In But What If We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman puts forth a fairly straightforward question and then follows it out to a number of logical and illogical conclusions. Illogical conclusions are not a criticism – they’re part of the point.

klostermanwrongcoverKlosterman’s essential question (as you may have guessed from the title) is whether or not we’re wrong. Not on an individual level, like being wrong about specific decisions, but more globally like whether we’re wrong about things like how gravity works, or how we understand reality. (He specifically stays away from climate change. Then doesn’t.)

A book positioned to investigate questions like “what if we’re just living in a giant computer simulation?” could very easily slip into undisciplined pseudo-inquiry more akin to late nights of questionable sobriety in bars, dorm rooms, or on the roofs of buildings. Klosterman (mostly) saves himself from this by keeping close to the book’s subtitle “Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past” and it is this perspective that makes the text potentially useful in a school setting.

Fictional Future History
At the most obvious level, some select chapters could be a really good hook into why we study history and how historians actually purport to know anything to begin with. I could see using these early in a history class to position the study of history beyond “to avoid repeating past mistakes.” The chapters on rock music (4) and freedom (9) are good for this in that they use very specific historical examples to think about how future historians might think about our time. Those two chapters hew most closely to the premise from the subtitle.

My preference, however, would be to use the chapter on television, titled “Don’t Tell Me What Happens, I’m Recording It.” In this chapter Klosterman examines how future generations might use television to understand our present. In doing so Klosterman makes a strong argument for how historians use cultural artifacts by imagining if ancient Egyptians had TV saying: “From a sociological vantage point, the most compelling footage would be the national news, closely followed by the local news, closely followed by the commercials… What we’d actually want from ancient Egyptian television is a way to look directly into the past…” (pgs. 162-163) I think this could make for strong classroom discussion fodder on the purpose of history. Unfortunately the chapter somewhat undermines his overall theme. If anything, the book is somewhat disjointed and could be considered a series of essays. (Klosterman insists that the book isn’t a series of essays in the first couple pages, but does so in a way that doesn’t instill confidence. Again, this is sort of the point of the thing.)

From a certain perspective I agree with Kolsterman and his argument is supported by the value current historians place on items like newspapers, political cartoons and the like. Klosterman’s central premise, however, is about wondering if our current assumptions hold true, so it’s also possible that TV will be treated more like art where were retroactively ascribe importance to works based on their lasting impact. (Klosterman examines this at length in an earlier chapter, referencing Melville coming to a substantially different conclusion about books than he does about TV.) There’s plenty of meat for discussion here as to the purpose of history and how different types of history might place different value on the same artifact.

So How Do I Even Know Anything?
In later chapters Klosterman strays a bit from his subtitle and the book takes on a different feel of using the idea that we might be wrong in order to inform our current life choices. Specifically, Klosterman spends a few pages exploring current societal preferences for certainty, simple answers, and quick resolution, writing:

But I think there’s a greater detriment with our escalating progression toward the opposite extremity – the increasingly common ideology that assures people they’re right about what the believe.

I don’t think the notion of people living under the misguided premise that they’re right is often dangerous. Most day-to-day issues are minor, the passage of time will dictate who was right and who was wrong, and the future will sort out the past. It is, however, socially detrimental. It hijacks conversations and aborts ideas. It engenders a delusion of simplicity that benefits people with inflexible minds. It makes the experience of living in a society slightly worse than it should be. (pg. 239)

This quote (and the few pages around it) are classroom gold when it comes to discussing epistemology. This most obviously fits into a course like IB Theory of Knowledge (which is an epistemology class) and it also fits well into government, or really any class where students are expected to discuss perennial issues like balancing individual and collective rights. I would love to unpack this section with students to see how they interpret Klosterman’s claims that people’s high level of confidence in their beliefs is actually detrimental while attempting to balance healthy skepticism with self confidence. We have to believe something, don’t we?

So Should I Read It?
The book’s arguments are often shallow and there is more than enough internal contradiction to keep a stickler busy for a while. The book also unendingly self-referential and while that works most of the time, it’s a bit overused. But What If We’re Wrong is imperfect, but it’s worth your time. (The whole thing is a quick 260 pages.)

Klosterman is posing questions that are inherently unanswerable at our present moment and “there are intrinsic benefits to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder.” (pg. 253) At it’s heart the book is an homage to complexity insisting at every turn that things might not turn out the way we expect and that our assumptions might be wrong. This is a critical message that isn’t being presented very often.

If we want to be open-minded we have to continually maintain the possibility that we are wrong. We have to be willing to change our minds in response to new evidence. It’s healthy to stay reminded that important some things are unknowable. While Klosterman wrote the book before the presidential election, it feels like perhaps the perfect premise for the Trump era of high certainty and declarative tweets.

 

I had big plans for a long post about Betsy Devos. I was going to watch the full confirmation hearing, take notes all the way through, and then write up a thorough analysis. That’s not happening.

I got about half way through the hearing before I shut it off in frustration so I’m going with what I have. And what I have is a combination of shock and anger. Shock that Devos was so unable (or unwilling) to articulate an actual position on schooling and anger that someone so unfit for this cabinet position was even shortlisted, let alone nominated. The New York Times  drew a similar conclusion to this saying: “in questioning by senators, [Devos] seemed either unaware or unsupportive of the longstanding policies and functions of the department she is in line to lead, from special education rules to the policing of for-profit universities” I am not impressed.

Note: As my personal focus is PreK-12 education and I’m sticking to that. You can read about the litany of problems with Devos’ answers regarding higher education at the Washington Post if you’d like.

Let the States Figure it Out
I was expecting to hear Devos defend charter schools and vouchers. That is, after all, her background and there was some of that, though we heard more about it from Senator Alexander’s introduction than from Devos herself.

Instead of impassioned or reasoned defense of alternatives to traditional public schools, I heard an abdication of federal responsibility for ensuring high quality education. Devos offered weak responses across the board with vague mentions of local control, and creating more opportunities for choice. She didn’t defend any particular position other than states and localities should decide things, which she didn’t actually defend. She just kept repeating that local control is the answer be it for guns in schools, universal preschools, or academic standards. At each turn Devos declined to offer a position saying that those calls are best left to localities.

When giving her opening statement, Devos commented that: “if a school is troubled or unsafe or not a good fit for a child … we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative,” and she left it there. Your school isn’t doing well? Go to another one. Absolutely zero discussion about how to support or improve the existing school so that the existing public school can become the first choice for parents.

Devos claimed parents should be able to choose their children’s schools. This seems reasonable at the individual level, and wealthy parents absolutely do this including very intentional decisions about where to purchase a house. But we have to consider scale. Over 50 million students attend U.S. public schools. If Devos actually wants to establish a system in which every family can take advantage of the opportunities that wealthy families take for their children (which she claimed during the hearing) someone would need to undertake an unprecedented level of school construction. If competition is the answer we need to flood the market with other choices that are as accessible geographically as existing public schools. Devos did not argue for massive school construction. Instead she tossed responsibility back to local control.

If choice requires creating alternatives Devos’ non-answer of Senator Murray’s question about privatization becomes critically important. Devos did not clearly reject private sources, instead saying that she is: “hopeful that we can work together to find common ground.” That’s not an answer to a question where Senator Murray wanted to know if Devos could commit to: “not privatize or cut a single penny.”

Devos couldn’t even commit to support for universal pre-kindergarten and she again pushed responsibility to local governments. That could have been an easy one.

We currently have zero evidence that President Trump is planning to grow the Department of Education. In President Trump’s massive infrastructure plans schools are noticeably absent. To my knowledge building schools has never been on the Republican Party’s national platform. Without growing the Department, the high quality alternatives Devos refers to will have to come from outside the federal government and I don’t see state or local governments covering this cost. Higher income communities are already developing their public schools and poverty impacted communities simply do not have the tax base or funds on hand to create more schools. So the funds have to come from outside those communities. This leaves only private sources be they for-profit or not-for-profit.

Either way the math is the same: Devos is positioning for reduced federal oversight of education with a rise in privately funded options at the local level. If everything is for local control, then the Department of Education (and the Secretary of Education) needs no plan for improving existing schools.

Our Students and our Country Need Better
The stakes for our 50 million children in schools are too high for this kind of nonsense. The Secretary of Education should be thought of as the highest teacher in the land the same way we think about the Surgeon General and the Attorney General acting as the first doctor and first lawyer. To even nominate Devos, who has zero educational experience beyond mentoring students, and arguing for school choice, is an insult to our entire education system. This insult was confirmed by Senator Lieberman’s statement that the fact that she doesn’t come from “the education establishment,” is “one of the most important qualifications [she] can have.”

We would never put someone without legal experience in the Attorney General seat. We would never put someone without medical experience in the Surgeon General seat. The fact that Devos is even nominated is a glaring example of how little respect the republican party has for our education system.

With education we create our future and a key feature (and challenge) of public schools is that they accept all students. The future that Devos, and by extension the Trump administration, is proposing is a future of increasing inequality.  A future of struggling public schools left to wither an die when we could offer them support instead. A future where the most challenging students get kicked out of the “high quality alternatives” and back to those struggling public schools thus ensuring continued inequality.

I simply can’t imagine putting a secretary of education in place who has no plans for actually improving the schools attended by the overwhelming majority of our country’s children. Yet that is what we have to look forward to. If Devos is confirmed and her plans move forward with Congress’ blessing, local communities will need to commit incredible sums to ensure the continued viability of their public schools. I can’t see the federal government providing much help for the next few years.

 

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.

fullsizerender-4The 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.

Limitations
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.

Superb Argumentation
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.

 

An Ally for Sara – Using Positionality and Teacher Identity to Support Students

My principal came into my classroom during a planning period. While not unheard of, this was pretty rare. She usually skipped past empty classrooms during her walkthroughs.

Typically I could count on my principal’s consistent smile and energy, so when she came into the room with a demeanor of quiet seriousness I knew something  was amiss.

“Sara wants you to be at this meeting we’re having with her parents tomorrow, are you available?”

Innocently, I responded: “Sure, what’s the situation? Why me?” Sara was a reasonably strong student, if a bit goofy in class. She was at an awkward phase (as if any 6th graders aren’t) and she was moving between friend groups so there were a few social concerns. That said, there were never any major issues in class so I figured any sort of parent meeting would be fairly innocuous. I didn’t think I’d established a particularly close connection with Sara so I was surprised that she would ask me to be at a meeting that wasn’t specifically related to my class.

“Well…” my principal hesitated, looking a bit uncomfortable.

This was completely out of character. Just the year before this principal had stared down a student with a handgun while six months pregnant, successfully getting him to hand her the weapon. “There was an issue with another student drawing swastikas on Sara’s notebook. She’d like you to be there when we talk about it because she says you’ll understand.”

Things started to click into place. We’d been studying the Holocaust by reading Daniel’s Story in our social studies class as part of a larger unit on World War II and Sara was one of very few students who proactively identified as being Jewish. When starting the unit we made sure to contact parents and notify other 6th grade teachers because the topic was emotional. As expected, there’d been some parent and student questions about Judaism, Nazis, and anti-Semitism in my class and others, but nothing out of the ordinary by my colleagues’ accounts. This was clearly more serious.

I also started to get a sense of why Sara would say that I’d understand.

 

My Identity Matters When I Teach

That was my first year of full-time teaching and I had four sections of 6th grade social studies. We had a big unit on 20th century Europe focused on the two World Wars and when we started the shift in topic from World War II as a political conflict into specifically studying the Holocaust as a genocide I took a moment to acknowledge that students may get uncomfortable.

Genocide and The Holocaust are uncomfortable even in an abstract sense and I feel strongly that studying genocide, and other forms of oppression like slavery or racism, should handled with respect to students’ age, but can not be sugar coated. We owe our students the truth when we study painful subjects. As such, I had no intention of sanitizing the Holocaust and I let the students know that we would be examining uncomfortable materials including stories and pictures. I told them that is was reasonable to feel discomfort and that they would have opportunities to examine what made them feel uncomfortable. Think of it as a trigger warning before the term came into fashion.

I also told the students about my Jewish ancestry and acknowledged that studying the Holocaust made me uncomfortable every time even though I’d done it before.

It’s also important to clarify that my Jewish ancestry is not obvious to an external observer. I don’t wear a yarmulke or a Star of David around my neck. I haven’t been Bar Mitzvahed and I’m not a regular at the Synagogue. In fact my last trip to temple was for my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah.

I’m the child of an Belarusian, Jewish, mother and an Irish/Scottish, Catholic, father. My last name is McCormick, and with the name for context, I look like I stepped right off the Emerald Isle. The Belarusian genes are more subtle without the Kabakov for context. Essentially, I came out to my students in a small way. I positioned myself for them and gave context for the seriousness with which I planned to take discussions of the Holocaust as related to my identity.

 

It Didn’t Seem Like a Big Deal

I didn’t really plan to tell my students about my background ahead of time. I didn’t write a speech or even play it through in my head. It just seemed like a good idea. I knew I had a couple Jewish students and probably a couple like me who weren’t obviously Jewish. I said it once and didn’t really make a bit deal about it in any sort of ongoing way. I figured f I could teach this stuff, even though it’s painful, then they could learn it alongside me. I didn’t think it would matter outside the classroom.

Sharing my identity in this way worked beyond my expectations. It worked well enough that when a student scrawled a handful of crude swastikas on Sara’s notebook during lunch, she asked for me for moral support. I was the first ally she thought of.

The parent/principal meeting went smoothly. To date that middle school principal is still the best boss I’ve ever worked for. She handled the situation with gravity and compassion without ever letting up on her deep sense of respect for everyone involved. She listened to Sara with the utmost respect with no attempt to downplay Sara’s pain.

The student responsible for the swastikas was treated appropriately for an eleven year old who didn’t really understand the seriousness of his actions. There was no radicalized Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist agenda. He learned the seriousness of his actions and the reason for their unacceptability. All of us were able to move on without further incident.

In the meeting I didn’t do a whole lot. I ended up pretty much just being there for moral support for Sara. The principal handled the whole thing and I learned a lot about mediation. The key was that Sara had an ally. Someone to corroborate her pain. Every time she described how hurt she was she would look at me and say: “you get it right? I mean, you’re Jewish too.” She could confirm that her feelings were justifiable by checking them against my feelings. No one could tell her that it wasn’t a big deal of a teacher agreed with her.

My small act of revealing my Jewish ancestry was just that. A small act. A small risk to share something that was previously invisible. That small risk on my part helped Sara feel more comfortable in class and established a powerful level of trust . I didn’t even know how important that revelation was to Sara until we had the incident with the swastikas because Sara didn’t need to rely on me before that.

Sara told me later in that year that as soon as we started the World War II unit she was worried about studying the Holocaust. She was worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle it, that she would be too upset to stay in class. When I told her I was Jewish that helped her feel confident that I would handle the subject with sensitivity and propriety. (I’m paraphrasing a bit here from 6th grade speaking patterns.) Throughout the unit Sara did have some issues and even had a few nightmares about Nazis coming for her. Each time it happened either she, or her parents let me know and we gave her the option to sit out the class. She only took that option once and she stuck through some of the more emotionally challenging lessons that had some other students feeling overwhelmed.

 

Beyond Sara:

When I shared my Jewish heritage with my class I couldn’t predict that it would become so immediately important for one of my students. I couldn’t predict that another student would leverage Sara’s Judaism against her leaving her desperate for an ally. I shared anyway, without a specific plan or strategy.

There are numerous other times when I’ve shared other aspects of my identity and in most of the cases I wasn’t sure which students would latch on to which aspects of my identity. Will any of my students care that I lived in California? Who knows? Will any of my students care parents got divorced? I have no idea. That didn’t stop me from opening myself when the time felt right. I’ve absolutely mentioned my parents’ divorce when a student’s family situation is making it hard for them to stay focused in class. I think of it a lot like fishing with the philosophy that I could catch more fish by casting more lines into the stream. Without casting my lines of identity I stood a much lower chance of making connections with my students.

That said I am also mindful of when I cast which lines. Like any other professional, educators need to use the right tool for the right situation and the goal is not to share everything. In her excellent book on the power of vulnerability, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown draws a sharp distinction between effective vulnerability and over sharing. I am not a complete open book with my students and there are definitely pieces that I elect not to share and questions that I won’t answer. Students don’t get to hear about my relationship with my wife and they don’t get much about my sister. My general rule of thumb is to be as open as I hope my students to be. If I expect students to write about a challenging academic or social experience in our AVID class, I should be able to provide them with my own example. If I am unwilling to share about my biggest mistake in life I shouldn’t expect my students to be that open with me. As a general rule my AVID class got more than my history because of the content of the class itself.

Educators won’t always have such an obvious area of connection between themselves and a student that ties directly to curriculum. I didn’t plan that by revealing my Jewish ancestry that I would be able to help a student through a difficult experience. I just thought my students would be more attentive and respectful of my own emotions when we discussed a charged issue. I definitely made sure to mention my ancestry again when I taught the Holocaust for a second time.

I also never hope for students to experience harassment due to curricular connections, yet it happens. The country is seeing a rise of hate crimes and emboldened Neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations since the presidential election that schools can’t ignore. Educators should expect this to continue as racist and hateful rhetoric become more common on the news and across the country. If sharing some of our identities as the adult in the room can help students feel safer in the classroom then we should do that. It is a small risk for the adult with explicit authority to open themselves when the reward could be protecting a vulnerable or targeted child.

If educators can’t prevent examples of hateful speech, graffiti, or actions from appearing in schools (and we have never been able to prevent this) we are responsible for addressing those issues head on. While I think the concept behind wearing safety pins is an admirable one, I think more concrete examples of solidarity will prove to be more effective over the long term. Authentic alliance requires authentic connection. If you as an educator can make an authentic connection to your students this will help them see you as an ally. When I told my classes about my Jewish heritage I immediately became an ally for Sara. I’ve had similar experiences by sharing that I speak Spanish, read comic books, and listen to hip hop along with countless other facets of my identity. I’ve made myself an ally for students battling with substance abuse, gang affiliation, and teenage parenthood. If anything I was shocked at how easily it happened when I allowed it.

As an educator I encourage you to make a strong human connection with your students. Allow them to see you as the full human you are – particularly if you think you can make a connection with a student, or group of students, who may feel isolated or targeted in your school community. This could look like my example with Sara where I connected an aspect of my identity to the curriculum. This could also be early in the school year when you are introducing yourself. You could also use it as a bridge when a student is experiencing difficulty in your class. There is no perfect way to open yourself to others. You’ll need to take a risk and put your line in the water. You won’t catch much otherwise.

Pop quiz, hotshot.

There’s a conversational bomb in the classroom. You have  thirty students and they’re talking about racism. Things might get out of hand. Students might get angry. Students might get offended.

What do you do? What do you do?

Well, if you listen to Judith L. Pace then you lean right into that discomfort and let the students keep talking, providing some guidance here and there to address misconceptions. You let things get messy and difficult. In The Charged Classroom:  Predicaments and Possibilities for Democratic Teaching Pace covers how teachers can effectively let the classroom environment get tense (or charged) in order to promote student learning.

Structurally, Pace segments charged issues into four categories: communicating academic expectations, discussing provocative topics, competing curricular demands, and framing performance. In each chapter Pace summarizes relevant research, relates a series of classroom observations (including effective and ineffective examples) and then discusses the feasibility of moving forward in support of democratic education. This structure works well with Pace’s straightforward writing style and each chapter could also stand on it’s own if so desired. The text is quite slim and Pace doesn’t waste any words in getting her point across. Each section is valuable in its own right and the is very little of the repetition that can plague books about education.

In addition to the basic structure described above Pace also carries a thread of educational equity throughout the text highlighting how traditionally underserved populations (low income, urban, rural, racial minority) also typically experience reduced access to the highest levels of democratic education of which they are likely in the highest need of.  This allows the text to be used effectively alongside other works related to equity or antiracist education, even though from the cover the text is not obviously connected to those issues.

chargedclassroomPace’s background is in examining humanities education and that bias is present in The Charged Classroom. Despite this focus, the text is relevant to any level of education because of how Pace examines universal issues. Every educator has a responsibility to communicate academic expectations in a way that respects students’ emotional state while also communicating honesty. The math teacher handing back exams would benefit from this chapter and educators across all disciplines and grade levels would benefit from Pace’s descriptions of how educators effectively provide very difficult feedback to students while also helping those students save face in the classroom.

Additionally, the chapter on discussing provocative topics focuses on humanities classrooms, but no classroom is exempt from controversy or provocation. Pace’s example is same sex marriage, but could just as easily be evolution, racism, or whether girls can do math. In this chapter in particular Pace makes a strong argument that discussing controversial issues is critical for student learning and educators who take her advice on how to approach these issues will likely be more confident in both intentionally bringing up controversy and when issues arise unexpectedly.

The last two sections are similarly universal as all educators have to balance what they know about high quality education with the demands of standardized testing or curriculum. Pace provides no perfect answer here (spoilers: there isn’t one) but she lays out the challenges with enough clarity that a group of educators could discuss how they want to approach the issues given their specific contexts. I think these two chapters would be very effective if read and discuss with a department or grade level team at a school.

As with most texts about education that I read, the section on solutions is quite slim and offers little in the way of novel solutions. We need Better teacher preparation and more professional development. Conduct fewer initiatives, and give them more time.

One area of novelty though is that Pace acknowledges teaching as an inherently difficult undertaking that becomes even more difficult when we ask teachers to specifically address provocative and controversial issues. This is a fact well known to teachers, yet it is not part of the national dialogue about teaching. In fact in the United States teachers are often subject to shame and lower status.

And so while I long for different solutions, perhaps the solution really is as simple as acknowledging that teaching is difficult and training teachers as if that’s the case instead of pretending that we can create effective teachers in shorter and shorter licensure programs.

 

 

Re-visiting a classic is a challenge. I find myself wondering if it will still be relevant or if it will live up to the hype. How much of a universal theme will carry through to an audience many years removed from the original writing.

In education classics age particularly poorly given the rate of research distraction in the field. A ten year old text can feel antiquated and twenty years feels like a lifetime. Educational fads change quickly as the field shoots wildly in hops of finding a silver bullet for student achievement. I’m doubly hesitant when it comes to texts on educational equity. How could a text written before No Child Left Behind and the rise of the education reform movement accurately represent the pressures that teachers feel to educate each child to the highest levels? Equity feels even more tense in a post-Trayvon Martin, post-Michael Brown, post- Eric Garner, America. (And even more pressing in a post-2016 Election America.)

With these thoughts I began to read Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria?” an unquestioned classic that many educators read in preparation programs.“Why Are All the Black Kids…” is coming up on its twentieth year. Published in 1997, the text essentially covers the basics of racial identity development with a particular focus on Black people in the context of schools.
why_are_all_the_black_kidsThe text is still very strong and deserves its status as a classic. Tatum deftly describes and explores the institutional structures that maintain racism and the ways that people of color, specifically Black people, develop their own racial identities as they negotiate those structures throughout their lives. The chapters on youth and adolescence will be particularly salient for educators as they work to understand their students.

Tatum succeeds in creating a classic by focusing on timeless issues. While the title alludes to a text about schooling, and the text itself is routinely assigned in graduate schools of education, “Why Are All the Black Kids…” is not fundamentally about education or schools. The text is about racial identity development in the context of an institutionally racist society. The text covers schools and schooling because they are a fundamental player in a person’s identity development, but Tatum also addresses influences of community, peers, and the work world from birth through the entire life of a person.

“Why Are All the Black Kids…” most obviously shows its age in statistics and discussion of people of color other than Blacks. This makes sense. The book is a product of its time and Tatum can only use the existing 1997 statistics to make her points. If anything many of the statistics that she presents have only become more troubling in the subsequent nineteen years. Schools are increasingly segregated along racial lines despite rapidly growing Asian and LatinX populations across the country.

At the beginning of chapter 8 where Tatum addresses identity development in people of color who are not Black (or not solely Black) she acknowledges her limits wondering how she might “make the experiences of [her] Latino, Asian, and Native students visible without tokenizing them,” drawing the conclusion that she might not be able to but, ” a sincere, though imperfect, attempt to interrupt the oppression of others is usually better than no attempt at all.” To this end Tatum quickly exposes core issues of oppression that exist for LatinX, Asian, and Native communities without trying to claim expertise. When possible, Tatum also acknowledges other scholars who are more deeply involved with these communities. The ever growing Asian, LatinX, and Middle Eastern populations in the United States and the experiences of those populations in schools highlights the need to include races other than Black and white in conversations of educational equity and antiracist education.

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.

If you teach U.S. History anywhere near the 20th Century I’m going to go ahead and assume that you take some time for the Civil Rights Movement. Hopefully even a couple weeks. If you don’t we have bigger issues to discuss and we should probably schedule a one on one meeting to look at your curriculum. (That wasn’t a joke.)

I’m also going to assume that you use a few key texts like King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, or maybe his speech from the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom. You might use Brown v. Board. Perhaps you use some texts related to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. You might show films or clips of films like Selma or Eyes on the Prize. If we’re really lucky you might use  something from Malcolm X like The Ballot or the Bullet or even some texts from SNCC or the Black Panthers.

You should also use March.

march-coversMarch is the three volume story of Representative John Lewis’ (D-GA) life in the specific context of the Civil Rights Movement and President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. The story is told as a series of prolonged flashbacks as Representative Lewis processes the historical significance of President Obama’s election. I recommend all three volumes though you could probably get away with just volume 3. Books for a school or class aren’t cheap.

If you want it in a single sentence March is to the Civil Rights Movement as Maus is to the Holocaust minus the plot line about Art Spiegelman’s issues with his father. And frankly, from a comics standpoint March is a superior piece of work. (Luckily you could use both!)

I’ve written before about how comics can increase interest and accessibility for students and that all remains true here. Volume 3 also won the National Book Award making it the first comic or graphic novel to do so. That could be reason enough.

You will need to be a courageous teacher to use it and I have faith that you are capable of that courage. (Lucky for you the people at Top Shelf created a teacher guide for book 1 as well.)

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Unlike many civil rights stories in other media, the experiences of the movement are extremely visceral thanks to Nate Powell’s art. March moved me and helped me identify with Representative Lewis in a way that no prose text or film has done previously. I felt pain when Representative Lewis gets beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was sick to my stomach when protesters were harassed and taunted by other citizens. I choked up when Powell revealed the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church even though I knew it was coming. And I completely broke down at the end when President Obama is inaugurated and he and Representative Lewis exchange a few words. Students need to engage directly with the emotions that March brings up.

march-marchIt’s easy to just keep using the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s easy to stick with excerpts from “I Have a Dream.” They are known. They are safe. They’re excellent. They also keep the brutality at a distance. The conversations stay intellectual. Those texts avoid images of adult white men beating young black boys. They avoid the emotional pain and embarrassment of being repeatedly turned away from a lunch counter. Of having your church burned to the ground. They avoid the repeated arrests and the reality of putting one’s body on the line for the sake of justice.

March steps directly into that challenging space and as a teacher will force you to do the same. You owe your students an honest representation of historical struggle for justice. The dominant narrative that paints Dr. King as an infallible saint who never disturbed anyone. The dominant narrative tells us Rosa Parks as some tired old lady and does them a disservice and that narrative is a disservice to the movement as a whole.

March places the ownership of the movement in young people. Many young people working together over a long period of time. March is a story of resiliency in the face of oppression that is honest with readers about the time and effort and struggle required to make social change. And it is honest about the risks.

Without the emotional weight and the seriousness of the movement, why even teach it? Teaching the movement is not important because it may come up on the final. Teaching the movement is important because lives were at stake and young people took action. Lives are still at stake and young people can still take action and as educators we have a responsibility to help students realize their own power.

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