Teaching & Learning Are Not Neutral Acts

What’s your pleasure? It’s for science!

This week my daughter came home with an assignment in which she had to collect data, create a graph, and answer some questions about what she had “discovered.”  Her assigned question on which she was to collect said data was, “What is your favorite pizza topping?”  She was very excited about this homework, and she immediately wanted to put on her boots and tromp around the neighborhood asking people whether liked plain cheese or pepperoni.  Before we headed out, she looked at the data collection page, which the teacher had carefully constructed, including a few lines with prescribed sources: Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, Friend.  This was followed by a bunch of blanks for the kids to fill in as necessary.  The instructions said that we should write down each person’s name, so she wondered out loud what she should do about the “mom” category.  Then she said, “And where do I put Poppy?”  After a bit of discussion about how crossing off “Mom” and writing in “Poppy” wasn’t going to corrupt the scientific process, she was off on her research expedition.

This is a minor issue I know and I won’t say a word to the teacher, but would it have been that hard to leave those lines blank?  Do kids who live at home with both their mom and dad need to be instructed that those people should be asked what type of toppings they like on their pizza?  Or does it matter if kids don’t ask their biological parents?

I encounter constant questions like this as a gay dad with two adopted kids.  Sometimes they remain internal, and sometimes I voice these concerns.  I know I need to teach my kids to navigate these waters they’ll be traveling their entire lives, and at the same time, sometimes I just want them to be kids.  My daughter is not even seven yet, and I could see this assignment giving her pause today in a way that will be a bit more heavy for her as she matures.

Ask any teacher who has become a parent whether the latter has affected the former and the answer will be resoundingly affirmative.  Parenting these two amazing kids with my husband has changed my teaching in even more important ways.  Seeing the ways that my family is marginalized in schools without careful and deliberate thought to the contrary has exposed the same understanding to me in my teaching at the high school level.

Useful reading tool or evil propaganda?

I first encountered some of these issues in graduate school, years before having kids of my own, when a left-wing gay Indian professor taught my multicultural literature class.  He assigned Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and he carefully unraveled for us the way in which the old “Dick and Jane” primer books I remember from my own school days can actually be seen as oppressive propaganda for the dominant white culture.  In the novel, one of the characters is literally driven insane by her desire to pursue the normative beauty of Dick and Jane’s world.  That might sound a bit crazy initially, but now, thirteen years later, I can attest that this is backed up by both research and my own family’s experiences.  Anything that is presented as the norm to a class of students immediately pushes others to the periphery and makes them feel less than.  I remember in my undergraduate program a professor of communication grouping homosexuals with others who “lived outside society’s norm,” others like prostitutes and rampant drug users.  Although he was coming at this idea from a purely academic perspective, I immediately wanted to stop learning from him–and I was 21.

Now as an educator for more than a dozen years myself, one who teaches courses on anti-racist education practices to other professionals, I am all too eager to discuss the issue that teaching and learning are not neutral acts.  This is actually the specific wording of a basic tenet of these professional development courses I now teach, and when we go over these guidelines I am dying for one of the participants to ask what exactly that means.  Just last week, this was the situation.  I had started co-facilitating this course and when one of my colleagues asked the class if they had any questions about any of the guidelines, I kept thinking, “Come on, ask about the teaching and learning one…”  No one did, and so I didn’t get to tell them that whenever one of my kids’ teachers reads a story that has a mother and a father in it that they are reinforcing the isolation that my kids sometimes feel when they don’t see their parentage reflected in the curriculum.  I didn’t get to tell them about the sophomore student I had last year that wrote in a personal essay about how much it hurt her every time a teacher referred to winter break as Christmas break.

Do you see yourself?

I’m certainly not advocating for a watered-down politically correct curriculum in schools where no one is celebrated so that no one is offended.  Our schools’ curricula across disciplines should be filled with what so many multicultural education experts refer to as “mirrors and windows.”  We need to provide space in the curriculum so that all students see themselves (the mirrors) and learn about others (the windows).  Certainly, this is harder to do for our students who are not part of the dominant culture.  A Christian student who doesn’t read a Christmas story in school isn’t going to feel like society is ignoring his culture.  He simply needs to turn on the television or walk into a store to see his culture in full swing.  The Muslim student who is fasting for Ramadan though, is far less likely to walk into Target and feel validated by his culture.

To do this effectively, we obviously need to know our students, and this can be especially delicate when talking about touchy subjects like racial identity and religious views.  Last year though, I realized that had to get over it and just ask.  So in the beginning of the year, when I have my kids fill out a questionnaire that includes such innocuous items as “What career would you like to pursue after school?” and “List three words that describe you,” I added a few items that helped me identify students who might need some extra attention:

  • One of the many things we will be discussing is how race impacts identity in the characters we study and in ourselves.  To better help me prepare for these discussions and be sensitive to all of my students, please indicate how you racially identify.  Select as many as you feel appropriate!
  • To the same extent that I’d like to be sensitive to issues of racial identity, I’d like to be sensitive to each students’ religious background.  Please indicate how you identify.
  • Are there any religous or cultural holidays that you celebrate that are not recognized by the school calendar?  Please select any that are appropriate from the following list or add to the list in the “other” box.

Since I teach a fairly homogeneous school, most of the answers were similar: White, Christian, No.  This made the few responses that differed stand out all the more.  This knowledge is obviously very important, and it helps me remember how I might be able to bring a few more mirrors into my classroom for them (and to serve as windows for the rest of the class), but I took it one step further this year.  The third question about cultural holidays was an important one since my school has a “no homework” policy on certain vacation periods, vacations that typically revolve around Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter.  This year I looked up the handful of holidays my students identified and looked up the dates for each one.  I set a reminder on my phone for each holiday, and a few days before each one, I sent an email to the individual students, CCing his/her parents, wishing them a joyous celebration (if appropriate–that took some Googling in some instances) and letting them know that I was sensitive to the fact that their observance wasn’t recognized by our school calendar.  I added a note that if their family commitments impeded their work for class, they should touch base with me so we could work it out.

I’ve done this all year for holidays like Eid al-Adha, Hanukkah, Dewali, and this weekend Chinese New Year.  Of the dozen or so emails I’ve sent out this year, not a single student has asked for an extension, and every single one of the students, and all of the parents, sent a note of thanks for acknowledging their tradition.  These are students who have learned to be truly bi-cultural, most of them juggling their private family commitments with the demands of a high-performing school system that requires extensive work at home on a schedule that is tuned to the Christian majority.  They know how to ring in the Year of the Horse while cramming for midterm exams.  And simply having that feat acknowledged sometimes goes a long way.


6 thoughts on “Teaching & Learning Are Not Neutral Acts

  1. This is a great post. Not only do I love to read about your stories on how you teach your students, but I am always loving the way I can ‘look into the future’ in regards to what we have to look forward to when Punky gets older.

    • Thanks Rachael. Everyone’s story is different, but if we can piece together our best parenting practices from one another, maybe our kids will have a great chance at happiness!

      • I just love to see how others react and respond to the things you are dealing with in your path of parenthood with kids much older than mine. It makes me really think that I will be prepared when the time comes and be able to make informed and well timed reactions to things as simple as the “Mom” “Dad” indicators of paperwork, etc.

  2. Well said. I’m happy I discovered your blog. You are a few years ahead of me and my husband down this path of adoption, and I’m happy to be able to read and learn from your experiences. This post resonated particularly because I was a teacher for 8 years, and I often wonder what issues our adopted child will face in school. This post definitely gives me a lot to think about the subtle ways children can be hurt and feel marginalized, no matter how much the teacher didn’t intend for it to happen.

    • I’m so glad you’re here! In the classes I teach for other teachers, we also talk a lot about intent vs. impact. Often the dominant messages aren’t intended to harm our kids, and unfortunately the impact is that those message often do make them feel “less than.” With good parenting and (mostly) thoughtful teachers, our kids can bounce back pretty quickly though!

  3. Pingback: Sometimes you get just what you need … | The Larsens Live Here

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