Category Archives: Equity

On This Incredible Day

I returned to class to find that one of my students had taken some liberties with a poster hanging on the door. He/she had taped a picture of Sweet Brown, a Black woman made infamous for her reaction to a fire. She essentially became a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons.

Anyhow, her particular response, “I ain’t got time for dat” was what was posted. While I wasn’t shocked when I saw the meme, I was…disappointed, I guess. That’s the beauty about insensitivity and all that’s wrapped up with it (racism, classism, sexism)–when it hits you in the face, you have to deal with it. I mean, I could have simply ignored it, took the poster off the wall, tossed it in the recycling bin, made a comment under my breath about “these kids” and kept it moving.

I didn’t, though. I told the kids that I was bothered by the poster for several reasons, the greatest among them being that it traded in stereotypes. That it made fun of someone who was Black, poor, from a region of the country that was different from ours. And I’m sure I fumbled around for some other words, but I tried to raise awareness, but I also intentionally made a point not to preach. Preaching gets you nowhere. You’re better than this, I said, simply, finishing with something like I need you to be the people that ask questions about what we see, that make things right, that don’t do what’s easy because it’s funny.

On the fly, when grappling with issues like these, I can either be dynamite or dismal. I think I was probably somewhere in the middle: I was tired, I was annoyed and I was, as I said, disappointed. I mean, we’d had some breakthroughs already in class, addressing issues of oppression and inequality, so when this incident reminded me of how much further we all must go…yeah, I was fumbling and stumbling for my words.

I gave the same speech to all the classes. I will probably never know who did it, but at least the message was consistent: you’re better than that. We don’t trade in stereotypes in this classroom. Ask critical questions and make some change in the world.

That night, while checking my email, I found that one of my students had sent me a link to an article about ironic racism, Antoine Dodson and Sweet Brown. He asked if I could send it out on the class Twitter, thought it germane for the conversation earlier that day.

OMG. They GET IT! At least one of them does. All it takes is one, right?!

I can’t quite describe that moment: me sitting at the desk, with some cynicism attempting to dampen my spirits, and there’s this kid’s email…

Next day, I read the article to the group and explain that said student gave me the language I needed to express my frustration: ironic racism. We had some brief discussion and I posted the article, both on Twitter and on the FYI wall (the announcements section of the room).

I am so grateful to him first for being an ally (because I have few kids of color in my classes this year), for being able to speak truth to power, for giving ME the language to use…for taking responsibility for helping us all understand why we need to wake up and pay attention.

Yup. It happened. On that one incredible day.

And I can quickly summarize that in the days after, I ended up having some moving conversations with kids about awareness, about their own anger that people weren’t more outraged, about being invited to bring my fourth period to an assembly for LGBTQ awareness…all small steps to moving us in a positive direction.

I also realized that I, too, have a choice. I can be disappointed in the kids, or I can be heartened that–together–we can string together more incredible days, where events such as this happen.

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Filed under Equity, New School Chronicles

This is DEFINITELY on the test…

One of the tasks we oversee in my school is administering the PSAT. I have to proctor it to my homeroom kids, the majority of whom I don’t teach. Instead, we see each other daily for about 20 minutes of awkwardness: I tell them all the things the school says they need to know (upcoming events, educational tidbits, which of late concern the election, distribute lunch detentions that the deans give me to pass along to particular students). They half-listen, some annoyed, others amused at my seeming ineptitude for idle chatter and paperwork. It’s funny, too, because they all know each other from the year before and have existing relationships. I’m the new kid to that homeroom party. For the most part, though, we get through it, and are finding our balance.

This is the group that I was responsible for for the PSAT. Every sophomore at this school takes the test, whether they want to or not. Whether they have any idea what the purpose is the test is for, or not.

What I realized–during that period where you tell kids to write their address, fill in bubbles, sign their name–is that there are particular bubbles on the form that stand to either advantage or disadvantage kids of color. One bubble asks for them to identify their race. Another asks if they want to be identified for awards based on their race, while a third asked for their email address if they wanted to be contacted by colleges (and the latter is not just about kids of color). When I was walking around, making sure kids were filling out their forms correctly, I noticed a number of kids of color (not just Black kids), not filling out those questions.

I asked one of them why and she shrugged, said she didn’t want to.

Warm demander alert!

I suggested she fill out ALL of those forms. Why count yourself out before the game even starts?! Rinse and repeat same suggestion for the other handful of kids who were uncertain about filling out those questions.

As they proceeded to take the test and I proceeded to proctor, of course I began to think about whether other kids around the school had folks who checked to see if those boxes were filled out. Look, I love young folks, but when left to their own devices, they’re gonna skip things, but when they’re skipping measures on standardized tests that might actually benefit them in the long run (and I’ll loosely define benefit for these purposes), I worry.

So many measures are uneven and biased that if they can get some small foothold that positively influences their future, we have to make sure they’re taking it. Even if they don’t want to fill in the bubble.

We gotta pay attention. All the time.

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Filed under Equity, New School Chronicles, Student Interactions, Writing About Race

Re-Envisioning the Dinner Table

I was between places for about two weeks. It was an experience I found both unsettling (where to put my dogs, my stuff, my BOOKS?!) and freeing (once the dogs were in their favorite kennel, that left me copious time to loiter in book stores, see neglected friends, attempt to dig myself out of the mishegas that had somehow become my life). It was also during this time that some great friends offered me a place to stay. One of them was a teacher and we’d spend moments here and there throughout those weeks chatting about teaching. She teaches in the city, in an under-resourced school, and she’s amazing because she just gets it done. She does not allow the fact that they are poor, or second-language learners, or have a disability prevent her from teaching them to be great.

I often reflect on moving to the suburbs and now back into the city, the differences between the two places. Finally, in one of our conversations about Lisa Delpit and cultural capital and all that stuff that’s difficult yet critical to discuss, we hit upon it: Kids who are privileged–in whatever ways they are privileged–have incredible opportunities to sit around a dinner table and soak in knowledge. So it might not matter that something is “missed” in school in favor of test prep or remediation. A parent or someone is going to probably mention some fact, or concept, or build background information, fill in those gaps.

For many underserved kids, they don’t have those opportunities. This is not a pity party, so hold on. They have plenty of strengths, but–and I’m channeling Theresa Perry here–they don’t have someone/anyone systematically handing over knowledge and cultural capital in any consistent format.

About a week ago, I took up another friend on her offer to have dinner, the night after I’d moved into my new place (finally). Of course I took her up on that! We enjoyed this stick-to-your-ribs soup and then, the parents of another family that was there, too, asked their son about a quiz he had the next day.

The cities in Japan. They quizzed him. Then, because he couldn’t name all the cities, they printed out a map of Japan, labeled the cities with him, and then proceeded to come up with a creative mnemonic for him to remember on his quiz the next day.

I was in awe: it was exactly what I meant about the handing over of cultural capital AT THE DINNER TABLE.

I could not have scripted a better moment if I’d tried.

Now what if we re-envisioned the dinner table, took it out of our houses (for those that even have those things, and let’s be real–not all kids do) and brought it to places where kids could sit down and “eat,” as it were? What if we encouraged kids (and adults, too, most likely) to pull up a table and give them the nourishment that they need?

Classrooms can be such places, yes. Wherever these spaces crop up, shouldn’t we hand over the cultural capital in a way that allows them to walk in the world as more knowledgeable, more brilliant young people?

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Filed under Equity, Writing About Race

Community Serving

Image

My view out the window of the Boston Athenaeum

Yesterday, I cut an afternoon of enjoying cupcakes with my former colleagues short to have a sort of intervention with a former student. Those cupcakes (from Georgetown Cupcake) were quite delightful, as was the company once we got through the details of my leaving.

My former student graduated from high school in 2011 and has been working at the Gap and the movie theatre since then. When I had her as a sophomore, she was one of the most difficult students I might have ever taught: loud, pushy, challenging…and hilarious. It’s often tough to discipline a student when they have a comeback to something you’ve said that is so witty and/or ingenious that you just have to give them credit. She was that student.  She was also gifted; seriously. She had a way of writing that was quite compelling, loved words, and was a voracious reader (of primarily urban lit). The same qualities that I came to covet, however, were her eventual downfall at that school. She decided to withdraw from that small pilot school before her senior year started out of worry that she wouldn’t be able to restart anywhere if she was expelled. Thus, she ended her senior year at one of the large, failing public high schools a few blocks away, where she says she didn’t work particularly hard.

She tells me that she knows she didn’t work hard, that she usually doesn’t work hard, and that she hasn’t been pushed to do hard work since my class, her sophomore year.

Look, I’m a good teacher, but I wouldn’t call myself an amazing teacher. Transformative in moments, but transformative is up for grabs, particularly depending on the context and the student. With this young woman, though, I figured out early on that she was quite smart and that she acted up in her other classes because she was bored and wasn’t challenged. Her coping mechanism was to draw attention to herself, stop the instruction that was happening, and perhaps learn something that she didn’t already know. Unfortunately, it was too easy to send her to the office, suspend her, kick her out of class, take other punitive measures that deprived her from learning.

I can’t quite remember what it was, exactly, that clued me in to her brilliance, but I bet it happened in unstructured time: either coming or going from class, or in the hallway, or something I overheard. Long story short: once I figured her out, I pushed her, demanded more, kept delivering the same message that she was too smart to make dumb choices and that, in the words of Research for Better Teaching, I wasn’t going to give up on her, even if she gave up on herself.

She’ll tell you that she is one of my favorites. Maybe she’s right. But she earned that status. And I probably never worked as hard as I had to that point to figure out what students who already “get it” need in a classroom of their peers, many of whom are struggling to even get to grade level. For me, I learned to praise the good, to add more advanced tasks, to put her in a leadership role. She never disappointed me.

No big shocker that when she called (after standing me up twice previously), I said I’d meet her, even if that meant curtailing my socializing.

In our hour conversation, seated at a picnic table, she told me that she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but that she wanted to “be ill.” She’s obsessed with being comfortable, or a level above comfortable, as she explained. I was more concerned with the practical: an undergraduate degree, a career, a retirement plan, but it was hard to make much headway with her. Finally, after coming at the question of what she wanted to do from different avenues, she finally admitted that she doesn’t want to be her mother or her grandmother, who are constantly struggling, having to ask for money from other family members, hating their jobs. That led to some brainstorming about people with jobs she admired (short list: agent, music producer, guidance counselor–can you guess which one I picked?!), which segued into thinking about skills she needed to have and where to get them. Then, we talked about the power to change our lives: that even though she wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to do now (and I had to keep trying to disabuse her of that notion: that you’re really not supposed to know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life when you’re only 19), she could change her mind. And then, finally, that if all signs were telling her that she should work with children, then she should, in some capacity. Teacher salaries were fairly decent, particularly in Boston.

She would be a phenomenal teacher or guidance counselor because, as a tough kid, I think she’d bring an understanding to how to reach tough kids. We ended with an action plan: she was going to make a list of schools with programs she might apply to and I was going to track down some former students who were working in the fields in which she indicated interest. She’s supposed to report back on Sunday.

Then, she asked me to spell “minutiae” for her. I used that word a lot when I was her teacher, reminding students that they were getting too caught up in that and not nearly enough in the bigger picture (i.e., they’d go ballistic about my requirement to format ALL papers in 12-point, Times New Roman but wouldn’t bat an eye about being asked to write an analytical argument about a text they’d read). Maybe that was a reminder not to get caught up in my own minutiae this year…?

I left urban teaching a few years ago because I was exhausted: I think being a Black teacher exacts its own glories and sacrifices. I loved the kids–at the same time, I was also the person they often turned to…so while one student doing that might be okay, multiply that number by 10, or 20. I’m ready to return to urban schools after my sabbatical, though, and I’m trying to do a better job about connecting my former students to each other: surely they can draw on their experiences to help each other. That’s what I told my student yesterday: we have a responsibility to help the community. Otherwise, what is this work for?!

Now, as I begin to turn the corner and approach another school year, I decided to begin my fellowship at the Boston Athenaeum today. I sit at a table in the fifth floor, designated for quiet, as I pull out my notes, my hopes, and my beliefs for an excellent school year. The picture above is my view from my table.

And my hope springs, yet, anew.

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Are They YOUR Children?

Lisa Delpit wrote the important book Other People’s Children, and I hope people still read it for what is to be learned about teaching kids of color, and really all kids who are underrepresented or misrepresented.

I tend to think of all of my students as my children, quite frankly. (I read about this brilliant teacher who, on the first day of school, asked every student his/her name and then repeated the student’s name, but gave the student the teacher’s last name. I’ve considered doing that…)One today reminds me of how I’d hope my nephew will be at the age of 15: curious, gangly, funny, taking direction, wanting to achieve and improve. And because I tend to think of him in that way–as part of my family–I tend to make sure I stay on him, push him, make sure he understands directions, demand more (warmly, of course), but always work from a baseline of care and concern for who he is as a student. That viewpoint actually extends (and extended) to my students in the suburbs, even the tough ones.

Suddenly, when one of those students does or says something that might be walking that thin line between brilliant and outrageous (and is probably somewhere in between), you correct and encourage with an eye towards the student knowing what he/she did wrong, how to fix it, and how to build on that. You don’t just see that student for what they did wrong; rather, you see in them the potential to do so much right.

And we need them to do so much right…better yet, we need to do so much right by them.

When you have an interest in the kids, it changes how you teach them. More, I think, when you think of them as your personal responsibility, it can swing the axis of achievement because, if that was your kid, you would do everything possible to give that child the best opportunity for success. At least I hope so.

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Take A Teacher to Lunch

At first glance, you’d think he’s not that interested in class. He is often trying to find his paper, but once he does, he’s at-the-ready, jotting down ideas, notes from the board, ideas for later. He sticks to meetings that you set up; I know, rare for a sophomore. Today, when I was in line in the dining hall, he came up to me and asked a question about his poetry analysis paper. He was worried about his thesis. I told him that I wasn’t having lunch with anyone, and that if he wanted to stop by and chat about it a bit, I was down.

I make that offer sometimes, and every now and then, students take me up on it. It was my lucky day today!

Talking about him abstractly is getting on my nerves, so let me attach a pseudonym to him: I’ll call him Michael. Today, Michael reads me the poem he’s selected, one by Cornelius Eady, “I’m a Fool to Love You,” a sad dirge about a Black woman who accepts her circumstances, decides that the lesser of the two evils is an abusive man who fathers her child. Deep. And Michael proceeds to lead me through an excellent close reading. He’s captivated by the repetition of “blues,” wants to follow it throughout the poem. He needs help articulating the why; can I help him make his thesis get the so what to what he’s trying to say?

This poem is so rich that I can’t help but ask him questions about it. Why the blues (“because it seems to take on different meanings for the mother, makes her seem to finally reach acceptance”) which leads to a bigger discussion of the meaning the blues hold for folks, particularly for, but not limited to, Blacks. Then we somehow get on a conversation about parents and he tells me his father was deported when he was five, but that his mother didn’t tell him the truth until he was nine. That his mother, herself, is undocumented and speaks no English, and sometimes he feels tired having to do all the translation. He wishes his sister wasn’t so shy so she could assume some of that burden, but she can’t even be brave enough to order a pizza. He wishes there was a poem for that, about how he feels about his sister (write one, I suggest).

“I want to be remembered for something,” he tells me. Then do something good for the world is my reply. He says he’s going to. He just doesn’t know what it is yet. We go back to the poem and pause to discuss why the speaker’s mother chooses the father, even though he’s no prize. “He’s the best of the worst,” Michael summarizes, and we go back to the poem, mine it a little deeper for specific words that capture her resignation. He reads them to me, and I savor them. And we point to lines in the poem and we read and reread them.

I cannot WAIT to read your analysis, I say. We talk more about his thesis and I ask him if he’s happy with what he has. No, he says, because we just talked about a whole lot more.

What do I do?

I explain that the beauty of a working thesis is that it can change. And given that it seems that there are now even more layers of the poem, opening the door to new layers of analysis, maybe it makes sense to revise the thesis. He seems incredulous that one can do that. Of course, I say. Working means you can change it!

We try out several different statements and eventually he decides to add a part to the end that speaks to the resignation of the speaker of the poem.

I tell Michael that I heard he applied 15 times to one charter school, the one he currently attends. Actually, I say 14 times and he corrects me with 15. I ask him why and he says he had researched the school, and all of its graduates went on to college. 100 percent. He said that’s his only goal: to get to college.

I told him he should have a different goal: getting there probably isn’t going to be a problem given what I already know about him, but he should train his mind and heart to think about getting THROUGH college and what comes after. That was even more important. He shrugged. Short-term goals are as important as the long term ones, I reckon.

What I found surprising, though, was that, given that he goes to a small school, was that he rarely talks to his teachers other than for extra help. “Teachers are busy,” he concluded.

Unacceptable. Why have small schools if you can’t have lunch with this dynamo?

There’s more to this story, mostly about how this conversation with Michael reminded me about what it means to teach students who are multilingual, who do much of–if not all of–the interpretation for their families, who are imbued with all of their parents’ hopes for the future, who are still, ultimately, young people who need to be kids, too.

Oh, and Junot Diaz. He makes a brilliant appearance to cap off why we read literature. Later, though.

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Filed under Equity, Teaching Writing in the Summer

16:5

I think I thought I knew what rigor meant when I taught exclusively in urban schools. It meant holding kids to high expectations, of writing a lot, of reading a lot, of showing kids how to mine the text, to analyze, to synthesize.

Then, I went to the suburbs and I realized how much I didn’t know. My writing instruction, which was strong, got stronger because I am now much clearer about what is required to help kids become powerful writers. I’ve always believed that to become a good writer, you have to write.

But, only this week, while teaching in my summer program, did I understand the difference between what the city does and what the suburbs do, and the difference is, conceivably, why urban kids are perpetually behind.

I asked one of my sophomores how many papers she writes in a year. She goes to an exam school in the city: highly competitive, motivated, does her work, all of that. She told me five, usually following after reading a whole-class text.

Five.

In the ‘burbs, kids are required to write four papers PER TERM. Add that up and you get a total of 16 papers per year. That’s 11 more papers than kids in the city write–and let’s be clear, this is one of the exam schools, so no telling what kids are writing at schools that are non-exam.

That’s the problem right there.

If kids aren’t writing enough, then they’re not improving, not revising…and they’re always behind. You become a better writer through practice. Not rocket science to know that if you don’t get enough practice, you’re not going to become proficient.

Sure, there are all kinds of distinctions between city and suburbs, but facts are facts, I’d argue. There is a disparity in what we are asking kids to write.

I like data. I like knowing what I’m up against. Over the next school year, we’re going to be writing like our lives depend on it.

They actually DO depend on it.

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Filed under Equity, Teaching Writing in the Summer