Before we ever wrote on paper or even stone tablets, humanity was unwittingly writing its history in the DNA of each successive generation. Now, after tens of thousands of years, scientists reading the history written in—and omitted from—those genes are re-writing the story of how human culture began.
By combing through 100,000 years of genetic history, scientists say they have shown that modern human behaviors which arose about 50,000 years ago traveled from person to person through cultural, not genetic exchange. The genetic data also add new layers to the history of human migration out of Africa and provide a valuable medical resource. The findings were published last month in the journal Nature.
Ancient humans became a lot more like modern humanity around 50,000 years ago, developing innovations like art, fishing, and blades within a relatively short span of time, said Stanford University anthropologist Richard Klein, who noted this change in his 2002 book The Dawn of Human Culture. “[There] was a radical change in human innovative ability about 50,000 years ago,” Klein said, “and I speculated that genetic change was responsible.”
Without genetic evidence, though, others argued the change was not a sudden genetic leap but gradual cultural change. The “human revolution” was instead “a gradual assembling of the package of modern human behaviors in Africa,” argued anthropologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks in a 2000 paper.
The DNA evidence was collected by sequencing the genomes of more than 300 people from around the world. To ensure that a full history of humanity was represented, scientists made a special effort to collect DNA from a diverse grouping of humans. Thus the project became known as the Simons Genome Diversity project.
With each generation, our DNA accumulates small, mostly harmless mutations, which scientists can use as a sort of marker to trace which populations the DNA has passed through.
“Our genome is not just ours,” said Shop Mallick, a computational biologist at Harvard Medical School, and a co-author on the paper. “Your genome contains signals from all of your ancestors.”
By measuring how different the DNA of people from disparate populations are, the scientists could answer one critical question: “How far back in time do you have to go before the populations that two samples came from are linked?” Mallick said. For many populations in the study, enough mutations had occurred since their last genetic exchange that their last common ancestor must have been at least 100,000 years ago.
This paints a picture of humanity 50,000 years ago as a species consisting of sparsely separated geographical groups with little genetic exchange between them. If the groups were genetically separate before the “human revolution” and before the migration out of Africa, it is extremely unlikely that all of humanity underwent the same genetic change at the same time.
The “human revolution,” the study says, was a cultural one.
Examining this history didn’t just lead to a picture of humanity 50,000 years ago during the “human revolution.” It also confirmed how humans left Africa—finding that everyone from Europeans to Australian Aboriginals shared DNA from a single migration. Though there may have been earlier migrations which left small traces on non-African humans’ DNA, “we can be quite sure that less than 2% of genomic DNA that may have come from an earlier expansion,” Mallick said.
Because of the diversity of the sampled populations, the data from the study could prove valuable for more modern medical purposes as well. The researchers found 5.8 million new mutations in human DNA that had never before been encountered; the list of these mutations is a valuable resource for scientists researching the genetics ailments from cancer to developmental diseases. To aid these studies, the authors have posted the data online for other scientists to use.
The resulting depository, Mallick said, “creates a snapshot of humanity as it is today.” In this DNA is a sort of family photo of the seven billion of us—one that both hints at our past and could aid in a healthier future.
For some men, walking home alone does not cause them to feel threatened or fearful. Sadly, many women have a very different experience.
To show people this truth and the street harassment women often face, 28-year-old French filmmaker Maxime Gaudet created a short video titled Au bout de la rue (Court-métrage).
The video portrays a young woman’s walk home in Paris from the moment she separates from her friends, to the second she safely joins her boyfriend. On her way home during late hours, she’s approached by a man. The video perfectly portrays the fear many women experience caused by street harassment, and makes the viewer wonder how we really decide when “nothing happened.”
Perhaps the saddest and most realistic part of the short is at the end, when the clearly terrified young woman reaches her destination safely.
“How is it going?” her boyfriend says, greeting her with a kiss.
“Good, and you?” she answers.
While making systemic changes to stop street harassment is something we should all be working toward, in the meantime, people who do not feel safe walking alone can use tools like Companion, an app that allows you to easily alert friends if you are in any real danger on your way home.
(H/T: Les In Rocks)
I do not think that I am beautiful.
Whether or not I actually am is irrelevant, but whether I think that I am has become a constant source of preoccupation for me in recent months. Not feeling beautiful worries me for one specific reason: it feels like a defeat.
All women are forced to deal with unrealistic and harmful beauty standards. All women are expected by society to base their self-worth on the way they look — or, rather, the way in which the way they look garners them attention and approval from men.
It’s a messed-up system, but what I’ve always struggled with is the thing we never really want to talk about: the hierarchy of the system. For black women, the harsh realities of beauty standards are twofold: we’re socialized to feel less than beautiful specifically because we are black. Why else did a black model’s naturally large lips receive so much hate in comments on Instagram last week, when big lips on white women like Kylie Jenner and Angelina Jolie are praised? The things that make us black women, our big lips or big butts or kinky hair, are singled out as the main factors that we must change about ourselves in order to be more attractive, in order to be more acceptable.
Skin-lightening creams and relaxers are marketed to us, and while of course there have been important movement towards accepting who we are naturally, thanks to events like BET’s Black Girls Rock! and hashtags like #flexinmycomplexion, the mainstream still doesn’t seem to fully get it.
Recently, a Latina friend of mine was lamenting being the darkest amongst her three sisters. I had to stretch myself to sympathize and empathize with her, understanding the cultural differences and nuances that could allow her to say “I hate being so dark” to me, despite the fact that she is five shades lighter than I am. Despite the fact that with her loose curls and much lighter skin, hers is a beauty that’s far more palatable than mine.
The journey to better self-esteem, to self-love and acceptance for the black woman, seems always to hinge on the journey of accepting those things that make us black. I struggle with this too. I’ve written before about the fact that in spite of having dark skin and kinky hair, I’ve never had a complex about those things. I’ve never looked at my dark skin in the mirror and wished that it was lighter. I’ve never prayed for straight blonde hair and blue eyes.
But black self-esteem, of course, does not hinge only on colorism. That’s the dominating narrative, but it isn’t the only one. It’s far more complex than just the “color of your skin.” Being black and a woman, society would have us all believe, means being at the very bottom of the totem pole, and we have that to grapple with as well. While dating and desirability shouldn’t be the main marker we use to define beauty, it’s still incredibly telling that, according to OKCupid data, black women are the least desired in the dating world compared to white women and other women of color.
The messaging is out there. It permeates pop culture, from movies to magazines, and trickles down into the real world. As a young girl, I had examples of black beauty all around me, in my mother and my aunts, my sister, my friends. That helped. But I was always hyper-aware of the kinds of black women who were praised universally for their beauty — women like Halle Berry and Beyonce, women with light features and button noses. And when dark women were praised in the mainstream, they were regarded largely as novelties, exotic anomalies — the fetishization of Lupita Nyong’o and Alex Wek’s dark skin is a perfect example of this.
I want to be uninterested in beauty; I want to be uninterested in the idea that self-esteem only has to do with the way one looks. But in a society where black beauty is so invisible, so little celebrated, it’s impossible not to be preoccupied with it. That’s the crux. Beauty isn’t and shouldn’t be the scale by which we measure our self-worth and validation. But for black women, the constant bombardment of negative messaging sometimes makes it so hard to separate those things from one another.
For me, the struggle of black beauty is not accepting that it exists in this world. I see black beauty everywhere — I see it in my family and friends; I see the complexity and the range of black beauty in women I don’t know but admire, women like First Lady Michelle Obama, or the French-Senegalese actress Aissa Maiga, or the singer SZA, or the model and activist Bethann Hardison. The struggle is very personal. I can see our collective beauty, I can celebrate it in others, but I can’t celebrate it in myself.
It feels contradictory and hypocritical, to celebrate the beauty of black women but be perpetually unable to recognize my own. To be black and to be beautiful and to recognize, appreciate, and accept your own beauty is in itself a kind of revolutionary act. I believe that. That’s why I feel defeated — thinking I’m not beautiful, that I’m in fact ugly, feels like I’m giving in to all the lies that have been subliminally broadcast to me and every young black woman out there. I haven’t quite figured out how to change the narrative, but maybe at least being aware of it, at least wanting to change, is a kind of tiny victory.
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I’ve been wrestling with talking to you about some things I think you need to know. I’ve wrestled with it because I feel my own sense of shame– shame that I didn’t know or understand these issues before they touched my family. I’ve felt fear that you’ll respond in subtle ways that make it clear you aren’t safe for my child. I’ve been concerned that you won’t believe me and then I’ll feel more angry than if I hadn’t said anything. But my son is getting older and as he transitions from an adorable black boy to a strong black man, I know the assumptions about him will change. And I need your help in keeping him safe.
We talk to our son about safety issues. We talk to him about being respectful of police (and anyone in authority), about keeping his hands where they are visible, about not wearing his hood up over his face or sneaking through the neighbor’s backyard during hide-and-seek or when taking a shortcut home from school. We are doing what we can to find this bizarre balance of helping him be proud of who he is and helping him understand that not everybody is going to see him the way we see him. Some people are going to see him as a “thug” before they ever know his name, his story, his gifts and talents.
But here’s the thing– as much as we can try to protect him and teach him to protect himself, there may come a time when your child will be involved. As the parents of the white friend of my black son, I need you to be talking to your child about racism. I need you to be talking about the assumptions other people might make about my son. I need you to talk to your child about what they would do if they saw injustice happening.
I know that in a white family it is easy to use words like “colorblind” and feel like we’re enlightened and progressive. But if you teach your kids to be colorblind, they may not understand the uniquely dangerous situations my child can find himself in. If you tell your kids racism happened a long time ago and now it’s over and use my family as an example of how whites and blacks and browns can all get along together, you are not doing me any favors. Just because you haven’t seen obvious examples of racism in your own life doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
It is easy to think we live in a colorblind society when you don’t know that two weeks ago I was on the phone with the principal at my son’s school to discuss the racial insults he was regularly receiving from the student sitting next to him. I was thankful for how seriously the school handled that incident and we consider it a huge victory that my son felt safe telling his parents and teacher how he was being teased since many kids don’t. It is easy to think we live in a post racial society when you don’t know that a neighbor of mine called the Child Protective Services hotline to complain about my kids behaving in the exact same ways as the ten other white neighbor children they regularly play with behave (playing in the “street”– we live on a cul-de-sac–, playing in our front yard without shoes, asking for snacks from the neighbor parents- these are the actual complaints that were made). I don’t want to begin to tell you the trauma it is to former foster kids when a social worker shows up at your house to interview them and I’m afraid I haven’t yet forgiven our neighbor for bringing that on our family (although it was quickly determined to be a ridiculous complaint and there was no further action taken). The thing is, I doubt that neighbor even thinks of himself as racist, but the fact that when the white kids of the neighborhood do it it’s “kids being kids”, but when the kids of color are involved it’s got to be addressed by authorities shows the underlying bias of his assumptions. This isn’t “concern”, this is harassment.
So white parents, please talk to your kids about racism. If they see my son being bullied or called racist names, they need to stand with him. They need to understand how threatening that is and not just something to be laughed off. If your child is with my child playing soccer at the park and the police drive by, tell your child to stay. Just stay right there with my son. Be a witness. In that situation, be extra polite, extra respectful. Don’t run and don’t leave my son by himself. If you are with my son, this is not the time to try out any new risky behaviors. Whatever trouble you get into, he will likely not be judged by the same standard you are. Be understanding that he can’t make the same mistakes you can.
White parents, treat my son with respect. Don’t rub his head because you want to know what his hair feels like. Don’t speak black slang to him because you think it would be funny. If you’re thinking about making a joke that you feel might be slightly questionable, just don’t do it. Ever. Your kids are listening and learning from you even in the jokes you tell. Be conscious of what media messages your kids are getting about race. Engage in tough conversations about what you’re hearing in the news. Don’t shy away from this just because you can. He can’t. We can’t.
Be an advocate for this beautiful soul who has eaten at your kitchen table, sat next to your son at church, been at your child’s birthday party. He is not the exception to the rule. He is not protected by my white privilege for the rest of his life. He is not inherently different from any other little black boy and ALL their lives have value and worth and were created by God. I have hope that when white parents start talking about these issues with our white kids, maybe that’s where change starts.
Njaimeh Njie is exploring the many different complexities of black womanhood in the United States with her new website, Power(ed) by Grace: Musings on Black Womanhood.
The project, which Njie started last spring, documents the different realms of life that impact black women and girls by providing photo and video content to help them tell their stories. Starting with photos of the black women in her hometown of Pittsburgh, Njie has honed in on the everyday complexities and nuances of black womanhood that are often overlooked in mainstream media by showing these women in their everyday element. In the photo series, some of which can be seen on her Instagram, she shows black women gardening, skateboarding, enjoying their homegirls’ company and more.
“I came to focus on exploring the small moments in black women’s lives because, when pulled together, these are what make us who we are,” Njie wrote on Blavity about why she created Power(ed) by Grace. “By lifting up our everyday ups and downs, I hoped to provide a space where we could see and appreciate the beauty in ourselves and consequently share that with the world.”
According to her site, Power(ed) by Grace wants to help promote diversity and to uplift the lives of black women by asking them to define themselves on their own terms and in boundless ways without society’s input.
“Black women are human beings deserving of care and consideration, and we deserve images that reflect the nuances, trials and triumphs of our lives,” Njie wrote. “The content and stories on this platform are a simple declaration that we’re here, we’ve been here and we’re not going anywhere. I hope that there are black girls and women out there who will see this and find some of their stories, but I also hope that anyone who engages in this work can see it and find their stories, too.”
Also on HuffPost:
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The doors opened to our homemade banners and smiling faces. It was the first day of school ever for the Urban Assembly Unison Middle School in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. It was my first day ever as a leader in the school I co-founded. I was 27 years old.
The racial demographics of the 85 students arriving: 74 percent African American, 15 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian, and one white student. At the beginning of sixth grade these students, on average, read at a second-grade reading level. Nearly 40 percent of them had special needs, 35 percent had been left back once or twice, 10 percent lived in temporary housing, 10 percent lived in foster care, and 92 percentlived in families whose aggregate family income fell below the federal poverty line.
My colleagues and I started this school in 2012 because we wanted to bring a progressive curriculum called Learning Cultures — which promotes collaboration and creativity and all the qualities that middle-class families want in their children’s education — to a population of students that normally gets stuck with rigid, test-prep-oriented teaching. I’d seen Learning Cultures work at a school with both well-to-do and less well-off kids in downtown Manhattan. I wanted to see it work in a full-on high-poverty Brooklyn school, too.
We’ve had tremendous success in our three years as a school: Test scores are improving, and our students are getting better and better at reading. But our school, like so many others in New York City, remains segregated: by Christmas our first year, our one white student transferred out. Last year, white children made up just 2 percent of our student body.
My time in the New York City public school system — first as a student, then as a teacher, and now as an administrator — has shown me that segregation is unacceptable. No amount of curriculum magic, or experienced teachers, or school choice, can overcome the fact that to overcome educational inequality, white students need to be in school with minority students.
American schools are resegregating
Stories of resegregation in America’s public schools are popping up everywhere, from Missouri to Alabama to New York City. Nationally, racial segregation in schools hasreturned to levels not seen since 1968.
New York City is among the worst offenders. Among the city’s 1.1 million public school students — the largest school system in the nation — children of color have an 80 percent chance of attending a school where the student body consists of fewer than 10 percent white children. Fifty percent of white students attending New York City public schools are concentrated in 7 percent of the schools.
Statewide, African-American and Latino students typically attend schools where 70 percent of the students are low-income, whereas white students typically attend schools where 30 percent of the students are low-income.
Bad as this appears from the outside, on the inside it’s even worse. Teachers try to make separate equal. And policies push schools to make it more separate.
I’ve spent almost my entire life in New York City schools
I’ve spent 22 of my 30 years in the New York City public school system. In 1990, I started kindergarten at PS 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the borough’s best elementary school, because my family lied. My parents told the school that I lived in a family friend’s house within the zone that guaranteed enrollment in this school. They taught me to memorize her address and phone number at age 4, and saved the money to move into the neighborhood a year later.
In summer 2007, I had just graduated from Brown University with a degree in poetry. I began six weeks of training with the New York City Teaching Fellows that promised to prepare me to teach “at risk” students middle school English. As I began, a warning from my undergraduate mentor replayed ominously in my head: “The New York City Teaching Fellows Program is like putting a resident in for complex brain surgery.”
Though admitted to the Teaching Fellows, I still needed to apply to get hired to work at a particular school, so I attended a hiring fair. As I entered the ballroom, I saw a maze of tables in a sea of balloons. A sign indicated that balloon height specified the grade level of jobs available and balloon color, the subject area. I had crossed my first threshold into the bureaucracy of the New York City Department of Education.
I waited in line at table after table. High-performing schools took one look at my résumé and wished me well. Schools with poor families and low test scores scheduled me to come in to give a demonstration lesson. One interviewer asked me, “What are you going to do when someone calls you a dumb white bitch?” I began to see the glaring paradox firsthand: Though I was the least qualified, I was only viable at the schools with the most needy students.
I eventually got hired at M 301, a high-poverty, segregated middle school on the Lower East Side. My lack of training quickly rubbed up against a high-risk population that needed an experienced neurosurgeon.
The majority of the students at the school lived in households that made less than $25,000 per year. Many of the children I taught lived with their families in shelters, or had become separated from their families because of crime or substance abuse. Research shows that lumping together kids with such extreme needs dramatically hampers their academic achievement. Regardless, these students sat before me.
There were no dictionaries in classrooms, limited basic office supplies (forget a class set of pencils), and few books. The school did not have the budget for these basic necessities. To make up for these deficits, I wrote grants through Donors Choose, a nonprofit that allows teachers to try to fix problems themselves. At first I raised funds to buy my students dictionaries and books, and later classroom laptops. But these wins were far from sufficient to overcome the deeper challenges my students faced.
I spent one class period tending to a student who wrote an essay about her father killing himself with a knife in her presence, another with a student who wrote about her family’s recent move to a shelter where the showers didn’t work. As story after story poured out, I naively hoped that the number of tragedies would be finite. After all the stories were told, we would be able to focus on the much-needed literacy instruction.
I was wrong. There was only one guidance counselor in the building, and I continued listening. On some days I would sit for an hour at the end of the school day, staring at the wall and trying to make sense of what had happened that day.
For disadvantaged students, unprepared teachers are typical and non-accidental. The school segregation machine begins when students attend local community schools across the nation because of how schools receive funding.
Nationwide, on average, states provide 45 percent of school funding by allocating money to schools based on the number of students attending and those students’ needs. Local budgets, collected from property taxes, contribute an average of 44.8 percent of school budgets, but this percentage varies substantially.
The local contribution varies because districts set their own school budgets. Well-off districts can set these school budgets as high as they wish. In poorer districts, property values and incomes are too low to create the revenue to significantly increase the school budget.
This inequity is longstanding. For the 13 years before I became a teacher, a group of New York City parents had advocated to close this gap through an organization called Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Their campaign was based on the idea that the New York state school funding formula was unconstitutional, and they won the lawsuit saying so. As a result, by 2006 the state guaranteed “foundation aid,” or adjusted per pupil funding, to even the playing field by guaranteeing equitable school funding in poor districts. But it didn’t last long: When tax revenues went down during the Great Recession, the state stopped guaranteeing such equitable funding.
Mentors who had weathered the Department of Education for years encouraged me not to despair. They told me that New York City has it better than many poorer, more rural districts because it operates as one big district with a wider socioeconomic range than most small districts. Even if state funding was inequitable, constituents, rich or poor across the city, are part of the same district. The logic: Per-student funding, though insufficient, should at least be equal.
I quickly learned that this too was not the case. When schools received insufficient state funds, local dollars had to first go to the basics: academic subject area teachers and tables. Indirect needs — tagged as arts programming and support services — took a back seat.
How, then, did some schools seem to be better off? The parent-teacher association!
PTA fundraising does not appear on state and federal books, making real comparisons impossible, but it is pivotal in the highly unequal districts of New York City. Parent-teacher associations in higher-income areas can raise millions of dollars per year for arts and enrichment programs, and even basic supplies, libraries, and support services. Schools like mine have PTAs that struggle to raise more than a thousand dollars over the course of a given year.
My job was to teach with the resources I had. After weeks of barely getting their attention for long enough to utter a phrase, a turning point: Rather than yelling I simply wrote, “I believe in you,” on the board and pointed at it. For 25 minutes students shouted “shut up” at one another, until they quieted and I had their attention. Before I could teach them anything, I needed them to believe that despite any prior school challenges, they could learn.
Encountering their hopeful faces each day, I tried new pedagogical methods as fast as I could learn them in hopes that something would catch. However haphazard my initial attempts, I strove for improved literacy, which I knew would be evaluated by state exams come the end of the school year. I believed in the idea of standardized testing to evaluate my students’ progress in literacy because of its support from civil rights activist organizations. If the tests could help identify problem trends to justify needed changes in systems, structures, and curriculum, then they would be worthwhile.
While their scores improved, I knew my students still couldn’t truly read, and I felt unsure of how much to trust state test results. Inconsistencies in test design were troubling — in my first year, the listening passage titled “Lydia’s Lasso” left many urban teachers hopelessly gesturing the rodeo motion. The next year’s passage on basketball, however, was much more universally accessible. Then-President Bush’s federal education legislation No Child Left Behind had linked increased state test scores with federal funding, and in turn states were almost certainly making tests easier to get it.
I knew enough to recognize that the tests were too easy, but I still did not know how to catch students up. I got little professional development or feedback at school. To get my official teacher’s certificate, my nights were consumed by my master’s program in English education, where I had to argue about Foucault, not practice pedagogy. By the end of my second year teaching, I found myself in need of more support, unsure where to turn, and on the precipice of quitting.
I was not alone in this predicament. The most challenging jobs in teaching are the least competitive. Those jobs begin with a task that is near insurmountable, offer the same pay as an easier school, with fewer resources and less support, and thus create a high likelihood of failure and burnout.
[Editor’s note: Deputy Press Secretary Toya Holness of the New York City Department of Education says: “All students deserve an equitable and excellent education. Recruiting and training high-quality teachers for all our neighborhoods is a top priority for the Department of Education and we provide a range of recruitment tools focused on cultivating interest in opportunities that are in harder to staff schools.”]
Often the national conversation on improving education focuses on firing bad teachers. But for segregated schools, hiring is just as pivotal and often more challenging. Segregated schools are usually forced to settle on hiring teachers who have been subtly pushed out of jobs at other schools, or hiring inexperienced teachers like myself from feeder programs like Teach for America and New York City Teaching Fellows.
While almost two-thirds of Teach for America members continue to teach after two years,fewer than 25 percent stay in their original, low-income school beyond three years. Nationally, teacher turnover is 50 percent higher in high-poverty schools. Worse still, teacher turnover has a directly negative impact on student achievement in English and math.
I knew I was not learning the craft of teaching at the speed I needed to, and that I needed access to more experienced and successful teachers to do so. I was managing to stay afloat, but was nowhere near the cutting edge of innovation I knew my students needed. After two years I decided to leave for a different teaching job where I could better hone my skills. I agonized over this decision. My students, of course, did not have the option of coming with me. In one sad goodbye note, a student wrote: “I’m gonna miss you 😦 But when you’re doin’ so good the only place to go is up.” In transferring schools, I became part of the pattern of teachers who leave segregated schools.
Switching schools showed me the power of a great curriculum
For the next three years I taught at a K-8 district public school in Chinatown: the Jacob Riis School, PS 126. Located in a cluster of housing projects, it was racially diverse, with Chinese students from the surrounding tenements, Black and Latino families from the projects, and white families from Tribeca. At first I was a deer in headlights, immediately struck by how calm, compliant, and high-performing my students were in comparison to students at my former school.
The school developed a competitive sports program and piloted Learning Cultures, the progressive curriculum we now use at my new school. These initiatives, along with the promise of an honors program, enticed wealthier families and created an unlikely melting pot. This mirrored a trend across the city, known as the choice movement, in which more and more families choose to send their children to schools outside of their local zip codes. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported policies for the expansion of such choice.
I knew the color of my new students’ skin or the wealth of their families could not be the sole cause of their good behavior. The reasons were more complex. Students whose families had chosen PS 126 for middle school had attended elementary schools with ample funding, giving them access to teachers who had better resources and working conditions, which meant the teachers were happier, stayed longer, developed better curricula, and became more qualified. My new students were not simply whiter and wealthier; they had more often been engaged in meaningful learning.
This strong foundation meant my students were able to approach assignments with remarkable creativity and enthusiasm. In my writing class, a sixth-grader wrote a beautiful story about his ideal fantasy world. Not only did Jake meet state standards by explaining technical aspects of his world in great detail, he also appointed classmates as gods of his universe and included statistics from a poll he took of his peers asking who would want to visit. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought of approaching the assignment this way, but it emerged from a community of students trying to imagine growing up together. To my delight, other students began creating their own realms and worlds. Together they could imagine a universe they wanted to live in. Lines from other students’ “worlds” included:
“Starting with plants and animals, everyone’s potential is displayed.”
“It rains simply seventy-degree rain, over only oceans and riverbeds so everyone can bathe.”
“A child chemist who lives on a nearby sun invented a serum to bring things back to life. This does not mean anyone starts nuclear war, but whatever gets destroyed you can return like new.”
This was not a Hollywood movie. This was a heterogeneous group of students in a well-funded school, with qualified teachers receiving professional development, imagining their futures.
As data from the curriculum began to show success, educators and administrators from across the country came to see Learning Cultures in action. Some swooned in delight, excited to take the practices back to their schools and classrooms. Others asked questions: Was this working for both the students who came in performing at high levels and those who came in needing remediation? To this question we could boast that our students who came in at the top third of their class outpaced the growth of their peers nationally, as did the students who entered in the lowest third.
I also remember the skeptical visitors who said things along the lines of, “It must be nice working here,” or, “If my students were like this, I’m sure this would be great too.” Like what? I wanted to retort defensively.
Working at PS 126 was so wonderful that at times it felt as if I had solved the problems of public education. Yet worries crept in. I found myself wondering: If I returned to my Teaching Fellows school armed with these new pedagogical tools, would I have greater success? I didn’t like admitting it to myself, but on some level I knew that simply changing the pedagogy would not fix everything.
With every additional day at PS 126, the dissonance grew. I felt both more fulfilled by my current teaching assignment and more concerned with the high percentage of at-risk students who needed access to experiences like this beyond the school’s walls.
The challenge began to take form in my mind. Research indicates that students need time to collaborate on complex challenges to prepare them for the 21st-century economy. Intensely segregated schools face a two-pronged challenge in attempting this. First, their students have weaker skills and knowledge. Second, their teachers are less prepared to teach and less satisfied in their jobs.
Every day I prepared for this challenge, hoping I’d be up to it when the time came.
How our new school went from dream to reality
As PS 126 test scores improved, visitors — including the Urban Assembly, a network of district public schools working to support poor students — came to see classrooms in action. When they expressed interest in proposing a new school around Learning Cultures, I immediately joined the planning team.
I wanted to return to challenges I’d faced in my first teaching assignment, challenges that still faced schools citywide.
On Monday nights, over several months, our new school planning team reported to the Office of New Schools. We were presented a challenge and given a set amount of time to come up with a mock plan and present back to a mock staff, who then evaluated our solutions, collaboration, and communications. Each week, some teams got voted off the island. The magnitude of the task before us first hit me during what I like to call the “New School” Survivor. The challenge I best remember gave us 20 minutes to plan for a rare but highly important situation: having just learned a gunman was on the third floor of the building.
[Editor’s Note: The Office of New Schools does not oversee school safety. The office of safety and youth development generates safety plans for each school and works with the NYPD in certain cases. While the DOE did not rule out the possibility of such an assignment taking place in the Office of New Schools, it was deemed uncharacteristic.]
We survived, and the Department of Education quietly informed us of our school’s location on the border of Clinton Hill and Bedford Stuyvesant the summer before it opened. These historically black neighborhoods, with brownstone-lined blocks, were undergoing rapid gentrification. From political backchannels, I also knew the Department of Education had all but officially decided that our school would phase in as the middle school on the second floor phased out. The elementary school on the first floor would remain intact. When we had a sixth grade, the middle school in this same building would be reduced to having only a seventh and eighth; when we had a sixth and seventh they would only have an eighth, and so on.
Parents from the old middle school, unaware of the likelihood of the decision, argued in vain at a hearing to keep their current community school open. My colleagues and I were the only white people who attended this deceptive ritual of a school closing hearing in the auditorium of what would come to be our school. It was presented to community members as an opportunity to support or protest the closing of the school; members did not know the decision had already been effectively made by the powers that be.
[Editor’s note: The New York City Department of Education has confirmed the basic facts of the phaseout, but says that the hearing in question was not deceptive. Rather, the Department of Education says such hearings are designed to engage parents and other community members as well as solicit their feedback. The Department says the decision to replace the old school with Unison was not finalized until after this meeting.]
I watched the hearing in horror. As family after family got up to speak out in protest, I watched boys from the failing school squirm in discomfort, trying to seem tough. The girls tried to laugh it off. Would we be able to do any better for those students’ younger siblings, or had our new school just become a part of the problem? Were we just going to be another set of gentrifiers? Department of Education representatives blared negative statistics over the microphone.
The representatives didn’t mention this: that the district had 14 public middle schools, 12 of which now had admissions tests. This school received students who were rejected from the other 12 schools or whose families failed to partake in the application process. Essentially, “choice” led to a highly disproportionate number of at-risk students at this school. It was one of the two remaining middle schools to receive failure ratings.
Over the spring we had the task of filling the seats for our first class. According to Mayor Bloomberg, school choice would create a virtuous circle of competition that could help us get a diverse set of students.
“Tens of thousands of students – across all grade levels, throughout five boroughs, including both our most accomplished students and those who have struggled – are thriving today in schools that didn’t exist in 2002,” Bloomberg said in 2009. “These new schools give families more choices and create competition that makes all schools better.”
But as I see it, what the city described as competition turned into a segregation filter: Choice was only an option for those with the time, literacy, and determination to navigate a complex and nonstandardized admissions system. These are major hurdles for the most vulnerable families. The burden of their failure to navigate such a system hurt no one more than their children, who no rational person would argue should be able to manipulate this complexity at the age of 11.
People who work with low-income communities make a distinction between “organized” and “disorganized” families. Predominantly poor black and Latino families who do not advocate for their children to attend a particular school, but rather passively receive an assignment from the city that designates their kids to a highly segregated school, are considered “disorganized.”
“Organized” families, on the other hand, move mountains to have their children attend schools in districts with great PTAs. “Organized” families can pay rent or buy property in the most desirable zip codes so that their children can attend the highest-performing public schools with the most qualified teaching staff. (Public housing is minimal in high-performing zip codes.) Organized families know how to navigate charter school lotteries.
Worse yet, students whose families lacked privilege now faced schools’ “fear of failure” filter. Schools that once played the support system for students whose families struggled felt pressure to reject their applications, since schools where students didn’t show achievement and growth on state exams risked closure.
School choice advocates often argue that making growth a factor should make all schools want to accept needier students, as they have the most room to grow. But for these students, growth takes time and special care – which requires more teacher attention per student, which requires more funding. In District 13 (Unison’s School’s district), 25 of the 27 publicly funded schools (including charter schools) require participation in an application process.
We felt it was wrong to filter out the neediest children, but we needed to attract higher-performing students as well. So we traveled from one PTA meeting to the next, showing videos of our curriculum, promising that we would bring great academic growth and achievement. We visited the homes of many incoming sixth-graders as assigned to us on the initial list. We worked tooth and nail for parents to choose Unison.
Come fall, only 30 students from our initial roster appeared, 30 did not, and a different 50 students did, through what’s called “over the counter” entry. This is a euphemism for students whose families did not participate at the appropriate times in the application process, or were unsatisfied with their initial assignment.
After our first-day enthusiasm, the challenge before us became clear. When surveyed, most first-year Unison students had rarely worked in groups before – a setback for our collaborative curriculum. They had spent the majority of their elementary careers in rows completing worksheets every 10 minutes to prepare them for state exams, a strategy that initially helped them pass. Once tests got harder, they failed – even though many of them had done everything their teachers had asked of them. At best, they arrived at Unison with limited trust in the school system; at worst, they arrived angry.
In a writing class in September of our first year, a student wrote:
Living in the streets of Bed-Stuy scares the heart of a young 11 year old girl. She wakes up every night to either a gunshot, a cry for help, or to stupid people just doing stupid things. She wonders how she can get out of such a place she thinks she can’t survive. This girl has a voice but she feels as if no one is listening. Every time she has the chance to speak up she gets shut out by all of the world’s greatest demons. When she puts her trust, love, and life in someone’s hands she always gets let down. The fear in her eyes are completely noticeable but it’s as if no one ever wants to see. […] The young girl looks up in distress with her eyes full of tears. Finally, she falls into the deep river drowning her life away. She falls slowly to the bottom as a heavy anchor. Her eyes are wide open still seeing the world through shattered glass. She dies slowly saying good-bye to the world, through the eyes of a child.
Brilliant though the children were, writing like this carried warning signs that could make our progressive curriculum fail. We instituted breakfast, partnered with Citizen Schools to extend the school day to 6 pm, and tried to make our environment a safe haven for our beloved students from broken homes or no home at all.
Still, disputes crept close and sometimes entered the building. Some days fights broke out before school even started over seemingly silly social media disputes. Or a new foster home placement had gang-affiliated siblings and felt compelled to turn to his/her families for support.
To this combustible mix, we soon received our first wave of charter school runoff students. Many mornings, children accompanied by their parents would arrive at the main office — they’d been asked to leave the charter school they attended from the beginning of the school year. Such students did not seem to represent a random sample. More often than not, these students had special needs. Only 20 percent of special education students at New York City charter schools stay in their schools for three years, more than double the average attrition rate for special education students in district schools.
Unison receives students who leave charter schools twice per year. The first handful arrives just after Halloween. They typically display significant behavioral challenges and take a lot of resources to successfully integrate. If, in their first week, these students land in an argument instead of a fistfight, I consider it a win. While I cannot prove causation, the timing correlates with October 31, the date by which schools receive per-student funding for the year. Though these students become ours shortly after Halloween, we do not receive funding associated with them. Instead, the school from which they came does. Many of the schools they came from used a “no excuses” approach to behavior, popular with successful charters. Students whose behavior did not change would disrupt the charter school environment. In traditional public schools like ours, counseling students out is not an option.
We meet our second wave of charter school students in April, roughly a week before the state exams. These students do not have behavioral challenges but perform poorly on tests. Perhaps they did badly on a preparation tests and were then asked to leave. I have found no city data on these dismissals by charter schools.
This phenomenon is not Unison-specific, as the number of charter schools expanded significantly statewide. Following the 2009 recession, to qualify for Race to the Topand receive significant federal dollars, New York state agreed to lift the charter cap from 200 schools to 460. Using lotteries as a filter, charter schools inherently attract more privileged families regardless of whether counseling-out practices take place in their schools.
The question of whether charter schools are more effective than district public schools remains unanswered. At best, Unison and other public schools could learn from innovations that charter schools pilot. But the major innovations (especially in discipline and expectations policies) I can see target a different demographic. I believe that the continued practice of hyping the very best charter school test results has contributed to fearmongered test preparation becoming the prescription for district public schools, not innovation. Combined with counseling-out practices, I believe the expansion of charter schools has fostered a two-tier system hurting the most vulnerable students.
After one year, Unison’s founding principal resigned, and a first-year principal took her place. While the new principal worked valiantly alongside many dedicated new teachers to shift student achievement, it became an all-too-public joke that for our logo we used Sisyphus, onto whom the boulder rolled down and crushed.
In our second year, 2013, federal pressure finally led to the realignment of state exams to the national Common Core state learning standards. Increasing standards benefits students all across the nation, but New York state made a calamitous mistake: Schools were not provided curriculum materials about the new standards they would be tested on first.
However painful that was for us as teachers to scramble and guess how to best prepare students, it was more painful for the students. Multiple Unison students vomited during testing, and many more students succumbed to tears, fearing they would have to repeat a grade for failing a test their teachers were not prepared for.
And on the basis of these same test scores, the education department closed schools, like it had closed Unison’s own precursor. The state couldn’t leave back two-thirds of all students, so it chose to send the lowest 10 percent to summer school instead. In New York state, passing rates fell roughly from two-thirds of students across the city to one-third. Then-State Education Commissioner and future Acting Secretary of Education John King explained the change in scores in this way to the public: “These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college- and career-readiness in the 21st century.” That line did not go over well with my scores of students failing for the first time.
Wealthier areas of New York state started sitting out of high-stakes testing due to parent conscientious objection. The rate is now 20 percent statewide, but not for my kids. Their parents do not know to attempt this strategy, and we do not encourage it: I am loath to jeopardize my students’ already limited ability to get into high performing high schools.
As our school grew by one grade level each year, and hired a teaching staff for the additional grade, whom could we attract but new teachers? It’s a hard sell to convince teachers to take on the challenge of working with students who begin multiple grade levels behind in reading and who bring the challenges of poverty with them to school. I found myself hiring bright-eyed teachers whom I recognized immediately as the ill-prepared Teaching Fellow getting ushered too quickly into complex brain surgery. Having attended graduate schools steeped in the culture of No Child Left Behind, they came in also prepared with their worksheets and militaristic pedagogy aimed at preventing the hemorrhagic state test scores, nowhere close to teaching students how to learn and collaborate.
What does this mean for the future of integration?
Three years in, our incredible students and teachers showed they could succeed in spite of systemic failures. Our inaugural class went from reading at an average second-grade level in sixth grade to an eighth-grade level by eighth grade, according to a nationally normed reading test. But these statistics do not tell the full story. Many students made significant gains, while others made little growth at all. Not every student grew how he or she could.
The fact that so many did illuminates the capacity of these children and how much potential each would bring to our world if we created a more level playing field. Current school segregation patterns point to wealthy white students who initially receive middling scores ending up far better in life than the top 10 percent of poor black students. That outcome, of course, does not remotely reflect the ability I have witnessed over and over again in needy, homeless, or previously illiterate students whose short lives have already been disrupted in multiple ways.
Segregation is not only a moral issue; it is also an economic one, because our segregated schools fail to prepare students for the new economy.
Last summer, I received emails asking me to sign a petition to convince the District 13 Community Education Council to open a new middle school in District 13. The parents argued the district needed “more middle school seats.”
Unison is a middle school in District 13. Unison is under-enrolled. We have plenty of seats available. These parents are not advocating for new seats. They are using politically correct language to advocate for wealthy white seats while attempting to not sound racist.
That said, peers and parents have continually advised me that Unison should become more selective, for the sake of the majority of students who aren’t “disruptive.” We could create an admissions test, and pass off those who will most significantly hinder our likelihood of success to another school. Fear lies behind these suggestions. Not just parents’ well-documented fear of racial integration, but a broader fear of a truly equal public system that gives privileged families fewer chances to separate their children from the poor. The neediest, most challenging students are filtered out to pockets of desperation. Few people would openly choose this, but I believe this is where the choice movement has left us.
At Unison, the staffers have dedicated themselves to giving these most vulnerable students a chance. But available data is clear that integration could do a much better job.
Neighborhood school districts can effect change too — some schools near Unison are incorporating integration as part of their founding charters. I plan to work with District 13 on similar plans as the neighborhood gentrifies. Every day on my walk to work I pass white neighborhood residents placing their children on school buses to take them out of the neighborhood.
From a wider vantage, policymakers must face the potential power of integration. State leaders need to celebrate diversity and support collaboration between Departments of Housing, Justice, Education, and Urban Development. On the national level, let us not forget Barack Obama’s first campaign, during which he gave what might be our generation’s defining speech on race:
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Now it’s 60 years after Brown vs. Board, and New York City is just dipping its toes into the possibility of reform. My school represents the ongoing, cavernous gap.
Focusing on only one lever — be it charter schools, pedagogy, teacher training, testing — absent integration is insufficient. Alone, they are politically expedient (and often ineffective) ways to “do something” while we avert our eyes, again, from America’s lasting racial wounds as we continue to pass those wounds down to our children.
At Unison, we will continue to try to recruit our way to integration. But the first step is always the hardest. Last year during recruiting time, a young family came through our doors to see what we’ve built and hear our pitch. The test scores are improving. The curriculum is deep and innovative — not the drill-and-kill stuff you expect near the projects. When the young, white, pigtailed fourth-grader walked into a classroom with her parents, one of our students couldn’t keep it in: “I’ve never seen somebody that looks like that before.”
Amy Simone Piller is a co-founder of the Urban Assembly Unison School, where she is currently the assistant principal. She has been teaching English and special education for the past nine years.
1. If it weren’t for a black man, your home would probably be super dusty because you wouldn’t have a dust pan.
Lloyd P. Ray invented the tool that makes it so much easier to dispose of trash. He improved the earlier model by making it able to stand.
2. And you wouldn’t have anything to iron your wrinkly clothes on if it weren’t for the black woman who invented the ironing board.
Sarah Boone patented this universal household item.
4. Your floors would be sticky and icky if it weren’t for the guy who created the mop.
Thomas W. Stewart improved upon the mop originally patented by Jacob Howe.
5. How terrible would it be to not have a place to keep your leftovers from going bad? Good thing someone made the refrigerator.
John Standard is the guy to thank for this since he improved the original version.
6. Imagine how terrifying it’d be to take an elevator without doors? Good thing someone made automatic elevator doors a thing.
Alexander Miles is responsible for that.
7. And you probably already knew a black man created one of the first traffic lights, right?
Garrett Morgan did it.
8. That same man also invented the gas mask.
10. Good thing a black man gifted the world with potato chips.
George Crum is said to be responsible for creating everyone’s favorite snack.
11. Imagine how unkempt your lawn would look without a sprinkler.
Joseph H. Smith was the mastermind who updated this invention.
12. Oh, and a black man created the modern lawn mower, too.
John Burr made one of the first with a rotary blade.
13. The first home security system was patented by a black woman.
You can sleep well at night knowing Marie Van Brittan Brown is responsible for making the predecessor to the modern-day home security system.
14. The black woman who created the gas heating furnace changed the way people warm their homes.
Alice Parker is the reason we can keep toasty during the winter months.
15. A PB&J just wouldn’t be the same without the peanut butter. Yep, a black man is responsible for this deliciousness.
You’ve definitely heard of George Washington Carver, right? Of course you have.
16. Drying clothes on a line is fun if you’ve got the time. Props to the hero who created the clothes dryer.
George T. Sampson received the first patent for the mechanical clothes dryer.
18. People who can’t drive a stick shift are definitely happy someone created the automatic gearshift.
Richard Spikes did that.
19. Our hearts are blessed because of the guy who made the pacemaker.
Otis Boykin is a true hero.
20. And finally, if black people didn’t exist, you probably wouldn’t have been introduced to the beauty of ice cream scoops.
You can thank Alfred L. Cralle for that.