A Little Wind Beneath My Wings

Almost nothing invigorates me more than when grown-ups outside our school take our kids seriously.

Our school district uses a vendor assessment system called i-Ready to track our students’ growth throughout the school year. Generally students spend about an hour on math lessons and an hour on reading lessons on i-Ready per week. We do a lot of incentives, like teachers giving raffle tickets for each lesson passed and then doing a drawing for a special lunch with the principal.

Even with incentives, many students hit a wall with i-Ready, motivationally speaking, in January and February. They just got burned out, and I can’t really blame them – it’s just how it feels. Teachers ramped up encouragement and incentives, but even they were getting frustrated with repeated issues running i-Ready in Google Chrome browsers.

So when students logged in this morning, they were thrilled to see new games had been added. It was a very different atmosphere in the computer lab! One student in particular named Zakhary was so excited, he said “thank you” to every adult in the room. I said to him, “Actually, we didn’t turn those games on. The people at the i-Ready company did. Want to say thank you to them?”

Of course he did! He was so excited!

He dictated the message and I wrote it down. He held his message and I took a picture. Then, I tweeted it.

Now, even just this much was invigorating for Zakhary. But then, at the very very end of our school day (we were lined up for dismissal), I got a Twitter notification.

Luckily, Zakhary’s homeroom is just across the hall, so right before buses were called I went to their doorway, laptop in hand. His entire class gathered around to see the photo and listen closely as I read out the message. (Having a class quietly listening at dismissal is nothing short of a small miracle, by the way.)

So now not only is Zakhary excited about new i-Ready games, his whole class is excited for him that he was acknowledged by professional adults who created the games. And as a teacher, I’m exhilarated that someone outside our community took my student seriously. I too have a renewed investment in this product.

It’s a little like the zoo project we did last year – it makes a huge difference to student engagement when others are also engaged with them as partners in their learning.

People Are Allowed to Talk About It, Yell About It

In fact, I hope they do. I’m glad many are doing so.

I have seen this attitude on social media, and I have overheard conversations in real life to this effect: the election is over, the people have spoken, end of story. Another key phrase includes, “What’s the point of protesting anyway?” It’s almost like folks are conflating activism with acting out.

So, I am not someone who has been to many protests or rallies. When I had the time I didn’t have the interest, and now that I have interest I also have a full-time job. I also try not to discuss the traditionally controversial topics of religion and politics in public online, though I am very comfortable discussing those topics with close friends.

But. My feelings started changing with this election.

I mentioned before that I did not get my wanted-for outcome, but I was feeling this way regardless.

I have a big concern with the ideas of civic duty and obligation. It takes a huge effort to get people to go to vote, so for many of us, that feels like the extent of it. Really, voting to make your opinion be heard? It’s not enough.

It’s like we vote, and then we expect our elected officials to know exactly how we would like them to govern by… reading our minds? Or keeping up with our individual vague, passive aggressive social media posts? Do we really think the conversation ends at the ballot box?

I had resolved, long before the outcome was known, that I wanted to stay engaged. I live a life shaped by politics and policy, so I may as well feel listened to about it. How do I make my voice heard?

I figure out where I stand on issues, through research and reflection, not all of it easy, not all of it comfortable.
I figure out what matters most to me.
I call and write my congresspeople and senators.
I take part in demonstrations, and communicate to others why.
I can volunteer and donate to causes I believe in.
I can support members of my community more directly affected by policy shifts.
I remain receptive to other ideas.

I think it’s worth noting that many of the protests I see reported are at high schools; perhaps that’s what I see because I spend so much time on the education side of Twitter. But, anyway, many high school students are not yet old enough to vote, yet many will be directly affected by changes in policy that originate in this election. They couldn’t use their vote as their voice, so they’re using their feet as they march.

And I really, really want to quash that pernicious “the people have spoken story over” narrative, especially when I hear it said in front of children by adults with authority. It’s true that not everything is up for debate. One candidate lost the election, and the other one. But there are bigger issues at stake. We need to hold our representatives accountable for their decisions, and large-scale demonstrations help them know that, while we elected them once, we may not do it again: they are beholden to us. We do what we can to keep them accountable.

I will be the check, and I will find my balance. And I hope that others will join me.

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Reflecting on Social Media & Politics Twitter Chat

Today, because of school Halloween celebrations, I rearranged my usual class schedule and ended up having my prep period during the last hour of the school day.

And then I checked Twitter.

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I did not know until this afternoon that PBS News Hour hosts a regular chat, #NewsHourChats – looks like they’re every other Friday, on a current events topic. Today the topic was “How political squabbles on social media stressed us out this year.

Goodness gracious, I was hooked from the get-go.

The topic is engaging for obvious reasons, but I was particularly enamored of Jon Keegan, who was serving as a panelist. He created a tool called Blue Feed, Red Feed that helps you visualize how “the other side” sees social media. The tool helped me understand an encounter I had earlier this month with a stranger at a Washington, D.C. hostel. Some of my family members were discussing current events over pancakes at the dining table, and the stranger joined in the conversation from a nearby computer desk, where she was checking news on Facebook. It was an uncomfortable encounter at the time, but looking back, I don’t feel as awkward about it. Though we parted still in disagreement, I found value in the interaction. (Though, my biggest take-away was the fact that my fourteen-year-old sister fact-checked headlines on her phone. Sibling pride!)

Anyway, the Blue Feed, Red Feed tool made me realize that this person was seeing very different items coming up in their news feed than I was. Not only that, but they were coming from sources she trusted completely — sources I had never heard of, because I am on the other end of the political spectrum. I realized that I had created a Facebook echo chamber, so I made a point starting then not to block or unfollow people for not sharing my politics. I even made a point of friending people with different perspectives: I had a disagreement with a friend of a friend when our mutual acquaintance posted about Colin Kaepernick and his protest of the national anthem. But I felt we disagreed with mutual respect, so I sent a friend request, stating outright that I needed to see more diverse opinions on my feed. They accepted my request for much the same reason.

Twitter is different for me, because I use Twitter very differently than I use Facebook. I use Facebook to interact with people I already know I like. On Twitter, I usually interact with strangers who happen to have things in common with me — an interest in education, an interest in technology, an interest in technology education. I have experienced harassment on both Twitter and Facebook. The difference was, on Twitter it came from an egg I found easy to ignore; on Facebook it was a relative who posted partisan memes on my wall until I changed my settings. Therefore, I found the experience on Facebook much more jarring, but I acknowledge that my experience is not universal.

Since the chat this afternoon, I’ve had some time to collect and condense my thoughts, and strangely I keep going back to our school district’s “Aviator Profile,” a list of characteristics we hope to foster in our students:

  1. Communicators: Ask thoughtful questions, listen well and are able to clearly and concisely express their thoughts and ideas.
  2. Collaborators: Are able to compromise and work with people of all personality types and backgrounds to reach a common goal.
  3. Critical Thinkers: Have the ability to analyze and assess complex problems or situations and produce logical conclusions or solutions.
  4. Creative Innovators: Use imaginative and unique ideas to develop more efficient and effective methods of problem solving.
  5. Caring Citizens: Have selfless attitudes and strive to build stronger communities through civic pride, volunteerism and community involvement.
  6. Courageous Risk Takers: Are not afraid to take chances in order to accomplish something greater or facilitate change, whether it involves their career, finances, personal life or society.

I like how the first thing listed under “Communicator” is “ask thoughtful questions,” because questioning is an important part of communicating. And “listen well” is also listed before expressing one’s own ideas. We also often bring up in meetings that we, as the adults, need to model being “courageous risk takers;” whoever leads the meeting reminds us that confronting harsh realities and feeling discomfort is often part of the process. Of course, overcoming that discomfort to work as collaborators and think critically is part of the process, too!

And it applies so well to politics and policy. Regardless of who wins and who loses on November 8, we all are going to have to figure out a way to keep working together for our country’s present and future. We’re going to have different points of view and we’re going to have disagreements. We can’t shy away from that. We have to work together in spite of it. We have to work together because of it.

School Week Round-Up: Week Two

Oh my goodness, it’s already been another week?

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Still largely in the setting-up phase, getting used to routines. This takes a little longer for me than most teachers, I think, because I teach an area where so much is trained more than taught.  I try to instruct students in basics of computer use, but so many technology skills develop through repeated use.

And, I only have students once a week. So the routines of transition and direction and troubleshooting feel very rehearsed to me, because I do them every day. But not so for the students.

Ultimately I will be very excited when the routines become fluid enough that I can start facilitating lessons instead of just reinforcing routines.

Support: I feel like we had a better week all around with this. We are, as a school, becoming more familiar with our technology — kids and grown-ups alike. As I predicted, the issues we had with second grade using Chromebooks helped us better prepare for when third and first graders took the diagnostic.

Things I Did Well: Something happened in a second grade class today. In introducing students to Google Classroom, I asked them a question: “What is your favorite kind of candy?” Students happily responded with many missed spellings of the word “chocolate,” among other things. I also allowed them to comment on one another’s responses. I figured this would be a good way to start learning how we communicate online. Students want to be clear so that their peers can understand them. Anyway, what I call “the inevitable thing” happened – the kind of thing that many teachers fear deep down inside. A student wrote something inappropriate! It has teachers shaking in their boots. I’ve feared it myself. We’re afraid the tools will get abused and misused and it scares some folks off tech entirely. What if we can’t stop that kind of thing from happening? What if kids get exposed to inappropriate things!?

Well, I’ve given up on believing “the inevitable thing” will never happen. Because it inevitably does. I don’t have to invite inappropriate things in my classroom, and I certainly don’t have to celebrate them, but I do want kids to know how to handle them when they see them. And another student did see the inappropriate before I did. And they did handle it well! They told me right away so I could delete it and have a conversation with the child who posted it. Turns out it was a misspelling that got out of control. They typed out “ass” and meant to hit “delete” so they could spell “awesome,” but they hit “enter” instead. And, once posted, a comment cannot be edited! But this child was right chagrined so I believe they were telling the truth. Obviously if mild cusses keep appearing I’ll be glancing sidelong their way, but since you can’t post anonymously on Google Classroom, I don’t think that will be happening.

So, we all survived “Mild Cuss-Gate.” Well learned all around, everyone.

Things I Will Do Better: I also had a classroom management challenge. Sometimes it really is a balancing act, when multiple students need a little guidance, and one or two students need more close supervision, and you’re only one adult. How do you prioritize actual human children? Sometimes I did okay. Sometimes I did less than okay. And at least once I utterly failed. Classroom management was the biggest challenge of my early career; and while I’ve spent a lot of time and effort improving it overall, I still have my struggles in this area.

Cold Prickly: Remember how I was going to eat lunch in the cafeteria with the kids every day? I found a downside.

Warm Fuzzy: This week I told a first grader I liked her hairstyle. She told me if I liked it, I should try to wear my hair that way. So I did!

braidsShe wore it better, to be honest. I think the other adults thought I looked goofy; many kids told me I looked beautiful. I think everyone was correct.

Tomorrow’s a teacher work day, so kids got a four day weekend and teachers get a three day weekend. Well deserved all around, I say! Looking forward to more September!

Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem

Here comes another hot take nobody asked for.

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Colin Kaepernick is an American football quarterback who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. At a recent preseason game, he declined to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Some time after, he explained:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Kaepernick pays attention to issues of race (and other social issues) in the United States; even a casual glance at his Twitter reveals this about him. This is not new. But sitting during the national anthem is something that created shockwaves across social media platforms. I would wager that most reactions are angry, scandalized people who vehemently disagree with him. Some folks are a bit softer, reminding others that freedom of speech means that the government allows speech you don’t agree with, like whatever the opposite of patriotism is. A lot of the latter takes on the tone of, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

But there’s the rub, for me: I don’t disapprove what Kaepernick says, and I defend his right to say it. And I feel so strongly about not disapproving that I felt the need to break it down and discuss it with myself.

Firstly, the concept of respect and how we convey it and demonstrate it is not as universal as many seem to think. Yes, we are taught to stand during the national anthem (and men take off their hats). But I don’t think choosing to sit is inherently disrespectful. If he wanted to show outright disrespect, there are a number of rude gestures he could have employed. But choosing to sit seems more like… more like not showing “the proper amount” of respect, rather than actual disrespect. And “the proper amount” of anything is really up for debate, and varies largely across our population.

Secondly, I strongly feel there are so many ways to be a good American. Let me explain: sometimes my spouse is a good spouse because he does things for me. Sometimes he’s a good spouse because he supports me. And sometimes he’s a good spouse because he calls me on my nonsense when I’m being awful. Some people are good Americans because they sacrifice for this country; some people are good Americans because they support this country in less direct ways. And some people are good Americans because they remind us that our country falls short of its own ideals for many Americans, and they try to move us closer to those ideals. Reflexively we don’t like to be reminded of our imperfections, or imperfections in the things we love. But I would rather attend to a painful, true reminder from someone in that last group; then hear another hollow recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance from anybody else. After all, if we all conform to the same uniform demonstrations of banal patriotism, who will challenge us to make positive changes?

I don’t know who Mike Reed is, but a friend of mine shared this image of a post he made on Facebook:

qbYou have as much a right to free speech as Colin Kaepernick does, and you are well within your rights to answer his free speech with your own. But I urge you to think about what, exactly, you are trying to say, and how exactly you’re saying it.

Because Colin Kaepernick certainly did.

Edited to Add (8/31/16 7:23am): It occurs to me, too, now that many people who feel offended by Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem feel strongly about the symbols of our country. It’s possible that these symbols – the song, the flag – only represent the things that are good about the United States. And that’s not inherently wrong. But it is narrow-minded. Clearly the song and the flag do not mean the same things to Colin Kaepernick as they do to many vocal people on social media. And symbols can mean different things to different people. But I think there’s a big problem in assuming conformity – that the symbols do and should mean the same things to all people. Because that leaves no room for differing viewpoints to be voiced and heard, and without that, we live in an echo chamber. Without dissent, the right to free speech seems meaningless.

Teachers, Challenge Your Misconceptions in 2016

That’s my younger brother there, bound for an Ivy League university this fall. He’s a smart guy, but even smart people fall into the trap of believing something that’s not quite true because someone with authority told you.

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I don’t blame my father. I think the whole “sky blue because it reflects the ocean” is a pretty common scientific misconception. And when kids “learn” things at a very young age, they may spend years taking them for granted without even examining their ideas closely until they face a direct challenge. This is well-documented in science, but I remember having some false beliefs about Catholic teaching that I got from my mother giving me short, simple answers — and me filling in the blanks for myself. Kids might do this on their own, too, by observing simple cause and effect in everyday life. A child might notice that water freezes when cold and becomes hard ice, whereas cheese melts and becomes gooey when exposed to heat. This child might become very confused when gooey cookie batter becomes hard, blackened discs when left in a hot oven for too long. Maybe the right idea enters their head, but sometimes they come up with their own private explanation that’s actually far off the mark.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve become more familiar with as an adult. I’ve said things to students that seemed, to me, like passing remarks — but a student took them to be carved in stone. I try to be careful and admit when I don’t know something, maybe even model how to find it out. But I also try to guide students through evaluating sources such as those on the Internet, since I don’t want them to accept everything they hear and read unquestioningly for the rest of their lives.

So, I forgive children this mindset. And I forgive the adults who tell them things. Kids in certain stages of development have to have very concrete ideas that we can hopefully move towards more abstract ones. But this happens at different speeds for different children. Some kids can wrap their minds around theoretical ideas with relative ease; others, like my brother, graduate high school without fully understanding how sunlight gets scattered by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere.

It’s also not entirely children who fall into this trap, either. Adults might have misconceptions about any number of things, and if you don’t pause to examine them, you might never recognize that they’re misconceptions at all. And this is not something that has to do with intelligence. Sherlock Holmes famously had no idea how the solar system worked, which most sixth graders could probably reasonably explain. Smart people fall into wrong ideas all the time. The fact that we can filter the sources that reach us through online news and social media doesn’t help this; humans tend to choose to listen to things we already agree with. We have to continuously question the authorities we trust and examine our beliefs.

I personally strive to confront my ideas when I encounter information that provokes deeper thought, and sometimes I have to seek out a larger variety of perspectives in order to do so. I hope that doing so makes me a better model for my students, and helps me better understand them as they struggle to reconcile difficult concepts.

Shakespeare and Straight Outta Oz: A Case for Pop Culture in the Classroom

My spouse and I recently saw a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged at the local university. To be honest, I wanted to see it because my twin sister and I did it as a speech cut for duo interpretation our senior year of high school. I realize now how many of the jokes went over my head at the time!

More importantly, I realized how many things about Shakespeare are still deeply embedded in our culture. Turns of phrases like “my kingdom for a horse” and “to thine own self be true.” Characters like Iago from Othello remind me of political figures currently looming large. Narratives like from Romeo and Juliet have surfaced across cultures throughout all of history, and the lessons we mine from them depend on our context.

I first read Shakespeare when I was in fifth grade, perhaps. I first studied and learned some in class in ninth grade, then again in twelfth grade. We touched on some Shakespeare in some of my college courses, and I was in a couple productions of Shakespeare comedies at that time as well.
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I’ve seen adaptations like Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Things inspired or influenced by Shakespeare like The Lion King and House of Cards. I’ve seen hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of Bollywood movies and I think about the structural similarities between those and Shakespeare’s contemporary stage productions.

When we teach Shakespeare, we’re teaching students to notice some of the water we swim in – things like references and vocabulary words that we might otherwise take for granted. And when we take them down for deeper dives through such material, we’re hopefully helping them to pay attention and interpret meanings for themselves.

And that brings me to “Straight Outta Oz” by Todrick Hall.

(Some language and visuals in the links may not be appropriate for work or classroom, depending on your work/school culture.)

So, yes, I’m running for president of awkward transitions.

“Straight Outta Oz” is an album by Youtube star Todrick Hall. While I think all the songs on this particular album are original, he has built a large following for himself by playing around with pop culture. Disney princesses singing a medley of Nicki Minaj songs and retelling Alice in Wonderland to a soundtrack of Taylor Swift. So it seems a natural choice for him to use an iconic piece of media – The Wizard of Oz – as the vehicle to tell his own life story.

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Todrick Hall and actress Uzo Aduba, who portrayed Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz Live! (2015). Photo from Todrick Hall’s mobile uploads album on Facebook.

This is not his first time referencing The Wizard of Oz, but this is clearly his most personal turn. He depicts all the major players himself: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and even the Witch of the West. He uses events from the narrative of Wizard of Oz to illustrate his own journey through the fame machine. Along the way he explores, through song, reflections on sexuality, masculinity, race, and identity.

Were I a high school teacher with flexibility of curriculum, I might use this album as a way to introduce concepts of literary criticism. There’s a tendency to focus on “high brow” texts and media, things that are well-established in the literary canon. Or, if we include newer things, they are almost always books. I do love books, but they do not have a monopoly on storytelling. Here are reasons I might try to incorporate Straight Outta Oz:

  • Access. The visual album is available to all viewers on Youtube, for free. Many of the songs are available individually, though the voiceover narrative only comes up in the album video. Youtube can be accessed on many devices or at public libraries.
  • Intention. In weaving together autobiography and fictional narrative, Hall is very clearly commenting on culture or illustrating his ideas. The material is there to be mined. There is a clear arc, buoyed by symbolism, laced with themes.
  • Relatability. Adolescents are going through a stage in life where they question the world and how they fit into it. This piece of media would probably speak to many teens on an emotional level. Also, this is the water they swim in. Shakespeare speaks to us today because the stories are rooted deeply in our culture since before William put them into plays. But the language and the settings sometimes get in the way. When we change the setting and language to be more familiar, it is not just an update — it’s an attempt to reduce obstacles to comprehension.
  • Cross curricular potential. There’s no question that music, dance, and costuming are all integral to Hall’s style of storytelling; that brings in the arts. Commentary on current events could fit in with social studies.

I know a high school teacher who last year taught a unit on the first season on popular podcast Serial, to great success. I know another high school teacher who, powered by the momentum of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit, has been coaching students through Chernow’s biography of Hamilton for summer reading (and using Twitter to send reminders!). From Khan Academy to Crash Course, a resource like Youtube has found a place in the classroom in STEM subjects. So why not humanities as well?

Now, I make a case for Straight Outta Oz on the basis that I really enjoy it. Obviously my enjoyment of a piece of media is not the sole rubric to measure its appropriateness for the classroom. (Otherwise The Little Prince book would have gone over much better years ago when I taught sixth grade.) What relatively new medium do you dream of teaching in your classroom?

“Ghettoside” and Charles Kinsey: A White Teacher’s Developing Reflections on Race

Let me start by saying that no one needs my hot take on anything in current events. Not individually, anyway. On the other hand, need to add my voice to the conversation. Not because the conversation needs me, but because the conversation needs many.

Secondly, it’s a conversation I find difficult to enter. I am a white woman who is not directly, personally affected by racism. But it does affect me, like dominoes. My students and their families are affected by racism, and so it affects me. My friends are affected by racism, and so it affects me. My family members are affected by racism, and so it affects me. I struggled with finding a point of entry into the conversation without speaking over someone else, without co-opting someone else’s narrative, without making it about me. So up til now, I’ve mostly been sharing links and retweeting.

But now, two things: I have been reading Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. I am not yet done with this book, but I do have a lot of reflections on it so far. I was waiting to write anything about it until after I finished it. Then, this morning, I checked Twitter to read that yet another unarmed black man has been shot by police. Charles Kinsey was not killed, but he was injured while assisting a client of his, an adult man with autism. He identified himself by his role and complied with all directions. As I commented to a friend on Facebook:

I watched this and wondered, if I were in the exact same position, what would have happened? I would have behaved the same way — complied while explaining. I would have spoken in the same volume and tone. I would have said the same words. Would I get the same wounds? No. What exactly is the difference between me and Charles Kinsey? I’m a white woman. He is a black man. And that difference puts a reticle on him where there isn’t one on me.

Charles Kinsey is just another black, male victim of a police shooting, and for me, the most relatable yet. And that’s a problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Again, I haven’t finished Ghettoside, but it’s already given me a lot to think about. The author’s intention is to focus on the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of “blue before black” L.A. homicide detective Wally Tennelle. But the entire first portion of the book attempts to give context. The author has, so far, discussed:

  • statistics and history on black-on-black crime, locally to Los Angeles, calling it a “plague of murders.”
  • the personalities and histories of individual detectives who work in the predominately black neighborhood where Tennelle was killed.
  • the overall culture of the police (and how the individual detectives may differ in their philosophies).
  • aspects of the culture of the community of the neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles, and the things that shape it like stereotypes, and lack of media coverage for major crimes.
  • numerous stories of families affected by homicide investigations.

The author focuses on Los Angeles, but there were several ideas and facts that came up that made me feel like this was also relevant to other communities. To my community.

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The poster on the left was made in response to the death of Eric Garner, but could apply to any number of homicide victims mentioned in Ghettoside.

Okay, so, there’s a lot to sort through here. The first part of the book discusses “black on black” violence, admitting that it is statistically higher than with other demographics. But then it dives deep into the tangle of reasons that may be.

First, I want to express my emotional response to this book so far, as a teacher. The author works hard to delineate between “the police” and “a police officer” and so on. What I mean is, the institution and the individuals who make up the institution are different entities. When the detectives go out into the neighborhoods, they represent the institution rather than themselves as individuals. So when residents accuse them of racism by saying things like, “You don’t care because he’s a black man!” they don’t take it personally. They realize the person is referring to them as police and not individuals. Privately, they may even agree with this perspective.

As a teacher, I felt very affected by this. I am also a public servant who represents a larger institution. And there are definitely instances where my personal philosophy diverges from the one embodied by the institution I represent. I have been accused of racism before, and in the contexts where it has happened, it’s not necessarily wrong. I may, through my job, be asked to enforce an inherently unfair policy, one that was never intended to be racist, but in following it through, it is. One example on a large scale I can think of is standardized testing.

As a teacher, I also related to the description of the allocation of resources, and the workarounds the detectives use. The leader of the department asks for, and is repeatedly denied, things that would make the detectives’ lives easier and help ensure the safety of members of the community they serve. “His requests seemed pretty reasonable for a department that ran its own helicopter fleet,” the author writes on page 68, “Again and again he was turned down.” Resources are not distributed according to need.

I also related to the part where the author discusses some prevalent attitudes in policing policy on page 58 of the hardcover edition:

Cops were told they were supposed to “be proactive,” focus on “suppression,” or practice “crime control.” Showered in such nonsensical orders and jargon, they couldn’t really be blamed for struggling to find purpose in their work… It could feel quite pointless. It didn’t help that even as they were supposedly held to high standards and expected to display the skill and initiative of trained professionals, many so-called innovative policing strategies tended to reduce them to cogs.

I defy any public school teacher to read that and not see yourself and your colleagues in it.

These details did not constitute the bulk of the first part of the book, merely part of it. There are narratives of specific homicides and their investigations. The author discusses some major barriers to homicide investigations in neighborhoods where “the shadow system” of law is more pervasive than the formal system. Witness intimidation. Distrust of police. The author discusses how programs and policies meant to address these issues, well-intended as they may be, fall short.

On reflection, it feels very easy to blame black people for their own circumstances. “When your business dealings are illegal, you have no legal recourse,” the author writes on page 79. “Violence substituted for contract litigation.” But on the very next page the author describes how gangs, “pointlessly self-destructive” as they may be, form. Banding together for mutual protection is a normal human response to the vacuum of legitimate legal authority. “Fundamentally gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause.”

But Ms. D! you say. There are police in these neighborhoods! People just don’t respect them! Ah, well. The police department, as an authority, undermines itself when it hyper-focuses on small infractions and fails to follow through on the appropriate response to serious, community-destroying crimes such as homicide. “Street hustlers would make it clear that they would rather have formal justice if given the choice: they’d call 911,” the author states on page 83. “Skaggs learned to think of his job as persuasion: selling formal law to people who distrusted it and were answering to another authority — shadow law.”

And the author discusses the struggle between what you experience in your job and what you want to believe in your heart. From page 65:

No one in the wider world wanted to talk about it, but black residents, to many officers, seemed more violent than Hispanics. Their own eyes told them so. Statistics backed them up. Few officers wanted to believe that black people were somehow intrinsically wired for violence.

Many cops fell back on a rhetoric of “choice,” that some individuals choose violence. That way they didn’t have to make uncomfortable generalizations of black people as a group. But if people choose violence, then they also can be blamed for violence. “And since blame also served as a satisfying distancing mechanism, officers ended by blaming not just suspects but victims.” And when many cops carry that attitude, it becomes easy to distrust all cops, because you can’t tell just by looking at someone what they think of you and how they’re likely to behave. As reported by Psychology Today:

The tendency to classify our experience into categories is a fundamental and universal aspect of human cognition. We create concepts in order to make sense of the endless complexity we encounter in our environment. This is a necessary part of human thought, allowing us to process information efficiently and quickly… In social categorization, we place people into categories. People also reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups. Furthermore, people tend to evaluate out-groups more negatively than in-groups. In this way, social categories easily lend themselves to stereotypes in general and to negative stereotypes in particular.

And that’s also why it’s problematic that I see Charles Kinsey as a “more relatable” victim. The author writes on page 33 how a particular detective learned to view all homicide victims.

“She ain’t a whore no more,” he said. “She’s some daddy’s baby.” Wally Tennelle loved that philosophy. Whatever the wider world’s response, the homicide detective’s call was to treat each victim, no matter how deep their criminal involvement, as the purest angel. The murdered were inviolate. They all deserved the same justice.

Many words are devoted to describing attitudes towards the black residents of Watts; conveying that “gang member” is the new “n” word when diminishing the value of a black male’s life, for instance. How some police officers felt that “the whole culture of the black community is crime;” “they love selling drugs;” they “could better their lives, but they don’t.” “I like to think it is a choice,” says one gang detective on page 65. “Even in this environment, you have a choice!” A different detective, one set up by the author as a protagonist, has a different perspective described on page 88:

Skaggs had concluded that many residents connected to Watts murder cases were ordinary people, trapped by conditions of lawlessness. Coercion and intimidation lay behind much of their apparent “acceptance” of violence, he thought… Skaggs also saw that many victims had no role in provoking the attacks that killed them. His colleagues insisted that Watts had no real victims.

It’s important to point out that the focus of Ghettoside is not police brutality or the misconduct of police officers. It’s focus is the fact that there is a “plague of murders” affecting a community that the media largely turns a blind eye to. Jill Leovy, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, wrote the book with the knowledge that her employer was only covering about ten percent of all homicides in the city. But it does shed light on attitudes and on policy, both in policing and in society at large, that could stand to be scrutinized and reformed. #BlackLivesMatter not only in terms of police interactions, but in terms of media coverage and our prevailing attitude towards black on black crime.

My thoughts: when we call on the black community to address these problems, we overlook and diminish the ways in which they already are addressing these problems. And we, as white people wearing the blinders of privilege, make it harder for the black community to make positive differences. Our attitudes change at our convenience, not upon real conversion. We derail discussions when we respond by saying, “All Lives Matter!” And while we may follow through as far as arguing that point on social media, we fall short of demonstrating that all lives matter to us when we fail to challenge policies that maintain inequalities and preserve discrimination. If all lives truly matter, than we need to act like we matter to each other.

So, white community, what if we use our white privilege for good? Acknowledge the goodness within individual police officers while addressing problems with policing, such as resource allocation and training — problems that also plague public education. Ask our government to study gun violence as a public health concern. Acknowledge that these issues are complicated and part of larger issues of prejudice that can’t be solved with hashtags alone. Listen to the points made by those most directly affected. Educate ourselves before joining the conversation. Understand that examining our own prejudices may be individually painful in the short term, but will be beneficial to our communities in the long run; it’s worth doing. When I choose to help dismantle institutional discrimination that benefits me directly, I’m actually being selfish, because I know I will reap benefits later on when my students and their families begin to experience the positive effects in their lives.

Update 7/23/16: According to NPR, the officer who shot Kinsey had actually meant to shoot Kinsey’s client.

Teaching & Learning in Lunarbaboon

Lunarbaboon is an ongoing webcomic that explores parenthood, particularly fatherhood.

I was catching up on it the other day and came upon one titled “Learning.”

Firstly I want to comment on how the dad in the comic teaches. When the child asks a question, the dad doesn’t state the answer. In fact, he never indicates that he knows the answer. He responds with “Let’s find out!” or “Count!” indicating that the child should seize the opportunity to learn for his or herself instead of rely on someone to tell them. The dad is also willing to model finding out. As a new teacher, this was one of my struggles initially. I wanted to demonstrate my expertise and display my own knowledge at every turn; I mistakenly believed that would establish my authority in the classroom. Besides that, I equated knowledge with learning. Silly me, knowledge is only evidence of learning — and only one possible piece of evidence, at that! The father’s method is far superior. It encourages learning as a skill in addition to learning in the pursuit of knowledge. It also builds the relationship between father and child.

Secondly, that punchline! “But I want to keep learning…” I get you, kid. I get you. As a teacher, one of the most frustrating things is that teachers don’t have a lot of choice about what we teach, and students don’t have a lot of choice about what they learn. I understand that there is information and skills that we all need to know in general; I don’t disagree with that. But in school, we don’t learn for its own sake, the way the child wants to. We learn to earn a grade, to earn a score, to pass a test. To see how we measure up against others and with our past selves.

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As much as I enjoy my career, I also feel very frustrated by it. I feel much of what I do as a teacher is not teaching. I train, instruct, manage, serve, assess, discipline, counsel, proctor, advise, plan, and also learn myself, among so many other things. I don’t believe all of those things to be equally important. But the very structure of school, where learning is the supposedly the highest priority, sometimes quashes it instead — or at the very least postpones it while I have to step into a different role. Yet current educational reforms don’t propose actually transforming schools. They move traditional educational models to the web and dust their hands off. Or they move students from one school to another and say, “This will be enough, probably!” Or they make more and longer checklists of things that students and teachers should accomplish, along with making us responsible for keeping records.

I might not have complete control over the setting where I work, but I can work towards bettering my community; building relationships, and making decisions such as voting to hopefully enact positive changes that will ultimately make my job (and my students’ jobs) easier. And I can control my attitude.

But that may not be enough. Parents, educators, and members of the community — support your schools. Learn about the issues that affect them and the challenges they face. And act on what you learn. As Lunarbaboon shows us, knowledge without action can be unhelpful!