Friday, September 24, 2010

Two extremes that make (or don't) the day, cont...

After a student asked for white-out I responded "No amount of white-out can cover up the stain of ignorance." I was messing with her, she understood and enjoyed the gentle mocking.

On the other hand, another student said "My dad hits me when I don't cook." Shit.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Oh, the things kids know

Yesterday I was teaching about about advantages the Union had in the Civil War. I was discussing the telegraph, and how it worked. One student raised their hand and asked, "So, phone sex must have been pretty boring back in the day?" Wow.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Mister, that's racist!"

The school I teach in is incredibly diverse. Not diverse as in mostly Latino or Black, I have students from every continent in my classroom. Our school is attempting to become what is called a 90/90/90 school, meaning 90% "minority", 90% free reduced lunch, and 90% proficient on ACT and state tests. Right now we are 90/90/30. Long way to go.

Because of our immense diversity, it leads to an eclectic mixed group, who are very aware of racism and prejudice. Some of them have a heightened victim complex, which I try to combat with lessons on people power which I described in my last post. Everybody can claim the victim somewhere in their history. Even the English, with all that Mayflower religious persecution business. Because I teach history, racism is an undeniable driver in many actions of our nations past. The students always yell "Hey mister, that's racist" over some historical event or article. No duh!

The problem is that the students transfer that idea to their teachers and administration. "You're just moving me because I'm ______." It takes awhile to break through such blind idiocy, but the end is inevitable. I usually respond by "Yes, I am racist. I hate all people who are not me equally." After that the kids chuckle, and mock the accusatory outburst of the student calling me racist. Sometimes the students call something racist as a joke. Sometimes I mock them by doing the same. They enjoy the back and forth. What they don't understand though, is the effect of seriously calling somebody racist. It forces that person to be defensive. Its ridiculous, and a constant battle. This is so common in our school, that I named my trivia team at the local pub, "Hey mister, that's racist." One of our other teachers was at that trivia game. When rankings were called out, they knew immediately which team was ours.

There are only two times in my teaching career that I have been dumbfounded to the point of silence over a student comment. One of those happened this week at parent-teacher conferences. I was conferring with a Latina student and her parents. She was translating for me. Suddenly she asked me "Mister, why do we have to study this stuff if it is over 150 years ago, it doesn't matter?" When students ask me that in class, I take the time to explain the importance of understanding your history in order to understand the power of the individual. The necessity of progress, and to compare where we came from to now. The students are always very satisfied with the empowering message. When this student asked me at conferences, I had 30 seconds. I had to think of something quick. I was not satisfied with what I came up with. I said "So you understand you don't have to be content being ruled by backwards rich dudes anymore, you can make history."

Her response shocked me. She said, "I hate white dudes." I was shocked, but not dumbfounded yet. I looked at her with exasperation and confusion. I said "Hey, I'm a white dude." She responded with "You're not white, mister."

I was aghast. If there was such thing as a racist compliment, that was it. This was the attitude I battled from students. They all saw me as a white dude, till I became "honorably" not White. It was like the day the students asked me who I voted for, and one student said "He voted for McCain because he's white." I didn't, and I became "honorably" non-White to them. In their minds, White means the enemy, the oppressor, a person to be reviled. Additionally shocking was how cavalierly it rolled off her tongue.

Am I a victim? Hell no. I understand what she meant. She knows that Whites have had a traditional advantage in this country. Students just need to understand that its not all Whites, not even most Whites actively participated in injustices in our history, although benefiting by association. There is a rich, long history of multi-racial movements fighting against those in power. Now I have to figure out a way to combat her misperception. The only way I can think of now is to increase the amount of time I spend on the multi-racial aspect of our equal rights struggles.

On the teaching of half truths

Recently I've become troubled by a dillema involving my US History courses. Currently I teacher honors and sheltered US history, among others. The gap between what I am able to teach to my honors students is massive, compared to the basics I seem to be forced to teach to my sheltered kids. That gap has forced me to teach half truths to my students, and I am struggling to find a way to introduce historical dilemmas, and empowering topics.

The way I have approached abolitionism and the Civil War is to emphasize the importance of slaves freeing themselves as opposed to being freed by Lincoln. After all, Lincoln was not the "Great Emancipator" that legend has made him out to be. He was brave, and eventually did the right thing, but it was only after a tremendous amount of pressure by abolitionists like Douglass, and the slaves themselves. The curriculum is designed to empower the students, and help them understand change comes from below, not above. How people change and improve their lives, and eventually force government to do what is right, is a continual theme in US history.

My honors students summed up Lincoln as essentially somebody who believes in the superiority of whites, but believes slavery is immoral. This is best summed up in Lincoln's own words.
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.
Debate with Stephen Douglas 18 September 1858

In spite of Lincoln saying this in a debate, where most politicians will stretch truth to be elected, it is backed up by other similar comments from Lincoln's past. What Lincoln intended to do about slavery is best summed up by him here:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
Letter to Horace Greeley, The Liberator editor, 22 August 1862

Once my students realized Lincoln and the Civil War were not all about abolition of slavery, we examined how the slaves were freed. We studied slave sabotage and desertion to Union lines. We read letters from generals asking to use the freedmen as soldiers, and Lincoln denying their requests. It wasn't until those numbers became so enormous, and Lincoln saw political advantage to abolition, that he made official what had already happened.

I can't teach that to my sheltered students though. Some of them cannot even communicate with me beyond a good morning, or my name is Muganguzi, Modeste, Geeta, Govinda, Minh, or Javier. This difficulty caused me to teach that the Civil War was between North and South over slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. Everything must be concrete, without ambiguity. The reason is two fold: time, and comprehension. Our district has us on strict pacing guides, with district wide exams that we are evaluated on as teachers. It is difficult enough to get the students to understand who John Brown was, and that the South had slavery, not the North. How can I teach about the intricacies of Lincoln's position, and that it wasn't him alone that freed the slaves?

I feel as though I am doing these students a disservice, but I don't know how to carry out such a curriculum with so many difficulties and handicaps in the way. My sheltered students can benefit greatly in learning on the power of the people to make and force change. They are used to everything being top down onto them. I want them to know that anything from school policy to immigration policy can be controlled by them, not the other way around. That is the message of history, not hero worship and benevolent government.