Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to Best Support My Minority Students

This term, I am teaching two black students. Both are in different classes and almost assuredly, I can say that both of them are struggling the most in their respective sections. There is only one week left in the term before finals and I do not know if I have either of them in my classes next term.

My modus operandi in the classroom with these two students is to not put them on trial- to not make them speak when they do not offer but put them to the top of the list of sharing out when they want. In fear of putting them on the spot, having them say something wrong and then feeling like they have somehow let down their race because of they were not right is what motivated me. Research says that when a minority group is asked to perform in a mixed setting, and this applies to females in the mathematics classroom as well as non-Asian race minorities, they will perform worse because they are worried about proving the stereotype for their group. By not putting people for whom I think suffer from this on the spot, I have felt that I am being kind to their needs.

But maybe in doing this, what I have done is hurt them and everyone else in the room. I realized I am also reluctant to cold call females as well. In not giving them a safe environment to challenge this belief in themselves (and my own assumption in their feelings and actions) have I been holding them back from growing to a new level? Could my lack of verbal encouragement in front of the class make these students feel as though I am neglecting them instead of showing support, as I have been hoping to do? Maybe students in these categories feel afraid to speak up and what they need is someone asking them to share, to speak up, so that they can feel as though they are worthy part of the classroom community.

I only have one week left with these two students this term. I will not leave things as they are, but I will talk to my students and see what they think of all of this. There is not enough time for me to make right any wrongs I have done to them and all the students that have passed through my classroom until this point. But there is enough time for me to change for all the rest of the students that will pass through my door. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What They Don't Teach In Teacher Training School

Two years ago, I would rush from school as soon as I could. I would get into my car and drive 30 miles until I reached Maple Crest, the nursing home where my grandmother was living out her last moments.

I would stay there until I was almost too tired to drive and I would almost always end up in tears before I reached the big hill out of the town, driving 45 minutes until I was exhausted and would fall into bed. I would wake in the morning and repeat the whole thing.

She was dying of cancer and I watched her change from a feisty, stubborn woman that still had much to do in this world to someone who wouldn't accept the watermelon or strawberry ice cream that I tried to feed her, the only foods that she would still eat in the last weeks. I watched her become listless,  moaning in pain but still refusing the drugs that would calm her. And now I'm watching one of my students do the same for his best friend, a 15 year old, who lies dying of leukemia.

I asked him to stay after class earlier this week. We talked a little, but were continuously interrupted. Our conversation ended with no resolution, other than he knew that I understood where he was, I knew the pull that he was dealing with, and that I would give him whatever I could to make this easier.

It's been two days since we talked. I still don't know how either of them is doing. I sit alone at my desk and stare despondently at the wall. I was never taught how to deal with this.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Finding and Accepting My Place

This first day of the White Privilege Conference has shown me that I what I need to do is to act. I can sit and contemplate my own actions and privileges, and although that brings me closer to being a caring, compassionate adult, it does nothing towards fixing the inequalities that exist right now.

There are many atrocities in today’s world that I have watched happened and not spoken up for. When friends have come to me with troubles that they have had while living in one of their labels, I have stated my solidarity with their fight and then I’ve encouraged them to hide in their own skin. I have never gone to a protest to stand up for gay rights, an MLK rally, or signed a petition for equal access. How can I say that I am an ally, that I am not prejudice, if “silence shows acceptance”. I can say that I am not silent but my actions have not shown it.

I spent this morning in a workshop entitled “The Critical Liberation of White Woman” where I finally verbalized my trepidation of creating close relationships with white (straight) women. I allowed myself to own my stereotype against this group, to claim with pride my belonging to this group, and to pledge to work with other white woman to investigate our place in society and then to use the power we do have to affect greater change. I am learning to love my label, and to take pride in who I am. Please help me in this plight, whether to give me time with my white female friends, to ask me about my progress, or to spread this acceptance of self within your own social groups. Let me also offer to help you in conversations and acceptance of who you are and what entitlements or disadvantages your labels give to you.

I also went to a very moving keynote speech from Michelle Alexander entitled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. First off, I must insist that you do more research about this matter. Her basic thesis, and I state this no where near as elequently as she does, is that our ‘war on drugs’ has really been a race war, where minorities have been targeted and incarcerated for barely offenseable crimes.

I remember being in college and finding out that if someone was caught in possession of marijuana, in any amount, they would lose all of their federal financial aid and would never again be allowed to receive aid. At the time, that punishment did not seem to fit the crime. I imagined my (white) friends and would happen to them if this happened. It seemed crazy and I could not understand why anyone would put such a hard punishment against a person.

Note too that marijuana possession is a felony in many states, meaning at least a year of imprisonment. Not to mention that on any job application after being released, one would have to mark that they are a felon, probably passing up any possibility of getting hired again. That hardship seems strong enough. Unfortunately, if you are a felon, you also lose your rights to public housing and to food stamps. So you may end up with a year of your life lost, no home, no job, and no food. What are these people to do? (And as an aside, you also lose your right to vote. For possessing as a little as half a joint.)

Now if that doesn’t seem harsh enough, think again of who is the target. As a privileged white female, I have never been searched for drugs in some cases where my shiftiness should have warranted such a thing to happen. But I have privilege, I have followed a good path (primarily), and any cop looking at me knows that it would be a tragedy to ruin my life in such a way. But what about for the young black man, walking around in “the bad part of the city”? Why is it not a tragedy to do the same to him? And he is only the end user and not the one leading the spread of the drug.

So what do I do with this information? Should I fight for the legalization of marijuana, so it can’t be used for a race war anymore? That might be a start but there is something much deeper at work here. If marijuana becomes legalized, does that stop the harassment? Definitely not.

I’m not sure where to go with that one yet. I will stay in search of the answer. I will find a way to act.