Brandon P. Fleming, a nationally acclaimed Harvard educator and author of MISEDUCATED: A Memoir, was our keynote speaker at our Spotlight on Early Literacy and the Whole Child virtual conference in January. Fleming shared a compelling story about his own life - a life of poverty and despair; a life of struggle at home and in school, a young life of being illiterate. A life almost certain to have gone a different route for a child at-risk, but turned around by someone who cared about him - a teacher who inspired him to rise from nothing to joining the Harvard University debate faculty at age 27. Fleming became an award-winning educator. At Harvard, he established an unprecedented program, the Harvard Diversity Project – that has pipelined Black youth into the Ivy League.
Growing Up Invisible
Brandon Fleming grew up in an abusive home. He was ignored by his teachers, neglected by family and abused by his stepfather. Teachers gave him passing grades because of his skill on the basketball court, but he lacked basic skills in reading and writing. Depression almost pushed him over the edge, but a teacher saw something in him that no one else in his entire life did -- potential. She believed in him and helped him to believe in himself. She encouraged him to read books that interested him and led him to immerse himself in the works of Black thinkers.
Looking Beyond the Metrics
Fleming's message is one of resilience and second chances, but also love. He calls educators to look beyond required metrics to the whole child and to recognize stereotypes we may have about disadvantaged youth.
"So often we lead with judgment about a person or student we encounter," said Fleming. "Continued failure puts a child in desperation. When a child knows that you care about them first, they will try to please you. It is up to us to know their stories. To try and understand their background, and to show interest by learning what their interests are. We must encourage them to have ambitions."
Fleming went from being almost illiterate to having mastery over language and debate. He leads an executive staff and board that has raised over a million dollars to enroll over 100 students of color into Harvard’s international summer debate residency on full scholarships. His students have matriculated to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other universities.
Equity and Empathy...How Far Will You Go?
Fleming urges educators to gain the trust of their students first. To use empathy and equity and love as instruments to activate learning. "Young people cannot be what they cannot see," he reminds us. His book, "Miseducated," is a personal narrative about his transformation from being ignored and feeling invisible to becoming a proud scholar and to recognizing the accomplishments of others like him.
"As a teacher, we have a sphere of influence and power. We can introduce culturally-relevant books that resonate with children's own lives, traditions and experiences. Representation is the lens through which we see and learn. Every one of us is called to love first and teach second. Imagine what kind of results we would have in our country and the world [if we did that]."
With Literacy Comes a Sense of Self
Fleming’s advice to teachers is to..."Build instruction around the student through literacy. Help children see their own identity and make them feel like they belong. We expect children to come to our class ready to consume knowledge, but that isn't the reality for many, many kids. Our first job is to make learning relevant to the learner and put the child’s interests at the center."
Unlocking Equity for Millions of Students
At Learning Ally, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are a part of each and every one of our team members. DEI drives our culture, our solutions and ultimately the equality in educational outcomes that Mr. Fleming advocates for and our organization strives to achieve. To that end, we invite you to join us for our next Spotlight on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion webinar coming up on March 30, 2022.