Category Archives: Equity

Open Letter to College Students

I’ll be honest here. I’ve been a bit frustrated with some of my college-aged young adults recently. While I tell them that I am happy to edit papers at the 11th hour if the alternative is no editing at all, reading some of these last minute papers that they’ve admittedly rushed through push me into haranguing mode.

So here’s the tricky part. I don’t want to come off like I’m being insensitive to my students’ realities. Here is what I know. These young people are often:

  • juggling very busy schedules, replete with school, jobs, sports, and family obligations,
  • Dealing with challenging living situations, often with a great deal of transition,
  • Without a role model in the family who has completed college (or even high school) themselves.

So, with that noted, I remain annoyed.

Here are some challenges I throw down for my students.

  • Be your absolute best. If you’re going to college, and paying thousands of dollars, and likely mortgaging your future, you’d better make it worth your while. Demand the best out of yourself. Turn off the TV. Go talk to your professor. Stop taking selfies of yourself. Get out your agenda book and write down the due dates. If you don’t want to do these kinda small things, stop paying the college you and your parent’s hard earned cash, and start looking for more hours at your job.
  • Demand more from your college and your professors. You say your classes are boring. First ask yourself: Am I doing the readings? Am I participating in discussion? Am I doing the homework? If the answer is yes to all those questions, and you’re still bored, then talk to your professor, talk to your chair, and demand better classes. Are your texts racist? Probably. Does it promote a world view that you disagree with? Probably. Then supply some thoughtful, research-driven alternative work to your professor to supplement your reading list. But don’t be intellectually lazy. You’d better be reading or watching something other than TMZ.
  • Develop your skills. Nobody is interested in hiring someone who has been rubber-stamped through a degree. Here’s what you need to be effective in the larger world:
    • Communication skills. Know how to communicate with others using a variety of media– this includes face to face, email and social media. This skill is so that you can persuade people to do stuff for and with you.
    • Prioritizing. There is no question that the students that I work with know how to work hard. But increasingly I see them working hard at things that don’t make sense in the long game. It’s not “don’t have fun”; It’s don’t get stuck on social media for 12 hours and then tell me you don’t have time to fill out a scholarship.
    • Follow-through. From sending a thank you note to checking in with your professor about a test score, following up and following through makes you memorable, and shows that you know to how to see something through to the end.
    • Connecting. During college you have the ability to connect with other people– from the secretaries filing your paperwork, to the professors who are grading you, to your fellow classmates who can support you now and in the future. Figure out how to connect those people– using the skills listed above. Your connections make the difference in the world you will be making for yourself.

Here’s a secret. You don’t need to finish college to learn these skills. But you need these skills to finish college. You’re going to need these skills regardless of what you are going to be. And here’s what you’re going to be:

  • Business owners,
  • Lawyers,
  • Web designers,
  • IT specialists,
  • Prosecuting Attorneys,
  • Chefs,
  • Radicals,
  • Leaders,
  • Wonderful.

BE Accomplished: 6 months of Building Experiences

I began an experiment about 6 months ago. I decided that I wanted to work with young people. I decided that I wanted to do it in ways that felt genuine to me. I decided that I wanted to interact with the young people as a mentor, friend, and unabashedly myself.

I surrounded myself with friends who share similar values and who are also creating the world they want to exist in. We are working to create an inclusive and supportive community for our young members. We made some mistakes, but mostly it’s been joyous and fun. It doesn’t fit into our normal non-profit paradigm. Thankfully.

Scroll down to read quotes from students, see some raw data, and some lessons learned.


Comments from BE Youth Members

Community dinners are special to me because I get to meet new people, learn about their jobs and what they do. It’s fun and you learn about other people and you get to know them.
–H.P. CHS Junior

You were helpful because you were keeping us on track and you were there to help us go through personal and school related problems… you actually directed some of us to go talk to our professors  and advisors…and you never ever for once give up on any of us…some of the time when we push other people away they will stop coming but you were always there.
–F.O. PVCC student

Ms. Dolly spent her whole morning helping me edit my research paper that was due within couple of hours. I hate to admit it, but I usually do my work last minute. I hadn’t started on my research paper that was assigned on the first day of classes, until few hours before it was due. I got a B though. I don’t think I can ever forget the all-nighters I spent fretting, and how with the help of Ms. Dolly I got a B. We were not expecting that at all, but we were both happy.
–D.U. GMU student

Being a part of BE gives me the chance to help others understand that being a mother is not the end of the road.
–M.H. Certified Nurse Associate, and Pharmacy Tech

Having someone to give you honest advice about college and other things really makes a big difference. I’m blessed to have so many wonderful people like you in my life who I can turn to, ask advice about certain things and can be sure that I’m getting a honest answer.
–M.A. VCU student

You put smile in my face, make me think about my future. Ask me what’s going to be next step, every Monday and it feel neat to be asked. I am thankful for that.
–B.O. PVCC student

You were a means of support for me personally and academically. You are always there showing me the way and the steps I need to take to get there. I know I can come to you for help regarding anything, and I appreciate that you are always there to help and listen.
–G.N. PVCC student

Summary of Services

Building Experiences has worked with 35 students this fall. All services are free to students, and to date; all work has been done on a volunteer basis. Our income has been $1705 cash donations, and about $785 in in-kind donations. Expenditures have equaled $1,440.53. Please donate to support our work.

  • We have shared meals with 68 community members, including 26 youth members in the months of December and January.
  •  BE held 10 check in sessions at PVCC and reached 23 students, including a core group of 11 students who sought BE out each week. Topics of discussion included transferring to 4 year schools, dealing with financial aid, improving relationships with parents, peers and professors, and how to balance school and work.
  • BE has provided help to 10 students with editing papers, college essays, resumes and/or cover letters, sometimes even at the last minute.
  • BE has hosted 5 special events since August. We’ve enjoyed EpiCroqueTournament, a long distance, mixed terrain croquet game, held a “Tool Day” where we built birdhouses and carved in stone with a dremel tool, constructed natural wreaths, and attended a multi-day Youth Conference featuring bookbinding, knitting, car-care, college prep and a falcon(!). We celebrated the MLK Jr. weekend by having a delightful walking tour of local, downtown businesses. 17 students have participated in these special programs.

Lessons Learned/Guiding Principles

This has been a glorious experiment, with no end in sight.

  • Reject the “rules” I’ve been instructed in my professional life to establish boundaries, keep my distance, be equitable and fair. And yes, in many ways these are sensible, protective measures. But they are so limiting. There are young people who need hugs, young people who need money, young people who need rides, young people who need to be told what is up. I think many of the rules put into our institutions are based upon fear. I reject that fear.
  • Play the long game Fiscal and academic years lull us into measuring progress with met outcomes and completed classes, but ultimately we’re raising people. People who need to know their stories, understand their strengths, and have a network of supporters. Sometimes there are issues that can’t be resolved in one month, one semester, or one year. There are so many people that we can gain inspiration from who kept persevering. We must give ourselves permission to slow the pace of our aspirations, and honor those who work towards goals years in the making.
  • Don’t let shiny gadgets distract you from the true magic  I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be an old school professor. I wanted to be an avant garde artiste type with shaped hair. I wanted to be a thought leader. What I love to be now is a connector of people, someone who helps dreams come true, people become their best selves. Occasionally I get offers or suggestions that divert me from that passion. Fame, prestige flickers enticingly. And then I remember that that is false promise, and what makes me happiest is knowing that I made one of these young people see and realize their potential. Finally I have found the focus that eluded this jack of all trades for so many decades.

Thank you to BE’s Partners, Volunteers, Donors
Blue Moon Diner
Frazier Family Foundation
The Local Restaurant
Virginia Organizing
Gibson’s Grocery
Camp Holiday Trails
Whole Foods
Denise Interchangeable Knitting and Crochet
Peggy Harrison
Sammy Kaplan
Vu Nguyen
EcoVillage Charlottesville
Cha Cha’s
Frozen Motion Glass
Taiwan Garden
Join our over 50 individual donors, volunteers, and supporters, Give Today. 

Building Experiences Steering Committee is
Laura Galgano, Ellen Krag, Mia Logan, Davina Fournier and Marissa Turner-Harris.

Dolly Joseph is the Chief Facilitator.


What are we going to do about college expense?

Dear Langston,

From beyond the grave, can you revamp your poem? Can you tell me about a dream half-attained? A dream that is invested in, quasi-delivered, and then sabotaged?

In the past few weeks, I’ve had 4 students tell me these stories of heartbreak:

  • 3 semesters of Criminal Justice at ODU, 1 semester of PVCC. $26,000 dollars of debt. ODU won’t release transcripts, won’t allow 1st generation, immigrant student to register. Student is treading water, taking classes at PVCC that probably won’t transfer.
  • 3 semesters of Social Work at VSU. 1st generation high school graduate/college student has dropped out partly because of money, partly because fears that the school won’t maintain accreditation.
  • 2 semesters at VCU. Another 1st generation college student receives bill for $6,000 for this semester. Her CHS teacher writes a personal check for $3,000. Student returns for spring semester, not knowing how to get the remaining $3,000 before the end of term.
  •  5 semesters in North Carolina. 3.4 GPA. There’s no more money for this semester. This junior is taking classes at PVCC. As an upperclassman, what can she possibly take that is helping her complete her degree?

Our system is broken. These 4 African American students have done what they are supposed to do. They’ve gotten good grades. They’ve stayed out of trouble. They’ve done what our schools have told them to do. They’ve followed the American Dream of pursuing their education. And now they’re returning home. Without degrees. Enslaved to a debt that will not be released by anything except their death.

We let them down. We’ve sold them a false bill of goods. We’ve failed them.

Here’s what I know:

  • In the past weeks, I’ve talked to every college professor, every financial aid officer, and every scholarship manager that I could get hold of. None of them have had any hope of a solution for these students. Well, kinda one:
  • I will be writing ODU a polite, but embarrassing, letter threatening to expose that they billed a student $5,000 for housing for a semester he didn’t attend. He’ll still owe $21,000, but I suppose that’s a start.
  • All of these students were encouraged (some required) to apply to multiple 4-year colleges.
  • All of these students, and their families, were unprepared to deal with the financial shenanigans of the schools and the federal government.
  • If I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t have a clue how to proceed. And I spent 10 years prostrate to the higher mind.
  • This is not their fault. This is not only their problem. This is OUR problem.

Here’s how to be horrible:

  • Push kids through a K-12 system that doesn’t adequately prepare them,
  • Stigmatize them if they don’t go to college,
  • Tell them the only way to get out of the ghettos we’ve created is to go off to college,
  • Have them sign notes for thousands of dollars, that’s not quite enough to cover all expenses,
  • Create an unhelpful bureaucracy that penalizes for any slip up (in fact seems to be facilitating slip ups),
  • Blame them when they are not successful,
  • Accept that they’ll be making minimum wage in the service industry.

What are we going to do about this? Some suggestions:

  • Develop a relationship with, and advocate for, a particular student,
  • Demand more funding for state universities,
  • Destigmatize attending community college,
  • Demand tuition decreases,
  • Stop degree inflation (does every job really require a master’s degree?),
  • Stage national student and instructor walk-outs,
  • Take education seriously as a human right
  • Question who does it serve to keep our youth (particularly our youth of color) uneducated and broke.

A Legacy of Education

My dad died two months ago. Since then, I have been reflecting about transition and my own life purpose. When considering my father’s influence on my life, I came to realize what an impact he had on my life as an educator.

My dad encouraged independence in deed and in thought. He  exposed me to radical thinkers and authors. He demanded that I question “facts” that the news presented and he encouraged me to see alternate views and sources, not to simply accept prevailing thought or opinion.

My dad was a dedicated peace activist and fought for equity and justice. He taught me that the powerful were just people– and that it was okay to question them.

My dad’s work on civil rights and his housing refugees exposed me to cultures and conditions that many of my peers never saw. Simply living life with people who were outwardly different than me, made me realize that they too were people as well, having the same wants and desires as all of us.

My dad and I both received our Master’s from the Curry School of Education, even sharing a professor. While we didn’t often sit down to formally discuss pedagogy or educational philosophy, his opinions and actions left a firm imprint in me and how I view education. I learned to question the mores of the educational system and to reject the assumptions that it might make about learners.

My dad educated me by questioning and challenging me. It wasn’t always comfortable to defend my assumptions, but it taught me to stand by decisions and opinions that I felt were right, and to yield when shown to be wrong. I too have a reputation for direct talk and questioning. I now see it as a sign of respect to treat an individual as a person worthy of serious debate, no matter their age or status.

Bob Covert, the professor who Dad and I shared, hammered into his students the importance of acknowledging their own biases and histories as they taught and researched. What are your stories? Who influenced you to teach? What are the underpinnings to your own educational philosophy?

An introductory Tom Joseph reading list:

Skills, not Content at the DML Badges Competition

Earlier this month we were lucky to get to share portions of the Computers4Kids curriculum at the Digital Media and Learning Badges competition. As I’ve mentioned, C4K didn’t win the money prize, but we were thrilled to be included. C4K offers training, one-on-one mentoring and college and career transition guidance to low-income youth in 7th-12th grades. With the exception of training, which has a clearly defined set of objectives, the C4K curriculum provides an intensely individualized program which accommodates the needs and interests of both our students, and our volunteer mentors. The challenge has been to provide a meaningful measure of what our students are achieving.

The DML Badges Competition asked organizations to create badge systems that validate out of school learning. We chose to present the college and career transition aspect of our program, Teen Tech. When students come to Teen Tech they focus on academic, job readiness, technology and/or service projects. As they attend over their high school years, their interests and needs change depending on school or family obligations, their age or other extra-curricular activities. Teen Tech’s curriculum needs to be flexible to accommodate our students’ changing priorities, however, our metrics need to capture what the students are learning so we can monitor their progress, uncover their challenges, and review the data to inform how we evolve the curriculum.

In this situation we can’t focus our measures on what content is being learned. On any given day, 10 students may be in the lab, working on such diverse tasks as Trig homework, mixing a new song, writing an English essay, practicing Photoshop in preparation to teaching a workshop.

All of this is why we do focus on broader, recognizable and valued skills. We work with students to fit their work into one of 5 learning domains and then map them onto ISTE-NETS for students. The table below demonstrates that alignment for some sample activities.

Badge Tasks Selected Skills (ISTE-NETS)
Plan -Identify tasks and final goal
-Create timeline
-Adjust  plan to reflect feedback from critique
Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
(Use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.)
Learn & Apply -Identify and Perform 15 new technology skills in Adobe Dreamweaver Technology Operations and Concepts (Demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems and operations.)
Create -Create, assemble and organize all components of your website, including images Creativity and Innovation (Demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology
Reflect & Revise -Perform self-evaluation before formal critique
-Participate in formal critique
-Revise products according to feedback received
-Write final summary of the project
Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making 
Present -Upload website
-Advertise it via social media
Communication and Collaboration

I think this kind of thought, investigation and analysis is what sets Computers4Kids apart and why the DML Badges Competition judges selected us out of a pool of 500 teams submitting content and frameworks. Multiple people have asked, how could they award such large institutions like Disney-Pixar, Microsoft and Intel in a competition intended for small non-profits? I’ve come to realize that the competition had nothing to do with awarding the most needy, or the smallest, or most efficient. We were competing toe-to-toe to demonstrate that we could reach the widest audience with international companies that have huge resources, instant name-recognition, and deep pockets of personnel. Our six employee organization got into the room with them and showed that we’ve got the goods as well.

Prepping for the DML Badges competition…

In 2 days I’ll be flying out to California in compete in the Digital Media + Learning Badges Competition. There I’ll be presenting Computers4Kids’ Teen Tech program. I’m super proud to be heading out to this pretty elite competition; the MacArthur Foundation funds and Mozilla sponsors. Computers4Kids is definitely one of the smaller organizations that will be competing, but I’m feeling pretty confident about my ability to make a winning argument.

We’ve been working hard for the past few years at C4K to align what the kids are doing to national standards. I think this sets apart from a lot of other non-profits. And while it’s personally and professionally gratifying, what keeps me grounded and directed is that everything we’re doing leads to further student success. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that all this leads to agency success: recognition=more money=greater sustainability, but it’s hard for me to maintain excitement about that.

The realization I had the other day is that by aligning what students learn and practice to recognizable and recognized educational outcomes, we can better communicate to them, schools and employers how valuable their skills are. For under-served students in particular, having that self-esteem and self-worth is crucial. I want to arm myself with the knowledge that C4K is making a real difference in youth’s lives and that curricular alignment and larger efforts like badging systems contributes in a significant way.

Microsoft’s Digital Literacy Curriculum Sucks. Surprised?

I originally posted this in May of 2009. 

I work as a program director for a non-profit devoted to mentoring and tech literacy in low income 7-12 graders. As such, I am often looking for useful curriculum related to a wide variety of programs, tasks and skills. I am often in debate with myself and others if it is better to provide the students with practical skills related to secretarial-type work or to explore the outer boundaries with projects in graphics, animation and web design. Our approach is to focus on allowing students to explore and produce with the more creative software while providing auxiliary work with students who see the value of learning the more practical Office suite.

Not wishing to reinvent the wheel, I regularly look for clear, self-directed lessons suited for my students. Oh, and free or cheap, because we’re a non-profit. I’ve looked at Microsoft’s Digital Literacy Curriculum several times to see if we can use it to demonstrate proficiency. Now I can hear some of my techie friends slapping themselves in the head, about to eviscerate me because I even mention the Evil Empire. Let me introduce you to the real world outside of your basement and Silicon Valley. Most people out here in the light, don’t care or know about Open Source. They are just grateful that they can reliably turn on their computer and spit out some information. Their focus is on their work, not arguing about the benefits of Ubuntu versus Morphix.

Back to the Digital Literacy Curriculum, it sucks. No surprise there, it is a Microsoft product. Now I know I am late to the bandwagon, but I’ve still got to pile on. Everything about Microsoft sucks. I am a native proud Mac user, but practicality has required me to have a fairly good working knowledge of the Windows world. I work with Microsoft as a recipient of donated software and OSs as part of our non-profit work. Each month when I need to report our usage I curse in my head. It’s almost as though they take pride in having an interface that is clunky and unusable. For a company that’s flush with capital they sure are stingy with any ease of use or follow through to their systems.  The Digital Literacy Curriculum reflects this attitude. It’s almost as though Microsoft is full of idea-men with no one to come back to ensure quality control. hmmmm….

I’ve looked at it before at work, but I wanted to give it a more detailed fish eye if I was going to record my impressions. Here on my mac computer I cannot even log into their curriculum because I don’t have Internet Explorer. Really, I mean, really? Can Microsoft not see the writing on the wall. Nevermind that I’m on a Mac. What about all those people out there who are using Firefox or Chrome? (Too bad I can’t round out that list with Netscape… I like 3s.) Why is it that they are so dead set on protecting their product that they cannot break their walls of paranoia and protectionism to become more welcoming and user friendly?

24 hours later…I had to reinstall IE, or maybe I didn’t. It had been set to “work offline” which took a while to find. They have two tools pulldown menus that do not have the same functionality. It would be cooler to pretend like I don’t have “user error” issues.  Everyone has user error issues; those of us with healthy self-image can own it. Anyway, accessed the curriculum at long last.

I was disappointed. After all my sturm und drang getting it set up, it wasn’t horrible, it was just typically boring. A metallic voice read some prose to me; the sound screeched through my veins like fingernails on chalkboard. There was a lot of tasteful blue and gray on white. It was just dull. And basic. Now, I do have to consider the fact that this is designed for neophytes, people who still need basic computer skills. Just because people are ignorant shouldn’t mean that they should get bad training; that’s perhaps one reason that they are ignorant in the first place.

This material is clearly not current, and likely I shouldn’t even be wasting breath on it. The last update was October 2007 which is so last century in Internet terms. Except it’s not. I get emails regularly from Microsoft touting this curriculum. They just sent me another disk encouraging me to use it with my clients. More of the same didactic lecture and demonstration that is already failing learners all over.


Suck Quotient– 2

usability 1 the actual content was fine, getting to it was an exercise in perseverance and patience.
aesthetics 2 non offensive
innovation 1 no
accuracy 4 the content was correct, just dull
fun 0 none

I was going to look at version 2 to be all fair and balanced, but while it worked when I first accessed it, once I installed the add ons that Microsoft recommended, I ended up with a black screen, no content. You win, Microsoft!

Serving your Learner

My natural inclination is to design for the imagination. I’ve long believed that if you give students the best tools to create with, that they then can transfer that knowledge to other applications. By the end of my time at the k-8 school, where I taught the same students for 3 consecutive years, I had 3rd grade students creating Flash animations and writing action-scripting. To me this was a major accomplishment, indicative of incredible potential for these students to become producers of multimedia, interactive projects. Every year, however, the complaint was that the students weren’t learning how to format papers in Word. The parents saw computer class as a support to the other academic classes, not as a curriculum in its own right.

Now that I am working with students who have been traditionally under-served, I wonder about my own obligations to provide opportunities for academic success. Should this curriculum emphasize more immediate academic skills, formatting papers, learning powerpoint? Or should I emphasize their personal expression and storytelling through exposure to professional graphics, audio and video software applications.

I already know where I stand on this. I am still in touch with the majority of my inspirational art teachers. I learned more about how to present myself professionally from them than any of my drudgerous academic classes. I don’t know if I can inspire disaffected students with any software app, but I feel that it’s more likely in Alice, than it is with Excel.

Some People Don’t Have Computers

Originally posted in July 2009 on The Total Learner Experience

I am convinced that technology knowledge and fluency is integral to having the fullest range of options in the 21st century. I mean, who’s not?

My concern is how to facilitate the access that all of us techies take for granted. I don’t have any answers, but I do have plenty of questions:

  • Do I design instruction and programs so that my students express themselves and have fun and buy-in to this tech world? or
  • Do I design so that they can get entry level jobs as receptionists and admins?
  • Do I try to sell some Puritan work ethic model (high school, college, 40+ hours a week) that I really don’t believe in, to some people who aren’t likely to buy it?
  • What are the upper middle class kids who do have access to computers since birth doing with them? How will they leverage their innate computer fluency as they grow into adulthood and jobs? How do I facilitate my kids having those casual, but oh so very important, experiences?
  • How can I sell my path to impressionable youth as one to emulate when I owe more money in student loans than I make in a year, drive a used car and work ridiculously long hours?