Spring Vacation

Today marks just over the halfway point in my Spring Vacation, but school continues to be on my mind.  I’ve been thinking about:

  1. What will classes be like?
  2. How will students respond?
  3. What will it be like to work remotely from my colleagues and students?
  4. How will we support each other?

I’ve spent the past week trying to crowdsource tools, tips, and suggestions from other educators, DEI practitioners, and school administrators.  I’ve never listened to so many webinars before.  All of this wisdom will help me to make informed decisions about how to structure my own classes and to frame my own interactions with students and colleagues.  My science background compels me to try something, even if it doesn’t work.  My mantra is a quote from the character Red (played by Morgan Freeman) in the movie The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”  In a week’s time, I will rejoin (virtually) my colleagues as we embark on distance learning.  I am looking forward to this new experiment and to the growth and learning that will take place.

The New Normal

In late January 2020, I first heard reports of a new virus in Wuhan Province, China.  This novel coronavirus has now found its way to every continent except Antarctica.  As I write this, the pandemic is now present and spreading across the United States in addition to other countries.

My world as an educator has suddenly changed over the past few weeks.  I now know that I will finish this academic year teaching my students in a distance learning mode.  I have spent the past week collecting ideas, resources, and tools to help fellow educators and me enter this brave new world.  This week, I am spending part of my vacation learning what I can in preparation for teaching my students at the beginning of next month.

Social distancing is the new normal.  As a biology teacher, I understand all of the reasons to do it.  I also know that people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations remember the 1952 polio outbreak and the mitigation efforts before a vaccine was developed.  This is about protecting all of us, not just one or some of us.  While it may seem impossible or a sacrifice, I think of it as what each of us needs to do right now.

Let’s be present for each other.  Let’s be patient with each other.  Let’s support each other.  I look forward to being with all of you virtually and in person.

#NAISAC – Engaging with Institutional Racism

How do we acknowledge institutional racism? This morning at the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference, I learned about one school’s journey and some its practices to engage with this.

One of the things that they described was a ladder of conscious competence with four levels moving through unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. I recognize that we don’t always acknowledge the experiences from different constituencies or affinity groups to the same event. As a diversity practitioner, how can I lift up and interpret racially coded language to staff, faculty, and administrators?

A few ideas that I took from the work include the following: forming community norms that create pluralistic spaces, creating departmental language and media guidelines that take DEI into consideration, integrating joy, play, and humor into work, re-evaluating time, and living by true reality based principles. While they seem small and disparate, they begin to address institutional practices that can prevent innovation and change, ones that are inextricably linked with institutional racism.

PoCC – Retention

Last Friday, I attended a workshop on retention of faculty and staff of color.  I was first struck by the high level of interest.  The room was packed with people from various positions (staff member, teacher, mid-level administrator, senior administrator, etc.), all of whom looking for retention strategies.

One of my take-aways was the concept of equity literacy.  In my understanding, this extends equity literacy to encompass the following:

  • personal identity development
  • knowledge of historical systems of oppression
  • tools, strategies, and practice to face conflict in a diverse community

Having this language helps me to articulate necessary supports for people of color in independent schools.  It also gives me more to think about what this support might look like, including accountability strategies, restorative community practices, and long-term plans.

Another take-away was the idea of a stay interview.  Many institutions conduct exit interviews when employees leave.  Why not conduct annual interviews about why employees stay?  Also, what are ways that a school can support an employee’s growth?  This strategy seems like a relatively easy tool to support colleagues looking to advance in their careers.

A final take-away was the retention plan.  I realized just how complicated the plan can be.  Who is responsible for connecting with various groups of faculty on a regular basis?  How do we engage colleagues in the community?  How do we respond to concerns voiced by faculty and staff of color?  These and other questions will help me to continue thinking about retention.

PoCC – The Power of Data

As a person of color, I find it challenging at times to persuade others to pay attention to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Today, I was reminded that two powerful tools of persuasion with communities are storytelling and data.

I have been thinking about the narratives and stories that we tell ourselves and others. How can I share the experiences of those from marginalized and under-represented populations? How can I help others to use existing data to answer questions about a school community? I learned this morning who is already collecting the data and how the data might inform change in school communities. I was empowered to think about how I can collect and use data to support the narrative that I share within my school community. I am thankful to the opportunity to learn and to think more about the role and power of data analysis in DEI work and initiatives.

PoCC – Thoughts on the Opening

This is the ninth year that I have attended the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference (PoCC).  I come for many reasons.  It’s affirming to be among people who share many of the experiences, joys, and challenges that I have experienced during my career in independent schools.

To come to PoCC is much deeper than professional development; it is a lifeline and an act for me to prioritize me.  I was reminded of this during the Opening General Session with Dr. Joy DeGruy when she said, “I don’t need anyone’s permission to look at me.”  I needed to hear that so that I have the mindset to use this conference experience to help meet my needs now.  I look forward to immersing myself in the collective well to fill me up and to sustain me now and when I leave.

Reflections on Jury Duty

Just after New Years’ Day, I received a jury duty summons in the mail. It is only the third time that I have received one. The first time, I was unable to serve since I attended college out of state. The second time, I lived in another state. I reported and stayed until lunch when they had settled all of the cases. This third time, I was told to report for 2 days in February. The previous night, I was able to call to find out if I needed to report. I did not have to report for the first day, but I did have to report for the second day.

78 county residents reported that morning. We were assigned numbers and told to sit in that order. We completed the one-page juror questionnaire and watched the juror orientation video. Then, we were escorted into a large courtroom. After introducing himself, the presiding judge then explained that this trial would begin the following Monday (it was now Wednesday). He also announced the charges for this criminal trial:
1. first-degree murder
2. third-degree murder
3. voluntary manslaughter
4. involuntary manslaughter
5. possessing an instrument of a crime

There was an audible gasp among the jury pool as we all realized that this was a homicide trial. The judge began to ask the entire jury pool a series of questions. If it applied to us, then we were to raise our number. For those who responded to the question, they then needed to provide an explanation. If they were uncomfortable doing so in open court, then you could request a sidebar; you would then approach the judge (along with the 2 sets of attorneys) to provide your response. This questioning took a couple of hours with a restroom break in the middle. During the questioning, I took a look around at the jury pool. Out of 78 people in the jury pool, I could only identify 2 other black people. Since the defendant was black, I was certain that both sets of attorneys wanted at least 1 black person on the jury. I happen to be sitting next to one of the other black people. As questions were being asked, I realized that we were answering the questions differently. And I also concluded that I would probably be selected for the jury based on my responses.

At the end of the questioning, the jury pool then sits in silence while the 2 sets of attorneys select the jury. Each side is allowed 2 dismissals for no stated reason; all other dismissals must be justified. This process took about 45 minutes. At the end of this time, the judge broke the silence and announced that a jury had been selected. The court clerk then announced 16 numbers – 12 for the jury + 4 alternates. (Usually, only 2 alternates are selected.) My number was one of the 12 announced so I moved from the audience seating to the jury box. The judge then thanked and dismissed all of those not selected. The jury was then escorted from the courtroom to another room where we received additional jury training and reminded of when and where to report. I was assigned as Juror #7 and shown exactly where to sit in the jury box.

On this day, I had reported at 8:30 am. It was now just after 2:00 pm. I then returned to work to inform them I would be out of school for an entire week. I let my students know the following day. In Pennsylvania, you are paid $9 per day + mileage for the first 2 days of jury duty and $25 per day + mileage for every day thereafter. You must supply your own lunch and snacks, and you are only allowed to bring water into the courtroom.

Each day of the trial, I reported by 9:30 am. Court began shortly thereafter. The judge would call a mid-morning recess around 10:45 am. We would return and continue until 12:30 pm when the judge would call a lunch recess. I was allowed to leave the courthouse for lunch but had to wear my jury badge visibly. Court would resume at 1:30 pm. The judge would call a mid-afternoon recess around 3:15 pm. We would return and continue until 5:00 pm or 5:15 pm. Prior to each recess, the judge would remind us not to discuss the case with each other or with anyone else, not to research the case, and not to visit any of the sites associated with the case.

Over 4 days of testimony, the jury heard 26 witnesses and almost 100 pieces of admitted evidence. In addition to the testimony of live witnesses, the evidence included police body camera footage, crime scene photos, autopsy photos, cell phone records, transcripts, and the murder weapon. I was allowed to take notes in a court-provided notebook, which was destroyed at the end of the trial. The prosecution took just over 3 days to present its case. The defense took just under a day, which included the defendant taking the stand. During the entire trial, there were 3 sheriffs posted in the courtroom – one near the judge and jury, a second on the other side of the judge and near the courtroom clerk, and the third near the defendant.

We began Friday with the 2 sides presenting their closing arguments, which took a total of 90 minutes. After the mid-morning recess, the judge then instructed the jury. His instructions included many points of law and took 90 minutes. The jury was then escorted from the courtroom, and the 4 alternates were taken to another room. The court ordered lunch for us and did not allow us to leave.

After lunch, the jury was ready to deliberate. The court staff collected everyone’s cell phones & tablets. They instructed us to use the restroom connected to the jury deliberation room. We began by selecting a foreperson. A third of the jury members indicated that they did not want to serve as the foreperson. Then, another jury member suggested that I should serve as the foreperson because it seemed that I had paid particularly close attention. I silently thought that it may have been because I was the only black person and the defendant was black. The other jurors quickly agreed, and so I became the foreperson.

I share all of this for those who wonder what a trial is like. For a variety of reasons, I won’t describe the details of the rest of the jury deliberations here, which took 3½ hours. Based on the evidence, the jury did decide unanimously to convict the defendant of first-degree murder and of the weapons charge. As the foreperson, I had to complete and sign the verdict papers. When court resumed, I also had to announce the guilty verdicts in open court.

I took my jury duty seriously. In my mind, the defendant was presumed innocent, and the prosecution had the burden of proof to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I listened to all of the evidence and did not make a decision until the end of the trial. I have made peace with and know that I made the right decision with the evidence presented to the jury. The difficult part for me is that I know that the victim’s life was ended and that the defendant’s life was permanently changed as a result of what happened. (The victim was 56 when he was killed, and the defendant was 35 at the time.) Prior to the trial, the judge told the jury pool that this was not a capital case (for which the prosecution could have sought the death penalty). However, in Pennsylvania, a first-degree murder conviction (that is not a capital case) carries with it an automatic life imprisonment penalty.

In the past couple of years, I have read the books “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander and “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson. I highly recommend both to better understand the U.S. criminal justice system and how black people are treated differently in it. I thought about both books during this trial. And while there was nothing obvious present in the trial or the crime that was written about in these books, there are several lessons that I took from this experience. I would caution you not to draw conclusions about this specific case or trial from them.

1. Preventative health care is important. This includes health care for one’s body, mind, and emotions. Preventative health care can address problems when they are small before they increase in severity.

2. Social services are important. They help many to have access to resources that can improve their quality of life.

3. Knowing one’s rights is important. Having an attorney – and the right attorney – is essential. Public attorneys (both defense and prosecution) have heavy caseloads.

4. Jury selection is an exclusive process. In Pennsylvania, voter registration records, driver license records, and tax records are used. Each of these disproportionately excludes people of color and poor people.

Yes, the United States criminal justice system needs to be reformed. I thought that before this trial and think it after this trial. I will continue to think about and try work for how that can happen.

Finally, while you may have the impulse to want to avoid jury duty, I would ask you to reconsider. It’s important to have jurors, who can be deliberate, impartial, serious, and thoughtful. Even after this experience, I continue to think that everyone should have to serve on a jury. I consider it my civic duty and responsibility.


Footsteps to Freedom

In July 2016, I decided to spend a week traveling to various locations that had a role in the experience of African Americans from the time that slaves were first brought to the United States in 1619 to the present day.

Locations That I Visited:

During this same month, I also spent a few days with the rest of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board at meetings hosted at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).  Even a year later, the trip felt like the right thing to do to help me learn more about the history of the United States, including slavery, segregation, and beyond.  It brought me closer to the heroes of the journey that has provided me with the opportunities that I have today.  Someday, I hope to return to these locations.

Teaching Tolerance Certification

For the past two years, I have been a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.  It’s been an honor and an incredible opportunity to learn from and with educators from across the country who are committed to anti-bias education.  This summer, I get to extend and deepen this commitment.  I am taking a seven-week online course in order to become certified to provide training to classroom teachers on how to use the resources available from Teaching Tolerance.  It’s only the second time that this opportunity has been available to educators so I am grateful for the opportunity.

The units in this online course are:

  1. Unit 1: General Teaching Tolerance (TT) and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) Overview, Including Mission and Timeline
  2. Unit 2: Backward Design and Anti-bias Education Goals
  3. Unit 3: Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in Perspectives
  4. Unit 4: Contact Theory and the Power of Text
  5. Unit 5: Relevance and Rigor Through Complex Texts

I will continue to update this entry with the units as they are assigned (through the end of July 2017).  As I move through the course I will also be developing an action plan to apply what I have learned in my work with other educators.


Reflect and Plan

This blog post was written as a concluding piece for Jump Start: A Teacher’s Guide to Tech  Mini-Course that I took in July 2016.  The objectives for this post were to assess my own growth during the course and to set new goals.  Through this entry, you will find hyperlinks to my other blog posts and to various technology tools.  All hyperlinked material will open in a new window allowing you to easily return to this page.


  1. What was your favorite module in this course?  Why?Module 3 “Create Your Portfolio” was my favorite module.  While I have had my own blog, I had not posted to it for awhile.  This module reminded me how easy it is create a blog post.
  2. Which module in this course was the most challenging for you?  Why?  What did you learn from that experience?Module 7 “Teach Something” was by far the most challenging module for me in the entire Jump Start course.  I had previously done bits and pieces from each of the other modules in the course so I was comfortable starting and I picked up what I didn’t know pretty quickly.  Module 7 required screencasting, something that I heard of but had never tried.  It required me to come up with my own idea, to script the lesson, to use a new technology tool, to film it (which took 5 attempts), to upload it (to YouTube), to embed the video in my blog, and to post the blog entry.  I realize that it was an authentic assessment since the finished product required mastering a number of skills successfully.I was reminded of one of my learning and working styles, which is to approach projects sequentially.  I think them through step-by-step even before starting.  My challenge is that when I get stuck on a specific step, it sometimes prevents me from even starting the project.  In Module 7, I got stuck on the idea, which meant that I didn’t actually complete the module until the day that it was due.
  3. Choose two tools from this course that you would like to start using in your teaching or work.  How exactly would yo use them?  If you don’t plan to use any tools from this course, talk about the reasons why.I already use Twitter, which I mentioned in my Module 5 “Get Social” blog post.  I share essays and videos that I find online in my curated content using Feedly.  What I am hoping to do is try to carve out the time to do this on a daily basis in order to be a more consistent contributor.

    I already use the flash card creator StudyBlue, which I featured in my Module 6 “Take Your Pick” blog post.  I plan to continue using it creating vocabulary decks for each chapter of new terms in the biology and chemistry courses that I teach.  I show students StudyBlue on the first week of classes and actually assign them to join the StudyBlue class.  What I am also considering is using a tool such as Socrative or another tool mentioned in the Assessment section of The Teacher’s Guide to Tech in class to gauge student learning more frequently.

    I am also interested in using a screencasting tool, such as Explain Everything or Screencast-O-Matic to create videos as part of a pre-lab assignment for the high school science classes that I teach.  I could use screencasting to show students the basic equipment set-up to provide a visual as they read the laboratory investigation.  I imagine that this could help to increase their own comfort level in the laboratory, especially when working with unfamiliar equipment.

  4. Browse The Teacher’s Guide to Tech and choose two new tools (or categories of tools) that you would like to learn next.  Explain how each one might meet a particular need, help you reach a certain goal, or solve a problem for you.

    In browsing The Teacher’s Guide to Tech, I realized that there are several types of tools that I am already using:
    – cloud storage (Google Drive);
    – content curation (Feedly);
    – flashcard creator (StudyBlue);
    – learning management system (Canvas);
    – note taking (Evernote);
    – presentation (Keynote and Microsoft PowerPoint);
    – social media (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter);
    – spreadsheets (Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets);
    – video sharing (YouTube); and
    – writing (Microsoft Word, Google Docs)
    This year, I would like to use Google Forms (mentioned in the Survey Tools section of The Teacher’s Guide to Tech)  to collect student information.  I have already created a survey asking students in each of my classes by which first name and by which pronouns they want to be referred in class, in communicating with other school personnel, and in communicating with parents.  This will allow me to be more inclusive in my own language when engaging with and about students.  I have also created a second survey for students in each of my classes to complete when they do not have a homework assignment.  This survey will allow me to track patterns of student homework completion and serve as documentation for students for which this is a significant area of concern.  I have created a QR code (using QR Stuff) to this survey so that students may use a mobile device to complete the survey during class while I check homework daily.In completing Module 7 “Teach Something,” I further explored Parent Engagement tools described in The Teacher’s Guide to Tech.  I already use Remind to send text messages to students outside of class.  This year, I will be using Bloomz to send weekly message updates to parents of my students.  I also found that I can use Bloomz (instead of SignUpGenius) to have parents sign up for conference appointments.
  5. Set three concrete, measurable tech goals for yourself.  Set a deadline for each one.
    : Post once a month to my Payneless Ponderings blog during the 2016-2017 school year.  Blog topics could include one of three major areas of interest to me: diversity, equity, inclusion, & social justice; educational technology; or teacher productivity.Cloud Storage: By January 13, 2017 (the end of Semester 1), have all of my files for my new Biology of Disease course transferred to Google Drive.

    QR Codes: Each Sunday when school is in session during the 2016-2017 school year, use a QR code generator to create a QR code to a short article or video about science to post outside of my classrooms.

  6. What has been your most take-away from this course?  In other words, what is the most important lesson you learned?The Jump Start course taught me that there are plenty of easy-to-use technology tools out there.  I will definitely be referring to and using The Teacher’s Guide to Tech throughout this school year as I explore some of these tools to use myself, with colleagues, with parents, and with students.  Having a cohort of teachers also interested in exploring technology tools was definitely a positive support and helped to encourage and to motivate me to complete this course.