My Fellow Educators,
The country needs us to be brave. Teaching is, and always has been, a political act. Teachers are an essential part of passing on this country’s values and stories to the next generation. What we decide to bring in and what we decide to leave out tells our students what is important.
Standing up against racism and bigotry is important.
The events in Charlottesville this week can not be left outside the classroom. Our young people need to know that bigotry, racism, and hatred will not be condoned or ignored.
Some of you are starting classes in the next few weeks and these events will be on your students’ minds. Some of you will be starting any day now. Our students need to know that they will be safe in our schools and you can help them.
Your students of color may be concerned for their safety or the safety of loved ones. Your students of color may be angry or sad. Your white students may run a range from frustrated, to embarrassed, to confused, to sympathetic to the white supremacists. There may be risks in addressing such a charged issue so early in the school year before you have classroom cohesion. These are risks worth taking.
As educators we have a unique and specific opportunity to interrupt cycles of racism and oppression. It’s part of the job and to ignore this national situation only serves to bless it as status quo – too uneventful to even discuss. That is a message that I am unwilling to send to my students.
I don’t pretend that this will be easy and in some communities you may be risking reprimand or angering parents and members of your community. I also recognize my privilege in working for a community that supports, and calls for, educators being involved in antiracist work. That privilege and my role as a district administrator give me even more responsibility to actively support an antiracist agenda.
So what do you do?
I’m going to imagine scenarios where you choose to teach about the events in Charlottesville in the first day or two of the school year. I also want to leave this open-ended enough incase another event occurs between now and the start of school and you are forced to bring that up too.
Secondary – (grades 6-12)
I don’t think it matters if your students are in 6th grade or 12th grade, you should be able to leverage the mainstream news reporting. I argue that your main mission is to ensure your students safety in the school setting and then expose possible misconceptions and misunderstandings about the nature of the events while providing some historical context for events like this.
My first step would be to reassure every single student that you are there to ensure their physical and psychological safety. Ensure them that you condemn white supremacy and every student in your class is equally worthy of love, dignity, and respect.
Instructionally, I would begin with an open ended check of prior knowledge to get your baseline. I would then move on to sources like Reuters that provide extremely factual accounts to set a baseline in case students have not heard much before coming to class. It is likely that many of your students will already have opinions before they come to class.
As a social studies teacher, I also feel an obligation to contextualize this current situation within a history of white nationalism, white supremacy, and racism in this country. My go to here for support is Teaching Tolerance, the educational arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have a huge bank of lessons that will help you structure your investigation and interrogation of bias. It’s worth looking through to see which speak to you. You can also sort this database by grade level and topic to find the one that will fit.
It might take a few days and while there might be a voice in your head questioning your ability to get through the curriculum I argue that taking this time to demonstrate your caring and support for your students’ identities will pay off throughout the school year regardless of your subject area. A student who is afraid for their physical or emotional safety will not learn trigonometry, history, or chemistry.
If you are not a social studies teacher you may want to check in with someone in your social studies department to see if they can give you a bit of a crash course in the history.
Elementary – (grades K-5)
I think teaching about this at K-5 would be much more difficult and I would expect students to come in with more confusion and emotion. I would also expect that any pushback you experience would be magnified with this age group amid cries of ruining children’s innocence and concerns to that effect.
While you might need to tread lightly, I still do not think you can ignore current events with young children. There is plenty of evidence that children’s racial identity and understanding of social hierarchies begin to develop before they reach kindergarten. As such it is just as important to deliver messages of inclusion and equality in the elementary classroom as it is with adolescents. One could even argue that it is more important since patterns are less solidified at earlier ages. That also makes things stickier.
As with the secondary classroom I would focus on beginning with a message of the importance of everyone being valued and loved in the classroom. I would bring the students together with a message of unified community that honors and respects our differences while also identifying the ways in which we are similar.
I would likely bring up the events, but I would refrain from using video of the events themselves. I would summarize based on mainstream reporting. Most of the videos I have watched include images of violence and hateful language that I would not want to expose young children to. That said, I would continue to educate myself as much as possible so that I could empathetically and carefully respond to any questions students may have. It is also possible that even very young children will have seen images from the news and they may come in already upset. The best thing you can do is support yourself with information and support your students with empathy.
If you narrow the Teaching Tolerance database to K-2 and Race&Ethnicity you will find 16 lessons that bring up race in developmentally appropriate ways including examples of anti-racism. There is some overlap with the 3-5 band along with additional options.
On Educational Activism:
I understand that I am specifically calling for an activist teacher and that activism in teaching can be frowned upon. I also argue that there is no neutral here. Teaching itself is active. Simply “calling balls and strikes” is a fallacy in this field. One cannot stand in some safe intellectually removed middle ground in matters of oppression and hatred.
Every single choice is political. Do you include Malcolm X in your Civil Rights unit? That is political. Do you swap out a Shakespeare play for August Wilson? That is political no matter which way you decide. Maintaining the status quo is a political act. Whether you choose to discuss Charlottesville or choose not to discuss Charlottesville you are making an inherently political choice.
I would rather stand on the side of justice and compassion than the side of oppression and hate.
If public educators are charged with protecting and growing every student in their classroom it is therefore critical to adopt an activist stance because your classroom has students who experience oppression.
I also argue that this requires administrators (like myself) to proactively support teachers. Administrators at the building, district, and state levels need to stand arm and arm with their teachers to protect students. There is no alternative. I will say unequivocally that I support educators in promoting social justice in schools. Supporting oppression and hatred, even through silence, is unacceptable and indefensible.
Last fall I had the opportunity to bring racial identity legend Beverly Daniel Tatum to my district and she gave us an important metaphor for understanding the importance of representation. Dr. Tatum urged us to ensure that every student shows up regularly in the class picture and in showing up we need to make sure that our students look good in that picture. We are the adults and it is our responsibility. These events in Charlottesville are an opportunity to remind our students of color that their lives matter in the classroom.
There is no alternative and I have great faith in your capacity for empathy and compassion. Time to activate that power.
Teacher, Teacher of Teachers, Administrator
When Beverly Daniel Tatum recommends a book on institutional racism while speaking at Harvard, you take note. When she puts it in her top 3 recently published books you just go buy it. (Or order it during her talk perhaps….) When it comes to understanding systems of racial oppression, Tatum knows what she’s talking about and Daria Roithmayr’s Reproducing Racism blew my mind. Once I got past my initial desire to throw it across the room, that is.
My desire to throw the book (at a slim 180 pages it would have flown well) was not due to any faults on Roithmayr’s part. Quite the opposite. The book is excellent and Roithmayr’s has a very compelling premise that most of our models of racism are wrong. She claims that instead of thinking about racism as individual actions rooted in hatred and bigotry, racism operates much more like an economic monopoly that has been able to lock in racial inequalities by coming to the market first and then operating like a cartel in favor of white people.
I wanted to throw the book across the room because Roithmayr’s is incredibly convincing. And hundreds of years of racial economic and educational collusion is a pretty depressing thought for a country that purports to run on meritocracy. It’s easy to say that “racism is a problem that wasn’t created overnight, so we won’t fix it overnight” but when presented with a series of economic, mathematical, and legal examples about why inequalities are locked-in and the country is getting more unequal, it got hard to see a path forward.
Positive feedback loops (If You’re White)
The most poignant, and unexpected, example that Roithmayr uses to illustrate this example of lock-in is Polya’s Urns. Polya’s Urn is a mathematical model that essentially works as follows:
- You have a single urn and inside are 1 black ball and 1 white ball. (2 total with 1B: 1W)
- You draw a ball, then replace the ball, adding another ball of the same color.
e.g. if your first draw is white, you replace the white ball and add another white ball. (3 total with 1B:2W)
- You draw again, not with double the odds to draw white.
- You keep drawing and replacing and you arrive at some sort of balance fairly quickly.
- You can run a bunch of different tests of the model at Wolfram Alpha and you will get different results, but those results will be established within a relatively small number of draws and they become very difficult to alter.
The connection here for Roithmayr is that the first few draws establish a path and then it continues to be come easier to continue down the path that’s already been established. In terms of structural inequalities, the decisions to favor white people in job markets, schooling, housing, and the law all act like draws in Polya’s Urn because they provide preference for white people (draw) and then enrich white people (adding back another ball) thus creating a feedback loop that makes it easier to keep selecting white people. Chattel slavery in the United States can be seen as two-hundred and fifty years of draws in favor of whites that establishes an environment that is very difficult to change. (And it’s not like we added a lot of resources back to Black people in 1863 and “forty acres and a mule” is still a relevant metaphor for broken promises. But I digress…)
How does the feedback loop work?
Just using the book cover (with a small adjustment in sequence) as a diagram we can think of it this way:
- A series of high quality schools and teachers will give you access to good colleges and schools in the United States have high levels of racial inequality.
- This access to education gives white people access to the best jobs. This is true in terms of skills, behaviors, and social networks.
- Better jobs make it easier to purchase a house.
- The job and equity in the house enrich those who can access them.
- This wealth can then be passed down to future generations.
This could be relatively race-neutral on the face. After all, a person of color would benefit from the same access and the same structures. Sure, theoretically I guess…
We don’t live in a theoretical space and neither does Roithmayr. She looks at policies and practices that excluded people of color from accessing schools (segregated schools), housing (redlining and restrictive covenants), jobs (union membership) and legal status (status as a human being, voting rights, ability to naturalize and establish citizenship). When these historical and structural factors lay on top of one another we get locked-in systems of inequality where if we just stop discriminating on the basis of race (to paraphrase Chief Justice Roberts) we will still maintain and exacerbate levels of racial inequality.
It’s compelling. It’s also depressing as hell for someone who works on anti-racism in schools.
If racism is so locked in, do we just give up?
I was tempted. For a second. But this is why you finish books.
I’m glad I read to the end and didn’t throw it across the room in frustration because Roithmayr’s pivot to solutions argues that once we shift our thinking about racism from individual acts based on hatred into a model where white people have acted as a racial cartel we can think differently about solutions and Roithmayr has some equally compelling avenues for solutions:
- Limit Feedback Loops – While she does explain how an institution might reduce the power of white positive feedback loops, Roithmayr quickly dismisses this one because it is politically untenable to reduce white access to power in this way. (It’s an assumption that’s worth investigating, but I tend to agree.)
- Integrate Feedback Loops – Most obviously, this would show up as integrating classes that provide high school students with better access to college. These could be AP, IB, or honors courses as well as world language and high level math.
- Develop Parallel Loops – These often show up as affinity groups. HBCUs and the National Pan-Hellenic Council are strong examples of positive feedback loops that provide benefit to people of color in a higher education setting.
- Change Social Norms – This is a slow process and Roithmayr describes this mostly in terms of switching costs. My own work has focused a lot on this idea by trying to normalize conversations about race and racism in schools. We can’t change the problem if we don’t talk about it and silence on race is a strong social norm in this country.
- Hire A Critical Mass – The key here is to hire a significant number of people of color in a short period of time. This helps people of color develop community within the organization while also acting as a significant influence.
- Use Legal Remedies – In schools this would be changes to policy and could show up a developing more objective criteria for school discipline.
There can also be substantial interplay and overlap between these areas of influence. By hiring a critical mass of people of color in an organization, you can shift social norms in powerful ways and policies can help you do that.
I’m still digesting a lot of this, and it’s already shaping my perspective to working toward improving racial equality in schools. I’m curious to see of honing my understanding of how racism works, particularly with neutral-facing policies will make the change process more effective. For the first two-thirds of the book things felt hopeless. After reading I am more hopeful because if Roithmayr is correct in her assessment that inequalities are locked-in and getting worse, and if Martin Luther King Jr. is correct in his assessment that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice then the arc only bends toward justice because of the people who are pushing hard to bend the arc. We need to keep applying pressure and Reproducing Racism helps me target where to apply force.
I recently had the opportunity to attend Harvard’s institute on Race, Equity, and Leadership in Schools along with a substantial portion of my district’s leadership. The group included my superintendent, members of cabinet, and a building leader from each school. While there were some logistical challenges inherent to running anything for the first time, I must say, the Harvard Graduate School of Education puts on a good show.
There were 12 90-minute sessions across 4 days with a continuous stream of HGSE’s heavy hitters. There were too many different threats to try and bring together any sort of holistic summary beyond the obvious: equity work is difficult work that requires continuous attention and a coordinated approach. Equity work is also absolutely critical to the success of our public schools and our fundamental tenets of democracy and justice.
What follows below are 4 daily summaries that I originally sent as emails to my team at the end of each day. They are somewhat informal and written while in the flow of the institute so they have an immediacy that I think is valuable. I’ve edited some of them for length.
Day 1 – 21, March, 2017
I’m writing this at 2:45 AM because I’m so excited that I can’t sleep and I process things through writing. If I write a bunch of it down now then I can go into the next day confident that I won’t forget as much of what I already learned.
(Please don’t send me a stack of messages about sleep and self care. I’m typically pretty good about sleep. My wife is also away so there’s no one to kick me back to bed.)
We’ve only scratched the surface of what this week has to offer and I’m already spinning with ideas about what we can do in the district to move our equity work. I hope you’re all taking good notes because we’re getting gems by the second and I know it will take a long time to process all of this material.
What a way to begin. Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot is absolutely the national treasure that Dr. Jewell-Sherman said she is. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s frame using View, Voices, and Visibility immediately landed with me and I think we can learn a lot from her encouragement to proactively find examples of positivity while still remaining honest and critical. She also took a very powerful both/and approach to her work encouraging us to look at cases for their ugliness alongside their beauty and how we can be analytical while we build solidarity. Avoiding either/or thinking is revolutionary in itself because of how directly it pushes back against a dominant narrative of scarcity and otherness.
In the second session, Dr. Jewell-Sherman echoed this both/and thinking by encouraging us to think of our work as containing challenges and opportunities together. That we can be busy and excited. Her sentiment that we need to find individual measures of success in addition to the measures we can’t control was also particularly resonant for me as professional learning can often be very intangible.
As I expected, Dr. Tatum was remarkable. She is a legendary name for good reason. I appreciated hearing her confirm many of the messages she spoke about when she was with us back in November. It was helpful to hear her reiterate the ABC of Affirming Identity, Building Community, and Cultivating Leadership. As always, Dr. Tatum’s metaphors are spot on and this time around the antibiotics metaphor really struck home. I think our district is still early in the course of antibiotics and we’re seeing some of what she described. Some people are starting to feel better and it could be easy to stop taking the medicine, others have backed away and are feeling uncomfortable and need to press on, while still others perhaps haven’t really begun to take the medicine.
This is lifelong work in many ways while at the same time balanced by great urgency to serve our students in a way that supports each and every one of them.
If I take a pile of notes they will be there for me six months from now when I’ve forgotten 80% of what I’ve heard. I’m excited to be a nerd with all of you this week so we can learn some things to help every one of our students get the kind of school experience we would want for our own children.
I hope Wednesday has just as much material. I hope that I end the day feeling just as full with a burning desire to write down every single phrase, idea, possibility, and metaphor.
I hope my hand hurts from taking another pile of notes. That’s what we’re here for.
See you all in a few hours.
Day 2 – 22, March, 2017
Figured I may as well do this again after the positive response from so many of you. Here goes:
Day 2 left me wanting more time to talk with all of you about how to take this massive amount of new learning and turn (some of) it into action and opportunity for our students. It will be critical for us to make sure that this week doesn’t die on Friday afternoon in the same way we had to be vigilant after the PD day back in November. The continuation of this work lives in our daily actions and our ordinary choices. I expect many conversations with all of you to unpack your ideas and contextualize them for your place in the district.
More intellectual heavyweights today. I expect nothing less from Harvard.
I really appreciated Dr. Murnane’s economic perspective and it aligns with a lot of other things I’ve been reading lately, though from another perspective. In particular I’ve been thinking about which knowledge/skills/behaviors schools reward and which knowledge/skills/behaviors we punish. I think schools disproportionately punish social behaviors and reward them inadequately. I think the claim that “social skills aren’t on the test” is a red herring. As schools, and leaders, we can create ways to recognize and values social skills. If we let ourselves get beholden to the MCAS, or SAT, or College Board exams I think that’s like the carpenter who blames their tools. While those external measures are important and cannot be ignored, they are only one aspect of what we can assess. We still choose how grades work in our schools and I think Dr. Murnane made a strong economic case for developing our students social abilities.
Dr. Allen was incredible. I find her argument for a more connected society to be deceptively simple and I still haven’t spent enough time marinating on the idea to really know what to do with it. At the same time, I find that the concept aligns effectively with my lived experience. I am a better, more ethical, and more knowledgeable person for the combined bonding and bridging ties that I hold.
I’m a fan of metaphors so here’s a picture from my notes. You have the assimilationist melting pot, the multicultural tossed salad, and then the connected society woven tapestry in the middle. We know the melting pot and in the salad each ingredient retains its structure and can be pulled apart. In the tapestry the different threads retain their color, but you can’t pull one out without destroying the tapestry. Enjoy:
Dr. Lahey – good lord. I had a powerful experience with my partner and I definitely got to a place I wasn’t originally expecting to get to. I was struck by how complex and highly individual transformative work is and it made me think that we can only tolerate so much change at once without completely freaking out. I can’t imagine processing more than one or two items in this fashion and this experience is helping me realize the importance of doing a smaller number of changes and taking the time to process those changes deeply. My initial goal is tied to an extremely powerful piece of my identity and it will take a great deal of thought, reflection, and energy for me to unpack whether I’m up for making that kind of change.
I think it will be important to figure out how we dedicate the time and space necessary for thinking through the complexity of the kinds of adaptive changes necessary to make the institutional changes required to ensure that our most vulnerable students are getting the experience they need to achieve excellence.
Day 3 – 23, March, 2017
I imagine you’re expecting this by now. Here’s day 3:
If you’re planning a conference and you know it’ll be seriously content heavy how do you ensure that your participants will stay with you on the third day? You lead off the day with Karen Mapp.
Dr. Mapp is not here to play around and I deeply respect that of her. I think more than anything she made the work to engage families so completely tangible and accessible. Take the time you already have and repurpose it. Stop vaguely encouraging teachers to connect with families – teach them how to actually do the work. Throughout her session Dr. Mapp took a straightforward approach and operated from a clear position that this is work to be done. She didn’t get overly technical or bogged down in unnecessary details. I also appreciated her reliance on family and teacher voice to make her points in a way that only those doing the work can really do. I ended that session thinking that her premise is just so obvious that I can’t imagine not making some changes in our approach to family engagement.
The Panel impressed me and while the panelists had a host of powerful advice and information I was particularly impressed by Dr. Mason the moderator. Moderation has an enormous influence on a panel’s usefulness and Dr. Mason balanced expertly crafted questions with her own input and levity to great effect. I appreciated each panelist’s immediate honesty and willingness to speak from their lived experiences. I was particularly struck by Dr. Gutierrez’s story of returning to her own community and still needing to earn family trust, acknowledging that by taking a job within the system she became representative of the system.
I was (over?) hyped for Dr. Lee’s session on the legal history of integrated/segregated schooling. As an undergraduate history major and an educator this is 100% my jam and Lee did not let me down. From the beginning I appreciated Lee’s stance that combined a powerful and righteous outrage at injustice with a deep critical hope that there is opportunity for progress. I knew some of the history (see bonus section below) and he also introduced me to some new cases like Rodriguez (1973) and Millken (1974). Overall I think it’s critical that educators have this historical knowledge of how schooling is structured and I’m thinking about how to develop a PD series for our educators on this topic. I also LOVED the question about how we might intentionally create areas of convergence in order to facilitate civil rights improvements. There’s so much here to unpack.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Irvin Scott as his session title was released late and there was no pre-reading for the session. In general I think it was a solid introduction to the concept of using stories to open dialogue. I definitely appreciated the that he built in a good amount of discussion, though it left me wondering if the structure was more suited to a smaller group or a longer session with more opportunity for depth. I was fully engaged throughout the session, but my notes are very sparse being mostly limited to my own story notes and the 7 points from Denning’s Telling Tales article that Scott referenced. For now I’m thinking that the session might inform my stance and how I open dialogue but I don’t have anything terribly specific to point to just yet. That may change with time and processing.
(Tangentially related: the poem “Opportunity” that Scott read made me think of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” or “My Shot” from Hamilton which could be more relevant if you wanted to use them with students.)
Day 3 Bonus Section:
Lee’s recommended reading included Ian Haney-Lopez’s White By Law and I can also recommend it highly. (Dr. Tatum recommend another Haney-Lopez book Dog Whistle Politics.) The text is a brilliant history of the legal construction of race in the United States. My wife put it in front of me after she read it for a law school class and I fell in love with her all over again after I read it. (Yes – I am a colossal nerd.)
Day 4 – 24, March, 2017
A short day with only 2 sessions so I may as well finish the job:
Dr. Jewell-Sherman and Dr. Grassa-O’Neil kicked off the morning with a very tangible session that covered ways to open up a safe space. I was already familiar with the Courageous Conversations agreements and compass and I agree that they are extremely helpful tools. (That was my introductory book to equity work.) I hadn’t considered using the compass for a 4-corners activity and I think that could be interesting to help people think about the different ways we process using moralizing, feeling, action, and thinking. Race the Power of Illusion is a remarkable documentary. I’ve used it before and it’s also used in the IDEAS course to great effect.
In speaking with a couple other participants, we agreed that this could have been more useful at the beginning of the conference as a way to set the tone for other discussions and potentially limit the norm-setting time in the small-groups.
Dr. Barth’s session surprised me. I’ll be honest that I was a bit skeptical when he started and through the multiple small discussions I really learned a lot and I appreciated how he used the participants’ words to make his points. I’m definitely curious about unpacking methods of school governance and working more to increase opportunities for student talk – especially in the upper grades. In addition, I was struck by how forcefully he made the argument for removing tracking systems that gate entry into the most rigorous high school classes by naming tracking as the most important lever toward equity. I also think that in many ways it’s one of the easiest. (I use easy with a giant grain of salt because I know the many implications for students, educators, and families involved with AP access and how it relates to personal identity. I do think that AP access is easy relative to some other variations of systematic oppression.) I thought it was a good choice to bring Dr. Barth in to the conversation and I always make a point of listening closely to elders so that I can learn from their many years of experience before me.
Overall I am so appreciative that all of you took four days away from your buildings and other work to step into this space together. And I am thankful that I work for a senior leadership team who is willing to commit that kind of time, attention, and money to this work.
I have 46 pages of notes and I know that it’s going to take me some time to sift through out and figure out my next steps. I am hopeful that this shared experience can galvanize us toward making changes for the betterment of our most vulnerable students in our schools and the students we are currently underserving. The data that Dr. Scott shared Thursday afternoon isn’t all that far from our data.
No one should pretend that this work will be easy or that we will solve things quickly and I hope that despite these challenges you can all remain engaged and committed to the urgency required to help each student who comes through our doors.
See you on Monday to debrief and discuss,
One week ago at the New Teacher Center Symposium on Mentoring and Induction Chris Emdin used Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and urged me to examine which parts of society I am willing to be deliberately maladjusted to. The next day Monique W. Morris urged me to respond to behaviors demonstrated by Black girls, particularly those behaviors we consider unacceptable, from a place of love and healing. For the past week these ideas have been flying around my brain like particles in the Large Hadron Collider creating new possibilities and new ways of thinking as the concepts smash into each other.
Standard Operating Procedure:
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school intoxicated schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot be intoxicated and remain at school.
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school with a weapon schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot carry weapons and remain at school.
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school in clothing that violates the dress code schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot violate the dress code and remain at school.
More subtly Black girls are pushed out of schools for disrespect, disobedience, defiance and a host of other subjective violations. This is not unique to Black girls, but Black girls are overrepresented in every single discipline category from the most benign to the most severe.
If schools are structured, not to respond with love and healing, but instead to respond with punishment does critical love then require a position of intentional maladjustment in order to exist in the school environment?
Both Emdin and Morris were excellent speakers with a strong combination of academic credentials, anecdotal story, and personal history. The whole time though, all I could think was: “this shouldn’t be that hard.”
This stuff should be baseline. None of this should be controversial. None of this should be revolutionary. But it is. The fact that Morris needs to say that Black girls are sacred and worthy of love tells me that we live in an environment where this is not the status quo. The fact that Morris needs to explain that she centers Black girls tells me that this is a revolutionary act. The fact that Emdin has to say that neoindigenous (his term for urban) students’ interests from outside the school building are artifacts worth of exploration tells me that this is not standard operating procedure.
I can’t tell if I’m naïve or arrogant (both?) when I think that this shouldn’t be hard – that we should be able to assume that teachers care about and love their students. It is hard though and schools are highly resistant to change.
Why is it a challenge for educators to act with critical love toward the children and adolescents in their care? More specifically, why is it a challenge for white educators to act with critical love toward the children and adolescents of color in their care?
I could say institutional racism and sexism. I could say a history of class warfare. I could say centuries and decades of oppression that are passed down from generation to generation through epigenetic inheritance. I could say all of the above. Oppression, like liberation, is intersectional. Emdin made it simpler though and I’m biased toward explanations that cut to universalizing root causes.
Broken people break people. Hurt people hurt people. Broken teachers break students. And healing is hard work. We’re not adjusted to school as a healing place.
You want to make schools a place where we can heal students? You need to heal the adults. This, is not standard operating procedure. Standard operating procedure in schools ignores the need for healing and instead pushes teacher and students to leave their personal lives at the door in favor of a neutral academic environment. This simply does not work. We need to change what we’re adjusted to, and it’s not a new idea.
With all the talk last week about the importance of identity, love, belonging, trauma, and emotional health I’m frankly shocked that no one brought out Maslow. Maslow published the Hierarchy of Needs 1943. We’ve had access to this knowledge for seventy-four years. For seventy-four years we’ve been able to make claims that in order for people to self-actualize (which is what all our educational standards shoot for) we need to make sure that people have their physiological, physical, belonging, and esteem needs to be met. And yet all the time we have students entering our classes without these needs met.
Students come to class hungry and without sleep. Some students come to class intoxicated. Some students are homeless and come to school without shelter.
Students come to class from physically unsafe homes, through physically unsafe streets, into physically unsafe schools.
Students come to class from psychology unsafe homes, throughout psychologically unsafe streets, into psychologically unsafe classrooms.
Students come to class wondering if they have value. Wondering if anyone will miss them if they just stopped showing up.
Some students experience only one of these circumstances. Many students experience all of them at once.
And then we ask students to pay attention to the history of the Byzantine Empire, or to analyze The Iliad? Or when we’re really excited we ask them to do deep personal reflection and self-actualize in class? Please.
Students need us to see them as fully formed and worthy human beings. Emdin drew a parallel to graffiti writers who literally risk jail and their lives climbing buildings to write their names – to have someone see them. Morris spoke on how Black girls are trying their best to cope with trauma on their own by self-medicating, running away, or fighting, yet when they need healing the most, schools push them out and punish them.
Closing the achievement gap (or repaying the educational debt we owe students) will require that students of color are capable of self-actualizing within the school environment. The standards require it and to paraphrase Morris equity without a standard of excellence is not equity.
We need our students of color to succeed on their own terms as well as the terms of the dominant society if we have any hope of continued success for this country. People of color have the demographic dividend in this country and across the world. Our country cannot be sustained by an ever-shrinking ruling class. (Feel free to look at the bleak world of Lazarus) The small ruling class model does not have a history of long-term success and tends to end in horrific bloodshed. I am unwilling to accept that future for this country.
So if we want to close our gap (or repay our debt) we need students to be capable of self-actualization. This then helps us define or work. Maslow and Wiggins makes it easy for us: just backwards plan and move each step in the pyramid.
We want self-actualization: Do our students have high esteem? Yes – let’s go. No – work on esteem.
When working on esteem: Do our students have love and belonging covered? Yes – work on esteem. No – work on love and belonging.
If broken people break people then our first step is to heal the adults. Healthy adults are required for this work because we need to be able to stay present and calm when a student insults you. We need to know that a student’s outburst is more often a symptom of some underlying need for validation or healing than it is an intentional act of aggression.
The next step is to know our students. We cannot pretend to heal our students without knowing their authentic selves. This is the core argument for Emdin’s reality pedagogy model.
Accept What Is:
The core premise of Emdin’s reality pedagogy is that regardless of our opinions about it, we have to accept and interrogate our student’s realities. Particularly the realities of the neoindigenous because their realities are the least often reflected by the status quo. This is the path toward affirming identity and moving a student toward self actualization.
If your 6th grade student’s favorite movie is Scarface because their favorite rapper rhymes about Tony Montana then guess what – that’s their favorite movie and it’s an important reference point for their identity. You will make a stronger connection with your student if you see the movie and can connect this schema to the work of your class.
Is Genghis Khan similar to Tony Montana? Both self-made men interested in expanding their control that get brought down by hubris? Perhaps. And how many other literary figures or world leaders could be connected that way? You’ll only know that if you engage with your student’s interests. You don’t have to be an expert and you don’t have to like it. If you know enough though it will make you a better teacher for that student.
Emdin’s example includes the hypothetical of what if your student comes in singing “I wish I could f___ every girl in the world“? (Also interrogate if that student is male, female, Black, white, Latino, Asian?) Regardless of your opinion of the song, the song is already a part of the student’s reality. The student will engage with it whether you are there to guide them or not. If you can engage with them then you can bring this part of their reality into the classroom and interrogate it. Is this a sentiment that they truly believe? Does this extend to sisters, aunts, mothers, cousins? What’s their relationship to the message of the song? The mental shift is that teachers can’t reject things they don’t like out of hand because those touchstones are already real to our students. We have to work with the students to understand the meaning and context of the world they exist in. Even when it is uncomfortable or repugnant. If we are thoughtful we can also make explicit connections to the ideas, issues, and values in the standard curriculum. How many of Hemmingway’s protagonists could have written the same song under different circumstances or in a different time? What does this tell us about their misogyny? There’s a whole lesson right there.
I can imagine many teachers blanching at the thought of anchoring a lesson around Lil’ Wayne and a hook with an F-bomb in it, never mind the misogynist content. And you’re probably right to blanche and instinctually reject the idea. It’s a huge risk in most schools. We are adjusted to a certain version of school with written and unwritten rules. This is why in order to change standard operating procedure, we have to get maladjusted to the status quo. This shows up instructionally as described above, and it can also show up in discipline.
Respond With Love:
During her talk Morris rejected the school-to-prison pipeline when it comes to Black girls. Instead she offered a model that is more like a sexual abuse to prison pipeline. Under this model young Black girls are abused or assaulted, they then come to school exhibiting a variety of unhelpful coping behaviors like bringing a weapon to school, self-medicating or being aggressive. These behaviors typically violate school policy in some way, often the behaviors show up under the catchall of “disrupting the learning environment.” Students are then referred for discipline related to the violation (often suspension) and in many circumstances these violations escalate to the juvenile justice system. Black girls are then pushed out of school and prevented from additional learning due to how these coping mechanisms present in the context of school.
This brutal pattern forms the basis of Morris’ book and the premise for why she argues that we should instead respond to these behaviors with love and healing instead of punishment. These girls are not “misbehaving” in order to cause trouble or to “disrupt the learning environment.” They are responding to trauma in the only way they know how. And schools push them away. It doesn’t have to go like this. Schools could be places for healing instead.
On it’s surface this change again seems simple. Instead of referring students to the juvenile justice system or suspending students, you respond with interventions designed to heal the trauma at the root of the issue. The violence or self-medication is a symptom. We should treat the cause.
Yet this change in response stands in direct opposition to standard operating procedure on school discipline. In order to make this fundamental change educators need to be maladjusted to the idea that students who violate school policy should be removed from the school environment. And educators need to accept their students’ realities no matter how difficult or uncomfortable that is for the educator. Morris began to flip this narrative when she said: “Can we all agree that there is no such thing as a child prostitute? Instead we have girls exploited and forced into sex work.” This is an enormous paradigm shift away from criminalizing coping behavior, particularly in schools that use zero tolerance policies linked to criminal justice. It takes a healthy, bold, and confident educator to reject school or district policy at possible risk to their job and their livelihood.
Decide to Be Creatively Maladjusted:
Maladjustment is not a safe choice, but the stakes are high. The lives of our current students are the lives of this country’s future adults regardless of how they turn out. We shape the future through action and inaction at the same time.
I like the idea of individual teachers taking this on at a grass roots level. It has a satisfying revolutionary appeal: individual teachers opting out of referring students for suspension or teaching lessons rooted in students’ realities. That’s not going to fix things though. We have an enormous issue of scale when it comes to PreK-12 public education in this country. It takes larger commitments from all levels of the organization.
Oakland Unified School District is one district leading this work by making a move toward restorative justice across the district. This is the kind of change to policy that, when combined with day-to-day work supporting students, can allow teachers to take risks from a safer position. District leadership can create policies and guidelines that support and protect teachers when they actively engage students. We can recreate the standard operating procedure, but in order to do so we have to be maladjusted to the current one.
After the clip that Emdin used to illustrate the concept of maladjustment King asks for an International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Emdin made a claim that this association exists and that it’s hip hop. I think that public education can do it too.
In Yellow Frank Wu takes on the necessary task of expanding discussions of race beyond black and white by specifically investigating how Asians and Asian-Americans in the United States navigate the intricacies and contradictions of being caught in the middle.
The racialized Asian and Asian-American experiences are quite different from the black experience in the United States and from the introduction Wu expertly captures the nuances of anti-Asian discrimination while also building common ground. To do this Wu positions racism as a system of control. In describing his own experience Wu states: “In most instances, I am who others perceive me to be rather than how I perceive myself. [In the United States] the inability to define one’s self is the greatest loss of liberty possible.” (p.9) Wu then carries this theme of control throughout the text as he unpacks the contradictions, parallels, and distinctions between how Asians and Asian-Americans experience race in the united states in reference to the commonly discussed black/white dichotomy.
In a post-Obama election, late-2016 some of Wu’s assertions from 2002 read as naïve. Particularly when he makes broad generalizations about the state of racism in the United States. In the introduction Wu expands thoroughly on the concept of invisible racism or “aversive racists [who are] conditioned to regard racism as reprehensible but also reflexively following racial impulses.” (p.13) Prior to the 2016 presidential election I would have been inclined to agree with Wu here, yet is difficult to agree as the new reports Muslim women having their headscarves forcibly removed and increased frequency of white supremacist graffiti and other hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Wu is clear throughout the text about what he does and does not cover and as one might expect LatinX and Native American experiences are largely absent. Discussions of intersectionality are also largely absent from the text and Wu acknowledges those limitations without perseverating on the issue. While the above are important issues that educators must discuss and develop their understanding of, Yellow’s value comes in its specificity. The text remains focused on positioning Asians and Asian-Americans within the dominant black/white dialogue on race and does so with great success.
These limitations, however, do not diminish the power or relevancy of the text.
The highlight of the text comes in its argumentation. As one might expect from a lawyer and legal professor, Wu is an expert of supporting his claims with a bounty of evidence. He draws from a wide range of sources including case law, personal experience, mass media, literature, and popular culture. This diversity of sources increases the text’s accessibility and prevents Yellow from being limited to the academy or the legal field.
Additionally, and noticeably rare in discussions of race and racism, Wu is adept at trying on perspectives and following them to their logical conclusion. In his chapter on Affirmative Action Wu takes on whether colorblindness is a reasonable goal by assuming that it is reasonable and trying to follow the internal logic of colorblindness.
Imagine what their lives would be like if they censored race fastidiously. … [Proponents of colorblindness] could not decided that the Chinese restaurant with many Asian diners is “authentic.” They would have to refrain from telling two friends who w ere meeting one another for the first time beneath the clock tower at Grand Central Station that one should look for a white woman and the other should look for a black woman. … In each of these situations they could not use race to draw inferences about individuals, [or] to give complete identifications of them…. (p.151)
Under this type of scrutiny colorblindness immediately collapses under its own contradictions and impossibilities. This takedown of colorblindness is impeccably reasoned while remaining fully comprehensible to a general reader. Wu repeats this method when arguing against improper use of statistics and how to balance assimilation with diversity. This persistent thoroughness is one of Yellow’s key strengths helping the text to stand apart from more superficially argued peers.
Yellow in Schools
Yellow is not a text aimed specifically at educators, nor does it purport to examine Asian and Asian-American experience in schools. As far as usability for professional development goes, I would likely subdivide Yellow and use it piecemeal due to the incredible depth in each chapter and the limited time that educators typically have in each discrete professional learning experience. (Most chapters also clock in between forty and fifty pages.) I can easily imagine running a single session using one or two individual chapters from the text.
For example the chapters on both the Model Minority and Perpetual Alien fallacies would be extremely beneficial when helping (overwhelmingly white) educators understand the lived experiences of Asians and Asian-Americans and the unique forms of racism they experience. Embedded throughout these chapters are key moments of U.S. History that are not commonly emphasized in the classroom, let alone emphasized with an Asian-American lens. These chapters would provide helpful perspectives for educators of all races when working with Asian and Asian-American students.
I particularly recommend using Yellow in schools and districts with substantial Asian and Asian-American populations. Too few texts on race, racism, or educational equity spend time examining Asians and Asian-Americans because these groups traditionally succeed at high levels (an overgeneralization that Wu investigates at length) therefore rendering Asian and Asian-American experiences largely unexplored by educators. Even one or two chapters from Yellow would go a long way to filling that gap.
The sentiment that a sincere attempt is better than no attempt is a valuable model. As a white educator focusing on anti-racism in schools I am often concerned with how I show up. I work hard to speak my own truth and avoid speaking for others while authentically working to interrupt oppression and I find myself at times second guessing whether I’m “doing it right.” Tatum’s comment frees me of that concern to some extent as long as I am still willing to hear when I make missteps so as to make continuous improvements.
As “Why Are All the Black Kids…” comes up on its twentieth year I hope that Tatum will revisit the text. In some ways Tatum could simply modernize the text with new statistics and new references. A reference to Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice instead of Rodney King. An explanation that the LatinX population is now 16% (up from 12.5% in 2000) and the Asian population continues to grow nationally. It would be fascinating to hear what Tatum has learned about racial identity development in the intervening years as it relates to races other than Blacks.
I wonder if Tatum’s readers would be best served by writing a follow up or companion text – something along the lines of “Why Are All the Black Kids Still Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” In the new context of officer involved shootings of Black youth, Black Lives Matter, Charter Schools, the Obama Presidency, and an upcoming Trump Presidency I imagine identity development is also changing and developing for youth of color.
“Why Are All the Black Kids…” leaves me with more questions than answers. I want to understand the extent to which LatinX, Asian, or Middle Eastern identity development aligns with what Tatum identifies for Black people. I want to understand the variety of ways in which people of color develop their racial identities and how schools support or hinder identity development. I also want to explore more deeply how schools might develop a positive white racial identity that is not rooted in supremacy or exploitation so that white youth can engage the world with an understanding of systematic oppression, a desire to dismantle those systems, and pride in their heritage.