I don’t ordinarily make a habit of ordering books before their release date, but I made an exception for This is Not a Test by José Vilson. I knew the strength, power, and scope of his writing through various publications in forums such as Huffington Post, his blog, and Twitter. Mr. Vilson can put a book’s worth of thinking into 140 characters, so I couldn’t wait to see what he could say in 220 pages. The subtitle, “A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education” is apt. In the book, José has woven together memories, commentary, and calls to action in a way that compels readers to think honestly about the educational landscape in our country, the cultural context that helps create it, and what our own role is and should be in shaping it in the future.
When the book came, I decided to set it aside until the summer came so that I could savor it with little else to distract me. When I finally opened it, I fairly flew through “Part One” which takes us through his childhood and ends with his decision to become a teacher as his college graduation date approached. One moment particularly stuck out to me, when he describes giving a correct answer (“D”) in class only to have the teacher respond, “What?” He gave the answer again, and again the teacher responded, “What? I didn’t hear that.” He startled the class by shouting the answer, at which point the teacher dismissed him with a “Well, you don’t know anything, so I’ll move on.” The teacher called on another student, who gave the exact same answer and earned the teacher’s praise. (p.47) “How could this happen?” I asked myself, feeling sick and knowing the answer in my heart, knowing the same general dynamic plays itself out over and over, if not always that overtly, when people of privilege have power over the historically oppressed.
For the rest of the book, then, I slowed way down. I’d read a page and stare out into space, or finish a section and put the book down altogether for several days. What he was saying was too important to risk missing part of it, and as someone who identifies as anti-racist and yet who knows I still (and probably will always) have work to do to uncover and eradicate the ways that systemic racism unconsciously influences me, I knew I needed to listen carefully to everything he had to say. Some stories, I already knew, such as the influence of Renee Moore “who spoke about her teaching as rooted in the histories of black people across generations, not as a solitary act of kindness,” (p.180) or how Chris Lehmann was willing to force EduCon participants to confront their privilege by explicitly noting the importance of race, class, and gender, and how he worked rapidly and effectively to have the conference become progressively more inclusive to a diversity of voices (pp.143-150). I mentally highlighted Mr. Vilson’s assertion that “Inquiry-based education only for the ones society felt could handle it wasn’t good enough.” (p.146) and I thought long and hard on themes Mr. Vilson continues to develop on the challenge and necessity of deeply and truly understanding and embracing diversity, most recently in the blog piece “Teachers of Color Caught on the Windmill (On Real Equity).”
In the penultimate essay of his book, “Why Teach,” (pp.209-215), Mr. Vilson talks about how “When we teach, we don’t just teach them the subjects, we implicitly teach them customs, rituals, and character traits that they either emulate or admire in their own right.” (p.212) He notes, “Teaching and learning are amorphous, but when they’re happening the symbiosis is undeniable.” (p.213) In his powerful Afterword, Dr. Pedro Noguera adds “This book and José Vilson’s ongoing work remind us that, just as education can be used to dominate, control, and oppress, it can also be used to provoke and liberate.” (p.223)
As someone who believes deeply in the importance of working for social justice, I feel it is long past time for those of us who live in this country to move past the illusion that we are living in a post-racial society. As a teacher who came through an exemplary M.A.T. program but who hears of many programs that fall far short of my own experience, I feel we as a country need carefully examine what is working and what needs improvement in our system of teacher preparation. To my thinking, This Is Not a Test should be required reading for all future teachers, and can and should be a spark to the kinds of hard, honest conversations all those of us within and who care about education need to be having.
Mr. Noguera ends his “Afterword” with the “hope that other educators are able to see the power and potential of their voices and join in the struggle to save our schools and our fragile democracy.” (p.223) Mr. Vilson ends his “Why Teach” essay with the charge, “Go hard or go home.” (p.215)
I’m all over that.