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Make Some Noise

When we encounter an unfair situation, we may accept the explanation that it is an unfortunate exception or a fluke. A second occurrence might make us more concerned. But when, as the Declaration of Independence proclaims, there is “a long train of abuses…..,” it’s time for action.

Almost 30 years ago, while our high IQ, black deaf son was in elementary school, his father and I sat through an excruciating parent/teacher conference with his team of teachers that year: two black women, one white woman. The black teachers praised his creativity, academic achievements, and wanted to challenge him more. The white teacher was frustrated that she had to accommodate for his hearing impairment (e.g., she could not give him oral spelling tests). Her major complaint, however, was that he finished his class work too far ahead of the other students, then became a distraction to her. Her solution: Punish him by making him go into the corner and read a book!  [Unpack that for a moment.]  The more infuriating part, however, was her demand to us, “Why don’t you have a doctor put him on Ritalin™ or something?!”

Yesterday, a black mother whose child is in our church afterschool program told us about a parent/teacher conference she and her husband had attended earlier that day with their son’s white teacher.  The boy has exceptionally high grades and test scores, but the teacher kept sending notes home that he was disruptive in class. Her complaint: He finishes his work ahead of everybody else; then becomes a distraction. Her recommendation: “Why don’t you take him to a doctor and see if he can be put on some type of medication……”

Between these two incidents I have witnessed and heard innumerable reports from Black parents across the nation of similar encounters.  Black students, usually males, being viewed not as potentially gifted, needing enrichment or more academic challenge, but as disrupters and distractions. So-called professional educators not questioning their own weak classroom practices, lack of differentiated instruction, poor preparation, or implicit biases, but instead wanting these non-compliant Black boys drugged into passivity.

These repeated episodes of inequity make me wonder about those who argue that “good teaching is just good teaching” in response to charges of racism or other discrimination in classrooms.  What makes that claim suspicious is how some of these teachers (such as the two I reference above) have very different recommendations for white students who exhibit similar behaviors. Clearly, they (and the rest of us) know how to provide “good teaching” to some students. Such hypocritical double standards are also behind the disproportionate use of excessive disciplinary measures on Black students that too often marks the beginning of the school-to-prison pipeline.

It’s not that big a leap from unchallenged examples of everyday racism in too many classrooms, to situations such as those in Detroit. What would be unthinkable for the children of privilege, is perpetuated and worse yet, tolerated, on children of the poor.

Parents of color continue fighting these inequities and resisting the knee-jerk response to unnecessarily medicate our sons as we have for decades.  Slowly (but happily), more educators are also beginning to speak up within our faculty meetings, schools, and districts about these unethical practices too often condoned or ignored by the systems in which we work.  We teachers do have a moral and professional responsibility to acknowledge and correct discrimination in our own practice and classrooms, as well as a larger responsibility to advocate for justice and equality for our students at every level, using all means at our disposal.  

8 Comments

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on January 25, 2016 at 5:32pm:

Yes...And...

Thank you for this thoughtful post. The personal anecdotes while painful, painted a very clear picture of the inequity in practitioner expectations -- the pervasive (ongoing) nature of the anecdotes speak to institutional racism -- a systemwide problem we must address. I couldn't agree more that, "We teachers do have a moral and professional responsibility to acknowledge and correct discrimination in our own practice and classrooms, as well as a larger responsibility to advocate for justice and equality for our students at every level, using all means at our disposal." 

What in your opinion are the best strategies for addressing this moral responsiblity? I feel like observations, video/reflection, reciprocal coaching, feedback from parents/community as well as other educators from a wide variety of perspectives and backgrounds can help us closely examine our own practice and beliefs...the larger responsibility weighs heavily on individual practitioners as well. How do we best advocate for justice and equality in ways that result in systemic change? 

I'm ready to make some noise -- and I want to make noise that results in powerful change -- ideas? :)

Renee Moore Renee Moore commented on January 27, 2016 at 10:40pm:

Willingness

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Jessica.

The first suggestion I would make you have already accomplished, and that's willingness to listen, learn, and acknowledge that inequity and discriminationatory practices are not only rampant in our educational systems, but ingrained and supported. It takes a certain level of courage to even admit that, to begin to see those practices and point them out.  Sometimes, it means learning to recognize microaggressions in our own interactions with students, parents, and colleagues. Other times, it means working with our peers to identify and eliminate culturally incompetent practices in our schools.

At both levels, one tool I've found helpful is the Cultural Proficiency series by Kikanza Nuri-Robins, Franklin and Brenda CambellJones, and Randall Lindsey out of Corwin Press. The series includes several books aimed at different aspects of education (teachers, administrators, parent/community relations, etc.).  Part of the series is designed for use by an entire school faculty or district. It helps to get everyone thinking and talking about the problems in ways that lead to solutions.

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on January 31, 2016 at 6:24pm:

Awesome...My Next Steps....

Thanks Renee for your reply and resource ideas. I like the whole school faculty/district approach because I think this is where true transformation will happen at the systems level. The pump is primed in my district because "equity" is a major focus at the district level and in several "focus schools." The problem as I see it (and the reason why I put quotes around the word equity) is because I think it's one thing to say we're about equity and engage in dialogue about systemic and institutional racism (how can any reflective white teacher honestly NOT acknowledge or admit to the inequitable structures, systems and beliefs under our noses?) but it's another thing to actually act/be/do things different/equitably at the systems level.

I'm tired of talking about equity and am ready for action...there's a disconnect between the themes of culturallly responsive pedagogy that we are studying and the actual day to day practices in our schools and inequity that lives at the level of master schedules, busing, geographic disparities. These include pull-out groups (where all of the boys of color exit a highly engaging literacy classroom for reading intervention in one school) to tracking (where sections of "honors"/IB/pre-AP courses are filled with white girls and other sections labeled sheltered/intervention or remedial are filled with students of color -- many who are on academic or behavior plans from previous feeder schools). And I believe some teachers attempts at bridging inequities result in students feeling pitied (or over-scaffolded curriculum that removes inquiry/interest/challenge/belief that students are capable) -- see this interview with a student from my school district who is a graduate of the "turn around" high school on year 5 of the state's accountabiilty clock.

Your post gives me the courage to start asking questions at the systems level about why we are talking the talk...but not yet walking the walk. Thank you. 

Jessica Weible commented on January 26, 2016 at 3:04pm:

I've often thought and had

I've often thought and had conversations with others about how we as a nation may be over-medicating students instead of considering how to better individualize education and understand differences in learning styles and temperments. However, I so appreciate the connection that you make here between the issue of over-medication and racial inequity. I think that is a critical component of any discourse regarding the issue of over-medicating students and I don't think enough people are talking about it. I'm actually shocked that any teacher would suggest to a child's parents that they should medicate their child. As a parent, I have some idea of what a violation that must have been for you and I'm sorry that it was allowed to happen.

What I value about your article is that it provides me with an opportunity for reflecting on my efforts with racial equity in my classroom. I've worked at a school that had a predominantly African American population of students as well as a school with predominantly white students and I've noticed that if administrators and teachers can avoid having a conversation about racial equity, they will avoid it. This avoidance is maybe an attempt to seem "color blind" but I think our attempts to be politically correct by pretending students are all treated equally while the school culture is blatantly homogenized is harmful to everyone. I think part of your call to action here requires us to make time for these conversations and incorporate racial equity in school's mission statement, regardless of what the demographics are.

What you talk about in reference to schools like in Detroit where schools are essentially segregated and there is a huge disparity in the quality of the facilities and education, is another deeply troubling issue. It made me think about this popular series of podcasts from This American Life.

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/the-problem-we-all-live-with

I agree that teachers share a responsibility to advocate for justice and equality. I also would extend that to the members of the communities where such horrific inequalities exist between segregated schools. 

 

Renee Moore Renee Moore commented on January 27, 2016 at 10:52pm:

Avoidance = Collusion

Thank you, Jessica W., for sharing those thoughts and resources.

I too have noticed the tendency to avoid serious discussions of racism inside our classrooms and schools, often using "I'm color-blind" as a cover. The truth is to try to ignore the wonderful mix of cultures within our schools makes us all poorer, but more often people are not as "color blind" as they would like to believe (or would like others to). And the problems extend well-beyond race (gender discrimination, ignorance or inappropriate response to special needs, ageism, religious intolerance, the list goes on).

History has taught us repeatedly that if we choose to remain silent and ignore attacks on the rights of any among us we become collaborators with the loss of justice for all (paraphrasing Dr. King). Our schools should be at the forefront (not bringing up the rear) as examples of justice and equality.

Shannon Cde Baca commented on February 3, 2016 at 1:34pm:

Always make me think!

I both love and feel off balance by the dissequilibration your writing always causes. It is good as I seem, like a majority of other teachers, to need to be knocked off my comfortable perch in order to move forward and change my behaviors. I am appalled by the stories and yet what have I really done to add to the  problem or to help fix what is so wrong? Sadly, not enough. The Flint water crisis that will harm kids and families for decades is so similar to what the Navaho, Zuni, Hopi and Tewa Indians of The Southwest face with bad water tainted by the industries that came in promising jobs and better schools. There I did nothing. Now I am older and a bit crankier and not as comfortable in my perch as then. So, I will read up using your suggestions and then speak up...a bit more boldly and try to make others step down from their perch and do something remarkable. You always make me think. That is powerful.

 

 

 

 

 

Carl Draeger commented on February 6, 2016 at 10:58pm:

Digging beyond the 'what' to get to the 'why'.

Too often teachers react to occurrences in our class room without considering the root cause. We treat the symptom by demanding compliance with our demands and excusing our ignorance with reference to our busyness. When we reflect on our day, we need to consider what each student needs to be successful. If a student isn’t growing due to the way I teach, then I need to change the way I'm teaching that student. After all, why should "getting it" quickly be the student's problem. If I have a student constantly acting out, I need to do a ‘physical exam’ of what isn’t working for that person before I do an ‘autopsy’ of why a student failed. I must look closely into the mirror when dealing with young men of color to see if I am part of the problem or part of the solution. Renee, I love how clearly you express the reality of the insidious nature of institutional racism. It really lights the path on the road to becoming a better human.  Also, Shannon’s comment about the state of being “comfortable in my perch” struck a chord with me. It is no longer okay to work towards compliance when engagement is needed. I guess I’m getting cranky, too. 

Renee Moore Renee Moore commented on February 10, 2016 at 10:26pm:

Curmudgeons Unite!

If by older and crankier, y'all mean less willing to silently watch the innocent be abused and misused, then rock on! 

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