PBL World 2016 Day Three: Ashanti Branch Keynote

Ashanti Branch took the stage this morning, a big man with dreadlocks and a warm smile. The theatre was packed, as were the breakout rooms with live feeds, and stacks of blank white paper lay mysteriously at the end of each row of seats. He said right off the bat that when he was young he never wanted to be a teacher – but gave a shout-out to those who did. He told of growing up in Oakland, California, the son of single mom on welfare. His father died six months before his birth.

As a child he had absorbed the message about studying and working hard to get a good job, but by the time he reached middle school he learned that it was “not cool to be smart.” In elementary school with only 20 kids in class it was different, he said, but facing 180 kids in middle school classes each day he felt the need to fit in. So his attitude toward school, and his grades, were dropping fast until one day his favorite teacher said something that changed his direction.

It began when he sat on a tack a classmate put on his chair. He yelled, earning a threat of detention. As he sat unresponsively listening to what felt like a half-hour speech, his teacher said, “I know you’re sad your father died, but life doesn’t give us what we want, it gives us what we get, and we have to make most if it.” When it became clear that his “excuse for acting the fool” wasn’t a smart choice, it was the start of a turnaround and he left high school bound for college.

Ashanti dropped a message about the role of a teacher for young people like him that really hit home, especially for a lot of secondary-level teachers: “If you care more about science (or whatever subject) than you do about me, forget about it, I’m done with you.”

After becoming a mechanical engineer, he was making money but didn’t find his work satisfying. He did some tutoring on the side, though, and one day while showing a boy a shortcut for multiplying polynomials he “saw the light go on” and felt the call to teach. He “ran from it” at first, but eventually got his credential and worked in Oakland schools, where he saw his middle school self in the boys he taught. This led him to start the Ever Forward Club in 2004, to help transform the lives of young men of color. One of his alumni, Vincent Flores, was brought onstage to say how he had been helped by the club to open up emotionally, and added, “I learned I’m not a number, that my life matters.”

The Mask You Live In

Ashanti then revealed the purpose of the stacks of blank paper: he asked everyone to draw a mask, a “representation of you.” On or below it we wrote three words to describe what we let the world see about us, and on the back three things we don’t let people see about us. He told us to wad the paper into a snowball, had us face various points in the room and, on his countdown, throw it. After the “snowstorm” we all found a wad, uncrumpled it, and read some powerful words. (After the keynote, Ashanti asked everyone to leave the mask drawings so he could add them to his collection, now numbering over 9000!)

To conclude, Ashanti shared a letter he got from an 11 year old, on a day when he almost didn’t go to work, which was about committing suicide. He later showed us another letter from the same boy after he was helped by Ever Forward, expressing thanks for caring about him. This and the mask activity powerfully reinforced Ashanti’s messages to PBL educators:

  • Get to the heart of where students are; we have to care more about them than our subject.
  • Think about people, not the product; the project is not more important than the people.
  • Teach them to have a voice; listen even if you don’t always want to hear it.
  • Let them know you see them.
  • You matter!

Watch the full keynote: