Silent Hallways are Unjust: Let Students Speak!

I was recently visiting a charter middle school that enforces silent hallways during passing periods–in addition to following lines taped on the floor and SLANT in quiet classrooms (quiet except for teacher behavior narration). Immediately I was shocked and wondered how it was possible for a group of highly educated and committed (mostly white) educators to convince themselves that deliberately silencing students of color and low socio economic status in the name of social justice is equity? Our students are human beings with the human need to socialize, communicate, and express themselves. Furthermore, our urban students are people who consistently experience personal and systemic oppression; therefore, they have a need to talk to process their common experiences and to speak out against the racism, classism, sexism, they endure. The silencing of students is oppressive and dehumanizing. In the moment that I saw young Black and Brown students walking silently in lines, it seemed obvious to me that this expectation sickeningly mirrors the historical tactics of dictators and systems of oppression. Oppressive regimes maintain dominance by enforcing silence—they take away the voice of the oppressed and tell them that it is for their own good.

Given the oppressive history of forced silence, I became curious and determined to find out “Why?” I asked the school leader and was told, “Silence in the halls increases the time on task in the classroom. We do not have to fight with the kids to get them settled down. These kids are so behind, we need all of the time on task we can get…we have a mission: all kids college ready!”

The mission of the school is touted as one of educational equity. All kids, regardless of race or class, will have the option to attend college when they graduate. And admittedly, in comparison, most district schools in this area do not prepare students academically, and four-year colleges are not an option when/if students graduate. But at what point is the cost of a “college-ready-excellent-education” too high? And why must kids of color and low socio-economic status be silenced in order to attain an excellent education? Is it not possible for a group of very intelligent, hard working, thoughtful, committed educators to give students the skills they need without forcing them to comply with rigid silence rules?

Some educators argue that they are providing students with more time on task and an excellent education that will eventually give their students access to the dominant culture and power in society. The teachers believe that once their students have power, they can use it to change the system. I wonder, however, how will a child that grows up silent, know how to speak up and out if s/he does not practice in her/his formative years? How will a student even know what to speak against if s/he is not taught to see oppression or allowed to question the people of power? If students gain access to the dominant culture, will they have learned anything in school that encourages and empowers them to recognize, respond to, and redress injustice? Or will they have learned to stay silent for success?

I know middle school kids are talkative, hard to settle down, squirrely at times. I taught middle school in Atlanta, GA. I know that silence may increase time on task and “learning” in the classroom. So, too, perhaps do uniforms, SLANT, and other norms rooted in efficiency and equality—everyone doing the same thing, at the same time, in the same way for the sake of success—but the cost is too high. I would not want to be educated that way. I would not want my children to be educated that way. I do not want other children educated that way. The sad part, though, is my children and I have choice. We can go to a school that will provide an excellent education without being silenced.

Children in some communities only have two choices: a poorly performing, low-expectation holding, district school—OR—a high performing, highly compliance-driven, silent-hallway-having charter or district “turnaround” school. End of choices. Therefore, do not mistake a parent’s choice to send her child to a silent school as consent. Many parents of color do not agree with mostly white people forcing their children to be silent. Be sure that parents of color and those living in poverty are having their own conversations in their homes with their children.  They say, “I know the teachers tell you to be silent son, but one day, when it is safe, scream…say it loudly and proudly that you are not someone to be silenced! Share your lived experience. Racism is real. Poverty is real. Your pain is real. Your strength is real too. You are strong. You are smart. You are incredible with stories of joy to share. You have something to say and you will say it, one day.”

Let’s hope that, though, when our students of color and/or low socio-economic status grow up, the voices from home are louder in their heads than the rule at school. And, finally, let’s just hope that our students of color have that voice at home and that it wasn’t silenced during middle school, never to surface again.

*Once oppressive curriculum, instruction practices, policies, and procedures are exposed they must thoughtfully and intentionally be undone with a community of stakeholders armed with equity literacy.  “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” A. Einstein. For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com.

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Letter to the Mothers of Black Boys

Although Lisa Calderón’s letter is to Mothers of Black Boys, there is a lot that we ALL — dominant culture and non-dominant culture educators, parents, and people — can gain from her words. In essence, Lisa Calderón describes the myriad of lies that are told to children and the false promises made to parents in order to fill seats in district turnaround schools and “high performing” charters. She indicts the lie that is forced upon black boys, written at the bottom of school emails, and posted on school walls for recitation: “Work hard, assume responsibility, and you will move ahead.”  Lisa, and her children, know all to well that working hard in a rigged game, a game where you are taught to comply and compete to get ahead, may result in test scores (if you are lucky) but comes at a cost that is too high. She, too, is critical of “No Excuses” schools that promise results that, yes, are long overdue, but need to be achieved with a socio-cultural consciousness and the voice and power of the community. Lisa recently wrote, “The missionary mentality of Killing the Indian, but saving the man is still implicitly rooted in our American Education System.” She has also said, “My children are survivors of an educational system that never intended them to be critical thinkers with individual aspirations and collective community responsibilities.” For Lisa and her children, mediocrity was never an option. A critical, individualized, and community responsive education–that does not assimilate, dominate, indoctrinate–is their tool for survival.

Written by Lisa Calderón

Dear Mothers of Black Boys,

I know you want the best for your child. I know that by the time you made a decision to come to my school you’ve gone through an exhaustive process of trying to pick the best school for him. I know it hasn’t been easy. It is likely that every school you have sent your child to has failed him in some way. I know that as a parent you are not asking for anything unreasonable: just a comprehensive education that you can have confidence in that will prepare your child for his future.

Let me summarize the promises that I think have been made to you by each school that you have placed your child into: First, that your child will be treated fairly. That despite the learning challenges or untapped brilliance he may have, the inadequacies in how teachers are prepared to educate urban children of color, and the substandard building facilities and teaching materials, you’ve been told that your child will be adequately prepared to graduate, successfully get admitted into a college and eventually be able to support himself in an expanding global economy.

Second, you were told that they were teaching your child to take initiative and to assume responsibility because that is the way to get ahead in life. By being educated, working hard and relying on his own merit, you were reassured that your child would move ahead.

Third, you were told that the school environment was competitive to teach your child about discipline and what it takes to win in order to drive him toward success. After all, getting into a good college is a competitive process. It is all about the hard work and preparation before graduation that will help secure your child’s placement in a top university, right?

Finally, you were told that they would teach your child to be a creative and innovative thinker, an important American attribute for success. They claimed to do this by focusing most of your child’s learning activities on trying to improve his reading and math scores, then testing him incessantly to measure progress. If your child was lucky, he was also drilled on the subject of science.

So why have you come to my school? Because you have figured out, Mother, that those promises made by administrators (to fill seats in their schools) were lies. You are here because you have seen the pain in your child’s eyes after he was not treated fairly. You have seen him go from an eager and confident explorer to a sullen and “reluctant learner.” You have seen him hide his homework, and even the favorite books you used to read to him, because they now represent chains that wear him down rather than wings that carried him to the sky. You have seen him isolated for speaking his mind, chastised for talking too loudly, or demeaned for not speaking up enough when the teacher calls on him in class.

So Mother, what would you like me to do for you? I’m speaking to you now, not as an educator, but also as a Black mother who has been through the anguished journey of the American Education System. Here is my advice: no matter what, never give up on your child. They will tell you he doesn’t want to learn, therefore, they must concentrate on the children who do. Insist that they teach him just like they would a child whose parents have all the resources and influence at their disposal. They will try to put the responsibility for his learning back onto his small shoulders. Tell them to do their jobs and engage him by opening up his mind to limitless possibilities. They will tell you that it is your fault for not reinforcing their lessons at home. Tell them you’re job is to provide for your family the best way you know how, and to create the path to the doorstep of their school, which you have done. Finally, tell them that even though they only have your child temporarily, he is your child forever and you will do everything possible for them to see your child as you do: your pride and joy – and America’s future.

*For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com

Advice for the TFA Blob: Stop the Spin

When I was at TFA institute, Gary Rubinstein hosted a session on classroom management and gave us a signed copy of his book–I still have it even though I never read it.  Since then, like me, Gary has become an outspoken critic of TFA.  This post by Diane Ravitch shares highlights of Gary’s Open Letter and gives TFA some very specific advice:

“….If you really want to get critics off your back, you’ve got to start asking a different question. You have to get the [TFA] staff members together and ask “What sorts of things are we doing that are bothering the critics so much? What is it about those things that we have such trouble stopping doing them? Do we want to stop doing them? What would it take to stop doing them.” These are the kinds of questions, amorphous TFA Blob, that you need to be asking yourself.”

I couldn’t say it better myself; Diane and Gary nailed it!  TFA needs to stop “spinning” its narrative and needs to humbly and sincerely reflect on the organization, its mission, its methods, its definition of an “excellent education,” its recruitment, and its explicit and hidden messages to corps members, communities, and funders.  TFA is a Blob, a Blob of the power and with power….and it needs to be held accountable in the same way it is holding students and teachers in this nation accountable.

*For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com

Equity in Education is Not Relative

Recently I was facilitating a professional development session on equity for the staff of a small high school and one topic kept coming up as a possible stumbling block: cultural relativity. Implicit in teachers’ sincere questions and comments was the need to know if I was purporting that all cultural norms are okay and to be tolerated in an educational environment. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, some people wanted to know if I expected them to “teach” students that all values, beliefs, actions, and goals are legitimate. The question raised was, “Are educators supposed to remain neutral about what is right and proper and, therefore, risk not teaching students the knowledge, skills, and ways of being that will find them success in this American Dominant Culture?” Upon some deep reflection on this topic, I realize that the issue is not about accepting all cultural differences or being culturally relative. As A. G. Johnson said, “The trouble around difference is really about privilege and power—the existence of privilege and the lopsided distribution of power that keeps it going.”

Equity work is simply not the same as cultural relativity work. Cultural relativity simply says, “There is no right or wrong; all ways of thinking and being can be viewed as valid.” Equity work, on the other hand, says something quite different. Equity work questions consistently and relentlessly:

  • Who is being silenced, devalued, oppressed?
  • Who is being validated, privileged, and placed as superior?
  • How is this being done?
  • What are the unintended messages being sent?
  • Who holds the power?
  • What is the impact?
  • Whose perspectives am I missing?
  • How should I/we respond?
  • How might I/we redress this injustice?

Equity work demands that people apply a critical lens to all situations, interactions, policies, norms, etc.—both personal and institutional. Equity work requires people to be critical of culture, both their own cultures and others’ and not, as some think, to blindly accept ways of being as either as “normal” or “cultural.”

So to be clear, in partnering to do equity work at the school level, I am not asking teachers to believe that “anything goes” and to lower expectations of our culturally and linguistically diverse students. I am not asking teachers to be “culturally relative” and allow for any culture—its values, norms, and ways of being—to go unchecked. Quite the contrary because I am asking teachers to actively critique the cultural norms that dominate a school. I am asking educators to critique their visions of an “excellent education”— the goals, objectives, curriculum, instructional methods, policies, and procedures. I want people, including students and families, to start asking the questions above and the question: “Does an excellent education merely prepare students to succeed in an unjust society, or does it also prepare students to see, respond to, and redress societal injustice?” On answering this question we must be definitive, not relative.

*For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com