First Person

Diversity is more complicated for me than my teachers and peers realize

I am the only Mexican girl in my class.

I have been the only Mexican girl at school since 6th grade. I stand out in my largely-Dominican neighborhood and school, Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School. As my mostly white teachers try to bridge the cultural gap between students and teachers by using examples from Dominican culture in class, they have also widened a gap between me and my classmates.

Washington Heights, where I live, is predominantly a Dominican community, though in my daily life I also see some other kinds of Hispanics as well as Orthodox Jews. My school, WHEELS, is 97 percent Hispanic, and within that, about 95 percent are Dominican. 

Some people don’t realize that the category “Hispanic” includes people from various countries and backgrounds, and they assume that since my Dominican classmates and I are all Hispanic we must automatically be alike.

Growing up surrounded by Dominicans gave me insight into a different culture, but at school I feel like an outsider in a building full of people who understand each other because they shared a common background. I remember sometimes bringing in Mexican food for lunch and having to hear remarks about how weird it looked. Even the way I speak Spanish is different from the way they spoke, and my classmates sometimes make comments during Spanish class about how “Mexican” I sound.

The real world connections my teachers make in class always seem to connect to the Dominican Republic. As an expeditionary learning school, WHEELS has a very hands-on curriculum, driven by real world connections. In my opinion, the point of the hands-on curriculum is to try to involve all students in order to make sure we all understand what is going on. But instead of making me feel included, the examples my teachers give often make me feel left out and uncertain of my position in the classroom. It’s as if the teachers have classified their students as a certain group of people, and I am excluded from that category.

I remember feeling hopeful each year when Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday, rolled around. I thought one of my teachers might mention the holiday so others could learn something about my beautiful culture. They never did, and I felt so disappointed walking home after school. I just wanted others to learn a little more about me and my culture instead of me always learning about theirs.

For example, when we were learning about black heritage in U.S history class, my teacher, who is of Dominican descent, talked about his grandmother’s complicated relationship with the label “African-American.” Most of the students understood what he meant, but I did not and am still confused and don’t feel like I learned from the example. What frustrated me wasn’t the example itself, but the assumption that everyone in the class would understand it because of our heritage. 

I’m a very active student in the classroom, so I think the teachers recognize that I’m there and that the examples didn’t include me. But since most of my classmates are Dominican, I think my teachers chose to use examples that would help the majority of their students better understand the material.

I love my school, but I wish it were more diverse.

Some people don’t consider diversity in school an important issue. For example, when I told one of my Dominican classmates that I was writing about diversity, she replied “‘Why? That’s not really a big deal to me.’” She might not see it, but I think more diversity in schools–both in terms of the examples teachers give, and the makeup of the student body — would help all students, not only students like me who feel like the odd ones out.

When I use the word diversity, I mean not only the broad categories of black, white, Hispanic, and Asian, but also the many groups within each of those categories.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2043 no single ethnic group will make up a majority in the United States. America is becoming a more diverse society, and all schools–public, private, and charter, should be safe and encouraging environments where students can learn to work with people from diverse backgrounds. That would make us feel more connected to our classmates and prepare us for real-life situations.

I think teachers should consider all students when choosing what examples to share with the class. Real-world examples can help us understand the material, but teachers should make sure all students’ cultures are represented. One way teachers could do this is by encouraging students to make and share their own connections between their cultures, the world around them, and what they’re learning in school. That’s the kind of change that would have transformed my experience as a student and helped all of my classmates learn more as well.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.