Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Truth My Students Taught Me

Today, my good friend Pete Mandrapa and I are to present to the neighborhood school we both taught in in the early 90's. The school name has changed, the administration and faculty, but the school population is demographically the same, and they have maintained their Racism Free Zone. These are my thoughts I'm sharing with the new K -8 Academy of Arts and Technology (aka Jefferson Institute of Multicultural and Internation Education 6 - 8).

As teachers, we know firsthand about the national achievement gap crisis in schools all across America. Politicians and corporations have their own analysis. But many of us in the frontlines, public school teachers, know that the achievement gap is just another way to say that there is justice gap in this country. Who gets the attention, the positive attention, and the negative attention? Who has advocacy? What are the national priorities? What do we do about it?
The good news is we teachers can take on that challenge, a challenge I believe to be the greatest challenge in this country today, and we can do it powerfully. It won’t cost a dime -- just time, and the will to do it. We’ve got the experts sitting right there in our classrooms. I’ve learned the most, and gained the most as a teacher in a school that does not pop up on the radar even in our own district, whose students are an age group often ignored by those educational “experts,” in a neighborhood which has the highest number of students on free and reduced lunch program and is the most diverse population in the city. What I learned about the achievement gap, and how to confront it comes from the students and their parents and those colleagues who flourished in a proud neighborhood school which almost 20 years ago, declared itself a Racism Free Zone and a Multicultural International Middle School.

Every student deserves a safe place in which to learn. Safety and respect should not be something any young person has to earn. No one took that more seriously than the old Jefferson Middle School. Whenever harassment happened at Jefferson, the school off the radar hit the front pages of the papers. The Racism Free Zone at ATA has a long history of student sacrifice and activism. It is a proud story. Many students endured pain, humiliation and alienation before an angry parent and her sixth grader refused to return to school until it was a safe place. A teacher invited that parent into her classroom to workshop her students and declared their room a Racism Free Zone; then a classroom of sixth graders took it on as their project and made the Racism Free Zone a school wide program.

The clear, stern language of the Jefferson Middle School RFZ Declaration was authored by sixth graders, not teachers. The students had had enough!

We the students of Thomas Jefferson Middle School declare our school to be a Racism Free Zone!
Our school will be free and open to ALL people
without regard to culture or color differences.
No racist remarks or harassment will be allowed.
Any such actions will result in SERIOUS consequences.
Our school will be respectful to people of all races and cultures.
All people will be welcome here.
We will do our very best to get rid of racism from our school and from the WORLD

The RFZ has three parts. First, the declaration. Second the public expression as an RFZ which was to march as RFZ in the Eugene Celebration parade. Third was the re-dedication that was done during the MLK Celebration. Over the years with student vision the re-dedication expanded. Some eighth graders developed a workshop of how to confront harassment, and the history of the RFZ , workshopping each 6th grade block before every student signed the RFZ declaration. The 6th graders gathered the re-dedication signatures and presented it at the assembly. There is a fourth component of an RFZ, and that is the orientation of everyone new person -- all staff, and then the orientation for all students at the beginning of the year to set the tone for the school year.

Teach this history to the young people. Teach them that students went fearlessly where adults could not and teachers of this building and their parents walked right with them, learning along the way. Don’t waste your time as so many other schools have quibbling about what to call the Zone. It’s not about words and terms. It is about actions and deeds. Raise the conversation to what will not be tolerated, how do we show it, how does one stand up to harassment, how does one change a climate, what is leadership, how will people be treated, what are our aspirations.

I remember my last year teaching, and I’m proud it was here with you when my classroom took the challenge to raise money to have Jefferson’s name put on a stone at the Japanese American Memorial. Teachers thought the phrase “racism free world” was unrealistic but that is the phrase which was unanimously chosen by the students. I did not have the heart to argue and instead allowed myself the moment of awe over their righteous hope. Visit the memorial and you will see it. “Jefferson for a Racism Free World” with “Respect” written in two languages.
You will find, as I did, that teachers will learn a lot from the students of how to keep a Racism Free Zone alive.

You will learn to have hope. You will experience success. Your behavioral responsibilities will be cut in half. No administrator or teacher will ever catch each person who scrawls homophobic, or racist hate messages on the wall. But a student body mobilized to put up posters against harassment all over the building with messages that hate is not tolerated here will send the message loud and clear to any perpetrator. All the dress codes you create will not change the mind of a middle school wannabe gangster who wants to “get respect,” but a student body who can mobilize a response against turning their school into gang turf and calls out for “unity of all” can change hearts. You can argue over and over to a proud youth that he or she cannot get into fights over slurs and fighting words, and it won’t make sense to them. But if you put leadership on a larger scale (building wide, or bridged to the community) in that young person’s hands, pride will overcome anger, and there will be purpose in the young leader’s life.

I have learned through the RFZ that students of color can just be kids in a school where safety is in the students’ hands and everyone is trained to respond to it. The students of color don’t have to be brave, or acquiesce to be a good sport. I was even more excited to learn that in an RFZ where students were trained and conversed freely about racism and all the other -isms, and where there was a school wide culture dedicated to eradicate harassment and disrespect, European American students felt powerful. The knowledge of how to respond to harassment, how to get out of the sidelines and be effective from one’s own stance, to create one’s own history for justice is a powerful feeling which will stay with the student for a lifetime and allow that student to move with confidence through adulthood.

I am glad that the RFZ still lives on even if the school has changed its name; faculty, administration and the students come and go. This neighborhood will support it and it works. It cuts down on discipline referrals and you will land on the front page, not as a troubled school, but as academic and civic leaders.

We all know as teachers that an RFZ is not just an event or two. It takes time. I never regretted taking all the time necessary to create a safe space for everyone – a place where everyone is called by their name and their name only, where there are no labels, where culture and language are not trivialized by jokes, where ideas can be expressed safely and even the deepest differences can be discussed with civility. I encourage every teacher to speak up every single time, even if it is simply to respond to sexist, racist, homophobic, discriminatory thought by saying “that makes me uncomfortable. It doesn’t help us be a good team. It doesn’t help this be a safe place to learn. If people do not feel safe in a classroom, they will not feel safe enough to share ideas. That will kill any literature, writing and social studies class (or any other class) because we depend on the dynamic sharing of ideas.” In the long run, it is worth every effort.

The RFZ goes beyond harassment. As Mandrapa’s sixth graders declared, “everyone belongs.” I learned how powerful it is for a teacher to greet each child they pass in the hall especially if the student averts their eyes and seem to be unfriendly, withdrawn or shy. I learned that the hallway is not the place to bury our noses in paper, but to walk heads up, checking things out, smiling and greeting students. I’ve been told by some of my students that I am the only human being in school who acknowledged their presence all day long. You must have experienced the same thing yourselves, the difference a teacher’s greeting made for young people. It’s not a small thing in a school to acknowledge the basic humanity of each and every person and learn what a difference it makes.

Teaching gave me other important insights that helped address the achievement gap in my classroom.

I learned that a ritual that is as taken for granted as homework is plays a huge role in creating the achievement gap. We teachers feel justified about using homework grades to determine a student’s success. But I have learned how important it is for me to have my students work in the classroom where I, as their teacher, can see their progress, answer their questions, praise them and build that relationship. Some of my students have parents who know the system, are comfortable in it, and if their child is sinking, have the resources to hire tutors to help turn things around. Some have parents where one can stay home, or if both work, they are home during homework time after school hours. Some of my students may have parents who work nights so they cannot give adult coaching. A few of my students have parents for whom English is not their language and the achievement gap will strike an unjust blow right there in their home, and may cause a wedge between parent and child. Some of my students have to work themselves, or care for younger siblings. Students shouldn’t be punished for being caregivers or providers. Students should not fall into the gap on the basis of their parent’s economic situation or immigrant status.

There is no research that proves that homework improves learning to the point that homework grades should ever count heavily in a student’s final grade. I give some homework but I learned a heavy reliance on homework grades creates an achievement gap. I urge teachers to become conscious of all the unquestioned rituals in our profession that may cause injustice.

I’m an English/history teacher who loved my areas of study so much I took all kinds of classes and workshops, particularly those which offered a different perspective and an expanded reading list from typical college survey classes. I couldn’t predict how important this personal interest would be to the success of my classroom teaching. In any field, if one were to take the time to bring in multiple perspectives and encourage the sharing of it, the work environment becomes so creative. An unexpected outcome of bringing in multiple perspectives was that each individual student brought their own stories, their families into the classroom and contributed to the pool of knowledge. I learned as much as I taught! There is something about respectful inclusive exchange and erasing the line between school and home that fuels the imagination, and encourages good work. The most valuable sharing will come if you as the teacher attend some of the wonderful events our students take part in with their families outside the school. Go to Pow Wows, celebrations, coming of age ceremonies. I encourage you to go and be the initiate, enjoy yourself, and express your appreciation not only there but bring it into the classroom the next opportunity and tell the class how much you enjoyed and how much you learned from your students’ family. . It is important we teachers go where our students shine and affirm it.

When a student has a great idea, I see my role as using the authority as a teacher to knock down the barriers and help them bring their idea to action. That’s how young people learn to have vision. So imagine a workplace where you can support vision rather than limit it with unquestioned procedures. As a teacher, if you support vision, you will find that no matter how old you may be, you will remain a “happening” youthful part of the organization as a motivator of fresh ideas.

I have learned from my students to take every opportunity to create an environment around myself that encourages young people to bring their whole self into the school. I model it myself. Nothing important to any person, including the teacher, should be left at the door – identity, home language, your religion, your experiences, your style, your music, your parents, your name pronounced correctly. Schools should not be giving the message that any essential part of a student is somehow inconsequential, even inappropriate for their academic success. This, I think, may be your greatest challenge as a teacher. I assure you, each person respected completely for who they are will be transformational to all concerned.

For me, teaching really became exciting as I settled into what teaching meant to me. I found it liberating to demystify the teacher student relationship. The role of teacher is fluid, not static. I see myself as a “student who went before or guide.” Sometimes I flow into another role, as an “auntie.” This role has gotten me through some of my toughest behavioral challenges. Every student, no matter how tough, wants to know the limits and know they are loved.

As for parents, I am a partner to the parent, not a judge of parenting. When I call home, it is to ask if they might have insight on the behavior of concern, assure them I am not asking for them to mete out the consequence because I am the teacher and that is MY responsibility; I just want the student to know we’re in communication. As a partner with the parent, I also want them to know when something touches me about their child and share those sweet and proud moments too.

And then there is the community relationship. There is so much to be said for expanding the student’s concept of “teacher” by bringing in many community elders, role models, the students’ own parents. It is important for youth to be surrounded by caring adults. At the same time, I have learned that teaching does not only come from adults. Whenever I can, I encourage the students themselves to teach others. Everyone’s life experience makes each expert of something.

My students taught me a lot of valuable learning comes when we vault the walls of a school and take school on the road. Pep assemblies have their place but nothing raises school spirit more than civic service or activism and advocacy in a public arena. The involvement of youth in the civic arena is the key to raising idealism and optimism about the future as well as breaking the stereotype about today’s youth.

Whom do we acknowledge as leaders? This is where middle school teachers can have the biggest influence on the achievement gap. During those three years with you, a student can gain insight on his/her strengths and worth, so when they go to high school, they can find their way or use leadership to start something new. There are so many ways to lead besides the typical ways of academic, athletic and student government. Whole classrooms -- whole schools -- of leaders will help any nation. Leadership is not an elite club for a small percentage. Democratize leadership!

For me, as a lifelong teacher, I see the public school as the key to democracy. I believe democracy is good as dead without teachers teaching vigilance, responsibility, and full participation on behalf of our democratic ideals. It’s important to pass on to the next generation sitting in those desks in American classrooms the confidence and power to appreciate and advocate for justice. It is not hard. Justice is not an abstract for youth. It is a concrete lived reality for them. We teachers just need to make it live outside a book by modeling it. We can determine our role: gatekeeper? Or do we expand vision and opportunity. Each day in the classroom, it is we who determine who gets heard, how safe the workplace is, who is served.

It’s not too trite to say we touch the future. After all, someone sitting in our classroom today may be the person who looks after the welfare of the future children of this country. The present national challenges are not going to disappear. Who will be the new advocates? Who will determine the nature of the conversation between nations? Who will serve this planet earth? We are teachers at a most awkward age when to many the youth are invisible, or problems. As their teacher we have the chance to say, “I see you. You are the answer to any future challenge. I am proud of you!" and those words accompany them where ever they may make their mark in the future.

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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

from Outside the Monster's Belly

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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.