In this week's blog, I want to give props to Madison Memorial High School (not an easy feat for a proud graduate of Madison West)!
Late last fall, a team led by Principal Jay Affeldt and staff members Robin Amado, Cara Fitzgerald, Kristin Voss, and Leslie Mitchell hatched an idea that showed vision and a willingness to promote some courageous conversations. Taking a cue from the University of Wisconsin's "Go Big Read" program in which everyone on campus is urged to participate in a campus-wide book club discussion, Memorial set its sights on staging an All-School Read in April (of this year). But there were some potential landmines in the pursuit of this objective which needed to be thoroughly vetted before launch. Being respectful community partners with MPD and wanting this to be a collaborative discussion, Educational Resource Officer (ERO) Shane Olson (assigned as the ERO to Memorial) as well as Lieutenant Tim Patton (a former student/teacher/coach at Memorial) were brought in from the outset of this inspired initiative, particularly given the fictional novel that had been selected: All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/All-American-Boys/Jason-Reynolds/9781481463331/reading_group_guide
The book is a young adult novel narrated by two high school students. One, an African American artist named Rashad, is wrongly accused of theft and is beaten by a white police officer. The other student, a white athlete named Quinn, witnesses the event but is conflicted about what to do. As the story evolves, the characters are grappling with trying to understand what happened and how they should react/respond. Ultimately, issues of social inequality, race, the police, and the role of community members to take action to support each other are all intertwined and leads to many provocative questions.
ERO Shane Olson and Lt. Patton---as well as Madison Memorial Staff---wanted to gauge my level of interest (and support) for the concept before moving forward. I told them that I was completely in support of this ambitious project---so long as we could have police officers participate in the read and the group discussions with students. The Memorial team then began a very intentional and sensitive approach which included making the All-School Read an elective/optional activity, sending home information to parents/legal guardians, and creating "buy-in."
I received a degree of push-back once it was generally known that the project had the blessing of MPD. But I urged those with reservations to ponder a few considerations. First, the book is a work of fiction so the discussions could be highly animated and passionate about the various themes as they unfold without "personalizing" and putting people on the defensive. Second, these are EXACTLY the types of conversations that we need to be a part of with our young adult constituents. I want our officers to be able to fully engage in these sort of forums as snapshots of topical issues of our day. Ignoring or sidestepping contemporary problems will not advance our desire to foster authentic relationships of respect and trust. While some argue that selecting this work of fiction would only serve to exacerbate strained relations between citizens and the police, my belief is that we have to take on calculable risks like these in order to enhance constructive dialogue.
For a first year venture, I was completely impressed with the preparation and thoughtfulness that went into making this project an unqualified success! Small group discussions, facilitated by staff who utilized a study guide of probative questions (see attached flyer), ensured that the conversations were robust and constructive. The school hosted an assembly that was well-received. My twenty-some cops were talking about the sessions enthusiastically. And a real "coup" was when the authors got wind of this project and decided to show up and spend some time with the students and the cops! I think that the authors were amazed at the collaboration and this truly represented a "first" for them as well!
When I attended the potluck finale with students, their parents, staff and some of our cops, everyone I spoke with considered this a "win" and expressed the hope that this would not be a "one and done" proposition. I am so grateful to Memorial's vision, the student's willingness to participate, for ERO Shane Olson's eagerness to partner up, and for the cops who really embraced this initiative as an "opportunity" for engagement beyond the badge. Through programs like this, we can be assured that trust gaps can be challenged and more meaningful relationships can be fostered.
Thank you, Spartan Nation!