Thursday, April 21, 2016

Dear White Educators

Dear White Educators,

I struggle with you. I struggle with me. I struggle with how, if, and when to write us this letter. There is no perfect time, no perfect medium, and no perfect collection of words.

And yet, we are out of time. Long have been. The time is now, as it was five hundred years ago.

So here it is...

For a very long time, a tragically long time, the idea of white shame did not resonate with me.

I am lucky enough to have a mother who raised me to understand that my white male identity gave me tremendous unearned privilege in our society. In school, I learned some of the history of marginalized peoples, and I sympathized. So when it came to me and the possibility of my white shame, I felt confident that, having long "understood" the realities of oppression, I should have none to grapple with.

After all, I am kind to people who are different than me. I have friends and colleagues of color. What shame should I really have to process?

It is at this point that I must confess to you that when I was nine years old, I called one of my classmates a nigger.

It was the fall of 1992. My family had just moved from New Mexico to Tennessee, and Mr. Powell's fourth-grade class was the first time I met and made black friends.

Mr. Powell was a quiet and stern man who was missing two fingers. His missing appendages and the fact that he never smiled encouraged our obedience.

It was early one morning when my friends and I were sitting together and joking around before class began. One of my friends told us the story of his bus ride to school.

"The bus driver says to me that I have to sit down and be quiet. You know what I told him? I told him, 'You be quiet, honkie!'"

All of us laughed, two of us black and two of us white.

Having only recently been introduced to the N word by my friends in what I interpreted as playful ways, I thought I'd try to fit in by responding, "Well you know what I would have said? I would have said, 'You stop talking and be quiet, nigger!'"

Just before that sentence fell out of my mouth and into the world, the chatter among the rest of the class inexplicably died, and a void of silence was created such that everyone could hear exactly what I had said.

My friends 'OOOoooed' and laughed for a moment, but then became deathly still. They saw the look that came over Mr. Powell's face, who looked directly at me with a sternness I didn't know that even he possessed.

More than two decades later, I find myself thinking about my role in struggling through our country's very complicated history of racial oppression. I have been struggling toward some sort of voice that works to counter racism, but I often also find myself questioning how exactly to fashion that voice when it comes from a white male.

Along the way, I've fallen over and over again into a harmful trap. It's a trap that I'm afraid many white people fall into as they begin to gain an emerging level of consciousness regarding our race problem. The trap I'm talking about is that of buying into a discourse of charity that, in the words of Lise Vaugeois, valorizes the giver while maintaining the inferior position of the receiver.

It is at this point that I must confess that I have spent a great deal of time trying to help people of color in ways that, in actuality, only served to perpetuate my privilege and their oppression.

My decision to move to Washington, DC, a city I was not from and had never lived in, to teach at the age of 26 strikes me now as a corollary to that of calling a black classmate a nigger at the age of nine. I did both believing they would help me fit in with people of color, and both, because of my ignorance of the experiences of those around me, had the potential to do harm to others.

I recently had a dream in which I was a lawyer in a courtroom arguing before a judge about whether a statement before us was racist. (Forgive the strangeness. It was, after all, a dream.) I argued passionately that the statement in question was racist. I remember that the lawyer on the opposing side was white, although the identities of the jury and the judge were unclear.

In reflecting on the dream, I realized that this is something that I do often. I regularly attempt to point out injustice, particularly institutionalized racism. But upon further reflection, I noticed something disturbing. I most often spend my time calling out racial injustices when I'm in the presence of people of color, as if they need to hear about such things from me.

The question becomes, Why? Why do I do this more often around people of color and less often around white people?

I can rationalize it in a way that makes me feel good. I can imagine that I know people of color will be more willing to listen to talk of oppression, and that white people are less likely to accept it. But isn't that why I should be talking about race and racism around white people more often rather than less?

I can equally look at it from another perspective. There's a good chance that my talk of race and racism around people of color serves a desire I have to distance myself from other white people. The attempt to distance comes from a refusal to see ourselves in others, and I have to admit that I find myself doing that often. It was in this realization that I had my first inklings as to the existence of my white shame.

I used to think that white shame was probably an issue for some white people, but as someone who received a progressive education and had a mother who called out oppression for me at every turn, I thought, "White shame? I guess, but I don't have any of that."

Not true.

If I didn't have white shame, I wouldn't spend so much of my time attempting to distance myself from whites who haven't yet come to terms with their place, their history, or their privilege. I realize that my shame is an insidious form of shame. It's the shame that hides, unconsciously, in the mind of the self-righteous individual who doesn't realize that his demons are waiting anxiously to be wrestled.

And so I come back to interrogate my dream. While my subconscious still likens me to a litigator in the trial of racism, I must confront the reality that that is not my place. I am not the lawyer, not the judge, nor the jury. In this metaphor, I stand most appropriately in the shoes of the accused. I am the accused not because of any conscious malice on my part, but because of the body I inhabit and the identity that's been cultivated within it over years of social conditioning.

At some point in time, all of us have to sit down and take inventory. We have to clear the smoke from the mirror and really look at ourselves. In this difficult process, we come to realize that as we come to accept ourselves, we also must learn to accept that much of who we are is rooted, like it or not, in the roles society has created for us. To deny this is fantasy.

For you see,

         "All the world's a stage,
          And all men and all women are merely players:
          they have their exits and their entrances;
          and one man in his time plays many parts,..."

Nobody else can play your role. I do not get to run from or deny my whiteness. It is one of the many parts of my role for which I am responsible to play in this life. No, I did not have a choice, but that does not alleviate me from facing a socially constructed identity for my public life that history demands I own.

It's true that I can try to feel better about using the N word when I was young by remembering that I didn't know what I was saying. But it is also true that ignorance is capable of just as much harm as intentional violence.

Moreover, whether I choose to identify as white or not, others will continue to identify me in that way. As a result, I have and will continue to benefit consciously or unconsciously in ways that have and will continue to harm others.

In my inner life, my spiritual life, there may be space for aspects of my public identity to fall away. In my public life, however, this is not an option. I must learn to own this identity that I've grown into.

Part of the work here means involving myself in the never-ending task of identifying and acknowledging the many ways that unconscious bias inherent in our language and institutions affects our behavior. As Verna Myers said, "We were all outside when the contamination came down." The roots of our dysfunction are incredibly deep and extend back centuries.

In a sober assessment of his own whiteness, Abe Lateiner suggests that, for white people, there will never be some final conscious awakening in which we're capable of seeing all of the delusions we've lived with since the dawn of white supremacy.

Lateiner writes,
"As I embody the understanding that I am always going to be delusional, I can accept that I am not in a position to make demands about the road to freedom. I've lived for my first 30 years of life unaware of the existence of my own velvet restraints, and I'm only just now beginning to create a vision of my own freedom."
At this point in my journey, the deconstruction of my own privilege is most pressing in the classroom, particularly as a humanities teacher. The space I inhabit with students is most obviously the space where the things that happen will quite directly serve to liberate or oppress.

And so the question finally becomes: How does a white male in the United States work in public schools with students of color day after day? How do I deconstruct my privilege to create space for colleagues of color to have their voice heard? How do I honor my students perspectives on complex issues without attempting to whitesplain the situation? How can I be an ally to families of color who yearn for equitable schools that provide their students with an excellent education?

In my struggle to deconstruct my privilege, I experiment with ways to bring all voices into classroom discussions around delicate subjects. I search constantly for books and professional learning opportunities offered by experts of color. I search for the courage to be vulnerable in speaking often about systems of oppression and owning my identity in the healthiest way I know how, most importantly with other white people.

After I made my racist comment that morning in fourth grade, Mr. Powell made me sit in time-out for fifteen minutes. I remember being confused and scared. And I remember having the distinct sense that I should never use that word again. But without many desperately needed follow-up conversations to help me begin to grapple with race, I'm afraid my growth in this area was stunted.

When I think back to my young white body sitting in that fourth-grade desk confused about what had just happened, yearning for a stronger sense of clarity, I wonder if that is not who, underneath it all, I still am, who many of us still are.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes of the infantile unconscious:
"We carry it within ourselves forever. All the ogres and secret helpers of our nursery are there, all the magic of childhood. And more important, all the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of ourself, are there; for such golden seeds do not die. If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvelous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life."
In writing of the work of Werner Erhard, Peter Block says of personal change in his book Community:
"The way this [personal change] happens is by changing our relationship with our past. We do this by realizing, through a process of reflection and rethinking how we have not completed our past and unintentionally keep bringing it into the future. The shift happens when we pay close attention to the constraints of our listening and accept the fact that our stories are our limitation. This ultimately creates an opening for a new future to occur."
Our dysfunction is in our unwillingness to reconcile our story. We are either unaware of our past, or we refuse to look at it. In either case, we are unable to own our identity, live in fantasy perpetuated by delusion, and neglect those golden seeds.

Those golden seeds have not died, though. Our capacity for change, for new possibility, never dies. That is our potential for salvation. The moment we realize the possibility, we have found the potential to change the world.

The shame will persist as long as it is ignored, as long as we refuse to own our identity and find healthier ways of being white and teaching our children to be white. The more I can come to terms with my own frailties and ugliness, the more I can acknowledge those things to others, and the more I find ways to create equal space for other identities, the closer I come to peace about who I am and what I do.

Education is not the work of technocrats. It is the work of rational, emotional, intuitive, and ethical beings committed to creating healthy communities for a healthy society. As such, we cannot imagine our role as educators to be limited to the aiding of students in acquiring information. We must also acknowledge the crucial role of the health of our own identities and the relationships those identities form with the students and communities in which we work.

If our own children are to be saved from the same miseducation we received, then we're going to have to take it upon ourselves as white people to put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of clearing the smoke from the mirror, of re-educating ourselves, and of removing the infestation of that unconscious bias in our minds and in the minds of our children. Our young people need that retelling of our story that could have served us all at a young age. It's time we own our role.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Preparing Innovative Change Agents for Justice

After spending yesterday in a district discussion about how to remake and rebrand our high school, I spent a lot of time thinking about what we should be preparing students for after high school.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that I believe that school is not just about preparing students for the future. It's about helping them manage their now. I think we often get so caught up in a focus on the future that we do damage to the now, but that's for another blog post.

When we do think about the future of students, which is often, we talk in terms of creating equal educational outcomes that will prepare them for participation in the economy.

"How can we ensure they'll be able to compete in the real world?"

"What skills and knowledge do they need to have options when they go looking for jobs?"

Now, I acknowledge there is a shred of legitimacy to these discussions. But I find them to be extraordinarily problematic because they presume the purpose of an education for an individual is, ultimately, to make money. And that notion is based on the even more problematic notion that the larger purpose for education systems is primarily to create a highly-competitive economy.

Even if we were to accept participation in the economy as the highest aim of public education (which we shouldn't), the way we talk about preparing students for their wage-earning futures is wrapped in language about how they can be good workers and consumers.

We don't ask how our schools can help students think innovatively to identify and solve the pressing problems facing our world. We don't ask how they'll need to be prepared to be active citizens, researchers, creators of knowledge, or entrepreneurs.

It is for these reasons that the ideas of Yong Zhao and Ken Robinson resonate with me. Both propose that schools must be retooled to develop the skills, knowledge, habits, and dispositions necessary for a student to go into the world and play an active role in its creation and recreation. This seems to me an endeavor fundamental to the human condition.

Where I diverge from Zhao and Robinson is in their discussion of creating an entrepreneurial mindset.

Because entrepreneurs bring together the factors of production in order to make a profit, I actually don't think entrepreneurs are at all what we need.

I've heard Zhao mention that students, if they want to be successful, have to find ways to create things that other people want. He references Kim Kardashian as an example of a person who found a unique way to make a living. To be fair to Zhao, he is a hilarious guy with lots of great material, and he probably does not mean to spread the idea that following Kardashian's model is a healthy path forward for students.

However, I would go so far as to say that any entrepreneurial pursuit that seeks to provide a dopamine fix to that segment of our population privileged enough to afford excess with some form of thought-blocking entertainment (e.g. a new line of clothing, fashion accessory, or other luxury) and does not consider the environmental costs of the waste and social costs of the time that will necessarily be a byproduct is decidedly not what we want to produce in schools.

I agree with Robinson and Zhao that we desperately need to start talking to students with the understanding that they have it within them to change our world. Indeed, they are our greatest hope to change our world. Though, to do that, they're going to have to be even better at thinking outside the box than the entrepreneur.

The entrepreneur can rely on a traditional model for creating goods and services enshrined in our law. Create a business plan, apply for the license, find your capital, etc. But change agents for justice in our society are going to have to step outside even that model.

Change agents for justice are going to need a strong understanding of justice, freedom, love, community, democracy, and civic engagement. They're going to have to identify seemingly intractable social problems. These problems will be the type our economy normally doesn't create space for people to do work around because they don't typically appeal to individuals who want to spend their excess income. They're going to have to do the hard, hard work of identifying solutions to those problems, and then they're going to have to bring together the people and resources necessary to implement those solutions. Along the way, they'll learn lessons, and they'll need to share those lessons with future generations. Perhaps most challengingly, they'll need to find funding to make their solutions happen.

Start talking about students' futures like this in schools, and I bet a lot more people start participating in the conversation.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Critical Link Between Education and Health: Why You Must Watch Paper Tigers

It was an April morning early in my teaching career when, in the middle of a history lecture, I paused because of an unusual noise coming from the hallway.

"Finish copying down the rest of that slide, everyone. I'll be right back," I told my students.

I poked my head out the door to find out just what was going on in the hallway. Megan, one of my students who'd I'd marked absent at the beginning of the period, lay crumpled near the wall rapidly double breathing. I rushed over to help her up and find out what had happened. Her face was red and covered in tears. She couldn't bring herself to speak, so I quickly called the office for assistance.

After school was dismissed that day, I connected with our school counselor and found that just before arriving at school, Megan's cousin had called to tell her that Megan's mother had attempted suicide that morning. The crippling stress of such news was compounded by the fact that Megan had no siblings and that she'd never known her father. Her mom was all she had.

The name and details of the above story have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals. It's very close, however, to many experiences I have had as a teacher in schools and serves to cast light on what educators often experience in schools.

In the mid 1990's, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente partnered to begin the study of how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) impact longterm life outcomes. Nadine Burke Harris speaks eloquently about the study and ACEs in the video below.

Recent advances in neuroscience have helped us understand how ACEs, trauma, and chronic stress affect not only life outcomes, but the ability of students to focus and learn. They also affect our physical health. We know now, as Gabor Maté puts it, that humans are bio-psycho-social beings. Our physical health and optimal functioning is affected as much by diet and exercise as by our social-emotional health and vice versa. The implications of this new knowledge are so significant that those of us who work in schools have no choice but to educate ourselves on the effects of trauma and the practices of trauma-informed care.

For every student like Megan, for whom we may learn about an emotionally distressing life experience, there are many more who keep silent and cope on their own.

However, it needs to said that the point trauma-informed care is not to train educators to be therapists or to insinuate that every teacher needs to know the deep emotional lives of their students. In a recent post by the Seattle Times Education Lab on trauma's effect on students, one commenter mistakenly perpetuates this view.

Forest Farrington writes,
"This is the most asinine trend in education. Teachers taking the "trauma' approach to discipline must dance around every student disruption in order to sooth their past traumas.  In time, all of us experience some sort of trauma, and in the real world of the workplace, employers won't take the time to consider our past traumas if we choose to behave out of line.  If my child chooses to disrupt her teacher's classroom, I don't expect the teacher to psychoanalyze what's going on with my daughter at that moment; rather, I expect her to immediately address my daughter's choices with redirection, and if necessary, discipline."
Educators who understand trauma do not need to "dance around every student disruption in order to sooth [sic] their past traumas." Rather, teachers who understand trauma learn to hold students accountable for their behavior more humanely and compassionately. This decreases the likelihood that a student who's angry about something in their home life from that morning will deal with a teacher who snaps at them for something minor like being late to class.

In her book Police in the Hallways, Kathleen Nolan notes that it is often the inappropriate adult response to minor misbehavior that can escalate situations. This can lead to disproportionate punishment and youth disengagement with school. When students are unable to manage their emotional response, this can be a recipe for suspension and expulsion when denying students an education is exactly what we're trying to avoid.

Educators who understand trauma understand that students need to be taught how to handle their emotions and how to understand themselves. This does not mean that educators can't hold students accountable for their behavior. To the contrary, it means they continually strive to hold students accountable for their behavior in ways that help students grow.

It's with this understanding that James Redford and Karen Pritzker made the film Paper Tigers about Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, which the Seattle Times hosted a screening for yesterday morning at Foster High School in Tukwila.

My emotional response to the film was strong, and as a friend commented on Facebook, "if you have experienced childhood trauma, care for yourself as you watch it, and afterwards." But as an educator and the son of a social worker, trauma-informed care training for educators is an issue I feel strongly compelled to advocate for.

Paper Tigers is empowering because it shows us that there is much we can do in schools to better serve our students. And we shouldn't imagine that ACEs affect only students in low-income communities. The rash of suicides in cities like Palo Alto make it clear that emotional health is just as important an issue for affluent communities.

But Paper Tigers also reminds us how deeply ill our society is. Schools must adapt to better educate students, but schools alone will not solve issues of structural inequity buried deeply in our societal systems. Problems like segregation, pollution and waste, climate change, structural unemployment, soaring college costs, and wholly deficient social services must be addressed alongside school reform if we are to have hope for a better future.

Ultimately, it is through this lens that we understand that health and education are intricately connected, so much so that I think they are actually the same thing. It's difficult to learn and be metacognitive when you are unhealthy, and it's very difficult to be healthy and whole without an education.