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brittany brown blog“Show me what democracy looks like! THIS is what democracy looks like!” is a popular activists’ chant used during protests to make their voices heard.

However, democracy also looks like the picture above, where students have read books, news, and research articles to find out about issues plaguing their communities and came to City Hall to share their recommendations to government officials to resolve these issues and getting in the practice of being active citizens in their world. Every child deserves to be able to use their voice to share their truth.

Middle schoolers are at a prime age to tackle social justice issues. At this point in their lives they are becoming more outspoken and defiant. As educators we need to use this energy to our advantage and create literal platforms for them to be BRAVE.

During the first trimester, my students had the opportunity to study three different social justice issues: police brutality, gun violence in schools, and food deserts in Baltimore. My hope was that, by providing choices, my students would be able to access the curriculum no matter their interest.

A first step in developing a project-based unit is to create an essential question that is interesting to the students. Our question became “Do we have a right to . . . ?” The ellipsis became the heart of our conversations and produced many more questions to answer. Using the The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Social Justice Book Groups Curriculum as an aid, students explored many fictional and real worlds through books and dialogue during student-led book discussions.

Students read books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Ghost Boy by Jewell Parker Rhodes, Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser, #Never Again by the Hoggs, Chew on This by Eric Schlosser, and Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan to become subject matter experts.

Students participated in jigsaw groups learning the history behind their social justice movements. They read about solutions other young people had enacted to make changes in their communities. In many ways, students learned from each other by relying on one another to meet their page goal, finish their research for a presentation to a classmate, etc. Students became increasingly more responsible to the whole group since they were the experts as opposed to the teacher. Students even wrote literary essays about their books and argumentative essays about the climate of the issues.

Tbbbloghe unit culminated with a “Speak Out” at City Hall. While the event did not happen as it was originally planned (that’s a story for another day) it was an amazing experience. I worked with Councilman Brandon Scott’s office to create a platform. However, once we got there it was the students’ responsibility to share their truths. Councilman Scott even offered to share the students’ moving speeches with other elected officials in Baltimore and across the state.

My students left with official resolutions from Councilman Scott, had a chance to take a picture with the Mayor, and much more! Project-based learning helps give PURPOSE back to the student, allowing them to take the reins and steer their own learning. The best learning happens when students don’t even realize it is happening. Project-based learning creates authentic opportunities for students to engage with their own realities. We must aim to make education practical and life changing! “THIS is what democracy looks like!”



~Brittany Brown, Middle School Humanities, City Neighbors Charter School~



At this time of year, hallways are filled with a plethora of sounds: voices chattering, heels and soles tapping or dancing against the linoleum floor, and the unique clamoring of lockers opening and shutting to signify the start of each new day as students make their way to art or music or lunch or a Friday afternoon All-School. And while many in our community who celebrate the holidays are busy hanging ornaments or decorating their front yards, teachers are busy hanging pictures of students learning in action and decorating walls and stairwells with the latest artifacts from a recent project.

Despite the thriving, bustling, and ever-changing scenery throughout the school, one activity remains the same: reading. In our school community, although reading is taking place anywhere at any given time throughout the day, it looks different for each student. Reading is assigned and accepted in various ways. You may walk in and notice students reading in small groups, in pairs, or independently. They may be lying across a couch as they read, or under a table, in a chair, or on a window sill. You may find students reading inside in the classroom, in the hallway, in every available nook and sometimes, even on the playground. Reading happens all times of the day: in the morning, in the afternoon, and believe it or not, reading even takes place in the evenings. It is acceptable, expected, and even encouraged that students access reading in various ways: reading aloud, reading along, popcorn reading, or paired with an audiobook. Among the options, that to many, seem like a luxury, are just a part of our culture. Something that remains constant at City Neighbors is the commitment to fostering the love of literacy and learning through literacy.

In fostering this love of learning through literacy, teachers take the time to identify quality books that highlight the cultures of our students and also expose them to the cultures of others. Overall, reading has a way of bringing families and friends together in ways that celebrations often do. And let’s face it, anytime a great book is discovered, whether it is written by a classic or modern author, it’s worth celebrating! With quality, interesting books and just a snippet of time, a culture of reading can be cultivated and sustained. We encourage you to carry over the love of literacy at home over the break and hope that it will be sustained for weeks, months, and years to come.

Our teachers and students have suggested a few books with quality writing and even better messages for you to enjoy at home, in the car, or at the laundromat, anytime, anywhere, and anyhow.

Kindergarten – Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes

1st Grade – Knuffle Bunny and Elephant and Piggie Series

2nd Grade – Poppleton and Frog and Toad

3rd Grade – Wild Robot

4th Grade – Zoe in Wonderland

5th Grade – Smile and The Amulet

6th Grade – The First Rule of Punk

7th Grade – Brown Girl Dreaming

8th Grade – The Hate U Give and Long Way Down

 In addition to great books, there are exceptional websites that can guide you in fostering a culture of literacy in your home and give tips to support reading:

Brightly – Helping Parents Grow Lifelong Readers

Understood – A Site to Guide Parents with Reading Support

Have a wonderful break, filled with love, memories, and lots of reading–audiobooks included!

~Kayisha Edwards, Special Educator, City Neighbors Charter School~



mikeTwo weeks ago, the Maryland State Department of Education released its first ever set of star-ratings for schools.   According to this system, the presumably most successful schools got 5 stars.   The presumably most struggling schools received 1 star.  The whole educational world here in Baltimore and throughout the state responded.  There were star maps of districts and counties in the papers.   There were multiple television and news articles about the star ratings and where schools fell.  Social media was abuzz:  “How many stars did your school get?”   The world accepted the stars.

We respectfully submit that the star-rankings are hooey.

With all due respect to the policymakers who spent recent years developing this new rating system and the expenses committed to this venture, we simply cannot accept that schools should be rated like the last Marvel movie or the slightly fancy restaurant you may have eaten in last weekend.

For years, our policymakers have worked to simplify the understanding and evaluation of schools.   The simpler, the better, right?   Just test scores.  Simple star-ratings.  Some states grade schools on a scale of A to F.    This fundamentally misses the idea that educating children, in every context, is a complex, nuanced, and intricate effort and that outcomes are equally complex.   The more we try to simplify our understanding of great education, the further we are from making it any better, richer, deeper, more effective.   Instead of coming to this realization, we keep doubling down on simplistic, inaccurate, and corrosive measures.

Moreover, we continue to rely on measures that are simply not valid.   This year, 65% of the star rating is based on PARCC scores, a test that the state has already decided to abandon after less than a decade of implementation.   (By the way, we announced our concern about PARCC testing and predicted its demise in the first year of its implementation.)   Most educators and honest education policymakers know the many flaws of standardized testing (with a special nod to this particular standardized test), yet school Boards, State policymakers, and star-rating developers continue to pretend that this measure matters–until the next test comes along and the last one doesn’t matter anymore.

The other problems with this star-rating system are numerous.   It clearly favor schools with lower levels of poverty.   It relies on bureaucratic tricks around course offerings and gradings.  (Watch the star-ratings increase next year when districts get the hang of the tricks!)  They will rely on climate surveys that will be skewed to groups and constituencies that are more prone to respond to surveys.   Districts will begin to use these star ratings in ways they were not intended – like school accountability, charter renewal, or other levers of decision-making.   They simply do not report out the complex strengths and challenges of any individual school and, instead, invite folks to look no deeper than a star-level label.

We have been pursuing standardization and simplicity in school accountability since No Child Left Behind in 2004.   No empirical evidence says our public schools are any better.   Experiential evidence may indicate that they have been co-opted by testing and accountability and have become less effective.   In 2018, we will start transitioning to our third standardized test and a new star system here in Maryland.   In another five years, we will mostly likely try a new test or maybe apples or grades instead of stars – with the presumption that it will be these things that will fix education.

We realize that we may offend many who are excited by the stars.    And there may only be few strong voices against this kind of rating system in this era of school accountability and testing.   But we are convinced that this focus will do nothing – absolutely nothing — to improve our schools, the education our students could and should receive, or make our society better.  In fact, this focus, like the focus on standardized testing, will continue to weaken public education.   While this idea might be counter-cultural now, history will not be on the side of high-stakes standardized testing and school star-ratings.

Somebody needs to say it while we all sit around staring at the stars.

Mike Chalupa, Director


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