School can be a frustrating place, not only for students, but also for teachers, parents and community members. Many adults want to maintain neighborhood schools, but cringe at Orwellian behavioral expectations and the importance placed on standardized test scores. In New Orleans, where I teach, school quality varies widely across the city, especially for students in special education.
The school where I teach is safe and inclusive; that’s a big plus. As a teacher, I’m also proud of the significant academic gains our students have made in the three years since it was taken over by a charter. Still, as a parent, I feel this school is far from the ideal environment where I want to someday enroll my now-toddler son. I dream of art and dance classes, collaborative group work, project-based learning, and plenty of opportunities for student choice and leadership. I realize that, to make these things happen, I need to pull up a seat at the table where decisions are made. In order for positive change to occur, all stakeholders must take their seats at the table.
I’ve been inspired lately by wins at schools across the country. My own school’s Honor Council (powered mostly by fifth-graders) recently presented principals with a proposal for longer lunch periods and recess. Those valuable extras showed up in the schedule the next week. In Los Angeles, parents and community members convinced the district to adopt a more dignified discipline policy, banning suspensions for subjective offenses like “willful defiance,” and choosing instead to institute positive behavior supports. This spring, parents and community members in Meridian, Miss. collaborated with the Southern Poverty Law Center, resulting in the Department of Justice agreeing to address policies that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
In my hometown, collaboration between community members and a group of charter schools in New Orleans East has restored one school’s climate so students can be safe and academically successful. It’s a huge step for this town, which many say was deeply hurt by a reform movement that largely excluded the local community. These are tremendous victories. But, there are also frustrations. I’ve learned that one of the highest-performing schools in the district doesn’t even have a parent-teacher-organization.
I share the dream of all parents: to know I could send my child to any public school in my city and trust that it will empower him. I hope that every teacher will be part of fostering this kind of school environment. Realizing this dream requires me to do my part.
I’m starting small by facilitating a monthly parent support group, and encouraging my principal to conduct parent surveys and host more conversations with families throughout the year. To make schools work for all students, we need families to be a part of them.
Craven is a social and emotional interventionist in Louisiana.
It was more of a feeling than a thought that brought me to this project. Perhaps it was the everyday grind at lunch to find connections and conversations with my peers that brought the issue to the forefront of my mind. This was my senior year at Redondo Union High School in California. My school is focused on sports. Cliques are prevalent. I often found myself—along with countless others—part of the “lunchtime fringe.” That feeling, and my knowledge of the SPLC and Teaching Tolerance, inspired me to plan Mix it Up at Lunch Day. I needed to change my school’s atmosphere.
The planning process was at times long and hard, especially as a student, but I longed for fewer tensions. Last week, the work paid off. My school’s first Mix It Up at Lunch Day was May 31.
Mix it Up at Lunch Day was an enormous success. About 150 students were given colored cards and sat with new people with the same colored card. Students were engaged by the icebreaker questions; it was a blissful blur of laughter and chatter. A reporter from the Daily Breeze, a local newspaper, came in to interview participants, which sparked even more youth interest.
Some students declined to participate. That is to be expected for the first time, although most were very enthusiastic. Best of all, however, were the student’s reactions. Some students even inquired as to whether this event could occur next year, once every month! Luckily, I found a successor to organize next year’s event.
Planning for this first event started last October when I went to the school’s administrators to discuss possibilities for implementing this project. Many said Mix It Up was a good idea, but did not respond to my emails regarding the project. Help came in the form of letters from other advocates. I encourage other student advocates to gather proof of support and examples of participation to add validity to the project. Next, I spoke to the Safe School Ambassadors, an anti-bullying program and other school groups to explain the project and get their support. An art class helped with posters and press releases. The Associative Student Body offered organization of activities and volunteers, the newspaper covered the event, and the SSA helped spread the work to my peers (not my strong suit) and created icebreaker questions to avoid awkward silence among students.
Through the process, I learned that it is beneficial to involve other youth rather than solely planning with adults. For example, when I spoke about bullying in front of the student body, many of my peers were more responsive in contrast to when a teacher brought up the subject.
My journey does not end here. I will continue to advocate for justice in the future. Mix It Up is only the beginning. I hope my school will continue to help break down barriers with Mix It Up.
Nelson graduates next week from Redondo Union High School and plans to continue working as an activist.
Last month, a popular northeast Philadelphia sandwich shop rebranded its store Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop. Since opening in 1949, it had been called Chink’s Steaks. In 2004, heated criticism came from the Asian-American community and other residents of Philadelphia charging that the name was a racial slur. The shop was named for its original owner, Sam Sherman, who acquired the nickname “Chink” when he was 7 years old because of his almond-shaped eyes.
As an Asian American, this stereotype and racial slur is not new to me. I’ve heard and seen many more. But they never fail to make me cringe and somehow grow smaller. I think of the countless people who have walked by or have eaten at this establishment not knowing or caring about the history and offensiveness of the racial slur, “chink.”
In fact, racial slurs and derogatory words are designed to alienate. These words create the divide between us and the other, and they run counter to the inclusive and diverse classrooms that anti-bias educators seek to create. As educators, we need to be aware how biases come into play in our daily lives and society at large. We must understand that it is not isolated to one store, one person, or one word. I want my third-graders to be aware and to question and challenge stereotypes.
The story of Joe’s Steak + Soda Shop is also an example of how change can come, even when it’s painfully slow. The community was divided, with some people feeling the tradition of the name was more important than creating an inclusive community. But those who stood for justice rallied. The Steak Shop story also provided an opportunity to reflect on our own prejudices. In order to teach the skills of questioning, critical thinking, and challenging stereotypes, we must also practice these skills. Anti-bias education is not just an approach to teaching, but also a way of viewing the world.
So as we look around our community, we must be mindful of the books we choose to read to our students, the posters we put on our classroom walls and the terms we use to talk about different groups of people.
Joe Groh, the current owner of Joe’s Steaks + Soda said, “It is very important to me, my family and the entire staff that we no longer inadvertently alienate anyone in the Philly community.”
Progress sometimes starts with a small gesture, but if we are to continue these strides toward a sustainable and equitable community across cultural barriers, we must also take into account the power of our words.
Huynh is a third-grade literacy teacher in Philadelphia who is passionate about social justice in the classroom.
Editor's Note: This is the second of two blogs discussing how an advertisement for Cheerios featuring an interracial family has sparked emotions and highlighted the need for deeper discussion about race in the United States.
General Mills and their recent Cheerios commercial reminded us that race still causes severe social and political upset in the United States. A 30-second YouTube commercial featuring a young biracial child interacting with her white mother and black father created a cyber firestorm of racially charged attacks including phrases like, “disgusting,” “racial genocide,” “anti-white,” and “want to vomit.” Such emotionally charged responses signal that despite (or perhaps even because of) the 1967 eradication of laws against interracial marriage and the two-time election of a biracial U.S. president, interracial couples and their children are still not universally accepted. What is it about this particular Cheerios ad that causes such anxiety?
The illusion of “racial purity” rests in the psyches of both black people and white people. The alleged strength of consensual racial segregation is alive and well all over the Internet and in many American neighborhoods. The children of interracial unions are visible reminders of how personal desires easily become political statements for others. Whether through adoption or blending, families now come in more sizes and colors than ever; FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly ominously lamented this reality on the night of Obama’s re-election: “Traditional America as we knew it is gone. Ward, June, Wally and the Beav—outta here.”
The particular pairing of white women and black men, however, seems to create far greater waves of disruption than the pairing of white men and black women. During America’s antebellum history, white masters had ready and easy access to black female slaves and populated plantations for economic gain with the infamous and irrational “one-drop” rule; blackness was determined by the smallest amount of black blood. The post-slavery reality of consensual intimacies between black men and white women became, and remains, the most disruptive of the ongoing power battles between white and black men in which women become the playing field. Since biracial children challenge the illusion of “racial purity,” lynching and castrating black men and anti-miscegenation laws sought to punish black men and deny their access to white women.
Even though definitions of “blackness” and “whiteness” based on visible characteristics are problematic at best, these definitions create visceral responses in those who see race mixing as socially wrong, politically bad and even “sinful.” Such racialized fears are also fueled by the recent statistics about the birthrates of brown babies versus white babies. In her commentary "Minority Birth Rate Now Surpasses Whites in US, Census Shows," Hope Yen reports:
For the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half the children born in the U.S., capping decades of heady immigration growth that is now slowing. New 2011 census estimates highlight a historic shift underway in the nation's racial makeup. They mark a transformation in a country once dominated by whites and bitterly divided over slavery and civil rights, even as it wrestles now over the question of restricting immigration….
While many embrace such intermingling as social enhancement and progress, others view the consensual browning of America as “unnatural” and threatening.
The Cheerios commercial ends with the word “love.” The depiction of an interracial family is not an attempt to force race mixing—or even multiculturalism—down anyone’s proverbial throat. Rather, the commercial seeks to show that America is a country inclusive of diverse, intimate pairings. Featuring these differences in an ad is not an attempt to threaten delusions about racial or ethnic purity, but to show that family, relationships, parenting, heart disease and cereal can potentially unite us.
Neal A. Lester is professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University. Jasmine Z. Lester is Neal Lester’s daughter. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a certificate in LGBTQ Studies from Arizona State University.
On June 1, the 2013 Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board members began their two-year terms. The 21 individuals on this board bring an understanding of social justice and anti-bias education, a familiarity with Teaching Tolerance and our mission to support equity for our nation’s children. They bring a broad range of expertise from conflict resolution to special education.
Seven members of the 2011 board were asked to serve on the 2013 Advisory Board. The 10 winners of the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching also serve on the 2013 board. To round out the 2013 board’s membership, Teaching Tolerance selected four educators with expertise in counseling and middle school.
For the next two years, this select group of educators from around the country will help shape our teaching and learning resources, offer insight into trends, and represent Teaching Tolerance in their communities.
We are excited for their input as we prepare to launch Teaching Tolerance’s new curriculum Perspectives for a Diverse America, a literary-based, K-12 anti-bias curriculum with multicultural content, aligned to the Common Core State Standards.
The board includes the following members:
- Robert Sautter, kindergarten teacher, San Francisco, Calif.
- Anna E. Baldwin, high school English and history teacher, Arlee, Mont.
- Laurence Tan, fifth-grade teacher, Los Angeles, Calif.
- Lhisa Almashy, high school ESL teacher, Lake Worth, Fla.
- Darnell Fine, middle school history and language arts teacher, Atlanta, Ga.
- Silvestre Arcos, middle school math teacher, New York, N.Y.
- Sonia Galaviz, fifth-grade teacher, Nampa, Idaho
- Katy LaCroix Wagner, elementary teacher, Ann Arbor, Mich.
- Amber Strong Makaiau, high school teacher, Oahu, Hawaii
- Tracy Oliver-Gary, high school history teacher, Burtonsville, Md.
- Shannon Mills, special education teacher, Clyde, Ohio
- Janice McRae, middle school counselor, Washington, D.C.
- Jennifer Butler, secondary school counselor, Philadelphia, Pa.
- Demea Richards Scott, middle school counselor, Bolingbrook, Ill.
- Trevor Scott Barton, elementary school reading teacher, Greenville, S.C.
- Ameka Cruz, high school math and technology teacher, Lynchburg, Va.
- Vanessa D’Egidio, second-grade teacher, New York, N.Y.
- James Hiller, teacher mentor, Beaverton, Ore.
- Sarah More McCann, high school religion teacher, Minneapolis, Minn.
- Daniel Rubin, high school language arts and reading teacher, Las Cruces, N.M.
- Jennifer Trujillo, bilingual educator and national director of English language acquisition for Pearson in Durango, Colo.