We cannot innovate if we’re tied to yesterday’s “normal”

ISTELive: To innovate, education must move forward into a new system that is equitable, inclusive, and meets all students' needs

Not even 24 hours into his summer break, Brooklyn-based educator and author Cornelius Minor opened ISTELive 21 with a brutally honest assessment of what it means to inspire educators–and the communities that support schools–to innovate and do better for children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, for students of all abilities, and for students of all gender identities.

“I just said goodbye to the most resilient cohort of kids I’ve ever met,” Minor said. “Fatigue is my new housemate, and I don’t know what’s heavier–my shoulders, or my heart. I know you feel it, too. I see you. You are powerful, and brilliant, and you are tired,” he told the virtual audience of educators.

Minor is a Brooklyn-based educator who works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support equitable literacy reform. His latest book, We Got This, explores how the work of creating more equitable school spaces is embedded in our everyday choices–specifically in the choice to really listen to kids.

Being tasked with inspiring conference attendees who have just closed the door on perhaps the toughest school year in recent memory is no small task. But Minor delivered with honesty and passion.

“What is inspiration to the group of people who just kept the world from falling apart? What is inspiration to the people who are first to show up when a kid needs support, or food, or love? We are the people who knew navigating this year was about more than just ensuring every kid had a computer. We spent the year seeing past the surface and living in the nuance of authentically caring for children,” he said.

Talks of learning loss have peppered conversations for the better part of the past 15 months, with some predictions and assessments more alarmist than others. And while some worry about learning loss, other educators wonder if, just maybe, students have learned different–and possibly more important–lessons this year.

“Cross the Brooklyn Bridge. Watch the fierce ingenuity of these kids and tell me about learning loss,” Minor said. “What we lost in math worksheets we gained in innovation. What we lose in seat time we gained in time spent in service, in empathy, and in understanding. There is no rubric that can measure the magnitude of what we have done this year. We had to reimagine everything. We learned first-hand that innovation is soulless if it does not speak to the human condition.”

And in that learning, he continued, was the opportunity to NOT go back, but to push forward into something new for all students.

“We know that we cannot go back,” he said. “‘I care about your access to technology, but I’m not sure how to care about the health of your community’ is not the way forward for us. How can we not stand for children when, for some of them, there is only food AT school? When economics force the people who love them to spend too much time at work and too little time at home?”

Education, Minor continued, is about two things: Teaching our young people to create opportunities for themselves, and teaching them how to do that work responsibly, with respect to our environment and the myriad communities of people who share our planet.

“We, here, at ISTE–we can do better. I’m convinced of this. There are too many smart people in this room. Our work moving forward must be different,” he said.

And everyone knows what the research says, Minor added. Despite the fact that they score well, girls and women are underrepresented and systematically excluded from leadership roles. Children of color are subjected to more disciplinary actions and penalties than their white peers. Transgender and LGBTQ+ children are not fully embraced by the education system. Poor children and children from low socioeconomic standing score lower but also fall victim to the opportunity gap. Students with special needs too often continue to be excluded by the physical design of classrooms and school buildings.

“The work about being an innovator is not only about changing technologies. It is about changing ways of doing things. Systems. Because systems of oppression continue to work against children,” Minor said. “We can make school work for everyone. That’s what innovators do. But we cannot do so if we’re tied to yesterday’s doctrine.”

Being nice isn’t the magic solution.

“Being nice in the face of oppression is not enough. Nice will not solve our problems. Here’s where principals, department heads, [and school leaders] come into play. Nice does not create change. Rather, kindness does. Kindness means, ‘I love you enough to call you out, or stay up late with you while you fix your lesson or restructure your classroom.’ This is simply a rejection of the idea that progress comes from waiting patiently or saying please.”

And there’s always room for change and improvement.

“Kindness means I hold you accountable. Kindness means I work through adversity if I must,” Minor said. “If we accept that people, classrooms, schools, organizations, or communities can’t change, then we have lost already.”

If you missed Cornelius Minor’s poignant speech at ISTE, watch the recording here. (ISTELive registration is required for viewing.)

Laura Ascione
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