Jan 29, 2012

Other People's Children

Image Credit: Flickr/ 77krc
I recently read a piece by Sam Chaltain in the Huffington Post that had me shaking my head at the problem he exposes, and yelling "YES!" his suggested solution.

I find Sam Chaltain's piece to be a harsh reflection of reality, not just in the Ohio school district he writes about; but also in the school district where I live. People worry about educating their own children; but when it comes to educating ALL children...OUR nation's children...most people don't seem to care. Collectively, our society doesn't seem to worry about other people's children. Our education policy reflects that lack of feeling. That is why one school can be 30 miles from another geographically, but light years away when it comes to programming, achievement, and even structural integrity.

Image Credit: Flickr/reallyboring

Image Credit: Flickr/reallyboring 
Chaltain writes,
"Indeed, public education is our surest form of 'national security.' It provides the most likely path out of poverty, helps prepare young people to be successful workers and citizens, and reminds us all of who, on our best days, we aspire to be. And yet the reality is we continue to tolerate a system in which your zip code determines your access to the American Dream, and in which communities refuse to fund their schools because 'their' children no longer go there."
Equality in education is something we, as a nation, thought we achieved in 1954 with Brown v the Board of Education. Yet as Chaltain writes, a Texas case in 1974 challenged the constitutionality of funding schools by property taxes because that process leads to unequal schools. The Supreme Court ruling decided that education wasn't a Constitutional right.

Maybe if we change that thinking, make an equal education a Constitutional right, then we can finally talk about "fixing" public education--by leveling the funding playing field. The pictures above are of 2 elementary schools in the same public school district--the Chicago Public Schools. The disparity in building quality is obvious from the pictures.

Think about where you live. Within your school district, are the schools in one neighborhood nicer than those in another?  Shouldn't we be offering all of our kids the same opportunities and the same access to education?

Read the Sam Chaltain piece here: Sam Chaltain: Other People's Children

Jan 22, 2012

Teaching Slavery in Schools through Empathy Writing: Insensitive or Powerful?

I remember it pretty clearly--as clearly as someone can remember something that happened 30 years ago. The fact that I remember it at all really means something, because most of what happened 30 years ago is pretty hazy.  I was in junior high school. 7th grade. He was my history teacher. A big, burly, flannel-shirt wearing bearded man that reminded me a lot of Grizzly Adams. He was definitely a gentle bear who you wouldn't want to mess with. He made history come alive for me.

The 7th grade curriculum at my junior high covered what is, in my mind, one of the darkest periods of American History--the Civil War era. Mr. S taught us that the origins of the conflict really came much earlier, with the beginnings of slavery. He taught us about the slave trade in a brutally honest way, asking us to put ourselves in the place of an African, stolen from her family, shackled and stacked against strangers on a ship bound for the U.S., land of "opportunity." His lectures were graphic and disturbing. He wanted us to learn the truth: that human beings are capable of doing terrible things to each other. He wanted us to learn about slavery so that if we ever witnessed someone attempting to steal a human being away from their home and family, we would not stand aside and allow it to happen. He wanted us to understand our present world in the context of what occurred in the past. He believed that by learning history we could prevent humanity from making the same mistakes twice.

Image Credit: Flickr/Olivia Hotshot 
We read slave narratives and looked at primary source documents that left no doubt about man's ability to be inhuman. I will never forget the final assignment for our unit on slavery: a writing project that asked us to  synthesize all we'd learned. "Put yourself in the place of an African who has been stolen from her family, and write a series of journal entries from her perspective." That assignment led to my first experience with the power of empathy.  I put myself in the place of an enslaved African and wrote a heart-wrenching series of journal entries that changed the way I looked at people. In fact, I would argue that it changed me forever.

Flash forward 30 years. I've spent some hours here on this blog thinking about and discussing the issue of cultural appropriation, and how it compares to the inspiration many artists/writers/musicians say they get from learning about another culture. My 7th grade teacher asked me to put myself into the experience of someone else and write about it. That writing was powerful. I learned from the act of writing (but I didn't publish my work, claim to be any kind of expert, or profit from what I wrote. That writing was only for myself and my teacher.)

This week a middle school teacher has come under fire for making a similar assignment. "Pretend you are a slave in the southern United States. Write a journal/diary memoir about your life."  A student felt uncomfortable with this assignment and told his mother, who is biracial, that he didn't want to do it. She says, "For him to pretend to be something he's never been or never will be, that's going too far." She requested action from school administrators and says she has not yet received a satisfactory response.

I am puzzling this out, just like the inspiration vs. appropriation pieces, because I can see both sides of the issue. On the one hand, I know first hand how powerful such an assignment can be if given in the appropriate context. I know, both as a teacher and as a learner, that some of the most powerful learning comes from those moments where we are uncomfortable. Pushing ourselves to stretch our imagination, our math ability, or our understanding of foreign ideas---that is how we learn, and it is not always comfortable or neat. Learning is messy; it stirs things up. But I say all of that as a white woman, whose ancestors weren't slaves. Maybe an assignment asking me to pretend I am someone from my own family, who suffered such inhumanity, would be more than just uncomfortable. It might even be painful.

There were definitely black kids in my junior high school history class. I don't remember talking about anything as serious as our history assignments back then, so I don't know how it felt for my friend Traci to write about her ancestors' suffering. But this news story has given me pause. As my son picks his classes for junior high next year I wonder if he will learn about slavery, if his teacher will ask him to write from the point of view of a slave, and how we will respond to that. 

How would you respond?

Jan 15, 2012

Inspiration vs. Appropriation, Part 2

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the concept of inspiration vs. appropriation (read the conversations that followed here on this blog, or here where it appeared on MulticulturalFamilia.com.) I just recently received a comment from YA author, Terry Farish, that got me thinking about the topic again. Terry writes,
"I am a member of the dominant American culture. Here's one thought I have about people from the dominant culture writing about people in non-dominant cultures.  Could it be seen as not appropriation, but as a hunger to understand.  And for writers, it is through writing that we can begin to understand
our communities, our humanity, and, in this case, our multicultural country.  Is this only an apology?  I don't think so.  I think it would far worse if white people only sought to understand other white people, only wrote about other white people.   What if we lived in a world in which each ethnicity only wrote or created art about its own and no bridges were built between cultures by people trying to understand.  I do think it's my responsibility to honor Sudanese writers and work to support the development of their skills of young writers. 
I'd love to hear your ideas about this."
Terry, I had so many thoughts and questions for myself after reading your comment that I thought it best to just write another post. I hope you don't mind me sharing your comment with other readers. I am still trying to flesh out my thinking on appropriation vs. inspiration/appreciation/and now a hunger to understand. These thoughts are still confusing to me and are not cohesive at all (they never were, which is why I wrote that first post!) But what follows is the way I have been thinking and feeling about the subject after many discussions with other bloggers.

Seeking to understand another culture is admirable. Writing about something to understand it better is something that I do, too. But then there's this conundrum that I run into...When sitting down to write, I personally always think of Mark Twain's advice, "Write about what you know." I juxtapose that with something my husband said to me when we first started dating. My whole life, I've listened to black music, loved black culture, and felt like I really identified with black people. He said to me, "You can do all that, but you will never know what it feels like to be black. I can't take this skin off."

Powerful lesson there. He said that to me 20 years ago and I still think about it every day. I can never know what it is like to be in brown skin, in his skin, in the skin of my children; but I can see firsthand how it feels to watch the world treat them based on their skin. I can't tell their stories because I don't really know their stories. I only know my story: the story of a white woman married to a black man who is the mother of three brown children. So that is the story I choose to tell. I write about what I know, not what I presume to know by observing their lives.

While I agree that it might be boring if white people only told white people stories, I can also say with 100% certainty that if a white woman who'd never been in an interracial marriage or raised biracial children wrote a book about the mixed family experience---even though they'd never been in a mixed family themselves---I would be suspicious, maybe even offended. They would have to do a really excellent job of researching and writing, and even then I would be doubtful of their motives, of their honesty. It would really bother me. To have someone write a story about my life situation, without ever having experienced that situation for themselves, would seem very inauthentic. It would bother me even more if they profited from telling that story.

Yet, that's what writers do. They create fictional stories, they pretend to be someone else.  I think life would be really boring if they didn't create those stories. I love to read and learn, but thinking about appropriation has made me reconsider the kinds of stories I want to read. I've decided to make a conscious effort to read authentic voices. That doesn't mean that I won't read books by white authors who write about other cultures, though.

Here's an example of a white author I admire, who tells stories from a different cultural perspective--Barbara Kingsolver.  The Poisonwood Bible was an amazing book to me because while it was a book that took place in the Congo, what it really described was a specific part of European-American culture (missionaries) and their intersection with Congolese culture. Kingsolver managed to teach me a lot about the Belgian Congo in the 1950s, but did so by telling the story of a white character's experiences in that culture. She didn't narrate someone else's story.  In another book, The Lacuna, she again taught me about another culture by writing about life in Mexico from the point of view of a half white and half Mexican character. She focused a lot on the whiteness/American-ness of that character, and how he didn't exactly fit in even though he lived in Mexico and was half Mexican. Is her character problematic for real life mixed Mexican-Americans? I don't know. But I was impressed that she so carefully crafted a story about another culture that still managed to be told authentically from her own white perspective.

Reading from the perspective of that mixed character in The Lacuna made me think of something else: I can think of many, many white authors who have written from the perspective of a person of color. There are too many to list or name, and they are in every genre of literature. But how many writers of color are there who write stories from another cultural perspective? Can you think of any? I can't. The only book I can think of is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I remember reading that book for a class in college and having my fellow students comment how strange it was to read a book about an English butler written by a Japanese man...

It seems to me that white people feel they can write from any perspective they want to, but the same is not true for people of color. White people can say that we are trying to understand, and that our quest for learning justifies writing from another cultural point of view in order to bridge gaps....and I really think that is a noble purpose. I really do.  But at the same time we have to realize that writers of color do not have that same privilege. Their stories are not being told, shared, or published as often as the white versions of their stories. And just as I would be offended if someone else wrote my story, so are many people of color offended when white authors keep telling their stories.

I haven't read your books, Terry. I just looked at your website after you commented on this blog. I don't know how you approach your cultural subjects or who the characters are in your books. I do know a lot of social-justice minded white writers who want to bridge cultures and share new perspectives with white readers, and I think that it is important work. But I am personally always reminded of what my husband said to me 20 years ago, "You will never know how it feels to be black." My 20 years of being the only white person in my household gives me a huge research base to draw from. I could use that experience to write a story from a black perspective, trying to give white readers a better understanding of black culture; but there is no way I could really get it right. I am not black and I never will be. My story wouldn't be authentic. Personally, I'd much rather foster and support a writer of color who can share their own story. If I write my own story, it would be the authentic story of how a white woman can interact with and learn to love black culture. That is my story to tell, and I believe it can bridge gaps just as well as (maybe even better than) a story I could write from a cultural perspective that is not mine.

Jan 8, 2012

Schools, Finland, Equity, #Occupy

Image via Wikipedia
When I was in college I read the book Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol.  The book, released in 1991, was a startling look at the inequities among public schools. Sometimes the inequities Kozol describes are really hard to read about. Dilapidated school buildings exist on one side of a river while shiny, well-kept buildings exist on the other side of that same river. Why does this inequity exist? Because in the U.S., our public schools are funded mostly by local property taxes. A nice neighborhood with a large tax base will have the funding to make a really nice school building, keep it well-maintained, offer a wide variety of programs, and be up-to-date in its technology. An example of such a school is New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL. According to School Digger (a site that reviews and ranks schools nationwide), New Trier is ranked the 5th best school in the state of Illinois.
New Trier High School. Image Credit: Flickr/eszter

Just 30 miles south of New Trier High School in Chicago is the Chicago Vocational High School. According to School Digger, Chicago Vocational ranks 661st in the state of Illinois.
Chicago Vocational School. Image Credit: Flickr/ reallyboring 
What's the difference between these schools besides 30 miles? Poverty. Winnetka is a suburban middle/upper middle class town. Meanwhile, almost 100%  of Chicago Vocational's students live in poverty.

You may think that since Savage Inequalities came out in 1991 and it is now 2012, things have changed. Think again.  Kozols' later book, The Shame of the Nation, published in 2005, says that things have gotten worse. Now it's not just poverty that leads to inequity, schools are also becoming more and more segregated.

Our government has attempted to right these wrongs through a series of legislation--from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top. Throughout the course of this legislation, I have read articles about other countries that outperform the U.S. in achievement. One of the countries that has garnered a lot of attention in recent years is Finland. An article from the Atlantic, "What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland's School Success" is circulating widely on Twitter and in the blogosphere. I read this article and  was struck by a few quotes:
"There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation."
"Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity."
"That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year -- or even just the price of a house in a good public school district -- and the other "99 percent" is painfully plain to see."
As the 1% focus on keeping their wealth, the gap grows bigger between the haves and have-nots. According to Jonathan Kozol's work, increasingly that gap is also marked by color.

An acquaintance on Google + commented that what works in Finland probably won't work in the U.S. because of size differences. It's such a small country, comparatively. My response? New Trier is only 30 miles from Chicago Vocational High School. The population of Winnetka and Chicago combined is roughly 3 million. The population of Finland is over 5 million. I think that if we start small....perhaps by creating equity between schools that are in the same district, maybe expanding to schools that are within 30 miles of each other, we might see some huge differences. I think we owe it to the kids of our nation to try to level the playing field. Don't you?

Jan 1, 2012

Boost Nation: Send a Message to Struggling Teens

Probably more than ever before, high school students need extra help to graduate from high school. So many teens have extra responsibilities: caring for younger siblings, working jobs to help support their families, or caring for their own children. The dropout rate is really high in every state across the nation. (You can see how high it is in your state by visiting this site.) Even though the dropout rate is high, YOU can make a difference in a kids life by visiting BoostUp.org

What I love about this site is that you can TAKE ACTION! Leave a tweet-sized message for a teen who is at risk of dropping out. Make a video for kids in your state, encouraging them to finish high school. Find a local mentoring organization and donate your time. Make a difference with Boost Nation. Here is a sample video from their site:

Boost Nation | Encouraging our nation's students: Every 26 seconds, of every school day, a student drops out. Boost Nation, a project of BoostUp.org, lets you share your own message with students, helping keep them on track to graduation.


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