The Re-Education of Alex Bruzan – Episode 9: Trash in the Alley

It’s a little after 4:30 in the morning and I am settled in to my chair to write something. That’s not so abnormal. I’ll get up early and write pretty regularly lately. This is the 9th one of these longer form pieces that I have put together over the last week and a half or two weeks. I wanted to get to 10 and then record some audio for them all. At first I was thinking podcast style. I have a podcast feed submitted (check out the first episode of something my wife and I have been working on), but now I am thinking maybe of just recording them like an audio book and maybe using the feed to house the chapters of the audio book. Not totally sure, so if you have a suggestion, shoot it my way.

It’s a little earlier than normal, but I was too excited and didn’t want to run short on time this morning. I was too excited because yesterday I said the work Asynchronous about 100 times. Before two days ago, I may not have ever used that term. I could tell you with a pretty high level of certainty that I have not used the term asynchronous more than 100 times in my entire life before two days ago.

One thing that happens when you are a white person that lives in the inner city (see Episode 1) is that you are always aware how you look differently than your neighbors and other people in the community. Because my skin color is different than over 99% of the residents of 53206, it’s something that is on my mind. When I am in a predominantly white area, I don’t think about it much, but here race is something I guess we choose to put ourselves in a position to think about regularly. That’s a huge difference about someone that looks like me. I had to choose to think about it more. I wouldn’t have to think about it if I lived somewhere else.

I’m a systems guy. Systems come naturally to me. If I want to accomplish something, build a system. I want to have a podcast. Because I want to have a podcast I have to create content. Because I have to create content, I get up early. Because I have to get up early to create content the rest of my day is built around getting up early to write. It’s the same thought process on the system that I use to renovate houses. You can renovate an entire house in a year if you work on it for about 2 hours a day every day. Some weeks those 2 hour chunks happen all on one day, but it is like the advice on how to eat an elephant, one bite at a time.

It is easy to remember racial inequity exists when I drive down my alley. It is obvious that disparities between poor and non-poor exist when I see fresh piles of trash dumped on the lawns of my neighbors. Literal piles of garbage dumped in the empty spaces between garages and walkways. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I don’t think trash was ever dumped in our yard. I don’t think most people have to worry about something like that happening. I drive down a lot of alleys and there is definitely a correlation between poverty and piles of trash in the alleys. That reminds me of a time about two years ago when I walked out of my garage to cut through the alley to grab something quick out of one of the rental houses. This particular house is directly behind mine but one to the south. There is no garage, just a parking slab. Sitting on the parking slab was a pile of garbage roughly the size of what could be put in the back of a pickup truck – a mattress, some small pieces of furniture, and half a dozen bags of trash.

Spilled out onto the pavement was a bag of random crap, some of which was mail. Several of the pieces of mail had the same address of a duplex on the east side. It was an address like 2122A which means it’s probably the upper of a property that didn’t always have a second unit in it. Before we converted our house back to a single family home, we had two addresses, 3239 and 3239A. When the census mailers came we got two, one for each address. Instead of grabbing whatever tool I needed out of the rental, I took the pile of mail inside and googled the address. It turned out the property was owned by someone with an easily findable facebook page. Within about 15 minutes she responded to my request via facebook comment to come out and pick up the garbage her or her tenant had dumped on my property. She referred me to the guy she hired to clean out the apartment located at the address on the mail I found in the pile. Within another 15 minutes he responded to my voicemail telling me that the crew he used to clean out the apartment must have dumped it there and he would have it gone by morning. I would say there is a new pile of trash dumped once a week on our block alone. In 14 years thats like 700 piles of trash. That was the only one I ever have gotten successfully removed.

One time I caught two guys right in the middle of dumping a trailer full of construction debris in an empty lot a few houses down. I walked over to them and told them we don’t want your garbage here, people live here and we would prefer there be no large piles of trash randomly dumped. One of the guys asked what I was going to do about it. I told him what he already knew, that there was nothing I actually could do about it. The police won’t help. The department of neighborhood services won’t clean it up. In fact, they will just ticket the property owner you until you clean it, since it’s on your property. About once a month I have to clean up a pile of dumped trash so I am not ticketed or forced to live in a makeshift landfill. In 14 years thats about 150 piles. Each one is a reminder of the disparities between the poor and non-poor. I can’t imagine my non-poor friends have cleaned up that much illegally dumped trash. I was literally cleaning up a pile of stuff yesterday. It was about 5 bags of clothes, blankets and toys. The clothes were a mix of women’s and children’s. A woman with her pre-school aged children (based on the shorts and shoes on top of one of the bags) didn’t dump them there. My guess is that was what was left over after someone was evicted. This pile was even right next to a garbage can. The least the person could have done was put it in a can. The two guys dumping plaster and toilets were right, there is nothing I can do to stop it. I know because all of my attempts to take video or provide police with pictures of someone dumping have never once done anything to slow it down. Nobody would listen or if they did listen, nothing would happen. That is how I used to feel about racial inequities in general. It’s obvious and happening right in front of us, but the people with the power to do something about it wouldn’t listen.

The atmosphere is different now. It’s different at work and it’s different in our larger society. Equity matters now. It matters now, because it matters to a critical mass of people, enough to start a movement, enough to make some moves. I have never thought what I am thinking right now, that a random person that looks like me from a suburb could read this article and offer to come to my alley and clean up something for my neighbors. I now believe that it’s plausible that could happen. I doubt it will, but it’s at least plausible. It’s the same feeling I have when I said the word asynchronous 100 times in the last two days.

We have to provide an education for every kid. It isn’t an option. During virtual learning, we know that engagement is going to be a challenge. We know that family and home situations that are less conducive to learning exist. We know that students will inherently opt out at similar or higher rates than they do in person. We know that a kid is less likely to log into their fourth zoom call in a row than show up to their fourth hour class after being present at the start of the school day. We know that kids will choose to learn at random times of day. While we want synchronous learning to occur, we know we have to offer an asynchronous option.

In an earlier post I mentioned how systems are their most inequitable when they are first designed, particularly if they are systems that are providing access to a need, like the need to access education in order to to develop marketable skills. We have a system so we can be efficient. Efficiency is great, because it allows us to accomplish more with less resources. We can provide more kids with access to marketable skills the more efficient we are. Synchronous learning is an attempt to be efficient. It is way easier to teach 30 kids how to find the slope of a line all at once than it is to teach 30 kids the same skill individually. Efficiency is great for those within the system. Asynchronous is inefficient.

About twice a year, the city will come through and clean up everything in the alley. It’s surreal when it happens. The alley goes from makeshift garbage dump to presentable in a few hours. With every pile that is picked up, hope that the alley will stay clean rises. It is a sign that good things can and do happen here. It’s also a sign that something might change.

Something happened that also makes me think change is coming. It was a sign of hope that where inequity now exists, equity might be coming soon. It started last summer. On Saturdays the community garden near my house will be filled with about 100 young men. For the last couple of years each Saturday from the end of the school year to the beginning of the next, boys from 12 to 18 show up to the garden to learn how to become men from a variety of locally known public figures. I’ve seen the mayor there a couple of times. Lena Taylor stops by there a lot. Even without a formal program this summer, state representative David Bowen was there last week and we talked about figuring out how to provide free education and job training for people whom high school didn’t work out the first time around.

Saturdays over the last couple of years have almost habitually been work days for me. I’ll typically get up, go for a run, and then start working at one of the rentals. Since writing more, I’ve slowed that down some, but that’ll only be until I figure out a different rhythm. Early in the summer last year I was about to go to work at the rental. I can leave from my garage and cut through the alley and be there in 15 seconds, but that day, I decided to go around the block so I could say hi to Andre and see what was going on at the garden. That’s when I walked right into Donna from Hale.

Donna coordinates the secondary Math department and being the main Math teacher at Dottke for a couple of years meant that we have worked together on some projects. We have done enough together to justify stopping and saying hello when we make eye contact as she is handing out something to some of the boys from the garden. I’m sure this is one of those universal feelings people have. It’s weird to see someone you would never expect in your neighborhood and around your house. It’s a little disorienting, like when the alley gets cleaned up. It makes you second guess where you are. My wife’s brother and his family live in Pewaukee or Sussex and a few houses down from them a guy I knew from college moved in with his family. Even that connection is a little strange. It is compounded several times here because of the demographic makeup of the area. I never expect to see another white person, and I certainly would never expect it to be someone I know. If it wasn’t for the garden and the staff of the school a block away and the police, I could go days without seeing another white person in our neighborhood. During the height of the quarantine, my work space was in front of a window that faces the highway and the footbridge connecting the east side to the west. I should have kept track, but I know there were weeks in there where I didn’t see anyone that looks like me. While a white person at the garden isn’t strange, seeing anyone I know here is. She is the only one. Seeing her that Saturday morning was the only time I have ever seen someone I know from another context, inside of our neighborhood.

It turns out she had been there multiple times. Through a friend of a friend she found out about the reading in the garden program where adults come and read to kids on Wednesday nights and had a similar program for math education in the works. At that point we had lived in our house for about 13 years. That is long enough to become a little jaded or at least go through jaded spurts. Initially, I assumed her intentions were good, but after hearing 13 years worth of promises to help the neighborhood and little tangibly to show for it, I assumed her intentions would stay as intentions and never move to action. She immediately proved me wrong the following week when she showed back up to the garden for Math night. With a couple of boxes of pizza and a trunk load of Math games, she showed up consistently during the summer. She is still the only person I have ever known from outside of the neighborhood that I have seen here and besides my family and friends, there are only a handful of other white people I have seen more often here.

Recently, Donna and I were planning for the virtual return of the school year. I had been talking over and over in other Zoom calls about inequities that are inevitably going to develop between synchronous and asynchronous learners. In my mind, the connection is pretty straightforward. Synchronous learning is the norm because it is way more efficient. It takes significantly less time to teach 30 kids how to find the slope of a line all at once than it does to teach 30 kids how to do the same thing individually. That’s why we have classes of 30, instead of having classes of 5. Once a student is in the school building for the day, they follow a schedule and that schedule tells them which content area they are learning in at a given time, from 9:10 – 10:25 student x learns about US History. That works for most kids. We know it works for most kids, because most kids get a passing grade for most of their classes. While it works for most, it doesn’t work for some. I believe a history of successfully passing courses is an indicator that synchronous learning is appropriate for the student and failure of courses would be an indicator that asynchronous was needed. However, we don’t look at the two equally. Synchronous is encouraged and asynchronous is discouraged by creating grading structures that don’t allow for learning to be assessed outside of a predetermined time frame. I know this to be true because of have met hundreds of students that failed a math class at another school but knew all of the content covered in the class.

If F’s are a sign of asynchronous learning and failing classes was how students were reassigned to Dottke in the past, then we clearly have an opportunity to create or remove equity gaps because during the 18/19 school year around 90% of Dottke’s graduating class was students of color, students living in poverty, or students with severe mental health issues. The students making up that 90%, for a variety of reasons, failed classes at a higher rate than their peers. Again for a variety of reasons the 30 kid classroom at a specific time didn’t work and it didn’t work at a higher rate than students not in one of those three subgroups.

Unprovoked, while explaining the thought process around some of the structures for virtual learning and before making my argument for our being careful not to exacerbate disparities in our equitable outcomes for students learning synchronously and asynchronously, Donna said the exact right thing. Donna, a woman that gives up her excess time to provide access to math education, instinctively knew the right mindset to have. By the way, giving up your excess to provide access contributes to a more equitable society. Using extra resources (time, money, or stuff) to provide access for someone, particularly access to marketable skills gets us to an equitable society much faster than through reforms to the educational system alone. Can you even imagine what our society would be like if, even for a short time, those of us with excess used our leftovers to provide access to the acquisition of marketable skills to those of whom access is more difficult? Especially if it was done overtly and intentionally framed as working to create equality. What would happen if every district in the metro Milwaukee area that had a free and reduced lunch rate lower than the average helped, whatever that would look like, the students in every district where rates were higher than average. Anyways, unprovoked she states what I was going to suggest, Donna says I am going to plan for my asynchronous students first and then build what I do for my synchronous students based on that. This is the same as using excess to provide access. By thinking first of the students that will struggle to engage at a specified time, she is providing a greater ease of access to a high quality education for the students that would typically be left out.

Her saying that made me as hopeful as when the trash in the alley gets picked up. It makes me think things are going to get better someday. It makes me think that the people that deserve our best (because they have historically gotten are worst) are going to get it. I have no idea what Donna and I agree or disagree about in terms of educational philosophy. Her and I might favor differing instructional models or we may be right inline with each other. I don’t think any of that stuff actually matters all that much if you can’t get the basics right and her plan to design an educational experience first for those that need ease of access to eduction the most is the exact right place to start.