate in a group circle with the students: an opportunity to share mind and spirit with these Indigenous youth and participate in the co-construction of an action plan which would, ultimately, connect heart to body. As they shared their thoughts about a plan, they shared pieces of themselves with each other. What became clear was that in terms of an action plan, a leadership initiative, the group was unanimous in their belief that one of the ways they could address intergenerational trauma was by making a difference in the lives of younger Indigenous students. They want to:

  • serve as mentors for younger Indigenous students in elementary and middle schools;
  • share, as role models, their knowledge, their spirits, hearts, bodies, and minds;
  • help them understand and appreciate their culture and their heritage;
  • reassure them that they are never alone – they have a support system;
  • help them develop agency through which they become responsible, independent, and self-assured.

Perhaps it all comes down to what one of the boys in the group shared with me during a quiet moment. “I see myself in some of these younger students. I want to help them. I want to make sure they don’t make my mistakes. I want them to be proud”.  

Making a path towards cultural perpetuity and providing the next generation of Indigenous youth with “the breath of life”: in the hands of these Indigenous Leadership students, our world can only change for the better.

Inequity is Structural: The Hyper-Criminalization of Vulnerable Youth

Well, 30 days have passed since I began my 10 for 1 journey: one book read and shared every ten days. The third marker in this journey is Victor Rios’ powerful study of Black and Latino youth in East Oakland titled, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.

As his introduction, Rios, a Professor at UC Santa Barbara, speaks of having grown up Chicano in Oakland. To borrow from Leslie Berestein Rojas, he contends that “in communities like the ones he grew up in, a general culture of punishment trickles down from schools, law enforcement, community and other institutions that deeply affects young men’s perceptions of themselves and their world long before they get involved in crime, and ultimately helps push many of them toward it”. In skillfully integrating ethnographic and criminological findings, Rios argues that Black and Hispanic youth are under the control of a youth control complex (YCC). The YCC is his conceptual framework of “law enforcement, education, and family interacting to create a structured punitive environment that systematically criminalizes” vulnerable youth.  

Graphic courtesy of

Over the span of three years, Rios follows forty Black and Latino teenage boys in East Oakland, interacting with the elements in the YCC to determine how the boys wound up being punished and criminalized. We find that these boys are pipelined from school into the penal system as the YCC assumes their criminality while disregarding their humanity. Their whole lives, their whole childhoods, are criminalized by police, schools, the media and their own neighborhood environment.

In chronicling the events that transpire, Rios does not lack objectivity and his findings clearly uphold his thesis. What he does rather adeptly is use his familiarity with East Oakland and its denizens to create an intimacy between the reader and his subjects that far exceeds your stock sociological treatise. Madeleine Novitch, in her own review of the book, concurs:

As a reader, we begin to understand, empathize, and connect with the boys he interviews. Rios’ ability to capture this rare insight is likely a result of his own background. As a former gang member, he has the ability to relate on a level that most researchers simply cannot. Rios did an excellent job capturing the uniquely human elements of his study by incorporating engaging dialogue and objective interpretations of their commentary.

His ability to capture these human elements leads to the chronicling of some very sad human situations, the kind that remind us that the smallness of life can feel huge when you’re in the middle of it. It’s depressingly sad to read about the boy who really wants to “work clean” and in trying to get a job as a server in a restaurant is “unknowingly turned down for the job because he wears sneakers and doesn’t shake hands with the interviewer as he leaves”. Rios explains that “he doesn’t shake hands because of the dominant narrative he’s subject to – don’t touch a white woman, it will make people think you’re dangerous”. What is even sadder is the degree to which these boys are harassed, profiled, watched, and disciplined at young ages, even before they’ve committed any crimes, eventually leading many of them to fulfill the destiny expected of them.

The amount of police brutality and harassment that Rios witnesses and documents is shocking. These boys cannot leave their homes without trepidation, they cannot peacefully assemble, and they cannot address government agents (like the police) without fearing for their lives. Rios himself is targeted by law enforcement for merely being around the boys he is shadowing:

Two officers emerged from the [Oakland Police Department] car and ordered us to sit on the curb: “Hands on your ass!” Slick looked down at his burrito, and I realized we were being asked to throw our meal away after only taking one bite. The officer yelled again. Our fresh burritos splattered on the chewing-gum-dotted concrete, and we sat on the curb with our hands under our thighs. An officer grabbed Slick’s arms and handcuffed him. Another officer did the same to me. One of them lifted us up by the metal links holding the cuffs together, placing excruciating pressure on our shoulder joints.

As they searched us, I asked the officers, “What’s going on?” They provided no response. They took out a camera and took pictures of Slick and me. …The officers had noticed me in the neighborhood and had asked many of the boys about me. …One of them later told me that I was doing the boys no good by studying them and advocating for them. The officer told me that I was enabling them by harboring their criminality and that I should be arrested for conspiracy.

This is not an isolated incident reported in the book. In their totality, the confrontations are malevolently consistent in both tone and delivery. How to alter this reality? As a starting point, perhaps the basis of any possible change, I’m drawn to the words of Dr. Finnie Coleman: “Ultimately when our responses become human responses as opposed to racial responses, that is when we’re going to change as a society”.

Picture courtesy of

In reading Punished, it’s hard to imagine that any type of human response can emanate from the institutions – schools, community centers, after-school programs – that are meant to assist and provide helpful resources to these boys. What is most disturbing is that according to Rios, schools in East Oakland have become sites of punishment which push young people out of the system. In doing so, what results is a ubiquity of distrust and fear which leads these boys further into criminalized behaviors and acts of resistance. Rios argues that this paradigm has not been created accidentally and that within it, inequity is intentionally reinforced structurally by the institutions that are meant to provide wrap around care:

In my college courses, I read books that discussed the government’s neglect of the poor. While insightful, these books missed a key process that I had personally experienced: the state had not abandoned the poor; it had reorganized itself, placing priority on its punitive institutions, such as police, and embedding crime-control discourses into welfare institutions, such as schools.

Schools on the East Side of Oakland are not a social investment in kids but rather, in concert with the legal system, a tracking mechanism to ensure class and racial containment. Rios illustrates how this interconnection redesigns something like “student tracking” into something more insidious (if that is actually possible): a form of social incapacitation in which schools prevent marginalized youth from developing a sense of dignity and personal confidence. Teachers have direct contact to probation officers – schools provide office space for both probation officers and police. Within these schools, there is the existence of an overpolicing-underpolicing paradox, one which does not provide support for these boys but rather constant chastisement and eventual arrest. Probation officers, in combination with the teachers, create a magnifying glass effect for the boys (the heightening of minor infractions into criminal violations by teachers and probation officers) which leads them deeper into the criminal justice system for the most minor of infractions, violations which are often outside of the criminal code and fall under the traditional rules and norms of a school, such as being suspended. This interconnection of law and schools places the boys at the center of Foucault’s panopticon – punitive treatment surrounds them, incapacitates them as social subjects and strips them of their dignity and humanity.

Picture courtesy of

Positive, informal social control based on nurturing, guidance and support does not exist; instead, the boys encounter a system of control which disciplines them through punitive force. Nowhere is this more evident than in the intersection between school and the law as exemplified by the East Oakland Continuation School (EOCS). As a school for those officially labelled deviant and delinquent and no longer allowed to attend mainstream high schools, the EOCS is a last refuge for support to alter students’ life chances for the better. One would expect a purposeful relationship between staff and students, a high staff to student ratio to allow for one-to-one support, youth care workers, work experience opportunities and engaging extracurricular offerings; however, as Rios bluntly states, “stigma, labeling, detention, harassment, and humiliation were just about the only consistent experiences that young people could count on as they entered the school”.

The EOC experience starts at the main entrance of the school with a security guard putting forward a “mean mug,” followed by another security guard with a handheld metal detector and is reinforced by the magnifying glass effect. Rather than being taught lessons that supportively nurture self-reflection and aid in the development of self-regulation, the school’s mission is to maintain order by using “the full force of criminal justice institutions and pathological shaming to regulate students’ behavior”. The curriculum is not hidden, the outcomes are both learned and openly intended: youth see the law and education as criminalizing and degrading them on a daily basis as Jose so painfully acknowledges in speaking of the “zookeeper that watches over him”:

“Man, it’s like every day, teachers gotta sweat me, police gotta pocket-check me, mom’s gotta trip on me, and my PO’s gotta stress me”.

What we have here is an example of “social incapacitation” in which schools prevent the marginalized youth they serve from developing a sense of dignity and agency – schools like this have moved from being a social investment in kids to becoming an investment in class and racial containment, preventing both a positive and confident redefinition of self and any possibility of social mobility (one of the grand purposes of public education). Clearly, the connection between the law and education does not produce positive outcomes but rather serves to reflect another version of “the New Jim Crowe”: it creates a social undercaste comprised of poor Black and Latino youth, labels them as criminals and then, to borrow from Michelle Alexander’s work, establishes and engages in all the practices we supposedly left behind.

To cope with patterns of punishment that blur the line between the law and the education system, poor Black and Latino youth develop “systems of interaction and resistance to cope with and escape from their punitive reality”. Unfortunately, for many of them their own families fall victim to the insidiousness of the YCC and homelife, like school, serves to neither support nor nurture.  By providing parents with courtesy stigmas and by asking them to “obey the discourse provided by the youth control complex” (school personnel, police, and probation officers), the boys no longer have trusting relationships in their own homes. Parents feel compelled to agree with the advice provided by the YCC: “Your child is deviant, your child needs to be scrutinized and policed, and when your child acts negatively in any kind of way…you need to call probation and police.” In the end, most of these boys lose faith in their parents and believe that they will be turned in to authorities for the adolescent trait of arguing with them. With a chilling succinctness, Rios argues that in an era of mass incarceration, “punitive social control has fed an out-of-control minotaur, allowing it to expand its labyrinth by embedding itself into traditionally nurturing institutions”.

Punished is a tough read that leaves you face to face with the daunting reality that in terms of equity, there is work, a lot of it, to be done. To borrow from Shane Safir and the work she is engaging with us in the Abbotsford School District, it is work which includes:

  • Ensuring that our institutions that work with youth are built on the foundation of culturally responsive structures and processes;
  • That policies put forward at all levels of government are equity focused;
  • That we ourselves, as educators, envision and begin to build and model equity-centered communities of practice;
  • Learn, experience, and operationalize the transformative concept of street data;
  • Experience the power of centering the voice of youth, particularly our most vulnerable, as data for improvement.

Ultimately, Rios argues that by understanding the lives of the young men who are criminalized and pipelined through the criminal justice system, we can begin to develop empathic solutions which support them and in so doing, eliminate the culture of punishment that defines their everyday lives.

For students and their teachers, the goal is to balance the need to understand a pervasively unjust system and the need to nurture and activate an awareness of agency. “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible,” Baldwin wrote, “is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”

Perhaps Baldwin’s message reinforces Rios’ authorial intent and at the same time defines one of our primary roles as educators:  our job is to fortify our students, joining them in the objective of making the society into which they were born fully account for the conditions it has created.