Tag Archives: equity

Out of the Margins

“So how do your students look this year?” The question was asked not, as many people might expect, by a colleague or even a parent but by three of my former students who are now juniors as we found a chance to talk at the annual Local Family Picnic. “They look great,” I said. “Of course. You know! Given the emails they’ve been writing me about the books they’ve been reading.” One of them laughed and said, “Your favourite Humanities 7 class of 2014-2015?” I laughed in return, responding “Absolutely!” knowing she was secure in the knowledge they were all part of my favourite Humanities 7 class of… 2010-2011. (For the record, I only teach one section of Humanities 7 each year, so the “favourite Humanities 7 class of…” line is something of a running joke.)

As I prepare for the imminent arrival on campus of my brand new students, as the middle school team prepares to bring together and start building this year’s community, I find myself focused not just on what the kids might be thinking and feeling but also on the parents. My son attended boarding school for three years and is about to start his junior year at college, so I know firsthand what parents are going through. The level of trust we parents place in a school when dropping off our children is powerfully and deeply touching, and part of what motivates me to do my absolute best each and every day is working to meet that trust (not that I need any more motivation than looking out at my students looking back at me!).

So it stopped me short when one of my virtual colleagues on Twitter, another teacher who is also a parent, wrote, “My son had nightmares of police killing him….when he walks in your classroom how will you comfort him? #Ferguson” That I would do something is unquestionable. The harder part is the what. I wrote back, “I keep searching for the answer to that. Empathy and a hug only go so far. Think of concrete actions we can take to fight racism?” I believe that kids, perhaps even more so than adults, want to feel they have some degree of control over the world around them. While we will never live in a perfect world, we can certainly work to move society towards greater understanding, inclusiveness, and acceptance. And including my friend’s child in coming up with ways to do so would hopefully help him feel more empowered.

My imminent students may or may not have had such nightmares, but certainly they must have some level of awareness of and concern over what has been going on in Ferguson. And every year I’ve ever taught Humanities 7, whatever might have been going on in the world, stereotypes have always been a hot topic at some point in the year, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and more or less any other type of ism of which you could think. With 7th graders’ heightened sense of fairness and drive to bring justice about, we always end up brainstorming and discussing what people can actually do. Knowing concrete actions to take can be comforting.

Another of my virtual teacher-parent colleagues is expecting her first child, and she found herself in need of comforting post-Ferguson as well. Among the links and resources we shared in reaching out to her was a video made by Glenn Singleton, “Courageous Conversations About Race.” It offers both some background information not everyone may know and a protocol to frame these conversations. The video, which takes about 22 minutes to watch, is an incredible resource for schools, other organizations, and people in general who want to help undermine the systemic racism that feeds stereotypes both deliberate and unwitting, people who want to move forward.

And really, moving forward is not an option but a necessity. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – besides systemic racism, we all have to deal with the effects of patriarchy on attitudes toward gender and sexuality, of classism on attitudes toward socioeconomic status, and so on. The intersections of all the various axes of privilege and oppression play out differently in different people, making each individual story matter deeply. So listening, learning, affirming, and acting are all important parts of the process. Moreover, as a global community wherein each of us is working to become our own best self, they are quite literally part of our school’s mission.

My friend who asked about her son wrote me, “thank you for the response. I appreciate it greatly. #village” It does indeed take a village. And that village is us.

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Filed under Current Events, On Education, On Parenting, Uncategorized

Xian and Me

You may not know Xian Barrett. You may not even have heard of him. If you have, it may well have been through Lauren Fitzpatrick’s mid-July article in the Chicago Sun-Times, “CPS calls teacher’s mom to tell him he’s laid off.” Mr. Barrett, a 2009 Teaching Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education, is one of 2113 employees of Chicago Public Schools who was laid off at the time. 1036 of those employees were teachers, joining the 545 already laid off (along with 305 other CPS employees) due to the recent closing of 48 schools. That represents a total layoff of 6% of the CPS faculty, blamed on the expiration of a three-year period of pension relief. In the meantime, “the Board of Education voted to increase its payment to [Teach for America] from $600,000 to nearly $1.6 million, and to add up to 325 new recruits to CPS classrooms, in addition to 270 second year ‘teacher interns.'” (Fitzpatrick)

While Mr. Barrett achieved instant national fame due to the quirk that his principal called his mom’s phone number to fire him, his name was not unfamiliar in educational circles prior to that moment. He has been a strong voice advocating for students, one that recognizes that “putting students first” does not automatically mean putting teachers last, as too many school reformers seem to believe. He was the kind of teacher who would write in the aftermath of being fired without the due process his being tenured ought to guarantee him:

• “I feel fortunate to work with amazing students who communicate directly and frequently the difference my work makes, a supportive professional group of colleagues and the warmest community organizers and allies anyone could ask for.”

• “I always teach my students that our voices may not be the strongest; our writing might not be the most polished; we may be nervous and stumble; but our experiences are precious and must be heard and we are the only ones who can make that happen.”

• “I listened most deeply to the largest portion of my students and learned to support them in all the right battles: for student voice, against sexism, homophobia, ableism, and racism…” (Barrett)

I feel equally fortunate to work with amazing colleagues and students, and try to communicate those same values every day. One of the main differences between Mr. Barrett and me, then, is the context. Mr. Barrett worked in a system where the odds were stacked against him. Public schools are expected to churn out students who perform well on standardized tests regardless of the circumstances in which they work (for one example, please note that some of Chicago’s suburbs spent as much as $22,915 per student while Gage Park High School, where Mr. Barrett taught, spent $11,303 per student); encouraging and developing student voice is rarely on the radar. I, on the other hand, work in a school whose mission, built on feminist ideals, explicitly promotes the development of student voice, where working for social justice (from whatever perspective each individual person may be coming) is fundamentally integral to our work. I know it would be a gross overstatement to suggest that my school cares about students more than the Chicago Board of Education. But one may be forgiven for having that impression. In his most recent blog, Mr. Barrett also wrote, “I would ask each of you to pause to capture in your mind that one teacher or several that altered the course of your life. Now tear them from the fabric of your experience. What would it look like? How would you be changed? Our city inflicts that sadistic exercise on our impoverished students of color as a regular occurrence.”

What happened to Mr. Barrett – and what therefore happened to his students – is simply wrong. Our school draws on its feminist roots to provide a holistic and high quality education as part of our work to bring about social justice and true equity. The solution, as I was discussing one July morning with Kristoffer Kohl of the Center for Teaching Quality, has got to be for all of us to work until absolutely all students in this country, wherever they may be attending school, can have the same opportunities, where they can work unfettered with oustanding, courageous, and inspirational teachers like Xian Barrett. We can differ about the exact paths to achieve that goal. But the goal itself is inarguable.

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Filed under Current Events, On Education, Uncategorized