Reacting with Understanding

In eighth grade, I was a short gay Asian kid with pimples and a mullet.  I was awkward, just like everyone is at that age.  My weirdness mostly blended in with everyone else’s; I had good friends and people liked me.

Except Maria.  She sat behind me in English class.  Every day, we’d shuffle into Mr. Anderson’s room for the last class of the day, I quickly learned to begrudge the seating arrangement.  Maria hated me for some reason.  I may have known why at the time, but I don’t think I did.  She’d say horrible things to me, whispering them in my ear.  When I didn’t pass papers back quickly enough, she’d shove me in the back of the head: “Come on.  Pass ’em back.  What’s wrong with you?”  I was known in middle school for being a smart ass jerk to teachers, using my witty repartee to put them in their place or get a laugh from the class without actually saying anything that could get me in trouble.  Still, I was willing to make a federal case out of being bullied like this.

This daily assault continued until one day I snapped.  She shoved me in the back of the head, calling me stupid, and I turned around and backhanded her.  In the middle of English.  It was one of those moments where all you here are the proverbial crickets in the background as everyone’s head quickly turned to find the source of the sharp crack as my hand met her cheek.  Maria immediately started crying, and Mr. Anderson asked us to stay after class.

When I explained myself, Mr. Anderson felt I had been pushed into a corner after Maria admitted that she had been treating me horribly.  He moved my seat and made us promise to treat each other better in exchange for not reporting any of the bad behavior that had taken place in his room.

As I sit here today trying to make sense of the news out of Ferguson last night and the resulting protests–both the peaceful and the violent–I’m reminded of how quickly any one of us can be pushed to that snapping point.  The violence isn’t a result of one simple grand jury decision; it’s the catalyst for a mixture of volatile chemicals that has been simmering for far too long.  When I slapped Maria, I wasn’t thinking.  I was angry and embarrassed and I wanted to hurt her.  I look back and I know it was a mistake no matter how good it felt or how much mileage I’ve gotten out of the story in the last twenty-five years since it happened.  This morning as I watched the footage of the looting and the burning, I thought about how I can understand the reaction.  I don’t necessarily agree with it or think it’s the right thing, but I can understand it.

That same year in middle school–I wasn’t the best behaved kid–I got kicked out of choir.  There must have been about sixty kids in chorus, and all of my best friends were in the room.  I would talk and talk and talk with them any chance I got.  Mr. S, our choral director, would pause for a moment to chat with the pianist, and I’d zip over the sopranos to talk about last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.  Mr. S was incredibly frustrated by my behavior, constantly letting out a sigh as he called me back to me seat.  He often ignored the other people talking to focus in on me, and I started to feel like he was unfairly targeting me.

Then one day, I decided to make a change.  I wasn’t going to talk in class today.  I was going to stay focused and wait patiently in between songs.  Mr. S. pauses for a moment between numbers and turned his back to the choir, which immediately burst into gossipy action.  I sat quietly looking at my music.  Mr. S. turned around and with barely a glance at the room he called my name and asked me to be quiet.

“What?” I was incredulous.

“I asked you to stop talking.  Again.”

“I wasn’t even talking!”  Now I was getting riled up, and I started yelling.  “You’re always focusing in on me.  I know I talk a lot, but so does everyone else!”  By now the entire room was focused on me.  “You’re always calling on me to be quiet and today I wasn’t even talking!  What’s wrong with you?”

Mr. S. remained calm as the class listened for his response.  “I get the feeling you don’t respect me.”

“Well Mr. S., that’s something you have to earn.”  A few kids gasped.

“Please take a seat.”

The next day, I was informed by the main office I was no longer in choir.  Mr. S. never had a conversation with me and I resented him for years, even when I saw him at a wedding about ten years later.  I’m sure he didn’t feel that he’d done anything wrong.  I was a talkative kid who drew focus from his teaching.  As a teacher now, the kids who act like I did are the ones that drive me the most crazy, and I am in awe of how calm Mr. S. always in response to my constant pushing.  At the time though, I was even ready to admit that I was a talkative and distracting kid and I felt that he wasn’t treating me the same as the rest of the class.  Both of these realities existed for each of us, and maybe if we had a chance to sit down and talk about them, each really listening to the other, we might have reached a different end.

This is my contribution to the Ferguson reaction today.  There are many people in this country who don’t believe the black perspective.  Someone else’s point of view isn’t for any of us to believe or disbelieve; it’s for us to understand, even when its truth serves as a complete antithesis to our own.  In my professional work in these topics, when someone says that they simply can’t believe a particular position is true, we ask, “Well what if it were?”

These conversations need to happen more authentically more often.  And then maybe we won’t feel the need to react to perceived indignities with anything more than a measured dialogue.


Hard Work

I had the pleasure of facilitating a student leadership conference yesterday helping participants grapple with the difficult conversations of race relations in their home schools.  My school sent a contingency of three black students, two white students, and one Asian student, and there were ten other schools participating, with more than 75 students in attendance in total.  It was a great opportunity to have some difficult and honest conversations about the role race plays in our specific school settings.

One of the most challenging things was hearing students from all schools express frustration about the lack of support they get for the sustainability of their initiatives.  They come back from conferences like this filled with ideas and enthusiasm, and most of them will get something started in their home schools, whether it’s something simple like celebrating Black History Month in February or planning an assembly highlighting diversity.  The issue though is institutionalizing these endeavors so that they do more than checking a box.  Did we cover diversity this year?  Check.  Should we cover it next year.  We’ll see.

In my nearly fifteen years as an educator, I’ve seen lots of interesting proposals come from colleagues and students about how to improve the dialogue around race in schools, and I’ve watched as the really great ideas produce meaningful experiences for the stakeholders involved…and then I watch how the following year we start from scratch, sometimes acting like we solved the problem and sometimes acting like we have no idea what we could do to address it.  Several years ago, a group of teachers organized an assembly at my school celebrating diversity; a teacher spoke about his experiences coming out, a black female student detailed her feelings about never being asked out by a white student, and a freshman girl bound to a wheelchair explained what her daily life is like.  After that assembly, I remember my classes had the richest discussions about diversity we’ve ever had.  And then we haven’t had an assembly like it since.

This isn’t really the fault of any individual or policy; it’s the nature of education I think.  We live in these cycles where one quarter of our clientele changes every year so that at the end of a four-year period we are dealing with a population that has no institutional memory longer than three years.  As teachers, we get caught up in this too.  The amazing veterans who have retired fade from our mind as we struggle to bring the newbies up to speed, and the amazing crew of students we had last year dissipate from our consciousness as they are replaced by a hundred new faces.

This idea of solidifying great ideas happens even on a small scale in the classroom.  I will teach a lesson that is amazing one year, and then the following year, I’ll forget how awesome it was and try to reinvent the wheel, only to remember that I had some ready-made hour of teaching buried in my computer’s file folders.  (I’m insanely organized, so I have to admit that this doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen on occasion.)

In any event, I did give our students at the conference yesterday a list of the things that I feel have been successful in the past even though they never got to experience them themselves.  Initiatives like this are all the more powerful when they are student driven, and guiding a group of students to make the right choices each year is exhausting for whatever adult ends up taking on the role of mentor.

But the reason I continue to do this work in anti-racist educational practices is because it does matter; it matters a lot.  I think I need to ask Siri to remind me that it matters every Monday morning so that I don’t forget.  It is the privilege of teaching where I do, where most of my students are white and middle class, that I can get away with focusing in on the symbolism of Holden’s red hunting hat instead of the ways in which the expectations of his affluence contribute to his depression.  I can work hard at drawing connections between the great literature I teach and the social problems of the world today, and sometimes I’m just really tired, especially when I’m merely planting seeds that won’t flourish in these students until well after they leave my classroom.  I need the reminders to give me energy to keep pushing even when I’m exhausted and the students seem apathetic.

Yesterday was that reminder, so Siri can take the day off tomorrow.

Dancing Bears

As part of today’s marathon day, after teaching a full day at school I’ll head out to facilitate a three-hour workshop on racial identity in teaching.  The workshop meets about every two weeks, and as we wade through the complicated ideology of race and education each session, we always make time for participants to “check in” on things they’ve noticed over the period of time between sessions.

We stress that as educators and as members of this complicated American society, we don’t know what we don’t know until we know it.  That may sound convoluted, but for many of us that grew up in the latter part of the twentieth century, race and its impact on achievement and success was a taboo topic, something that we learned very early not to talk about.  As we take on different perspectives, we tend to see things in ways we never imagined possible.  This is true in these workshops, as well as in life in general; it’s one of the reasons I love teaching great literature because it provides the opportunity to experience the world as something completely unique to our own experiences.

To illustrate these points in class, my co-teachers and I use this great video:

If we don’t know what to look for, we typically won’t see it.  This is the lesson we teach with racial dynamics in America, and it’s something that constantly surprises me.  I’m constantly seeing dancing bears in my world, and I’ve been doing this work for several years.

In today’s session, I’ll be “checking in” on a few things I heard in the two weeks since I last met with this group.  Here are some highlights:

  • This NPR piece about double-eyelid surgery that many people believe is representative of Asian women pursuing a more Western standard of beauty
  • This article exploring the ways in which Kim Kardashian’s recent nude cover photo extravaganza actually is an explicit reference to the objectification and oppression of women of color

  • The story behind one black man’s six-word identity phrasing as part of the Race Card Project: “With kids, I’m dad.  Alone, thug.”
  • The recent lawsuit against Harvard claiming that the school unfairly limits the number of Asian Americans it admits, a lawsuit that is actually a veiled anti-Affirmative Action test case

These stories are everywhere, particularly within my social circles and the media in my world.  Granted, my specific identity and perspective help me gravitate toward friends that post this sort of stuff on Facebook and dictate what type of news I listen to.  Still, it excited me to be living in a time where these conversations can be had so publicly.  Slowly, we are chipping away at the stigma of even talking about race and how it impacts our daily existence in this country.  There are still lots of examples of the pernicious effects of our racist history, but when something like Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson happens, I’m thankful that we can engage in a dialogue about how race plays a role, even if there are still lots of people who don’t want to believe that it does.

So I’ll continue to look for dancing bears.  I’ll continue to post them on Facebook.  I’ll continue to use these stories to promote my left-wing gay agenda in my teaching.  And I’ll continue to use them to teach my own children to be safe and happy in this world.


Where I’m From

Day five of NaBloPoMo and I’m barely hanging on by a string.  I just booked a flight cross country this weekend to visit my ailing grandfather, and I just finished making arrangements for child coverage for my husband while I’m gone.  Now it’s way too late, and if I wait much longer I’ll miss my day five window.  So in honor of the many phone calls to California tonight and the cross referencing of which flight will get me where when and the plaintive calls to friends who are just like family to us to see who can take the kids to soccer and dance and back again–an evening that’s been focused entirely on family, both the one three feet away and the one 3000 miles away–I thought I’d post a poem I’ve written for my professional work in racial identity development.  My co-teacher and I ran a session tonight for 20+ educators, and we asked them to write a similar poem, following Linda Christensen’s fantastic suggestions.  The idea is to help educators locate themselves in order to better help students navigate these often difficult paths, and it’s something I’ve done for myself and with my high school students to great success.

I’m no poet, that’s certain.  But I took a crack at the poem a few years ago, and I retool it every now and then before sharing it with students; and it’s at least something that I think represents many of the aspects of “where I’m from.”  Here’s the current incarnation:

I Am From

I am from Saturday night poker games,
eggs purchased in crates,
and broken English laughter.
I am from bami and poffertjes
and fist fights with many, many cousins
to “godverdomme” and “Tante” and “Om.”
I am from “Oma” and “Opa,” too.

I am from a stranger of a father,
broken memories from my mother,
an overly logical engineer,
and knowing too much about
alcohol and drugs.

I am from questioning my feelings,
wondering “will they still love me?”
and “maybe it’s a just a phase”
and “what’s wrong with me?”

I am from new families created
By everything but blood
With the strongest of ties
That will never be broken.

I am from a complicated history that
begins on an island,
travels over many seas,
and stumbles through the United States
and back
that ends with me.


Dear Principal

There is only one African American teacher at our daughter’s school, she teaches first grade, and she has a fabulous reputation as a teacher.  Last year, as our daughter neared the end of Kindergarten, I started beating the drum to secure her a spot in that first grade class.  I met with her then current teacher and the school psychologist, and I wrote a two-page letter citing some of the research on the benefits of children of color being taught by teachers of color.  I thought it might be a one-time thing, but a friend of mine mentioned that she’s done the same thing every year for every one of her five children, and her youngest are now in high school.  I realized then that I’ll be sending a version of last year’s letter to my kids’ principal every year for the next decade regardless of whether or not there are teachers of color in whose classes my children can be placed.  In the absence of qualified racial minority teachers, white teachers must be trained in the effects of race, power, and privilege in our educational system in order to be effective educators for my children.  And only by thoughtfully placing my children–and other children of color–in what the state now deems “culturally proficient” classrooms can my children reach their potential.

And so, here is this year’s letter, slightly edited only to ensure anonymity:

Dear Principal P:

Thank you so much for the invitation to write to you regarding our children’s classroom placement at our school this fall. Ms. H has provided a wonderful first grade experience for our daughter, and Ms. E has done terrific work with our son in Kindergarten.

Last fall, I wrote sent the former principal a similar letter to this one, and I am thankful that our comments were taken into account when placing both of our children this year. As you may remember, our children come from a fairly nontraditional family. In addition to coming from a home with two fathers, both of them were adopted through the Massachusetts Foster Care system. We are also a racially diverse family: our daughter is African American, our son is Latino, my husband is white, and I am Asian. We hope that you will take into account all of these aspects of our children’s identities when placing them into appropriate classes this fall. While we understand the need for declining to hear any parent’s requests for specific teachers, in the past, members of your staff have endorsed such requests in light of our children’s unique identities.

Last year, Ms. M and Ms. L supported the placement of our daughter in Ms. H’s first grade class, and I have spoken with Ms. E about a similar placement for our son. Although he is not African American, as a dark-skinned Latino boy with Afro-textured hair living and two fathers who do not share these traits, he needs Ms. H as a role model for his positive racial identity development. As we wrote last year regarding our daughter’s placement, we wholeheartedly understand that one does not need to be a person of color to be a successful teacher for students of color—Ms. M and Ms. E are living proof of this—but research shows that students of color who have effective teachers that look like them end up being more successful in school overall, especially when this happens at an early age. Specifically, Han, West-Olatunji, and Thomas’s findings published in their article “Use of Racial Identity Development Theory to Explore Cultural Competence among Early Childhood Educators” concluded that “African-American students performed better at school when taught by African-American teachers.” I’m sure you are aware of all of the evidence supporting these ideas, and we hope you will take this into account when placing our son for first grade this fall. For similar reasons, we feel strongly that you consider placing our daughter in Ms. W’s class for second grade since this is currently her last opportunity in elementary school to be instructed by a teacher of color, something we have discussed with Ms. H as well.

Further, we would like to echo some of the additional sentiments we’ve expressed each year regarding our children’s placement. We feel strongly that both of our children should always be placed with educators who have completed training in culturally responsive teaching practices and who recognize the importance of racial and cultural identity on academic achievement and engagement. As Willis D. Hawley and Sonia Nieto note in their article, “Another Inconvenient Truth: Race and Ethnicity Matter,” “most measures of good teaching do not deal explicitly with culturally relevant pedagogy, in spite of the fact that research has documented that this approach to teaching can be effective with all students,” and Pedro A. Noguera suggests in his article “How Racial Identity Affects Performance,” “teachers for whom race was never a salient piece of their identity development may fail to recognize the significance of race in their students’ lives.” We are so proud that our district attempts to alleviate these issues by actively encouraging teachers to continue to educate themselves on culturally proficient teaching practices. Since new hires to the district may not have had time to complete this important coursework however, we ask for your consideration in placing both of our children this year and in the future with educators who have.

Finally, we would appreciate your attention in placing our children with cohorts of other traditionally marginalized children, both those who are adopted and other children of color. The latter is even more important given that our school will likely have no new Boston students in attendance with the district’s plans for placing all new METCO students at another elementary school.

We appreciate you reaching out to families to share our concerns and ideas, and we look forward to more successful years for our children in our school system!


That’s So Drunk

A few years ago in my school, I was part of a group of openly gay teachers who organized “A Day without ‘That’s So Gay,'” in which we brought awareness to students about the ubiquitous term.  At the time, students were saying it a lot.

My mom told me I couldn’t go to the party this weekend.

That’s so gay.

You’re homework is to read chapter six tonight.

That’s so gay.

I got the lead in the musical!

That’s so gay. (Okay, maybe this is an appropriate use.)

When I heard it, I usually called students on it.  I remember at my previous school, the building was literally falling apart.  A ceiling tile fell out during one of my classes, and this girl screamed, started laughing, and said, “That’s so gay.”  I asked her in front of the entire class, “So what exactly was either homosexual or extremely happy about that ceiling tile falling down?”  Everyone laughed, and I left it at that.  I’m sure it didn’t change any habits that day, but that’s all I was ready to do at that moment in my career.

So a few years ago, a colleague of mine spearheaded this “Day Without ‘That’s So Gay'”; we held a homeroom session where teachers read a blurb about the reason the phrase might be offensive, equating the word “gay” with “stupid” or “dumb” or “annoying.”  We supplied some talking points in response to the typical response: “Well we don’t mean it like that.”  We talked about the history around other colloquial expressions, like when “Jew” has been used as a verb or when I was growing up how we said everything was “retarded,” and the ways in which the normalization of those terms can hurt people who are already marginalized.  I know in my homeroom class, we had a great conversation about intent versus impact.  While the intention of saying “That’s so gay” might not be to offend someone or to equate being homosexual with being stupid or annoying, the impact on people who are gay or who love someone who might be pretty awful.  I opened up to my homeroom, telling them that every time I heard it, it hurt me.  I told them that the big difference between being gay and most other minority groups is that you usually can’t tell who is a part of that group by simply looking at them, and therefore, you typically can’t tell who you might be offending.  “I know you don’t mean it to offend, but now that you know it does, what does it say about you if you keep on saying it?”  My little group of ten or so students seemed to be coming around, and while I’m not aware of how the other discussions went in other homerooms, I know that today I really don’t hear it very often in the halls of my school.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday when I heard someone make a similar comment on a subject about which they are clearly ignorant.  I was spending the day with other teachers at a delightful professional development workshop focusing on dystopian literature.  During our discussion of the commentary that authors who write in the genre are making about our current society, we of course brought the conversation around to power in society: the haves and the have nots.  The former constantly fearful of becoming the latter; the latter often pushed down by the former.  And that’s when Little Miss Contrary decided to pipe up.  She is a high school English teacher who had spent the two days of our workshop saying how much she hated dystopian literature, contradicting our interpretations of the novels, and refusing to answer questions about what kind of books she does like.  When talking about the power in society, she brought the conversation around to economics, and went on and on about her sad little son’s inability to find a job:

Don’t blame him for your lazy son.

“He just graduated from college, and he’s been trying to so hard to find a job, but this economy is just awful.  And then I see people like this Philip Seymour whatever who has all the money in the world and he just pumps himself full of drugs with it.”

I did a double take.  Was she really linking her son’s job search to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death the day before, the death of a wonderfully talented actor who had succumbed to an addition he had been battling for more than two decades?  How did one have anything to do with the other.

I immediately piped up, “Well, I’m not sure that the economy has anything to do with Hoffman’s drug and alcohol addiction.”

“Well, I mean, he just spent all that money on drugs.  He has no idea what other people are going through.”

Another teacher joined my crusade, “How about Justin Bieber?  That might be a much better example of what you’re talking about.”

Little Miss Contrary simply huffed and rolled her eyes.  A few minutes later during a break, she turned to the woman sitting next to her and said, “You know, I really don’t blame that Justin Bieber.  He’s too young to know better.”

This seemingly idiotic conversation hurt me far more than it should have.  Just like “That’s so gay,” when I hear people talk with such contempt for people struggling with addiction, I am reminded of the years and years of struggle my own mother endured at the hands of her alcohol addiction, a disease that eventually claimed her life six years ago.  And it hurts.  It hurts that people would think of my mother’s death with a huff and an eye roll like this woman did of Philip Seymour Hoffman, like she surely did a few years ago when Amy Winehouse died, or any of the other high profile addiction-related deaths in recent years.

What probably stings the most is that I went through a period of ignorance myself about my mother’s sickness.  I remember yelling at her once, “Why don’t you just stop?  I don’t understand why you don’t just stop drinking!”  I was in my twenties and my mother’s functional alcoholism that she’d lived with for most of my life had just turned gone over the precipice; she was often belligerently inebriated, had a few drunken car accidents under her belt, and had recently endured the demise of her 20+ year marriage.  She had been to rehab and back, and nothing seemed to be taking.  Like Little Miss Contrary, I didn’t understand why this woman who had enough money to live comfortably, who had friends and family who loved her, who once had a vibrant and exciting life filled with joy and happiness was now consistently choosing to drink her life away.

Even when she died after laying in a hospital bed for nearly two months, fading in and out of reality as her liver slowly stopped functioning, I didn’t understand.  At that point, I’d done all the reading, gone to counseling, attended Al-Anon, and logically I understood that my mother simply couldn’t stop.  She had a disease and the only real treatment that is available to addicts–counseling from professional and support from other addicts–didn’t work for her.  As a person myself who is able to say, “I’m only have one glass of wine tonight” and actually only have one glass of wine tonight, it didn’t make sense to me that someone could say that and then be unable to stop drinking four, five, six glasses of wine tonight.  It’s taken me several years beyond my mother’s death to come to terms with the fact that I really can be no more angry with her for dying from alcoholism than I could be if she had died from cancer.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death this week reminded me of all of this.  A good friend who has struggled with these issues herself immediately wrote to me with the news.  We had worked with him in New York briefly about fifteen years ago when he was doing some theater productions, so we felt a bit more connected to his departure than some of the other recent celebrity deaths.  Little Miss Contrary’s sentiments about his choice to inject himself with drugs shows the limitations of her understanding, limitations that are certainly the majority in our world.  To people like her, Hoffman’s overdose is another indication of the self-destructive decadence of the uber-wealthy, and while his tax bracket may have made the instruments of his death more readily available than others, this is a disease that doesn’t check salaries before attacking its victims.  Hoffman left behind three kids, and even not knowing really knowing him, I’m positive he wasn’t sitting in that apartment thinking, “What am I going to do with all of this money?”

A good read.

Loving someone with an addiction is probably one of the only things that will help perpetuate a better understanding of the disease, and in my personal experience, sometimes it’s moving beyond that love when the addict leaves our lives that really brings that understanding.  Sharon Rush suggests in her book Loving Across the Color Lines that being a white woman who loves her black adopted daughter taught her to see the realities of the racial divide in this country, and I think this is true of the significant strides in gay rights over the past two decades as well.  When a loved one comes out to us and we do not allow the knowledge to affect that love, we begin to understand the implications of subtle heterosexism that exists in our society, and we maybe speak up when we hear a kid say “That’s so gay.”

Likewise, when we love an addict, and particularly when we lose that person, we come to accept the realities of this disease.  It’s not knowledge that is easily come by, and it’s not a lesson I want anyone in my life to really endure.  At the same time, a shared collective understanding might provide a safer place for us all, one filled with empathy, especially for the victims that succumb to addiction and the ones that are left behind.


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.