The American Antecedents of the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

I don’t think there’s much I can add to what’s already been said on the terrible tragedy that occurred to Trayvon Martin in Florida, but there was a disturbing parallel that immediately came to mind when I heard about what had happened, and that his killer was still free.

As I have mentioned before, I am reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with my students, and in Chapter IV, Douglass details the gruesome shooting of a man named Demby by (the aptly named) Mr. Gore, an overseer. According to Douglass:

His horrid crime was not even submitted to judicial investigation . . . the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and most foul murders goes unwhipped of justice, and uncensured by the community in which he lives. Mr. Gore lived in St. Michael’s, Talbot county, Maryland, when I left there; and if he is still alive, he very probably lives there now; and if so, he is now, as he was then, as highly esteemed and as much respected as though his guilty soul had not been stained with his brother’s blood.

I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.”

Douglass then gives another gruesome example, of a slaveholder’s wife who beat a girl to death:

“Mrs. Hicks, finding the girl slow to move, jumped from her bed, seized an oak stick of wood by the fireplace, and with it broke the girl’s nose and breastbone, and thus ended her life. I will not say that this most horrid murder produced no sensation in the community. It did produce sensation, but not enough to bring the murderess to punishment. There was a warrant issued for her arrest, but it was never served. Thus she escaped not only punishment, but even the pain of being arraigned before a court for her horrid crime.”

Douglass spoke from a moment in our history over 150 years ago, but the profound wound of a societally accepted injustice and brutality still stings today.

The difference today is that the outcry that has been rightfully raised has been loud enough to prompt a federal investigation into the shooting. For more on how awareness on the case was raised, read deeper into the MotherJones article.

President Obama said “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” demonstrating just how critically important it is to have a leader who can understand and speak directly to those long suffering under a history of oppression, and further demonstrating how today is different than Douglass’ day.

But rightwing punditry backlash against Obama’s commiseration with Martin’s parents demonstrates, on the other hand, just how mired in racial tension we remain.

To pretend that race has nothing to do with this case is to ignore our own history.

Some things have changed, but some things remain the same.

The Great Bathroom Debate

Recently Newt Gingrich made some remarks about poor children learning the value of hard work through janitorial duties that has generated some commentary in the Twitterverse and on blogs.

My first thought in reaction to this, aside from a general distate for Gingrich’s firebrandism in general, was that he’s got it completely backwards: it’s in fact the rich kids who must be taught the value of hard work. These are the kids who will most likely never have to really struggle, and that have been raised with the expectation that the world caters to their needs and whims. Though poor kids may struggle with developing a strong work ethic in the menial jobs that many of them are unfortunately slated to endure (more on that below) — they hold no illusions that the world centers around them.

But after hastily posting something to this effect on my Twitter, which I botched since I was using a junky old phone, I rethought the classism inherent in both of these positions.

The fact is, as Andy Rotherham points to in his take on Newt’s statements, ALL kids need to be “systematically taught life-skills.” This doesn’t have to be a poor vs. rich kid conundrum. But the issue it does raise is whether in our frantic push to get all kids “college ready,” we are neglecting those character building experiences that help children to learn the value in hard work. We have a tendency in the United States to demean the challenge and value of technical skills and craftsmanship. Recently, I watched the Kings of Pastry, and was inspired by French President Sarkozy’s speech, in which he wisely advises not to consider “manual knowledge to be less noble than academic knowledge, less capable to create wealth and well being.” This is advice we should learn to heed here in the United States.

I personally learned the value of hard work by cleaning bathrooms. I cleaned a lot of them over the 5 years that I worked at a camp and conference center in South Lake Tahoe, and trained others in how to clean them as well. And I believe that cleaning a bathroom truly shows the nature of one’s character.

To clean a bathroom well, you have to be committed to the personal experience of a complete stranger, whom will most likely not even appreciate, let alone notice, your work. You have to struggle to pick all the hairs out of the crevices of the tile, stuck to the edges of the tub, caught in the base of the toilet. You have to get down on your knees to scrub the grime out of the shower curtain, and the soap residue caked onto the soap dish. Not to get too in depth here, but you sometimes have to witness and clean up the extremely unpleasant aftermaths of a stranger’s digestive issues. That’s a deep commitment to the service of your fellow man.

I don’t think it’s such a terrible idea to suggest that all children should learn to serve others, not merely themselves. Perhaps cleaning bathrooms is a bit too unsavory to expect them to have to perform*, but certainly engaging them in tasks that better their school or community environment, such as cleaning their classrooms, or collecting recycling, or picking up garbage in their local park, or planting gardens around their school, should be considered an essential part of their public school experience.

But let’s remove the prejudice that only certain children need to be taught the value of hard work. And in this recognition, let’s further recognize that we must stop demeaning the value of vocational education and technical skills. We all need to learn to value and appreciate those who serve us, every single day, stocking our supermarkets and convenience stores with produce and products, cleaning our bathrooms and hotels, serving our food and maintaining our cars. There is nothing wrong or undignified with being a plumber, a car mechanic, a janitor, an electrician, or a housekeeper. My grandmother came from Sweden and worked her way around the country, as a single mother, cleaning houses and serving families. In my personal work experiences, I have cleaned bathrooms, made beds, stocked shelves, and served customers in both retail and hospitality industries, and now as a teacher, I serve children and their families. And I value this work I have done and am proud of it, because working hard and serving others is the foundation of our economy.

Until we learn to stop demeaning such work, most children will naturally never learn to see the value in working hard to serve others or to take pride in working their way up through a trade or industry. Especially when it’s perceived as menial labor with no positive outcomes. And while some of our children will be “college ready,” until we teach them concrete skills and the values they will need to succeed, most children will not be “life ready.”

* One of the things Rotherham points to in his article in Time is that cleaning bathrooms is too dangerous for children to perform due to the chemicals that are used. Having cleaned many bathrooms using chemicals, I am acutely aware of this danger, and so as housekeeping manager, I researched and developed my own non-toxic cleaning solutions to protect the safety and health of myself and my employees. These solutions are cheap to make, just as effective in cleaning as the chemicals we unnecessarily invest in, and scalable for larger operations. Please visit my website, Environmentally Sound Solutions, for the specific solutions I used.

Thoughts on ‘The Shame of the Nation’

The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in AmericaThe Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I don’t agree necessarily with some of Kozol’s perspectives on education, such as his obvious horror of standardized testing and other accountability measures, I do think that his ultimate unveiling of the United States educational system as one based on apartheid as devastatingly accurate. Any educational reform, whether a Race For The Top or a No Child Left Behind—anything, essentially, short of equitable integration—will continually fail to bridge the “achievement gap.” There will be only those children already poised to succeed academically by the nature of their parent or community resources, and those children largely destined to fail academically by the nature of their family or community poverty. And it must be clarified explicitly that those children destined (statistically speaking) for academic failure are predominately black or Latino. There is a prevalent perspective based on fundamental racism in our country—all the more insidious because it is rarely voiced outright—that black or brown or just simply poor people will never really amount to anything because they just aren’t smart enough. And should thus be kept out of schools with gifted white children destined for true achievement. This racist perspective is not only insidious due to its covert nature, but furthermore because it is an often subconscious distillation of policies, lifestyles, and the nature of our current economy. The form in which it is considered does not appear immediately racist when it does come into public discussion. In this form, it arrives as something unfortunate, something so deeply ingrained that it cannot even be challenged. As an example, think of the middle class white parent who wants to get their child into a “good” school. They may move in order to be within the zone that will most likely get their child placed there. They may buy their child special instruction in order to meet the testing and interview requirements for the school. They may borrow money or dip into savings in order to pay the large tuition. And the school we may be discussing might only be pre-school. This competitiveness, in which parents positioned with resources may most easily navigate and triumph, seems at first sight to be based somewhat fairly on our democratic and capitalistic notion of merit. There does not seem to be any overt racism there. Who would deny a caring and savvy parent their right in garnering the best possible opportunities for their children? But upon further examination, it becomes evident that the only children who get into these “good” schools come from families or communities with resources. Meaning, in effect, the white children of the middle or upper class. As Kozol painstakingly reveals, the reality of this results in an educational system more deeply segregated than in the years immediately following the Brown vs. Board of Ed supreme court decision. And all of the reforms that have been enacted since that time address only achievement, not equity nor integration. The failure of such educational reforms can be examined, as Kozol does somewhat here, historically, or simply by looking at some recent news. New York has come under criticism due to the revelation that its standardized test scores have been inflated over the last few years. Scores from this last year were then accordingly scaled down, revealing that barely half of NY city students are considered even “proficient” in math (already a pretty low standard to achieve), and well less than half are capable of reading at grade level. This sobering news may for a moment make some would-be reformers want to throw up their hands. It also reinforces the quiet racism that lurks at the back of people’s minds, such that they think “Why should we even bother trying to raise the achievement of these children? Why waste the money?” But the problem is not the reform movement per se. There are achievements that have been made in instructional delivery and research-based assessment that I don’t think should be played down. The effort to improve achievement in the face of entrenched poverty and ingrained racism and ghettoized city policy has been noble. But nothing–as Kozol so despairingly portrays in his book–will vastly improve until children of all races and classes are given equal opportunities to learn in the same schools.

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Criticism of the Obama Administration: Constructive or Destructive?

Here’s what I find interesting about all this “hate-on-the-Obama-administration” hoopla that seems to be a daily media activity: he seems to be held directly accountable for every happenstance occurrence, whether an act of God, the act of someone beyond his control, or a failure of free markets. Now compare this harsh stricture of accountability with the Bush era of administration: that guy was rarely even present as a leader. Yet there wasn’t this level of criticism of him. It’s like we expected him to be an idiot. His presidency was more notable for his absenteeism and puppetry by behind the scenes power players than it was for his management. And yet now there seems to be this underlying theme behind all of the criticism of the Obama administration: Obama is too restrained. Obama is not pushing through the progressive agenda. Obama is not prioritizing the right strata of revolutionary reform. I mean, what exactly do people think Obama is going to do, move mountains? He’s a president, not a dictator, and he has been wielding his power accordingly. He can’t wave a wand and make a worldwide economic recession go away. He can’t wave a wand and push through controversial legislation in a nation that is–for better or for worse–predominantly conservative. He can’t bend over backwards and please all of the divergent progressive agendas and still stand up to the Republican party juggernaut. Yet to hear the criticism of him, it would seem that A) people don’t really want to live in a democratic nation; B) people won’t be satisfied with anything; or C) some force out there is very cleverly steering the national conversation towards constant nitpicking criticism due to the overriding desire simply to see him fail. I think there is a combination of these factors going on, but while A and B just kind of reflect the fickleness of human nature and are unfortunately to be expected, reason C concerns me the most. It’s no secret that there are strong conservative forces out there extremely adept at manipulating the national consciousness (and with the money to back it) into maintenance of the status quo, which in this country means the rule of the super-rich via divide and conquer.

This is not to say that Obama and his administration should remain immune from criticism. They have made plenty of mis-steps in accordance to their own campaign promises and they should certainly be held accountable for that. However, it is the level and intensity of criticism that I don’t really understand, except from the standpoint of trying to derail everything he is trying to do. One has to understand what he is up against, and remember where our nation stood before he was elected president. Our nation is incredibly sick, politically and now economically speaking, and it won’t be cured by more partisanship. But that seems to be just where we are headed. And if progressives and moderates and the people straddling the lines aren’t willing to become more realistic in their expectations, and more pragmatic in their political activism, then our nation is headed right back into the pocket of decay that led to the furor that swung Obama into office in the first place. Is this really what we want?

Be realistic about what one man can accomplish in the halls of power. Hold his administration accountable, but do not expect them to make magic without any moderate or conservative support. Concessions will be made, bills will be watered down, and that is the reality of politics in our country. But it is no excuse to stop caring, throw up your hands, and allow the conservatives to creep back into power come this November.

Reflections On My First Year As A Teacher of Special Education

Now that I’ve had some space of time to unwind a little and rediscover my existence apart from the closeted confines of my students, I’m beginning to consider the bigger picture of my instruction and obtain a vision of a master plan for the next year, as well as to consider how to manage and confront the behaviors and attitudes of students raised in poverty and labeled with a learning disability.

When you’re down in muck and mire of the daily slog that is the self-contained classroom in the South Bronx (a quick reprise for those stumbling across this post: “self-contained” is educational jargon for a special education classroom with a ratio of 12 students to 1 teacher and 1 paraprofessional), it can be hard not to take students’ attitudes, slurs, cusses, laziness, threats, and insults personally. But once a little space of clearance with which to see more clearly is gained, I am well aware that it is not the students’ fault that they don’t possess the tools and skills needed to succeed in school.

The advantage that students from middle class and wealthy families possess is that they come to school already equipped with the basic skills needed to function and succeed in a classroom: they know how to manage their supplies, they have a broader vocabulary and exposure to the wider world, and they have knowledge of formal cadences and structures. Students raised in generational poverty don’t have these advantages. And so they show up the first day of school already behind. The rest of their schooling can all too often be viewed primarily as a snowballing succession of failures, in which they are punished and berated for not having ever gained the most basic of cognitive skill sets.

If we are to expect students raised in pervasive poverty to succeed, then we must teach them the values and skills that they will need to perform in a classroom. In other words, alongside of the learning of academic content, they must be primarily taught how to learn academic content.

When this need is not acknowledged, the feeling that one has as an educator is of leading the horse to the water but not being able to force them to drink. You teach them all the content, but it’s like dropping things into murky water. And you end up becoming frustrated with your students, their families, and the school system et al. Because you could be the best teacher in the world of academic content, but if your students don’t yet understand how to sit in a chair properly or how to process formal English, then you’d be only teaching them half the time — which would be that time when they happen to be interested in the subject matter or when you force them to get something done.

Students who come into classrooms already disadvantaged due to their socio-economic positioning have a lot of things going on at home that someone from a different class can’t normally conceive of. They are exposed to levels of constant and acute stress that stretch them thin emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. I have heard teachers declaiming on how resilient their students are. Some have witnessed siblings dying before them, some already have children at the age of 13, some have been abused by family members or foster parents, some have lived in shelters or moved from legal guardian to legal guardian.Yes, indeed, they are resilient. But they are also still children who have not been given a chance to live the life of a child; they have been exposed to unimaginable levels of stress. This means they don’t always know how to cope with the added demands of the alien values and expectations of academia, nor perhaps grasp what the purpose or utility in education is at all. Their more urgent concerns are keeping face with their peers and social networking for protection and status.

If it sounds like I may be preparing to argue that schools must somehow water down their intent or curriculum for disadvantaged students, or if I am saying that disadvantaged students never have a chance to succeed in academics, then let me hasten to state the contrary. I believe the reality is that when a student comes into a school already behind, then that means they must work twice as hard as privileged students. There is no easy way. But in order to get them on track to this effort, it is the duty of the schools to provide them with explicit instruction on the values, skills, and perspectives that they will need to navigate middle class society. They must be taught how to learn academic content, how to self-regulate their behavior, and the differences between the street and the classroom.

This “invisible” curriculum is perhaps the most important of all, and I believe that all students — regardless of their socio-economic status or whether they are diagnosed with a learning disability — can benefit from explicit instruction in this area. It is this curriculum that I will be considering for next year, in addition to my ELA, math, social studies, and science curriculum. This last year I spent most of my time frustrated and angry because I was busy trying to cram academic content down the throats of my students  who did not possess the coping and self-control skills necessary to perform in a classroom. This next school year, I want to not only teach them academic content, but teach them how to adapt to an academic environment.