Changing students' perspectives is not going to be easy. It's going to take more than changing the test questions to include "ethnic-sounding" names. Literature needs to be multi-cultural. As a Jewish person, I feel comfortable saying I would rather, if time is a factor, that more time be spent on African American history and multi-cultural literature than the Holocaust. Less than 2% of the American population is Jewish, yet this heart-wrenching topic comes up again and again from elementary school throughout high school. I understand the emphasis; the theme of genocide is relevant, especially recently, today. But, it is more important for students to recognize themselves in literature and in history for them to be interested in learning anything. Science needs to do more to recognize the work of African American inventors and scientists. Does History curriculum really need to spend so much time in Mesopotamia? Why not go further south and look at the Nubians in Kush, for example? Math? Making math culturally relevant sounds very difficult. But, let's try making it more physical. Incorporate music and dance. Use origami when studying geometry. Refer to ancient Arabs and their use of algebra. Use manipulatives and incorporate more social activities.
A handful or even dozens of teachers who are empathetic to the needs of all of their students is not enough. Change has to permeate throughout the entire building, from the top down and bottom up. State curricula needs to be more representative of the groups of young people who are currently unsuccessful. Until this happens, we will not be able to reach all of our students. It seems that some kids cannot differentiate between adults who care and those who don't; we just get lumped together. They also do not realize that there were hundreds of thousands of white people involved in civil rights, some of whom even died for the cause. These are lesson to be taught, as well, that we are in this together.
Upon hearing of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death, Robert Kennedy broke the news to a large group of African Americans who had gathered to see him speak at a campaign rally. Unscripted, he told them, "We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization - black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love." We are still tasked with this today, and as educators, it is our responsibility to see King's (and Kennedy's) vision realized.
Please visit Part One and Part Two.
The problem is, as I've learned in the last few weeks, is that these students, are not hearing about King and Malcolm, or about Booker T. and W.E.B. duBois from anyone. Middle school students barely finish the Civil War in history class, let alone learn about Plessy v. Ferguson and Jim Crow laws. If their parents do not teach them, they rarely hear it. They are looking in the wrong direction for their heroes. When they look in the mirror, they see sports figures and rap stars, not men who preached from mountain tops. They emulate that which they have little chance of becoming. Girls listen to the words of Nicki Minaj, not Nina Simone, for a sense of self and purpose.
Principal Baruti Kafele visited my school on Friday to speak to both students and to staff. His message to the students was clear: it is time for all students to take responsibility for themselves, to make better choices, to stop acting like clowns, and to find their purpose. A student asked Principal Kafele if he played sports in high school, and I could not have been happier to hear his response. He does not like to promote the fact that he played sports because the likelihood of a young man or woman making it professionally is slim; they have to have "a Plan B, C, D, and E." A lot of my white students want to be video game programmers or Youtube stars (at least 50%, according to a survey we did in class). How likely is this? Not very. Everybody has to have a back-up plan.
Last night I showed my children the cartoon video Our friend, Martin (1998). If you have not seen this or shown your children and/or young students, I highly recommend this time travel story.
One of the first lines is when the protagonist, Miles, says that he doesn't do his school work because he has to practice his pitch, because that's his "only way out." The choice for people of color does not have to be poverty or mind-blowing wealth. There is a middle-ground.
Principal Kafele's message to our staff was more vague. He does not have a magic bullet to improve student behavior. He had no specific cure-alls that will get our students to do their homework. He did not have a list of steps that we can take to close "the attitude gap," as he calls it. Instead, he suggested that we have to look in the mirror. Kids don't raise themselves; our environment has a tremendous influence on who we turn out to be. We, as educators, need to take a look at ourselves and see what we can do to better nurture our students. We can, research shows, effect change in their personality, their character, in their work ethic, and in their attitude. But, the traditional way of teaching is not cutting it. Children want to see themselves; they want to see who and what they will become. Black children need to see black professionals on a regular basis, just as white children need to see, and do see, white professionals. If your school has a low white teacher to black teacher ratio then what and how we teach our students needs to change. Individual teachers may already be exemplars for this, but until an entire staff buys in and creates a school climate where every child knows their history and sees a glimpse of a positive future, then we're going to continue to have disciplinary and academic problems.
"Why focus on minority students? What about everyone else?" We need to recognize that we still live in a white world. White kids, as a whole, will be just fine. Students of color grow up in this white world. The faces on our money, every past president, politicians, advertisements, models, history books, fine arts--it's mostly all white. Politically correct people often say that they don't see race. That's wrong, I say. We need to see and embrace ethnicity. We need to show our black children and Latino children and Asian children and every child that there is a place for them in the middle class, in professional positions that have nothing to do with music and sports. We need to remind them that fifty years ago, black men and women were fighting for their lives for lawmakers to recognize that their skin color is different and beautiful, and that that is the only thing different about them. They need to be reminded that when they don't fulfill their responsibilities and do not perform to their aptitude, then their forefathers died in vain.
Please see Part 1 and Part 3.
Preface: I'm a white woman who grew up in a mostly-white town outside of Seattle, Washington. There were four black students in my graduating class. I went to the University of Washington where half of the students were white, a quarter were Asian, and the other 25% were black, Hispanic, American Indians, and "other." 99% of the people in my college major, though, were white. Most of my friends are white (my oldest and closest are not, however), most of my family is white, and most of my neighbors are white. What does this have to do with what I am about to write? Absolutely nothing.
I taught high school Sociology and History for six years to a mostly white audience of students. Every year, we discussed Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday, as well as throughout the year. I showed his Dream speech and teared up without fail every single time. In Sociology class we discussed Race and Ethnicity and the burdens that different groups bear. We talked about the "Invisible Knapsack" of white privilege, read "Black Like Me," and discussed Thoreau's influence on Ghandi and Gandhi's influence on King, who in turn influenced tens of thousands of blacks and whites to join together to overcome white supremacy in both the north and the south. I taught black history. I didn't wait until February. I loved the stories, the triumphs, the victories. I saw value in showing the sacrifice that black and white families made to let their young men and women join the Freedom Riders knowing they would face abuse and possibly death. The passion for freedom and equity that drove black men and women to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge never failed to inspire me and motivate my students. I tried to light a fire in my students that some things, such as your right to marry who you want, to practice the religion you believe in, to stand up for the weak when you are yourself strong, are worth fighting for, even to the death.
I moved to a different community about four years ago. My new students are not all white. One-third of my students are black, another quarter are Hispanic. Half of my students know poverty like I've never known (including white boys and girls). Many feel persecuted, prejudiced against, and trapped. They are also younger since I now teach in a middle school. I haven't talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. in three years except to my own children. I think, perhaps subconsciously, I haven't believed that I have the right to do so. Before, in my old life, perhaps I thought I was enlightening my students whose white parents didn't talk to them about another people's history and it was something simply interesting to learn about. But now, how dare I think that I can teach black students something about their history? Why do I have this mindset? Why have I feared being a white teacher teaching black history to my black students?
Click here for Part Two and here for Part Three.
I intend this blog to be a reflection journal of sorts, on topics such as teaching, leadership, pedagogy, and tacos.