Opposite of Equity: TFA Attempts Narrative Control

It is never ok to control the narrative of someone else’s trauma or oppression–not as an individual, not as an organization.  Furthermore, it is not ever ok for White, affluent, Ivy-League-connected people of power (particularly those who claim to be “equity-driven”) to attempt to silence and shame the narratives of those who have been marginalized. Therefore, Teach for America, it is NOT OK–as an organization or as individuals–to minimize and marginalize the counter-narratives written in Teach for America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak up and Speak Out.  If you are a change agent and committed to ending systemic and institutional inequity in this nation (this is the claim of TFA plastered on its website), then please learn more about the role of dominant and counter-narratives (they are foundational to racial, gender, class, and LGTBQ equity work) and LISTEN to the counter-narratives.

Dominant and Counter-Narratives

“There’s really no such thing as the `voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Arundhati Roy

There are dominant voices, the voices of power and privilege, the voices of those with resources. They are amplified and believed. Stanley (2007) describes dominant (master) narratives as scripts that dictate how things work and how stories are framed.  This includes how problems are defined (like problems of equity) and the best ways to solve them. The dominant narrative is created by the dominant culture that has privilege, access, and power in society.The dominant narrative tells the experience and the perspective of the dominant culture as truth. Most importantly, the dominant narrative is used and perpetuated by the dominant culture (at times unintentionally/subconsciously) to maintain its dominance and power.

Counter-narratives, on the other hand, deconstruct the perspective and script of the dominant culture that is deemed “normal” and “right.” Counter-narratives present alternatives to the dominant discourse (Stanley 2007). They seek to entirely reframe how problems are defined and solved, often finding that the framing of the problem is problematic. Counter-narratives are born out of the experiences of people and groups that do not fit and are critical of the dominant narrative.  They are the voices of those who are often silenced and marginalized.

Equity work at its core involves listening to, validating, and amplifying the voices of those who are systemically suppressed and institutionally ignored. Therefore, when TFA posted this response on its website, I felt more confident then ever that my counter-narrative,“Perpetuating, Committing, and Cultivating Racism: The Real Movement Behind TFA” was very accurate–in essence TFA had just validated with its response that it perpetuates the status quo. TFA’s response was attempting to suppress the counter-narrative.

In its attempt to control the overall narrative by minimizing our counter-narratives, TFA labeled our perspectives as “misconceptions” and stated that we, the authors, have “chosen to focus on past experiences that are not in line with how we [TFA] operate.”  This strategic wording asserts that our TFA experiences (conceptions)–what we thoughtfully described as happening/happened–are wrong (mis).  Furthermore, TFA framed our counter-narratives as choices instead of accepting them as valid perspectives.  By stating that the authors of the counter-narratives “chose” to focus on the past, TFA seeks to blame us and shame us. Lastly, TFA seeks to negate our perspectives by declaring that our main criticisms are no longer “how we operate” and, therefore, our counter-narratives are not valid.

 

In a final bold move, TFA posted 20 narratives of TFA alumni that exemplify the dominant TFA narrative.  While I do not think TFA should take them down (it is always good to have multiple perspectives), I do think it is interesting to consider their role and purpose. The dominant narrative that “TFA is a solution to educational inequity” is well established (and well-funded).  Our counter-narratives were published to show other perspectives, to make the dominant narrative about TFA and education reform more complex, nuanced, and to amplify the voices that–until now–have not been heard.  Similarly, when Fredrick Douglass wrote his [counter] narrative, The Narrative of a Slave, it would have been very curious if a counter, counter-narrative was published: a narrative of a slave owner that described how slavery was working well for those in power. Forgive me if you find my example hyperbolic, but the point is the dominant narrative is already dominant…is it not possible to make room for another narrative? If not, why? What is the cost to those in power?

TFA must examine the ways its current incarnation sustains and promotes the status quo and the supremacy of the dominant culture.   I truly wish TFA could have written a response that noted that:

  • The counter-narratives are valid perspectives of corps members, and all voices deserve a chance to be heard.
  • TFA undoubtedly will not agree with every criticism, but TFA is committed to social justice and education equity and, therefore, will consider the emergent themes thoughtfully.
  • TFA values all of the leaders it “creates,” including the ones who are critical of TFA, for they help the organization and society challenge injustice.

Until TFA can write a response that does not try to minimize the counter-narratives and control the narrative about education reform and justice, TFA will run opposite to equity work–work that extinguishes the dominative narrative running through our minds, hearts, communities, schools, and systems.  In attempting narrative control, TFA actually perpetuates the dominant oppressive narrative it claims to fight; TFA becomes the voice that seeks to control and silence those of us who dare scream out for true justice.

www.amberkkim.com

References

Stanley, C. A. (2007). When counter narratives meet master narratives in the journal editorial-review process.   Educational Researcher, 36(1), 14-24.

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Wasted Time on Whiteness

This spring in an education graduate course I co-teach, we required students to read about whiteness and the need for critical pedagogy.  I teach my students about the need for critical discussions about race and racism with white students in white classrooms and white schools.  Amanda Lewis, encourages an intense examination of whiteness for teachers and white students. She writes:

“It is crucial that Whites learn more not only about the reality of racial inequality, but also about their own role in its reproduction.”

In the responses to the assigned readings, though, one student (the only student of color in my class) wrote candidly that she is “….sick and tired of centering white people’s experiences, even for the benefit of my own liberation….I am more focused on the process of liberation for people of color, how we have internalized constructs of whiteness to the detriment of our own mental, emotional, economic, and political well-being. I’m more concerned with how people of color think through their own liberation and dismantling the barriers to dismantling white structured systems of power that we emulate and perpetuate, including those barriers that we construct ourselves as a result of internalized oppression and generational trauma.”

What follows is guest blogger Lisa M. Calderón’s entire essay.  To say it is “powerful” (which it probably is for most white people including white, anti-racist educators) is an insult because it is not new or powerful or profound for those who live this reality every day.  Instead, it is honest and gives a glimpse into the tired, wasted time spent on centering “whites” not only in our society, but even in the anti-racist movement.  It is a reminder (especially for those of us who prepare and work with educators) of the need for differentiated and relevant anti-racist teacher preparation and professional development.


My journal on the whiteness essays begins with my fatigue about talking about whiteness. The critical pedagogy focusing on whiteness by necessity focuses on white people and what they need to change in order to make our society more equitable for people of color. Living my entire life as a woman of color in a culture of whiteness, I’m pretty sick and tired of centering white people’s experiences, even for the benefit of my own liberation. However, what is even more psychologically taxing is knowing that the examination of whiteness is still necessary due to the structural inequities that have been weaved into every social, political, economic, and educational institution since the inception of this artificially created country called the United States of America.

My scholarship focus on whiteness commenced during my years as a law student who could not get my head around why many of my professors omitted mentioning issues of race even when the cases involved discrimination and segregation. For example, in my property law class discussions of redlining, or restricting people of color home ownership to less desirable parts of cities focused on the use of restrictive covenants for homeowners associations. Even though we were all aware the cases we were studying involved Black families moving into White neighborhoods, the discussions were devoid of any basic race analysis. I felt that I had fallen through the rabbit hole and entered a parallel universe where race was a central issue in denying people the right to choose where they live, but that any references to race were essentially cleansed from the classroom to give us the appearance that we were all neutral arbiters – societies future lawyers. The psychological schism, the concept of twoness articulated by WEB DuBois, was in full force throughout my law school experience and about crushed any idealization I had had about becoming a lawyer.

However, one saving grace was that I was permitted to make the study of the legal aspects of whiteness the focus of my third year jurisprudence seminar. By examining the work of Black legal scholars Derek Bell and Cheryl Harris I was able to put the concept of whiteness into a legal conceptualization framework demonstrating that whiteness was not only a illegally created fiction, but was a property right where Whites could sue for damages if violated. For example, most people believe that the case of Plessy versus Ferguson, involving a 7/8 white and 1/8 Black man who was denied a seat on the White only railroad car, resulted in a Supreme Court decision making segregation or “separate but equal” the law of the land, which is true. However, what most people don’t know is that Plessy stood for something much more insidious: that whiteness is a property right that could be codified in the law and intended to permanently advantage White people.

If you read the actual ruling it is astonishing not only from the perspective of the Black NAACP lawyer who argued the case in 1896 before the all White male Supreme Court, that whiteness is the most valuable property in America since it is the golden key that unlocks the door of opportunity:

How much would it be worth to a young man entering upon the practice of law, to be regarded as a white man rather than a colored one? Six-sevenths of the population are white. Nineteen-twentieths of the property of the country is owned by white people. Ninety-nine hundredths of the business opportunities are in the control of white people. . . . Probably most white persons if given a choice, would prefer death to life in the United States as colored persons. Under these conditions, is it possible to conclude that the reputation of being white is not property? Indeed, is it not the most valuable sort of property, being the master-key that unlocks the golden door of opportunity? Albion Tourgee, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). What was even more remarkable was at the Supreme Court agreed with him that whiteness is a property right which is valuable but that only White people could possess it:

If he be a white man and assigned to a colored coach, he may have his action for damages against the company for being deprived of his so called property. Upon the other hand, if he be a colored man and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Further because of the “one drop rule” where one drop of Black blood theoretically made someone Black, Plessy could not be afforded the privilege of whiteness. Having this legal framework for whiteness was very important to me because it moved the conversation from the attitudes, values and beliefs that white people have about their inherent superiority over people of color through both implicit bias and explicit preferences, but moved whiteness into a legal structural framework. In other words, it moved the problem away from individuals and toward an examination of how our society has been structured from its inception through property law as the basis from which all other laws in the American justice system originate.

To that end, I’m no longer interested in whether individual white people change. They are not the focus of my life even when they try to be. I am focused on structural change that will have the most impact on dismantling oppressive institutions. I could care less if white people change. I am more focused on the process of liberation for people of color, how we have internalized constructs of whiteness to the detriment of our own mental, emotional, economic, and political well-being. I’m more concerned with how people of color think through their own liberation and dismantling the barriers to dismantling white structured systems of power that we emulate and perpetuate, including those barriers that we construct ourselves as a result of internalized oppression and generational trauma.

Ricky Lee Allen’s essay on whiteness and critical pedagogy covered a lot of the ground that I can relate to including being fixated on the notion of dismantling whiteness, Whites learning to be allies for people of color and their own humanity, how educational systems perpetuate systems of White supremacy, validating scientific knowledge over other forms of collective community knowledge, and applying a race based lens to critical pedagogy rather exclusively focused Marxist notions of class. However, the centrality of the essay, as well as the other required essays [and blogs], focused on White people’s process and conceptualization of whiteness. While I think this approach is necessary for mostly white educators and people of color who may have not been exposed to concepts of whiteness in a critical pedagogy framework, for me it is time wasted from considering how people of color need our own frameworks and our own scholarship to further the mental pathways and facilitate the structural shifts necessary to realize our own self-determination. It’s time taken away for developing new skills for ourselves and undoing internalized oppressive messages that we are in barded with every single day from the time we are born. We need to be freed from being constrained by the analysis of White antiracists or progressives who truly believe they are acting in her own best interests without realizing that the more time we spend hearing about what White people think about themselves affords us less time to focus on centralizing what, why and how we think about our histories, our current struggles and preparing our future liberation warriors.

As America returns to becoming a brown nation from an artificially constructed White one, we people of color must be prepared to manage and share power effectively because we are increasingly both the oppressed and the oppressor. In that context we need both Paulo Freire and WEB DuBois’ radical analysis, alongside women of color activists and scholars to create new liberatory frameworks for sharing power responsibly given how wounded and traumatized we have been by the imposition of European colonialism. We don’t need White people to love us and have compassion for us as much as we need to love ourselves. Once that self-love happens, really deeply and completely, and is regenerated across generations, there will no longer be a need to focus on whether White people stop acting out of their White privilege or not, because by then we will be free.


Lisa M. Calderón is the Director of the Community Reentry Project in Denver where she supervises six staff who work on behalf of formerly incarcerated persons for their successful transition back into the community.  She is an adjunct faculty member for CU Denver’s Ethnic Studies department. She has taught in academia for over ten years in the areas of Women’s Studies, Sociology, and Criminal Justice. She holds a Master’s degree, law degree, and is currently working on her doctorate in education.
As a former legal director of a battered women’s program, Lisa is qualified as an expert witness on issues of domestic violence and victim advocacy, and her opinions have been profiled in the media. Lisa has over 20 years of facilitation experience in the areas of antiracism education, critical race theory, gender equity, and ethical communication.
As an active community member, Lisa is involved with several community-based initiatives to create more opportunities for low-income women, youth of color, and formerly incarcerated persons.  She serves on the State Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Council, is the co-chair of Denver’s Racial and Gender Disparities Committee, and is the Co-Chair of the Colorado Latino Forum-Denver Chapter. She has obtained several awards for inspirational leadership.
For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students, please visit:

Inconsistent Message: TFA, Clint Smith, & Compliance-Driven Charters

TFA sent out this Clint Smith TedTalk to alum today and, at the same time, TFA continues to place large numbers of corps members in schools like KIPP, STRIVE, BES, promote compliance driven behavior management strategies, and tells its corps members to “Teach like a champion.” If TFA placed corps members in these high performing charter networks while also explicitly critiquing these models as schools that are “unjust” and part of the “broken” and “racist” education system, perhaps I would be more understanding. However, TFA places its best and brightest (and its corps members of color) into these schools calling them “excellent” schools providing “excellent educations.” TFA aligns with and supports these charter networks in covert and overt ways. Clint Smith, in contrast, describes his parents as armoring he and his siblings in advice on how to act and be, but “….. not because they thought it would make us better….but simply because they wanted to keep us alive.” Making clear that the rules of White society (and, therefore, the schools lead by White leaders with almost exclusively White teachers serving students of color) are not “excellent” he remarks how sad these ways are because he asks, “What does it do to a child to grow up knowing you cannot simply be a child?” knowing, “….you are not afforded the luxury of making a mistake?”

When TFA supports (explicitly or implicitly), and without public critique, high performing schools that are compliance-driven and demand “100% everyday–No excuses!” what does that cost our children of color? These schools claim to be ending inequity and helping students access the dominant culture (in essence keeping them alive) but they do not offer the explicit critique of society or transparency about power and privilege that Clint Smith’s parent did; instead, they often offer the dominant culture as something that is “better” and “right.” In aligning itself with high performing charters and district schools that indoctrinate, what is TFA teaching its corps members about education equity and, in turn, what is TFA teaching our most marginalized children?

Please, TFA, please consider the ways in which you do not critique these kinds of high performing charters and district schools. Please, TFA, please stop aligning with schools that silence and standardize our children of color and that do not allow our children of color to be children.

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

TFA’s Rigged Question

TFA Survey Item 1: One day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

Strongly Agree,   Agree,   Neutral,   Disagree,   Strongly Disagree

Not another TFA survey!

Not another TFA survey!

What is this question asking? Is it asking whether or not I believe that all children can learn? Is it asking whether all children deserve an excellent education? What is an excellent education according to TFA anyhow?

It would seem important to define the term before asking if I agree with the statement. I think, though, that this question is asking if I believe in TFA and its vision statement. Well, TFA, here is my answer:

Dear TeachForAmerica,

I hope that one day all children in this nation will have access to an excellent education, but, truthfully, I fear that they will not.  Please read on to understand my dilemma in answering your rigged survey question.

Excellent Education or a Biased Education?

An excellent education is one that not only prepares students to succeed in an unjust and biased (read: racist, classist, sexist, and heteronormative) education system and society, but also teaches the knowledge and develops the skills/mindsets needed to challenge the injustices that undergird our schools and society. An excellent education ensures academic achievement, but it also must ensure positive, racial (and cultural/linguistic) identity and a critical consciousness. I do not think TFA or any high-performing charter network is providing or advocating for the opportunity to attain that kind of excellent education.

Instead of an excellent education, TFA and high performing (compliance-based) charter schools are hyper-focused on ensuring that One day, Black and Brown children living in poverty will have access to a rigorous “White” education: an education that validates, legitimizes, and perpetuates White, male, heterosexual, English-as-a-first-language superiority and dominance.

This kind of  test-score-producing (but identity-shattering) education cannot be transmitted the same way to poor students of color as it is transmitted to White, middle class students because they are deemed so “behind.” Therefore, non-dominant culture students must work harder and longer. They are forced to sit straighter and stand in lines. They must wear collared shirts and khaki pants. They must stay silent, track the teacher, and give 100%, everyday. To top it all off, our students of color must remain kind, determined, zestful, and gritty (code words for compliant) while working twice as hard to sadly assimilate into a society that will not reward them for their college degrees or khakis.  Our non-dominant culture kids learn all too late that meritocracy is a myth and they were asked to work twice as hard for half as much as their White, affluent counterparts. Racism is real.

All children or all Black and Brown children?

While TFA and “No Excuses” charter networks focus on giving Black and Brown students what White kids already have, no one is focused on providing White children a critical, anti-biased excellent education. Amanda Lewis wrote,

“Education that is critical, multicultural, and focused on racial justice cannot be reserved only for students of color. We must ask ourselves, can much change if the educational experiences of White middle-class children do not undergo some transformations?”

Lewis is right; and if TFA truly wants to ensure that all children attain an excellent education, perhaps it needs a corps of teachers to go into White suburban schools to teach counter-narratives, challenge White privilege, cultivate critical consciousness, and develop positive, anti-biased White racial identities.

Outsized Influence

Lastly, since inception, TFA has been an out-sized actor in the education reform movement. With people like Senator Michael Johnston and networks like KIPP, there is an increased culture of standardization, accountability, and compliance. For teachers and students, schools have become anxious places where worth is based on a test score. It seems that in solving one problem—inequity in test scores—TFA has created other problems in American Education and so an “excellent education for all” may have become even more out of reach.

So TFA, how do I answer your question? If I answer “Strongly Agree” to try and show I believe in students and the fact that they deserve an excellent education you will think I support your organization, its vision, and its methodology, and I do NOT. If I answer “Strongly Disagree” to try and show you that I do not think you, as an organization, or us, as a society, are on the right track in our efforts to end educational inequity, you will think I have given up. But that is not the case either. I just believe that the problem is more complex and deeper than your definition or solution. Finally, I will not pick neutral because neutral does not exist; one is either on the side of equity or on the side of oppression.

When it comes to this rigged question, TFA,  I will not pick one of your options; instead, I will send you this response. Likewise, children should not have to choose between under-resourced, low-expectation-holding schools—OR—high performing, “rigorous” but compliance-driven, status-quo-perpetuating schools. Until a truly just option exists, I will keep fighting so that one day all children will have an excellent, anti-biased, critical education.

Solutions

For examples of schools that aim for academic results AND positive racial identities/and critical consciousness, see June Jordan School for Equity and MET West (a Big Picture School) where students develop equity literacy and pursue social justice.  Also check out the Zinn Education Project.  These are all schools/projects that are working to ensure truly excellent educations for all.  If you know of more, please comments and leave the name/website.

Welcome

http://www.bigpicture.org/2008/10/metwest/

Fieldston Lower School

About

Amber K. Kim, Ph.D.

ATL 2001

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

*I would like to thank one of my graduate students, also a TFA corps member, for the inspiration for this blog post.  Let me know if you want me to add your name.

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.

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

Prison-like Schools for the Sake of Achievement?

“All day long, an immense amount of time and energy is spent making sure young African-American students are taught to obey.” — Dr. Hadi-Tabassum, Education Week

We have heard of the school-to-prison pipeline.  In this commentary, however, Dr. Hadi-Tabassum describes how turnaround schools that are claiming to educate kids of color are skipping the pipeline altogether.  Dr. Hadi-Tabassum explores the existence of schools where “you see lines of African-American children crossing the school with their hands behind their backs or their fingers pressed against their lips to indicate silence, and their eyes always facing front.”  I, similarly, speak out against compliance-based methods in my piece, “No More No Excuses” and believe that we should not “force kids (that, yes, are already legitimately “behind”) to learn in rows and lines and for “extended days” without arts, play, fun, freedom, power, and choice (even if that is most effective in the short-term for raising test scores) because it is not humanizing; it is not developmentally appropriate; it is not just!” We should not do these things because we know the results: even if students achieve and their data shows that they are “equal” with their White, affluent counterparts, we know that they are not deemed equal in this society, AND THAT MATTERS.”

Read Dr. Hadi-Tabassum’s entire commentary in Education Week and demand that there is an end to prison-like schools for our youth of color that operate under the guise of social justice and academic achievement for all.

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

Cultivating Colorblind Racism: The Real Movement Behind TFA

The following is adapted from “Perpetuating, Committing, and Cultivating Racism: The Real Movement Behind TFA” my chapter in the forthcoming book Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out (2015, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.).

People know about the Klan and the overt racism, but the killing of one’s soul little by little, day after day, is a lot worse than someone coming in your house and lynching you.  –Samuel L. Jackson

When I joined TFA, I was not the typical corps member. I was already certified with three initial years of teaching.  I also had just earned my M.A. in instructional strategies. So why did I join TFA? I thought that I could change the world by teaching in “tough” schools where “underprivileged” students (mostly of color) did not have access to excellent teachers. At my core, I was attracted to being part of a movement to improve education for low-income students because I myself came from a low-income community.

In August of 2001 I began my corps experience a savior eager to level the field.  Armed with knowledge and “grit,” I taught hard and my students learned. They recited facts, discussed texts, and defined science and geography terms. Their achievement scores increased, but my students undoubtedly learned something else, something much more powerful:

I unintentionally and quietly taught my students that something must be wrong with them so much so that White teachers would cycle into their community, do their time, and then be gone. I taught them that who they were and where they were from were not good enough. Not a single one of my lessons focused on my students’ rich history, the necessity and beauty of their dialect, or the strengths of their community.  I did not teach them about systems of oppression or about colorblind racism that cuts deep and is internalized but is hard to see and to describe, especially for adolescents. My students did not learn how to respond to or to redress inequity. While TFA was telling me to be a transformational teacher, TFA was encouraging me to assimilate students and perpetuate the status quo.

Yes, my students learned; and yes, I closed the achievement gap for some, but at what cost?  No, I did not go into my students’ homes and lynch them, but I may have killed their souls little by little, day by day, for two years.

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