Educator Karanja Crews has a calling to change the way teachers reach their students. Through his 12 years of professional teaching experience, he has made his teaching culturally relevant and empowering to students of color.
For the last five years, he has helmed the Teaching with Purpose conference, which shares these insights with other local educators. The event has grown from attracting 10 attendees to bringing in more than 500 and highlights the work of nationally renowned educators.
Crews spoke with The Skanner News about the recent conference, the current state of equity in local education and his plans to continue this work. Here are excerpts of that interview, edited for space and clarity.
The Skanner News: First and foremost, how did the conference go?
Karanja Crews: It was an awesome weekend, awesome high energy. I think people really left empowered and charged up, which is the goal.
TSN: What workshops did your attendees seek out?
KC: Dr. Chris Emdin, his work around hip hop pedagogy and reality pedagogy, he was a huge draw. Tim Wise was a huge draw, just in terms of the keynote speaker.
We had a dynamic speaker from New Jersey, named Principal Kafele; he did a dynamic workshop around his 50 principles of leadership. Yeah, I think those were pretty much the draw. Pedro Noguera’s workshop drew people too. Basically, the workshops are about how to reach kids in different ways and to be more culturally relevant in your practice.
TSN: Some influential people contributed to the conference -- Tim Wise and GZA, to name a few. Was this overwhelming?
KC: It was great for them to understand the vision and accept the offer to come speak, that was a great feeling. Just being able to build with them when they arrived, especially Tim Wise. He understands the vision of the conference, we're definitely going to continue working with him and bring him back.
TSN: What has the response been from people who have been to conference?
KC: We have tons of testimonies. So many people have come up to me and shared the story of what the conference meant. Now, I'm working on getting to a level where we actually see it take place in the classroom, having these culturally relevant practices being measured and evaluated would be ideal.
TSN: I saw that you had tons of sponsors like local school districts, PSU and the Oregon Education Association. Do you feel like this is an endorsement of equity in education?
KC: It's a step in the right direction and they all have different levels of sponsorship which means they can bring a certain amount of people to the conference.
So I definitely think it's great to have them as sponsors, but I'm interested a lot more in comprehensive partnerships where they can bring more of their administrators and more of their teachers as a collective group to come and to learn and to build around the work and to develop plans on implementation.
TSN: What is the Teaching with Purpose Leadership Institute?
KC: The leadership Institute basically was started through a grant from the Oregon Department of Education last year. We were able to get seven school districts to develop teams that looked at different educational policies that Oregon has in place.
For example, with the Senate bill 103, which was passed in 1999, the multicultural educational bill, the disproportionate discipline bill that just came out -- we looked at the equity lens the state of Oregon has adopted. We also looked at the Oregon social studies policy that asks districts and schools to integrate more of a Native American perspective and an African American perspective of Oregon history, that's a law that's in place.
What we found within this institute last year is that a lot of superintendents and school leadership had no knowledge of these different policies. The institute is a way to lay the foundation and educate people about these policies. That is what the nucleus of the teaching with purpose is.
TSN: So this is a way to keep these aspirations as real goals, not just ideas?
KC: Exactly, and that is the goal of the Teaching With Purpose conference and the leadership institute, it’s to hold the state accountable with these particular policies that we have in place.
TSN: From my understanding, you've retired from teaching to concentrate on this conference and your education full-time. Why do you think your work has been to teach the teachers?
KC: I feel it's my calling. I feel that I had to first put in the work of teaching with a purpose in a classroom, myself, making sure I was successful as a teacher practitioner. I just felt it was time to shake the system, in a sense, and I felt that I couldn't do that being confined in the classroom, so I made a decision to step out of the classroom to try different change on a broader scale.