Jun 20

What if…

[This blog post coalesced around reading the NY Times article Black Church Is Target Again for Deadly Strike at the Heart and the work and mission of my friends leading the EduColor movement are engaged in every day.]

I have a concern.

I have a concern that we exist in a cycle right now where horribly violent and racist things happen and people, whether they be newscasters, politicians or teachers, rush to decry what has happened and then things settle back to whatever we call normal in this country until the next time something horrible happens, and the cycle starts all over again.

That’s not going to bring about the change our world needs, because it is a profoundly reactionary frame of reference, and things like racial justice and equality are pro-active states of being. And while, yes, our history is dotted with positive change as a reaction to moments of pain and tragedy and hate, I worry that the change we need today requires a far more forward-thinking mode of being than what we are seeing around us.

That’s where the teachers come in.

What if all of us admitted that the institution of school is part of an American system that has not lived up to its potential – its stated ideals – of being a more perfect union for all who take part in it, and that too often, school has intentionally or not, reinforced the racial, gender, religious and socio-economic inequities that have kept our country from achieving the most idealized vision what of what it means to be America?

What would happen if all of us, every day, asked ourselves if our actions actively worked to make a more just and kind world every day?

What would happen if all of the educators who use social media and blogging to share our ideas with the world took the time to always examine our ideas through the lens of equality and justice?

What would happen if we as educators asked ourselves first, are our actions are best for children who have been long marginalized by the American educational system and second if our actions are best for all children?

What would happen if more and more educators took the risk of publicly figuring this out for themselves and wrote about it, not just when national tragedies happen but in the quiet moments, so that we could, as teachers, model the powerful notion that fairness, justice, equality are everyday pursuits, not simply grand gestures?

What would happen if we, as a nation, understood that the goal of making a better nation – a better world – was the priority of public education every bit as much, if not more so, than the goal of helping a single student?

What if we said that the idea of “each and all” meant that we had to examine our systems, our structures, our very teacher-selves to ensure that what we did every day worked to empower all young people to see the need for a better world and work to make it so?

What if we all – especially those of us who are not confronted by this reality every day – didn’t wait until the next tragedy to talk about all of this?

Aug 13

What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying? #MichaelBrown

[After the trial where the man who killed Jordan Davis was not found guilty of his murder, a group of amazing educators and education activists (I was lucky to be one of the folks involved) came together to create a teaching guide for talking about Jordan Davis’ killing and the trial that followed. Many of the resources — and equally as important, the frameworks for thinking about creating curriculum — are equally applicable for creating conversations and curriculum around talking about Mike Brown. And we need to talk about Mike Brown.]

When I heard that Mike Brown was shot – unarmed, multiple times – by a police officer, my thoughts immediately went to the many stories I have heard over the years from my students of color about their experiences with the police. Their stories are not monolithic, and I have students of color who are the sons and daughters of police officers who often bring a different lens to these conversations, but overwhelmingly, the conversations I have heard have spoken to a deep level of distrust and fear between students of color and the police.

With the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s death, with Michael Dunn not getting convicted of murder in Jordan Davis’ death and now with Mike Brown’s death, many of SLA’s students of color have come to the understandable conclusion that the systems of American justice – from the police to the courts – are not there for them. Clearly, there are too many statistics that support that conclusion.

And the reaction of the authorities in Ferguson, MO since Mike Brown was shot by a police officer despite being unarmed has looked more like a police state than anything I can remember in America in my lifetime. All over the country, students are on social media asking – what kind of country does this to its own citizens?

For me, both the shooting of Mike Brown the actions of the government to Mike Brown’s killing has made me think of my grandfather. My grandfather escaped Germany in the 1930s, because he saw the writing on the wall and saw that his country was no longer safe for him. When I was young, I remember my grandfather saying to me, “You must remember that you are a Jew before you are an American, because when Jews forget that, Jews die.”  And I think about the many parents and students of color who have talked to me about “the talk” — what to do if a young black man or woman are ever confronted by the police. And I think about how we live in a country where — especially if you cannot pass for white (which I, for example, can most often do) — the rules you live by are different. You are not simply American, you are a Hyphen-American, and for you, the rules are different and not as just. And, much like my grandfather said to me over thirty years ago, if you forget that fact, you can die.

So what do we do as educators? What is our role? For to pretend that this does not enter our classrooms, our schools, is to run the risk of allowing ourselves to be complicit in the system that left Mike Brown’s body in the street for hours. How we teach, how we frame this issue with students is incredibly difficult and complex, and so many of the resources, ideas and suggestions created after Jordan Davis’ killer was not convicted of murder are appropriate again. It is incredibly daunting to think about how we frame this issue in our classrooms, but that cannot be the reason for educators to shy away from it. And, if nothing else, now is a moment where educators need to listen deeply to students who need to express what they are feeling.

And what I have learned in my time at SLA is that when I am struggling with hard questions myself, that those questions are the ones we can ask as a community. Perhaps now is a moment for educators to ask hard questions about our country. Some questions I’ve been asking myself, without great answers lately.

  • What happens to a society that seemingly has one set of rules for one race and another set of rules for everyone else?
  • What happens when too many people lose faith in the government’s ability / will / desire to actually keep people of color safe?
  • What happens when too many people feel that the dream is not accessible to them?
  • What is the role of the police in a civil society?
  • If a society becomes more militarized in the name of “safety” and “security,” is it any wonder that those who were already feeling the effects of disenfranchisement and racism would bear the brunt of the increasing militarization of its police force?
  • How do we get better than this?
  • How do we become a more just society?
  • How do we not lose hope?
  • How do we close the gap between the best ideals of America and the reality that we see around us every day?

I have had to say much the same thing before. I will keep saying it until I don’t have to say it anymore. Mike Brown’s death must serve to remind us that there is no such thing (to quote SLA teacher Pia Martin) as passive anti-racism. His death — and the police state that Ferguson, MO has become since his death — must remind us that institutional racism is the norm in this country and therefore we have to actively work to do better. This must remind us that we are nowhere near being the country we need to be for our citizens of color — and, therefore, for all of us.

May 06

This is Not a Review: Jose Vilson’s “This Is Not a Test”

[As many folks know, Jose Vilson is a dear friend of mine. He is also, in my opinion, one of the biggest thinkers we’ve got in the world of education today. I’ve been trying to write a traditional review of Jose’s new book, This is Not a Test, for several days now. I can’t. If you need to read a review, go read Audrey Watters’ review of it. It’s better than anything I could possibly write. What this is, simply, is an exhortation.]

There are books I read where I simply love the writer’s voice so much that I cannot put the book down.

There are books I read where I just find the message so compelling that I cannot put the book down.

Then there are those rare books that I read where the author’s voice is so powerful and the message so compelling that not only can I not put it down, but I find myself “cheer-reading,” with vigorous head-nodding and calls out to my wife, so I can read her passages that are particularly moving to me. Those are the kinds of books where I am inevitably sad when I come to the end, because I simply want to keep reading and learning more.

Jose Vilson’s This is Not a Test is one such book.

If you are familiar with Jose’s blog, you might already know that he is one of the most powerful writers on education that’s out there on the internet already. And if you only know Jose from his blog, that’d be enough to go buy the book. (And if you aren’t reading Jose’s blog, why aren’t you?)

But as good as his blog is, the book is better.

The book is a powerful commentary on the world of school today, woven through his narrative as both a student and a teacher. Jose uses the lens of his own experiences to speak to some of the most important issues facing our schools, from issues of race and class in our schools, to the need to understand our students as far more than a test score to answering the fundamental question of “Why Teach?” This is Not a Test is a deliberate creation of both memoir and social commentary that is woven together in such a compelling way as to remind every reader of the power of story to educate us of what we can and should value in our schools and in our society.

If you teach, if you have kids in school, if you live in the world of education policy, or if you simply care about the present and future of education in this country, you must read this book.

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, the book is on sale (30%) through Haymarket Press. Simply buy it through the publisher and enter the code NOTATEST at checkout.

Go. Now. Buy the book. Read it. Tell others to read it too. Because, indeed, this is not a test.