Adolph Brown chats with a teacher after his presentation at Mount Greylock last Friday.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Between the textbooks, notebooks, gym clothes, lunches and, increasingly, electronics, kids are carrying a lot in their backpacks.
Educators who gathered this month at Mount Greylock Regional School were reminded that those bags are just part of the baggage.
"We all get caught up in this backpack — this is supplies, that's all, it's supplies," Adolph Brown said, holding a bag up in front of the teachers and paraprofessionals gathered in the middle-high school auditorium. "We think the world revolves around it. … This is not the most important backpack.
"Everybody, to me, has a second backpack. The first one is supplies. The second one is their story. Everybody has one."
Brown, a highly acclaimed educator and sought-after speaker billed as "the world's greatest edu-tainer," was in Williamstown for two days in mid-October, giving a presentation for the public on the evening of Oct. 10 and speaking to faculty and staff on Friday morning, a districtwide professional development day when students were enjoying day one of a four-day holiday weekend.
Mount Greylock Superintendent Kimberley Grady invited teachers from neighboring districts that were holding a PD day to attend the Friday morning session, at which Brown captivated his audience for 90 minutes, sharing some of the insights he has gained as a teacher, a professor, an author of numerous books on pedagogy, a guest lecturer and a proud graduate of Head Start.
Brown's presentation, which mixed music, humor and audience participation, was rooted heavily in what Brown shared about his own "second backpack": his parents' divorce when he was 2, his older brother's death when Adolph was 11, his experience with poverty.
"My story is, I thought my dad hated me," Brown said. "At least, that's the way I perceived it. … He wasn't there, and it seemed like everyone else had a dad. Where was mine? I thought my brother abandoned me when I needed him the most.
"As a result of my backpack, ladies and gentlemen, you're looking at a young man in public education who had one foot in gifted education and one foot in alternative education. And, believe me, I could have gone either way."
Brown, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, told his audience that they needed to recognize the hurt, shame and abuse in their students, in their colleagues and in themselves because everyone has that second backpack.
And, as educators, the people in Brown's audience need to learn to see the "tree in the seed," he said.
To demonstrate his point, he entered the hall and started his presentation in a costume that included baggy clothes and dreadlocks that he eventually stripped down to reveal the well-dressed, professional educator and president of the Business & Education Leadership Authority/Leadership & Learning Institute that he is today.
"Implicit biases are things that we all have," he said. "So when you looked at me, your brain started trying to figure out: Hey, where's this guy going?
"Many of you, if you're a little older, when you looked at me your brain said, 'Oh my god! I remember him. I love 'Little Rascals. Buckwheat!' If you're a little younger than me, just a little, you're like, 'Oh, my God, I love Superintendent Grady. She got Coolio.' If you're really young, maybe your reference was, ‘Is 'Orange is the New Black' back on? I really miss Crazy Eyes.'
"This is who I used to be. But I had educators, like you."
With his own story as a backdrop, Brown shared with his fellow educators his construct of the "Four Fs" that they need in the classroom. He said they need to have fun, be fair, be firm and have faith.
"Fun lends itself to authentic learning," Brown said.
"Einstein said it much more eloquently than I do. He said creativity is intelligence having fun."
Fairness in the classroom means that "all means all," Brown said.
"If I have a look at … the relationships you're forming, and I don't see people who look like me, talk like me, people who have my zip code … I'm going to think you don't like people like me," Brown said. "It's just that simple.
"And we all know that if a child knows you believe in him, he'll run through a wall for you. But if they think you don't, they'll put up a wall against you."
Despite his challenge to make learning fun, he reminded his audience that successful classrooms also have consistent structure, limits and boundaries — that teachers need to be firm when necessary.
For his fourth "F," faith, Brown returned to his personal story, talking about what he learned from his daughter Dana, who was born 2 1/2 months premature with hydrocephalus and cerebral palsy. He and his wife were told that Dana, if she lived beyond age 1, would be "so physically dependent and medically involved that you should probably think about alternative living arrangements."
Today, Dana is a sophomore at Old Dominion University, and Brown said he has learned a lot from her, including a new way of thinking about faith.
"As an administrator, we're constantly looking for outcomes," he said. "The public understands outcomes. You've got to give it to them.
"Dana helped my wife and I redefine faith. As an administrator, I thought faith was about outcomes. But then I realized that, as a dad, as a husband, as a father, as an educator, my new definition would apply to all. Faith is no longer about outcomes for me. It's about outlook. Do you have a basement outlook or a balcony outlook?"
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