Thursday, January 10, 2013

Watch Your Mouth

“I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.” 

-Langston Hughes

Recently, thanks to the lovely social media site of twitter, I came across this article by Camika Royal, titled "Please Stop Using the Phrase 'Achievement Gap.'" Given that in many education-centered organizations toss around the term a lot, and that I, during my years of service with AmeriCorps, have also used. I found it a provoking reminder of the power of language. Intentions may be good, but the underlying historical context and implication reinforce the gap we're trying to close. I like that she suggests using the term "opportunity gap," because frankly, that more accurately gets to the root of the problem. (And as with anything on the internet, I am continually failing to learn not to read comment sections-I read half of a comment that struck me as racist and totally missing the point before I remembered. It is amazing how defensive people get when they feel like their power or status quo is being challenged. Royal went on to respond to her critics, in a much more polite way than I may have been able to muster, and reinforce her argument).

What really resonated with me however, was this paragraph near the end:
"Those of us with racially critical lenses notice that education reform seems overly populated by young white women and under-populated by people who share cultural, ethnic, racial, and language similarities with the students we serve. While this has been an issue in education for some time, be clear that, at this moment when education "reform" is all the rage, accomplishing education reform by removing black educators and replacing them with young, white, and inexperienced cultural tourists demonstrates the pathological nature of this concept. When middle-class liberals and other well-meaning white folks grapple with the so-called achievement gap, what they're really asking is, "What’s wrong with them?"
This is a topic that I  have thought about, and mentioned before, about my unease with being middle class, white, and female, working with a majority of students who are not. Just like the majority of teachers in America. It reminds me of how I felt in high school when I joined the Gay-Straight Alliance. As an ally, I was insecure in what I was qualified to say or do, even though I felt strongly about our mission. I cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to come out and fear the responses of family, friends, or strangers, much like I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to not know where my next meal will come from, live in a shelter, or be black. But that does not mean I do not care passionately about my students' educations and the general state of inequality in America. I recognize that our job is not to improve a group of people to live up to this idealized norm of whiteness, but rather to shift a deeply rooted societal bias.

I see how Teach for America sets up corps members to be "cultural tourists" trying to fix the "other." This is one of several reasons I'm not TFA's biggest fan. The organization seems to benefit the teacher, more than it does the student. To me, teaching is, first and foremost, student-centered. That is not to say that AmeriCorps cannot benefit its members. My program allowed me to grow, and not at the expense of students. My students had veteran teachers, so at least if I ended up to be a horrible educator (thankfully I am not), 30 children would not be set back a year. Plus, in many places, with class sizes rising, it seems to be more beneficial to have more adults in the classroom, and more individual support for students, than to throw some enthusiastic yet inexperienced young college grad alone into a challenging classroom.

Perhaps because having been a part of two other AmeriCorps programs and am thus biased, I do not believe that all AmeriCorps programs are as problematic as I see TFA. They tend to be more diverse in age and possibly race, but also may be more likely to hire corps members who are already part of the community. And to me, community is huge. Many corps members are merely passing through a community, but what these communities need are people to work on these educational issues who are truly part of the community and will stay there. I wonder what Royal, a TFA alum, thinks of other AmeriCorps programs like the Minnesota Reading Corps, and if this is a model that is not quite as pathological as TFA. I wonder, because I also wonder where I fit. I know I have a lot to learn, but I believe I do try to view the world with racially critical lenses, and that even though I am white, working with a majority of students who are not, I am not merely a "cultural tourist." Rather, I am in it for the long run, because education is what I am passionate about, and it turns out I'm somewhat good at it. I cannot help that I am privileged simply by being born how I am, but I can act on the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be privileged. I can continue to educate myself, change the rhetoric I use, and work towards a better world. And I want to thank Royal for giving me some food for thought, and a small way to begin a shift towards educational equality.

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