Avoiding Intellectual Appropriation–Belatedly

Last night I went to the Baltimore Racial Justice Action’s 13th of the month event on Cultural and Racial Appropriation. I took the BRJA class for white people in the spring, and it was a really helpful way to think and talk systematically about issues of white supremacy and racism. My learning partner, a BRJA member assigned to me for one-on-one discussion, was an inspiration to me. At last night’s event, she reminded us that almost all of the work we do around anti-racism is based in the intellectual work of Black people. She emphasized the importance of giving credit regularly and loudly, and I didn’t do that well enough in my blog post yesterday. Any writing or thinking that I do on transforming schooling for Black students draws on the intellectual work of a number of amazing Black authors, and on conversation largely with Black colleagues.

I want to say a little more specifically about Teresa Perry. Her extended essay “Up from the Parched Earth” in the book Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African-American Students isn’t about “gifted” education per se…it’s about taking seriously the idea of Black students as intellectuals. Her work on the historical importance of education for Black communities, the work of Black schools during Jim Crow, the prevalence of the “ideology of intellectual inferiority,” and the need to develop a praxis of achievement for African-American youth in schools has made it difficult to see how a sense of colorblind schooling helps Black students.

Further, and I can’t do her justice now, but I’ve been blown away by the work of Sylvia Wynter. Her writing is complex and I’m struggling to get it in a deeper way, but in the most basic sense, she describes how our post-Enlightenment thought overemphasizes the white man of the upper classes as human. She suggests that the large-scale revolutions in European thought over past centuries have involved redefinitions of the human, from (again this is overgeneralized and simplified from her work) Human as religious subject to Human as political subject to Human as biological subject, per Darwin and misunderstandings of “race.” That we have in science abandoned most of these ideas doesn’t mean that our societal definitions don’t continue to draw on them in the grossest way possible. Therefore, the need for a redefinition of the Human, based now on “our existence as hybridly nature-culture beings.” Further, the question in that redefinition is how “we can be enabled to free ourselves from our subordination to the one culture, the one descriptive statement that is the condition of us being in the mode of being that we are” (she cites Epstein here).

These are just two of the many Black intellectuals whose work has transformed my thinking in the past few years. Given that it’s possible to be considered educated and not know many of these folks, unless you are a specialist in anti-racist work or Black studies, I’d like to share some of the most transformative ideas I’ve read in coming weeks, because these Black scholars deserve a far wider reach, in education and in general.

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An Advocacy

This is my current iteration of the beginning of a collective idea for a Baltimore City Schools Equity Office. It’s the beginning of a draft, not a complete document. It also represents my current thought as opposed to the collective I’m thinking with, so faults are my own. I think in general we think that a cautious approach that emphasizes “culturally relevant pedagogy” would be most palatable; however I think that’s been holding me back from contributing productively to this work. Today I’m going to go more towards the all-out version. Critique welcome in that spirit. 

City Schools are not framed to optimize education for students of color, most particularly Black students, even as they compose 82.7 % of City Schools (with the remaining population being almost equally split between white and Latino students; Asian, Native people, etc. are very few). To transform education in City Schools to one that is for Black students, rather than just happening to teach primarily Black students, would be a monumental shift requiring intentionality, knowledge, and the willingness to swim against the assumptions of colorblind liberalism that still holds sway in most “mainstream” institutions. The advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in Baltimore, protests for Tyrone West, Freddie Gray, and others, may provide an opening in which we can see the need for change, and provide a lever/wedge that opens up our consciousness enough to be willing to try something different.

In order to provide the research support and expertise City Schools would need to begin this shift towards the intentional education of black students (footnote 1: why this also benefits white, Latino, all students), City schools needs an Equity Office. Such an office would work to research current city schools praxis, compile theoretical and experiential work on best praxis, and work on its own and in conjunction with offices such as human capital and teaching and learning to begin transformation. While most folks within City Schools currently work with the best of intentions regarding the education of Black students, and there are scattered areas of expertise around concepts like culturally relevant pedagogy, it’s essential that we recognize that

  • racial literacy and the study of the implications of race and racism is expertise and scholarly knowledge unto itself. Black Studies (Africana Studies, Disapora Studies, etc.) has been marginalized as a field for 100 years, but despite this, the breadth and depth of insight should guide our efforts.
  • requires a coordinated, collective effort; while individuals all over do amazing work around this, many more do the best they can with what they have, and do it in an isolation that prevents collective power and better work. Further, it leaves most students without the benefit of education that works for them.
  • is a foundational problem societally. The persistence of racism “in 2015?” and our continued bemoaning of various gaps between what our country promises and what it delivers should suggest to us a more foundational problem, that in fact, our country was NOT designed for equality and freedom for all, but rather, for white men of a certain class, who, as Sylvia Wynter argues, have been overdetermined as “human” for hundreds of years. She argues for a radically inclusive new definition of humanity. This is not “just” theory: it points to the problem with our reformist attempts. We are using the wrong theory (colorblindness, liberalism) and will therefore never solve the problem. Theory matters.
  • therefore requires a transformative effort: rather than attempting to reform schools so that Black students do “as well as” white students, within the current structure, is to ask for more of the same that we have been doing and receiving for the past 50 years, since Brown. Eliminating the achievement gap is a fool’s errand; instead we need to transform schooling altogether.
  • … . and most importantly, therefore, is fundamental to student learning. To think that these questions would not be foundational to students is countered by research that shows that students are harmed in multiple ways by racism and its effects in schools, and in fact should be conjured by decades of data showing the “failure” of Black students. Unless we secretly believe that Black students are less intellectually able, which Teresa Perry calls the “ideology of Black intellectual inferiority,” [this is a psychological argument but more than that structural as well) we should KNOW that something is foundationally wrong with the way we are attempting to educate them. That we don’t, and instead continue to try to fix the students and tinker with the pedagogy in minor ways, is telling.

Next up: what kinds of places could we start shifting? what does research show about educating Black children? what theory works for us here? etc.

Responding to “Reinventing Baltimore’s Schools”

Really thinking about this Donald Manekin piece in the Sun about a long-ignored call for school revisioning from Baltimore business leaders in 2000. He starts like this:

In 2000, Don Hutchinson, then president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, was part of a group of Baltimore’s business leaders asked to review and critique the city school system’s master plan, an annually updated document.

He said aloud what most of us would never have articulated but likely thought: Start anew. He recommended first determining what percentage of each year’s high-school entering freshman class we wanted to achieve graduation within four years; then, beginning at pre-kindergarten, building and funding the structure that would enable those young students to graduate fully prepared for the workforce or for post-secondary education.

In essence, Mr. Hutchinson was saying what Buckminster Fuller had said much earlier: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

I mean, first off, that IS amazing. I feel a lot of internal pressure not to say “Blow it up, start fresh” when that’s what I really think. I appreciate this reminder of this work, and I also notice that it was ignored or rejected.

Then, I consider the gruesome request to determine what percentage of students we want to graduate in 4 years. At first I would argue this can only ethically be 100%. And 100% of students, yes. But then my mind balks for a minute. What about “4 years?” Who says schooling has to take place in a “high school” and it needs to be 4 years?

This rethinking gestures toward my point: that yes, we absolutely need a revisioning of schooling, but that the vision referred to in this piece doesn’t go nearly far enough. It starts with the assumption that a 4-year high school is a thing that we need to have. Why not question the larger structures too? Why not truly “start anew?” What would that look like?

Next up: revisioning dilemmas and questions

#KidHoliday

Last Tuesday, on the day schools were closed here in Baltimore due to “unrest,” we took a walk around the neighborhood. We noticed student-aged children around, riding bikes, playing basketball in portable hoops set up on the street, walking down the street with friends. Two were lying next to the sidewalk on a grassy bank, looking up into the sky and talking about the clouds. It kind of felt like a holiday, not just a day off. We live in a part of Baltimore city far away from the killing of Freddie Gray, far from the demonstrations. The neighborhood has a slight majority of black residents; most people own their single family dwellings or duplex homes with well-tended yards. It’s not a fancy neighborhood, and it’s stable and safe. Kids are able to act like kids here.

Andy dubbed the day #kidholiday and we talked about how relaxed and happy the kids seemed. So one result of the “unrest” the night before was a day off school, which these young neighbors had put to wonderful use.

In schools after a day like that, we adults might have fretted that we “lost a day.” I realized that one giant benefit of my sabbatical has been to completely disengage my sense of time from the emergencies, faux-emergencies, and urgencies of public schooling.

I’m definitely not criticizing educators in schools…I spent 16 years, as I look back, in a state of frantic urgency. It’s hard to avoid that when both internal and external gauges are constantly telling you to do more, better, sooner. When external forces aren’t demanding something, an internal sense of mission and purpose is. Nor is this just the folks trying to “cover content,” in my experience. It’s almost all of us.

While I was in school, I simultaneously felt the urgency and also the stress of the urgency, the sense that all this rushing around wasn’t actually healthy, and seemed often to be counterproductive. I’m quite sure the days I felt most stressed were also the days I was impatient with students, and with me pushing and them resisting this crankier version of their teacher, we got less done. Impatience is not conducive to learning.

So many times after being wary of scheduling a field trip because there was “no time,” I’d take a group of kids away from school all day and I’d feel like in those hours away from school we got more than we’d got the previous several weeks. And it wasn’t just the actual “learning;” it was also being out of the school building, doing something different in community, having time for breathing and laughing and sharing lunch.

So in the last months of my sabbatical, I am able to look at the kids in our neighborhood, who didn’t seem frantic at all, without tsking over “lost instructional time.” Not a one of the children looked despondent at losing a day of school. And across the city, children and adults were doing a variety of volunteer community tasks that were far richer in the long run than the run of the mill school day.

I’m going to resist my various impulses to wrap this up with a tidy conclusion or questions, even. Instead I’ll just leave you with visions of #kidholiday and be back writing soon.

Why are students just playing the game? (Post 3)

Back to my resolution to write a post daily. They are going to be a little more fragmented than before. Today, a little more about use value versus exchange value.

In my last post, I described my persistent sense that students in my school were for the most part ‘playing the game,’ getting by, ‘doing their work’ in order to get a grade, get a credit, get a diploma. Not all the time, not all students, etc. Further, I described how when appeals to intrinsic value fail, even the best teachers resort to “you need this to pass,” etc.

This emphasis on the “exchange value” of school, on getting a diploma, came often at the expense of students’ valuing what they did intrinsically, or for “use value.” IE valuing the experiences and knowledge of school because it was intrinsically useful to them. This is both because the experiences and knowledge of school were NOT these things, but also because once we bring exchange value in, research shows us, humans do tend to become preoccupied with it.

From this old blog post comes this list that students generated in response to “What should [high school] education be about in 2014?”

Life skills: how to do your taxes. How to take care of yourself and others. How to buy big things like a house or car. How to cook. All things financial.

Survival skills: when the apocalypse comes, how to take care of yourself in the wilderness with nothing. Surprisingly to me, this was roundly agreed upon by the class.

Technology: how to really use it, and for some, generate new forms of it.

How to read.

Career info: how to decide what you might want to do. Specific information and training in some cases. Trades for some.

How to speak and communicate well. Public speaking, but also effective communication between 2 or more people.

Free thinking. How to realize and live from your own compass rather than just as your family, communities, others have told you to live.

Patience/perseverence/self-discipline. This was quite popular once one young man had voiced it. How to fail and keep working. How to not quit.

Self-defense

Knowing and being able to protect your rights from government infringement including the police

They agreed with my addition of “how to write effectively” once we’d established I didn’t mean the mechanical act of writing.

What do you think about this list? I think it’s fabulous. When I think about the number of things I know I “learned” in high school that I neither remember nor understand, I really question the value of the structures of our high schools. “Carnegie units” is the fancy term for the credits required for graduation. Though they’ve been tweaked over the years, I know the Carnegie units required in Maryland for graduation aren’t that different from what was required in Virginia almost 30 years ago. English, Math, Science, Social studies, etc. And, they feel about as stale.

When we first started planning our school [since opened, now 13 years old] in 2000, in our naiveté we drew up a course list that included the requisite number of English, Science, etc. courses, but were thematic rather than the more survey-like courses the state of Maryland requires. They were designed to be relevant and engaging, to teach the kind of thinking and skills required in these disciplines, to be in-depth case studies in disciplines rather than the overview now required. And, the school system said no, don’t even think about it. This won’t meet the state’s requirements.

The system of exchange value in schools, grades for credits for a diploma, is expressed through this rigid, antiquated structure of Carnegie units, and the impossibly large number of standards to cover associated with each and every credit. It overwhelms us, and our need for school to BE real life, to be useful, to be of intrinsic value. And students reject this emphasis on superficiality, by playing the game, by “doing their work,” by focusing on grades and credits rather than learning.

Which brings me back to my larger questions…what I’m arguing here is that our “whats” (curriculum) are antiquated and don’t meet students needs. We need to go back to more fundamental questions of why students are in school and radically revision, rather than tweak, this curriculum.