Sunday, July 01, 2007

Diversity... or I Roll With Delpit

"[They sang] protest songs in a response to military aggression." -Tom Gabel, White People For Peace

I've been reading a little about the recent Supreme Court ruling on racial assignment, mostly over here, (even if they link to Lynne Cheney's group of McCarthyists.) It started me thinking of some big-ticket issues. More was to come: SCOTUS, the conclusion of what I think of as diversity week at the summer training institute I'm helping lead, a conversation with a friend who's down at TFA's LA training institute, the realization that I'd fail a quiz on the Black leaders muralized in the 510 high school hallway, a recent commenter calling me out for a sarcastic reference to ethnic labeling -- all of it an avalanche in the brain.

Most recently a New York Times Magazine reporter called me up to speak about Teach For America. We had an interesting talk, made more interesting when the reporter mentioned she was given my contact information by a three-names professor who penned the book I just finished reading for my Masters, someone whose name made my TFA-regional-office-employed friend gasp. The reporter asked for thoughts on diversity (it's a badly misused phrase), about how well TFA was doing in recruiting a diverse corps (inexplicably terrible) and what I thought of their diversity curriculum (ineffectively confrontational). Then she asked about my own experiences overcoming cultural differences in my teaching.

To this last question I didn't have much of an answer. Which is troublesome. In the last five years I've taught and coached over 400 students, not one of whom shared my ethnicity (White), not one of whom shared my socioeconomic background (upper middle class). And I've done a pretty good job most of the time, if only in comparison to what was going on before, and to do a pretty good job, you would think the issue of overcoming or addressing these essential differences is not minor stuff. You would think this is not something I would give so little thought to. So little, in fact, that it marked the only time in an hour-long interview where I didn't have a snappy response, the snappiness therein probably derived from those long a.m. commutes down the 280 where I'd interview myself on a variety of issues. It's troublesome to have no answer, or a weak-sauce answer, especially because that luxury is such a part of the privilege I enjoy.

So, okay. I don't teach a class on social justice. I've hung no posters of Martin, Malcolm, or Che. I do not turn my kids into Freedom Writers. But I've got something going on, right?

I think issues of identity, of which cultural and ethnic heritage are no doubt central, are mediated in simpler ways when you're 11, 12, or 13. To the extent that I make connections with kids -- and that's the point, right? that's the ballgame, isn't it? -- to the extent that happens, I pull a lot from the pop culture that infuses too much of their lives. I don't enjoy, but I do know what they listen to. I've seen the movies and can fake it when I haven't. The slang and silly trend de jeur makes its way into my homework assignments, and I know all about the games.

R: Are you mad?
ME: I'm the cops in Grand Theft Auto after you stole a car, ran over two people, and shot the rocket launcher at a liquor store.
R: S.W.A.T. team's coming for me, huh?
ME: Big time. Get to work.

A little goes a long way.

So too with language. I'm lucky enough to have a baseline knowledge of the dominant language spoken in the community, which is not the language of instruction. I do not teach in Spanish, but neither do I forbid its use in my classroom. I didn't think people still did this, forbid its use, but during a classrooom visit last year, an observer motioned me over, and pointing furtively across the room, hissed, "Those two girls are speaking Spanish." Why shouldn't they? Thought is channeled through language, and since I want students to think at a high level, there are times when they'll need to speak at the level that best mediates those cognitive heights. Group work is clearly an opportunity for this; I want them speaking the language in which they think best. And nevermind the pedagogical validity, who the hell am I to forbid such a fundamental expression of self? They're talking about the work and they've got it all right, I told the observer, even though they weren't and it wasn't.

A little goes a long way. I can help them find the word they can't think of in English. I can trade pleasantries with their family, maybe have a short conversation if it's about food, school, or Salvador Dalí.

Validating what's important to my students, and making space for it in my classroom has always been a high priority. It has been relatively easy to pick up on those little things, add them to the bigger issues of equity of access, opportunity, and curricular representation. What has never been easy is understanding how to address the issues raised, not by differences in "race," but by issues in class -- something that SCOTUS ruling touches upon.

I don't know what it's like to live in a garage.
I don't know what it's like to only have one uniform shirt.
I don't know what it's like to share one bed with three people.
I don't know what it's like to call a conference of all your teachers because you want to go to high school, now, so you can graduate sooner, get a job, and help your mom with the bills.

This was my challenge, my diversity issue, and it took a long time to understand what was going on. Your kid's got an F, I checked the "contact teacher" bubble on the report card, we had conference days, where were you? And then I decided that they didn't care. And if they didn't care... shit man, fill in your own blank. This is something I still struggle with, needing to rethink my knee-jerk reactions to situations I don't fully understand because that is not, and never has been, a reality for me.

At the risk of sounding like all types of bad person, it's been much easier for me to understand (a little) and connect (a little) to my kids' ethnic and cultural backgrounds than it has been to understand and connect to their socioeconomic background. To put myself at further risk, I think the latter creates more educational barriers than the former. On some level, it's kind of gross to think otherwise. To the extent that the prevailing culture of the American public education system is White and middle-class, I tend to think that it is more middle-class than White. Maybe that makes me near-sighted, maybe it reveals the extent to which my own ethnicity has been so thoroughly valued and reflected, or maybe it makes me a bigot. To be sure, the only time I have ever been called a racist was after making just this assertion, claiming that I'd seen differences in social class -- at my Title I high school with magnet school busing, at my elite private liberal arts college -- divide people more completely than differences in ethnicity. This is something I still believe, even as I acknowledge that this isn't true everywhere, and that class characteristics are increasingly conflated with ethnic/ cultural characteristics.

I don't know what the upshot of all this is, or if there's any big take-home message, but I do know this: The reason I don't have posters of Ghandi, Hidalgo, or Aguinaldo on the walls is not because I am afraid of addressing underlying issues of large-scale inequity, but because I need that wall-space for the instructional materials I use to fight those very inequities.


Anonymous H. said...

On the other hand, circumstances of class can drive the production of culture in ways that blur the distinction between 'class' and 'culture.' While it is technically possible to be poor and still embrace "middle class values," the fact that we have the term "middle class values" already points to how closely intertwined class and culture can be. Being very poor can constitute a pressure to adopt a related culture, one in which harsh, stark hardships are recast with humor and a bit of affection, maybe, a culture geared toward dealing with realities of school failure, incarceration, substance abuse, prostitution as somehow 'normal' challenges of life. And so a teacher I know had a major breakthrough with a generally hostile and low-performing class on an occasion where she spontaneously started singing Ludacris' "You'z a ho! You'z a ho! I say that you'z a ho!" one day while handing out papers. Her rapport and influence with those students skyrocketed after that event. Was she demonstrating understanding of class or culture? Not sure the distinction is that easy to make.

You're probably right in that "issues of identity are ... mediated in simpler ways when you're 11, 12 or 13." For older students in several subgroups, the need to assert independence in the face of authority is in itself a significant element of their cultural identity, and teachers may need to be responsive to these cultural traits in order to get anything done.

10:41 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi H.,

I think that's what I was getting at, when I wrote: "class characteristics are increasingly conflated with ethnic/ cultural characteristics." The lines get real blurry, and we head into chicken and the egg.

And should we talk about ends and means a little, here? I listened to Jason Whitlock on the radio the other day, railing against hip-hop culture, the culture of "prison, the culture of death." You don't have to go far to find damaging messages and destructive values in the various forms of pop culture consumed by kids. Is there damage to providing tacit approval to these influences by giving them a voice, or by giving voice (sometimes literally) to them?

9:54 PM  
Blogger Jane said...

Interesting post.

As for understanding class: race and class so often conflated in academic and popular discourse in this country.

I think that you’re so right that it matters that teachers think deeply about the significance of class, and that we question deeply why we talk so little about class even in education program highly committed to “diversity”.

It's cool to make references to pop culture in our classes. Those are the immediate points of connection. But in the long run, how do we enable kids to see that much more than high test scores are going to be required of them if they are to survive in this new global economy, in spite of public policy that promises otherwise?

Thanks for raising the issues. I’d welcome more conversation about such things.


Education and Class

9:04 PM  
Anonymous H. said...

You're right, TMAO - I hadn't read your entry carefully enough before clicking "publish." Sorry about that.

As for damage done by tacit approval of destructive cultural expressions - I probably agree with you in broad general terms, but would insist that this particular case was one where rules of thumb about good teacher conduct would break down. The results of this episode were in any case increased buy-in into the academic program and more learning. I'd also be wary of the idea that giving voice to such influences involves condoning them - that somehow reminds me of the notion that mentioning demons amounts to summoning them, and it probably isn't good that the kids feel the teacher recoiling from what they themselves find funny and acceptable. But in writing this I am neither trying to express disagreement nor working toward any particular conclusion; I guess unsystematic brainstorming would be a better description of purpose. I just feel that there are more difficult questions involved here, somehow, and I don't really know what those questions are, let alone the answers.

11:33 PM  
Blogger Lorraine Woodward said...

good thoughts . . . and it is hard stuff to sort out. I would suggest to you, however, that when we look at our history, class and race are inexplicably connected. Yes, not all poor folks are people of color (something like 75% of African-Americans in the US live above the poverty line), but poverty is extremely disproportionate in how it's represented among POC. And "white" is the "standard", the "normal" by which all else is defined--which is why every ethnic group that has come to the US has worked really hard to become or to be defined as "white".

I'm just reading a book called "We can't teach what we don't know"--about white teachers in multicultural educational settings--and I was surprised at how much it confronted me with my whiteness. It's not something I like to look at, but I am certainly a part of this system.

I'm curious as to which "diversity curriculum" TFA uses. I definitely agree that the word "diversity" as a buzzword is awful and never means what they'd like us to think it means . . .

10:36 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Thanks for the comments. That 75% number you mentioned seems extremely high. Can you tell me where you read it?

3:12 PM  

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