How Gardening Could Save Detroit: Amanda Rosman, Urban Education Pioneer

Amanda Rosman, 33, is a single mom living in Detroit with her 5-year-old son Ajani. She's taught in the Detroit Public Schools, a Catholic school and a charter school, but her main project now is starting a revolutionary elementary school.

Along with four others, Amanda-who has a BA from Cornell, a master's in education from the University of Michigan, and a law degree from Wayne State University-is working on opening the Boggs Educational Center, which the founders hope will be open by the 2011-2012 school year. I spoke with Amanda by phone while she was on her way back to Detroit from a camping trip in the Pacific Northwest with her son about the challenges of teaching in the inner city, how education can be fixed, and urban gardening.

[Doree will be interviewing interesting women every week for us. If you have someone you'd like to suggest, email her.]

How'd you get involved with the Boggs Educational Center?
A friend named Nate Walker. This is sort of his pet project that he's been wanting to do for a long time. So he brought four of us in on it. The way we all came to know about it for the most part was through the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, it's basically called the Boggs Center. It was founded in the name of Grace Lee Boggs and Jimmy Boggs, who are Detroit activists. Jimmy is no longer with us but Grace Lee is 94 years old and she is the most amazing person. She's worked with us a lot. And we've had a lot of conversations on our educational philosophies. The five of us decided to get together and put them into action, so the school's named after her, just to keep her legacy around. She's been an inspiration to the five of us.

You've been teaching since 1999.
I came back from studying abroad in East Africa, in Kenya and Zanzibar. I hadn't gone to college thinking I was going to become a teacher-they don't even have a teacher education program where I went. But I had a great professor who taught a class called the Sociology of the African-American Experience and it dealt mostly with issues of education in urban areas. So when I came back from Africa, I ended up living in Detroit and I decided to try and find a job in the schools, for an uncertified something or other. And I ended up as an emergency sub without a teaching certification, in a Catholic school. And it was a really amazing, wonderful experience. So I went back to school and got certified and got my master's degree and became a full-fledged teacher.

Are you from the Detroit area?
I'm from the suburbs of Detroit.

What were you teaching when you were an emergency sub?
I taught all subjects to third graders.

You said it was an amazing experience-what was particularly compelling about it?
There were cultural differences that I was really unaware of. And working with kids who are so open and honest and innocent, they made those differences really apparent to me. I learned a lot about the students I was working with. I learned a lot about another culture within my own community. We had so much fun together. We learned so much on both sides and so I really wanted to keep working with students.

What did you teach after you got your certification?
After I got certified I went into Detroit Public Schools and I taught fifth grade for three years. During that time I was laid off once and transferred twice. I loved my school in Detroit Public Schools, I loved my principal, I loved the people I worked with and the students there, but I actually got pregnant in my third year and it became difficult to get two weeks' notice of not having a job so I did go work at a charter school in Detroit.

How many years were you there?
I'm still at the charter school. This will be my fifth year.

What are some of the challenges of being a single mom?
Well, I'm single and I'm a mother. He spends a couple nights a week with his dad. His dad lives right near by us. He stays with my parents once in awhile, once a week even. It can be challenging financially a little bit. As far as the upbringing, we're definitely trying to create a village mentality for him. We're co-parenting, we're a pretty good team. I'm still friends with my ex-he's actually one of the five of us starting the school, Alfred [DeFreece].

You guys aren't sure exactly what kind of school it's going to be. It could be a charter school, a regular public school, or a private school. Can you talk a little bit about what the thought processes are for all those different options?
I would think most likely it's going to be a charter school because it's just sort of the most practical method for us to open a school in an efficient manner. Making it an independent school would be difficult for our population because we're low socioeconomically. And being just a regular old public school through a district would be major-it probably just wouldn't work out. Most likely we do want to be a charter but the reason it's vague on the website is we really are just trying to focus on our principles and our mission, and start formulating everything on top of that. We want to come in with a really solid base on what we wanted the school to be and focus on, and then build from that. We're now just sort of starting to build the logistics into the mission and the vision.

What will the selection process be?
For a charter school in Michigan it has to be completely random. We have to go by a general lottery. We can't be selective. We'll start with a few, maybe two to three, kindergarten classes with a small set size undetermined as yet, and add a new kindergarten cohort each year.

What are some of the issues of being a white teacher in a majority black school?
For the most part it's really a learning experience on both sides, I think. There have been things that come up where one side, whether it's a parent or me, feels like there's cultural insensitivity coming from the other side. In my experience we can approach each other and talk about these things. There have been some more slightly accusatory types of things from time to time but they're usually worked out with some discussion. We have a lot to learn from each other. I think the real pitfall is white teachers going into schools with mostly black students and acting like they really understand the black students' experience and try to be down with them. I think that's a pitfall. The students see through that. I don't think it creates a trusting environment.

Can you sum up how this school is going to be different from other schools, or other schools you've taught at?
I've had really great experiences at the schools I've taught at, so I don't think it's going to be totally different. All of us are bringing in experiences from where we come from. I think within big districts the focus has moved from-there are obsolete systems. There were systems that were preparing kids for factory jobs, or jobs period, and there aren't jobs to be prepared for. So we're trying to move toward the question of what does it mean to be a human being and an active member of society and not to minimize the importance of jobs and survival, because that will certainly be a goal, but our focus we want to be on the question, and it's a Grace Lee Boggs question, of what does it mean to be a human being. We formulated four guiding principles based on that question. One, creativity. Two, multiple literacy.

What does that mean?
Not just reading and writing but creative expression, verbal expression, expression through the arts, anything you can think of. Ways of understanding your environment and expressing your opinions. Third, community involvement, which is especially important to me, and fourth, critical thinking skills.

Can you go into a little bit of what you're envisioning for the community involvement portion?
We definitely plan on having a strong urban gardening, or even urban farming, component. One of the five of us, Frank Donner, is a big urban farmer and we want to work on teaching kids about sustainable living. How can we produce for ourselves, put our resources back into our community, not be in isolation from the community but work within it. So urban gardens would be one way to do that. We're just starting with the kindergarten and adding a grade every year. So with the kids, what we hope to be able to do is identify problems or at least needs within the community, and use those as lessons for problem-solving but building in academic skills or meet needs of the community.

How Gardening Could Save Detroit: Amanda Rosman, Urban Education Pioneer

I know that's kind of a hot topic right now, getting kids in urban areas to learn about how to eat better and making good food choices. Are you at the stage where you're talking about school lunches or other kinds of ways to encourage kids to eat healthily and make good food choices?
We're not there yet but that's definitely on the horizon. A friend of ours, Greg Willerer, has created a little business with his students where they grow their own food-they grew tomatoes and peppers and learned how to make it into Tabasco sauce, sold it at the Eastern Market in Detroit, put the money back into their business, they were attempting to sell their produce to the schools for lunches-that was going to be the next phase. So that is definitely something we'd like to consider, but we haven't formulated that yet.

How Gardening Could Save Detroit: Amanda Rosman, Urban Education Pioneer

How are you going to start the critical thinking component at the kindergarten level?
We're just getting started at formulating our curriculum. We're going on a retreat this weekend together to sort of start. We plan to have our curriculum based on higher order thinking skills. The schools have become so test-oriented that there's a lot of delivery of material and information and it's not the schools' fault so much, it's mandated. But we're going to figure out how we're going to work in the testing system that we have to participate in but encourage higher order thinking and critical thinking where students can not just regurgitate, but create their own questions and address them with the skills we want them to build while they're with us.

What are some of the things that could be done on the federal level to make a difference in urban education?
No Child Left Behind makes things extremely difficult with AYP-Adequate Yearly Progress. A major component of No Child Left Behind is that-and I don't claim to be an expert on No Child Left Behind-every school has to make Adequate Yearly Progress, and that's the big buzz term. So whatever our state testing scores are, each school has to make a certain percentage improvement in every subject based on-I don't even know, it's sheer madness. If you don't make it you go onto a level 2 where you're being observed, and if you don't make it that year you go into a level 3, and there are all these levels. And you get to a point where your school is completely reconstituted and all the teachers are like, oh... It's very stressful. It's stressful for the kids. I think it discourages the love of learning. It's our job to make them understand it's important to us because it's important to our school staying alive but it really doesn't affect them personally, and it's really hard to get them to understand that we really just need them to do their best. It takes two weeks of instructional time to administer the test, time when we could be doing other stuff. It's just a major hindrance on teachers and it takes away so many opportunities in our classrooms, where we have to spend so much time preparing for this stuff. That's a really big thing. Then as far as I understand, No Child Left Behind is underfunded. So whatever they're mandating for the states to do, they're not paying for what they're supposed to be. It's a major drain on resources and time and students' energy, and it does teach useful information but it does not in any way encourage critical thinking.

What are some of the common misconceptions about day to day life in an urban school?
I don't know if they're misconceptions because I've only worked in the schools that I've worked in. But I think people see fights, teachers doing nothing, administrators doing nothing, people just enjoying their jobs because their unions have them put in place solidly-and in the schools I've been in it's certainly not true. In the Detroit Public Schools, in the Catholic school, in the charter school I'm in now I am constantly impressed every day by the people around me, how hard everyone works. Sometimes people like to blame the parents-it is what it is. We all show up every day, kids, parents, administrators, and just work really really hard.

What's on your wish list for urban education, if someone could wave their magic wand?
That's what we're trying to do, wave our magic wand and make a school. Definitely having a smaller class size is beautiful. At this school I work at right now our class size is 16. And that's the limit. So everything is very personalized for the students. We become very close with their families as well. In elementary school we have them for at least two years, so we get to know each student very well and can address their needs and their strengths. More money is always good for some creative positions, especially working with struggling students-there's always a shortage for those students. We want our school to be intergenerational, where we have the community involved, from the grandparents down to the children, with everyone bringing what they love into the place of learning. Just schools taking a whole different approach to learning-not necessarily breaking the day up into little compartmentalized classes but really being able to do organic genuine projects that integrate all the skills that we want our students to come out with.

You sort of alluded to this earlier when you said that a lot of the urban schools in Detroit were kind of created to prepare students for jobs that no longer exist. Can you talk about some of the challenges that are unique to Detroit?
I mean obviously we have major issues with the auto industry. Everybody has either lost a job in their family or knows someone who knows someone close to them who has lost a job. It's frustrating and it's just painful to sort of put up the front that if you work hard and do your best you'll come out with what you want and you'll meet your goals, because that's not a given anymore. You can work as hard as you want and there just aren't any jobs. So that's difficult. But having said that, besides the challenges in Detroit there are just so many unique opportunities in Detroit for the same reason. We have an opportunity to do this because the schools are struggling so much that we have the opportunity to provide an alternative. Another example is there are so many burned out lots and destroyed properties that urban gardening could be this major movement. I can't imagine there's another city where you have, in the middle of the city, one house on the block. It's not really a pretty sight but a lot of people have been taking over these city-owned lots and using them for sustainable farming.

When did you get a law degree?
I did the evening program at Wayne State University while I was teaching. I was in Detroit Public Schools at the time and I kept getting laid off, and I was just thinking, you know, I won't teach anywhere but the city, so if the city can't keep me I need to start thinking about something else. The charter schools weren't super popular at that point. I just figured it could only open doors, it wasn't going to hurt anything. I decided just to try it and I really fell in love with the law, so I decided to just stick with it.

How does that kind of inform your teaching?
It's funny because it definitely informs how I teach problem solving and analysis of literacy, just because studying law is digging into things in a different way than we're taught in school. Also I like to work with my students on advocating-so just as a classroom activity, we'll work on taking a side and advocating for one side or the other, or picking an actual issue in the world and advocating for it. And just to provide an example for my students because they think it's really interesting. Some of them have come to class with me before. They just think being a lawyer's really cool.

Is there anything else you want to add about either the school or about yourself?
One thing is that part of the impetus for the school is that three out of the five of us have kids and we all live in Detroit, so we're all trying to create the opportunity that we want for our own kids.

Related: Boggs Educational Center [Official Site]