“…But what does this have to do with today?” Discussing Race and Systemic Inequality [Part I]

“Why did they do that?” Will asks me on the afternoon of my first day at Miller’s Hill. I have just explained how scientists let four hundred black men go with untreated syphilis for nearly half a century in order to study the effects of the disease.

I hesitate, my eyes lingering on his otherwise blank “Tuskegee Experiment” note card. How do you explain the dehumanization of racism to an eleven year old? “Well, the scientists, who were white, thought that they could do whatever they wanted to black people.”

“But why?” He scrunches his brow, genuinely confused.

I continue, “Since white people were in power – and for the most part, they still are – they could do horrible things to black people without consequences. So sometimes, they used them for experiments.”

Will’s eyes suddenly widen. “That’s awful!”

“It is. And the experiment would have continued if the press hadn’t found out about it and made it public in the seventies. Of course by then, many of the subjects had already died from the disease, and the others were very sick.”

Will is suddenly solemn, his mouth opening and closing slightly as his eyes dart from me to the Wikipedia page. Outside of Slavery, it might be the first time he has heard of any state sanctioned atrocities his racial group has perpetrated.

One month later, Naomi and I sit with the class on the carpet for our race and racism lesson. “So, who can tell me the definition of racism?” I ask the class, soliciting the mainstream definition before expanding it into racial prejudice plus institutional power. Surprisingly, students accept this new definition with little contestation.

“So how do people have power in our society?” I continue, “What does that mean?”

“Like, having a lot of money?” offers Sara, a quiet, tall, and tremendously freckled white student.

“Right! Having money is one way people can be powerful in society. What else?” Students consider the question for a moment. When no responses are forthcoming, I direct their attention to the back wall, where we have hung the ads from the gender lesson, under the heading, “What do these images tell us about ourselves?”

“What about those ads and the messages they send? Do you think people who control the media are powerful?” The class offers a collective noise of agreement before we discuss other powerful people in society, like politicians, lawmakers, police, corporate leaders, and education administrators.

“And what race are most of people in these positions?”

Without hesitation – and almost in unison – the class responds, “White.”

Alexis suddenly perks up. “They’re all men, too!” I am increasingly awed by students’ perceptiveness and acceptance of concepts and information so contrary to mainstream messages.

“Being in power is about more than political positions or laws. As we just mentioned, it’s also about the media and who we see.” Naomi tells them, “For example, think about Disney movies. What race are the main characters usually?”

Several students murmur, “White,” Before Jaden, exclaims, “But what about Mulan or Pocahontas? They’re not white!” A few students nod their heads in support.

“That’s true, there are definitely exceptions to the rule,” I say. “But generally, if you can count all the exceptions on one hand, it’s actually proving the rule.” Jaden gawks, and then leads the class in counting off Disney princesses of color one by one.     Continue reading

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All Promo Homo: discussing sexuality in school

“Faggot…Faggot. I really like that word.” Stacy says thoughtfully as the class leaves for lunch. I nearly drop my notebook.

“Why do you like that word?” I ask quickly.

“I don’t know… I heard it in a YouTube video and I just really liked the way it sounded.” She pushes her things into her desk and turns to me.

“Do you know what that word means?”

“No. I just really like the way it sounds. Fag—”

“It’s a very offensive term for gay people,” I interrupt. “Remember in the story we read today, when the main character was called it?” She nods. “Well, it is a very hurtful word. You shouldn’t say it.” We continue to talk for a moment about the word, and why it’s offensive. Stacy soon bounds off to lunch, and I am left alone in the classroom, dazed. This interaction makes it clear that I have been correct in thinking that the class will need to talk about queerness for one of the identity lessons. When outlining the unit, I had originally planned on discussing queer identity on the gender day, but as the curriculum developed, it became apparent that devoting only one lesson to both gender and sexuality would do neither justice.

Talking about sexual orientation in an elementary school proved much more complex than any other issue. Many states have laws banning “the promotion of homosexuality” in schools. These so called “No Promo Homo” laws have been variously interpreted as banning anything from explicit discussions of non-normative sexualities, to having books which feature gay characters in the classroom. While Massachusetts has no laws explicitly banning the topic of sexual orientation in schools, it does have one mandating that parents are notified prior to the implementation of a curriculum involving sexuality and given the option to exempt their child. While I initially think that the principal is being puritanical when he asks to approve a copy of my lesson plan, it turns out he is protecting Miller’s Hill from potential lawsuits.

“This all seems great,” He says one afternoon, handing the lesson plan back to me without reading it. “Do me a favor, would ya? Write this up in a letter and send it home to parents before you do the lesson. You should also give me a copy, okay?” He gives Naomi and I a breezy smile before sweeping out the door.

Naomi soon fills me in on another regulation I will be required to follow when broaching the topic of sexuality: I am not allowed to ask students to speak to their own sexuality, or any experiences relating to it. “I’m required by law to report anything – absolutely anything – students mention involving sexuality and themselves,” she tells me. This means the sexuality workshop will be a single day endeavor; no writing day will follow.

When I enter the class the following Monday, I am pleased to see that no parents have kept their child home today. “When I say ‘sexuality’ or ‘sexual orientation,’ what do I mean?” I ask the class by way of introducing the lesson.

Silence.

The usually loud, enthusiastic class is suddenly still, sheepish. I guess it’s not too surprising, given the topic. After I offer them a definition, I tell them that until about thirty-five years ago, doctors thought homosexuality was an illness. “Even though doctors no longer think this, stereotypes about gay people being somehow ill still exist.”    Continue reading

Organized Choas: introducing identity and gender

“That’s not true! Being gay is not a choice!” Jaden shouts, confidently exasperated.

“Nuh uh!” Faith retorts. “It is a choice! I had a friend who was straight once but now she chose to be gay!” They have been much louder and harder to keep on task than usual today –undoubtedly because they have a substitute, but now the class is suddenly focused. Naomi is at a teacher training session, meaning I am launching the identity unit solo. The sub, a tall, bespectacled woman with frizzy gray hair, sits silently in the back of the classroom for most of my lesson, nodding and occasionally smiling to herself as I struggle to keep the students’ attention.

The debate over whether or not sexuality is a choice began when I added “straight” to the giant list of identities the class had been composing together on chart paper under the “identities we don’t choose” section. In composing the intro lesson for the entire identity unit, I struggled with how to make both the concept and the term “socially constructed identity” accessible for sixth graders. I was confident they would be able to grasp the idea of a social construction insofar as the messages or rules, as we came to call them, which society sends us about certain identities, but I suspected the term “socially constructed” would confuse them more than anything. Unfortunately, talking about identities as socially constructed is also an extremely useful way of conceptually separating race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. from personality traits.

In grappling with how to accessibly make these identities distinct for students, I eventually realized that in talking about various identities, students would see the differences and offer their own language to differentiate between them. As we listed off different identities as a class to put on our chart paper, I began subtly separating students’ answers. On the left side of the paper were things like “Latino,” “male,” “black,” and on the right I recorded “outspoken,” “hyper,” “shy,” “sports fan.” When the students could not think of any more identity traits, I asked them to look at the chart and group different types of identity. This proved difficult, so I prompted further. “For example, what do ‘male’ and ‘black’ have in common? What do all the identities on this side have in common?” An inquisitive and sincere white student named Will suddenly thrusts his hand in the air, his furrowed brow rising over widened eyes.

“Those other ones are like, things you do, but these ones are like, who you are!

Alisha, a sharp, self-described outspoken black student with a knowledge of daytime soap operas far beyond her years, corrected him. “But those are all who you are… those things are like….like things that are… things that are really who you are…” She trailed off and frowned, realizing she had fallen into the same trap as Will.

The class was silent for a moment as they contemplated the list of identities. Alisha let out a frustrated sigh and slumped onto her desk. Eventually, Faith raised her hand. “Okay, I think maybe those identities are like, things you can get discriminated against for?”

She was onto something. A murmur of agreement swept through the class. Suddenly, Will exclaimed, “Ohhh!” Those are things that other people can use to discriminate against you, so those really are like… the parts you don’t have control over! You don’t choose them.” I wrote the word “choice” at the top of the chart paper and asked the class if they could think of other aspects of our identities we cannot choose. When no suggestions were forthcoming, I added “straight” to the to the left hand column under “Latino” and the current argument exploded.  Continue reading

Lesson Plans Days 1-4: identity overview and thinking about gender

**These are the first of several lesson plans I created for the identity unit at Miller’s Hill Elementary. The plans typically appear as they were initially written, with the body listed in bullet points in the order I intended the lesson to follow. However, nearly all of the lessons were forced to change and adapt to student needs during implementation.**

Day One: Identity Overview

Lesson Development: I wanted to use the first day to get the kids thinking about their own identities and all the different pieces that make them who they are. As this day was the introduction to a longer unit on socially constructed identity, I felt it was essential that they first understood the distinction between socially constructed identities and aspects of their personality such as likes and dislikes. I struggled for a while on how to translate “socially constructed identities” into language accessible for sixth graders, but ultimately realized that they would supply the language themselves. In talking about different aspects of a person’s identity and asking students to group different traits together, students were clearly able to see the difference and offered words like “choice” to separate them. The terminology for “socially constructed” easily became “identities you can’t choose” or “identities you’re born into.”

  • What do I mean when I say ‘identity’? “What are some ways you would identify yourself?”
  • Take a moment and write a response to the question ‘who are you?’ “It could be a narrative paragraph, or even just a list of attributes – we’re just trying to generate ideas.”
  • After about five minutes, ask students to share their lists with a neighbor and look at similarities and differences. What did people focus on? Take some volunteers (yourself included) to share and write down some of the words people used on the board. Talk about similarities and differences as a class.
  • Differentiate socially constructed identity from personality traits. Start by asking students to group the identity attributes, and then ask them why they grouped the way they did. “What if we were going to categorize different identities? What would go together?” “What do X and X have in common?”
  • Things to consider in grouping identities: choice (being born into certain identities), societal expectations (rules), societal organization (explicit examples: racialized slavery, women’s suffrage, segregation). Socially constructed identities are often the labels other people apply to you by looking. If students are really stuck, stand in front of the class and ask them to describe you, see what comes out of it.
  • What are some of those types of identity? (Get explicit – race, class, gender, sexuality etc.). “Let’s return to our lists now – is there anything people would add to the lists about themselves now that we’re thinking along those lines?”
  • If there is time at the end, begin brainstorming for tomorrow’s writing exercise. Tell the class we will be writing stories that have to do with these types of identities. First take volunteers to share ideas for stories they have and then try to work with students who are stuck. Continue reading

Part II: getting to know the classroom and developing a curriculum

An Introduction to Naomi Pierre’s Sixth Grade Class

Prior to the first day of my internship in a sixth grade class at Miller’s Hill Elementary, I had known the teacher for a total of ten minutes. We had met once – during the previous week in her classroom, on a late, blustery afternoon. An apocalyptic snow forecast had sent students home early. When I arrived, the entire office staff – in addition to most of the teachers – seemed to have taken off as well. The exception was Naomi Pierre, whose heels I could hear clicking somewhere nearby as I wandered the deserted, echoing hallways, searching for her classroom. I passed wall after wall of student work – self portraits, artistic renderings of inspirational people, letters to the late Charlie Brown creator Charles Shultz – following the rapid clicks until they stopped, and suddenly found myself standing at the opposite end of a hallway from a petite black woman in a high necked shirt and ponytail. She was paused halfway inside a doorway, holding a sheaf of papers and peering at me.

“Are you Mical?” she called out tentatively. I was relieved. Our meeting was short and simple. After we had introduced ourselves and briefly discussed our respective schedules, a knock on the open door announced the arrival of the principal, Perry Peterson, a tall, white man with short blonde hair and a large forehead who always seemed too congenial to be entirely sincere. He told us that the school was closing because of the coming snow, and that we would have to leave. Naomi and I quickly settled on a day and time for me to begin interning, and left the rest to be decided later.

*      *      *

When I enter the classroom on my first Monday morning, Naomi is at the front of the class leading a grammar lesson. I am immediately struck both by how small and how racially diverse the class is. There are only fourteen students in total, all sitting at individual desks which are pushed together in a sort of unclosed rectangular arrangement. Most of the kids appear to be students of color. I peer around the room as Naomi finishes the lesson. A timeline for Black History Month made up of tiny, dangling note cards with things like “Brown V. Board of Education” and “Malcolm X” written on them in the colorful, untidy scrawls of sixth graders stretches along the left hand wall. Behind Naomi is a chalkboard with the half-erased notes of this morning’s math lesson, and the back wall is filled with a white board displaying the day’s schedule and homework. On the far end of the back wall, a door connects Naomi’s room to that of the neighboring sixth grade teacher, Ms. H. During certain subjects, students from the two classes study together. Continue reading

We Don’t Talk About That Here

I am standing atop a small hill. Rain drizzles from an impassive gray sky, forming brown pools around my feet that spill down the hill, carving tracks in the loose soil. I survey the field below me – a grassy expanse ringed by A-frame cabins – gripping the glow stick in my hand proudly. It was a surprise my mom had left in my suitcase, and we had just used it in our nightly class meeting as a “talking stick.”  For a moment I am alone, and everything seems calm, muted by the rain and the dark. And then the stillness explodes in a cacophony of eleven-year-old squeals. My entire class streaks past me like water over rock, half-tumbling down the muddy rivulets to the field below. Everywhere there is laughter and screaming, and I feel light, lighter than I thought possible. Without thinking, I raise the glow stick and fling it into the sky above the mass of students. With a collective yell, they swarm toward it, jostling in the half-lit muck, until it is finally captured and triumphantly raised, and for a moment, I belong. Continue reading

Conquistadores

Whiteness teaches white people that whiteness doesn’t exist. Among all the rules, codes, and products of whiteness, its greatest trick is to remain invisible to those privileged enough to reside inside it. It is always centered, always operating, woven through nearly every aspect of our contemporary social fabric. Educational institutions are no exception.

I wipe the flecks of silver onto my jeans, and tuck my nose and mouth into my shirt to avoid the fumes. Usually, I desperately avoid spray paint and its noxious odors, but this is important. Holding the helmet at arms length, I douse the helmet in a final shower of silver and lay it down beside the others. I am surprised when I find it looks good. We have been working on them for weeks, first coating balloons in several layers of papier-mâché, and then painstakingly bending cardboard around the bottom edge for the brim, and another piece on top to create the fin, a feature of the helmets I never quite understood. For the final realistic touch, we took dry peas that had been cut in half and glued them in lines along the brim and fin. I had been skeptical then, but after the paint the peas really do look like tiny screws. I pull my nose from beneath my shirt and admire our crafts; twenty-six glistening Spanish Conquistador helmets in a line on the blacktop, their excess paint trickling into tiny pools around their brims. Our unit on the discovery of the Americas is nearly over. Continue reading