Nitty Gritty


Nitty Gritty

It’s in the nitty gritty. -Ruha Benjamin

spikebench-1Ruha Benjamin has changed the way I see the world. Her simple pictures of benches illustrating for whom the design our public spaces is intended to bring in and for whom the design is intended to exclude, coupled with her useful tools for analyzing our world, have forever altered my thinking. I think we all felt it; we seemed to be more focused, committed and a little electric after she spoke. Ruha Benjamin had the same effect on us that a rock star might, although instead of humming tunes for weeks to follow I have been trying to focus on the design of our world and the worlds I inhabit daily. I continue to ask myself of the orchards I help tend, “how are we [am I] facilitating or actively combatting this rotten [or thriving] orchard”? In this post I propose no answers (spoiler alert) but want to share the questions that Benjamin stirred in me, the ones that have taken center stage in my thinking after our October morning together at UVM.  I wanted to write about them to help myself, as she encouraged at the beginning of her talk, to “move beyond platitudes and patting ourselves on the back to figuring out how to take seriously this idea of working in a laboratory, the idea that we don’t have all the answers but that we have lots of questions and we are ready to get our hands dirty in trying to wrestle with them.” She asked us to embrace the messy and focus on what parts of ourselves we want to grow. I want to grow my ability to analyze the design of my classroom, my practice, our schools and to use the tools she laid out for us in her talk. I think revisiting the questions she left me with might be one way to begin.

What do we need to study about how we design our schools and educational initiatives?

 appleApples and orchards. So Vermont. So brilliant. Dr. Benjamin used the word design to direct our analyses beyond single events, actions and people and to the institutions, structures, traditions, practices, and policies that shape single events, actions, and people. In response to xenophobic and racist people, actions, and events she compels us to, yes, deal with the bad apples, to hold the bad apples accountable, but also to learn to “zoom out” and ask, “what’s going on here?”  She also compels us to study hard in order to that we learn to “pull apart the intentions from the effects of our work”. Good intentions or not, effects are what matter. Benjamin encourages us to use her S tool, social literacy, to examine “the broader patterns” and to ask, “what’s fueling this” and most importantly to ask ourselves, “how are we facilitating or actively combating this rotten orchard”?

How do we/how might we challenge the overserved?

I want to develop a clearer picture of what this looks like in Vermont, where we work with students who are both underserved and overserved. Benjamin points out that working with the overserved is “ground zero” for equity work. She energizes us, “Conversations about equity and justice and social change pertain mostly to those who are currently harmed by existing systems, when in fact, I see the ground zero for these kinds of conversations needing to take place amongst those who are purportedly benefiting from these systems…this is the precisely the context in which this has to happen”. Benjamin uses the word purportedly because, she explains, living in an unjust and inequitable system diminishes everyone’s humanity and capacity. Equity work is “not charity work students are doing for others, it is work they are doing for themselves”. This is where we need to teach world building, not just resume building. Not only does it diminish everyone’s humanity to live in an unjust and inequitable world, but it keeps people in boxes, boxes of privilege, she specified. Remember the unicorn my-dream-bikebike? She wants all of her students to ride unicorn bikes and so do we. How do we encourage the bravery, the courage, and the practice of riding the unicorn bikes in our classrooms? This will help us to cultivate people whose “hearts think”. People who reject Hitler Valentines and Nazi beer pong and who see a clock when it’s a clock. I couldn’t find Benjamin’s 1 in 2 Americans supporting IDs for Arab Americans but I did find that a 2016 Gallup Poll uncovered that 32% of Americans supported requiring Muslims, including American Muslims, to carry ID cards. (, June 2016). We have our work cut out for us. Many of you have been doing this already; I think we could share our work more widely and become braver together. #bravertogether?

For most of our schools in Vermont there are larger and smaller pockets of overserved. There are communities like Princeton, NJ, which Benjamin references several times throughout her talk and there are also communities unlike Princeton that struggle with poverty and whose students are not served by the design of schools or society. This is probably a sticking point for us because my fingers are getting slow on the keyboard and I am not always sure how to approach challenging the overserved; many school populations in Vermont are not monolithic. So the question is how to challenge everyone, including the overserved, including the underserved. This is not beyond our collective efforts, but learning from one another to imagine a clear picture of this and to enact it together will be important.  Maybe, with our recent focus on targets and scales, we could develop targets and scales together for challenging the overserved. Bill Rich uses a quote by Rick Stiggins when he teaches about designing standards-based learning. It says, “students can hit any target they can see that holds still for them”. Maybe we need to develop a target, common language, steps to help us get there, and avenues through which to widely communicate about how we are doing as teachers, as schools, and as a state in helping students practice in our laboratories, to build empathy, build worlds, and design for equity.

Target: I can challenge the overserved* (draft!)
4 3 2 1
We will imagine what beyond proficient looks like together. “If we can see it, if we can imagine it, we can build it.” “We are asking, if things are designed to enable our growth and help us, then how do we see beyond our rose tinted lenses? How do we see the fault lines, curves, the ways in which the spikes are coming up for those for whom the system is not designed?” I am developing opportunities for students to examine the power of words and what words can do. I am also working with my students to “broaden our language for things we do not yet have words for”. I am practicing “linguistic reflexivity”.    I am beginning to consider “who is harmed and who benefits from the current design of our schools and societies”

*Performance indicators also developed from Ruha Benjamin’s talk on 10/26/2017

What’s in the Nitty Gritty?

Benjamin ends her talk with a slide asking “Now What?!” She talks about imagining the world we want and reminds us that if we can see it then we can create it. What are we “looking up and stumbling forward” toward?  Benjamin emphasizes that change will come “not in the grand gestures” and not “in mission statements” but in incorporating her ideas in “the nitty gritty”.


What do our first steps in the nitty gritty look like? Carrie Felice, a 2013 Rowland Fellow and guidance counselor at our school, wondered aloud last week about who we spend our extra time with as teachers. Which students do we avail ourselves to during breaks, lunch, extracurricular time, and beyond? Who comes with us to conferences and on our field trips? The response is not to then exclude students who are currently benefiting, but to consider how changing the design of opportunity preparation and distribution might expand who is currently benefiting and reduce who is currently excluded. As we shift the design of our schools in response to Act 77 and proficiency-based learning we can continuously consider equity traps and compare and contrast what is happening with what our vision is and continue to ask if our outcomes are matching our intentions. Where are the gaps between outcomes and intentions and where are the two closely matched? Let’s continue to share and highlight the examples where the effects of the changes match the intentions of the changes.

Along with a systems focus I think the act of deliberate reflection on both the intricacies of design and the distribution of power in our own practices, which may seem like an underwhelming place to start, is a place where quick pivots can happen. I have been asking some of Dr. Benjamin’s questions in my classroom daily; who benefits from my class on a daily basis and who doesn’t benefit, or worse, who might be harmed? What do benefit and harm look like in a high school classroom? Who do I pursue to make sure they are learning and to whom do I send emails to with resources, opportunities, and feedback? Do I give all students enough feedback in ways that work well to improve their learning? What words do I write in the margins and what are the informal conversations I have with colleagues and students? Do I listen to all students to see where they are? Do I send all students the message that, yes, you can do it, I believe you are capable and I will not give up on you. From whom do I withhold empathy and for whom do I let it flow freely? I think if I begin/continue to explore my practice with Benjamin’s questions I will find traction; I will find ideas about next steps and growth. In addition, the answer also lies in finding a variety of ways to include students in this assessment of my, our, class.

Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams (2017) wrote in their book, Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformation, “This is the crux of the issue: if we can’t even imagine a different way of interacting with one another, the economy, and the resources we use and depend upon, then the struggle for a just and ecologically sound world recedes into the realm of Utopian fantasy. And without a vision for a plausible, genuine alternative, people understandably set their sights on reforms that will never add up to the changes needed.”  Benjamin tells us the way forward is collective thinking toward a new vision. Let’s keep our vision and our energy from Benjamin’s visit from receding into Utopian fantasy.

Editor’s note: Please be sure to watch Dr. Benjamin’s presentation at the Rowland Conference here: Dr. Ruha Benjamin at Rowland Conference 2017

Guest blogger: Kate Toland teaches social studies at Peoples Academy High School and runs the afterschool program for students in grades 5-12. She loves learning with colleagues and students and is excited about all of the possibilities Act 77 and PBL bring to Vermont.




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