Investing in Public Schools: An Open Letter

Dear Progressive, Privileged Friends,

I went into teaching eighteen years ago because I believe deeply in the power of education to make a difference in our world.  It often seems to me that the only way to make a change is to truly understand–empathy and intelligence are the possibilities of a great education.

I think you agree with me, but we all too often disagree about what exactly this means.

As someone who has worked as a public school teacher now for nearly two decades, I have come to believe that we need to protect public schools, but all too often the conversations we are having are about how much the public schools disappoint–you would rather homeschool or send your kids to a private school.

And I am with you to a certain degree–plenty about how we do school in this country disappoints me too, but mostly I am sad: sad about the systemic failure that seems to be happening despite all the people who seem to care about powerful education.  I live in a city that offers our kids “schools of choice,” and the district I teach in, just across the Bay, also offers “schools of choice,” which means that one’s neighborhood is no longer the determining factor in where a kid goes to school as a way to account for the extent to which our cities are still segregated, to ensure an excellent education for all students regardless of neighborhood or family income.

But desegregation is not what is happening, which is obviously a systemic failure.  This failure has made it possible for, for instance, what is happening in my neighborhood: the Sequoia and Global Family dichotomy.  Here are two schools that are about two miles apart, potentially, in a more traditional model of schooling, a distance that would draw students from the same neighborhood, and yet the two schools are very different demographically.  Global Family is 92% Latino, 4% Black, and .4% White. It is 98% “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” Sequoia, on the other hand, is 29% White, 22% Black, 19% Latino, and 12% Asian. Forty percent of its students are “socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

The segregation is not stark, and, to be fair Global Family is a dual immersion English/Spanish school, so obviously it is going to appeal to Spanish-speaking families, which may account for its large Latino population.

But, still, this feels off to me–it doesn’t feel like what Schools of  Choice was designed to address, in that one school can be 98% poor and scoring very low on the standardized test scores (a dubious measure of success to be sure, but, of course, even us progressives who know the limitations of these test scores can’t help but notice them and, even unconsciously let them affect our perception of the school’s quality)  at 14% and 10% proficient in language arts and math respectively; whereas Sequoia’s proficiency rates are 49% in both subject areas. Sequoia is considered “highly desirable;” Global Family is not.

Districts such as this one where I live and the one where I teach–districts who espouse values of rigor and social justice, equity and diversity–shouldn’t have let this happen.  But it has happened–our schools reflect and reproduce social inequity.

So where do you come into this?

I’m writing to you, my progressive and privileged friends,  in the first place because, like I said, I know you care about social justice.  If you live in an urban area, you may likely recognize your district in the one I’m describing, even if the particulars aren’t exactly alike, and, especially given the ways that cities have been changing in the last couple decades, you are likely concerned with issues of gentrification; you, like me, may even feel some responsibility for the fact that, simply because of the color of your skin or relative economic privilege you yourself are contributing to gentrification and the fact that more and more low-income folks of color are being pushed out of their homes.  If you have school-aged children or ever plan to have children, you are inherently part of this conversation.

So as someone who is inherently part of this conversation, I hope you’re thinking about what we can do about this inequity.

My answer is that you need to invest in your public schools.

One of the things that makes Sequoia so sought after is that new families recognize the value of its very committed family base; for instance, despite the larger financial woes of the district, families joined together to help raise money for a music program.  While counting on funding from families cannot be an answer if we care about serving well even the poorest kids, the spirit behind that—invested families working to make the school better because they see a shared value, a shared purpose—is an important example of the kind of investment all schools need.  Sequoia is a perfect example of how, when community members feel invested in the school they make it better, and that, in turn, improves the community.

Sequoia is also recognized for its leadership and the spirit of the kids, which obviously comes from quality teachers.  Academic research shows that quality teachers are one of the key factors in student achievement. And, while districts need to think about their policies of hiring and placement, community investment goes a long way to addressing this particular issue as well.  For years I was part of a teacher-led think tank, Teacher Leadership Institute, and we looked at the question of teacher attrition, which has a pronounced negative effect on “low-performing” schools that mostly serve poor kids. Our research showed that only one in five teachers stays in teaching longer than five years, and when we studied why, the primary answer was the workload—specifically, teachers don’t mind working hard, but they want to feel like their hard work is getting them or their students somewhere.  If they feel like it’s not, they burn out. So then, at some point a certain kind of inertia takes over: a school may be “low-performing.” Teachers burn out quicker, but then it becomes harder for the school to attract highly-qualified veteran teachers, highly-qualified veteran leadership…and so then fewer families want that school, or the families that do attend that school are poor, lack resources to advocate, don’t feel empowered to organize for change the way, say, Sequoia families did to create that music program.

Meanwhile, the wealthier, more resourced families are looking elsewhere.  They pull out. They divest by sending their kids to private school. The vicious cycle continues.

I suppose it’s not any one family’s responsibility to step up and invest in the school, but if it’s no one family’s responsibility, then it becomes no one’s responsibility: the inertia is in place.  The school suffers, the district lacks equity.

Progressive, privileged friends, I understand your concerns.  I really do. I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about what good education looks like, and I know the power of an engaged, rigorous, relevant classroom.  When it comes time to send my kid to kindergarten and beyond, I worry about how I’ll be as a parent because I have such high expectations for teachers–I know what we’re capable of.  And, just like every parent, I want the best for my kid. The parents of children at Global Family want their kids to feel smart and capable, want their kids to be their best selves. They may not always have the resources to advocate for this; they often don’t have models from their own lives of what invigorating and rigorous education looks like, but regardless, their children deserve to be inspired by school in the same way that my kid deserves that and your kid deserves that.  Privilege does not make our kids more deserving.

All too often we are thinking only about our kid, not about all kids.  Investing and integrating benefit all children–test scores and graduation rates increase in integrated schools, and isn’t part of what we want for our children that they feel themselves as connected to a larger whole, not somehow separate from or above others because of their privilege?  Even small children can begin to understand the ideas of social justice inherent in this.

Given this, dear friends, I think it’s also useful to really actively work to redefine what we see as “quality education.”  Test scores aren’t the only factor. Is the school diverse? Will your kid get a number of different points of view from kids of varying backgrounds and life experiences?  How will they learn to be connected to and part of their community? Powerful learning is bigger than the individual lessons the teacher imparts. These are important qualities in our kids’ schooling in part because school is the primary way they will get these lessons.  As an individual parent, I can work to instill a love of reading in my kid. I can encourage their creativity and provide resources for these pursuits. I can work to teach them how to communicate well–all of which schools should strive for as well. It is however much harder as a family to provide my kid a number of diverse points of view or life experiences.  It is much harder to create the conditions through which my kid can learn to communicate and negotiate across differences, discovering all the things that make him like his peers and all the things that make him unique. All too often, families who divest from the local public schools and send their kids to private schools are choosing a more heterogeneous and privileged environment.  What does that teach children?

This isn’t just a local issue.  The national conversation about public schools has encouraged divestment.  Our current Secretary of Education made her mark being an advocate for private school vouchers and charter schools at a time when more and more public school teachers feel beleaguered by lack of resources, low pay, and general waning support for the work they do serving the vast majority of school-aged children.  In practice, in seems we can’t have both a strong, invested public school system and robust support for private school vouchers.

Of course, there are many ways to be engaged in your community and even ways to help support your local public schools even if you don’t send your kid there.  But schooling is so universal, and schools tend to be a place where many of our cultural values get debated and worked out. Talking about the politics of schooling is a conversation about race, class, justice, and all the things we want to pass on to our future generations.  My hope is you’ll be part of this conversation in ways that make our world better for everyone.


Letter to the Editor

Dear New York Times:

I’m dismayed by the Ethicist’s advice from January 10 regarding public schooling choices  in part because he accepts the assumptions that the letter writer makes in suggesting that something is “seriously wrong” with the neighborhood public school because of test scores. As a veteran public school teacher, I know that standardized test scores are only one measure of a school’s quality, and a questionable measure at that. Since the letter writer says the school seems “perfectly fine,” the Ethicist should at least be encouraging more questions: Are the teachers kind, caring, and empathetic? Is the student body diverse? Does the school serve a number of bilingual students? (We know, for instance, that bilingual children take much longer to achieve proficiency on standardized tests, yet bilingualism is an asset, not a deficit.) The ethics around school choice should be viewed with more complexity; to only look at standardized test scores as a measure of the quality of an education seems shortsighted.


The Most Important Teacher In My Life

I remember not starting to read The Night is Dark and I Am Far From Home until the night before the day it was due. Around nine p.m. I made a pot of coffee and sat down with my coursepack-printed version of this out-of-print book. Staying up until three in the morning was standard for me, and I looked forward to the quiet of our living room on Lawrence Street. As I read, I became more and more agitated and more and more awake. The coffee was nice but not necessary. I devoured the book in one sitting, angry, excited, moved.

I remember the beautiful blonde wood and the echo-y, old feel of the Perry Building (I am almost certain that is what it was called) where English 319 met. I always loved having the chunk of time set aside at the beginning of class to discuss with a partner whatever we’d read, in part because I loved being able to go off exploring the building. LaShaun and I partnered up for that day’s discussion, and we sat on a sunny window ledge and talked. I remember the discussion was friendly, engaged, but I wasn’t yet starting to feel riled up.

It wasn’t until we all reconvened to discuss, that my hackles started to raise. I described the book in my journal as an “absolutely inspiring and totally frustrating” read. I wrote that it was “making me re-examine myself and my life” and “really shaking me up.” So then, here I was feeling so emotionally engaged with this book, especially because I had just decided to become a teacher, and I felt that we were “having this really…safe discussion of it. And I became so frustrated, and I raised my hand and voiced this in this totally inarticulate and frustrated and near-tears-voice-quavering way because it was this totally safe discussion about a book about revolution: we were sitting in our class in an expensive university, politely discussing revolution.” I wanted to “be all frustrated with everyone else, but I didn’t feel like I could. And I felt so safe, and talking about middle-class high school experiences—no matter how oppressive—was still really, really dancing around everything, and why weren’t we jumping into the the class issues and why weren’t we talking about being hypocrites sitting in a classroom politely discussing this book which, in not so few words, calls for revolution?”

Buzz’s response in my journal in part said, “Anywhere you are, there is work to be done, ways to deepen your commitments, connections to be made, anywhere…It’s important to be unsafe and to be secure in being unsafe…”

At the time, I felt grateful for these words, but I didn’t know how much they would continue to be relevant in my life and my work.

I became a teacher, and for years I struggled with not feeling very good at my work. I student taught in Detroit under a terribly racist master teacher, and I cried nearly every day because I knew that the little bit I was giving these poor Black kids wouldn’t ever be enough to undo years of miseducation and poverty. I taught in East Palo Alto, where I was fired at the end of my first year of teaching because I had given the kids too much freedom in publishing zines. I nearly gave up on education at that point, but so much of what I cared about felt connected to being in the classroom. So I found a good fit: a large, comprehensive high school in San Francisco where I am supported by my administration and inspired by my colleagues. It took me years to feel like I knew what I was doing, and even now I still feel like “there is work to be done.” I finally feel secure in all the ways I struggle as a teacher: I don’t feel like that struggle is indicative of failure but rather of engaging with all the big questions about what being an educator in this country truly means: How do I inspire true freedom in my students while holding them to authentically high expectations? How do I create a sense of righteousness within a discipline framework without becoming an authoritarian so that kids feel safe? And how do I help students feel secure in being unsafe in all the important ways?

I became a teacher very much because of Buzz, his courses, and Jonathan Kozol. Years later, I had a chance to meet Kozol at the Teachers For Social Justice conference that happens every year in San Francisco. I had him sign my book, my coursepack copy of The Night is Dark…, and when I told him it had been required reading for the most important teacher in my life, he knew right away who the teacher was who’d assigned it.

Dear New York Times

As a progressive educator of thirteen years, I agree with Hacker and Dreifus in “Who’s Minding the Schools” ( ) when they conclude that teachers should be “allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.” That said, it’s not like the Common Core creates standards where none existed before; for my entire teaching career in California, I’ve been beholden to standards—state rather than national, but standards nonetheless. And, for the most part, I greatly prefer the Common Core standards to the California State Standards. The former are much more holistic and critical-thinking based than the latter. While the state standards were almost a checklist of facts the students should know, the Common Core standards approach learning more as habits of mind, ways to think and learn. This is a progressive approach to education. Yes, these standards are more challenging, but this is a challenge I welcome.


Out of the Cave

In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic, he describes prisoners chained so that they are forced to face forward towards a wall of a cave.  A fire burns behind them and casts shadows onto the wall in front of them.  These shadows are all that these prisoners can see.  They don’t know the nature of reality—it remains out of reach, outside the cave.  They don’t even know that they don’t know reality—nothing in their experiences has ever led them to have to question what they assume to be true: The cave, the shadows, this is all they know.

Plato says, “They are like ourselves.”  To me, this suggests a paradox: If we are the prisoners, and I believe we are, how can we begin to understand that we’re the prisoners enough to even appreciate the rest of the essay and the ideas contained therein?  How can we begin to know how much we truly don’t know?  One way in is that we need to truly embrace this paradox if we want to be able to make any kind of meaning of this text and of the concept of Truth.  Otherwise we will simply continue to “see nothing of [our]selves but [our] own shadows.”  I would start by suggesting it’s important that we question everything we believe to be true, all that we take for granted.

One year when I was teaching this text to my seniors, one kid, D, in starting to grasp the idea that Plato presents that we truly don’t know what reality is, turned to another student and asked him, “What color is this paper?”  He answered, “White.”  Her response was, “How do you know?”  He looked at her puzzled; he couldn’t explain how he knew it was white; it just was.  Now this is a typical mind-fuck thought-experiment that I think everyone has engaged in at some point: How do I know that what I see as blue is really blue?  What if what you see as blue is actually my green, but, because we can never see through each other’s eyes, we think we’re speaking the same language about the same reality?  And how do we know that this reality that we’re naming is even Truth?  A particular rock shrimp exists that can see all kinds of colors humans can’t simply because of the physiology of their eyes.  The fact that these colors exist but we can’t see is only one example of the any number of truths out there that we simply have no experience of, which, naturally, doesn’t render them any less real.  While Plato’s allegory is not intended to be solely this kind of “mind fuck” thought experiment, I think that engaging in these kinds of exercises is crucial to starting to grasp his larger philosophy: How can we ever escape outside the cave if we don’t question the very nature of our existence?

Plato explains the prisoners’ dependence on language to define their reality.  He imagines them playing a game to see who is the quickest in naming the various shadows they see: “If they were able to talk to one another, wouldn’t they think that the names they used were those of the shadows that went by?”  I personally am a lover of language—I believe it helps us make meaning of our world, but I also understand that the mysteries of the universe may be more than our language can pin down.  I am reminded of this every time I think about a friend of mine who died several years ago at a very young age due to brain cancer.  She’d lived with cancer on and off for many years, and when she was in high school, she had surgery to remove a tumor that had grown in the part of the brain that processes language.  When she awoke from the surgery, her doctors and family discovered that she’d lost language ability.  I don’t mean that she didn’t have the physical motor skills to speak.  I mean that her brain lost the ability to make use of the symbolic representation of words, to make use of the fact that words—relatively arbitrary, abstract sounds—hold any sort of specific, concrete meaning that everyone who speaks that particular language have agreed upon.  She did regain language eventually; otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to tell me about this experience.  But at the time, her family was utterly terrified: their teenage daughter had been rendered speechless.  She, however, was anything but frightened.  She understood that they were afraid, but she wasn’t—instead a whole new world had opened up for her.  Because she was unhampered by language to negotiate her reality, she began to understand the true nature of the world.  She didn’t depend on the symbolism of a cluster of sounds to communicate the truth of what she saw (“This paper is white.”); instead she understood the essence of everything.  She began to see the energies of objects and of people; she said that colors become more vivid and realer.  She began to paint and communicate her truths through her art.

After I told this story to my students this year, one student came up to me after class to tell me about a YouTube video he’d seen of a lecture by a Buddhist monk.  The monk asks his audience what the true nature of a pen is.  If humans were to describe the pen, they’d say it is a tool for writing; but what would a dog say?  If the pen’s essence were truly as a writing tool, a dog would see a pen and begin writing with it.  So, does the pen’s nature as a writing tool or a chew toy live in the pen itself, or is its essence imposed on it by whoever’s perception we’re considering?  Obviously perception is everything.  And yet we humans go around most of the time behaving as though our perceptions are somehow the absolute Truth.

Eventually in Plato’s allegory, a prisoner is freed from his chains and forced to his feet out of the cave into the light.  This prisoner has to deal first with the discomfort of life outside the cave.  Not only is he shocked to learn that the world is not what he thought; it is bright and the light hurts his eyes.  Plato says, “And if he were forced to look straight at the light itself, wouldn’t he start back with pained eyes?”  And this is a Truth that many of us can relate to: If we’ve ever traveled outside our country—our world—if we’ve ever learned hard, painful truths, we understand this uncomfortable awakening.  In college, when I began volunteering in prisons and learning the reality of the prison system—how many people we incarcerate in this country, how our incarceration rates are absolutely determined by issues of race and class, and what life is like for those in prison as well as their loved ones outside the prison—I was upset, uncomfortable and pained.  The reality of incarceration was not a reality I’d ever had to experience.  As a white, middle-class woman, most of my peers were not part of this system: I’d never had to think about what it would be like to be locked up, what it would be like for someone I loved to be locked up.  I never had to fear police or the system in the same way that many who live in our country do.  This is not meant to be a discussion of prison issues per se—it is meant to illustrate a reality that lots of us, by dint of our birth, do not have to think about, while many of us, also by dint of our birth, think about regularly.  I was horrified to learn of this reality that I’d never had to think about, not only because mass incarceration is so heartbreaking but also because I’d always thought of myself as a fairly well-educated, intelligent person: Here was a Truth that had simply never occurred to me—I became suddenly and profoundly aware of how much I didn’t actually know.

Similarly, travel abroad can shake us up, make us think about what we take for granted as “real.”  A few summers ago, I took a group of students to Nicaragua on a three-week educational, service trip.  One of the outings we participated in was going to the city dump where people lived and worked.  They spent their days sorting through the city’s trash—its shit-stained toilet paper and other waste—to find anything that could be sold and recycled.  (For instance, one man approached us with a hand full of staples he’d collected.)  When we returned back to our hostel to process what we’d seen, many of my students broke down crying—how could people live like this?  How could my students have taken their own comfortable lives for granted?  How could they not have known this reality existed?

It should be obvious to us that so many realities that aren’t ours exist.  William Blake died penniless, his peers deeming him crazy because he saw angels.  Any number of other thinkers, known or unknown, have had similar perceptions or ideas about the world, and the world has had various reactions to them: deeming them either genius or lunatic (usually depending such factors as social status and “respectability”).  Various philosophers and prophets have seen a different truth than the one popular in their time.  Galileo understood the truth of the universe and was condemned as a heretic for his science.  Carl Jung’s exploration of the subconscious led to his own set of visions and voices, and the Buddha’s search for meaning led him to reject all that his life had set up for him.

The story of the Buddha is a particularly interesting one in light of Plato’s text.  The Buddha was a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived a sheltered, secure, wealthy life.  His parents, wanting their son to be happy, kept him from ever leaving the palace so that he wouldn’t have to experience suffering; he was stuck in a cave—a luxurious, comfortable cave, but a cave nonetheless.  One day he did leave and encountered an old man.  He didn’t understand what he saw until it was explained to him that everyone gets old.  He saw a sick person and a corpse.  Again, he’d never experienced sickness or death but learned that people get sick, that everyone dies.  This all led him “out of the cave,” to question the nature of human experience, why we suffer, and this all, of course, led to his enlightenment after years of searching and mediation.

The term “enlightenment” is symbolically meaningful: Plato uses the sun as the symbol of Truth and enlightenment.  The prisoner stuck in the cave sees only shadows, and if he were to escape from the cave, out into the world beyond, it would take time to adjust, to truly see what lies outside the cave, to see in the full light of the sun.  Being able to look directly at the sun and take in its light is gaining true knowledge.  Plato says of the sun, “In the field of deep knowledge the last thing to be seen, and hardly seen, is the idea of the good.  When we see it, we see that it is truly the cause for all things, of all that is beautiful and right.”  Our conceptions of “good” may differ, but it’s clear that a connection between doing good in the world and Truth is very much a part of Plato’s text.

The connections between the Buddha’s story and “The Allegory of the Cave” don’t end with the Buddha’s enlightenment.  Some versions of the Buddha’s life maintain that he became a bodhisattva after his death—instead of transcending to nirvana, he chose to reincarnate again and again to help lead others to enlightenment.  He willingly allowed himself to be reborn into a life of suffering in order that others may not suffer.  Plato explains that the enlightened “may not keep to themselves up there [in the world outside the cave] but have to go down again [into the cave] among the prisoners and take part in their work and rewards…Everyone is to give to all the others whatever he is able to produce for the society.”

For me, Plato’s text is a call to action, a demand that we not only seek truths outside of our own sheltered caves, but that we help lead others to truth.  Perhaps the text appeals to me as a teacher—I believe in the collective sharing of wisdom (not that I feel I am Plato’s enlightened prisoner), and I revere those who have been willing to die for the Truth—for Plato tells us that the prisoner who comes back from above and tries to tell the others that all they see are merely shadows of truths would be laughed at, and then, “if [the other prisoners] were able to get their hands on him…wouldn’t they put him to death?”

We as a society generally feel comfortable in our caves—otherwise how could a maxim such as “ignorance is bliss” have held as firmly as it has?  Some of this is due to the discomfort described earlier—why face painful truths when we can be happy in our own unknowing?  However our staying inside our caves can have a much more insidious rationale: Many benefit from others not knowing the Truth: This was certainly the case for white slave owners and, later, white anti-integrationists.  It was the case in this country for men trying to keep women from voting and is still true for those modern-day corporations who would like us to buy, buy, buy without questioning the environmental devastation or child or slave labor involved in making their products.  If the powers that be can convince us we’re happier and better when we pursue being “cool” or “attractive” rather than noticing that we’re merely playing the “shadow game” described by Plato, then they benefit by being able to make money off of us seeking these manufactured desires.

Each movement has had its enlightened prisoner who has worked to lead others out of their cave.  Some of the obvious names come to mind: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech is so moving because of how squarely he looks an early death in the eye and declares he’s not afraid the day before he was assassinated, or, as one student wrote about in her essay on “Allegory of the Cave” a couple years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi, who continues to be a leader of the citizens of Myanmar despite the attempts to silence her.  However, there are others of us who have perhaps gotten a glimpse outside the cave who may not be famous or popular: the teenager who defends someone who is being bullied or picked on, the church-goer who challenges their church’s homophobic doctrine, the man who speaks up on behalf of women’s rights.

I’m not an expert on Plato’s life or philosophies, and it’s obvious that these applications of Plato’s text don’t always correspond to the life Plato lived or the beliefs he espoused: He was, for instance, a firm believer in a divided, socially-stratified society; he did not use these teachings to speak out against slavery.  But the power of the text, for me, lies in the philosophical implications, and what good is philosophy if we readers don’t wrestle with it and try to make meaning of it for ourselves in our world today?

When to Choose

Today in my twelfth English and European Literature classes, I was lecturing on Frankenstein and the different religious archetypes the characters fit.  I think it’s a pretty interesting lecture because it draws on religious and mythical stories and philosophy, including Carl Jung’s ideas on the collective unconscious and the role that archetypes play in that concept.

However, students hear the word lecture (something that I very rarely do actually) and groan inwardly.  Today, in my sixth period, they groaned literally.  I found this rude, and I told them so.  (“If you came in with something you had to say to me that you thought was interesting and important and I groaned, wouldn’t that just be disrespectful?”)  Now, I realize that in some ways we were playing out the age-old teacher/student drama cliché: teacher asks something of students, students resist, call it “boring,” rebel, et cetera, et cetera.  I do sometimes, as a teacher, feel trapped in what feels like an unfortunate and inescapable typecast position.  This all is, of course, very hard for me because I try everything I can to have my pedagogy be about empowerment and liberty.  I don’t want to be an authoritarian, but I do want to provide my students access to powerful knowledge—in other words, it’s not just all going to be fun and games; though hopefully a lot of the intellectual wrestling feels fun!

One kid, a kid I normally really like, a kid who has had a somewhat recent revolutionary consciousness raising and, therefore, feels prepared and empowered to challenge and question much of my practice—a habit I often enjoy and encourage—raised his hand and argued that I shouldn’t force students to like Frankenstein the way I have been.  I pointed out that I would never force anyone to “like” anything, but I do expect them to at least think about it, and that I’d do my best to give them new, interesting ways into the text so that they could like it.

My students continued to challenge me in a fairly undelightful way, and I got frustrated.  I finally sat down and decided I wouldn’t go ahead with my lecture, and students could just fend for themselves.  After a time of me sitting grading papers, a couple of the kids apologized for their behavior; I asked if they wanted me to go ahead with the lecture, and the students all responded in the affirmative.  It ended up being fairly engaging: I’d built in places for the students to respond and discuss, and the class ended on a positive note.

At the end of class, the student who’d challenged me, I’ll call him Roberto, came to talk to me.  He apologized again, and then we talked for a while, and I was able to express some of what I think is a heavy paradox that, as a teacher, I struggle with all the time.  He said that I shouldn’t teach books like Frankenstein but should instead teach something more “age appropriate and interesting.”  I pointed out to him that I do assign “outside reading” for exactly this reason—they read three books throughout the year of their own choosing, books they are excited to read.  (Roberto read Che’s The Motorcycle Diaries as his first outside reading book.)  I also argued that there isn’t a single book I could choose to read that everyone would like and that, again, of course my intention and hope is that they would like Frankenstein and, barring liking it, I still absolutely expect them to think about and engage the book.  But finally, a more abstract point and what is at the heart of my conflicted feelings about student choice in the classroom is that I think value exists in reading books and other texts and engaging with ideas that aren’t necessarily our preference.  I told Roberto that I think this is the foundation of democracy; if we only ever read or think about ideas as our preferences dictate, how will we ever be true citizens in this messy, complex, pluralistic world we live in?  I think this is especially true for young people—there is still so much of the world for them to explore.  How can they already have an unmitigated sense of what is “worthy” and “interesting” to think about?

Yes, I want my students to love learning, and I do realize that much of the time what this means is lessons, activities, and texts that speak directly to them and their experiences, but I also think there’s something revolutionary about making connections between what might seem like disparate ideas.  It’s true that Frankenstein was written two hundred years ago, and I find myself arguing with all kinds of Shelley’s ideas—I don’t agree, for instance, that humans should never seek to answer the big, burning questions about the mysteries of life, that knowledge is too dangerous to pursue.  I’m not a Christian as Shelley was, and so I push back against her almost puritanical ideas about humans not playing God.  But they’re interesting to engage with: How far is too far when it comes to scientific tampering?  How can we use our knowledge responsibly?  What can a god-centered morality teach us about how to live well?  And I urge my students to grapple with these questions.  We also draw connections between Frankenstein’s monster and people in our society who feel like outsiders and therefore do terrible things—it’s easy to connect the text to bullying in schools, and we discuss the young men who shot up their school in Columbine, Colorado for instance.  We debate the death penalty since much of the book is concerned with revenge, and we consider the morality and responsibility of genetic engineering.  If they can see that a two hundred year old text still says something about our world today then maybe they’ll be more open to people who come from other cultures.  Maybe they’ll be less likely to see people as other than themselves.  Maybe they’ll be able to feel connected to the larger conversations that are happening in our world today.

All this as well as my own personal love for a wide variety of literature is why I still insist on teaching books that many students might not choose on first glance.  One of my own personal experiences with this was being assigned to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin during a summer program in college.  I was upset that we weren’t reading more authors of color, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin just felt like even more of an insult given what I thought I knew about the book from the various cultural references to it (e.g. Malcolm X’s referring to folks as “Uncle Toms”).  I do still find it unfortunate that our curriculum on New England Literature didn’t include more authors of color or, for instance, slave narratives, but that doesn’t detract from the huge impact that reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on me.  While I would never list it as one of my favorite books, reading it was probably one of the most impactful reading experiences I’ve ever had, probably because I didn’t initially think it was an important or relevant text.

All this is not to say that I don’t value student choice.  I am well aware that many of my seniors in high school have very clear pictures of the directions they want their lives to go in, and I would never second guess that.  I also wouldn’t insult them by saying they don’t know what is best for them.  I do, however, hope that they learn to be open-minded and able to be interested in a large expanse of ideas: to me, this is what makes for a rich, meaningful life.

It’s Because I’m Black, Isn’t It?

I was handing back finals in class the other day.  When I gave Mandy hers, her immediate reaction was, “C plus!?  Why’d I get a C plus?!  It’s because I’m Black isn’t it?”

I’m sure many public school teachers have, at some point, been accused of racism, and this wasn’t the first time I’ve had a comment like this directed at me.  It makes sense: Our students are grappling with questions about who they are in the world, what their world is to them, and how their words and actions can affect and shape it, and, frankly, race and racism are very real, palpable parts of our students’ lives.  Questions of race and politics are an everyday part of my job, explicitly stated or not.  I’d like to be able to say that I always approach these conversations with aplomb and empathy, that I always use them to open up larger conversations about the implications of oppression and privilege.  But in this case I just got mad.  Because here’s another reality of the lives of teachers: There are some kids we just don’t like or get along with.  Mandy is one of those kids for me.

I feel a little uncomfortable admitting this: When I was a brand new teacher, I always assumed I’d love all my students, and the force of my love and my dedication to changing their lives would be a push to inspire them to love themselves and to make change in their own lives.  And I really do work at loving my students, all of them.  I try to understand them and get to know where they’re coming from.  I try to start every day fresh; even if I had a negative interaction with a kid, I’ll come into class the next day with the intention of being friendly and “starting over.”

I really tried with Mandy.  She’d come to my class, an elective, recommended by her English teacher, a friend of mine.  Mandy had told me she wanted to be a writer one day, and so I had high hopes for her.  But our relationship started to sour pretty quickly.  When it did, I initiated a conference with her counselor mediating so that we could work towards some resolution.  When she voiced her concern—I was too hard on her—I looked for every opportunity for praise, and I tried to limit my comments on her pieces.  But no matter what I did, Mandy complained, mocked me, didn’t take my advice, talked back to me, didn’t listen. 

In many ways, Mandy is a very hard student to like.  Students even complained to me about her attitude in class.  That said, I’m not proud of my reaction to her accusation of racism being the cause of a grade she was displeased with.  Aside from the fact that anger is rarely useful (although I was able to elicit an apology from her), I do think there’s something to what she had to say.  I don’t mean that my grade was based in racism—I think my grade was fair, that her final really was C plus, not A, work.  But I can’t deny the reality race and racism play in our students’ achievement. 

I still remember very clearly a conversation that arose with my students during my student teaching in Detroit, Michigan.  I was in despair.  I’d just finished grading students’ final short essay tests on Oedipus Rex.  Students, uniformly, had done very poorly on the test.  It wasn’t because they hadn’t read Oedipus Rex.  I knew they had; after all, we’d read the whole play in class, since the school couldn’t afford extra copies of the book to take home with them. 

The problem was that these students, seniors in high school, had never been taught to write essays, not even short answer essays with topic sentences and supporting details.  My teaching this was new to them. 

I handed back their tests, their Fs.  Students were annoyed; I could hear the grumbling.  They didn’t want Fs; they were just trying to graduate and be done with high school.  “Ms. Falls, this is too hard. You give us too much work.  Of course we didn’t do well!”  I had been prepared for this, and I launched into my speech.  “This is not too much.  When I was a senior in high school, we were expected to write, not only these kinds of short answers but full essays.  My senior English final was a ten page paper.”  “But Ms. Falls, this is Detroit!” 

Indeed this was Detroit; the students had pinned down the exact problem: My high school had been a predominately white, middle-class suburban high school.  This was Detroit: One hundred percent of my students were Black and poor.  The high school had a twenty-five percent graduation rate.  One morning when I came to school, I saw a car crashed into the front doors of the building.  It had been shot up in a drive-by and was left, all bullet-riddled, to greet the students as they came to school.  And my students had made it to their senior year of high school without ever being expected to write full essays. 

Why had they never been expected to learn the same things I had been expected to learn?  None of the teachers at Henry Ford High School had ever used racial slurs to refer to their students; no one had ever said explicitly that they didn’t expect much of these Black kids.  But that was the reality.  These students had inherited the racist legacy of this country: Their parents and grandparents had come from poverty.  Likely their parents and almost certainly their grandparents had not even been allowed to go to college.  They didn’t have faith in the educational system; they didn’t believe that school was a path for them to gain power.  Why would they?  They hadn’t actually witnessed this in their lives.  Seventy-five percent of them, in fact, had already left the system.  And their teachers had gotten burned out trying to break through these barriers; they had given up.  Racism and poverty had become such a part of the system, that, for the most part, students and teachers didn’t see it, but here were my students telling me, “This is Detroit.” 

Twelve years later, San Francisco, California, for all its mythical liberalness, is a city that still embodies these realities of race and class oppression.  The city itself can be a very hard place for poor folks to live given the skyrocketing cost of living.  People of color, particularly Blacks, have been pushed out of the city or pushed into the ghetto.  The majority of my school’s Black students come from the projects all the way across town.  Many of them spend hours riding the city buses to get to and from school, and many of them feel disconnected from the school culture because of the distance.  Students who live in the projects often express to me that they can’t stay late at school for various events or extra-curricular activities because it isn’t safe for them to return home after dark.  And, like most other public schools in the country, our school has a divide between the scores of our majority population (in our case Asian students) and the scores of our Black and Latino students.

Mandy comes from a single parent family.  She doesn’t really know her father, who is currently in prison.  Her mom had her young and never went to college.  Despite all this, Mandy aspires to be a good student.  She wants to get the grades.  She has enrolled in honors and advanced placement classes, even knowing that they will be a challenge for her.  But the reality is that she’s not as strong a writer as her peers.  She sometimes struggles academically.  And I can feel for this struggle: She is often the only Black student in these honors classes.  Not only must she feel like she has to achieve for herself, but she must feel like she has to do well as a representation of her race.  Whether this is a conscious or unconscious drive, it must feel like a burden.  And her Asian and white peers must, consciously or not, weigh her too as the single Black student in the class.  Given this much larger context, it makes sense that Mandy would have a chip on her shoulder, that she would feel threatened by criticism.  My suggestions for improvement are just one more reminder that she’s not where she would like to be.

As a teacher, I struggle all the time with this larger context.  I don’t want to fall into the trap that many other well-meaning teachers fall into of not having sufficiently high expectations for my minority students, of behaving as though just showing up and trying is enough.  I don’t think this does any of my students a service, and I think this kind of patronizing attitude is just as racist as a “you’re not good enough” attitude. 

Further, as a white, middle-class teacher, I have to be aware of my own biases.  All teachers have an agenda, whether they admit it or know it or not.  How much of the values, ideas, and approaches I teach are such a part of this unequal society that I’m a part of that I can’t even see that they’re biased or oppressive?  How much of our oppressive culture gets passed along in any sort of institutional setting despite people like me who work from the inside to make change?

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope to be a teacher who is at least conscious of all these dynamics that so many people aren’t conscious of.  I hear teachers I work with complaining all the time about students “playing the race card” or saying things like, “My best friend is Black, so I can’t be racist.”  (Or one White colleague likes to say, “I’m more African-American than my students because I actually grew up in South Africa.”): None of these approaches or attitudes actually change the real dynamics of race in our schools.  And our schools are simply a microcosm of society at large.  If we can’t productively talk about race and racism in the classroom, we won’t get very far in addressing racism in our nation.  I hope that the next time a student says something like what Mandy said to me, I’ll be able to engage better and start a conversation rather than getting mad.