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The Racially Coded Language in “Closing Opportunity Gaps”

Not so long ago in Seattle Public Schools there was an elementary school administrator forced out of their position by an angry community. There were a lot of reasons given for this ousting with only a few that I, personally, can confirm, but what I want to focus on is the people who defended this administrator. The evidence they pointed, and continue to point to when the subject comes up is the fact that student test scores, particularly in math, increased exponentially.

Now, this school has a high population of students of color, and Seattle Public Schools does have a big push for “closing opportunity gaps” between white and non-white students, particularly African-American students. So, on the surface, higher test scores do look like a huge accomplishment. The problem, then? These “opportunity gaps” are almost exclusively measured by standardized test scores. Sometimes, the gaps also consider disproportionate discipline data, but the district puts the most money, effort, and staffing behind improving test scores. In fact, in the current contract negotiations between Seattle Education Association and Seattle Public Schools, educators are demanding restorative justice coaches in every school and the district continues to shut it down citing lack of money. Go to any school in the district, however, and you will find math coaches, literacy coaches, math and literacy tutors, math and literacy after school programs, and even math and literacy “academies” during holiday breaks.

 

WHEN DISCIPLINE SERVES THE TEST

 

Going back to disproportionate discipline – Studies continue to show that students engage more in curriculum that includes critical, culturally responsive content and pedagogy. Learning to take a test is exactly the opposite of that, and that’s what a lot of kids are doing, especially in schools with majority student of color populations. That’s what was happening in the school in question. Some educators report they were instructed by the administrator to only teach math and literacy. Social studies, science, and the arts were not allowed. According to teachers, the administrator only allowed science to be taught once they proved it was also tested. Additionally, the curriculum that literacy teachers were forced to use was meant to be remedial curriculum. Again, I cannot confirm this, but I can speak from my own experiences and say that these claims make perfect sense.

The school I taught in has social studies and arts and science, but it’s a middle school where kids move from class period to class period, so it’s a little harder to take those away, but it happens. The school I taught at also has a majority student of color population and has been recognized for “closing opportunity gaps.” Many students, however, don’t get to partake in the great art and social justice electives that are available because they are in second and third reading, writing, and/or math classes euphemistically titled “reading empowerment” and “math empowerment.” I taught the former for two years. The courses were a semester long, so I taught four sections of it in those two years. In those two years I had one white student, and all of the students who came to me were chosen because they did not meet standard on the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

These “empowerment” classes count as an elective because they are in addition to any other math or reading/writing class kids are enrolled in. That means they miss out on art, languages, music, and social justice offerings. In a seven period schedule, students get two electives, and too many kids are stuck using those slots for math and reading “empowerment.” Often times, they are also asked, and their parents are coerced, into sending kids to after school tutoring for math and/or reading instead of the enrichment programs like underwater robotics, urban arts, and the gender and sexuality alliance. Right before the testing season, these “empowerment” opportunities ramp up, and kids are “invited” for “extra help” to pass the math SBA. These opportunities happen during electives, so if they are lucky enough to get art or music, they are pulled from those classes weeks before the test for “extra help.” (See featured image of an actual call slip I got for one of my students to skip their art class to get “extra help.”)

All of this focus and pressure to incessantly practice and be prepared for tests usually comes in the form of practice tests. This isn’t critical, culturally responsive content and pedagogy! “We are killing kids with math,” is what I have been known to say a few times. They begin to act out in class, in the halls, and at recess. They become irritable and disrespectful. They are kicked out of class and lash out at everyone, not because they are bad kids, but because they are BORED! They are disengaged from the learning, if it can be called that. Then they are punished, ridiculed, suspended, and labeled. The goal of this disciplinary action? To get them to be quiet and practice the test, and since kids of color are lagging behind due to the inherent racism in the practice of standardized testing, the discipline gap continues to grow. Ever heard of the School to Prison Pipeline? I’ve seen it unfold before my eyes, and testing is its main artery.

 

CODED LANGUAGE

 

Hopefully we’re aware of how language is sometimes racially coded. Some might use the term “dog whistle.” “Thug” is the new N-word. “Sketchy” is often used to describe places where Black and Brown people live. Sarah Palin’s infamous “schuck and jive” comment, and most recently the Florida GOP candidate who warned voters not to “monkey this up” and vote for his opponent, Andrew Gillum, a Black man, are all examples of racially coded language. The argument I’m attempting to make here is that “closing opportunity gaps” is coded language for denying a comprehensive, critical, and enriching education to students of color.

My assertion is that math and literacy are not the end all, be all of education. Again, studies show that the arts and humanities improve learning and engagement, but those are harder to test and measure. I argue that reading and writing are equally challenging to test and measure, especially since the kids who came to me for reading “empowerment” were excellent readers who failed the racist test. But, testing companies can’t make money off of the other content areas, so literacy and math it is. That’s literally the only reason there is so much emphasis put on the two. I failed math all through high school and barely made it through college. I have a graduate degree and earn more than the average American, and I LOVE MY JOB! We have been forced by Corporate America to define success with testing data. According to them, I would be a failure.

“Closing opportunity gaps” is racially coded because it explicitly targets students of color without explicitly naming them and denies them access to the same quality and content of education as their white counterparts in order to meet this arbitrary definition of success. Standardized testing is racist from its inception and at its core. It’s racist in practice, and it’s racist in its enduring impact on students, families, and communities. I’m also known to say, “We can’t have Ethnic Studies and standardized testing.” It’s time for all of us to say, “We can’t have racial justice and standardized testing.”

 

#OPTOUT

 

I’ve always been told that educators are under some kind of gag order and aren’t allowed to talk to families about their right to opt out of standardized testing. I recently found out that in my district, that’s not true. There is nothing stopping us from doing so except for overbearing administrators whose job evaluations are heavily dependent on testing scores. Check the actual policy in your district and encourage families to opt out if you can! I opt my child out every year. I also teach my students about the racist history and impacts of standardized testing.

Here’s what I sent to my child’s teachers and administrators today. Feel free to copy and paste:

 

My child will not participate in any standardized testing in any content area, nor will they engage in practice or mid-year standardized testing. This includes, but is not limited to the SBA, MAP, or any state or federal mandated or suggested standardized testing for the 2018-2019 school year.

 

There are hundreds of opt out networks on Facebook alone and the #OptOut movement on Twitter. The National Education Association and the NAACP recently came out against standardized testing as well as other education associations, including Seattle Education Association who voted for a moratorium on all standardized testing. This motion was endorsed by Dr. Ibram X Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning. We need to build coalitions between families and educators who are against testing and ban this racist practice that perpetuates the systemic oppression of communities of color.

Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies: Reflections on Dismantling Classroom Hierarchies

photo credit: https://humanistfederation.eu/what-is-humanism/a-lifestance/

UNCONDITIONAL LOVE

 

At the root of everything I’ve written in this series is unconditional love. Dismantling hierarchies, self reflection, leading and acting from the heart with the community, trust… all of these things require unconditional love. I guess some people would call that humanism. Humanism proposes that we have the solutions to meet our needs. “We” is the key, and the composition of “we” is going to change depending on the need.

 

Here, I want address the needs in a classroom. As educators, we should know that these needs vary from place to place, content to content, school to school, grade to grade, etc. This idea that one solution fits all needs to go. Even things like charters, RULER, and other PBIS systems fall short to adequately consider differences. Often times, these protocols are only used in schools with high student of color population, which reinforces data that shows we approach students of color as deficits.

 

If we love our students, we can trust them to decide how their education will be experienced, at least in our classrooms. We have to accept that we are only older, maybe wiser, and hopefully more experienced at certain things, but we are not experts on their needs. They are.

 

HIERARCHIES

 

First and foremost, step back. Every year I give my introductory, “Welcome to Ms. Gill’s class” speech, and part of it is me explaining how I am only at the front of the class by virtue of age and formal education. I tell stories of how I’ve learned from my students and how impressed I am each year by the knowledge and wisdom that sixth graders bring to the classroom. I then go on to teach them the difference between banking education and problem posing education. In these lessons, I emphasize challenging how they’ve been taught to learn.

 

For example, one of the first activities is one in which they work in groups to design a video game based on my “Welcome to Ms. Gill’s class” presentation. In my presentation I talk about where I grew up, my family, what I like to do, what books I read, etc. Then I tell them to design a video game based on that. What a vast majority of the kids fail to do is ask additional questions. I walk about the room and they happily share with me their witty designs (for real, they’re so creative!), but they never stop and ask, “Hey… do you even play video games?” or, “What’s your favorite kind of video game?” Once in a while I’ll get one or two, “What’s your favorite weapon?”

 

After everyone’s finished and they present their video games, I show them screenshots of the games I do play, and point out that nobody asked. Then we talk about what it means to be institutionalized and how they’ve been taught to be passive learners. We then proceed on to other activities that have no right answer, but have a lot of questioning and sharing of opinions. Students really struggle with that, but by the end of the school year, that’s all they want to do.

 

We assume the formation of opinion is something that’s innate. It may be, but sharing it in public isn’t. Students need direct instruction on that. They need encouragement. I find that they’ve been conditioned to only speak if they are sure they have the “right” answer. This is a direct result of hierarchies and educators believing they “know more” than kids. We don’t give them space to question, challenge, make mistakes, come to consensus through discussion, or heaven forbid – fail! The first step to deconstructing hierarchies is for you to step back and facilitate these opportunities for your students.

 

THERE’S NO ROOM FOR JUDGMENTS IN UNCONDITIONAL LOVE

 

This is hard. I know it is, and it’s necessary. We must not judge our students. Judgement is the result of hierarchies and the belief that we are in some way better than those we judge. We must not judge them when they don’t do their homework. We must not judge them when they sleep in class. We must not judge their parents for these things, either. As a parent that last part is even harder, but as a parent that’s experienced poverty and homelessness, it’s a little easier for me than some of my colleagues.

 

We talk a lot about “meeting students where the are,” but I get the feeling that mantra stops at academic readiness, and does not extend to social/emotional readiness. This does not mean, however, that we lower expectations for our students. It just means we understand humanity is complex, and we give leniency and grace where we can. We will never know what other human beings are going through. Even if their circumstances could be exactly the same as yours, their human reaction to it won’t be. Love and acceptance will have a greater impact on your students.

 

When we address “disruptive” or “destructive” behaviors with our students, we should 1) listen more than we speak, 2) remember that we may never know or understand the whole story, 3) validate the student’s experiences and feelings, 4) ask for a solution from the student while offering support toward that solution, 5) make sure that student knows we love them. This won’t always work the first or fifth time, and it may never work. There are some students who have experienced so much trauma they are beyond our reach. That’s hard to accept, but remember it’s not about you. It’s not about the student, and humans are not inherently “bad.” Seek help without judgment if you can’t meet a student’s needs. That includes unconditional love for yourself and not judging your inability to reach every student. We are humans, too. Deconstructing hierarchies includes allowing ourselves grace and accepting we can’t do and be all.

 

CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT

 

I know a lot of us cringe at this phrase. One reason could be the pressure put on us to make sure every kid is “behaving” every second of every day to get as much instruction time as possible. It makes us feel like we have to be watching at all times and driving the kids to sit quietly with their noses in books or essays all of the time. Nonsense! Classrooms should be noisy most of the time! There are appropriate times for silent, independent work, but I believe that if people aren’t talking and laughing, they’re not truly learning.

 

We need to reimagine what management of a classroom looks like. First of all, it should be managed by the kids themselves. In my classroom there is one rule: respect. I started out this practice by having the kids define what that means to them, but quickly discovered they don’t even know. So now I tell them we will define it as we go, and it may change over the course of the year. This is where class meetings and restorative justice circles come in. This is where respect is defined, practiced, demanded, and restored.

 

Classroom meetings and restorative justice circles are great spaces for reflection and transformation IF the teacher can take a step back and allow students to facilitate their own meetings and discussions. This will generally require some direct instruction in the beginning and a lot of practice, but it can be magical. I’ve seen disruptive students completely turn around without me saying a word to them because their classmates addressed it and resolved it in class meetings.

 

This is a great practice for dismantling hierarchies only if the adults trust the students with decision making and follow through with what the students have decided is best for their classroom. The rule is we will try anything (within reason and what is legal) as long as we come back to it in the next meeting if it’s not working. The only thing I will interject into decision making is the result of natural consequences. For example, students will say, “We should have class meetings every day,” so I will remind them if they choose that option, they will still be held accountable for getting their lessons completed, so that may result in more homework. Usually they’ll vote it down after that, but if they don’t, I hold them to it. It’s not a punishment for their decisions, it’s just the natural consequence of using class time for things other than lessons.

 

LEARNING

 

Lastly, what and how the kids learn. I am passionate about ethnic studies and liberatory education. We can’t do either if we are not promoting and facilitating uninhibited dialogue. My rule as a parent and teacher is if they’re savvy enough to question it, they’re mature enough to hear an honest answer. Bringing this into the classroom means they’re mature enough to discuss it with their peers. Don’t fool yourself into thinking similar conversations aren’t happening in the halls, at lunch, or on the playground. Bringing natural curiosity and discussion into the classroom is a healthy way to approach learning.

 

I do not censor the discussions of my students. I don’t allow them to be offensive or use racial or xenophobic slurs, but I also don’t tone police, correct their language, or even prohibit profanity. I let them be them and discuss their learning in ways that make sense to them. Anything less is imposing an etiquette rooted in the belief of white supremacy and patriarchy. The word “fuck” might be offensive to you, but I love it. My idea of an offensive word is more like “assimilation.” What is considered offensive and appropriate is often arbitrary and, again, based in white heteropatriarchy. Dismantling hierarchies using unconditional love and trust means accepting our students for who they are, including the ways in which they choose to express themselves.

 

*Disclaimer: I don’t want anyone to think I’m claiming to be perfect and do these things all of the time. I have judged students and parents. I have policed language until I realized I shouldn’t, and the transformation of my classroom from me managing it to students managing themselves was messy and complicated – and still can be! But I have to go back to the idea that I am not an expert. If I thought I was I would be perpetuating hierarchies instead of dismantling them and I wouldn’t ever try anything new. Just as our students have been conditioned to fear failure, we have too. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to share that failure with your students. It’s a way we can share our humanity with them.

This Isn’t a Blog Post!

I know I made a commitment to post every Sunday, but you guys! I was on the most epic vacation with my child for the past month! We traveled all over Europe, just the two of us: Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Normandy, Paris, Zurich, and Rome. We took a train through The Chunnel. I drove a car really fast in France! And together we had some amazing experiences.

Now that I’m back State Side, I’m slammed with Ethnic Studies duties! Seattle Public Schools is in the beginning stages of codifying a K-12 Ethnic Studies program, and I feel so fortunate to be on the ground floor, BUT that means less time for blogging. For now, I’m re-blogging my last post, but I will be back in a week with the final post of the four part series just in time for setting up your classroom (I hope!).

Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies Part 3: Dismantling Knowledge Hierarchies

 

Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies Part 3: Dismantling Knowledge Hierarchies

THE FALLACY OF FORMAL EDUCATION AND KNOWLEDGE

What is knowledge? Without looking at a dictionary, I would define knowledge as an accumulation of facts and ideas through life experiences and education that shape our convictions and paradigms. What I really want to unpack here, though, is how we qualify education, and how it creates what I’m calling “knowledge hierarchies.” In part 3 of this series, I’m going to argue that we equate education with knowledge and ability – falsely. I recognize that, as educators, thinking otherwise will challenge our own paradigms, but challenge them I will!

First, let’s look at some people who are “educated” in the formal sense:

George W. Bush, Yale 1968

Sarah Palin, University of Idaho 1987

Donald Trump, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania 1968

I thought about listing more, but I think those three will help make a point.

“Professional women and men of any specialty, university graduates or not, are individuals who have been ‘determined from above’ by a culture of domination which has constituted them as dual beings.” You guessed it, Freire. Here’s where we equate education as not only knowledge, but also as a way to define “leader.” School administrators are almost always determined from above without regard for the wants and needs of the community of their school(s). Generally, they are chosen because of their education status and how long they’ve been an educator. Their skills and accomplishments may be taken into consideration, but education status is a gatekeeper. This creates a situation in which the administrator believes they know best because they were chosen by an elite group. Consequently, they “lead” with their ego instead of their heart and love of their community.

Formal education measures a person’s ability to attend a university, and their ability to complete a degree program. That’s it. A formal education may deliver knowledge to an individual they did not previously have, but it is in no way an indicator of that individual’s ability to perform any type of job or responsibility. For evidence, see the above list.

I make this argument as a person who has 3 degrees and intends on obtaining a fourth. Let me explain why I have them and intend on getting more, and then I will explain how I believe we can work to dismantle knowledge hierarchies from within the hierarchy.

WHY FORMAL EDUCATION?

I grew up in a fairly poor family who struggled to make ends meet in a fairly poor exurb of Los Angeles. I knew no one with a college degree besides my teachers, doctors, etc, but was convinced education was my way out of poverty. Once I became pregnant at age 17, I knew for sure that college was what would save me and my future child. Unfortunately, I became pregnant again at 18, and college had to take a back seat. Because I was a teenage mom twice over, my family experienced extreme poverty. My husband became abusive, and when I hit rock bottom, I committed to earning my degree at any cost.

Going to college full time and being a mom caused the abusive relationship to reach new heights and I left my husband before graduating. At that point, I had no other choices. I was living off student loans and living with my parents, who thought I should have been working instead of going to school. I stuck with it, though, and here I am with a Master’s degree and teaching middle school. I don’t make a ton of money, and I’m $70,000 in debt, but I’m better off than I was all those years ago. My education saved my life and gave me the ability to help my children.

Did I gain knowledge in college? I guess I picked up some facts and trivia fodder. I maybe changed the way I thought about a few things… but not anything significant that I can think of. I was able to put labels on things I understood about life and the world prior to having a formal education. My education definitely did not prepare me to walk into a classroom and teach students who need a lot more than education. I would say that most of the success I’ve had as a teacher comes from my life experiences and my ability to relate to and unconditionally love my students.

This is the knowledge hierarchy trap. For many people experiencing poverty, who are disproportionately people of color, formal education, if achieved, is an act of survival more than anything. What does that mean for the millions of others who don’t have access to it? Are they any less capable or knowledgeable? My argument is that they are not, and we should not exclusively measure knowledge or ability with formal education.

FORMAL EDUCATION FOR THE MARGINALIZED

As previously mentioned, I plan on returning to school to obtain a doctorate degree. After what I’ve just said about formal education, you may be wondering why I would bother. Well, now that I am out of survival mode and have been working in education as a teacher activist, I realize that formal education plays an additional role for marginalized and oppressed people: resistance and liberation.

With as much as I have accomplished with institutionalizing racial justice in the form of ethnic studies, I have definitely hit a credibility ceiling because I’m “just a teacher.” A PhD or EdD after my name would get me into conversations where my ideas could have more weight. It would get me into meetings with people who are resistant to change, not because they respect me, but because they respect the title. Fighting within the system sometimes requires us to use the infrastructure of the system we’re trying to dismantle.

The problem, however, is that many people who hit the credibility (or income) ceiling obtain their credentials for the wrong reasons. How many school administrators who you know are in it for the love of people and community? How many school administrators actually get behind racial justice instead of paying lip service? How many school administrators actively challenge the status quo and put their jobs on the line to fight systemic racism in our schools? I’ve met great educators that go to school to be school administrators and come out as different people. Recently, I applied to a graduate program that included obtaining administrator credentials and was told I would need to “step away from racial justice work to study leadership.” I spent a lot of time in that conversation arguing how one is not separate from the other, but my argument wasn’t being heard. I decided to pass on that program, but it explains why we have the type of administrators we do.

DISMANTLING THE HIERARCHY AS PART OF THE HIERARCHY

I believe a solution to this problem is for more critically aware educators to go into administration. We tend to avoid it because of its current state, but if we are going to be effective in making structural changes we need to leave the silos of our classrooms. I’ve struggled greatly with this. I love my students, and I went into teaching to love and teach young people, but the more I’m in the classroom seeing the inequities and how we are hurting them, the greater the urgency to change the system becomes.

It’s not enough to have more administrators of color. It’s not enough to have white allies as administrators. We need accomplices who are committed to building a true community that values the voices of all regardless of education status; who lead equitably, providing a space for the voices of the oppressed in their community. We need leaders who recognize their position as in contradiction to both the oppressors and the oppressed and who actively work to dismantle the structures that create this triangular leadership. This means challenging and rejecting oppressive structures and practices like standardized testing, disproportionate discipline of educators of color, recruitment and retention of educators of color, and, of course, dismantling hierarchies to achieve decolonization of education.

If this is not the goal of administrators, we only serve to perpetuate white supremacy, white saviorism, and the tokenization of administrators of color. If we, as people of color, are taking positions of leadership to fulfill a diversity quota without this critical consciousness, the harm to our students is exponentially greater than if we are a white administrator. First, we perpetuate white supremacy, and second, we teach students of color that the desired goal as a person of color is to assimilate instead of fight for racial justice. It’s not enough to just be the person of color in the room.

Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies Part 2B: Dismantling Building and District-Wide Hierarchies

Now that you know how I define “activist” and “leader” here are some examples of ways that I have worked to dismantle hierarchies with my community!

DISMANTLING BUILDING AND DISTRICT-WIDE HIERARCHIES

I have two specific examples I want to address here. I’m not going to name names, but people familiar with the circumstance will likely know who I’m talking about. This isn’t an attack on their moral character, but I can only speak to what I know, and using concrete examples is helpful for me in both giving explanations and seeking to understand. First, I want to address my school hierarchy.

 

MY SCHOOL

The principal of my school is a white male. I’m pretty sure he hits every single point of privilege that exists: white, male, cisgender, straight, Christian, educated, citizen, English speaker, able-bodied, middle-aged, middle class… I’m probably missing some. On top of all of that, he’s the principal and has been at our school for nearly 20 years. He’s won a lot of awards and received a lot of recognition. Some view him as a leader on racial equity because our school has done a “good job” of “closing opportunity gaps.” (Makes a mental note to write a blog on her belief that “successfully closing opportunity gaps” is code for limiting access to education for Black and Brown kids since the gap is measured by standardized test scores.) Oh, I guess it’s not really a mental note if it’s published. Oopsy!

 

My principal really prides himself on his professionalism and objectivity. When I first started teaching at my school, I was impressed too. I didn’t really have to work with him much, so I respected that he left me alone to teach the way I wanted to. I took that as him respecting my role as a professional in the classroom. But then… I started acting more. I joined the Building Leadership Team and the Racial Equity Team – each of which he chairs. He also chairs several other leadership teams and frequently attends PLC (professional learning community) meetings. He sends a lower-level administrator as a surrogate to the PLCs he’s unable to attend. In these PLCs, he assumes a role of authority generally by communicating some mandate or policy. From what I hear from other educators, this is kind of the norm in other buildings. If I apply the definitions of leadership that I have outlined so far, I wouldn’t consider him a leader. I think it’s fair to say he does inspire some educators, but the question is, “Inspire them to do what?” He inspired me to write this critique of his leadership!

 

Let’s first unpack his “professionalism and objectivity.” He is often criticized by educators and students for being too cold and stiff. This makes me think of Freire who says, “To deny the importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naive and simplistic. It is to admit the impossible: a world without people.” One responsibility of the Building Leadership Team is to make budget decisions. Whenever we had to discuss cuts to positions, he would always remind us to talk in terms of positions, and not people. In one particular instance, we were deciding which of two elective offerings to cut. An argument was made for one over the other because the individual teaching the class was ineffective. My principal again reminded us to speak in terms of the position, not the individual. This focus on objectivity dismissed the human roles being played. One teacher was loved and effective, one was not. The decision really could have gone either way as both were art programs.

 

Limiting a critical discussion of the human element to our problem was indeed “naive and simplistic.” It was also when I started to see the facade fail and I began to question his leadership. At the time, I only pushed back as much as I felt comfortable. It was before I had my network of support, and there was only one other person in the meeting who felt it was wrong: our school librarian.

 

The fact that he shut down our attempts to see the humanity in the problem leads to my second unpacking. It involves his determination to “lead” nearly every single committee and team in the building. Unconditional love for humanity results in trust of our fellow human beings. Freire also says, “The convert [from oppressor to ally] who approaches the people but feels alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express, and each suggestion they offer, and attempts to impose his ‘status’ remains nostalgic of his origins [as an oppressor].” Not trusting a group of professionals to solve a problem through unrestricted dialogue is oppression.

 

As mentioned, our school has won awards for closing opportunity gaps, specifically in math. This has been achieved by funneling kids, mostly kids of color, into “extra math help” based on standardized test scores. This can happen during the regular school schedule, which means they miss out on an elective, or after school, which means they miss out on enrichment programming, sports, or family time. Kids are also frequently pulled in from lunch, which is their only opportunity to get outside and play with peers during the day. The worst part? Less than 70% of our students pass the math tests, and the rate for kids of color is about half that.

 

During a Racial Equity Team meeting, I brought this up. I expressed how, despite receiving awards for closing opportunity gaps, our practices were in fact perpetuating racial inequalities by limiting access to enriching programs to our students of color. By this time, I had built my network of support, which included the school librarian I mentioned earlier, Jeff Treistman. Jeff and I attempted to have a discussion about this with other RET members, most of whom agreed. My principal said, “We will not have a discussion about the math department,” and completely prohibited the conversation.

 

Are you ready? I’m going to quote Freire again. It won’t be the last time, either. “Within an object situation of oppression, antidialogue is necessary to the oppressor as a means of further oppression – not only economic, but cultural: the vanquished are dispossessed of their word, their expressiveness, their culture. Further, once a situation of oppression has been initiated, antidialogue becomes indispensable to its preservation.” It’s not just in this circumstance that he shuts down dialogue. He frequently shuts down dialogue between colleagues. He encourages one-on-one conversations and closely monitors large group conversations. This is the sign of an oppressor, not a leader. This is a hierarchy.

 

It’s unfortunate that he shutdown dialogue in the room that day. Well, unfortunate for him, because it encouraged Jeff to take it to our community – the Seattle Education Association. “…human beings in communion liberate each other.” Yes, Freire. With support from me and other members of our community, Jeff wrote, and our union passed, a resolution calling for a moratorium on standardized testing. He then took it to our national community by writing and winning a resolution in support of his moratorium at the National Education Association’s representative assembly! Hierarchies can be dismantled from inside or outside pressure. You just have to find your strength, the community, and the weak spot in the barrier.

 

MY DISTRICT

The place where hierarchies have taken the strongest hold is school district offices. In Seattle Public Schools we have organizational charts several pages long indicating who reports to whom. We have codified hierarchies in our district. People in lower ranks generally don’t question or challenge the decisions being made by people higher up the org. chart, especially if that person has an EdD or PhD after their names.

 

My work in dealing with the district hierarchy has been on implementing an ethnic studies program. Decolonization is at the root of ethnic studies, and I’m arguing in this series that can’t happen until we begin to dismantle hierarchies. One way that I, personally, have worked to do this is by working to overcome my imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is that voice in your head that tells you you’re not capable or experienced enough. This can be caused by people actually saying these things to you, or by your own insecurities. Either way, if you know the answers, speak up! Push back that voice, whether it’s internal or external. Doctorate degrees are wonderful, and I don’t want to diminish the work that’s put into them, especially by people of color – which I’ll talk more about in part 3 – BUT there is more to knowledge than formal education. My expertise in ethnic studies comes from my formal education and my personal life experiences. One is not more valid than the other.

 

I’m frequently identified as a “leader” by my peers. I guess there is some truth to that, but when I’m asked to lead workshops or professional development sessions on how to be an education leader, my response is, “I don’t know how to teach people to speak up.” That’s literally all I’ve done to earn the title of “leader.” I have been in situations in which I’m in the room with a group of administrators that are fairly high up in the org. chart who have had no idea how to begin to think about a K-12 ethnic studies program, and many of them still aren’t even clear on what ethnic studies is. They would virtually wring their hands not knowing what to do, and I would say, “Well, what if we… “ fill in the blank. They would look at me and agree it’s a great idea. After a while, it got to the point where they stopped the hand wringing and looked straight to me and other educator leaders for answers. Where they left a hole, I was able to fill it with the knowledge I gained from my life experiences and education. If I had given in to my imposter syndrome, I don’t think we’d be where we are right now with our ethnic studies program.

 

Now, here’s the key. I need to take us back to that whole idea of holding the community in our heart. The only reason I was in the room with those administrators in the first places is because of the working relationship and friendship I have with other education leaders and my local chapter of the NAACP. The education chair, Rita Green, elevated my voice and position to be in that room. Without her advocacy, I would be seen as “just a teacher,” and her trust in me helped to break through that imposter syndrome. Being in community with Rita and the NAACP empowered me to speak up and gave me a sense of obligation to be an activist within that community, which meant not sitting on the sidelines.

 

Because of my community, because I faced my fear and insecurities, and because I used my life experiences and education I was able to dismantle a huge hierarchical structure to push through an ethnic studies initiative. In turn, I brought my community of educators with me. I built a team of educators, mostly educators of color, to work together to build the foundation, and now the curriculum for our program. I believe this team, which consists of classroom teachers, instructional assistants, and family support workers, stays committed to this work because we are a community. I wasn’t some administrator hiring them to do a job. I came to them as a peer who genuinely respects and values them and asked them to join a community. This is a skill that many administrators lack because they are still in that space of “I as an individual in an organization have authority.”

 

In no way do I believe that I have permanently dismantled a hierarchy. I did enough damage to it, though, to create an educator led fight for racial justice that is supported by our broader community of parents and community at large. I recognize that there is still a fight ahead of us, but our community continues to grow all the time. We are gaining recognition locally and nationally. The educators doing the work are becoming leaders in their own right because they have felt empowered by this community. I think that’s what I am most proud of, and what I take with me into the next phase. It’s also been the most valuable lesson for me on the absolute necessity of community building to dismantle hierarchies and decolonize education.

 

Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies Part 2A: Dismantling Building and District-Wide Hierarchies

So… I know I promised you a “four part series,” and I’m going to keep that promise, but I had to chunk out part 2 because it got kind of long. I realized that I can’t encourage people to go out and be teacher activists without explaining how to protect themselves first and what it even means to be an activist. So, part 2A in my four part series is some theory and soul searching. It builds on part one of the series by defining what I believe a leader is and then expounding on the idea of unconditional love of our community as a foundation for activism. Part 2B will give concrete examples of how I’ve worked to dismantle hierarchies with my community of teacher activists!

 

DO YOU EVEN ACTIVIST?

I’m going to start off part two by bringing it back to the title of this website, “Teacher Activist.” I reluctantly call myself an activist. I didn’t set out to be an “activist.” I went into teaching because of my experiences as a student and a woman of color. I knew I wanted to provide a different experience for students like me, but I wouldn’t have called it “activism” when I first started out.

 

The more I act, though, the more I consider myself an activist. I can trace it back to my junior year of high school when I found out I was pregnant. I was being told I needed to get married, go on welfare, go to the special school for expectant mothers, get an abortion, give my child up for adoption, and worst of all, from my mother I was told, “Your life is over.” My mom was also a teenage mother, so I realize she was speaking from a place of regret. She often made comments that she gave up her dreams to raise us kids. That’s when I made a conscious decision to break whatever cycle I was born into. That was when I began to be an activist.

 

I guess it took me so long to realize it, because we have this image of what an activist is. I always thought it looked like this, antifa or like this dolores-huerta-signature. I’m here to tell you, though, that activism can happen in small moments and actions. It can happen when you decide to not be a statistic, when you examine and transcend personal biases and allow yourself to love your students unconditionally, and when you refuse to teach from the textbook because you know it’s wrong. It can happen when you tell your administrator, “No. I will not align my professional growth goals to standardized test outcomes because it is racist and immoral,” which is based on a true story. Challenging and dismantling hierarchies can be as covert as ignoring building-wide policies, or as overt as challenging a high ranking district official when they lie in a school board meeting – also true stories.

 

TEZCATLIPOCA: CHECK YOURSELF BEFORE YOU WRECK YOURSELF

I’ll be referencing what I learned from the XITO scholars a lot for a while because it makes so much sense to me, and it’s an affirmation of my Mexican roots. Tezcatlipoca means “smoking mirror,” and refers to the need to constantly reflect on your actions, your beliefs, and your positionality. If you don’t practice Tezcatlipoca, you probably shouldn’t be an activist – and you definitely should not be an educator. Both positions are positions of leadership and require a sense of humility and force that compliment one another. I believe these two things generally work in opposition of one another, and Tezcatlipoca helps mediate them.

 

Many of my colleagues tell me they are inspired by my ability to stand fearlessly in opposition to what I believe is unjust. This paints a picture of me that doesn’t match my own self image. What they describe looks kind of like this UN-Wonder-Woman,

but my mind’s eye sees something more like this me.

I think this perception I have of myself is the key: I don’t do what I do for personal gain, and I’m willing to get into trouble or lose my job. Yes, there are risks in challenging the structures, and I believe this is the difference between a “teacher” and a “teacher activist.” Not only am I willing to take the risks, I feel it’s my responsibility as an educator and an activist to do so.

 

Part of my practice of Tezcatlipoca is finding trusted advisors that I can share my insecurities and vulnerabilities with. The realization that I am a teacher activist was not an easy one to accept. As I said, I didn’t do this to be an activist. I wanted to make life easier for students like me. I wanted to empower them with knowledge I didn’t have access to when I was coming up. One conversation I continue to have with a good friend and colleague, Marquita Prinzing, is my reluctance to step into the spotlight. I resisted it so hard. Because of the love I have for my students, education, and racial equity, I couldn’t help but get involved when the opportunities arose, but I never meant to be here today. That’s the humility. The force that was born of Tezcatlipoca is called Huitzilopotchtli, the hummingbird on the left mentioned in part one of this series. Through Tezcatlipoca I realized that acting from the heart includes acts of bravery. I’m still uncomfortable in the spotlight, but Tezcatlipoca helps me realize that I have already made huge changes and being in the spotlight will help me teach others how to do the same.

 

If you are not practicing Tezcatlipoca, you aren’t acting from the heart. Watch the leaders you trust and admire. Listen to the words they use: we or I? love or authority? organizations or humanity? Individual or community? We, as a community, should always be using the language of love for humanity. If I talk about my authority as an individual in an organization, I am creating hierarchies, not dismantling them. Huitzilopotchtli: if your actions don’t say, “I do this because it’s right, not because someone will like it, or I will get recognition for it, or because I’m afraid to lose my job/standing/recognition/respect,” you are in no place to lead anyone.

 

WE ARE EDUCATORS

Before I start giving examples of the barriers created by hierarchies in my building and district I want to go back to and emphasize the importance of leading in and with a community. My activism as a teacher skyrocketed when I became involved with my education association. It was Marquita who recruited me for a new project she was hired to launch which ended up to be The Center for Race and Equity. Through that I was connected to other educator activists and agitators, and next thing I know, activism is my life. Although it’s stressful at times, I’ve never felt more fulfilled.

 

In addition to a network of emotional support, mostly from women of color, The Center and my work within the union have created a safety net. Because I love my work, my students, and my colleagues, I know that when I stick my neck out, they will be there to support me. Small acts of activism can be carried out by an individual, but only if they carry the community with them in their heart.

 

This brings me to my next point. As an educator, other educators and families of students are my community. Too often educators are told they have no power, and we jump through hoops to please our principals because we’re afraid that rocking the boat will make our lives miserable. It could very well do that, but as an individual, you will be able to withstand whatever your administrator hurls at you as long as you have the support of the community. Here’s where love of humanity and dismantling hierarchies comes in. “Other educators” refers to any person that cares for children. Educators are paraprofessionals, custodians, counselors, food service workers, bus drivers, tutors, parent volunteers, and administrators. When we see ourselves as a collective community we are stronger.

 

When the families of our students see and feel that we love their children unconditionally, they will move mountains for us. I’ve seen it happen. When Seattle educators went on strike in 2015 we saw families rally around us and even go so far as to create a support network called Soup for Teachers, which currently functions as an education advocacy group. And in order to really break down hierarchies, we must include families as educators. They are our students’ first educators, and when they come to us we are building on the cultural wealth their families have passed down to them. We are educator activists.

 

Come back next week for Part 2B where I’ll share stories of how we are working to dismantle hierarchies in our building and district.

Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies: a Four Part Series

Image source: https://janetchung-educ430.weebly.com/the-banking-model-of-education.html

 

 

I don’t think there would be much opposition to the following statement:

 

Social hierarchies of any kind result in oppression. Period.

 

When I teach my sixth graders about ancient history, one of the first concepts I introduce them to is that of the social hierarchy compared to the ideas of tribalism and egalitarianism. Haters will say, “But, wait! Ancient tribal societies were not egalitarian!” Yes, I know this, that’s why I said, “tribalism and egalitarianism.” While I know that many tribal structures include some type of a hierarchy, it is much less rigid than the hierarchies created by larger civilizations.

 

A VERY BRIEF HISTORY AND COMPARISON OF TRIBAL VS STATE HIERARCHIES

 

Francis Fukiyama, in his book The Origins of Political Order; From prehuman times to the French Revolution, does a great job of breaking down the differences between tribal and state governments. He does this mostly by describing the different ways in which personal property was valued, regulated, and shared. In tribal societies, personal property, mostly in the form of land holdings, was strategically traded between tribes, usually through marriage arrangements. Using this method required a sense of community and trust between different tribal governments. Yes, there were gender hierarchies and class hierarchies, but there was still a sense of family and community because of the cooperation between tribes. The leaders were in community and were familiar with the community, if not liked or loved by them. Leaders who lost the trust of the community lost power.

 

Fukiyama compares three ancient cultures and outlines when and why they went from tribal governments to state governments. All three, China, India, and Europe, started with tribal governments. The shift to state government came in waves in China because the tribal organization was so deep and the geography so wide. India remained largely tribal until it was invaded and occupied by European nation-states. Interestingly, Fukiyama points out that Europe’s transformation was the swiftest and strongest because of Christianity. Individualism, as discussed in the last blog post, and adherence to law are two important tenets of Christianity, especially after Reformation, and since early monarchies and Church leadership were virtually inseparable, Church law was law. This created a shift in how personal property was defined. It became more of an individual ownership and not something that is shared within community or to build alliances between communities. It laid the foundations for capitalism and individual gain over the common good. It also set the leaders apart from the people. Power was transferred to wealth instead of community agreements.

 

Through invasion, occupation, and colonization, other cultures eventually took on similar state governments creating the social hierarchies we are familiar with today: capitalist oligarchies, totalitarian dictatorships, constitutional monarchies, democratic socialism, etc. Those are just the state hierarchies. There are still the gender and class hierarchies, and we’ve added racial hierarchies. There are institutional hierarchies as well. I want to address the last few here, but as you can see… it’s going to take a while, which is why I’ve split this topic into a four part series.

 

DECOLONIZING THE CLASSROOM BY DISMANTLING CLASSROOM HIERARCHIES

 

In part one of this series, I want to begin to argue that decolonizing our schools can’t happen unless we actively work to dismantle these hierarchies. No, I’m not asking you to dismantle capitalist oligarchies (though I believe if we do what I am suggesting, that will be a natural consequence). I am asking you to actively work to dismantle racial, class, gender, and institutional hierarchies in the classroom, in your school building, and in your school district. Until we do, we are still colonizing our students and each other. I will start with the classroom. Part two will address school and district-wide hierarchies, part three will address higher education, specifically in school administration preparation programs, and part four will be a reflection on how I’ve worked to dismantle hierarchies in my classroom.

 

Paolo Friere tells us that liberation requires a “praxis.” This can be defined as “theory in practice.” Recently, I learned from the leaders of the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson that the Aztec word for this is Huitzilopochtli, which translates to “hummingbird on the left.” It is taken to mean acting from the heart. Friere writes at length about what it takes to be a revolutionary leader. He says, “… but leaders who deny praxis to the oppressed thereby invalidate their own praxis… Revolutionary praxis is a unity, and the leaders cannot treat the oppressed as their possession.” How can leaders act from the heart if they are not only detached completely from the people they are trying to lead, but also feel they know better than the people? I, and Friere, argue that it’s impossible. That’s not leadership. That’s oppression, and the only way to avoid it is to dismantle the barriers created by hierarchies.

 

In the classroom, we are the leaders. We can further oppress our students, or lead them to praxis through education. I recognize that there are many of us in the profession who are box checkers. We show up, we check off the boxes for the standards we covered, and check off the boxes in our scope and sequence map, we collect a paycheck, and take our summer vacations. This is my official call to action: if you are this educator immediately cease and desist this practice! If you work with educators like this immediately organize educators who believe this is immoral and push those educators to immediately cease and desist their practice! Box checking educators are funneling our children into prisons, poverty, drugs, streets, and police brutality. Box checking educators are responsible for the rise of fascism in the United States. Box checking educators are killing public education.

 

We need to return to tribal values of community and cooperation through praxis and egalitarianism in our own practice. We must recognize that our students, regardless of age or ability, come into our classroom with an astounding wealth of knowledge, and for most of their lives, they have been told that their knowledge is not valid or invaluable simply because of their age. I am saying that this is a hierarchy; an institutional hierarchy, yes, because a classroom is part of a larger institution, but also an hierarchy based on age and perceived knowledge. I’ll go deeper into the perceived knowledge hierarchy in part three.

 

WHOSE KNOWLEDGE? THEIR KNOWLEDGE.

 

One of the first messages I give my students is that I see them. I see their lived experiences, and I value them as educators. I explain that I am at the front of the room only because I have the privileges of age and formal education, and that in no way makes me or my knowledge superior to theirs. I also share how much I love to learn with and from my students.

 

Dismantling hierarchies in the classroom requires a complete shift on the definition of knowledge. The human brain is wired to perceive the world and process knowledge through culture. From the moment we are born, how we interpret our experiences is painted by the culture we’re born into. Unfortunately, when we go to school to learn, we are expected to check those cultural perceptions at the door and allow teachers to fill our heads with the perceptions of white American cultural “knowledge.” Our brains become colonized.

 

I think it’s impossible for every educator to learn the culture of every student that is in front of us, and the beautiful consequence of dismantling age and knowledge hierarchies is that we don’t have to! Our students have what Dr. Anita Fernández refers to as “cultural wealth.” They bring with them all of the cultural knowledge and experiences of their communities. Learn from them! Don’t invalidate their knowledge! Utilize it! Value it! Teach your students the value of having diverse perspectives when solving problems and analyzing their world. You are there to give them resources and guide them. You’re not giving them wisdom, knowledge, or even a lens through which to see the world. They came to you already equipped with those things, but part of our own education has told us that they are ill equipped if it’s not the white way of doing things, and that children aren’t sophisticated enough to already have skills that we deem valuable.

 

LOVE AND HUMANITY

 

One thing I do think all educators have the responsibility to do is love their students. I love my students. I love who they are when they come to me. I love what they teach me and the joy they bring to my life. I love when they’re challenging and they push me to be a better human being. In order to fully dismantle hierarchies in the classroom we must love our students unconditionally. I have literally been laughed at in the past for suggesting this. It goes against what we’re taught – to be objective. Here’s another call to action: if you can’t love your students, get another job! If you know educators that don’t love their students, counsel them out of the profession!

 

If we don’t love and value our students, they won’t trust us as leaders. This is where we lose our kids. This is how we are funneling them into prisons or worse. Love your students! Be a valuable member of the classroom community. Don’t be a figurehead lecturing from behind a desk. Be with them. Learn with them. Commune with them. It’s not some hippy bullshit. It’s how we are meant to engage as human beings. Teaching and learning are part of the human experience, not some sterile, objective process.

 

Through unconditional love we can fully value the cultural wealth that our students bring to us and each other. When we love our students we see and build on their humanity, which is my goal as an educator. I’m not here to check boxes or prepare students for “college and beyond.” My goal is to grow human beings who value their humanity and the humanity of others. We’ve lost sight of that in education for a lot of reasons, mostly corporate ed reform, but that’s a blog post for another time.

 

By practicing unconditional love and valuing the humanity of our students we are modeling the kind of human beings we want them to be – not become! Emphasis on now. Part of dismantling the hierarchy is showing students that their cultural wealth can be put to use now, not when they graduate or turn eighteen. They can change their world now. In kindergarten? Change how they treat one another. In 6th grade? Change school policies. In 11th grade? Change laws and perceptions in their community. Dismantling classroom hierarchies through loving and valuing our students means empowering them to be change makers now, not after it’s too late.

 

Come back next week for part two of Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies: Dismantling Building and District-Wide Hierarchies