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.
I intend this blog to be a reflection journal of sorts, on topics such as teaching, leadership, pedagogy, and tacos.