TeachLab with Justin Reich

Neema Avashia

Episode Summary

Neema Avashia, a Civics teacher in the Boston Public Schools, joins Justin Reich to discuss the power of bringing real-world challenges into the classroom. We hear how Neema and her students rallied the community to challenge the closing of their school, McCormack Middle in Dorchester, and won. Neema speaks to the importance of empowering students to express themselves, and shares some of her best classroom moves.

Episode Notes

Neema Avashia, a Civics teacher in the Boston Public Schools, joins Justin Reich to discuss the power of bringing real-world challenges into the classroom. We hear how Neema and her students rallied the community to challenge the closing of their school, McCormack Middle in Dorchester, and won. Neema speaks to the importance of empowering students to express themselves, and shares some of her best classroom moves.


About Our Guest: Neema Avashia

Neema Avashia has been a Civics teacher in the Boston Public Schools, since 2003, and was recognized as city wide Educator of the Year in 2013. A graduate from Carnegie Mellon in 2001, Avashia has written and performed for The Moth Story Slam, and has become a powerful voice on WBUR’s Cognoscenti, where she has published work about the urgent issues of our time, including, “My Parents May Be Acceptable Immigrants, But None of Us Is Safe” which looks at a violent crime against an immigrant in the midwest, and “Newton North High School: Talking To Students When A Symbol Of Racial Hatred Is Unfurled Close To Home” She has also published work in The Aerogram, and in Eat, Darling, Eat. When not working on essays about inequity in education and racism, Avashia writes about the complexity of growing up Indian in West Virginia.


Additional Resources for Teachers and other Listeners

https://www.neemaavashia.com/my-writing - Check out Neema’s published writing

https://www.dotnews.com/2019/mccormack-leadership-academy-would-merge-under-bps-plan - The latest news on the McCormack Middle School





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Episode Transcription

Justin Reich:                 As teachers, we often talk about the need to prepare our students for the real world, but what happens when the real world comes right into our school? Can we use that experience to deepen and enhance what our kids are learning? If you're Neema Avashia, the answer is yes. Neema has been teaching civics to students in the Boston Public Schools for more than 15 years and she's always been a huge proponent of making what she teaches her students directly relevant to their lives. In 2018, it was announced that the school where she was teaching the John W. McCormick Middle School was going to be shutdown.

Justin Reich:                 Neema helped kick off a public campaign to save the school, and her students launched their own parallel effort. The process had a profound impact on everyone involved.

Neema Avashia:            It took a lot of the hierarchy out of the classroom in a really awesome way. Because none of us knew what we were doing, but we needed people to organize. And so if young people were like, I want to come to meet with the city counselor, I'm like, yeah, you're coming. I want to go lobby at city hall. Okay. We're going.

Justin Reich:                 From the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, this is Teach Lab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich. Today, Neema Avashia. Neema is an incredible middle school teacher. I've had the chance to visit her classroom and I was struck by the combination of care and rigor, structure and strategic thinking that she demonstrates in her teaching. Neema is an opinion writer and she's a community activist and she's active on social media. That's where we began our conversation.

Justin Reich:                 Neema, we were researching some of your recent work and we saw on Twitter you describe yourself as a district 12 teacher and that really caught our eye. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what it means to you to be a district 12 teacher?

Neema Avashia:            Sure. I think probably to explain, I need to start by saying I grew up in Southern West Virginia, which I think coal country was the basis of district 12 in The Hunger Games. And I watched the place where I grew up go from a pretty thriving community, had a strong chemical industry, coal was strong in the '80s to now being a very, very struggling place. There isn't a major metropolitan area in West Virginia anymore. The population has been gutted so much. And so my school in Boston, the McCormick, has experienced something similar.

Neema Avashia:            When I first started teaching there in 2003, there were more than 800 students at the school. And we are under 400 at this point. And that's because of a series of issues. There were a bunch of policy changes made in the district to create K to eight without thinking about the impact that creating more K to eights would have on freestanding middle schools.

Justin Reich:                 So by taking K to five schools and turning him into K to eight schools, it meant there weren't as many kids to move in to the schools that remained as six through eight middle schools.

Neema Avashia:            Exactly. And then sort of simultaneously charter schools were starting to expand in the city and middle school is the point at which a lot of charter schools started to come in and so they're also pulling student population. And then you're seeing sort of a decrease in funding happen at the same time. And so my school should have the concentration of need grew higher and higher. Our special ed population grew higher and higher. Our students who are English language learners, that population was growing.

Neema Avashia:            Our general ed population was shrinking and the resources being allocated for supporting those students were shrinking also. And so it really did feel like this parallel experience. West Virginia and Boston are not the same in a lot of ways, but the McCormick and West Virginia feel to me very similar and feel to me like that district 12 where it's like people are working their hardest and doing the best that they can with the resources that they have, but the resources aren't there to do the work the way it needs to be done.

Justin Reich:                 I suppose the other thing district 12 like is that the districts knew of these closer, wealthier districts. They had representatives there. So the Boston with this incredibly thriving economy in some parts of the city, while your neighborhood and school is getting gutted in a different sort of way.

Neema Avashia:            That's right. And even, it's kind of interesting. The McCormick shares a fence with BC High and so there's even a ...

Justin Reich:                 Boston College High School, which is a ...

Neema Avashia:            Boston College High School, which is a private high school. Tuition is in the multiple thousands of dollars a year. They have a beautiful track, beautiful athletic facilities, air conditioned building, every kid has an iPad. So my kids get off the train every day at the same time the BC High kids get off the train and you can kind of see the differences there. It's not like you have to go to another district. It's right next door.

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. One kid is walking into district 12 and another kid is walking into ...

Neema Avashia:            The Capitol.

Justin Reich:                 Into the Capitol.

Neema Avashia:            Yeah.

Justin Reich:                 That's right. So you have this incredibly diverse set of students with different kinds of needs inside your classroom. Over the past 15 years, what have you found are sort of the most important strategies to employ within your teaching to try to help each of those kids get what they need every year?

Neema Avashia:            I teach civics, so I feel lucky because one of the most important things I think is to find ways to make what you're teaching as close and as relevant to kids as possible. So the more they feel like it matters to their life, the more they're going to be with you. And civics is such a blessing that way. I mean, I guess you could teach it in a really dry, boring way where you're like, here are the branches of government.

Justin Reich:                 I think there are many who do.

Neema Avashia:            I think there are. I think they're missing a really powerful opportunity because I feel like I get to go into class every day and literally take what's happening in the news and what's happening in the world and be like, cool, this is happening. We're going to talk about it here and I'm going to put texts in front of you that get you to engage with it and we're going to have discussions around it. But like you're always going to feel like what happens in this room matters. And that's very, very high on my list of things that make an impact.

Neema Avashia:            If kids feel like what they're learning is meaningful and if they walk out of your class still talking about what they learned in your class, that's going to go a long way.

Justin Reich:                 So these are complex issues and you've got kids with different reading levels, different levels of preparation coming into class. Like what are some of your strategies to find entry points for these complex issues for all the different kids that you have in the classroom?

Neema Avashia:            So certainly I try to be really strategic about having multiple entry points in a class period, really trying to use visuals, really trying to use different kinds of texts, using podcasts, using different things like that. Something I've started to experiment with more in my teaching over the past year is giving kids a lot more choice. So I'm going to pick a frame. So the frame for the day may be the first amendment, but then I'm going to choose like four different pathways that you could take to learn about that topic.

Neema Avashia:            And so again, you can drive using your interests or you can drive by being like, okay, this is a text that feels most manageable to me in this context where I really want to start with audio. So I'm going to start there. I've been using HyperDocs more, which are a way that kind of kids can guide their own learning. So it's like a Google doc that has a bunch of hyperlinks and kind of guides kids through like first go here, then go here. But if you need to stay on step one and watch a video a second time, you can do that.

Neema Avashia:            And so really trying to create more avenues for kids to have choice around what they're reading or what they're seeing and control over the process, I think, has been a huge selling point for kids around like not only am I going to learn important things in here, but I'm going be able to learn them in a way that works for me.

Justin Reich:                 And then how do you ... What have you learned over the last, if you've been working on that for a few years, more choice, what have you learned about the mechanics of implementing that? Like how do you make sure that kids are not choosing things that aren't challenging enough for them or aren't taking that freedom and using it to click away from what they're supposed to be doing and reading and watching other things or things like that?

Neema Avashia:            So they're middle school students, which means all of those things are going to happen, but it's my job as a teacher to give you feedback when those things aren't going the way they're supposed to go. So sometimes I'll do like a leveled assignment where it's like, okay, everyone needs to do A, if you finish A, then you're going to go to B. If you finish B, you're going to go to C. And if I see a kid burned through A and then be like, I'm cool, I would be like, no, no, no. Like maybe you need to just straight start with B.

Neema Avashia:            That's my job. My job is to work with kids and have dialogue with them around like I'm giving you choices. I have to help you know how to make those choices well. Because I think that is very much a challenge with personalization is you can end up in a situation where a kid doesn't do what they need to do or doesn't push themselves, and so it doesn't mean the teacher is out of it. It means that the teacher's role shifts. I'm not the deliverer of content in the same way anymore, but I'm really responsible for managing and supporting kids in their learning of that content.

Justin Reich:                 Are there other things like making these choices available that you found really effective for serving this sort of more diverse group that you've been encountering people at different levels? Like what other things would people see in your classroom that maybe have evolved over the last few years that you feel like you're really glad that you've been working on?

Neema Avashia:            I mean, I think I've been spending a lot of time really thinking about my most resistant learners and like what are the blocks for them and how do I then design options that really are specifically for them and naming that for them. So I had a kid this year named Jeremiah who had a lot of anxiety around putting work on paper. He's brilliant, like watches every video he can possibly watch, knows everything about the relationship between the United States and Russia. Like just in class conversations, you're like, this kid has come in with a lot of knowledge.

Neema Avashia:            But he had transferred to our school from a charter school where he had really struggled and he had a lot of anxiety around like performance. And so getting him to do like a written task could be really hard. And so I sort of like talked with him about what's the Jeremiah option going to be, what is the way that I can get you to read texts and show that you've understood the texts that feels comfortable to you? And so we had that conversation and then we experimented with it and we started calling it the Jeremiah option and he loved it because it was for him.

Neema Avashia:            So for whatever 75 or 80% of kids having one thing that kids are doing, like they'll do it. But how do you really hone in on the 20 to 25% of kids where that doesn't work and use conversations with them and interaction with them to drive, like opening up the experiences that kids can have?

Justin Reich:                 Did Jeremiah make some progress towards writing over the year?

Neema Avashia:            He did make a ton of progress. It was pretty cool. His last DBQ, we do these ...

Justin Reich:                 Document based questions.

Neema Avashia:            ... Document based questions, right. So our last one was on the issue of solitary confinement and he did it and he wrote the whole thing. And he did an amazing job and that's a kid who in September literally just stared at the screen for the eight days that we were working on this assignment. So yeah, that sort of not feeling like I have to think about a hundred different choices, but saying, okay, who are the kids for whom choice is most pressing, agency is most pressing and who are not responding to the traditional way?

Neema Avashia:            How do I focus on those students and use their experiences to drive the shifts?

Justin Reich:                 As you think about how you talk to kids, it sounds like talking to kids about choice, talking to kids about their particular needs, talking to kids about, okay, we've all got differences, we've all got strengths and weaknesses, let's figure out what's going to work for you. Are there other ways that you've thought about just how you use language, how you use voice, how you talk to kids, how you build relationships with them over the past few years that you feel like you've been working on or growing with?

Neema Avashia:            So there's some interesting things in it. I think I try to spend some time in the beginning of the year definitely sharing about my identity. I think that's really important. If kids are going to feel like they can bring their whole selves to class, they kind of need to have a sense that I'm also bringing my whole self to class. And so sharing in the beginning especially about like my experiences growing up, the reasons why I do the work I do, sharing the struggles that I have as a learner, which I certainly have, sort of making sure that kids know like I'm bringing my full self into this space.

Neema Avashia:            That's been really important. And then I think we talk about hard things in civics a lot. We start the first day of school talking about the Charlottesville white supremacy protests that happened. That's like the do now on the first day of school is to look at an image and sort of be like what's going on here? And how does this image sort of connect to the history of our country and where we are now? And so I think really making your classroom a space where like kids know like we're going to talk about really hard things and it's okay to talk about really hard things.

Neema Avashia:            And it's okay to have big feelings just is really important to sort of making that space for kids know we can do this in class, we can also do this after class, but this is a space where I can talk about the things that are really important and not be scared of someone's reaction and not be scared that this isn't the right thing to say here.

Justin Reich:                 When you have those moments in class where things do get really fraught or someone feels like someone else or they did say the wrong thing, did say an offensive or an inappropriate thing, what are some of your go to strategies for managing those kinds of conflicts or fraught moments or guiding people through? If you're bringing them into these really challenging spaces and sometimes things bubble over, what happens in those moments?

Neema Avashia:            I mean, I think one thing that's kind of interesting that's different potentially is the McCormick is fairly homogenous in some ways. So I'm working with a group of kids who are majority students of color, majority working class and poor students, majority either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants. So those things happen less just because that's how segregated our society is and I think that probably is happening in the opposite environment also that we're not actually often in a position to have.

Neema Avashia:            I wish we were having those conversations more, but there's a lot of agreement more than I wish there was. Like sometimes I feel like I'm the one being like, well I'm going to take the opposite side on this issue because someone needs to. But I think sometimes there is a need to sort of like set parameters and be like, okay, this thing that was just said was really hurtful and so we need to unpack that and talk about it. Those things happen and it's really about in the moment making sure you address it, but then also making sure that there's an opportunity for the young people to restore afterwards.

Neema Avashia:            So like we're all learning, we're going to make mistakes, we're going to step on each other a little bit. And that's okay. We had to find a way to come back from that. And so we do a lot of work around restorative practices at the McCormick. So the idea isn't that you did this horrible thing and now we punish you and push you away. It's all right, you made a mistake. Let's talk about the impact and let's think about how we move forward from there.

Justin Reich:                 What do some of the sort of ... I mean I imagine restorative practices probably involve at various points when there's big transgressions bringing in principals or assistant principals or other kinds of things. What's the kind of go to restorative practice for like day to day transgressions in the classroom? What's like the first line of work look like there?

Neema Avashia:            I think it's a restorative conversation, which is going to happen at lunch or going to happen right after class. That's the check in about all right, here's what happened and here's what we're going to do next.

Justin Reich:                 And you sort of give each party a chance to talk with each other or...

Neema Avashia:            Well, I would say I would talk with them first and kind of check in about how they were feeling and what they wanted to be the next step. Those things are important. Again, like what do kids want or are they like, I'm going to let this go or do they want to really check in with each other. But having the conversation with each kid first and then figuring out a way for them to have a conversation with each other.

Justin Reich:                 So a huge thing that shaped the life of the McCormick this year was that the Boston Public Schools decided for a period of time to close the McCormick. So earlier this year, between the mayor and the interim superintendent, they said we need to close some schools for a variety of reasons that they had and the McCormick was one of the first ones that they picked or the first one that they picked. What was the sort of initial reaction of the school community to that and can you tell us like a little bit about the role that you played in helping people rethink that decision?

Neema Avashia:            Yeah. So I think our initial reaction was pretty frustrated. We had been as a school community sort of like planning for our future for the past three years. Like we knew no one has made a secret of the fact that middle schools are sort of unsustainable in their current conception because of all these unthought out decisions along the way. We have reached a point where there are only like five or six free standing middle schools in the city. We knew that that wasn't going to keep going and so we had been engaging in this process of like planning for the future of our school.

Neema Avashia:            Like what would it look like to become a seven to 12 or a six to 12? What would it look like to merge with a high school? Those were all conversations we were having. We had central office folks in those conversations with us. There was then a leadership change and then it seemed like in that leadership change, all of that institutional knowledge did not get passed on. And so if they had said the McCormick is closing and the building is going to get knocked down and we're going to put an apartment complex in its place, that would have been horrible and another way.

Neema Avashia:            But this was weird because they were saying, well you all are gone, but we're going to renovate the building and then we're going to put an existing high school in there and they're going to add a middle school to it. And so the question was like, wait a minute. If we were already doing that work, like why wouldn't you let us be the community that continues to do that work? What's the rationale behind that? And there wasn't one. And that was really difficult because it felt like the people making the decision, like when they came to make the announcement, most of the people who were in that room I'd never seen before.

Justin Reich:                 From the central office?

Neema Avashia:            Yeah. I'd never seen them. They'd never set foot in our building. They'd never had a conversation with our school community. Like it was really clear that they didn't know us. And so that was just very difficult because had they known us, they would have known, well this is a community that has been trying to figure out their future. So let's figure out how to engage them in this shift instead of just pushing them away.

Justin Reich:                 And you had all kind of a role as a public advocate. I think you've started your Twitter account during that period of time. There's an amazing scholar at the University of Chicago, Eve Ewing, who wrote a book called Ghosts in the Schoolyard about school closing and in Chicago. You sent annotated copies of that book to everybody on the school committee. And we'll put links on the website associated with the podcast, a bunch of the things that you've written and things like that because there's like a whole nother conversation we could have about sort of like waging policy battles in the face of school closures.

Justin Reich:                 But I'm really interested, how did this event change teaching and learning in your civics classroom? You must've found ways. It must've been impossible not to sort of bring these conversations into the teaching and learning that you were doing there. What did it look like educationally for you to be engaging kids in these conversations in civics or in other classrooms that were happening in McCormick?

Neema Avashia:            Yeah. I mean it wasn't even optional. So the way this happened was that we were told in a meeting after school that this was happening. We basically shouted the central office people out of the room at that point. Like they didn't expect the response that they got. We were like, this doesn't make any sense. And then we were given a letter that we were told we had to share with kids. So to me like that was already pretty interesting. You're going to do this to us and then you're also going to say, and you have to tell students about it.

Neema Avashia:            You have to hold their grief in this also. But as a civics teacher, I was like, well, this is an opportunity. If you're going to give me the letter, then ...

Justin Reich:                 We're going to teach the letter.

Neema Avashia:            I'm going to teach the letter. I'm going to use the letter. And so I sort of like shared the letter with kids and I was like, I want you to know I'm sharing this letter with you and this isn't going to happen. We're not going to let it happen. And so I'm going to read it to you and I'm going to give you a chance to ask questions and then we're going to think about our next steps. And so people talk a lot about, and even the new standards talk about civic action ...

Justin Reich:                 The new Massachusetts civic history standards that were just adopted by the state department of education in the last year or so.

Neema Avashia:            Yeah. They say that you need to do a civic action project that every grade level. And it was like, well you can do those in like a constructed way all you want. The way that that happens when you're in a crisis is like, I don't know that. I mean I'm going to have to like fabricate crises from now on because like the kind of learning that was happening was so different and so humbling and also so just powerful to be a part of. Because I'm a very, very planful teacher. I spend a lot of time planning.

Neema Avashia:            I spend a lot of time looking for the right resources, trying to find things that I can bring the kids. And so this idea of like, actually I don't have anything to give you, all we have is each other and we're going to have to work together to figure this out was a totally different kind of learning for me. It took a lot of the hierarchy out of the classroom in a really awesome way. Because none of us knew what we were doing. I'm not a community organizer by training. I'm a civics teacher, but we needed people to organize.

Neema Avashia:            And so if young people were like, I want to come to meet with the city counselor. I'm like, yeah, you're coming. I want to go lobby at city hall. Okay, we're going. I had one student managed to hack the BPS parent, list their event, send a survey about what was happening with the McCormick to every teacher, every parent in the city. And I got an email from a parent that was like, how did you do this? And I'm like, I didn't do that. The kid did that. And that's amazing and we're all going to get fired, but that's okay because how cool is it that this kid was like, I can hack.

Neema Avashia:            I know how to hack this and so this is what I'm going to do. Kids were, they were moving on their own trajectories in a way, and they were like looking for support or check-ins, but really they were like, I want to start a petition or I'm going to start my own Twitter feed or I'm going to make these posters. I'm going to do these things. We weren't writing their testimony. Like I feel like sometimes when young people rise in these ways, adults are very critical of them. And I think about this in the context of Parkland and how people basically like accused the young people of sort of like being manipulated by adults.

Justin Reich:                 Somebody must be behind them. How could they possibly be this courageous ...

Neema Avashia:            Exactly.

Justin Reich:                 ... This smart, this articulate?

Neema Avashia:            Right. Someone is either paying them or manipulating them in some way. And I thought that was ridiculous when the Parkland stuff happened. But I also think in the context of this, kids were just bringing theirselves. One running joke was that the McCormick has a very strong debate team and so one running joke was just like you pick the school ...

Justin Reich:                 The best debater.

Neema Avashia:            ... The middle school with the strongest debate team in the city. They don't need me. They already have those skills. They've learned them over time and they're just bringing them to the table now.

Justin Reich:                 And what did you feel like your role day to day in teaching them and supporting them? Were you editing their statements? Were you helping them? Were you pointing them to resources? Was it just sort of free frog giving them time to explore? How did you then in this non planful way you still got a 52 minute period, a 47 minute period or something like that. Like how did you structure your time in those?

Neema Avashia:            So that couldn't happen during civics class. I think that's really important to know and I think that's really important to sort of like always be saying, which is like I'm still responsible for your civics education and for content that you need to learn. So I couldn't and I wouldn't just like chuck everything out. Because while I think there's lots of important learning that happens from this, I also am responsible for making sure that you have really strong foundations that prepare you for high school in terms of content knowledge.

Neema Avashia:            And so the first day we did the thing in class where I basically was like, I'm not going to have a lesson. I'm going to let you ask your questions. And then everything that happened after that point was lunch, was after school, was at those points. Because yeah, I mean morally like even if they decided to close McCormick, like morally I'm responsible for making sure that kids got ...

Justin Reich:                 They're ready in the ninth grade.

Neema Avashia:            ... Their education. Yeah. And are ready for the ninth grade. So I was not going to throw that out.

Justin Reich:                 How much did you reshape what was happening in your regular civics classroom to give them more touch points or connections or were kids finding them themselves? Or was it a bit like, okay, we're just like getting the foundations here in civics class and then there's this other kind of community organizing that's happening in lunch and other sorts of things?

Neema Avashia:            Yeah. It was very much that. We had a student leadership group that really made this a focus of their work and they met during specialty a couple of times a week. So it really was, I think all of us felt we're professionals and we're educators and like we have to hold your education as the priority. And so we're going to do that and then we're also going to find these different entry points and spaces for you to do the organizing work that you want to do.

Justin Reich:                 Are there ways that you're thinking about teaching next year that are sort of inspired and informed by the experience this year? Like did any of the sort of less planful learning that happened along the year give you new ideas for how you might want things to evolve next year?

Neema Avashia:            I mean one thing I'm really excited about is I'm actually going to teach a school redesign class for kids. And so they're going to get the opportunity to really research like what are the different school models that are out there and like how do we want to think about those things relative to what our school will become? How do we interview families and kids and how do we engage our community in this redesign process? That to me feels really exciting.

Justin Reich:                 And really generative and positive. It's a way of entering into what is probably a pretty conflict Laden space, but also the design frame gives you something sort of generative and optimistic that people with different perspectives can lean into. Will you do that instead of civics ...

Neema Avashia:            No.

Justin Reich:                 ... Or it'll be like an elective ...

Neema Avashia:            It's an elective.

Justin Reich:                 ... That kids can choose?

Neema Avashia:            Yeah. It's an elective that kids can choose. And I think it's important because I think one thing that we really pushed on this year was this idea of like how does the district make decisions that put community at the center. And if we really believe that, which I do, I think when we're talking about equity, you can define equity all you want from outside, but what do people in the situation believe is fair and just for them. If that's not the center, then we have a problem. So if we're going to do that, then it has to start with young people.

Neema Avashia:            They have to be the ones who are visioning and identifying like what should this space be for us. And I think we as a school, that's a priority we have. And so we kind of want to put a stake in the ground and say like, this is where this should all start. It should start with kids.

Justin Reich:                 That's great. I guess it was in the last couple of years, MIT has also been thinking about sort of how it does teaching and learning really well. And we did a similar thing and we'd taught a class called designing the first year experience that me and a couple of other faculty members did where we got sophomore of engineers and seniors together to say, okay, the thing that MIT students probably complained the most about is their entry point into this. How could we do better? And maybe a starting point for that is like asking the students themselves to help us rethink, revision, redesign and things like that.

Justin Reich:                 And I wished that was a more sort of common intuition that educators across schools have. Like some of the people who best understand the challenges of making great schools are the people who live in them every day and obviously there are perspectives that 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds might not have. They probably don't understand all the features of budgeting or some other union contracts or some other kinds of things. But there's, A, they can learn all that stuff and, B, there's lots of things that they do know that they can bring to thinking about what the future of great schools look like.

Neema Avashia:            Yeah. I think that it is a real missed opportunity to not engage directly with the people who are most impacted, not just a missed opportunity but wrong. Ayanna Pressley has that saying the people closest to ...

Justin Reich:                 Ayanna Pressley, who's our Congressman, she was a city counselor for awhile and is now a Congressman here.

Neema Avashia:            She has a saying, she says the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, and that is not the paradigm. It's not the paradigm in our school system. It's not the paradigm in our governance ...

Justin Reich:                 Our city, in our government, yeah.

Neema Avashia:            ... In any way. It is not the paradigm right now. And it doesn't mean that the people in power aren't well-meaning or have good intentions. Like they could have all of those things, but the sources of their information are too far away from the people who are actually living that experience in the day to day. And because of that, their solutions don't work or they fall flat.

Justin Reich:                 In your day to day work as a teacher in the years in which people weren't threatening to close your school, like what are some of the key sort of relationship building, community understanding practices that are like part of your routine that help you get to know what's going on in the McCormick, in kids' lives, in the neighborhood around the McCormick?

Neema Avashia:            Yeah. I mean I think one important thing is I'm not from here. So when I moved here, I carried a very strong sense that I really wasn't from here. I'm a southerner and I've lived here 15 years and I'm still not from here. I don't think I'll ever be from Boston. But knowing that I'm not from here means I don't make any assumptions. I don't assume to know where kids are coming from. I don't assume to know what their neighborhoods are like. I don't assume anything. I really try to position myself as a learner all the time around what's happening for young people and their families.

Neema Avashia:            I don't presume to know, and I think that's the most important thing you can do. And I think people make that mistake sometimes. I think they think, well, I'm from here or I grew up in a similar situation and all of those things could be true. It still doesn't mean that we know. The challenges that young people are facing right now in some ways feel very distinct to me than anything I faced as a kid and that any of us faced. And so I think starting with that framework of I don't know and I need you to teach me is really, really important.

Neema Avashia:            And I think if you start there and position yourself as a learner all the time, people want to teach, like they want to share with you what they know and what their experiences are. And so I sort of done that both with my young people, but also looked to who are the people in the city who I can bring in to have conversations with young people that are also then learning opportunities for them, but also for me. So I try to do a lot of pulling in. I'm kind of constantly hustling for like who knows more about this than me, who can come and share their experiences with kids and share their knowledge with kids.

Neema Avashia:            Because I can read all I want, but I'm a secondary source and I want kids to have access to the primary sources. And that's been really powerful. Ted Landsmark has come and met with my kids several times and he's ...

Justin Reich:                 Ted Landsmark was a lawyer who is very famous for there's a photograph in Boston of someone getting attacked by a American flag. This sort of very iconic image, an African American being attacked by a white person.

Neema Avashia:            He's actually just was an architect and he was going to see hall for a meeting. His experience of being attacked led him to then be kind of one of the people who people in the city look to as someone who'd been through this experience who had thoughts about equity, thoughts about what it would mean for us to move forward. He actually was really involved in BPS for a while around some of the thinking around how we were going to zone or redistrict. But he's also just an incredible artist and thinker.

Neema Avashia:            And so when he comes to talk with kids, yes, he's talking about the experience that he had in the '70s, but he's also really talking about his work as an architect and who he is as an artist and talking to them about their art. And so I feel like that's, I try to think about as many opportunities I can to just get people in the building. Like kind of take down the walls a little bit and say no, like there's so much learning that is happening outside and if I can't get you out there then how do I bring those folks in to share with you?

Justin Reich:                 And it sounds like that community learning is both, so kids get to know the history and background and current perspectives of the place they're in, but also so that you can learn about that and continue to inform that in your work. How do you get, I guess particularly in class, I'm sure there's all kinds of ways at lunch and at other times that you're connecting with kids and learning about their backgrounds and things like that. What are some of the things that happen in your classroom that sort of surface some of the stories of where kids are coming from and how they understand their neighborhoods and things like that?

Justin Reich:                 What assignments or questions you ask or things like that that get at some of that?

Neema Avashia:            So certainly again at the beginning of the year like just like I share my identity with kids, we do a lot of work around giving kids opportunities to share their identities, sort of where they're coming from, what their background is. There's someone that work I think a lot of teachers do in the beginning of the year around community building. I think that a big thing that I've tried to do in my classes is incorporate more and more art, which seems strange in the context of the civics class maybe.

Neema Avashia:            But I actually think that using art to sort of like process and make meaning of really hard things that don't have answers is a place where kids identities really come through. So whether you're writing poetry or whether you're building a sculpture or whether you're drawing or painting, like that is a place where you're taking what you know and learn and the questions that you have and who you are as a person and putting them all together. And so making art with young people or really watching them make art, because I would be in a corner crying if my teacher asked me to do the things I do.

Neema Avashia:            But is the space where I feel like they really can bring their full selves in and where I feel like I'm able to just learn so much about them through the art that they create.

Justin Reich:                 Well I mean this conversation has just been so rich with different ideas of making art, of creating porous boundaries with communities, about getting to understand and know kids, about giving them choice. A whole range of useful things that I hope our listeners will take and think about as they think about actually teaching practices in the future. Is there anything else that we missed that seems like a really important part of your practice that you want to make sure that people knew about as they're thinking about putting equity at the center of their teaching?

Neema Avashia:            I mean, I would just say I think read everything you can and listen to everything that you can because there's also a lot of great listening to do. But that the more hungry we are as educators for like as much knowledge as we have like that we can bring into those conversations with young people, the more we're going to build their desire to learn and watch and read and the more we're willing to have to feed their minds with.

Justin Reich:                 And that, yeah. For someone who's been teaching 15 years in roughly the same classroom and the same school and to still be that hungry for learning, I mean it's really inspirational. So Neema, thank you so much for joining us today ...

Neema Avashia:            Yeah. Thank you.

Justin Reich:                 ... And we'll look forward to continuing the conversation.

Justin Reich:                 That was Neema Avashia, a middle school civics teacher in Boston. The current plan for the McCormick school is for it to relocate to a different location, for the building to be refurbished and then for the McCormick school to be merged with Community Leadership Academy in 2022.

Justin Reich:                 You've been listening to Teach Lab from the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT. I'm Justin Reich. You can learn more about Neema Avashia and her writing at our website, teachlabpodcast.com. That's teachlabpodcast.com. There you'll find lots of stuff including links to our upcoming free online course on edX called Becoming a More Equitable Educator. We hope you'll join us. You can also check out our YouTube channel Teaching Systems Lab where you'll find the full video interview from this episode and even more video content from our online courses.

Justin Reich:                 All of our work is licensed under creative commons license and we encourage you to use it and share. Next time, we'll talk with Rich Milner, a distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University's Peabody School of Education and Human Development. Professor Milner says cultural responsiveness is key to classroom management. We'll talk about that and his upcoming book, the second edition of Start Where You Are, But Don't Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today's Classrooms.

Justin Reich:                 That's next time on Teach Lab. This episode was produced by Amy Corrigan and Garrett Beazley, edited by Kate Ellis. It was recorded by Garrett Beazley and mixed by Corey Schreppel. It was filmed by Denez McAdoo. Thanks and see you next time.