Blog Post #1 NAIS People of Color Conference

The last week and a half have left me in many ways emotionally drained. As a teacher and father of two African American boys seeing the lack of indictments for Darren Wilson and later for the police officer who killed Eric Garner has left me hurt, angry and disillusioned. Indeed there was no better time to make my way to Indianapolis for the 27th Annual National Association of Independent School’s People of Color Conference. I first attended POCC in 1994 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the year I began my teaching career in independent schools. I have come 11 times since that time and it has never disappoints. POCC is part conference, revival, reunion, and a safe space.

I have walked the halls of this conference this year in the Circle City, as they call it, and just been filled to see old colleagues and friends. Folks who have walked the path with me through my many years in education and who I consider friends, folks I know that have my back, but who also are in the struggle with me and who have made me the teacher I have become. It is here that I can be my true and authentic self without effort. Michael Eric Dyson, our keynote speaker from yesterday, extolled us in his rousing address that if we believed in God or the energy of the universe, that we must open our mouths and tell the truth and be brave. That is just what I needed to hear as I watched thousands fill the streets of New York and other Cities. “I can’t breathe” is the rally cry of thousands and when I first heard those words I felt a sickness and sadness that overcame me, but those words are now a mantra and I needed Dyson to remind us that we must be courageous, and stand up for what is right in our schools. Although we are often met with resistance and worse yet silence in our schools and communities, I am inspired in ways that are difficult to express. What we do as educators goes beyond just teaching. Dyson reminded us that what we are invested in principles that will last longer than our brief tenures here on this planet. He reminded me of one of my favorite quotes, whose author I do not know. “To teach is to make footprints in the sand for an eternity.” To my fellow POCC attendees, let’s keep on making footprints. More to Come in Blog post #2

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Thanksgiving, Myth and a Student’s Question

Thanksgiving is always a time to reflect on all that I have to be thankful for and to have much needed time to spend with family. As a history teacher I have used this time to discuss with students the origins of the holiday and try to discern the truth vs. the myths that have become a part of our collective memory surrounding Thankgiving. One question that I asked my students this year to blog about was whether or not they agreed with the sentiment expressed by Professor Jane Kamensky of Brandeis University that “Thanksgiving is true to its purposes, and that’s all it needs to be. For these holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now” or if they agreed with journalist Richard Schiffman statement that “We would do well to remember the price the first Americans paid for European expansion into their territories as we sit around the bountiful table with our family and friends. Only by openly acknowledging the sins of our collective past, is it possible to proceed toward a future that all Americans can feel thankful for.”

I am always encouraged by the thoughtful and insightful comments my students raise, but there was one question that a student stated quite well, and it is one that I think all educators should think about. She asked quite simply “Why do teachers lie to students and tell them the wrong information? Are they protecting them from the truth or do they actually believe the false information? I understand that it may be hard to tell children this because it involved violence, but when is the right time for them to know the truth? We should be able to look back at the past and reflect.” Powerful words! When and at what age do we tell our students the truth about a difficult part of our history?

History is complex and in its retelling things are often added and subtracted in order to make it fit the historical narrative a country wishes to portray and what it believes itself to be. I mean who really wants to say that we stole the land from Native peoples, attempted to enslave them, forced them off their land onto reservations, broke treaty after treaty and have never acknowledged this in a meaningful way. It is a tough thing, but as evidenced from this student, all children want answers and they want to know the truth, and we as teachers must give that to them in a clear and honest way. I can accept the fact that there are those who desire to extol the greatness of the United States, but all I say is to tell the truth about how we rose to greatness. Our greatness came at the great expense of certain groups of people and that must be told. Thanksgiving is a time for all of us to give thanks but also a time to reflect on our rich and complicated history, and as teachers the holiday is a perfect opportunity for us to deepen our own understanding of the holiday and share with students, regardless of the age, the true story it.

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Reflections on Returning to School

As I am about to begin my 21st year in education I always look upon the beginning school year with hope and anticipation. There is an excitement I feel at what the new year will bring. For a brief moment I can leave behind thoughts of the crisis in education, the usual teacher angst that is prevalent in any school whether public or private, and the inevitable feeling of being overwhelmed as one hits the ground running so to speak. This year is no different and I have begun thinking furiously about my curriculum and the books that I will teach, and the new writing methods learned in a summer institute in New York City. Of course as part of my preparation, I always think about how I will make my classroom relevant to the lives of students whose experiences for the most part are far removed from my own. In so many ways the world has changed immensely since I was in 8th grade, yet our schools in many ways have changed little in the intervening years.

Making things relevant often means getting students to ask the difficult questions regarding the world around them, and in order to do that I have to ask myself some difficult questions. What does it mean to teach in a private school in an age of growing income inequality? Do I emphasize in my curriculum the Civil Rights movement and the challenges still faced by people of color? Do I challenge the whole notion of community service? Not easy questions and the answers are complex, but as an educator I have to wrestle with them just as I want my students to do.

As I write this article and prepare for school Washington is gridlocked and the country seems on the verge of being sucked back into a war in Iraq. The interminable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians leaves even those of us who want to believe that righteousness and peace will prevail sometimes questioning that belief. Meanwhile another unarmed black man lays dead, this time in Feguson, Missouri, and the town he lived and died in looks like it is under military occupation with peaceful protestors under siege. Do my students feel dismayed, confused, and hopeless?

Thankfully the beginning of the school year and being a teacher infuses me with a wellspring of hope for the future. Otherwise why would I do this job? Pahsi Sahlberg, in his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland? states that “…it is paramount that teachers’ workplaces allow them to fulfill their moral missions. In Finland, as in many other countries, a teaching career is a result of an inner desire to work with people and help them and their societies through teaching.” I am the heir of a long line of individuals who under the most difficult of circumstances taught the next generation. What must it have been like to be a teacher of newly freed slave children in the 1860’s or of immigrant children in the 19th and early 20th centuries? And what of those young people who 50 years ago spent their summer teaching in Mississippi Freedom Schools and thereby helping to change the course history. Those unsung and unknown teachers that preceded me are my legacy, and like Whitney Houston sang many years ago, “I believe the children are our future, Teach them well and let them lead the way.” To all my fellow teachers and educators, Welcome Back to School!

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On Being “Just” a Teacher

I can remember a few years back attending the National Association of Independent School’s (NAIS) annual People of Color Conference and having a discussion with one of the attendees. He was explaining to me that his brother had told him that it was a shame that their parents had wasted so much money on him to become a teacher. The poet, Taylor Mali, in his spoken word poem, “What Teachers Make,” recalls an encounter with an individual at a dinner party who asks him “What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?” In my own life I have often felt that those closest to me have not respected what I have chosen to do for a living. From resentment that I have the summers off to needling me to leave the classroom and better myself, I have had to listen to others define what I do in less than flattering terms and unfortunately I came to internalize these beliefs. Although it has been difficult at times, and I even left the classroom briefly to become an administrator, I have now come to realize and celebrate the fact that I have been blessed to be in one of the most honorable professions there is. I am, as a parent told me in June after our 8th grade graduation, a “born teacher.”

Our society does not respect those of us who have chosen education for a profession and the monetary compensation we receive often reflects this. As a private independent school teacher for most of my career, I am grateful for teaching in environments where I have been very respected by both administrators and parents. However, this still does not make up for the fact that according to an article in Independent School Magazine several years ago, “The median salary of independent school heads, with inflation adjustment, increased 31.4 percent between 1999 and 2009. The median salary of teachers, with inflation adjustment, increased 5.8 percent in the same time period.” Wherever we have chosen to work, rather public or private schools, as teachers we are constantly faced with a barrage of negative publicity in addition to inadequate compensation, which can and does affect the way we look at ourselves and how others look at what we do. Of course this probably has more to say about the skewed values of American society in the 21st century, then it does about those of us who teach.

Although this has not always been the case, what I think gives me a great sense of pride in what I do is knowing that over the past 20 years as a teacher I have been able to touch the lives of hundreds of students in a positive and life-changing way and I would defy anyone in any other profession to tell me that what I do is not valuable. I have had former students tell me what a difference I made in their lives, some have reached out to me on social media to thank me for something I said or did during my time as their teacher. Even one of my more challenging students in recent years wrote to thank me for being a “true role model” in his life. I am always surprised and humbled by these expressions of gratitude and for many years discounted them, believing that I did not do anything special to earn these accolades. Now I have come to realize and celebrate that I have been granted a great gift and I have taken these God-given gifts and decided to put them to use in educating the greatest asset we have as a nation—our children. What more could one ask for? My favorite saying, of whose origins I do not know, states that, “To teach is to make footprints in the sand for an eternity.” As I reflect on my 20 years in education I am grateful for having chosen this profession and I look forward to continuing to make more footprints for many years to come.

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To Kill A Mockingbird: Tom Robinson and the New Jim Crow

What I love about this time of year is not necessarily that the school year is swiftly coming to a close and that I will have time off to do some of the things I love to do best, but that I always end the year teaching one of the best pieces of American fiction ever written. To Kill a Mockingbird is a moving and timeless masterpiece and there is little that can be said about it that has not been said already. However, the other day in class my students participated in a fascinating Socratic Seminar led by an 8th grade student in each of my sections. In one of the seminars the question posed by the leader asked if the justice system was any different today than at the time the novel took place. The responses were what I expected from my students who by and large live very sheltered and privileged lives. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with that because in many ways I sheltered my own sons by sending them to private schools and moving to one of Chicago’s nicest and most progressive suburbs. But privilege has a way of blinding us to the realities that exist. As a result of the deep segregation that exists in Chicago, the idea that our criminal justice system even faintly resembles that of the world of Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson would be hard to imagine for many students in an independent school similar to the one I teach at. Therefore I think in teaching To Kill a Mockingbird one has to draw parallels to the criminal “justice” system of the 1930s to the one in 2014.

I was impressed that during the discussion two of my students talked about their previous research on the racial disparity in New York’s Stop and Frisk program. Another student quite eloquently recalled the 60-minute episode we watched earlier in the year regarding Chicago’s dubious distinction as the “False Confession Capital of the country” and asked his classmates if they remembered how many of those falsely accused were white. Another student talked about his research on the death penalty and the racial disparities that exist. However, many students still clung to the idea that racism is much less a factor today and that the justice system is nothing like it once was.

This is where knowing a few facts can help students gain a broader understanding of what we face today. The mass incarceration of black and brown men in this country smacks of 1930s racism. Michelle Alexander, in her must read book The New Jim Crow, states that, “The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” She goes on to state that one in three young African American men most likely will serve time in prison and in some cities like Chicago almost half of all young adult black men are locked up, on probation or parole. We have normalized this pathetic and disgraceful situation because there is no way that if 50% of young white men were in a similar situation that there would not be a huge outcry from every sector of society. As an educator it is important that this modern-day form of Jim Crow be clearly taught to students and allow them to think deeply and realistically about the world we live in today, and not relegate the world of Mockingbird to historical fiction. They need to know and understand that the more things change the more they often remain the same.

Listen to Michelle Alexander’s Ted Talk



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The Story Within Us: Teaching about Race in a “Post Racial” Society: Part II

One of the great things about teaching is that if you are good at what you do then you will always be in a process of improving your craft. For me this means continually learning about new and exciting things, which ultimately improves my teaching. In the process of teaching an identity unit which primarily focuses on race and gender, I decided to approach the science teacher at my school to see if we could do an interdisciplinary unit in which I would focus on race as a social construction and she would focus on race as biology. The unit has grown and developed over the years and today it includes a close examination of the latest scientific research, which basically states that there is no such thing as race from a biological point of view. Humans are, according to what we now know, the most similar of any species, and are most likely descendant from one woman who lived approximately 180,000 years ago in eastern Africa.

In teaching this unit I have learned more about evolution, DNA, and the origins of the human species then I ever thought possible. With the help of some good sources and some interesting and informative conversations with Dr. Joseph Graves, one of the foremost scholars in evolutionary biology s in the country, I became much more knowledgeable about a subject that in truth I knew very little about. However, what I think most changed the way that I look at race and humanity came from the simple DNA test I took along with my colleague. One of our students asked if the students could take a DNA test to determine their origins. In the interest of cost and any parental objections we decided that we would test our own mitochondrial DNA through the National Geographic Genographic project and share this information with the students. Mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA is inherited solely from our mothers and unlike most DNA it remains unchanged as it passes from one generation to the next. According to the National Geographic Genographic site, “…some parts of the DNA chain remain largely intact through the generations, altered only occasionally by mutations, which become ‘genetic markers.’ These markers allow geneticists to trace our common evolutionary time line back many generations.”

So the story began for me, according to the results, some 67,000 years ago with a woman who lived in east Africa. I belong to the haplo group L3. A haplo group is just a group of individuals who share common genetic markers found, in my case, in my mtDNA. “These markers link the members of a haplogroup back to the marker’s first appearance in the group’s common ancestor.” It was an amazing moment to learn with some sense of certainty that at least one of my ancestors (my mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, mother’s …) was from Africa, but it was even more startling to learn that “the L3 branch is the major maternal branch from which all mitochondrial DNA lineages outside of Africa arose.” In other words, I am descendant from the woman whose descendants would go on to populate the entire world. However, some of her descendants stayed within Africa and one of her daughters, generations later, would reside somewhere in west Africa and be taken by force along with thousands of other Africans to the Americas. Some generations later my great-great grandmother, Mary Samuels, living in Georgia, would have a daughter, Sallie, who her great-grandchildren would affectionately call Mama Cheney. Sallie would leave Athens, Georgia and make her way north with her husband Melvin and settle on the south side of Chicago in 1912. Their daughter Hazel would have four sons that survived infancy and two daughters, one of them my mother.

This knowledge has shaped me and changed me in profound ways. There are those times when I am on the subway or walking along the streets of Chicago looking at the diversity before me, and due to this test I am reminded that all of us are related. Linked by blood and an impossible transcontinental journey we indeed are all brothers and sisters and the proof is right here within each and every one of us.

What does this mean for me as a teacher when I stand before my class to share this information? It means that race is a social construction that was made to divide us one from the other and in the case of the Americas, to justify slavery. We are indeed one species with a common ancestor who gazed up at the same stars and moon that we do. This in my mind is just a beginning to help bridge the deep divisions that exist between us and perhaps bring a deeper understanding of our common humanity.

To learn more about the National Geographic Genographic project check out this talk by Dr. Spencer Wells

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Teaching About Race in a “Post Racial” Society: Part I

The election of Barack Obama gave rise to the belief that the United States had arrived at a moment in history of “post-racialism.” The definition, most likely to the average person, means a society in which race is no longer an impediment to advancement in our country much like it had been for most of the nation’s history. There is little doubt that immense change has occurred since the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. This movement can in some ways be construed as a success. The Jim Crow signs of the era are long gone, African Americans now hold many positions of power and influence never before dreamed of, the black middle class has ascended to a position of political and economic clout, and of course we have a black family in the White House.

Because of this perceived success there can be resistance around issues of race in the classroom, but if there is resistance to teaching about race and racism from the middle school students I teach it is often not in the traditional way in which we might consider resistance. The resistance, if one wants to call it that, is that many students, particularly white students, see racism has a thing of the past which no longer has the same relevancy as it did 50 years ago. Therefore any discussion about race must include discussions about how race and racism impacts us today. For my students who live in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the country, it is important that I make sure they have a clear understanding of why the city is so segregated and how this segregation impacts them as they apply to many of the selective enrollment schools. Admission to these schools is now based on a socio-economic tier system that was put into place when the consent decree ended a few years ago and race could no longer be used in the admissions into some of the cities most elite schools.

A fundamental question that arises for educators like myself is how, if at all, to approach controversial issues such as race within a classroom setting. I never particularly had an issue with talking about race in my classroom, but I did experience the issue with regards to homosexuality. When I first began teaching 20 years ago I sought to avoid discussions around issues of sexuality and in particular homosexuality. I would make sure not to “out” particular individuals such as Walt Whitman or Langston Hughes, both of whose sexuality has been debated by a number of scholars over the years. What this did was to leave out an interesting and perhaps important aspect of the individual’s identity, which it could be argued, could have and most likely influenced their work. As I evolved as a teacher my views and apprehension on the subject changed and today I would not think of teaching about the Harlem Renaissance and not mentioning the influence of gays and lesbians on what is arguably one of the great literary and cultural achievements of African Americans in our country. I would argue that for many educators avoiding difficult subjects such as homosexuality, race, or sexism might seem the easy way out as I did some years ago, but in an age where students see school as irrelevant to what they are confronting in the real world, a discussion of pertinent issues is not only important, but essential.

How or whether or not to teach about controversial or difficult topics such as race certainly depends on the context. History and Social Studies teachers certainly are more likely to encounter these issues since race and racism permeate almost all aspects of our history and present. A mathematics teacher might see less of a value in it, but regardless of what one teaches or where one teaches, issues of race are often the elephant in the room. For me race has always been a fascinating topic in and of itself worthy of study. I am not quite sure when it became an important topic to specifically address in the classroom, but I do know that one of my earliest encounters with racism came not on the street but in the classroom of my Catholic grade school in a south suburb of Chicago. I can clearly remember being called a nigger in first grade by one of my white classmates, but it would be in second grade, when Sister Angela, called a number of the black boys to her desk and in a fit of anger called them all niggers. I have never forgotten that moment and it is usually met with shock and surprise when I tell the story. Nevertheless, as I grew older and look back on that ugly moment, and other moments I would later encounter in high school and college, I decided that if a teacher could use her words and actions to denigrate her students then the least I could do as an educator was to use my words and actions to lift my students up and send them out into the world armed to do battle against the forces of injustice and prejudice. I can only do that if I confront the difficult issue of race both historically and in the present.

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