Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

In-Press from Routledge

Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

Foreword: Education and the Epochal Crisis Peter McLaren

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors

Part 1: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity

1. Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student Allison L. Hurst

2. Reforming the Schooling of Neoliberal, Perpetual Zombie Desire William Reynolds

3. The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: Injustice by (False) Proxy Randy Hoover

4. Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible Barbara Madeloni and Kysa Nygreen

Part 2: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity

5. Changing the Colonial Context to Address School Underperformance in Nunavut Paul Berger

6. An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson and Christopher J. Frey

7. Educating, Not Criminalizing, Youth of Color: Challenging Neoliberal Agendas and Penal Populism Mary Christiankis and Richard Mora

Part 3: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity

8. Pedagogies of Equity and Opportunity: Critical Literacy, Not Standards P. L. Thomas

9. YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom Nicholas D. Hartlep

10. Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen

11. Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum Chris Leahey

Conclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity P. L. Thomas

Skepticism or Cynicism for Obama Education Agenda?

One response to my Relaxing zero tolerance in schools could be Obama’s boldest civil rights reform is worth highlighting: Readers adamant that the Obama education agenda is beyond such hope.

Let me note here that I have long since slipped past healthy skepticism and resigned myself to unhealthy cynicism with respect to either major political party and their leaders, including Obama.

I have tried before to confront the possibilities and the failures associated with Obama and Secretary Duncan, a set of policies and a series of rhetorical flurries that leave me even more depressed than those dark years under George W. Bush and his Secretaries, Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings:

Paul R. Carr and Brad Porfilio are now preparing a revised edition of The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education: Can Hope Audaciously Trump Neoliberalism?—in which I have had and will have chapters.

I must note that my revised chapter is none too rosy; in fact, it is a solid statement of cynicism that has left skepticism in the dust. The revised chapter ends:

This call for change is not being heard, blocked by the din of the crisis discourse and utopian expectations that deform our children, our schools, and our society. The great failure being masked is that bureaucratic calls for school reform are perpetuating the labeling and marginalizing of teachers and students whose conditions in mechanistic schools parallel the inequities that the political elite are willingly ignoring both in their discourse and in their policies.

So when I confront the late but important recognition by the Obama administration that current education policies and practices are indeed racist, classist, and sexist, I believe it is on us to redouble our efforts, remind everyone we have been saying that for many years.

We actually don’t need Obama’s administration to tell us these things. But unless we make an effort to shift the gaze and the discourse in the right direction, on those extremely rare moments when they do, we are losing a moment.

I am not calling for our collective patting of the backs among the Obama administration. I would say the best tactic is to say, “Shame on you all for just noticing, but let’s get to work and stop all that other nonsense that is also doing harm!”

The Obama administration has hidden behind “education reform is the civil rights issue of our time” while promoting the worst possible education policies and maintaining an inexcusable allegiance to Secretary Duncan.

Let’s not forget that, and let’s not forget the “hope and change” rhetoric that lured many of us to have hope for change.

The recent shift driven by the Office of Civil Rights reports, however, is our opportunity to turn the “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” mantras on their heads, raising our voices and our eyes toward those in charge who are failing us and the children in our schools.

If there is hope for that change, it is in our grasp to make it happen.

National Poetry Month: “What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

National Poetry Month 2014 comes not on “little cat feet,” like Carl Sandberg’s “Fog,” but in the wake of Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher, responding to reports of the whitewashing of books for children. Walter Dean Myers explains:

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

Myers identifies James Baldwin as the moment he discovered what was missing, and then Myers asks:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

National Poetry Month 2014 also comes just as we have Baldwin’s Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, which includes a beautiful and inspired Introduction by Nikky Finney:

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems

As we search for ways in which to insure that students, as Myers did, find what is missing in the texts students are often required to read, I recommend the poetry of Baldwin and Finney. Along with Finney’s full Introduction above, students can access Finney’s Playing by Ear, Praying for Rain: The Poetry of James Baldwin, and then their poetry (see Nikky Fnney at Poetry Foundation).

These entry points to poetry can then lead to multi-genre/mode/form considerations, such as The Most Powerful Piece of Film Criticism Ever Written—about Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work. Noah Berlatsky’s essay includes two important links as well to another African American writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, inspired by Baldwin (see Jose Vilson on Baldwin as well):

Along with seeking texts that have people who look like all our students, we must also consider language. A wonderful bi-lingual poetry unit can be developed from two beautiful and powerful books: Barbara Kingsolver’s Another America and Jorge Luis Borges’s Borges: Selected Poems (see Borges at Poetry Foundation), Kingsolver’s translated from English to Spanish and Borges’s translated from Spanish to English:

Another American

Borges: Selected Poems

Myers ends his essay by confronting how texts represent African Americans and how African American males, specifically, are impacted:

And what are the books that are being published about blacks? Joe Morton, the actor who starred in “The Brother From Another Planet,” has said that all but a few motion pictures being made about blacks are about blacks as victims. In them, we are always struggling to overcome either slavery or racism. Book publishing is little better. Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.

“There is work to be done,” Myers concludes, and National Poetry Month is an ideal time to start, or continue that work.

Additional Reading

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

remnant 20: “your absence will sadden other afternoons”

Assorted thoughts on poetry

James Baldwin: Challenging Authors

Reading, Learning, Teaching Barbara Kingsolver

On Children and Childhood

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew

“[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” e.e. cummings

In one of those early years of becoming and being a teacher, when I was still teaching in the exact room where I had been a student (a school building that would eventually be almost entirely destroyed by a fire set by children), it was the first day of school, and I was calling that first roll—a sort of silly but important ritual of schooling for teachers and students.

Toward the back of the room and slightly to my left sat a big young man, a white male student typical of this rural upstate South Carolina high school in my home town; like me, he would accurately be considered in that context as a Redneck.

Just about everyone knows everyone in my hometown, and we are very familiar with the common names of that town. So when I came to this young man’s name—Billy Laughter (it rhymes with “slaughter”)—I said “Billy Laughter” (rhyming the last name with “after”).

Smiling, I scanned the room and then turned my eyes back to Billy; he was red-faced and on the edge of having a very bad first day, one that was likely going to result in his being punished for my having done a very stupid thing. I raised my hand, palm facing him, and said, “Billy, my mistake. I’m sorry. I was trying to be funny but it wasn’t.” And then I said his name correctly.

Billy had suffered a life of people mangling his name, and he wasn’t in any mood for my being clever on the first day of school.

Several years laters, when I was teaching a U.S. history class as part of  my usual load as a member and chair of the English department, while I was having students form small groups, two young white males bumped into each other, back to back, while moving their desks. I caught the moment out of the corner of my eye and had to rush over to deter the fight that was about to occur.

I wasn’t surprised—this was typical of my small community, along with fights starting because “he/she looked at me wrong”—but some time after this, I saw a research study that explained how people in the South and North handled personal space differently. In the South, bumping into someone or looking at someone wrong is often interpreted as challenging someone’s honor, requiring a response. People in the North, conditioned by mass transit and crowded cities (I suspect the study was as much about rural and urban, as South and North), are not as apt to find acts of close proximity anything other than that.

So setting aside the urge to examine the Redneck honor code, I want to add just one more event from my coaching life in those middle years of my teaching.

While running a drill at soccer practice, I heard a comment from a player in a group behind me. My mind heard a player with whom I had been having trouble. He was difficult in class and on the team, and worst of all, he was very disruptive at practice.

I turned and, without hesitating, I announced, “You are out of here,” pointing with my finger up the hill. Throwing him out of practice? No, I kicked him off the team.

As the young man was walking up that hill, a timid player on the team said, “Coach, that was me.”

I had just kicked a young man off the team who had, in fact, not said a thing.

A day or so ago, I received an email from Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. Alfie was apologetic about self-promotion so I replied, thanked him for the book, and noted a book I am co-editing that appears to be of a similar mind about children and childhood, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children.

I also noted that our perspectives on children—on how parents, teachers, and society treat children—appears to be a minority view.

I have been mulling, then, or more likely stewing about this for some time: What makes adults—even the ones who choose to spend their lives with children—so damned negative and hateful about those children?

That, I must admit, is the source of my palpable anger at the “grit,” “no excuses,” and “zero tolerance” narratives and policies.

I grew up and live in the South where the default attitude toward children remains that they are to be seen and not heard, that a child’s role is to do as she/he is told. If a child crosses those lines, then, we must teach her/him a lesson, show her/him who is boss—rightfully, we are told, by hitting that child: spare the rod spoil the child.

That Christ’s love comes in the form of corporal punishment has never made any sort of sense to me, but I find that same deficit view of children is not some backwoods remnant of the ignorant South; it is the dominant perspective of children throughout the U.S.

Barbara Kingsolver explains in “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby”:

This is not the United States.

For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do. Widows in black, buttoned-down c.e.o.’s, purple-sneakered teen-agers, the butcher, the baker, all have stopped on various sidewalks to have little chats with my daughter. Yesterday, a taxi driver leaned out his window to shout ” Hola, guapa !” My daughter, who must have felt my conditioned flinch, looked up at me wide-eyed and explained patiently, “I like it that people think I’m pretty.”

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.

I just don’t get it.

A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our “adult weariness,” or a broken human that must be repaired (I won’t belabor, but the whole Original Sin idea doesn’t help and justifies the drive to use the rod).

But it is also certainly true that children are not angels, not pure creatures suited to be simply set free to find the world on their own.

Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them—or anyone—well.

And within the U.S. culture there is a schizophrenia—we worship young adulthood in popular media, but seem to hate children—that is multiplied exponentially by a lingering racism and classism that compounds the deficit view of childhood. Consider the research showing how people view children of color:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too….

The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are….

The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.

In the enduring finger-pointing dominant in the U.S.—blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming racial minorities for the burdens of racism, blaming women for the weight of sexism—we maintain a gaze that blinds us to ourselves, allows us to ignore that in that gaze are reflections of the worst among us.

Why do the police sweep poor African American neighborhoods and not college campuses in search of illegal drugs? Why do we place police in the hallways of urban high schools serving mostly poor African American and Latino/a students, demanding “zero tolerance”? Why are “grit” narratives and “no excuses” policies almost exclusively targeting high-poverty, majority-minority schools (often charter schools with less public oversight)?

When I raise these questions, I can rest assured I will inspire the same sort of nasty response I often encounter when cycling. A few motorists make their anger known when we are riding our bicycles, and I am convinced that while some are genuinely frustrated with our blocking temporarily the road, the real reason they are angry is that we are enjoying ourselves as children do.

And nothing angers a bitter adult as much as the pleasures of a child.

Children are not empty vessels to be filled, blank hard drives upon which we save the data we decide they should have. Children are not flawed or wild, needing us neither to repair nor break them.

And children are not to be coddled or worshipped.

They are children, and they are all our children.

Yes, there are lessons to be taught, lessons to be learned. But those driven by deficit or idealized views are corrupted and corrupting lessons.

Each and every child—as all adults—deserves to have her/his basic dignity respected, first, and as adults charged with the care of any child, our initial question before we do anything with or to a child must be about ourselves.

In 31 years of teaching, I can still see and name the handful of students I mis-served, like Billy above. Those faces and names serve as my starting point: With any child, first do no harm.

The ends can never justify the means.