First Person

Editor's blog: Teaching kids the importance of news

My daughter’s fourth grade class is studying news. As a former daily newspaper reporter I figured I ought to step up to the plate and offer my services. Yes, the news about news is dreary. I, for one, rode the Rocky Mountain News into its untimely grave. But it dawns on me that it may very well be these kids who figure out how to make news viable again.

Yesterday I visited her classroom to do a little proselytizing about the importance of a robust Fourth Estate to the health of a democracy. I just said it in a slightly different way.

What is news?

“News is all the things happening around us every day that help us understand our world, our nation, our community and our school.”

I gave some examples of hard news…what if there was a rash of bike thefts at this school? When would that be newsworthy? And I even cited the importance of covering boring ol’ school board meetings. What if the school board voted to do away with recess and no reporter was there to document the decision and report the complete story to the community? What if school officials used your lunch money to take a personal trip to Tahiti? Far-fetched, yes, but you have to get the point across.

I even talked about the recent investigation by EdNews Colorado into online schools in Colorado and how they’re not cutting the mustard and yet we’re sinking millions of dollars into them.

I was heartened to see about seven of 27 sets of hands shoot up to say their families actually still subscribed to newspapers that are hurled onto their driveways every morning.  The comics, by far and away, dominate the hearts and minds of these kids, seconded by sports. A few read the weather.

I then set up a mock news conference with the teacher as the subject of a profile story. Turns out my daughter’s teacher is truly fascinating.  Out of respect for his privacy, I won’t reveal his life story here. I also let the kids mess around with my Flip video camera, filming me and other students in class as the question-and-answer session ensued. The questions were incredible. The video will need some editing, unless close-up nostril shots are what we’re going for.

Beautiful kids’ brains

Here is a sample of their questions for their teacher:

  • What do you do for fun?
  • Do you drink coffee?
  • If you wanted to build something what would it be?
  • Where do you go for family vacations?
  • Why did you choose to teach fourth grade?
  • How long have you had that hair color?
  • How many sweet foods or drinks do you have every week? (Clearly an investigative reporter in the making…)
  • Why did you become a teacher?
  • Would you create life if you could? (To this question, this very patient and cooperative teacher said, why yes, he did create life when he had children. The girl who asked the question scoffed… “No, not that kind of life. Like a monster!”

The next step is for me to return to the classroom and help the kids weave all their notes into a story about their teacher. Other groups may write about things that make their particular fourth grade classroom different from the others. For instance, one-third of the children wear glasses; they routinely make zucchini bread in a solar oven; they play recorders in a circle every morning; and the teacher keeps a “June drawer,” which contains items students should not have brought to school – confiscated items that will be returned at the end of the school year. The teacher claims that one year a student found himself in the June drawer and it was indeed a tight squeeze.

Lessons learned

A few things learned from this experience: Children are sponges and so filled with creativity. We need to do everything we can do as a community to nurture their natural gifts and not squelch them. How is it that a bunch of fourth-graders offer up more thought-provoking questions during a faux news conference than the college students I teach who are majoring in journalism? I think it’s because the older students are more worried about asking the wrong question or of embarrassing themselves, or they’ve simply become disengaged.

The second thing this experience reminded me of is how important it is to get to know the kids in your child’s classes and spend time with them in the classroom. I am not regularly volunteering this year, but I have every other year so I know most of these kids. I have to think they get something out of their interactions with parents who help them learn. (I guess I’ll have to wait and see whether I get invited back).

Now, it’s off to campus for me. As for you, what expertise do you have that you could share with kids at school? We all have gifts and knowledge to share from serving more years on earth. This younger generation can learn a lot from our lives, our mistakes and our passions. Think about your own experiences, and if they happen to tie into your school’s curriculum – or even if they don’t – contact the teacher and ask to pay a visit.

Let us know how it goes.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk