Sunday, November 26, 2017

Paying it Forward

I had My Boys with me at work last Monday, as they had no school and Montpelier Public Schools were open.  I'm very grateful to work in a place that welcomes My Children when need be.  Everyone is so kind to them when they're with me, people go out of their way to talk with them, and especially the people in Central Office make them feel like a part of the family. 

Their favorite pizza in Montpelier is at Positive Pie and I took them there to grab some slices for lunch.  We parked on State Street and as we walked to the restaurant, we passed another favorite lunch spot of mine Wilaiwan's, which was closed.  I explained to My Boys how much I love their authentic Thai food and hopefully the next time they come to work with me, we can eat there.

As we continued west on State Street, I heard a voice call out, "Wait, wait, this is for you!"  I turned to see Dang, one of the people that works in Wilaiwan's running down the street toward us.  She handed me two jars and said, "Happy Thanksgiving.  I know how much you love our spicy hot sauce."  With that she turned and ran off, leaving me stunned on the sidewalk.

I was blown away by the kindness and generosity Dang showed me.  My Boys could not understand what just happened, so I explained to them who Dang was, how thoughtful a gift she shared, and why it was so meaningful to me.  

We continued on to Positive Pie, where I ordered some slices and drinks to go.  While waiting, I put the two jars on the counter, prompting the woman taking my order to say, "I gotta ask, what's with the jars?"  Beaming, I explained what had just happened.  

The woman's face broke into a huge smile, as she admitted how much she too loves their food.  We both admitted to "tipping back" the bowl at the end of our meal to ensure that no scrap of food, no matter how small, is ever left behind.  We continued to chat a bit about how kind Dang's gesture was.  As I was paying for our pizza, the woman looked at me and said, "I'm so touched by this, that I'm going to do something similar to someone else today." 

I hope you're touched by kindness and choose to continue spreading it this week.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

On Being Grateful

This is one of my favorite weeks of the year.  This is a holiday that has no gifts except the presence of others.  No gifts, except the gift of time.  No gifts, except the gift of relationships that grow and expand around the table. 

Not everyone will be as fortunate as My Family and me.  For many of our students, the holiday season brings uncertainty.  Uncertainty of food, heat, and in some cases love.  For many of our adults, the holiday season means challenging family dynamics for some and being alone for some others. 

I am grateful to serve in a community where a message like this resonates.  I am grateful to serve with other adults who care about the whole child.  I am grateful to serve in a district where adults step up to help other adults in times of need.  I am grateful to serve with others for whom relationships matter. 

The first goal in the MPS Action Plan is to provide equitable learning opportunities for all students.  At a conference recently, Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe reminded us that equity is not a zero sum game.  Giving to those in need, does not mean taking away from others.  I am grateful to serve in the state of Vermont. 

What are you grateful for this week of Thanksgiving?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Two Words: Thank You

This past week I was able to reconnect with a professor I had when I was a student at the College of the Holy Cross.  I had written him an e-mail earlier in the week to thank him.  His courses inspired me to work for social justice and it is through education that I have kept that commitment.

We were able to briefly chat on the phone and I thanked him for the tremendous impact he had on my life.  We had not spoken since I graduated in May of 1996.  I chose to volunteer when I graduated and joined a program called Inner-City Teaching Corp where I learned how to be a teacher.  In the summer of 1999, a Providence College graduate joined the staff of the school where I was assigned, also a volunteer with Inner-City Teaching Corps.  She was from Vermont and taught right next door to me.  In the fall of 2000, we had our last first date ever, we got married in 2004, and moved to Vermont in 2007.

I thanked my professor for inspiring me to pursue social justice because it led me to meet My Wife, with similar passions for equity, and that gift of marriage has led to two beautiful children and a wonderful life in Vermont.  For me, in a very real way, Professor James Nickoloff put me on a path to where I am right now.

Teaching makes a difference in the lives of teachers and our students.

In our final year in Chicago, I was teaching in a high school.  One of my students was accepted to Holy Cross and I could not have been more delighted and proud.  When she told me, I insisted that she find another mentor of mine while I was there.  Kim McElaney was the Director of the Office of the College Chaplains and was a part of the Mexico Immersion Program that I was privileged to be a part of - another key moment in my social justice journey.  That student, like the rest of the Class of 2007 graduated, and at the end of that school year My Family and I moved to Vermont.

Sadly, Kim passed away 2010 and because she was incredibly important to me, I went to her funeral.  While reconnecting with many dear friends whom I had not seen since my own graduation, I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard the words, "Mr. Ricca?"  I could not imagine who that would be.  No one called me that while I was at Holy Cross.

I turned to find my former student from Chicago, the Class of 2007, with tears in her eyes.  When I asked her what she was doing here, she responded, "Mr. Ricca, you told me that when I went to Holy Cross that I had to find Kim McElaney.  Well... I did."

Teaching makes a difference in the lives of teachers and our students.

Based on the nature of education, we rarely if ever see the fruits of our efforts.  One of the goals in the MPS Action Plan is for all students to take "an active role in shaping their learning experiences and developing who they are as learners."  That cannot happen in a vacuum - it happens with the faculty, staff, and leadership in our district.  It happens in the classrooms, on our athletic fiends, in the hallways, on stage, in rehearsals, and on field trips.  It happens in real conversations.  It happens because of relationships.

This week, it was a thank you to a professor that was twenty-one years in the making.  Not twenty-one years late.  I had no idea how my life would turn out when I graduated from Holy Cross in 1996 and when I look back I can see who those people who shaped my learning experiences were; those people who helped develop me as a learner left an indelible imprint in my heart.  Thank you.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Do you Brush & Floss Everyday?

This past Wednesday, the MPS Leadership Team took part in the second day of training in the We All Belong Series with CQ Strategies, as we grow our own cultural competency.  One of the goals in the MPS Action Plan is "To implement an articulated multi-tiered system of support to provide equitable learning opportunities for students in safe and inclusive learning environments."  A substantial part of that commitment is working to address our own shortcomings and actively grow as leaders in MPS for this work.

During one of the morning discussions, one of the participants asked our facilitators if there is a way to fully overcome unconscious bias.  The facilitator paused before answering and the answer was stunning in its simplicity.  "Well, do you brush and floss everyday?  While doing that is never going to fully prevent dental decay and larger problems in your mouth we still know that is just good dental hygiene."

We all do something everyday that is not guaranteed to make a difference but is considered just good practice.

I have unconscious biases, simply by growing up and breathing in the ethos in the United States of America.  We all have unconscious biases that impact us as we go about living in the world.  Anyone who says otherwise is simply not being fully honest.  Once we have admitted that we have biases, we must take the next step to ensure that we are working to keep them in check and do what we can to minimize their impact on our day-to-day relationships.

And for those of us in education, the expectations are much higher.  We must be vigilant not only for the biases in our own life; we must be just as vigilant for evidence of biases in our students, in our schools, and our community.  As educators, our responsibilities include educating the whole child, not just the head but the heart as well.  We must ensure that our students are practicing habits that will prevent further development of biases, as they move in relationships not only during the school day but during the rest of their lives as well.  We state in MPS that one of our goals is to have our students be in "safe and inclusive learning environments."  We have a responsibility to our students, as well as to our fellow human beings to be aware of our unconscious biases.

During the Rowland Foundation (@RowFn) Annual Conference in late October, Professor Ruha Benjamin (ruha9) inspired and challenged us around issues of race in the state of Vermont.  A tweet from MHS Principal Mike McRaith (@mikemcraith) summed up her message insightfully:

There are real issues of equity and privilege in our state.  They extend beyond that of just race and include class, gender, gender identify, and ability to name just a few.  Anyone who feels marginalized in 2017, who is not a position of privilege, is working harder and harder everyday to overcome the injustice AND then engage in the process of learning.

I am not whole, because I am overserved and have privilege.  I promise to brush and floss everyday to try to keep my unconscious biases in check but will need help with my blind spots.  Will you help me?  I promise to help you with yours, so that we can honor all our students to make schools truly safe and inclusive for all of them.