A place for educators to find thought-provoking news, conversation and support for those who care about diversity, equal opportunity and respect for differences in schools
In recent weeks, our country has been treated to an ugly reflection of itself. The controversy over the Islamic community center in New York City has been followed by a spate of anti-Muslim acts. They include the stabbing of a Muslim cabbie, attempted arson at a mosque in Tennessee and teens harassing Muslims at worship in upstate New York.
Every school year, my incoming students receive a welcome letter. Included in their packet is something a little different: a snack-sized baggie of sand. One student may receive some black volcanic sand from Japan; another gets green sand from Hawaii; still another receives the silky sand from Florida’s west coast; while another may get the pink sand found on Bermuda’s pristine beaches.
I used to be a bad girl. I was self-destructive, angry and fearless. These traits, coupled with a decent amount of intelligence, took me to all the places bad girls go. For many years, I bounced from bad decisions to bad jobs to bad relationships. My life was a mess for a long time, and all I knew how to do was make it worse. I couldn’t talk to my mother, my father wasn’t around, and my friends were either victims of their own circumstances or they were busy creating better lives for themselves. I was alone for a long time, and it felt like I would drown forever.
“I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy… .”
Tennessee state lawmaker Harry Burn received that note from his mom in August 1920. And like a good son, he subsequently changed his vote from “nay” to “yea,” breaking a 48-48 deadlock in the state’s general assembly. “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” Burn commented afterward, while noting it wasn’t often that a man had a chance “to free 17 million women from political slavery.”
My elementary school is a Title I school. About 95 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch and Medicaid. Research shows us that many children raised in poverty struggle to learn to read. Common sense tells us that children who don't learn to read can't read to learn. They often reach a frustration level with school by the time they're in the third grade. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 70 percent of low-income fourth-grade students can't read at a basic level. I often wonder, "What can I do in my day-to-day work as a teacher to help?"
This spring, my principal asked who would be interested in teaching a two-week summer session for our own students. I found myself saying, “I’ll do it.” I had previously sworn off summer school as something I would never teach no matter how much I needed the money. But then “summer school” was something I’d only seen in the movies: large groups of unmotivated kids who had even less desire in the summer than they had during the school year. I imagined sweltering classrooms, hours of endless instruction and failure for all—myself included.
Walking into class that September morning, I had no idea that one of my students would come out about her sexuality during the course of a class discussion. Neither did she. After previous class work with White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, the conversation on that day was designed merely to explore heterosexual privileges.
A few years ago, I was called to translate by a social worker at a primary school. A teacher had complained that one of her students never looked her in the eye when spoken to and was painfully shy. The child never participated in class unless it was obligatory and only under duress. She was frequently absent, particularly on days when she had to make a presentation before the class. However, the student was very bright, with excellent grades and careful, neat work. The social worker wanted me to contact the parents and arrange a meeting to discuss a special education placement.