Our Work Is Everywhere We Look

I have extended family who engage in rich conversations about a variety of social and political topics per e-mail. I feel so grateful for these exchanges even if I may not add my voice to the mix very often. I love the fact that at least 3 generations are involved in these dialogues in the most loving and generous atmosphere. Recently, one family member offered the video commissioned by Starbucks on the history of African-Americans in public spaces as a point of discussion.

The written conversation that followed was insightful, nuanced and wide-ranging. While watching the video, all kinds of emotions came up for me. I identified with a number of statements, particularly those of black women. But one impression that has stuck with me since viewing the video almost 2 weeks ago: It’s the white male talking about how he leaves his house, without a care, without a worry about how he will be seen or judged. As he says: “I can just do my thing.” It stuck because that sounds like my life in progress. That’s mostly what I feel like when I leave my apartment in the leafy green neighborhood of this Central European capital which claims to be the city with the highest quality of life in the world.

I have lived here for almost 30 years. Vienna is home. I speak German, my 2 sons have dual citizenship, I work in an international environment that is both financially secure and socially elevated. I have more layers of privilege and comfort than can be named in a single blog post. I am healthy, able-bodied, straight, and married. My immigration status is secure. So the white guy in the video talking about being able to do his thing  most clearly mirrors my own experience far away from the country I grew up in.

And it feels daring to write that. Like I’m not supposed to say that I’m doing alright. I am a Black woman, after all. But that’s just how internalized stereotyping works. Even if I am living the dream in many ways, a second hidden script in my head, reinforced by plenty of mainstream media, suggests that I’ve been falsely cast, I don’t deserve to be here, this scenario is not replicable. The existence of this second script should not surprise anyone. While I can usually usher these idea right back out of my head once they arrive, their steady recurrence indicates a connection to the much greater influence of anti-black and sexist bias in North American society at large. The phenomenon of internalized inferiority extends far beyond my individual experience and I need to understand that.

Meanwhile, on another front, my friend Valeria Brown raised a question on Twitter to White people that stopped many in their tracks.

My first response to the questions was “Uh oh, I wonder how this is gonna go…”  It was the kind of question that made me instinctively hold my breath. Maybe because I know that there is no good answer. One respondent called it “jarring mental exercise.” When pressed for a number, responses ranged from $0 (assumption of futility of being heard in demanding compensation) to tens of millions of dollars. Go through and read the various responses which trickled in over time. It is a sobering experience to say the least.  And Val reposted the question a few times.

I’m sure for many giving an answer felt like stepping into a trap. It could not end well. One respondent commented: “This question. It’s gonna break people.” And Val talks about that when she listed her take-aways a day later. Among them she noted:

and

The whole of this experiment is still working in me so I can hardly imagine the impact it had and must be having on Val. One more observation she makes is that based on several responses, one would have the impression that to be Black must necessarily entail poverty, poor health and education outcomes, extreme violence and so on. It was hard to hear and take in and process and I say that as someone speaking from a remarkable distance in a number of ways.

So on the one hand, I get to be here in Europe living my best life (Hallelujah!) and still be deeply enmeshed in the effects of US specific anti-black racism coupled with rampant sexism. I work in a very White and international environment, where awareness of racism among students can vary greatly. As a topic of formal adult discussion, racism hardly surfaces and if so, mainly in response to a specific incident.  At graduation last night where no less than 5 black or black-presenting students in a class of about 70 received their diplomas, 4 of them mentioned their involvement in the Diversity Club (launched this year to address some racist incidents) as points of pride. (While gathering their diploma, a brief descriptive statement was read about each graduate.) Hearing that was such a necessary reminder that my work, our work, is everywhere we look.

Graduation Day 1983 with Mom

When I graduated high school, I knew all about how to conduct myself in ways that would make White people feel comfortable around me. As one young woman in the documentary video described:

“It’s not like I can mute my actual physical blackness, right? So I just assume that people can see a particular thing when they see the color of my skin, so everything else has to be, like, perfect and clean and as blended-in as possible. It’s really just an arsenal of different masks, you know?”

I know that issue of presentation as a young Black person in a predominantly White setting. Back in the early 80’s, I don’t remember putting much thought into it. I simply followed the necessary rules and codes to stay socially afloat, to be able to run with the friends I valued and it worked. My understanding of those codes and rules have afforded me all kinds of conveniences which stretch into the present. I fit in because I choose to. At every turn I display (and have displayed) those behaviors which indicate to my conspicuously White environment, “hey, I get you and it is highly unlikely that I will put your comfort on the line by talking about race and confronting you with your deeply held biases of which you may or may not be aware.” That’s a rule.

Val’s question fundamentally challenges that rule. Folks are immediately uncomfortable because the truth is so much harsher than tossing around the phrases about ‘doing the work’ on social media. Val put a big stone in our path and our job is to do more than admire it for its magnitude and rough surface. We have to move the stone. Upend it. Or chip away at it, feverishly.  But none of us will move ahead if we can’t answer Val’s question AND bring more folks in to the drive to move this stone out of our path. One way or another.

The layers of privilege which I enjoy right now are not guaranteed for generations, although I will do my best to insure that my children and grandchildren benefit from these as much as possible. Yet the more significant legacy would be for me, my children and grandchildren to go through life recognizing our own privilege and using it to deliberately open doors for others to move up, ahead and forward in their lives.

I’ve reached a stage in my life where I think about the future in terms of what I will leave behind besides environmental destruction, political instability, social unrest and mounting inequality. Realistically, words and ideas will be most of what is left. Words that nudge the stone, ideas that call people to join the struggle. That’s a legacy I dream of.

Distance Learning

I guess I have a lot going on.

While I’ve been thinking about my teaching and what it needs, where it’s lacking and where it may be just fine, something else has been needling me: curriculum. I should say curriculum writing, thinking, articulating. If you know me, you’ll perhaps also know that I love words; sometimes maybe even too much for my own sleep health. But when it comes to curriculum writing I can do the essential questions, I can made educated guesses on enduring understandings but after that I quickly tire and wish nothing more to be left alone with my colleagues and our perfectly functional pacing guide. I’ve written about my difficulties with curriculum work before.

And every day I go in and teach with the big picture in my head of where we’re headed and what we should try to do to get there. Some of what I try works and some of it doesn’t. Some of the ideas I keep coming back to stick with some kids but not with others. Sometimes I can follow through with my plan-as-written and sometimes I have to abandon the plan to prevent an all out mutiny. No amount of vertical or horizontal articulation, of detailed and neatly formatted unit plans will change these facts of the teaching life.

And the struggle that I face in conquering this disconnect between the tidiness of the professional document and utter messiness of real learning experiences in the gym and classroom reminds me of what school must feel like for a lot of kids. The distance between the content we teach our kids and what they feel is directly relevant can seem like an insurmountable gulf. There’s this distance. Hence, the title ‘Distance Learning.’

We teachers as amateur curriculum designers and writers can struggle too with this gulf between the neatly documented unit plans and the shifting realities of our teaching days. Sometimes our lessons may look like what’s on the page but not always. We may reach the stated objective but by an unexpected route. In my best case scenario, the curriculum document becomes flexible enough to take this into account.

What this iteration process can change, however, is my capacity to recognize both the wisdom and possible redundancies of the big picture concepts I carry in my head. This work has changed the conversations I have with my colleagues around what we consider essential and worth doing. We can share our respective ‘big pictures’ and make them understandable to each other and ultimately to our students.

Nevertheless, my resistance to long, wordy documents describing what I ought to be teaching remains.

That said, there’s another piece to this that I forget but is also important. My input in this process is expected and required. My colleagues and I determine what goes into the document and what stays out. This is privilege. It may not feel that way because it is work we may not feel especially inclined to do in the prescribed format that has been chosen. And yet, we as teachers have conversations with our curriculum director describing what will work best for us rather than the other way around. That is a critical distinction that it might be easy to dismiss. When you’re swimming in privilege, you can easily lose a feeling for what “wet” means, particularly to those who have no access to open water.

So the next time you hear me tending to wax disgruntled about the curriculum work my colleagues and I are grappling with, remind me of where I’m sitting and what it might look like from a very different perspective.

 

Unassigned Reading

Just about everything I read now is unassigned. I am no longer in school. I believe that I have acquired all the academic degrees that I care to acquire in this lifetime. And while there may be the occasional course of study to deepen my understanding of certain professional or personal development topics ahead, the reading choices at this stage of my life are entirely voluntary and self-determined. If you have followed this blog for any length of time you will know that I am an enthusiastic reader and I have the privileges of time, resources and access which afford me a tremendous wealth of opportunity to engage with texts of all kinds.

I say all this now because I have been thinking about the reading that I have done which 1) has nothing to do with education directly, 2) I do with someone, 3) is something routine that we do simply for pleasure. I am thinking about a year or actually several years’ worth of reading aloud to my sons. My youngest is 8 and reading aloud to him counts as one of my greatest parenting pleasures. He’s an astute listener for whom the length of bedtime reading is still an extremely effective bribe.

Looking back over the course of this year, it’s hard to count how many books we read all together. The first 4 Harry Potter books were big, I think we re-read A Cricket in Times Square and Charlotte’s Web. The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a recent birthday gift which we enjoyed. Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf turned out to be an unexpected hit and as well liked as Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk. Chapter books were always punctuated by various picture books: Piggy and Elephant are among our favorites to read in tandem. Classic fairy tales also hit the spot: The Gingerbread Man, Jack in the Beanstalk, The Three Billy Goats Gruff – we read those over and over. With his dad he has discovered the fun in Asterix and Obelix comics (which is rather lost on me; I think it may be more of a European thing).

The librarians at my school have been wonderful supporters of our reading endeavors, not only supplying us with books that have been sorted out but also directing us to great new possibilities. While I began reading Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck on my own, my son was drawn in by the detailed illustrations which run throughout the story, so that we read a big chunk of it together. Although I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret on my own, it was a highlight when a 5th grader at school saw me with it and said he was reading it, too. And it was the elementary librarians who turned me on to Jaqueline Woodson, whose autobiography, Brown Girl Dreaming in verse felt like a rare gift.

So many words, characters, and plot lines and all for the sheer pleasure of hearing, discovering, following, and anticipating what might happen next. My son remembers details from books we read months or even years ago. He quotes lines from one story that remind him of what we’re reading now. And with him I am miraculously able to remember too (most of the time). Recently we observed that a lot of children’s stories involve (and often open with) the death or unexplained absence of a parent. And we tried to understand how this kind of sets up the kids in the story to be heroes of a special sort. (We’ll be chewing on that theme for many more reads to come I’m sure.) Since I put a hold on continuing the Harry Potter series until the boy is a bit older, I’ve been attentive to introducing books and stories which can pick up some of the excitement slack in a more age-appropriate fashion. We’re currently reading The Abominables which is a delightful story about extremely kind and gentle Yetis being transported across Central Asia and Europe to England by a friendly truck driver and two pre-teens. (This is a book I dared to pick up based on its cover, I admit.) When my son commented on how much he liked this story, he said, too “I like everything you bring.”

All this unassigned reading for both of us. There’s no log. There will be no reports, book trailers, or other creative expositions of our literary excursions. Studies show our vocabularies are expanding, we’ll be more successful writers, we’ll do better on standardized tests.  Fortunately for us this is not the objective. It’s just us cuddled up, turning pages, giggling, pausing in surprise, finding just the right rest stop for the night. We have to good fortune to enjoy the very best of unassigned reading: joy and connection.

On “Content Awareness”

I recently used the phrase “content awareness” in a blog post about a standardized testing experience I had:

“… ultimately the exam process is hardly about the content, it’s about the presumed measurement of content awareness (“knowledge” seems too generous here)… Passing the exam is not about knowing the content well or deeply, it’s about seeming to know enough and indicating awareness of what these particular test authors deem relevant, representative, and necessary to practicing in the field.”

A couple of conversations on Twitter in response to this phrasing and to the certification process of which this exam was a part, got me thinking. My primary insight about “content awareness” is that I live from it, by it, with it, all day, every day. “Content awareness” is what allows me to participate in most conversations which interest me, particularly on social media.

Engaging constructively in conversation does not and should not require specialized knowledge or expertise. It does require a healthy dose of self-awareness and humility. (That’s the “knowing when to shut up” part.)

Here’s an example: I follow ed tech coverage, commentary and classroom stories because they reflect an expanding field that is having an increasingly strong impact on teaching, learning and our forever shifting interpretation of what education is and does. My interest extends beyond me and my particular needs as a teacher and learner. Rather, wrapping my head around what the influx of the latest digital technologies means for all of us as learners, consumers, citizens, and communicators has become a far more compelling task. What we do in our schools, homes, businesses and governments are no longer isolated happenings. Our individual and collective choices, both online and off, are often more deeply interdependent and strangely connected in ways we are challenged to envision. All the more so since the arrival of Google, Facebook, Apple and Co.  So I follow education technology threads as a way of keeping track of developments related to my field but also influenced by and with influence over so many other areas of our day-to-day existence.

I am not an IT or tech integration specialist, nor do I need to be. Rather, I have a level of content awareness of ed tech and other fields which allows me to engage in meaningful conversations with others around these topics. The more I read & listen, the higher my content awareness and the more precise and fruitful my questions. In relation to the exam, “content awareness” has a negative framing. I refer to it as less than content knowledge. After the fact, however, I want to rethink that stance. Because, literally, what do I know? And how can I be sure that I know what I know?

I will spare all of us a long trip down a rabbit hole of epistemological soul searching. (I looked it up: epistemology is, in fact, the study of knowledge and how it is constructed.) My point here is that “content awareness” has more to offer than I was originally prepared to admit. serves as my intellectual operating system. There’s the full truth. I am willing to say that there is so much I do not know. And there is a whole lot of which I can become aware.

And in that awareness, I can cultivate and grow interest, seek out practice, and raise useful questions. With my content awareness I can do more than contribute to ambitious cocktail chatter. When I choose to go deeper by reading the book rather than the single blog post, by deciding to teach a concept to others and researching sufficiently to that end – then I put myself on a path to some pieces of knowledge which remain fragmentary; always pieces of a much larger and more complex mosaic.

I would love to stop here and let us all feel a little warmer and fuzzier realizing that we may no longer have to play the expert quite so often. But there’s another level.

My newly revered “content awareness” is also the product of a very privileged educational path. I attended private schools from pre-school through graduation and continued on to a prestigious 4 year college. The amount of teacher attention and deeply personal feedback received in highly positive learning environments means that all the conditions were right for acquiring strong academic and non-academic foundations in which specific knowledge accumulation is readily matched with opportunities to explore areas of interest and encouragement to take learning risks. My “content awareness” goes together with the trappings of educational privilege where the benefit of the doubt is more easily given once I’ve mentioned my alma mater or submitted a writing sample. Rote learning  tends to be what our society requires of those we anticipate will become the employees of the pleasantly “content aware.”

In this parallel reality, “content knowledge” or rather, the lack thereof, becomes the measuring stick for deficits. It becomes an instrument for locating and exposing all manner of lack in the primary players in the system: students and teachers.  Content knowledge is what standardized testing purports to measure and in doing so provides school systems with mountains of data about who and what needs fixing. But the tests, it would seem, begin from assumptions rooted in very middle class “content awareness.” The tests are therefore rigged against the bulk of the students assigned to take them. This is hardly news to those of you who follow the reform wars in K-12 public education. But this line of thinking throws my self-flattering take on “content awareness” into stark relief.

Claiming “content awareness” constitutes privilege, plain and simple. Now that that’s established, how will I use this particular privilege? Being able to “think out loud” here in this space is one avenue. Broadening the conversation among friends, colleagues, newcomers is another. This post, and the meandering thought process it reveals, remind me once again that we are not finished. This much I know.