What It Means That My School Embraces Cultural Diversity

I should clarify. I am not in a position to speak on behalf of my entire school. What follows are the implications of cultural diversity as they are apparent to me. My hope, however, is that I have earned the right to speak small truths into the theories and practices of my education colleagues both inside and outside of my building.

Last month, my middle school adopted a vision statement that includes the phrase, “…produce generations that embrace cultural diversity.” Embedded in this statement is the charge to become a school that embraces cultural diversity so that we can produce generations who do the same. But what does it mean to embrace cultural diversity? It seems innocuous enough.

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The truth, however, is that the word “diversity” comes with its own set of historical baggage. Through the centuries, people from all sides of the political spectrum have rejected the virtues of a diverse society. A nineteenth century group of white abolitionists called the American Colonization Society assisted in the movement of more than 13,000 free African Americans to the newly formed west African country of Liberia. Abraham Lincoln was among the proponents of this “repatriation.” Furthermore, the colonization movement would eventually inspire the black separatist political and religious movement known as the Nation of Islam.

Conversely, The New York Times Magazine recalls how one social experiment in Virginia in the 60’s and 70’s set out to integrate an all-white private school for the express purpose of teaching the virtues of diversity to the white students who would one day become the thought leaders of a new society. Salon has a piece aptly titled, “Diversity is For White People,” which addresses the problematic ways in which the term “diversity” is used to avoid the difficulty of true anti-racism work.

So back to the question at hand. What does it mean for a school to embrace cultural diversity?

To begin with, embracing cultural diversity means both emphatically rejecting the white supremacy and white nationalism of the “alt right” and respectfully disagreeing with the black separatism of movements like the Nation of Islam. There is no place for claims of “good people on both sides” of Charlottesville. Diversity compels us to speak openly at school in opposition to any ideology that calls for the separation of people based on race. Furthermore, our curriculum should neither be Eurocentric nor Afrocentric (though a healthy dose of latter may be needed to counter the former).

Second, for a school to embrace cultural diversity means that its teachers and administrators must be equipped to have daily conversations about race with varying size groups of students. These conversations are not restricted to Social Studies classrooms. Diversity is cross-curricular. White teachers should regularly find themselves saying things like, “I am white.” Talking to a class about race can be difficult. Talking to individual students about race can be even more difficult. But it must be done if our product is a student that embraces cultural diversity.

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Third, embracing cultural diversity means rejecting the re-segregation of the corporate education reform movement. We know that capitalism does not produce diverse communities. The most privileged neighborhoods and schools (mostly white) and the most under-privileged neighborhoods and schools (mostly communities of color) testify to this. It is in the lower middle class, where civic support is moderate to good and where housing is affordable, that we typically see the most diversity. The answer to the re-segregation of our inner city and suburban schools is not selective admissions and voucher programs. These only serves to exacerbate the problem. Affluent mostly white suburban schools should be looking upon lower socio-economic diverse schools with envy instead of animus.

Fourth, when we embrace cultural diversity we are embracing sanctuary for undocumented students. No one can truly embrace cultural diversity while clutching to the irrationality of xenophobia. Public schools are currently at odds with immigration policies espoused by the President of the United States. Education is about building bridges, not walls. The day that schools are required to obtain information concerning citizenship status is the day that teachers will become galvanized perhaps like never before.

Fifth, embracing cultural diversity means that on some level we acknowledge the reality of, or perhaps the need for, class warfare. This piece from The American Prospect takes the position that our society’s focus on diversity has distracted us from the real problem of economic inequality. This may very well be true, but I believe that embracing cultural diversity can also be a window to understanding class struggle. For instance, at my school, the answer to the question, “Why is our school more diverse than others?” is inherently about class and opportunity. I also believe in the possibility of a revolution of the people that begins in under-served urban schools (Reading for Revolution).

I am not naïve. We are not diverse because we have embraced it. Our decision to embrace cultural diversity is predicated on our student body being diverse. But regardless, we have been granted an opportunity, a gift even. For me it’s very simple, my school is a model of the kind of world I want to live in.

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Seven Times “XQ Super School Live” Denigrated America’s Teachers (And One Time It Praised Them)

At 8 p.m. EST on September 08, 2017, all four major television networks simulcast “XQ Super School Live,” a celebrity-filled stage show reminiscent of MTV’s recent Video Music Awards. Here is a primer on the event from The Washington Post. Here are the reflections of Steven Singer, the classroom authority on corporate education reform schemes. In case you missed it, save an hour of your time by reading the summary below.

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(1) The opening sequence flips between David Muir of ABC, Gayle King of CBS, Chris Wallace of Fox, and Al Roker of NBC all perpetuating the false narrative that American high schools are failing and stagnant. Steven Singer has already successfully debunked this myth. The rhetoric was so heavy-handed that it almost came across as irony. David Muir said that they “have all put aside any network competition to join together… on what needs to change in American high schools.” One minute into the broadcast, the message was clear, network television does not support America’s public high schools or its teachers.

(2) Cut to Bill Hader reporting live from a “real” American high school. “When students cross this threshold, they bring their hopes and dreams only to encounter a system that no longer helps them achieve these goals.” Hader’s deadpan sarcastic delivery of such an indictment must have been an attempt to soften the blow, because soon the camera pans to students and teachers singing a re-imagined version of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me,” an implication that our high schools have completely forgotten about their students.

(3) Chance the Rapper opens the live show with these words, “Everyone here tonight recognizes that the world around us has changed dramatically. But we look at our schools, and we just see the same.” This is the often repeated education reform narrative of public schools as the “status quo.” This was the moment in the show when whatever irony I was perceiving began to fade away, and it became clear that I, as a public school teacher, was the problem and not the solution.

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(4) It takes almost two more minutes of singing and dancing to flash all the names of the celebrities that are soon to appear in the show, be verbally introduced, and have their names on the screen a second time. Host Viola Davis then says, “We at XQ know that the days of hoping someone else will come along to do it for us are over.” This seems to be a nod to the highly problematic 2010 education reform documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” Cut to this video which is at the heart of XQ’s contempt for America’s public high schools.

(5) XQ uses such broad strokes to describe American public schools. To hear XQ tell it, there are absolutely no innovative classrooms or teachers in any public high schools. At this point in the show, you can feel that a punch line is imminent, but it is not exactly clear what the joke is. And then it hits you square in the face, a close up of XQ co-founders, Russlynn Ali and Laurene Powell Jobs, and the words, “Two years ago XQ ran a competition to create super schools across the country.” The message? American high schools are broken, but XQ can fix at least a few of them.

(6) At the very core of branding for XQ are phrases that begin, “Imagine,” and “What if?” With every phrase that begins this way, XQ is essentially saying, “These are the things that high schools are not doing. These are the things that America’s teachers are not doing.” Then, in the middle of a dramatic stage presentation, a faceless narrator drops the commonly used school choice phrase “regardless of zip code.” This is not a reference to funding equity, but an underhanded reference to the vouchers and Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) of the “School Choice” movement.

[1] The one praise that XQ gives to teachers is sandwiched between profiles of “Super Schools” to create some distance from all the negative comments about those teachers’ schools. XQ slightly tweaks the much better “Teaching Center” video from Key and Peele and turns it into a mediocre red carpet event for teachers complete with coverage from Melissa Rivers and Kevin Frazier. And Lin Manuel Miranda wants me to use the hashtag #thanksforteachingme? Didn’t XQ just spend twenty-three minutes convincing me that America’s high school teachers were not teaching anything?

(7) About eight minutes after the red carpet bit, “XQ Super School Live” cuts to a video called “I wish I learned…” featuring a host of celebrities including Hasan Minhaj, Cate Blanchett, Tony Hale, Christian Slater, MC Hammer, Joel McHale, Marshawn Lynch, Samuel L. Jackson and many others basically listing the ways that their high school teachers failed them.

Here is a brief description of each “Super School” profiled in the show. All of these schools have one particular non-traditional school policy in common. They all have some element of a selective admissions process:

Furr High School in Houston, Texas is part of Houston Independent School District. FHS is home to Mindful Exploration of Technology and Arts (META) Magnet Program and REACH Charter School.

Hunter College High School is a highly selective magnet school on the upper east side of Manhattan. The admissions policies at HCHS have been criticized by notable alumnus Chris Hayes, MSNBC journalist.

Da Vinci Rise High School is “a non-classroom based independent study charter school” serving about 30 students in Hawthorne, California.

Washington Leadership Academy is a charter high school in Washington, D.C. funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart).

Hume-Fogg Academic High School is a magnet school in Nashville, Tennessee. Hume-Fogg adopted a selective admissions process in 1982, the same year Nashville’s public schools were forced to desegregate.

Iowa Big is the cooperative effort of multiple Iowa school districts. “Each partnering district has slots proportional to their financial commitment to the program.”

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Those Who Can’t

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Those who can’t,
Teach.

For example,

Those who can’t sit alone at a desk all day,
Whose energy demands movement and interaction,
Teach.

Those who can’t abide platitudes like, “kids these days,”
Who take the time to know every young person,
Teach.

Those who can’t be satisfied with a job or even a career,
Whose everyday work must be filled with passion,
Teach.

Those who can’t look the other way while our schools resegregate,
Who believe the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice,
Teach.

Those who can’t stand by while our public institutions are privatized,
Whose collective conscience sees through the rhetoric of “choice,”
Teach.

Those who can’t ignore the history of organized labor in the U.S.,
Who know that “the union makes us strong,”
Teach.

Those who can’t punch a clock,
Whose passion can’t be confined to 8-4 or to August through May,
Teach.

Those who can’t care only about some children,
Who are committed to the success of every student,
Teach.

Those who can’t avoid conflict,
Whose acumen can diffuse the most hostile situations,
Teach.

Those who can’t be happy climbing the corporate ladder,
Who will master their craft, and stay in the classroom for decades,
Teach.

Those who can’t settle for anything less than constant improvement,
Whose minds are always searching for innovative new methods,
Teach.

Those who can’t quit,
Who will continue to educate more students with less money,
Teach.

But please know.

Those who can’t be fooled by political schemes,
Whose organizing can create a political revolution,
Teach.

 

 

How Was Your Summer?

 

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Dear teacher,
On the first day of school,
When you ask me how my summer was,
You’re assuming that it was good.
You’re assuming it was
something remarkable,
Something incredible,
Something shareable,
Something fun.

And maybe it was.

Maybe I went to Six Flags.
And maybe I flew in an airplane.
And maybe I went on vacation to the beach
with my mom and my dad and my sister
(but we left our dog at home,
so my Uncle Dennis came over every day)
Maybe I participated in the summer
reading program at the metro library,
and I read four books above my grade level.
And maybe I got to spend a lot of time with
my mom because she is a teacher like you.
Maybe, just maybe, I had a pass to the pool.
Or maybe I interned at the zoo.
Or maybe I went to STEM camp,
or church camp, or the lake.
Maybe I played summer ball.
Maybe life was good
because I slept late,
I did whatever I wanted,
And I didn’t have to come here
and eat that nasty cafeteria food.
Maybe my summer was great.

Or Maybe it wasn’t so great.

Maybe I didn’t leave my neighborhood at all.
Maybe I’ve never been on vacation,
Never been out of Oklahoma.
Maybe I couldn’t leave my house all day
because I was in charge of my two
little brothers and my baby sister.
Maybe I’ve never been to the city pool
and I still don’t know how to swim.
Maybe I haven’t opened a book since May.
Maybe I got a summer job
to support my family.
Maybe I went to bed hungry every night
because there was not enough food.

Maybe we moved twice in one month
and I just found out yesterday
that I would be coming to this school.
Maybe I was physically and emotionally hurt
by someone who is supposed to love me.

Maybe I don’t want to be here,
But it damn sure is better than being at home.

Maybe I left my house every morning walking
and didn’t come home until after dark.
Maybe, just that one time, I was at home
by myself
for three whole days and nights.
And even when I wasn’t by myself,
maybe I went whole days
without talking
to anyone.

Maybe I don’t have any friends,
But at least when I’m at school
I can pretend that I do.

Maybe my summer was ok,
But maybe I have the feeling
that I deserve so much better.
Maybe the first day of school
is the most exciting thing about my summer.
And maybe that’s why I am so loud,
And want to talk,
And don’t want to sit down,
And want to touch people,
And want to run in the halls,
And don’t want to do math.
(at least not the first couple of days)

What I am trying to say is,
You don’t know how my summer was.
So just in case it wasn’t as great as yours,
Maybe you might find a better question
to ask me on the first day of school.

Teachers’ Lounge: Take It or Leave It?

I hesitate to reveal this secret. I feel like I am breaking some teacher code, but I am compelled to tell you. Teachers everywhere, at all kinds of schools, talk negatively about their students. It is not the way things should be. It is the way things are. To be sure, not all teachers talk negatively about students, but it is difficult to find a school; urban, suburban, or rural, where there is not at least a handful of teachers who do. As difficult as it may be to imagine, even in the exclusive world of private and charter schools where challenging students are quickly expelled or refused readmission, many teachers still find ways to engage in this destructive behavior.

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The vocal few are sometimes referred to as “toxic teachers.” Just like any other toxin, these teachers have a way of spreading their disease of negativity. In their opinion, rarely does anything go right in the school. There is always something to complain about, and there is always someone who will listen. Because every day there is a small window known as lunch, and the teachers’ lounge is holding “open mic.” Toxic teachers speak up. They are always willing to share their pessimism with others. For this reason, teachers’ lounges are sometimes avoided by teachers interested in what social justice looks like at school.

But too often well-meaning teachers (not the toxic few) get sucked into speaking negatively about students because of subtle peer pressure within the teachers’ lounge environment. It is a coping mechanism in the midst of a difficult day, a way to “blow off steam.” I was guilty of this unhealthy habit my first few years of teaching. My classroom “management” skills were not what they should have been, and “ragging” on particular students to other teachers became a strange way to manufacture the courage necessary to finish the day without quitting.

One of the many problems with speaking negatively about students is that it is a reflection of the way teachers think about students. And the combination of thoughts and words has a way of manifesting in a teacher’s behavior toward students. The best way to change the way teachers think and behave toward students is to change the way teachers speak about students. So in my third year of teaching I decided I wasn’t going to talk negatively about students to other teachers. The immediate result, however, was that I simply replaced all the negative student talk with negative teacher and administrator talk. My speech became less likely to be racist (I am a white teacher teaching mostly students of color), but it certainly was not anything resembling professional. I was not contributing to the health of my school culture.

A teachers’ lounge where the tone is set by “toxic” teachers is at best a place where positive school culture is destroyed by misguided complaints about administration and at worst a place where implicit bias matures into full-blown unchecked racism. When off-handed remarks about particular students are expanded and a discussion about “this neighborhood,” “these parents,” or “kids these days,” ensues, participating teachers should beware. White teachers at majority non-white schools should pay special close attention to teachers’ lounge language. The teachers’ lounge should be a safe space; not a safe space for teachers to say whatever the hell they want, but a space safe from disparagement of any kind.

But what if the tone in the teachers’ lounge is set by positivity instead of negativity? Teachers’ lounges can be a vital part of what it means to be a teacher, especially at the elementary and middle school level. High schools are often too big for teachers’ lounges to play the uniting role that, for instance, the teachers’ lounge at my middle school does. Teaching is a profession where colleague interaction is a precious commodity. Lunch in the teachers’ lounge creates at least the possibility for daily peer-to-peer professional learning, development, and encouragement. For me, that is something worth speaking up for, something worth fighting for.

So I am not leaving the teachers’ lounge. And you shouldn’t either.

Classroom Management or Something Better

In my last post, “Social Justice Teaching in the Content Area,” I hinted that although adapting principles of social justice to fit inside a given curriculum is very important, social justice teaching ultimately has a much bigger scope. Teachers interested in social justice issues will inevitably move beyond critique of standardized text books and creative use of supplemental material. Social justice teaching has a way of fundamentally changing the nature of the relationship between student and teacher.

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The biggest learned lesson of every first year teacher is that classroom management is a skill that is rarely overvalued. Continuously better classroom management is the longing of every teacher. Classroom management is immeasurably more important to learning compared to other elements of teaching like lesson planning or even content knowledge. Every teacher knows this.

Effective classroom management always includes, but is not limited to: rules, procedures, schedules, routines, norms, transitions, and habits. But what does it look like to apply the principles of social justice teaching to classroom management? Is there something better than classroom management?

I am four weeks away from beginning my 6th year as a public school teacher. My first two years teaching can be characterized by the repetitive feeling of falling flat on my face. Years 3-5 were all about honing my classroom management skills through smaller incremental failures. But now I am wondering if “management” is really what I want my role to be in the classroom. The word “management” does not seem to me to be ultimately conducive to authentic learning.

Those who work toward social justice often find themselves doing what is called “community organizing.” There are no “managers” in grass roots movements. So the question I am currently asking myself is, “What does it look like to be a classroom organizer as opposed to a classroom manager?” I don’t have all the answers yet, I think I have just found a good question.

I realize that in its current state this is largely an issue of semantics, but for me, language is important. So if I embark on a new journey that includes the phrase “classroom organizing,” and I begin to compile the language to describe what that means, then somewhere along the way I may find something that is better than classroom management.