Category Archives: Writing About Race

De-Tracking: Harder, So Much Harder Than It Looks

The first semester is about over and, after being entirely consumed with getting this class to run, I have a moment to catch my breath. Here’s what I’m thinking at the moment:

The goal was to create a class–Honors Prep–that took a small group of students that had some desire to enter Honors English 10 classes and prepared them through learning and mastering parallel skills. Thus, that meant that essentially everything I teach in my Honors class, they do in their prep class–the only difference is that sometimes I took more time to scaffold the skills, I used a lot more encouragement and tough love, eked out a bit more patience, and did a whole lot of wraparound stuff. In the process, I tried to document as much as I could so I could think about writing it up for others who might want to try such an initiative in his/her own classroom.

Lessons learned:

  • You have to build an intentional literacy community: you have to help kids see themselves differently. I did that, first, through some growth mindset and resilience work (this video by Will Smith is awesome) and having students write their own resilience narratives about a time when something was hard but they kept going. Also, you have to help them build their reading skills explicitly. That meant I had to go back to my strategies of what good readers do and TEACH THEM that it’s not about reading Spark Notes but about actually making meaning of the text on the page. And then we had to read a lot of books, so we did: Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Purple Hibiscus, Merchant of Venice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Additionally, they read and wrote about a weekly news article (Article of the Week, adapted from Kelly Gallagher), did some study of rhetorical appeals and read some articles from The Atlantic by Ta-Nahesi Coates, and read daily in-class for 25 mins. (that’s for all classes, Honors and Prep).
  • Take the time to teach them how to write an argument: they hate writing. Still do, after a semester. But, they have a better idea about what makes a solid thesis statement and how to structure an argument. We wrote and revised papers, talked about writing, I modeled my own writing…that’s a work in progress, but they’re coming to see writing as just another part of what intellectuals in school do, and, since they are intellectuals, they can write papers, too.
  • Reveal the ghost in the machine: The Prep-Stars (my nickname for them) have all kind of misconceptions about what happens in Honors classes. I had a plan to have them conduct some observations to disabuse themselves of those notions but time got away from me. Instead, I was explicit about explaining what the HN kids do, and that’s usually being really good at “doing school.” That means, they act interested even when they’re not, they tend to do their homework consistently, they read the books (or not, usually Spark Notes), that they, essentially, play the game. They’re a bunch of fakers, actually. The Prep kid were kind of shocked by those revelations, but I think it helped them to realize that the only thing separating them from those kids was quite surface.
  • Give them a chance to shine: Look, I’m tough. I know it. I don’t offer empty praise and I tend to only celebrate excellence. But, I had to remember, if they don’t KNOW what excellence looks like, then I had to celebrate the steps they achieved to reach excellence. Thus, when they mastered explicit skills (look at the analysis in this paper–that’s Honors work right there, I might say), we’d clap it up, or made some amazing comment, we’d take a moment to relish in the moment. I baked cupcakes for the team that put together the best director’s playbook for Merchant. I called their parents to share praise. We went to Yogurt Land on the day before holiday break to celebrate kids who were doing well. I have been reminded how much, too, relationships matter with them.
  • Reflection counts: When the class began, I had them write weekly reflections about how they were doing, what they noticed about themselves as developing scholars, what they needed to do differently or keep doing. They were always serious and thoughtful, and from those reflections, I could help to keep them accountable and to help them stay on track. I would also be reminded that things were actually going better than I tended to think. Phew.
  • This is a one-shot deal: Look. This semester has been exhausting. For the most part, the majority of the kids should do well in Honors when they move into that class in a week or so. I’ll move into a support role, meeting with them, conferencing with them, staying in touch with their parents about how to keep them moving forward (my student teacher, who has been co-teaching with me in the first part of the course will take over full-time for the second part of the course). I’m not going to do this class again, though. Nope. Because it’s about changing the broader systems. I’ve always known that, when I set my mind to something, I can usually get it done. But I’m just one teacher in one classroom. On the fifth floor. Around me is a system that relentlessly tracks kids into Honors or CP. As we all know, most of the kids in CP are kids of color and other underserved kids. I wanted to do something that would make me not so complicit in what was happening, but I have realized that I can’t. This is one group of kids that had this pilot experience. Unless the broader school system changes, unless people actually OWN UP to the process being racist and classist, then I am just one person standing on the shore attempting to sweep the ocean back with a broom. And I’m simply not interested in being that person anymore.

Score: The system-1, Me-0

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Filed under Lab Classroom, Student Interactions, Writing About Race

This is DEFINITELY on the test…

One of the tasks we oversee in my school is administering the PSAT. I have to proctor it to my homeroom kids, the majority of whom I don’t teach. Instead, we see each other daily for about 20 minutes of awkwardness: I tell them all the things the school says they need to know (upcoming events, educational tidbits, which of late concern the election, distribute lunch detentions that the deans give me to pass along to particular students). They half-listen, some annoyed, others amused at my seeming ineptitude for idle chatter and paperwork. It’s funny, too, because they all know each other from the year before and have existing relationships. I’m the new kid to that homeroom party. For the most part, though, we get through it, and are finding our balance.

This is the group that I was responsible for for the PSAT. Every sophomore at this school takes the test, whether they want to or not. Whether they have any idea what the purpose is the test is for, or not.

What I realized–during that period where you tell kids to write their address, fill in bubbles, sign their name–is that there are particular bubbles on the form that stand to either advantage or disadvantage kids of color. One bubble asks for them to identify their race. Another asks if they want to be identified for awards based on their race, while a third asked for their email address if they wanted to be contacted by colleges (and the latter is not just about kids of color). When I was walking around, making sure kids were filling out their forms correctly, I noticed a number of kids of color (not just Black kids), not filling out those questions.

I asked one of them why and she shrugged, said she didn’t want to.

Warm demander alert!

I suggested she fill out ALL of those forms. Why count yourself out before the game even starts?! Rinse and repeat same suggestion for the other handful of kids who were uncertain about filling out those questions.

As they proceeded to take the test and I proceeded to proctor, of course I began to think about whether other kids around the school had folks who checked to see if those boxes were filled out. Look, I love young folks, but when left to their own devices, they’re gonna skip things, but when they’re skipping measures on standardized tests that might actually benefit them in the long run (and I’ll loosely define benefit for these purposes), I worry.

So many measures are uneven and biased that if they can get some small foothold that positively influences their future, we have to make sure they’re taking it. Even if they don’t want to fill in the bubble.

We gotta pay attention. All the time.

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Filed under Equity, New School Chronicles, Student Interactions, Writing About Race

Re-Envisioning the Dinner Table

I was between places for about two weeks. It was an experience I found both unsettling (where to put my dogs, my stuff, my BOOKS?!) and freeing (once the dogs were in their favorite kennel, that left me copious time to loiter in book stores, see neglected friends, attempt to dig myself out of the mishegas that had somehow become my life). It was also during this time that some great friends offered me a place to stay. One of them was a teacher and we’d spend moments here and there throughout those weeks chatting about teaching. She teaches in the city, in an under-resourced school, and she’s amazing because she just gets it done. She does not allow the fact that they are poor, or second-language learners, or have a disability prevent her from teaching them to be great.

I often reflect on moving to the suburbs and now back into the city, the differences between the two places. Finally, in one of our conversations about Lisa Delpit and cultural capital and all that stuff that’s difficult yet critical to discuss, we hit upon it: Kids who are privileged–in whatever ways they are privileged–have incredible opportunities to sit around a dinner table and soak in knowledge. So it might not matter that something is “missed” in school in favor of test prep or remediation. A parent or someone is going to probably mention some fact, or concept, or build background information, fill in those gaps.

For many underserved kids, they don’t have those opportunities. This is not a pity party, so hold on. They have plenty of strengths, but–and I’m channeling Theresa Perry here–they don’t have someone/anyone systematically handing over knowledge and cultural capital in any consistent format.

About a week ago, I took up another friend on her offer to have dinner, the night after I’d moved into my new place (finally). Of course I took her up on that! We enjoyed this stick-to-your-ribs soup and then, the parents of another family that was there, too, asked their son about a quiz he had the next day.

The cities in Japan. They quizzed him. Then, because he couldn’t name all the cities, they printed out a map of Japan, labeled the cities with him, and then proceeded to come up with a creative mnemonic for him to remember on his quiz the next day.

I was in awe: it was exactly what I meant about the handing over of cultural capital AT THE DINNER TABLE.

I could not have scripted a better moment if I’d tried.

Now what if we re-envisioned the dinner table, took it out of our houses (for those that even have those things, and let’s be real–not all kids do) and brought it to places where kids could sit down and “eat,” as it were? What if we encouraged kids (and adults, too, most likely) to pull up a table and give them the nourishment that they need?

Classrooms can be such places, yes. Wherever these spaces crop up, shouldn’t we hand over the cultural capital in a way that allows them to walk in the world as more knowledgeable, more brilliant young people?

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Filed under Equity, Writing About Race

Black and Brown in Public Spaces: Meeting Marcus Samuelsson

Dr. KP & Marcus S.

I love it when they’re as nice in person as you hoped. Yay, Marcus!

I prefer a porous classroom: one that, when, say a famous celebrity chef comes to town, you can decide to read an excerpt from Yes, Chef and go meet Marcus Samuelsson at a Whole Foods that’s only a short walk away.

That was class today. Through some nice asking, following up on a contact from a conference, and some planning, students were able to spend a few moments taking pictures, getting slips of paper signed and asking Marcus questions about his life and career. He was quite pleasant: posed for pictures, talked about Ethiopia to kids of Ethiopian descent, told them he was more nervous talking to THEM than when he was on Top Chef: Masters. The kids conducted themselves professionally, as expected: they were giggly, attentive, a bit awestruck.

We thought he was going to do a cooking demo, but it was entirely a meet and greet: signing books, shaking hands, taking pictures. I had hoped he’d read a bit from his book, but I think that’s the difference when readings are done in supermarkets and not bookstores: you’re there to meet the person, not necessarily to get the entire ambiance of intimacy that I so love about book signings.

Still, though, it meant something to the kids.

To the Whole Foods clientele, though? Different story. I don’t think they knew quite what to do with a large crowd of Black and Brown adolescents. Usually, I’d wager, many of them are trying to avoid them.

Yet, here they were: eager, full of anticipation, leaning in to meet the Black chef with the compelling story. He could as easily been one of them. The story he wrote is theirs, in many respects. Getting outside and meeting him perhaps made that clearer to them, perhaps made them more willing to write what is inside them, beyond formulas and cliches…

I am looking forward to being able to have the run of the city again, in that respect: to peruse the newspapers and map out readings, signings, art gallery openings, exhibitions…to expose students to all the city has to offer. All OUR city has to offer. To be Black and Brown in public spaces, and to confirm to those who don’t know, while reaffirming to the students, that learning happens all around us, and it’s ours if we merely walk outside.

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer, Writing About Race

I find this an important way to continue the conversation about Trayvon Martin (or even to begin it if it’s not yet started, though I wonder how can one NOT start it).

Link to Christensen’s Rethinking Schools Article

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July 24, 2012 · 1:39 am

Single Stories

Another secret about my summer program: I love it because I have an uninterrupted 45 minutes each morning to read whatever I want on the train. Since I recently finished Gone, Girl by Gillian Flynn and don’t want to commit to another book just yet, I’ve been reading magazines. Up today: Rethinking Schools and an article about narrative and who controls the narrative by Linda Christensen. “The Danger of a Single Story” is quite compelling and totally fired me up to teach it this fall. She draws on Brent Staples “Walk on By” about Black men in public spaces, Chimimanda Adichie (Half a Yellow Sun and other fantastic works) and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to help students use their voice to address systems of inequality.

Christensen writes: As I listened to their stories, I thought about the Daniel Beaty poem that laments the “lost brilliance of the black men who crowd prison cells,” and I thought about my moral obligation to tap into this injustice, this birthplace of anger and rage, to expose it and validate students’ experiences. But if I unleashed this rage and pain, I knew I had the parallel moral obligation to teach students how to navigate a society that discriminates against them and to teach them how others have dealt with these injustices. So I designed curriculum to address the needs of these black youth, and also the needs of all my students who feel singled out because of a defining feature that turns them into a target.

Again, another reminder that when we encourage students to “let it all out,” we best be ready for what that means, and we better be ready to help them do something with that “righteous rage” that can threaten to destroy them without some meaningful direction.

I’m excited to make this lesson my own. I’m excited to hear students write about self in ways that are critical and in ways that do something to make some change. Also, for those of us who are integrating the Common Core into everything we do, this is an excellent way to get critical, complex texts that kids will WANT to read into our classrooms. Brilliant!

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer, Writing About Race