gwendolynSocial media and news can be discouraging, leaving us feeling disenfranchised about the state of our communities and our children’s educational future.  However, there are twice as many powerful and uplifting stories that go untold. There are those who wake up every morning with hope, purpose, and passion to positively impact our children, our schools, our community, and our world.  There are parents, administrators, teachers, staff, cafeteria workers, grandparents, maintenance persons, guardians, students, daycare providers, bus drivers, babysitters, and countless more who care and are making a difference– every day.  Sometimes their stories are overlooked and they are unsung heroes.  Every story matters.

We will never be able to do everything to make our society perfect.  However, we do have a powerful sphere of influence and we should use it impactfully with inspiration for good.  No matter how small or great your contributions, they really do matter, so for that I say thank you!

~Gwendolyn Unoku, Progressive Ed Summit Coordinator & CN Parent

fullsizeoutput_1d46I love IEP meetings! If you’ve been involved in the IEP process, as a parent or educator, you probably think that sounds preposterous. In fact, there is a whole cottage industry on Etsy of t-shirts and coffee mugs poking fun at the often contentious, tedious, and exhausting process of developing programs of support and specialized instruction for students with disabilities.


While they are somewhat in good fun, the tension, resentment, and frustration that underlie the slogans are evident to anyone in the know:

Sorry for what I said during IEP season

IEP: I Expect Progress

Keep Calm and Avoid Due Process

Goal: In 2 out of 3 trials I will be nice at the IEP

I’m “That Mom” #SorryNotSorry

(Full disclosure: I have pondered the purchase of two such products: (1) the gift sets of coffee cup reading IEP Prep and wine glass reading IEP Recovery and (2) a t-shirt reading Radical Inclusionista.)

But I have come to see the IEP table as a powerful place where a dedicated team of experts come together to think deeply about how to support one student. Experts in speech and language development, fine and gross motor development, teaching reading and math, building positive peer relationships, and experts about one very important child – her parents or guardians. No one is in it for the money – or the snacks. (I always plan on baking something wonderful, but never manage to fit it in to my IEP prep schedule.)

We bring ourselves as we are: overworked, underpaid (or not paid at all), sometimes emotional or overwhelmed or frustrated. We come together to share ideas and build the next part of the path. When you get beyond the jargon and MANY acronyms (PLOP = “present levels of performance,” LRE = “least restrictive environment,” ESY = “extended school year”), the team bats around ideas for accommodations and supplementary services, decides on service hours and where they should be provided and by whom. We talk about strategies – what’s been working and what hasn’t. We share anecdotes about the student in the classroom, at home, in the community to better understand how we might leverage strengths in the service of learning or track down the roots of challenges that stand in the way of progress.

When we do IEP meetings right (and in my experience, City Neighbors stands out for its commitment to doing them right), we build a powerful connected set of supports and services that can help students thrive in our school communities.

What does it take for the IEP table to a place of collaboration rather than contention? Here are few tips I’ve learned from and with my daughter’s team at City Neighbors:

  1. Assume the best intentions of every team member.
  2. Have confidence in your own expertise, including parents/caregivers! (You know your child best! Your most important role is helping individual team members to better understand your whole child – bring photos of your child from outside school doing the things they love, write an “all about me” document talking about your child’s strengths and challenges, what works best at home, what your child loves to do, what your child and your family envisions for the future.)
  3. Come prepared. Read the reports. Make some notes. Ask questions.
  4. Educators/therapists: Complete your reports on time so that parents have time to review them. (5 days before the meeting, please.)
  5. Bring a friend– or the parent of one of your child’s classmates. (I volunteer!)
  6. Start from the strengths. Keep the focus on how to leverage what a child does well to support learning, rather than focusing on deficits.
  7. Think about how the language we use around the table shapes the relationships, the attitudes, and perspectives of parents, educators, and most importantly the student. By avoiding words like “non-compliant,” “lazy,” “stubborn,” we can focus on what the we can all do to better support a student who isn’t getting what she needs to be successful.

Take a breath and enjoy your next IEP meeting! I’ll bring the snacks.

~Liz Zogby,  Parent and Board Member, City Neighbors Charter School


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~




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