Common Mistakes When Approaching Race in Schools… What Should We Do Instead?

Race is one aspect of human identity that changes reflecting the politics and science of the times. Now more than ever students are identifying as mixed-race or do not identify with any race category at all. The latter is especially true for Hispanics, according to a recent Census bureau research. Racial categories, which have been included on every U.S. census since the first one in 1790 have changed from decade to decade. The biggest mistake teachers make when trying to approach the topic of race is not to recognize that race is a social construct. The actual genetic difference between individual human beings is only about 0.1%. The second mistake teachers make is not seeing variation within racialized groups. Teachers do their best when they design learning experiences that reveal the multifaceted and complex nature of human identity and offer ample opportunities for students to teach others about their unique cultural experience.

According to Sonia Nieto, a leading scholar on this topic, culture is extremely dynamic, multifaceted, embedded in context, influenced by social, economic and political factors, socially constructed, learned and dialectical. Further, she suggests that culture is not a given, but a human creation, dependent on particular geographical, temporal and socio-political contexts and therefore vulnerable to issues of power and control.[i] Understanding the interrelationship between culture, learning and how students construct knowledge is important, especially now when we fall into the trap of reducing students to fixed, racialized identities when in fact, a student’s culture is the total expression of his or her humanity—that which includes race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation but that which also includes other parts of who we are that are not always apparent, such as how we express ourselves through language and art, what religion we identify with if at all, how we communicate love, how we understand relationships and power in society and how we perceive, interpret and integrate historical events.

Culture and learning are connected, however fluid. Advances in the modern learning sciences have revealed that our brains are constantly shaped and reshaped by the interaction with the surrounding environment.[ii] Social experiences and human interactions that engender fear, trauma, stress, hate, shame, embarrassment, low self-esteem impact brain functioning and cognition. These experiences are endemic and indicative of oppression. Our country grapples with a long history of racism and inequality, therefore it is important for teachers to learn to pay attention to their own mindset and behavior. The goal is to reduce stress, build trust and create an inclusive environment with love and acceptance so learning can occur. In order to do this work artfully, proactive teachers adopt a practice to foster critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is awareness of the intersection of factors that contribute to a person’s identity, a person’s sense of well-being and their readiness to learn.

Three strategies to develop critical consciousness are a) take time for self-reflection and meditation, b) engage in intergroup dialogues on culture and class c) analyze human rights movements and d) participate in imagery-based learning activities to strengthen your brain’s ability to see the world with novelty (Siegel, 2007).

In my forthcoming book, Walking the Path: Conscientious Teaching and Leading (pending publication, Routledge, Summer, 2019), I provide teachers and school leaders with numerous practices, strategies and tools for developing critical consciousness infusing mindfulness and social justice pedagogy.

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[i] Nieto, S. (2008) Culture and education. In Yearbook for the National Society for the Study of Education. Blackwell Publishing

[ii] Rose, D et al. (2011/12) The Universal Design for Learning Framework to Support Culturally Diverse Learners, Journal of Education

Learning from Immigrant Perspectives

“What preoccupies me is immediate: the separation I endure with my parents in loss. This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story. An American story.”

~Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory, 1982

 

When my grandmother arrived to New York City from Puerto Rico in 1939, New York was one of the main recipients of immigrants from Puerto Rico. At that time, expectations for Puerto Rican achievement were dismal. In 1935, the New York State Chamber of Commerce’s Special Committee on Immigration and Naturalization commissioned a study on the IQ of 240 Puerto Rican schoolchildren in East Harlem. The poor results stigmatized Puerto Ricans as being intellectually deficient. Puerto Rican advocates argued that the children lacked English skills, but it didn’t matter. Reactions to Puerto Rican immigration became toxic.

We have made great progress since then. Still, contemporary public schools struggle with how to engage and effectively teach Latino students who come to the classroom with a wide range of academic, social and emotional needs—not to mention varying English language proficiency levels. Latinos represent over 27% of the nation’s 50.4 million K-12 public school students (NCES, 2016) and there is a growing number of vulnerable Latinos systematically failing academically.[1] In spite of this data, there are numerous success stories we can learn from. My grandmother, for example, managed to provide four children with access to a good education even though she hardly spoke English and had little money or social currency. What was her secret ingredient?

indigenouswisdom pullout

Her secret ingredient was a mindset or a set of beliefs shared by many successful immigrant parents. I call it indigenous wisdom. Indigenous wisdom is the totality of insight and understanding gleaned from life experience and knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Not surprisingly, indigenous wisdom often corroborates with research on how we should approach student engagement, especially for students learning English and academic content.

The following are three insights taken from indigenous wisdom that we can apply to how we build inclusive learning environments:

  • Faith- Faith is about trusting a student’s potential and endless possibilities. Faith is not blind. Rather, it comes from a deep awareness of the power of the human spirit to evolve and learn even in the face of adversity. Faith opens our mind to see past the material world, to transcend dominant narratives, popular opinion or daunting statistics that undermine human agency and spirit. One way effective teachers and school leaders demonstrate faith is by providing students with numerous opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skill with low-stakes, formative assessments. Informal, low-stakes assessments show progress over time and communicate learning is a process with ebb and flow. Detachment from outcome is a common theme in indigenous wisdom. Educators who have faith detach themselves from outcomes and pour themselves fully into the student-teacher experience.
  • Language as Relationship- Language is how we communicate. It connects our private, inner world to the public domain. Language is the tool by which we build trusting, loving relationships. Indigenous wisdom recognizes love as the most powerful force available to human beings (Arrien, 1993). Similarly, research in learning theory, cognitive sciences, collaborative learning, and engagement all agree that people learn best in community.[2] Immigrant students who are learning English are learning to negotiate new relationships and new terms for community engagement. Teachers need to demonstrate that the classroom is safe and that each student belongs. The safety students experience at home in their native language does not have to conflict with school as long as they know that both have equal value. Teachers can create friendly learning spaces by paying attention to norms for group work and supporting strategic partnerships. ELL students often benefit from working with one partner before moving into larger groups. Language stems for interaction goes a long way in supporting oral language development but also, consider providing students with the choice to remain quiet at times to take a breather, observe, listen and communicate in non-verbal ways.
  • School as Civic Engagement- Indigenous wisdom traditions teach that everything has a purpose. In the Hunger of Memory (1982), Richard Rodriguez recalled how his Mexican born parents taught him that schooling was key to job advancement and a way to ‘ease the path.’ In the school setting, this means explicitly making connections between learning and real world application. Ask, how is this content relevant to the lives of my students? or What life skills are embedded in the activity? The best teachers and school leaders find clever ways to help students and families see how school is a preparation for civic engagement and a pathway to becoming an influential citizen. One way to do this is to teach language and content within a broader, real world context, anchoring units and lessons to universal themes, life situations or social issues. Science and biology, for example, live in a unit on medicine and what to expect when you visit the hospital. Mathematics is taught within a unit on banking and how to open an account.

As we continue to evolve and innovate our school practices to be more responsive to the academic, social and emotional needs of ELL students, it makes perfect sense to tap into the indigenous wisdom of immigrant parents.  By doing so, we not only create inclusive classrooms but we also legitimize the insights of generations immigrants who continue to enrich our lives.

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References 

[1] Issues in Latino Education: Race, School Culture, and the Politics of Academic Success, by Mariella Espinoza-Herold, Ricardo González-Carriedo,

[2] Classroom Community, The Ecology for Learning, Research. Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, Missouri State, https://www.missouristate.edu/fctl/193962.htm

#TeacherSpring

In 2010 when I lived in the Middle East, I witnessed the Arab Spring. People filled the streets with renewed spirit protesting unfair policies. I remember coming back from visiting the pyramids and getting trapped in a cab in the middle of a perfect storm—hundreds of men, women and children filled the streets that were one by one being blocked off by the police. It was scary and invigorating.

teacherspringNow, less than ten years later, I am witnessing a Teacher Spring. Teachers in several states filling the streets, protesting and standing up for what they believe in. Education organizations are experiencing the squeeze as uncertainty sets in, educators rise up, students exercise voice, families pulling out, some leaning in. There is optimism and hope in the air. Emboldened and confident. Fed up with complacency. This year has been the perfect storm of social, political and cultural events. I anticipate more. More energy, more teacher voice, more coalition building as we seriously think about how we want to transform schooling and how we organize society in America. It is all at once nerve-wracking and exhilarating. Where do you fit in and what do you believe in? What thoughts, actions and feelings are defining your Teacher Spring?

For me, I’m doing a lot of observing and reflecting. Asking questions like, what do educators really want? Is there one, united voice across the country? What about our internal divisions and distrust of reform? What kind of schools do we want for our children? Are contemporary public schools democratic platforms?

As a former classroom teacher who transitioned into the dynamic world of professional development, I have lamented how our system devalues teachers. First there is salary and working conditions, but there is also this issue of access to important decision making; decisions related to policy, curriculum, instruction and funding. I understand real teacher limitations. Teachers work tirelessly managing day-to-day demands and they don’t have the time or the state of mind to contemplate big picture conversations, let alone attend all the meetings. Still, without teacher voice we will never have excellent schools. Without the recognition of the skill, knowledge and time required of the teaching profession, we will never have excellent and equitable public schools.

In the last decade I have witnessed attacks on teachers, unions and public schools. I see schools relying on young, inexperienced teachers and scripted programs leading to teacher burnout and apathy. Veteran teachers are often depicted as being difficult and unwilling to change in spite of the fact that teachers have to be master change agents. Yes, there is a wide range of teacher talent but we know from research that all new teachers need help and support and all experienced teachers are simply better, from experience. After that, after experience, we are a mixed bag, just like every other profession. Some struggle and hop along. Others are authentic magicians and fly high.

I think we need to be honest and accept this time of ambiguity. A Teacher Spring can only be good. It is healthy to stand up for ourselves and for our profession. It is healthy to talk about what is going on in our profession publicly and in quiet corners. I want us to feel like it’s okay to ask for more, when we know there is so much more and why aren’t we prioritizing teachers and public education?

I also don’t want to lose any more amazing educators who are leaving.

Learning from Mistakes When Stakes Are High

kid-taking-a-test21When my son was three and we had just furnished our first house, he took a marker and drew pictures on our new Mexican console. I remember walking into the living room and feeling the rise of heat behind my ears. He was so small and innocent but all I could see were the black marks and the price tag of the furniture piece. I grabbed his hand, yelled a few words and demanded that he scrub the console with me. We scrubbed together for a half hour until it was clean. To this day I regret the severity of my reaction. I have often wondered what damage I might have inflicted on his young psyche and his ability to take risks and learn from mistakes. Seventeen years later with my son in college, I read a lot of articles written for teachers about learning from failure and building a culture of resilience amongst students. In my experience this is a tricky and nuanced topic especially when we consider the social and emotional dynamics of living in an inequitably society.

My parents and my husbands’ parents, for example, were a lot less tolerant of mistakes. For them it was a sign of their time but also a mindset correlated to adversity and fear of scarcity. No one can argue that it is significantly harder to embrace a mistake when we’ve only got one chance, or one item that cannot be replaced. Our parents grew up with one Sunday outfit. Stain it or soil it was a big mistake. The money that came in needed to stretch as far as possible to cover basic needs. If an item broke, or it was lost— that was it. We’d have to do without. There were swift consequences when we failed at an assigned task. Sometimes a slap or a punishment accompanied the pain of failure as a reminder to do better next time. We understood the high stakes of human shortcoming.

Things are better now. We try to be more compassionate, loving, easy-going with our children. But like the incident with the console, it is easy to fall into the trap of anger and fear. As a parent and educator, I feel like the stakes are high. What will we do if our children make a mistake we cannot fix? As members of a flailing middle class, we live with the fear of falling into poverty. Daily life is filled with anxiety and attention to detail. There are so many precarious factors such as rising housing costs, accessing good schools, job stability and healthcare— we find ourselves saying things like, be careful and don’t get hurt because we can’t afford medical bills. Don’t flunk that test because we can’t afford to borrow more for tuition. Don’t forget, don’t do this, be vigilant …. or else.

I think a lot about the literature on learning from failure and building resiliency in kids. I love the idea and the thinking is certainly in line with what we know about teaching and learning but it feels disconnected and out of touch with the reality teachers, students and families face every day. Such as high stakes standardized testing. Or school admission and application requirements. What is the real cost associated with academic failure in society? This weekend, I read about the recent outrage of parents from an Upper West Side public school when they were told about the city’s integration plan requiring that they reserve a quarter of its seats to “low-performing” students. Parents protested loudly. They believe such a plan will diminish their own children’s chances of getting accepted to the city’s most desired schools. Is their fear justifiable or are they bad, intolerant people? The issues involved are hard to unpack especially when we are beholden to a system that is driven by high-stakes testing, evaluations and inequitable funding. How is it possible for any of us to embrace failure or be tolerant of anything less than perfection and ‘high performing’ in an environment such as this?

My son just called to inform me that water spilled on his costly laptop damaging the motherboard. I would be lying if I told you my reaction was compassionate. After I hang up the phone I sit quiet and sullen. How is it possible that after all my education, mindfulness and meditation practice that I can still fall into the trap of madness?

I pick up the phone with resolve and I shower him with words of wisdom, encouragement and love. I tell him “it is just a computer.”

I am doing my best under the circumstances but I know I am part of the whole. We can do better with practice. We can plant the seeds for a new generation driven by love and tolerance for human frailty.

Sacred Space Learning

Often we are required to take time out in our lives to move into sacred space. For many, these moments are forced upon us in the form of illness, change of jobs, having to take care of a child or aging parent, managing a trauma. Sometimes, we have to muster up the courage to demand sacred space for ourselves and we put in a request for a sabbatical, ask for a leave of absence, walk out from a toxic situation, schedule a vacation. Regardless of the circumstances, finding sacred space is necessary for personal and social transformation. It is also necessary for learning.

The last time I experienced sacred space was when I moved to the country and I was unemployed. During that two-year period of time, I discovered myself and the world around me through nature and painting. Currently, I am in sacred space again. This time, I find solace in fiction writing, meditation and painting. Applying colors on a canvas seems to be an integral part of my sacred space experience. In doing so, I access the right side of my brain where imagery and our ability to see new things live.

What can we learn from sacred space? During these moments of deep introspection, perception of time is warped. Everything seems to go slow and daily life routines appear dreamlike and upside down. In this warped time and dream-like experience there is deep inner work happening. The Ego is acting out, belligerent. The heightened duality of the self, as well as our detachment from routine leads to a sense of discomfort and novelty–both essential in learning and initiating transformation.

Eventually, we come back onto the world stage, taking with us whatever metamorphosis occurred. We have learned that we can manifest our inner selves outwardly and this manifestation may take the form of art, altered states of being, modified behavior, a new home, a new work environment, a change of heart. However it happens, we emerge new and rejuvenated. We have altered our vibrational energy and now we are ready to pour ourselves into the outside world to impact the totality of our collective experience.

Here is a simple formula to describe this phenomenon

Space + Time = (Spirit) Consciousness = Creation

Or

Space + Time + Creation = (Spirit) Consciousness

The following are definitions to clarify terms:

Spirit refers to a sense of deeper purpose, that which exists beyond our own understanding, that which pertains to a non-material world, all that is subtle, nuanced and abstract.

Consciousness is a state of awareness.

In modern day society, we fail to legitimize sacred space as being essential to our personal and collective wellbeing, especially in the field of education when everything is about data, science, logic and efficacy. Therefore, in my work I explore creating, building and implementing sacred spaces, for individuals and groups to learn.

Some of this work entails asking these questions:

  • What makes a space sacred?
  • How much time can we realistically set aside for sacred space learning?
  • What materials, resources or facilities are required to provide sacred space learning opportunities within the work place?
  • How can we manage our schedules so that teams are productive and also allows for flexibility?
  • How can we leverage what we learn from sacred space?
  • How can we channel sacred space energy in ways that support our vision and mission?

When was the last time you found yourself in sacred space? What came out of it? How did you apply the new insight of self and the world around you into your teaching and leading?

Wildcat Strike

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 9.34.47 AMWest Virginia teachers are on a strike involving over 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school staff. It is the eighth day and I am inspired by the activism following the Parkland massacre. West Virginia teachers are not only exhibiting courage and willingness to stand up for the justice and dignity of the teaching profession, but they are demonstrating to the Parkland youth that adults, especially teachers do have a political consciousness and are no strangers to speaking out and using platforms such as social media to organize.

Like many states across the country, teacher salaries are pathetically low. In West Virginia starting salary is about $33,000 a year. Teachers in West Virginia are also vulnerable to a problematic and unstable PEIA (Public Employee Insurance Agency) health benefit plan with premiums that were scheduled to increase.

What does it take for teachers to go on a wildfire strike? There is real fear, repression and job insecurity in the teaching profession. For many, the financial crisis of 2008 never ended. Families are carrying enormous debt. Many lost property and savings. Sending children to college is prohibitive for teachers and many working class families. There are debt implications worse now with federal parent loan rates at 6-7%. Teachers who speak up about labor rights for themselves or against injustices inflicted on the children in their care are often derided and marginalized. The fact is, few teachers can afford to get involved in political battles these days.

To make matters more complicated, teachers are often caught in the middle of political ideologies attached to class and race. West Virginia, for example, is a high poverty state where a large number of students and families depend on schools for free lunch making a teachers’ strike a strain on an already impoverished community. A teacher’s salary in some neighborhoods, even at $33,000 a year, may appear to be a luxury. Another example is New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the country. New York’s record on school segregation by race and poverty is dismal (Orfield, 2014). The teacher starting salary is $45,000 a year and the teaching population is majority white while the student population in overwhelmingly black, Latino and Asian.  When teachers protest or go on strike, many questions are raised— such as which president did they vote for? Where do they live and what are their views on unions or public schools? What is their definition of social justice and do they harbor confused or mixed feelings about what it takes to reach an equitable contract or agreement that will benefit both teachers and communities of color where they teach?

In spite of the social unrest, uncertainty and necessary self-examination that arises during a wildcat strike, it makes me proud to watch healthy civic engagement. In many respects, adults benefit from the brashness of Parkland youth and young Black Lives Matter activists, however it is important to remind them of the shoulders upon which they stand.

 

 

Ash Wednesday School Shooting

Repentance: A radical change in mindset and heart, a promise to do better, surrender, a confession filled with remorse

griefIn every school or education organization there must be people you can trust. In spite of bureaucracy, complacency, high-stakes political frenzy, we must guarantee a safe space, a place where anyone can find the rhythm and pulse of our collective humanity. Maybe it’s a kind eye, a warm embrace, a second chance or a genuine asking. Or maybe it’s a quiet individual who finds clever ways to make things fair, who listens to truth, who reminds us of the right-minded pathway.

When a tragic incident occurs such as the Ash Wednesday school shooting in Broward County, Florida I think about all the inside people who were perhaps too busy, preoccupied or turned the other way. How could a teenage child be so lost and unfound, so unseen? How could there be such a wide open, emptiness of space for such violence to occur when schools are so micromanaged, organized and contained? What are we looking at in our schools if so many children are lost, lonely and afraid, left to slip away in the fury of desperation, hate and insurmountable shame?

There is something to be said about the loss of humanity inside our schools and education organizations. There is something to be said about our stubborn blindness. This is yet another cry out for change, a desperate plea for us to reconcile with ourselves, our true purpose in education and our moral obligation to design schools that are responsive and sensitive to the inner lives of children and adults.

***

There is this mirror between the world and me.

Standing upright I hold it one foot away.

It is this distance that reveals, or rather—

Conceals the sadness and the shame.

It is this distance that keeps me from feeling pain.