Studying Refugees: Who’s the Bad Guy Here?

So much of the curriculum I plan to teach each year reshapes itself as the year progresses.  It’s hard for it not to when we all watch history unfold as it’s happening on our phones and tablets.  This year, the reshaping felt seamless.  Each year I teach a unit on the experience of refugees.  Students read historical fiction about the experience of a refugee family during the Vietnam War, as well as various articles and shorter memoir pieces focusing on other refugee crises.  As the refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq continues to unfold, it seemed like a worthy unit to extend, giving students more of an opportunity to educate themselves on the situation that refugees currently experience and to explore the global response.  I anticipated that students would notice that in each of the narratives we explore, refugees highlight feelings of ostracism and isolation in their new homes after experiencing extremely high levels of fear and violence in their country of origin.  What I didn’t expect was that the conversation would quickly become focused more on the perception of Muslims in America.

Over the course of the unit, students analyze each refugee crisis they study in an attempt to find similarities in the experience of refugees across the board.  After analyzing the experience of refugees fleeing Vietnam in the 1970s, students read a brief interview with four teenage refugees from Bosnia in the 1990s.  While the novel they’ve read illustrates the discrimination and feelings of inferiority that refugees faced once they arrived in the United States, the four teenagers from Bosnia paint a completely different picture of their own lived experience.  In our class, we were conducting a partnered reading where students worked in pairs to read in the way that felt most comfortable for them.  I started to notice that each pair stopped and had a strong reaction at the same point in the text.  The interviewer has posed the question, “What are your lives like in the U.S.?”  One of the teenagers responds: “I like it better than being a refugee in Croatia.  Here, people don’t judge you by your religion.  When I say that I’m a Muslim, they don’t react like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be with you, I don’t want to be your friend because you’re Muslim.’”

The general reaction from my students was complete confusion.  How could these teenagers say that America was more accepting of Muslim refugees when we have a current presidential candidate running on a platform of exclusion for this very group- and he’s winning?  How could these teenagers say that America was more accepting of Muslim refugees when there are students in the room who have faced discrimination for being Muslim themselves?  How could these teenagers say that America was more accepting of Muslim refugees when it seems like no matter where you go, there are people who believe that all Muslims must be suspect when we have a specific subset of the global Muslim community taking extreme action?

And then it dawned on me.  The kids I teach were born after 9/11 and as a result have only experienced first-hand a post-9/11 world.  The idea that there was a time in our nation’s history where Muslims weren’t “the bad guys” is almost beyond their comprehension at first.  And while they know that the Constitution protects their right to practice their religion freely, they see the lived experience of either peers, loved ones, or themselves that tells them that those words do not apply to everyone in a de facto sense.  These kids had clearly been affected by the messages they receive on a daily basis from various media sources on who “the bad guys” are and whether or not it’s actually ok to practice any religion.  In the moment, I was briefly at a loss for how to handle this situation.  Clearly, the class was no longer focused on the topic of similarities between the historical fiction they’d read and the experiences of these teenagers.  They had a lot of questions about how we could possibly go from a world where Muslims felt safe and welcome in 1994 when the interview was published, to a world where being Muslim could eliminate your chances of being considered an American in 2016.  And I felt like the remaining 15 minutes of class just wouldn’t be enough to have a deep and honest conversation with them about these issues.

So clearly, we have a lot more work to do for this project.  Especially since as we head into exploring photo essays by journalists who are documenting the experience of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq, they’re going to hear further stories of Muslim families trying to find acceptance in a new place.  But I feel a great sense of pride and hope knowing that these kids, who are only in middle school, are able to see that media portrayals and perceptions of particular groups can not be equated to with who these people actually are.  I felt proud knowing that the students in that room can receive the messages of hate that are spewing from Donald Trump’s mouth and see it for what it is- language that is meant to scare so that powerful people can swoop in to pacify and “save” the masses.  While it is disheartening to know that they grow up in a world where it just seems unreal to them that Muslims can feel welcome here in the United States, I think it speaks volumes that young people are able to see that discriminating against whole groups of people for the actions of some people who identify with that group just doesn’t make sense.

Resources

Brice, Arthur. “Children of War.” Scholastic Update. 3/25/94, Vol. 126 Issue 12, p. 25.

          The interview with four Bosnian teen refugees

Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out & Back Again. Harper Collins. 2011.

          Historical fiction written in verse telling the story of a young girl and her family as                 they flee war in Vietnam and seek safety in America.

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My Response to the Success Academy Video

By now, it’s fairly likely that you’ve seen that video (for those who have no idea what I’m talking about, you can check it out here).  The one where a teacher at a Success Academy charter school berates a first grader for an incorrect answer during a math lesson.  I’ve had my fair share of discussions with people who have watched the video, and I was rather surprised to see that there were some people who were not yet convinced that the actions of this particular teacher were inappropriate at best and verge on abusive if this is happening consistently in her classroom; we can only assume that since the teacher’s aide who took the video claims to have done so because of the discomfort they felt while watching this type of thing unfold in the classroom, it is likely to have occurred on multiple occasions. 

Now, I should preface my thoughts with the fact that I am often wary of sharing videos of teachers “caught in the act” simply because there’s always going to be a lot we don’t know.  We won’t see what brought a teacher to get to a certain point and to lose their cool.  And let’s face it, there are times when I completely understand why a teacher needs to raise their voice.  Just last week, two students began moving towards a physical brawl in my classroom.  As soon as the first book bag was thrown to the floor, I used the power of my voice to bring the students back down and stop the altercation that was about to envelope not just the two students who were angry with each other, but their neighbors in class as well.  If you just caught me yelling, maybe you would mistake that situation for a situation similar to the one in the video.  But if you captured this moment in my class on video, you also capture the other students joining me in requesting that everybody stop and just return to their chairs to calm down.  You’d see my tone and demeanor change as it became clear that there was no longer a physical threat in the classroom.  You’d see a calm conversation take place with the two students who nearly fought, who in the end apologized to each other and found a way to move on.  So giving this teacher from Success Academy the benefit of the doubt began to sort of feel like I was one of the apologist’s who can’t see that regardless of what took place before the cameras started rolling, what we see happening to Eric Garner, or Sandra Bland, or Tamir Rice, or any of the other videos that received media attention this year is just wrong.  It’s a response that just doesn’t fit the situation.

So I come back to the video itself.  What we have is a math lesson.  And during this lesson, a child is confused.  They come to a conclusion that is incorrect because of what appears to be a misstep in their counting.  I think any teacher will tell you that these sorts of missteps happen all the time in the classroom.  A student has some understanding of the task at hand, and as they begin to share either their final answer or their thinking, we as teachers become aware of their area of confusion.  For me it becomes a sort of “a-ha” moment, where it finally dawns on me what that particular student is struggling with.  And just like moments like these should be followed with moments of clarification for the student, I have a moment of clarification as well.  I can finally understand why I’ve seen this student make this same mistake because I now understand the thinking behind the mistake.  I usually use this moment to either ask another student to possibly respond and share their own thinking or perhaps clarify so that the students are correcting and helping each other.  If that isn’t possible, I highlight the area of confusion for the student, share the clarification, and point out that both of us just learned something new: for them it’s about the topic of study, for me it’s about how to help them learn better.  But this “a-ha” moment doesn’t seem to come for this particular teacher.  Instead, she gets angry.  She yells at and demeans the student, implying that the mistake this 6 or 7 year-old made is stupid.  The student is then banished to a “calm-down chair,” which I think anyone can see is being improperly employed in this moment.  As this is all going on, the rest of the students sit back and watch this all unfold.  No one comes to the defense of their classmate.  No one speaks up, seemingly out of a fear that they will face the same fate.

Now, I’ve had teachers like this.  For me it was a math teacher in high school.  She was the kind of teacher who would rather make you feel small when you can’t get it right then work to help you find success.  My grades plummeted that year.  I was never good at math, but I could always pull an A or a B because I would do my homework and participate in class.  Not that year.  I walked away with a C- the lowest grade I’d ever receive on a report card.  I wasn’t doing my homework; I didn’t see the point when I would only be humiliated for my attempt.  Luckily, the math teachers I had following her were able to correct the damage she had done and actually made math an enjoyable class for me by never getting angry over my shortcomings.  They had patience with me and found ways of making math meaningful for me.

So let’s look at this video again.  It seems to me like every single student in the class learned a very important lesson that day.  They learned that it’s better to stay quiet than it is to speak up and potentially be wrong.  Because if you are wrong, people will yell and send you to the “calm-down chair.”  Because when you need to calm down, it’s because you messed up.  And when you mess up, there isn’t a clear way to fix it and there’s no way you benefit.  These are the messages being sent to all students in this classroom when they watch this happen to one of their peers.  And to happen at such a young age likely means that they will bring this experience to each and every one of their future classrooms with them.

But there’s one more element of this video that I find particularly troubling: the race of the players.  We have a class that is clearly made up of mostly, if not all, students of color.  And we have a teacher who is white.  In my own experience as a white teacher working with students of color, I feel like I am constantly thinking about the statistics that we hear on a regular basis: we hear all the time that male students are more likely to be avid participants in a classroom than female students.  And we know that race can have similar effects when there is a great deal of diversity in the classroom.  But what happens when the students are all of color and the teacher is white?  It seems like one aspect of this discussion that needs to take place is that in the video in question, the teacher has reinforced racist systems whether she knows or not; whether she intended to, or not. 

After publishing the video, The New York Times sought out analysis from experts in the field of education, and their responses are not surprising: this teacher is out of line (you can read the article here).  But I’m somewhat surprised to see that issues of race in the classroom haven’t come to the forefront of this discussion.  Yes, the behavior would be just as bad, and in no way excusable, if it came from a teacher of color.  But there are layers to the experience that these children have in their classrooms.  And they bring those layers not only into future classrooms, but with them out into the world.  What have they been taught about the relationship between white authority figures and themselves?  What has been reinforced?  These are the types of questions that educators need to ask themselves on a regular basis.  Without acknowledging that these are things we need to be cognizant of as educators, we have the potential to do more harm than good.

Getting the Conversation Going Again

In recent weeks, I’ve felt compelled to reinvigorate The Feminist Educator presence in discussions surrounding the intersectional issues that impact education.  It seems that everywhere I turn, there are issues that have both direct and indirect impacts on classroom life and learning that deserve to be brought to life through dialogue about such issues.  As a result, I committing to participating in such dialogues through weekly contributions from The Feminist Educator.  In between posts, you can follow me on Twitter @FemEdu and like my Facebook page as a way to stay further connected to these discussions.

Return to the Blogosphere

I know it’s been quite a while since I have published any new content here at The Feminist Educator. For those who are also classroom teachers, you can appreciate the need to prioritize your work with your students over your own writing. Now that it’s summer, I feel a strong desire to rediscover why I wanted to start this blog in the first place.

This year has been really interesting for me as an educator- specifically, as a white educator working in a community with predominantly students of color. I constantly found myself asking how I could approach some of the topics and issues that have come up this year in a respectful and responsible way. My concern is always that my own position as a white woman has minimal impact on the way my students confront and interact with issues within our classroom. In just the last week of school, I wished that we had time to fully discuss their ideas about Rachel Dolezal, the tragedy in Charleston, and the Confederate Flag- but as always, time ran out.

Each summer I work in my school’s summer enrichment program. The program serves multiple purposes- to acclimate incoming 6th graders to some of the changes they will face as they transition from elementary school to middle school, to provide enrichment courses and activities for those students who have reached amazing highs throughout the year, and to combat the learning loss that all students, especially those who struggle with basic skills, will inevitably face over a summer without instruction. This year, teachers were given (almost) free reign to design a course that met the vision and mission of the school and summer program in a way they were interested in working with the students. In thinking about what I wanted the summer to look like, I came right back to what drove me here in the first place.

All year long, I have lamented the fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day to cover the curriculum that is placed in front of us and also provide a truly meaningful opportunity for students to debate, discuss, think critically, explore, and interact with the ideas and issues that are a part of their global community as a result of media attention. There were days where I wished the only thing we needed to talk about was what they saw in the news the night before (and realistically, for many students to simply introduce them to the idea of watching/reading the news in the first place). I wanted their reactions to #BlackLivesMatter and their responses to watching Baltimore burn. I wanted to help them understand the need to be highly critical of the media, to understand that narratives are created by the people who work for news outlets and are not organic in nature. I wanted their ideas, questions, concerns, and interests to dictate the discussions we had in the classroom.

When it came time to propose my course, I created a seminar-style introduction to current events. It was the shortest proposal for a course that I have ever submitted, which was necessary to maintain the integrity of what I hope to accomplish this summer. I haven’t selected current events that I want to talk about with them (though there are many, and I have quite the arsenal of places for us to start). Instead, the course description centered around skills of academic discussion and debate, of formulating a claim, and supporting their ideas and being able to defend their ideas when someone disagrees with them. And we’ll create the course content together. The students will be involved in and responsible for deciding which current events we discuss and what is important to them.

Unlike the work we do during the school year, I’m not entirely sure of where we are supposed to end up. But that’s ok, because this isn’t about standards and making sure we integrate the proper amount of literature and informational text. This summer is about empowering students. It’s about giving them the tools they need to be able to think critically about narratives driven by the media and the space and power to do so. To help them find importance in understanding the world around them and what goes on within it. Our journey begins next week and I can’t wait to document and share it with you all here.

Hey, HuffPostEducation…

I make sure that I follow as many different voices in education as possible, whether through reading blogs, articles, tweets, or other social media posts.  And I can’t seem to ignore the fact that the tweets from The Huffington Post’s Education site are missing the mark.  Here are links to the articles that they have most recently tweeted:

“This New Play Brings Pennsylvania’s School Funding Crisis to Life”

“A Note to My Ex-Husband”

“16 Books to Read and Love Forever”

“It’s Time to Stop Using These Phrases When it Comes to Mental Illness”

“This is What 45 Looks Like”

“Chris Pratt Helps Raise $90,000 for Boy With Brain Cancer”

“Instagram Will Finally Allow Breastfeeding Photos”

“5 Things Young Moms Actually Want to Hear From Empty Nesters”

While many of these articles are interesting topics, I can’t help but notice that as I scroll through @HuffPoEdu’s tweets, there isn’t actually much that is on education.  Ok, so we have one post about a play that is about school funding (not even talking directly about school funding- just talking about a play that talks about it) and a list of great books to read- sure those are things related to education.  But the rest of this reads like a superficial women’s magazine.  Many of these posts come from other Huffington Post sections that have nothing to do with education.

My question is, where is the focus on the major education issues that educators, parents, and activists are dealing with right now?  We have an Opt-Out Movement that has taken hold and sent a very strong message to our governor and state legislators here in New York, but there’s no mention of any of this.  Occasionally, there have been links to articles that focuses on the recent Senate overhaul of NCLB legislation, called Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, but these articles are few and far between.

So here are 3 Things HuffPo Should Know About Educators:

1. Teaching may still be considered a “pink-collar” profession by many, but that doesn’t mean the same tactics that work for Redbook will work for a blog focusing on education issues.

2. Educators take their profession seriously- we expect those who are writing on the topic to do the same.

3. When we work this hard to inform citizens about the work that we do on a daily basis and how far we are willing to go to do what’s right for our kids, we would appreciate it if you didn’t make it seem like the most important things to use have little to do with that work.

I hope you step it up, @HuffPoEdu.

In Solidarity,

The Feminist Educator

Whiteness

One of my biggest concerns about teaching has always been the way my students perceive my whiteness. I’m sure there’s many people who just read that sentence and had a hard time fully digesting it. Whiteness is something that we as white people don’t really think about until we start coming to terms with the privilege that we’ve been afforded (see my earlier post for more on privilege). But along with my privilege comes the knowledge that my role as a white woman educator in communities of color could certainly pose some complications.

I started noticing how complicated it all was as soon as I started teaching. I knew how important it would be to make sure that my teaching was culturally relevant, which I think made me hyper-aware of how my skin color could impact my classroom experience. A white educator coming into the inner city has implications not unlike those of other imperialist endeavors throughout history. I remembered reading the play Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka in college. The play focuses on the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria. When the king dies, tradition dictates that his horseman is supposed to commit suicide in order to follow his king into the afterlife and serve him there. But the British soldiers present during British Colonialism in Nigeria feel that this is a barbaric practice, and spend the rest of the play doing everything in their power to save this poor man from his imminent, and in their eyes unnecessary, death. Despite whatever good intentions the British soldiers may have, they completely neglect to take into account the traditions and beliefs of the Yoruba people themselves, and ultimately remove their agency to make their own decisions about what is best for their people. When I first began teaching, I worried that in some way, maybe I would be seen as the “white martyr” the same way the British Colonialists were. People would ask what I did for a living, and when I told them, you could see on their face that they were picturing Michelle Pfeiffer or Hilary Swank. They had no experience with education in an inner-city, so that was the only reference point they had. And those portrayals aren’t accurate representations of the work that we do. Would the parents I worked with think that I saw myself in this way? Would they trust that I had only the best intentions for their children? Could I really blame them if they didn’t?

The first time a student mistook me for a member of a different race, I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. A 10th grader asked me to translate something from Spanish to English. I explained to him that unfortunately I didn’t speak any Spanish as I had learned French in high school.

He asked, “Is the rest of your family cool with that?”

Confused, I simply said, “Yeah, why wouldn’t they be?”

That’s when he informed me that because I was “Spanish” (which is the term my students used to describe Latino/a people), he just assumed that I spoke Spanish. I explained to him that I wasn’t Latina, that I was Northern European- I was in fact white. And the student was completely shocked. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do or say next. The student said that my hair looked kind of “Spanish” so he just assumed that I was. I have wavy hair that is somewhere between dirty blonde and light brown and I use gels and serums to try to tame the enormous amount of frizz, also giving it a lot more shine than it would otherwise have. Apparently, my choice of hair products was more similar to what he knew his Latina friends use and didn’t fit his conception of white hair. My supervisor had overheard the conversation, and proceeded to explain that I should take that as a compliment. He explained that for a lot of the students at the school, they had limited personal experience with white people. If the student had only had negative experiences or had only learned about white people through learning about white society in America from older family members, chances were high that the student could not fathom that I could be the honest, open, understanding, and caring teacher that I am and also be white.

With the current climate of race relations in this country, it isn’t surprising that my students still make assumptions like this about my race. Or they say that I’m not like “other white people.” When I think about the images that they have been inundated with this past year, it makes sense that they may have a hard time seeing white people in positions of power as different from those in power who have been taking black lives with no accountability for their actions. While it speaks to the classroom climate focused on social justice that I have worked to create, it also highlights the way that my students perceive themselves and the systems that they exist within.

I’ve spent a great deal of time this year reflecting on how to have conversations about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and now Walter Scott with my students. Each time I come to reflect on these events and what they mean for my kids, I think about the fact that they have repeatedly watched brutally violent acts committed against people who look like them. And then I think about the fact that it is me standing up in front of my kids having these conversations with them. How does my whiteness affect their ability to openly and candidly speak about these events? How does my whiteness affect the way they see my role in the systems that have continued to work in opposition to their existence? Is it possible to have a conversation about these events where the race of the people participating doesn’t have an impact on the outcomes of the conversations?

I’m hoping that by reflecting on these questions and opening a dialogue about them with other educators, we can all start to become more aware of the importance of talking about race and racism (both overt and systemic) with all of our students. Over the next few weeks, I hope to continue to explore these, and other questions about such issues, here and gain insight from those who would like to participate in that dialogue. Feel free to leave a comment with ideas or more questions that would help to keep the conversation going.

In Solidarity,

The Feminist Educator

Opting-Out Misguided?

On Wednesday, as students either sat for their second day of ELA testing or politely participated in their civil right to refuse the high-stakes test, The New York Post and Daily News each published op eds about the Opt-Out Movement- and how the choice of parents to refuse their child to be subjected to these tests is misguided. According to both of these articles, it is the fault of the union and its members that parents are making this awful choice for their children.

I have to say, I was more than a little surprised to see these claims. As a member of the UFT, I can assure everyone that the union in no way encouraged teachers to push our students to opt-out of the tests. In fact, the only reminders we received indicated that there could be severe consequences for those teachers who would speak about the rights of parents to make this choice. If anything is misguided, it is the opinions of the authors of these articles.

But perhaps more concerning is the idea presented in these two articles that this opt-out movement is not in fact about removing high-stakes testing for students, but is about eliminating evaluation systems that will rid the system of failing teachers. The claim is that since students are no longer held over (not promoted to the next grade) based on failure of the Math and ELA exams, that these tests are in no way high-stakes for students. The authors of both articles fail to acknowledge that decisions about tracking students are still made based on test scores. And even more terrifying is the prospect that Gov. Cuomo seems to think that it makes sense to tie state aid for schools to test scores. If a school’s scores don’t meet the standard set by the power players in Albany and their hedge-fund manager cronies, funding for the school will decrease. How is this not high-stakes for students?

The Daily News article plainly states that black and Hispanic students are more likely to have “failing teachers.” But no mention is made of the fact that this determination of “failing” is based on test scores of students who are greatly affected by the achievement gap. I know I’m not adding anything new to the conversation by pointing out to you that socioeconomic issues have a strong correlation with a student’s expected level of success in the classroom. And I’m also not adding anything new to the conversation by pointing out that we know the proportion of families in these lower socioeconomic classes is higher in underfunded, inner-city districts. So why are we vilifying the teachers who work so hard to see progress with their students, despite the challenges that exist? With an evaluation system based in such a large part on these test scores, teachers will continue to seek work in the suburban districts where this is less of an issue, rather than risk losing their job by working in a district where students are more likely to come in performing below grade level. With funding potentially tied to these test scores, the schools that need the most support will hurt the most.

These tests have higher stakes than ever, for students and teachers alike. Politicians and “reformers” can claim that it’s teachers and unions that are making this political and using students as pawns. They can use their influence to impact the op eds in the media. But as long as they continue to enact policies that have no educational merit, teachers and parents should continue to fight back.

In Solidarity,

The Feminist Educator