First Person

All the News That’s Fit to Invent

I recently met a guy from another country who found himself a little surprised by what he’d seen in America. People here, he said, spent almost all their time working. In their few free hours Americans watched TV and seemed to believe everything they saw.  In his country, he said, we would go to a cafe and talk about what was on. We would question whether or not we could believe the commentators — then we’d make up our own minds.

Our conversation started because I’d mentioned the frenzy to create more charter schools. President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, created a program called Race to the Top, in which states compete for cash. What states needed to do, apparently, was subscribe to as many unproven educational programs as possible, and the more shots in the dark they took, the more chance they had to win the money.

The jewel on the crown of New York’s monumental struggle to kowtow to the feds was the raising of the charter cap. This was very important to Duncan, even though charters, with fewer English as a Second Language and special education students than those attending neighborhood schools, have still not managed to outperform public schools.

This amazes me because I strongly believe proactive parents to be the number one predictor of academic success, or lack thereof. When I call parents, which I do with great frequency, the ones who react the most vehemently tend to be the ones who effect the quickest changes. That parents could take the time and trouble to research and enroll their kids in any alternate setting is a sure sign they care about their kids. With 100 percent proactive parents, any school ought instantly to rack up better stats than its counterparts.

In any case, the new law says charter schools will have to serve the same population as public schools. After reading false accounts in the New York Times claiming they already do, I’ll believe that when I see it.

Lies are readily accepted here, said my foreign-born friend. Look at the Iraq War, and the complicity of the New York Times’ Judith Miller (now working for Fox News). Look at Jayson Blair. Here, no one questions talking heads, let alone New York Times writers. Americans, he said, don’t do their homework because they incorrectly assume the media has done theirs.

But who will get America to do homework when the TV keeps telling America not to listen to teachers? The faux-grassroots commercial, urging people not to listen to the teacher unions, has received massive airplay. Was it a bunch of regular folks who funded this expensive ad campaign? Actually, this particular “grassroots” movement seems to have roots in hedge fund managers and billionaires, the very same ones now pulling the strings of gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Cuomo (if the Times isn’t making that up too). Hardly the “just plain folks” you see in the glitzy ad.

These days, hedge fund managers have a big say in how public education should function. After all, hedge fund guys have contributed so much to this country lately, why not have them extend their expertise to education? If their ideas don’t work, we can simply have taxpayers subsidize yet another bailout.

The second important change Duncan’s gotten in New York is the new rating system for teachers, which is partially based on the new “value added” method of teacher evaluation. This method promises to find out which teachers are better and which are worse, and the fact that as a method its validity is highly questionable doesn’t bother Duncan in the least. Nor does the problem that test scores may establish little or nothing. Nor does the fact that the $700 million, should we actually get it, cannot be used to fill budget holes.

In 1984, I spent some time in East Berlin. An English teacher I met there showed me textbooks full of propaganda. We laughed about it, but it was disturbing. Now, of course, that Texas gets to decide what history Americans can and cannot learn, it’s getting a little tougher to laugh at those wacky education practices they had behind the Iron Curtain.

Another thing the East German teacher told me was that they sold propaganda-filled Pravda on every corner, but that no one actually bought it. A frightening difference here, though, is that people seem to be lapping up propaganda en masse. On any given day, the New York Times could be no more reliable than Fox News, or even the gossip in the local pool hall. (So why doesn’t everyone read GothamSchools instead?)

Despite charter proponents frequently touting “choice,” we aren’t getting a whole lot of it these days. Maybe a few parents will get to send their kids to a charter school. But none of us gets a choice about keeping charters out of schools our kids already attend. We get no choice about targeting more resources to support or improve our existing schools, thereby improving our neighborhoods and adding value to our homes. In fact, as the Panel for Educational Policy has demonstrated, New York neighborhoods don’t even get a voice in whether or not their existing schools continue to exist.

Worst of all, we get no choice in whether or not we get the whole picture from the overwhelming majority of mainstream media, and people who rely on the papers or TV to inform them may lack the remotest notion of what’s really happening, or why.

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