Tag Archives: Children

Racism and Reform: A Professional View

Few topics of discussion generate as much acrimony as racism in education. A recent book review in Education Next illustrates this point.

Mark Bauerlein reviewed the book “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit. A book review usually starts by describing the central arguments of the book in as neutral a way as possible, then ends with a critique of those arguments. That way, both sides get a fair hearing and the readers can weigh the arguments for themselves. This was not the format Bauerlein followed.

From the opening paragraph, he was all over Delpit. Turgidly, Delpit’s argument is that the classroom is a middle-class white space. Black students do not succeed in this space because their behaviors either do not conform to, or are constantly being misinterpreted by, the white middle-class educators in this space. This causes black children to internalize the negative view of them held by their educators. They end up becoming either “invisible” or “hypervisible” as a result. A possible antidote to this is for the white middle-class classroom to become more sensitive to the values of black children by being more “collaborative”. Another possible antidote is for the curriculum to be more “afrocentric”.

There is nothing new under the sun, it seems, as far as Delpit’s arguments go. They are the well-worn critiques of cultural insensitivity in public education to which anyone who has been through a college teaching program has been exposed.

At the same time, Bauerlein parades out some familiar tropes himself. He explains that making schools more culturally sensitive will not improve the college or work readiness of black students. He criticizes Delpit’s approach that focuses on educational inputs and ignores “outcomes”. He suggests, although does not outright claim, that we would be better served with following a model of school accountability where we export what the best schools do to every other school. Throughout his review, Bauerlein is confident that Bill Gates, Teach for America and other familiar figures of education reform are genuinely committed to closing the achievement gap. He cannot figure out why Lisa Delpit questions their motives or believes that Gates and his rich pals are using poor black children as convenient vehicles for tax write-offs.

Joanne Jacobs steps in to buttress Bauerlein’s ravaging of Lisa Delpit by citing what she calls the “no excuses” schools that tell their students to leave street culture on the street.

While I do not agree with much of what Delpit says, I cannot sympathize much with Bauerlein or Jacobs either. Taken together, Bauerlein and Jacobs demonstrate a neat, simplistic way of thinking about schools that is downright scary. To say that street culture can be left on the street is unrealistic. Culture is a way of life, not a location. One does not merely shed it when stepping into another place, whether it is the schoolhouse or the work environment.

Indeed, the way Bauerlein and Jacobs respond to Delpit’s book only serves to lend credence to Delpit’s thesis. While white students get a nice, humanistic education, black students get “no excuses”, a philosophy that usually demands that black students act in a manner agreeable to their wealthy and overwhelmingly white school masters. There is a white paternalism, almost an inverted and domestic imperialism, underlying the philosophy behind charter schools and Teach for America. The thinking seems to be that all black students need is to be taught to walk in a straight line, to march quietly through the hallways and to sit with hands folded as their young, white, privileged (and non-union) teachers model for them how to act properly. Is this a new incarnation of the White Man’s Burden? Are these the ghosts of white paternalism that salved the conscience of many a God-fearing slave owner during the antebellum era? Was it not popular for slave owners to believe that enveloping the savage African under the wing of the benevolent, Christian southern gentleman would bring the black race along towards civilization?

The parallels are indeed scary.

On the other hand, my issue with Delpit is her tendency to descend into “culture talk”. I encountered “culture talk” in college when I was required to read The Crosscultural, Language, and Academic Development Handbook. This is the book that portrays people as functions of their cultures. Asians are passive and respectful. Whites are industrious and individualistic. Blacks are celebratory and collaborative. The book boils the characteristics of billions of individuals down to one or two behavioral stereotypes, then recommends that schools gear themselves to be “sensitive” to these stereotypes.

It is a world view where individuals do not exist. People’s character traits are determined by their race or culture. They can be segregated into neat categories and educated accordingly. Rather than train teachers to hone in on what makes each individual child tick in order to enable them to communicate with each child effectively, the CLAD Handbook seeks to train teachers to hone in on race in the belief that to know a child’s race is to know the child.

Here is where Delpit and the culture talkers have something in common with the education reformers. Both of them seek to simplify teaching. They lay down very broad prescriptions. “Do this, and achieve this outcome”. It is as easy as heating up frozen pizza. All one has to know is how high to preheat the oven.

In my experience, teaching children is a matter of human interaction. It is a matter of finding that basic place of human decency that all people have and then acting upon it. It is a matter of showing children through actions that you are “for them”, you are on their side and have their best interests at heart. It is a matter of communicating clearly in a way that melts cultural barriers, instead of going around cultural barriers because they are so impenetrable.

How does a teacher do this? Is there an “outcome-based way” that can be statistically “quantified” and “exported” around the country to ensure “success”, as the education reformers seek to do? Can a teacher merely take “no excuses” and tell them to leave their street selves “on the street”? This would be real easy for me as a teacher. I would not have to go through the messy process of knowing about my students as human beings. Instead, I can merely demand that they act the way I want them to act, since I know best as their white, educated teacher.

In her book, Lisa Delpit tells the story of a white teacher whose students labeled him “black” because he made his curriculum “afrocentric”. It was a show of respect, an acknowledgment by his students that he understood them. I told a similar story in a recent blog post where a few of my black students said that I was black. I too took it as a compliment. Yet, I was not black because I was “afrocentric”. I believe I was “black” because I tried to respect my students, no matter their race, as individuals. In short, I was black because I did not see black and did not preoccupy myself with factoring in a student’s race when communicating with them. This has everything to do with me growing up as a poor city kid where the students I teach now could have easily been my friends and neighbors when I was in school.

What this tells me is that the culture talkers and education reformers both speak from ivory towers, laying down pronouncements and solutions applicable everywhere at anytime. Teachers, on the other hand, have to learn how to communicate with their students as people. One cannot read a book or do a study on how to communicate. One must merely learn by doing. This is what makes teaching an art, a craft, a skill, a profession. There are no easy answers and no handbook solutions. We must all find our own ways through struggle and experience.

It is not what either side wants to hear. The education reformers especially would like to reduce teaching to the Taylorist motions of automatons. We, as professionals, must stake our claim to teaching as an art. Outsiders can give their critiques, but they should not be allowed to dictate policy. Once that happens, we can watch as all of the useless prescriptions of educrats fizzle away into irrelevance.

Additionally, teachers communicate with their students easier when they come from the communities in which they serve. One of the most ominous impacts of the education reform movement has been the disappearance of the black educator. Many veteran teachers, including a healthy proportion of minorities, have been hounded out of the system in order to make way for cheaper and whiter teachers. It has happened in NYC and Chicago especially. This does not strictly mean that black teachers teach black students best. But it does mean that teachers who come from the same communities as their students have an easier time of reaching them. Me being raised in a poor urban community helps me communicate with my poor urban students. Today, it is a sad fact that outsiders are preferred over community members to not only educate poor students, but to run the school systems of poor students as well. (See the abolition of democratically-elected boards of education in favor of mayoral control in major urban areas.) Again, this reflects the paternalistic mindset that underlies much of modern education reform.

Delpit is correct to point out the racism in today’s schooling. Her detractors in this piece are her best pieces of evidence.

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Teacher Fired For Student Horseplay

Instead of grading papers, teachers should be on the lookout for "oral sex".

A 3rd grade teacher in Tallulah, Louisiana was fired recently for failing to notice two of her students having “oral sex” under a desk during class.

First question: how do two 3rd graders have “oral sex”?

Since the details of what actually took place under that desk have, understandably, not been released, the only things we have to go on are sensationalized news headlines. Children that age usually do not have a concept of “sex”, let alone “oral sex”. They might explore, play doctor and do things that adults consider “inappropriate”. However, whatever is done is done out of curiosity and sheer obliviousness to what we adults consider right and wrong.

Therefore, there should be a great deal of thought before what happened under that desk is construed as “oral sex”. That term connotes a certain intentionality that 3rd graders just do not have.

Second question: why is the teacher on the hook for this?

According to Lisa Wilmore, Superintendent of Madison Parish School District, “We have to make sure we have people in these classrooms who are monitoring our students”. Fair enough. Two 3rd graders are under a desk doing God knows what. What was the context? Notwithstanding all of the issues around calling what 3rd graders do “oral sex”, how many children were in that classroom? What kind of activity was the class doing? Was it a lecture, group work or some sort of individualized instruction? How many years was this teacher on the job? How much training and support did this teacher get from her administrators?

Most importantly, how is firing this teacher going to ensure that people are in the classrooms properly monitoring students, as this superintendent claims is her goal?

Third question: this is what happens in “right to work states”.

I know this is not a question. Louisiana is a “right to work” state, meaning that employers can hire and fire anyone at will, including public employees, without due process or even a reason. This story is really about one thing, and that is a grandstanding superintendent. Lisa Wilmore is trying to win political points by looking like she is cracking down on incompetent teachers, a very popular thing to do in this day and age.

This is yet another argument in favor of teacher “tenure”. For the millionth and one time, “tenure” does not mean a guaranteed job for life. Tenure is merely a civil service protection to ensure that, if a teacher does get fired, it is for a legitimate reason. These protections ensure that teachers can act as advocates for children without fearing retaliation. They also prevent the teaching profession from becoming a patronage position, a supply of jobs that exist to reward supporters, relatives and other political lickspittles. Lastly, as we see from this story, tenure protects teachers from superintendents and municipal leaders who want to score cheap political points by looking all tough. It would have prevented this teacher from Lisa Wilmore’s meat axe.

Tenure does not exist in “right to work” states and it has been eroded away in every other state. Yet, teachers are expected to ensure student success, supervise the actions of every student in oversized classrooms, notice signs of abuse, provide a nurturing environment, be a shoulder to cry on and essentially play the role of parent, counselor and disciplinarian. All of this while we get bashed in the media, work under outdated contracts and generally are expected to do more with fewer resources.

At the very least, some sort of tenure process in this case of “oral sex” would have generated discussion over the legitimacy of calling anything 8-year-olds do by such a term. Decency and accuracy in the media are sacrificed for the sake of running a salacious headline. They know it works. This is the same media that professed outrage over Bill Clinton’s affair while at the same time providing every last detail. People got on their Puritanical high horses after reading each sordid fact in rapt attention.

If, in fact, two 3rd graders were having “oral sex” under a classroom table, with all of the intentionality that this term connotes, how is the blame not squarely on the shoulders of the parents of these children? What is going on in these children’s homes that they know of such things? How are their parents being held accountable in any way?

When we grow up as a nation, we might actually see that teachers can only work with the children who sit in front of them. Those children are raised not only by their parents, but the communities in which they live and the media to which they are exposed. With headlines like these, is it any wonder that 8-year-olds are doing what they claim they are doing?

Before getting self-righteous over “incompetent” teachers, remember the words from scripture:

“You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Great Teachers Series: Ludwig Wittgenstein

I firmly believe that people can find great teachers in books. There have been certain authors, through the sheer force of their ideas and how they present them, who have made lasting changes to the way I see the world. This is the first post in a series that will examine my personal greatest teachers from beyond the grave. I will start with my top three favorite philosophers, dedicating a post to each from number three to number one. I will then do the same for other areas of interest, like economists, political leaders and literary writers. (I have not totally worked out how to arrange them). These posts will be sprinkled in between my usual diatribes against education reform and the general madness of the world around us.

It is important to note that I have no formal training in philosophy. I took one philosophy class as an undergrad in college. Otherwise, I started to get into philosophy in earnest in my early 20s. There are many thinkers with whom I am not familiar. Moreover, I understand that due to my lack of formal training, I might misunderstand the ideas of the philosophers I do write about. If you have further insights into the people I present in this series, including insights that contradict my own, I encourage you to share them in the comments section.  If you know of other ideas and thinkers that have contradicted or expanded upon the ones in this series, I also encourage you to share them. I have no problem with being taught or corrected.

This is a personal exercise for me. As with most of my other posts, I wish to share parts of myself with you.

3. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Few philosophers have said less than Wittgenstein. This was by design. Wittgenstein was impatient with the unwieldy books and unintelligible ideas that define philosophy. This was because he believed most philosophers spoke nonsense. For millennia, philosophers were delving into the nuances of truth, love, God, freedom and ethics, only to keep covering the same ground and asking the same questions. As Wittgenstein derisively said, “the cure for philosophy is more philosophy.” By the time Wittgenstein arrived on the scene, the philosophical tradition was a babel of dualisms, monisms, imperatives and truths. Wittgenstein ascribed this to the practice of philosophers speaking out of context. It made no sense to Wittgenstein to ask “what is truth?” It is a question vacuum sealed from any actual context. “The truth of what?” would be how Wittgenstein would respond to such nonsense.

He wrote only one formal book of philosophy, the mercifully short Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It was Wittgenstein’s attempt to beat philosophers at their own game. He wrote in the most general terms possible in order to build what he believed to be a complete picture of reality. This was during a stage of his life when he believed words painted a picture, so to speak, of the world. Using the most accurate words would create the most accurate picture of overall truth. After he was done with the Tractatus, he was confident he had solved all of the problems of philosophy. The only thing left for Wittgenstein was the nagging question of “now what?” Wittgenstein faced the nihilism of a goal that has been reached, a desire that has been abolished. This would be what would later be described as “Wittgenstein’s Ladder”. He put all of philosophy’s problems to rest, pulling up the ladder behind him so that future thinkers would not have anything with which to wrestle.

But the history of philosophy is full of these moments when something that seemed definitive at first turns out only to be a starting point. Wittgenstein’s mind was too restless to give itself over to smug self-satisfaction. He began writing privately, turning over the ideas of the Tractatus, rejecting some and refining others. Although he never published another book, his writings were collected posthumously and packaged as the Philosophical Investigations. The biggest difference between this book and the Tractatus was that he rejected the idea that words can paint a picture of the world. Instead, he believed language was used within what he called “language games”. One might call a language game a context, but it is something more as well. Take the word game. It is very difficult to define the word game by itself. Instead, the word only makes sense when associated with a type of game, whether a board game or a love game.

There are levels of language games. The words “green” or “red” may elude exact definition in a dictionary but, because of training, we all think the same thing when we hear them and can visualize the colors to which they refer. This is an example of what he called public language. Then there are those language games we use around our friends, family, coworkers and anyone else with whom there is a certain level of understanding. How many times have we been around a group of someone else’s friends, only to hear them engaged in a conversation we cannot understand? This is because they are using a bunch of words, gestures and abbreviations that they have built throughout several contexts. A language like this is not entirely public, nor is it strictly private. Private language refers to words that describe our inner life. When we tell someone we have a toothache, can that other person truly understand what we mean? They might have a sense of what a toothache is, but most likely cannot know the toothache we are feeling at that moment. The same goes for emotions like love, hate, fear and anything else that might be swirling around inside of us at the moment.

The concept of language games helps explain why Wittgenstein steered clear of topics like love, ethics and God that other philosophers usually contend with head-on. He felt that, no matter what words he might use to describe these things, they can never be fully articulated. Therefore, the deepest part of Wittgenstein’s thought will forever remain inaccessible to us. As Wittgenstein famously said, “Wherefore one cannot speak, one must remain silent.” The most important ideas would never be able to be spoken. More than any other thinker, Wittgenstein could be defined by what he did not say. He never spoke about ethics, leading one to conclude that he was a man of strong moral conviction. He never tackled religion, meaning he was probably very religious or, at the very least, mystical. We can start to draw our own conclusions about Wittgenstein’s feelings about these things, as well as all the other aspects of inner life on which he was conspicuously silent.

As a teacher, Wittgenstein made me more aware of the words I use with my students. I try to use words of the public language when starting all of my lessons. This forces me to reflect upon what could possibly be universal for a class of 30 kids from differing backgrounds and abilities. Sometimes I do not achieve the universality and simplicity for which I strive, but it remains an eternal goal nonetheless. Over the course of the semester, I try to build a language game that is shared within each class. We frequently draw upon the days, weeks and months of material we have learned previously. It has become particularly helpful in determining in what areas struggling students might need assistance. There are those moments when a student says or writes something completely off base. These instances give me a glimpse into what language game they could possibly be using. Many times, the clarification of a small idea from a previous lesson or a rephrasing of a question will help that student be part of the language game everyone else is using. From beginning to end, I try to avoid nonsense and encourage my students to do the same. This means using words with specific and definite meanings. Most importantly, this entails pinning down concepts in as few words as possible. Being efficient and specific when using language avoids confusion and makes students confident they can follow a train of thought from start to finish.

Wittgenstein has also helped me see the nonsense in many of the fads that pass themselves off as new pedagogical techniques. Teachers understand that there is an entire galaxy of writers, professors and reformers who want to foist their ideas for better teaching on our schools. Most of them are laden down with jargon, taking an entire textbook to say what could be said in a few words. Wittgenstein would wretch if he ever had to read half the garbage to which aspiring teachers are exposed. He would probably bang his head against a table if he ever had to sit through a professional development session conducted by so-called instructional experts. He probably would have very little patience for students as well, who naturally tend to be clumsy when expressing themselves, especially when trying to pull a fast one on their teachers. In short, Wittgenstein has strengthened my BS detectors. A teacher today cannot survive without them.

There is probably much more to be said about Wittgenstein, but I fear I might descend into nonsense myself if I try. Instead, here is a classy-looking dialogue featuring philosopher John Searle on Wittgenstein’s legacy. (Searle’s part starts around 3:36)

What We Were Never Told about Teaching Kids for the 21st Century

Is this teaching for the 21st century? Is this teaching at all?

The first principal I worked under was genuinely a good man. He understood that the attention spans of kids at our school were damaged by years of watching television. In his mind, the only way to reach our children was to use technology in the service of education. You want to teach gravity? Show a clip of Wiley Coyote falling from a cliff. Since then, I have encountered many dedicated teachers who buy into similar ideas. When the vampire romance series “Twilight” was becoming popular with teenagers, I had expressed concern that the poor writing and shallow emotions would give them a false sense of literature. One of my colleagues, a very good English teacher, responded that he was happy they were reading anything at all. Educators young and old, myself included, recognize the impacts our ubiquitous pop culture has on kids. Yet, for some reason, I have never been as permissive when it comes to using it in the service of education. I decided to reflect upon why I am such a fuddy-duddy.

Some of it stems from what inspired me to become a teacher in the first place. I was inspired by Henry Adams’ famous sentiment about teachers affecting eternity. History’s greatest teachers like Buddha, Socrates or Jesus are long dead, yet their teachings continue to inspire. While I entertain no illusions about even having a thimble’s-worth of their influence, their simplicity has always been my ideal. These guys had no smart boards and had never sat through a lecture on differentiation, yet they were the most successful teachers of all time. Now, it might be pointed out that a sage with a motivated audience is much different than a public school teacher with a room of mostly unwilling teenagers. However, I do not take this to mean that our children do not respond to humanity and simplicity. Occupy Wall Street resonates with young people because it asks humane questions about an inhumane system. It forces us to confront the language of modernity (free markets, corporate influence, electoral politics, national security, etc.) with the language of simple humanity. On a grander scale, the religious revival that has taken place around the world (the Evangelicals in America’s Sunbelt, the Islamic resurgence in the Middle East, etc.) symbolizes humanity reaching for humanity amidst the encroachments of modernity. I see my role as a history teacher as a mission to connect children to a sense of humanity. Not only is it a time-tested pedagogy, it is an essential value children will need in order to navigate the modern world.

It is this mission that causes me to shy away from showing Looney Tunes or assigning bad books to my kids. While I acknowledge that modern culture is to the brain what sugar is to the teeth (namely, a corrosive force), I do not see how more corrosion is educationally sound. To me, a short attention span is a problem that needs to be solved, not a framework that needs to be reinforced. A nation of people with short attention spans is a nation ripe for propaganda. Corporate advertisers and political demagogues rely on short attention spans to hawk their wares, weather it is an essentially unnecessary consumer product or a destructive public policy. Aspiring to communicate knowledge to our children in the same ways that corporatists communicate their agendas only trivialize the learning process. It puts essential knowledge on the same frivolous plane as advertising, entertainment and mainstream news coverage. Teachers who want to go with the flow of modernity communicate to children that the wider world can only be accessed through sound bites, images and base emotions. We become marketers instead of teachers. The worth of an idea is measured in the impact it can make in less than 60 seconds. As a teacher, I see my role as one that should be as far removed from the methods of modernity as possible. If children get hours of mind-destroying imagery from popular culture, than I must demand of them that they pay attention for the 45 consecutive minutes they are in my classroom. I demand that those 45 minutes are treated as whole cloth and not something that can be broken into smaller chunks of images and activities.

My hope is that treating those 45 minutes like whole cloth demonstrates for students that knowledge itself is part of the whole cloth of humanity. That humanity is reinforced by the fact that no computer or television stands before them. One can learn from a teacher or a peer in a deep and lasting way. It is this experience, now more than ever, that is vital for our students to have. We have become too enthralled with the idea of pushing our children towards computers or smart boards in the name of preparing them for a modern world. Nobody seems to think that the modern world needs people with the ability to learn from human interaction or the desire to dive to the depths of new ideas. There is just the blind acceptance that schools need to pump out kids prepared to live in an increasingly complex society. There is no mention of how humanity has been reaching for something fuller, more familiar and simple than what modernity can offer us. The standardized testing forced onto the schools by both Bush and Obama is the centralized push to make schools places where children are severed from their own humanity. Standardized exams chop knowledge up into consumable sound bites. They will require computers to administer them. The reformers want to continue the degradation of the American attention span. It has been their stock-in-trade for decades. They are the same people responsible for the brain-rotting mass culture in which our children are ensconced, like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. Every time a teacher stresses knowledge and humanity over modernity, they resist the reformers and their desire for a nation of vegetables.