Tupac Shakur has been dead for over 20 years, and yet his music and lyrics are still popular with young people today. Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade thinks Tupac remains influential all over the world because he writes about some of the essential truths young people still experience. Duncan-Andrade even named the elementary school he helped start Roses in Concrete after the Tupac poem “The Rose That Grew From Concrete.” The rapper’s metaphor for young people in tough neighborhoods trying to grow toward the light, despite a toxic environment, feels exactly like what Duncan-Andrade has seen in Oakland schools throughout his career.
“We see them [students] for their damaged petals instead of their tenacity and will to reach the sun,” said Duncan-Andrade at the final keynote of the 2018 Deeper Learning Conference. In addition to his academic research and writing, Duncan-Andrade is the founder and Board Chair at the Roses in Concrete Community School.* For his students, violence is one of the most persistent toxic stressors. Most of them know someone who has died, often by gunfire. But in Tupac’s metaphor, the concrete isn’t just violence. It’s institutional racism, patriarchy, gentrification, poverty in the face of great wealth -- it’s inequality.
“The concrete is real and it’s multilayered and it’s toxic,” Duncan-Andrade said. “If schools are not aware of the concrete and that students are showing up with damaged petals, then we can’t see those roses.”
Duncan-Andrade is the first to admit that students need to learn to read, write, think and do math -- he has a doctorate, after all. But he doesn’t think educators can close the opportunity gap if they don’t stop pretending that the conditions students live in, and what happens to them outside of school, isn’t part of being a teacher. Those experiences are a critical part of whether kids are prepared to learn or not.
As with so many things in schools, Duncan-Andrade said this comes back to measuring the things we value. Schools measure numeracy and literacy and truancy, but not less tangible things, like hope. That sends kids the message that teachers care more about reading and math skills than they do about whether their students have eaten or not, if they feel safe, if they have somewhere to sleep at night.
“There are a lot of other things that we’re not attentive to enough, and that we’re not measuring, to make it important in schools,” Duncan-Andrade said. Educators have known about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for decades, but Duncan-Andrade contends it has to be at the center of everything educators do. He’s found it essential that students believe he cares about them on that basic level before they'll be willing to learn from him.
Research coming out of the medical field about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) fuels Duncan-Andrade’s argument that inequality has a huge impact on the health and learning of children. Some researchers estimate that one in three residents of urban areas with high rates of violent crimes has post-traumatic stress disorder. But even worse, these young people aren’t “post traumatic” because the trauma they experience is ongoing, around them always. Researchers have come up with a new name for this disorder: complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The symptoms are more complex than what they’re seeing in the military,” Duncan-Andrade said, and schools are not equipping teachers to handle this health crisis. “The best I see in schools is a one-off training on trauma, and now you’re trauma-informed and go help those kids.” That’s nowhere near enough to equip people to show up for kids in the difficult but necessary ways required.
THE ROLE OF HOPE
“Hope is the best indicator for the degree to which kids will successfully navigate toxic stress, and the degree to which kids are less likely to engage in self-harming behavior,” Duncan-Andrade told me in another interview. But he warns the hope he’s talking about can’t be a false hope -- kids see right through that.
Too often, he said, teachers send the message that if students come to class and study hard they will succeed. The problem is that’s often not true, and kids know that. It’s a type of hope that comes from outside the community, based on assumptions that aren’t rooted in the reality that many of the most struggling students experience. Parroting this message devalues the lived experiences of kids by ignoring them.
But there’s another kind of hope that’s equally bad -- deferred hope. This is when people know better than to blame the kids, so they blame the system instead. “The problem with this is, of course, that their critique never results in a transformative program for the kids,” Duncan-Andrade said in a talk he gave at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Blaming the system defers a solution for the kids in school right now, waiting for a utopian society where inequality, racism and poverty don’t exist. Kids need hope now.
That’s why Duncan-Andrade advocates for something he calls “critical hope.” To achieve critical hope educators have to combine material resources, like great teaching, with fierce love for students demonstrated with actions, not words. This is incredibly hard work, but through all its ups and downs critical hope requires educators to continue believing they can do what they’ve never done before. Duncan-Andrade knows what he’s asking is hard, but he also knows that students are watching the adults.
“Wounded children tell the most truth,” Duncan-Andrade said at the Deeper Learning Conference. “And they tell it in the most raw ways. And it’s painful to hear that.” But when teachers send those wounded children out of class, passing them off to someone else in the building, it sends a message that they’re too difficult to love. He’s clear that fiercely loving students does not mean there is no conflict. Any good parent knows sometimes doing what’s best for kids doesn’t make them like you, but it should always show your love.
“You win the heart to get to the head,” Duncan-Andrade said. “We keep banging on their heads.”
The most “hopeful” teachers for Duncan-Andrade are the ones who see their classrooms as microecosystems. Teachers have no control over the institutional racisms kids face, the families they come from, where they live, or what happened on the way to school that day, but they can control the conditions of their classroom. They can create a new kind of soil for the roses to grow in, soil that isn’t toxic, that allows them to flourish.
“No master gardener blames the seed for not growing,” Duncan-Andrade said. "They know they have to change the soil. You’ve got to license yourself to be audacious.”
Students will make mistakes on this journey; they’ll lose all the progress they’ve made when another destabilizing event happens. And it will be incredibly frustrating to the teachers that love them. But, “We have to learn to love that about kids. And when we learn to love that about kids, we can remain audaciously hopeful,” Duncan-Andrade said.
As a high school teacher, college professor and founder of the Roses in Concrete Community School in Oakland, Duncan-Andrade tries to embody the tenets of effective teaching that he champions. He admits he doesn’t have it all figured out. He has never had a perfect day, but he hopes that approaching teaching as “radical healing” will start to heal the community, too.
He doesn’t want the battered roses growing up in his square of Oakland concrete to get transplanted to a rose garden, never to return. He wants them to go off to institutions of higher education and take advantage of the knowledge, resources, opportunities and access found there before coming back to reinsert themselves into the concrete. Because when the people who “got out” come back, they widen the cracks for the seeds coming up behind them.
“So much of what we teach our young people is that those battered petals are bad, as opposed to that’s what enabled them to reach the sun,” Duncan-Andrade said. He thinks young people still love Tupac because his narrative is about staying connected to the concrete -- the parents, community and places of one's childhood -- even when one has become a healthy, thriving rose.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Duncan-Andrade was still teaching at Fremont High School. He no longer does. We regret the error.