Nov 3, 2009

race issues in the classroom

When I became a mother everybody laughed and joked with me that babies don't come with instruction manuals. And yet, I found that raising a baby was not quite so hard as everybody made out. A lot of it was intuition. A lot of it was talking to other people, watching other parents, making mistakes, correcting...

Sadly, what I find much more difficult is dealing with students. At least, on the human level, not the professional one. I had five years of instruction manuals before ever setting foot in a classroom. And since then, nine more years with one on one relationships, conferences, meetings, more instruction manuals... and yet, certain issues were never addressed in any of those books or meetings. Or, if they were, I didn't get the lesson.

The issue of racism was certainly addressed. At least in the historical context. And in the context of this is unjust. We cannot allow bully students to use race as weapon. But, I can't remember anybody ever sitting down with us and levelling with us about how to talk to students about racism. Nobody ever talked to me about how to walk the tightrope between acknowledging injustices and cultural differences without watering down expectations and crippling my students through accomodations.

How exactly do I even the playing field, and give my students all the tools they need to succeed in life without furthering the injustices already there?

And how do I do all of that while still addressing the curriculum? Do I put the Spanish on hold to discuss racial tension in the classroom? Do I reprimand the offending student and continue with the lesson thus holding everyone to the same high standards?

1 comment:

  1. Um, yes, you reprimand the offending student and go on. There's no need for preaching. They know it's wrong. They just figure they'll be allowed to get away with it.

    "Level the playing field?" Because the playing field is "unlevel" primarily because of race? Sorry, but this isn't true. Class and family background trump race every time. You can't make Jimmy go to bed on time or make Tessa's mom not invite a different guy home every night. You can (and must) report it if you think Emma's being abused, but if you don't know, you can't do anything about it. And you certainly can't do anything about John's parents being poorly educated and having a very low self-efficacy.

    The only way you can "level the playing field" is by deliberately crippling more able students. This should be distasteful to you in the extreme.

    What you CAN do take a no-excuses approach. There is no excuse for you not teaching every child. There is no excuse for every child not trying hard and doing well. Sure, life stinks for some. But that doesn't change the importance of their learning. If anything, their learning becomes even more important, as they don't have the types of support that would guarantee a successful outcome from a mediocre upper-middle class student.

    The only other thing you can do is to provide multiple ways of measuring student achievement, making homework optional for those who can learn the material without it who may not have the home life that makes homework possible. Fir Mary's babysitting her six siblings from the time she gets home until her mom shows up at 10 PM, she's not going to be able to do much school work.


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