Workshopping Myself, My Teaching

It’s literally been months since I last wrote. That’s not something I let out easily or without thought, it embarrasses me and saddens me that it’s true. I love writing, need writing, and have missed it. When I write regularly, It makes me a better writing teacher, a better conversation partner, and a more content person in general.

Being able to sort out a lot of complex emotions and thoughts is a vital professional skill, especially for those who work with kids. When I write about my practice, I start to slowly parse these things out.

Over the past few months, my life has been filled with a steady stream of exciting, horrible, wonderful, and nerve-wracking news.

As much as I need to write, I need to be in contact with my fellow teachers. Erin Wilkey, an NWP colleague of mine and 826 Valencia tutor in Oakland, sent out an email asking for responses from teachers of minority male students. It wasn’t until I started to read the questions, that the will to write returned to me, filling me up…

A disproportionate number of minority males are not graduating from high school.  What are the causes and reasons?

What I see is a powerful influence from minority male homes and social environments. Those who do not graduate often experience an overwhelming pressure from their peers and family to leave school. Another contributing factor–one teachers and administrators can control–is how we treat young minority males. There is an unspoken agreement between teachers, it seems, to forgo all common sense and human care when dealing with students from troubled backgrounds. I say this because I see many school leaders treat these students with disdain. Even the same teachers and principals who speak of serving students in poverty and harsh home lives turn around and do mindless things to those students out of what they see is their “duty” to them.

Rather than making these students feel heard and welcome in our schools, we are saying “Get in here right now mister! You have to be here and you have to change who you are because what you are is bad.” The most successful exchanges happen when kids of any age, race, class, or background are treated with dignity and welcomed to learn as equals.

Are there differences between and among how different gender, cultural, age and linguistic groups respond to academic, social and other parts of the school environment?

Every child’s home environment is different, even if they appear the same. It is our job as educators to mold our school environment to fit the students the community gives us. The academic and social environment of the school needs to be co-created by student, teacher, and community. That is true regardless of a school’s or student’s demographic background.

In terms of teachers specifically, the teacher population is primarily white and female.  Is this significant?  If so, how?  To what extent did your teacher education courses, both core and in-service, prepare you for dealing with minority males?

Nothing in my teacher education courses of any level prepared me for dealing with minority males.

There were no books that made me ready, no conversations, and no short drop-in experiences that prepared me like actually being there. Because I grew up in middle class white suburbs and then went to college with a similar population, I knew nothing about how to meet the urban community’s needs until I started to inhabit those spaces with my students. That’s where the “dealing” comes.

In regards to my own race and gender (a white male), it has hardly been a topic of conversation with my students. Race and gender are not impenetrable barriers for teachers and students of different backgrounds.

If you could implement three (3) policy changes within your school or school district to better serve minority males, what would they be?

There should be NO ZERO TOLERANCE POLICIES ever in schools (especially in minority urban schools with majority white administrators and teachers ). Every kid deserves a second, third, fourth, and fifth chance. They need to know the teachers care about them and want them to do well above all else.

No honors or tiered/tracked system. I have kids from a 4th grade reading level to college reading levels, and they are all in the same classes. We learn to work as a community and I differentiate for them. My students already have enough self-categorizing, rating, ranking, and wall-building going on, they don’t need another system which I help institutionalize. It has to be about learning, not winning. The “smart kids” (whatever that means) will have to learn to identify themselves as smart based on actions, not labels. The “not-smart kids” and “others” will be able to focus on building relationships rather than beating themselves up or ceasing to try because they’re already categorized.

Real world projects with immediate visible application. The most successful interactions I had with otherwise very private and anti-school minority male students involved challenging tasks which I covertly supported them through. These things may not have had anything to do with “the classroom” but they got the kids engaged in something challenging which allowed them to make their own meaning and seek appropriate help in a safe way. My favorite example is the Rubik’s Cube. I taught a handful of guys how to solve it over the course of a few weeks and before I knew it, they were writing in class every day, taking more notes, asking meaningful questions and then working with others to solve problems. The same skills I modeled for them when we were working on the cube together, they extrapolated and applied to the rest of the situations I put them in.

It took me even longer than I had hoped to finish writing this post and publish it. Writing this reminded me of the relationship I need to have with writing in order to be a good teacher and a good person who teaches. Since I last wrote, I’ve felt more stuffy, cut-off, unsure, and generally more stressed out about my role as an educator. When you sign up for this job, you’re signing up for a lot. You’re signing up for something vital to a lot of people’s lives and well-being, so you need to treat every thought and emotion with the same respect. Slowing my mind down and writing what I am thinking and feeling is the only way I know to process what I need to do from what I want to do.

There’s a reason this post was two-and-a-half months in the making, I put off doing it. Just like paying a bill or confronting a troubled student, the longer I let my need to write sit unaddressed, the worse it got. So maybe, like Billy Collins’s great poem Workshop says of chipping away an unfinished poem:

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here

is really two poems, or three, or four,

or possibly none.

This is most definitely not just one piece of writing, but I know it’s more than none.