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New Year’s Resolution: Cause Good Trouble

Have you ever considered making a New Year’s resolution that would cause trouble? Greg Darnieder, Special Assistant to the Secretary on College Access for the U.S. Department of Education, recently told attendees at AVID’s National Conference to “make good trouble.” Where does this idea of getting into “good trouble” come from, and why should we consider it? 

As a keynote speaker and long-time supporter of AVID, Darnieder previously oversaw the Office of Postsecondary Education in Chicago Public Schools where AVID has been successfully implemented at many sites. As always, he made some compelling remarks, shared some important information, and left us with several significant challenges. Especially intriguing was his notion that we need to “make good trouble” in order to increase our performance on college readiness and persistence. In short, we need to return the U.S. to its prominence in college completion.

Darnieder highlighted good troublemaker John Lewis, civil rights activist and current Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia. Born in Alabama to a family of sharecroppers, Lewis experienced racism firsthand as a youth when, coming from the country into town, he observed for his first time signs that separated whites from blacks. He was also refused a library card and told “books are not for coloreds.”  When he asked his parents about the segregation and discrimination, Lewis was told, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”

However, Lewis did not heed that counsel. Instead, following the example of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he recalls that “They inspired me to find a way to get in the way. I got in trouble. It was good trouble, necessary trouble.”

What kind of necessary trouble? While a college student, Lewis became active in the Civil Rights Movement, organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, joining the Freedom Riders, and giving speeches throughout the South. He also led 600 people on a march for voting rights, during which they were beaten by state troopers. This event, now known as Bloody Sunday, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

After hearing Darnieder’s speech, I did some research on Representative Lewis and found some recent remarks he made to law school graduates from Stetson University. He reminded them not to wait for others to act, not to rely on Congress or others, but to “get off the sidelines” and get involved in the lives of others. “Be not afraid,” he said. “Be of good and raw courage and find a way to get in the way.”

Should AVID cause “good and necessary trouble”? Mary Catherine Swanson did just that when she founded AVID in 1980. As described in the book Wall of Fame and in her recent remarks at our National Conference, Mary Catherine was working on her AVID students’ schedules and found that they had been “locked out” of advanced courses in favor of gifted students.   What did Mary Catherine do?  She caused good trouble. “Using my key to the main office on a Sunday, the day before school began,” she recalls, “I dis-enrolled enough gifted students to allow space for AVID students, and, as I expected, when the gifted students did not get the classes they wanted, more advanced classes were opened.”

Her struggle on behalf of AVID students was not over. They did not look like typical AP and Honors students, and the teachers of those courses were concerned about the amount of work it would take to support them. Thus, they tried to find ways to get the AVID students out of their classes. What followed?  More necessary trouble.  Mary Catherine sent her college tutors to the AP classes to work with AVID students and their teachers. She also began to teach mini-courses in those AP and Honors classes to demonstrate AVID strategies, and she intervened when her colleagues accused AVID students of cheating when they did well on exams. She confronted every injustice and made sure AVID students were treated fairly.

Mary Catherine’s troublemaking reminds me of what Jaime Escalante was doing at Garfield High School in Los Angeles at about the same time, fighting to convince a reluctant staff that low-income Hispanic students could succeed in AP calculus.  Jaime (who passed away last year) had to fight on his students’ behalf when they were accused of cheating on the AP exam. This story is well recounted in Jay Mathews’ excellent book Escalante: The Best Teacher in America and the movie Stand and Deliver.

In speeches and in writing, both Mary Catherine and AVID’s Executive Director Jim Nelson emphasize the importance of education’s role in preserving our democracy. Greg Darnieder reminded us that we cannot wait for “incremental change,” that we must move quickly and take individual and collective responsibility for offering our students every opportunity to attain a college degree. 

What does this mean for us as educators and citizens? Sometimes it will mean practicing outrage, making the adults who work with our children occasionally uncomfortable, and guaranteeing that our systems work on behalf of our students. 

What examples do you have of good and necessary trouble we are creating in the AVID world? Are AVID students making good trouble in their communities, resulting in increased opportunities for all students to be college ready? How are AVID students and staff making a positive difference in their communities, showing the individual determination we expect? Are our AVID graduates making good and necessary trouble during their postsecondary experiences, applying the AVID philosophy?

We would love to hear your thoughts and troublemaking stories.

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Reader Comments (1)

I talked to a group of senior students at North High School inWichita KS who caused some necessary trouble. There was an advanced mathematics teacher who over the years systematically eliminated or discouraged all but a select group of seniors to enroll in his AP Calculus class. He insured he had a small group of select students making the teaching of the course and the passing of the AP class highly predictable. this mathematics teacher was the only teacher of advanced mathematics at the school for years.
A group of AVID students needed Calculus because they were hoping to pursue college majors in engineering, computer science, mathematics and science. So as a group of 5-6 they signed up for AP Calculus despite attempts to get them to take other classes. The open enrollment policy of the high school (which began when these seniors were freshmen) made their unobstructed enrollment possible. They studied together, prepared for exams together and all did well in the class and on the AP exam even though the teacher was not happy or ready for their active participation. I'd say this is an example of 'necessary trouble' that they caused to be able to achieve their goals of becoming college-ready students. These students were empowered to take charge of their own education.

January 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Powell-McMillan

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