Feb 26, 2012

The N-word in Education

Image credit: Flickr/DJOtaku

A white coach in suburban Chicago posts a derogatory comment about Whitney Houston's death on Facebook and is suspended for a year. He says he didn't know he was writing that word. He says he only shares Facebook with friends and family, but now everyone knows he wrote it. He says that some of his best friends are black.  What did he write that stirred up all this controversy? "I'm so sick of reading about this dumb stupid N----- Whitney Houston."

The parent of a former player saw his comment and spread it around. She wonders if he felt that way about her black son when he played on the team...
A white teacher gets suspended in a Chicago school when he begins a discussion about the N-word in his class. The teacher, Lincoln Brown, says that he intercepted a note that was being passed in class. The note had rap lyrics written on it that used the N-word and he thought it was a "teachable moment"---a great time to talk about the history of that word and how it relates the book Huckleberry Finn.  While in the midst of this discussion, his principal did a walk-through and deemed the conversation inappropriate. Lincoln Brown was suspended from teaching, and is now suing the principal for violating his 1st and 5th amendment rights.

According to a Sun Times piece, in class Mr. Brown said: “can anyone explain to me why blacks can call each other a n*****, and not get mad, but when whites do it, blacks get angry.” Brown allowed three students to answer the question.

Mr. Brown's students were 6th graders and mostly black. The principal who suspended him is also black.
Both of these stories stirred up a lot of conversation. Comments on each story show that the n-word is still one of the most charged and powerful words in the American English lexicon. An interesting piece by Nick Chiles (a black man)  on My Brown Baby  argues that Mr. Brown shouldn't suspended because he is opening up a much needed discussion on race. If we don't talk about it, how do we progress towards becoming a multiracial / "post racial" society?

In my mind, the first story is about a stereotypical racist--how do you not know that you typed the n-word in your own Facebook status???  Who uses that word by accident and then follows it up with the cliche excuse "some of my best friends are black?"  But the second one...that one really gets me thinking. It makes me think a lot because the question Mr. Brown poses in class about rap music's use of the n-word is one that my own students ask all the time: "Why is it okay for them, but not for us?" I try to explain the idea of "reclaiming a word," the way the feminist movement tries to reclaim the word "bitch" turning it around to make it a positive. But for me, that whole explanation doesn't work...because no matter how many women reclaim the word "bitch", given a certain context it still hurts to hear it applied. The n-word is no different. No matter how many rappers try to reclaim it and make it their own, it still hurts when a white person says it--no matter how well-intentioned that white person may be. I think that's what Mr. Brown needs to realize. No matter what the motivation for his conversation, now matter how well-intentioned he may be, that word hurts.

As a teacher and a believer in the power of empathy, I am always looking for a way to help my students understand things from a different perspective. I have never been able to find a way to explain the pain caused by the n-word. There really is no way to explain to a white person what a degrading word it is...but the closest to a good explanation I've ever seen comes in the form of humor. White comedian Louis CK openly (and hilariously) discusses his skin privilege, and the fact that there is really nothing that anyone can say that hurts him because of that privilege.

Warning--Louis CK uses crude language

How do you feel about these stories? Is it appropriate to discuss the n-word in a classroom? If so, what's the best way to do it? If not, then how should teachers address questions from their students or address situations like the one Mr. Brown encountered with a student passing a note that included the n-word in rap lyrics?

Feb 19, 2012

Teaching is a Sport

The experience of student teaching is making me think and reflect on a whole lot of stuff...my brain is buzzing 24-7 with ideas (I have been teaching in an alternative h.s. program for 14 years, but am finishing up my degree in Special Education this semester!) As I share some of my thoughts with my husband, who is currently coaching our son's 5th/6th grade basketball team, I've noticed that he is taking on the role of one of those coaches in the movies. You know the ones: the motivator, the guy who gives the big speech at half time that motivates the team to go out there and give it their all!

warning--this video montage contains some crude language.

Last week I attended an in-service. A lot of teachers moan and groan about having to take the day away from grading papers or planning lessons, but confession time: I really enjoy in-service. I realize that part of the reason I like it is because I teach in an off-site alternative education classroom where I have an instructional aide, but no teaching colleagues; in-service is my chance to mingle with other teachers. But I also realized last week, that in-service is a lot like a pep talk from a coach. Teachers are gathered together to get a game plan together, to learn strategies in how to work as a team, and reflect on what works when we're all out in the field.

Here are some strategies that have been shared at many of the in-services I've attended that have been most helpful:

  • Greet each student by name EVERY DAY
  • Instead of criticizing one student who does something poorly, praise the many students who do something well (aka accentuating the positive)
  • Remember that not everyone has the same skills and abilities, so we need to differentiate instruction

That last one is a doozie that is featured at just about every conference, meeting, and in-service I've ever attended. The overall message is that one size doesn't fit all in teaching and learning. We need to offer a menu of options for students to choose from. We need to be flexible in how we grade student work. We need to realize that every kid comes to us with a different set of skills, background experiences, and life situations.

In sports, coaches make their teams practice skills. They run drills, they learn plays, the work on form. Games played against an opponent are where they put all their moves together, right? But what if what they practiced doesn't work? Do coaches sit on the side line and just let their team keep running the same ineffective plays over and over again? Not if they want to have a chance to win! They give the motivational half-time speech, change the plan, and start the second half fresh with a new set of plays.

In teaching, so many teachers have been running the same ineffective plays for years, not realizing that what they're doing isn't working. Many of us need to update our play books and incorporate some new moves. This doesn't mean that we're bad teachers...it means that we need to keep up with current practices and adapt our game. Just as an athlete needs to keep practicing, and a coach needs to keep adjusting the play book for each new opponent, so do teachers need to keep practicing and adapting. Our work is never done. We need to be constant students in the art teaching.

How do you keep your practice current?


Here are some links to sites featured at  in-service meetings that I found really helpful. These links lead to plays I've added to my play book over the 14 years I've been a student in the art of teaching:

Pat Wolfe's Mind Matters : Did you know that the brain is "wired" to learn in specific ways? Pat blew me away at an inservice 6 years ago with her brain-based research on how to make instruction more effective by teaching in a way that allows the human brain to learn.

Todd Whitaker's What Great Teachers Do Differently helped me remember that we are working with individual kids who like to be acknowledged and recognized as individual people. He also reminded me that it feels better to be recognized for something positive than to watch someone else be chastised for something negative.

John Medina's Brain Rules taught me last week about simple, effective strategies I can use in class to help my students learn more effectively if I just keep in mind what science tells us is true about the human brain.

Whether you are a teacher or not, you need to stay current in your practice, right? What are some resources you use in your work to update your "play book"?

Feb 12, 2012

White Women Don't Steal? Debunking 5 Stereotypes

Stereotypes are powerful. Once in place it is hard to break them, especially because every stereotype starts somewhere...there is almost always someone who fits the mold. What's troubling is when someone doesn't fit the stereotype, but is treated poorly because of it.

I came across this story by Jessica LaShawn in Chicago Now recently that got me thinking about stereotypes. Jessica was on her way to Las Vegas for the Miss America Pageant. She was asked by the flight attendant to put her new Versace coat in the overhead compartment. At the end of her flight when she stood to retrieve her coat, she saw a woman wearing one just like it. She reflected on the woman's good taste, waited for the aisle to clear, then went to get her coat. But her coat was gone...and she realized that the woman, who she'd thought had similar good taste to her own, had stolen her coat. When Jessica reported this incident to airline security, they didn't believe that her coat was stolen. Why? Because Jessica is black and the woman who left the plane in her coat was white. Apparently, white women don't steal...

Debunking Stereotypes

1. White Women Don't Steal
Image Credit: Flickr/Diamond Geyser
Someone needs to inform Winona Ryder of this fact. I am a huge fan of her work, but she is living proof that those airline security folks that Jessica LaShawn met with are 100% wrong. There are definitely white women who steal.

2. Asians Can't Drive
Charles Kwan via Wikipedia
Marchy Lee via Wikipedia
Image via http://brianwongmotorsports.com/

If that's true, then someone needs to tell these guys that they can't drive! Charles Kwan and Marchy Lee race primarily in Asia, but Brian Wong is a Chinese-American racer who lives in California. He is a NASCAR driver, proving that it is not just a sport for white men. Read more about Brian Wong on the Angry Asian Man blog.

3. Black Musicians only play R&B or Hip Hop
Someone better tell Iowa native Simon Estes that he needs to quit singing opera and try to get his groove on by singing some neo-soul or something... And then go on and tell Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist at the Metropolitan Opera that he can't play any classical music because black folks don't do classical. Morris Robinson will need to figure out a new path for his life, since his bass singing with symphonies world-wide doesn't fit that stereotype. (Read and listen to more about some current black musicians in the field of classical music here in a podcast and post from WQXR classical radio in New Jersey.)
Image Credit: Flickr/Luther College Photos
Image Credit:Flickr/bo mackison
Image via http://www.morrisrobinson.com/
4. Latina Women are all Maids
Check out the groundbreaking work of scholar Gloria E. AnzaldĂșa, expert on cultural and social marginalization who wrote poems, books, and changed the academic landscape with her work. She greatly influenced my own thinking when her book This Bridge Called My Back was part of my assigned reading in college. Read about Linda Chavez-Thompson, Vice Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Learn about New Mexico's current governor, Susana Martinez. These women  most definitely are not maids. They are scholars, politicians, and world-changers...and there are many more Latinas like them across the country.

Gloria AnzaldĂșa via Wikipedia
Linda Chavez-Thompson via Wikipedia
Susana Martinez via Wikipedia

5. Muslims are Terrorists
Tell that to the children who go to school with my own children every day!

My neighborhood has never experienced an act of terrorism. My Muslim neighbors hand out candy on Halloween, take their children to the pool in the summertime, shovel their driveways on snowy days, and attend our school's family nights just like my family and I do. They go to work every day, and take their kids to the same before school program I take my kids to. There has never been an act of terrorism in my Iowa town. Our neighborhood school has never suffered from an act of terrorism. This stereotype is simply not true.

If all Muslims are terrorists, someone also better tell this lady about Dr. Oz...He is a Muslim born in Cleveland, Ohio...look out! His stethoscope must be doing something evil just because he's Muslim, right?
Image via Flickr/nayrb7

Sure, there are definitely white women who don't steal the way Winona Ryder did, and the way the thief who stole Jessica LaShawn's Versace coat did. And there are Asians who don't drive well, Black people who sing R&B, Latinas who are maids, and a very small number of Muslims who are terrorists. Stereotypes start because of a reality. BUT problems begin when people assume that stereotypes are true of ALL people who meet a particular description. 

Not all white women steal just because Winona Ryder does. But we can't assume that all white women are innocent of stealing. Not all Asians are bad drivers just because you've seen one or two who fit the description. Black people don't only perform R&B just because that's all you see on MTV. Latinas can be scholars and governors, despite the fact that the media seems to pigeon-hole them into being maids and nannies. And most Muslims are regular people, raising their kids, just like you and me.

Feb 5, 2012

Busy Life & Some Good Reads

On January 17, I started the last semester of my graduate program in Special Education. I am taking 6 semester hours--spending half-days in my own classroom, half-days in another teacher's classroom, then chauffeuring kids to dance/basketball/scouts, going to class, and keeping up (trying to) with my responsibilities for two volunteer board positions. I have been struggling to keep up with all my stuff, and even though I told myself that no matter what I would make sure to keep writing...I'm worried that this blog will fall by the wayside until May.

I hope that you all can stick with me for the next few months while I try on this whole micro-blogging thing that Multicultural Familia founder, Chantilly, recommended on her blog Bicultural Mom. Instead of me sorting out my thoughts in long-form, I'll be sharing little snippets of things I find interesting. I hope that you'll find them interesting, too.

I won this shirt on My American Meltingpot!
Here are a few posts that caught my attention this week:

My American Meltingpot takes on Black History Month
In honor of Black History Month, Lori is looking at white people who tell black folks' stories and profit from them. This fits right in with the series of done right here on empatheia regarding Inspiration vs. Appropriation. Lori's first post is about Kathryn Stockett and her best-selling book The Help. Check it out here.

Jesse Washington examines the phrase "African-American"
My husband has always referred to himself as Black. He dislikes being called African-American because he is not from Africa--he is American. My mom tells me stories of her time as an elementary school secretary when Nigerian-born or Senegalese-American families came in to fill out registration paperwork for school and checked the "African-American" box- because it truly explained their heritage and current citizenship. These issues and more are tackled in Jessie Washington's piece for the Associated Press which you can read here.

My daughter's hair story featured on Multicultural Familia
As a white person, I had no idea about Black people's hair... until my daughter was about 2 years old. It has been quite a journey for us. Read about it here. If you're as clueless as I was before my daughter was born, Chris Rock did an excellent documentary about the whole Black hair industry and the struggle that Black women face every day with their hair. I highly recommend that you watch Good Hair. And I sincerely thank all who have commented on Multicultural Familia, Facebook and Twitter! You have made my daughter feel even more positive about her decision to go natural in 2012!

What have you read lately that made you think? I'm short on time these days and would love for you all to point me towards the pieces that are worthwhile to read. Please share!


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