Thursday, August 09, 2007

Grrr and Argh

I sent a package to a friend of mine yesterday. He's heading into his first year of teaching and I want to give him all of the support I can. It wasn't until I jumped online and read a column from the paper back home that I realized the package I sent was intellectually racy.
Inside, it held a copy of The Essential 55 by and Life's Greatest Lessons by Hal Urban. Both are books that saw me through my first years of teaching and to which I continue to turn. According to the column, though, one of the leaders of my district worries that The Essential 55 could be taken as condescending. Ron Clark is white, his students when he taught in Harlem were mainly African American and Latino.
Apparently, Clark was on the shortlist of keynote speakers at our back-to-school meeting. Last year's speaker was Willard Daggett and the year before that was Erin Gruwell.
According to the column, and I'm not taking any of it as gospel, the district administrator had reservations about Clark speaking because he thought it could be taken as condescending to listen to stories of how Clark took his students from Harlem on horizon-expanding field trips. Clark's efforts to teach etiquette in preparation for a trip to a formal restaurant reportedly found a particular sticking place in the administrator's craw. Lyons implies the administrator believes Clark's speech is condescending because he is a white teacher who was working mainly with students who didn't look like him. I'm not sure what to make of it or how those beliefs would reflect on my own teaching.
Two things are happening here that have me frustrated.
One, I'm none-too-impressed with Lyons' reporting. The column could have been held for next week in order to include the asst. superintendent's side of the story. As it reads now, the column is another in a growing collection of pieces that makes teachers and the school district feel as though they are at odds with the press.
The other element of contention is with the idea that the central office wasn't immediately forthcoming with the details.
Again, all we have to go on is what Lyons saw fit to print, but the idea that the district's spokesman tried to sidestep the issue at fist blush isn't exactly going to make any inroads toward a strong relationship between the district and the press. This is to say nothing of the fact that the column was going to run with or without the administrator's quote, so it makes more sense to be open on the front end than to have to clean up after the parade has passed by.
From both sides, we (community members and district employees) need sincerity over spin.
More later.

1 comment:

Suzi said...

Contextually Speaking
I came to read your blog because I felt responsible. I reacted very quickly after reading Lyon’s article, and forwarded it to several teacher friends…including a mutual friend who mentioned you had responded to it later on your blog. I came here expecting to read a rant about our local administrator, and was pleasantly surprised by your grappling with issues larger than petty finger pointing. So, I feel moved to respond with a few thoughts you have brought to light in my mind.

My favorite quote, the one that I turn to often when astounded by others is: “Anything anyone says is true, you just have to figure out what it might be true of.” What this quote reminds me of is that we all look through our own lenses of experiences and it is nothing short of an academic exercise to view life’s moments in any other way. In addition, the more passionate we are and the closer we are to an issue, the more difficult it is to try on the lenses of another. We either don’t do it because we are out of practice, or because we believe so strongly in our own ‘enlightened’ view that we can perceive no other view…or more likely, we simply don’t take the time to get to know the whole context. That is a battle we must all fight in this ever-expounding informational world.

Let me be specific. After being a member of one of your presentations, I would find it very out of character to believe that you sent this package of ‘good reads’ to your newly credentialed teaching friend with the intent of ‘patting him on the po-po, wishing him good luck…and then throwing him to the wolves.’ I imagine he is someone you believe would ‘get’ the messages in these books. And, I would imagine that there is going to be some on-going conversation and guidance.

Just like when you heard Erin speak, you made the effort to connect with Erin and get involved in her project directly. How many teachers in the county did that, do you think? I know I didn’t. I also know that after Daggett spoke, I went back to the classroom jazzed to go the website only to discover several resources that I could pay to see. I did not have an ongoing conversation with Daggett. Both speakers moved me, and both remained slightly out of reach.

Research shows that the ‘trainings’ that are most impactful and sustaining of change are those that are ongoing, not one-shot deals. Presentations like the ones you do and your colleague shared at the opening week (instead of Clark) are meaningful because people can have an ongoing dialogue without commercialism coming in-between…(yet, anyway!) Still, I wonder how many people actually contacted your colleague who spoke? I wonder how many dismissed it as her being “exceptional,” or your school being “totally different” and so not applicable to their teaching. Even being in close proximity does not break the imaginary barriers that exist when we see through our old traditional teaching lenses…beyond our perceived context.

I am reminded of the episode of (the US version) The Office where the (albeit fictional) office manager, Michael, felt inspired to have a ‘cultural diversity day.’ He was extremely misguided, but fully believing he was doing this great service to others. Here’s my point: I wonder if it might be possible that someone could read Clark’s book without SEEING the underlying context of respect for the students? I can imagine that book in the hands of some educators I know (and you know) and it scares me.

But then, they do not embrace the research of people like Ruby Payne ( and )…the research that helps me put Clark’s work in context. It is not that he’s only telling the students: “(excerpt)You will thank me when I give you something,” (…which can be perceived as egotistical and condescending….I mean, would you say that to your mother?) without also saying: “These are the rules of middle class culture. School is middle-class America. You have to do different things to get along here, but it does not disrespect the culture from which you come.” Erin saying, “My badness,” is candidly respectful because she is revealing that she is/was as ignorant of her students’ cultures as they may be of her white-pearl world. She is willing to make mistakes as she learns the rules of another culture as she guides her students to do the same. And it leaves the door open to the idea that (Payne) there are yet other cultures in which I do still not know the hidden rules of culture….like extreme wealth (in which the Essential 55 may only be telling a part of the story).

I do not know Lyon’s agenda, and if he was looking to bury the schools or perhaps one man. I do not know the context in which our local administrator’s excerpt was taken. But I know that both were passionate about something they felt strongly. They both had intense knowledge of one side of the story.

I know that I am not Deaf. I was once intensely included in a circle of Deaf friends, but I was never afforded the same ‘rights’ to say things about Deaf…because I am hearing. I will never change that. (If you ever defended your brother from someone outside the family for putting him down in the same way you did that very morning, you understand ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ membership.) No matter how well intending, judging Deaf ‘wouldn’t play’ even if they had signed the very same comment themselves earlier in the day. My Deaf friends were very protective of the image of Deaf culture. How can a hearing person teach a Deaf child in a way respectful of all their culture entails? It takes ongoing commitment. And even then, some would say it’s still not a good fit.

I am not African American. I am not a product of generational poverty. I do not constantly have to defend how being Black does not automatically imply the need for being told how to get along in middle-class America. If I were looking at life through either of these lenses, I am not sure I would want people speaking for me without having a genuine relationship with me. And I’m not sure anyone would ‘get’ me after a phone call before posting…or publishing. I’m so much more than I could defend.

I am a teacher. I do not like the power that media has and the negative twist that has we consumers have made necessary to sell papers in this culture. Yet, I know that there are some ugly truths that must be exposed in our profession. I would even wager a guess that, at least on some levels, Mr. Chase, your blog has a wider and more influential reach than that of even Lyons. With the onset of blogs and wikis, we all have the power of posting reactions and professing without having relationships…without context. It is a dangerous propaganda. How much of it is true? Maybe all of it.

As much as the article pained me initially, your blog actually led my thoughts into giving me reason to pause…I must respect our administrator’s cause for caution. I don’t want Clark’s Essentials in the hands of well-meaning Michaels (The Office) correcting the ills of ‘those children who don’t know better,’ any more than I want Lyons to blindly believe that because he is black, our local administrator has the right to speak for blacks of all cities, cultures, and financial sets.

It is the context that matters; it is the continuing dialogue that helps us understand…not the momentary snapshot in time. And it is the responsibility of everyone to question: “What might this be true of?” …because everyone writes with a spin.