[Many years ago, at my husband’s class reunion]: Inebriated classmate starts rhapsodizing about the extreme superiority of the education they all got at their well-regarded co-ed Catholic high school in the suburbs of Detroit, back in the day. His monologue derails (did I mentioned he was sloshed?) and he turns to yammering at ME (a public school teacher) about how terrible schools are today (he has no children) and that the public schools—well, they’re the worst of all. Everybody knows that.
I bite my tongue.
I’m used to people assuming that private and religious schools are, somehow, automatically better than public schools. On the face of it, if ‘you get what you pay for’ is a truism, private schools ought to be better than public schools. Depending on your definition of ‘better,’ of course.
Part of the cachet of privately funded education is exclusion. You’re paying for the privilege (a carefully chosen word) of sending your child to a school that other people can’t afford, and having them taught using a set of values (religious and otherwise) that your family has chosen, not been assigned to by location.
You are making the decisions, finding a school with a socio-economic level close to yours, probably, in the hopes your children will make friendships with similar children. There may be scholarship money for students with fewer economic resources, but that involves a different kind of screening and exclusion.
A religious school or an independent private school may be the right choice for your child, and however you get them there, knowing you support the school you chose (financially and values-wise) will help your child understand that you are committed to their education. And that–is huge.
However. I would have to say that the cause dearest to my heart right now is saving public education.
By saving, I don’t mean preserving a nostalgic, return-to-the-past version of public schools where the curriculum was homogenized, the Common Core a distant memory, and everyone sat in straight rows.
I mean saving public education from going under, totally, being dismantled and sold for parts.
Lots of truly ghastly things have happened to public education in the past couple of decades, the pandemic merely being the worst. Teachers have had large chunks of their professional discretion taken away, and their salaries remain in the basement. The accountability movement has turned the mission of public education from citizenship and job training to improving test scores.
And the conflicting parties are not red or blue, conservative or liberal. They’re public and private.
There are some things that need to belong to all of us, be cherished and tended and utilized by all of us, each chipping in as they can, because we understand these things are best accomplished by communal resources and effort: Parks. Libraries. Roads. Hospitals. The Post Office. Museums, theatres and auditoriums. Schools. The people who keep our food supply safe and put out forest fires. And of course, things we must have, like the military, police and prisons.
Most pushback against public initiatives and investments stems, as far as I can see, from two impulses:
It’s my money and you can’t have it.
I don’t want to share anything with them. [Fill in your own personal ‘them’– people who don’t ‘deserve’ to enjoy ‘our’ parks, libraries, hospitals, etc. People who don’t belong.]
For many people, public funding for things like recycling or early childhood services or a new library represents taking away their right to choose. If you don’t read, recycle or know anyone with small children, maybe It feels like money out of your pocket, your ‘right to choose’ overridden.
You take care of your own, right? You shouldn’t have to meet the needs of others. That this is a profoundly anti-democratic idea doesn’t even occur to you. Selfishness and power-mongering are featured, every night, on the TV news. Its us vs. them—freedom!–not all of us, together.
Of course, many games were cancelled, championships will forever be listed with asterisks, and there are literally hundreds of stories about how teams played without positive-for-COVID stars (or with them, accidentally–or surreptitiously).
We are at a tipping point with public education—either it is recognized as one of the most useful institutions of community-building and progress, or it becomes just another example of scare-labeled ‘socialism.’ Ironically, we used to use public schools to advance public goals—an educated citizenry, training everyone to be productive and innovative, places to vote and be immunized against disease, places to learn the basic concepts of our American government, a genuine melting pot.
It’s time for that national conversation we keep talking about, but never have: What is the real mission of public education? Forget the over-under on who will be the new Secretary of Education. Let’s clearly define the purpose of public schools and stop supporting exclusion with our tax dollars. It’s well worth the fight.
Exclusion precludes belonging. Racism is a close cousin to nationalism, as America has been reminded. They both depend on scapegoating or persecuting “the other”; on the idea, as Kipling put it, that: “All nice people, like us, are We, and everyone else is They.”
My friends remember, vividly, waking up after Election Day in 2016. The shock. Their personal emotions, from disbelief to outrage, the sense of betrayal. Who voted this racist, sexist joker in? What can we do?
What was born that day, and later refined, by a vast web of progressive people, media and organizations, has been a big driver of my life for the last four years, beginning with the Women’s March in January of 2017. The Trump presidency daily impacts my beliefs and my actions—so much worrying about the country I love. Maybe it’s the retired teacher in me, but I want to help. I want to live in a more just and peaceful world.
I would have sworn, until yesterday, that all that Indivisble-ing and anti-gerrymandering and election challenging was going well in my state and in the country, in general. The Democratic listening tour, the inspired improvised campaigning during a pandemic, the fact that our candidate was mainstream and inoffensive—it all felt like it was going someplace.
A better place.
I’m writing on Thursday morning, so the election is No Sure Thing, although there’s reason to hope, and to be glad that Michigan shifted roughly 80,000 ballots—a paltry amount– in the right direction over four years. There may be other very modest but pleasant surprises, as the week wears on, but essentially, what I’m experiencing today feels most like grief.
In 2016, it felt like you’d just gotten the shocking, painful news that the country was sick—so you immediately went to work to heal it, with lots of energy and political expertise and innovative tools. In 2020, you realize that the country might actually be sick for a long, long time. Perhaps forever.
When they write about this election result in Michigan in the history books–and they will–let the record show that the state was saved for Joe Biden by black voters in the state’s largest cities–Detroit, Flint, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids.
The same people who have had their drinking water poisoned, their public schools de-funded and emergency managed into disrepair, their cities gentrified. In general, these voters have been abused by their state’s former Republican governor and a Betsy DeVos-funded and directed state legislature who has never treated the African American community in Michigan with even a modicum of respect or common human decency.
It won’t be the first time Black voters have saved white Michiganders from themselves. Thank you.
In my county, three overtly bigoted County Commissioners were all handily re-elected, even though only one of them even bothered to answer questions from citizens about a major dust-up over openly racist language in countywide offices.Even though the County went blue, overall, for the first time since 2008, finding out that my neighbors are fine with Commissioners who think racism is somehow tied to abortion rates, and deeply respect a sheriff who refuses to enforce a Governor’s pandemic restrictions? That’s sobering.
None of this is a matter of win-some/lose-some politics. The proverbial pendulum. We’re used to that—and 2016 was an upside-the head reminder that turnout and voter enthusiasm are always the issue. The difference between 2016 and Tuesday night was the bitter knowledge that MORE of the people in your state, not fewer, think Donald Trump is a better choice. That his four-year reign of incompetence, lawlessness and even death is preferable to whatever mild-mannered Uncle Joe is selling.
I’m also worried, now, about future elections. The vote-suppressionists have been developing an effective ground game under Trump. Even if he goes down tweeting in 2020, the people who are happy to see low turnout and unquestioned, careless lying (and I know who they are, locally anyway) got a good grip on how to screw with elections, in perpetuity: De-fund the Post Office. Phony drop boxes. Refusing to mail absentee ballot applications to every voter, even when they were legally ordered to do so. And so much more.
Rolling back suffrage gains that have been hard-fought, in American history.
Garrison Keeler: For the first 50 years of American elections, only 15 percent of the adult population was eligible to vote. Thomas Dorr was one of the first politicians to argue that poor people should be given voting rights. As a member of the Rhode Island legislature, Dorr argued that all white adult men should have the vote, regardless of their wealth. He incited a riot to protest the governor’s election of 1842 and went to prison for treason, but most states began to let poor white men vote soon after. Women won the right to vote in 1920, and many African-Americans were prevented from voting throughout the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Widespread voter suppression still happens today, sometimes against specific groups or with specific political motivation.
So what did I do to support the cause? I was an Election Challenger who was sequestered with the Absentee Vote Counting Board in my (rural, red) township. I arrived, with my badge, on Tuesday morning. The Township Clerk met me at the door and—in front of the 2R/2D counting board—loudly proclaimed that I would be sequestered with the counting board until 8 p.m. when the polls closed. But I would not be able to use the restroom at any point during that time.
The counting board’s heads went up—wait, what? Did you say we couldn’t use the bathroom? No, said the Clerk—not you, just her. One of the Dems asked why. Because you’re a hired, trained board, she said (that turned out to be not completely true, vis-à-vis the training). But she’s just a (air quotes) ‘volunteer.’
That was not my first encounter with an in-person lie from a local Republican official. I had the Secretary of State’s full description of what I could and could not do, printed out, in hand. Township Clerks can’t prevent sequestered observers from using the bathroom at breaks in the action. I sneaked out once, unnoticed, when the whole group took a bathroom break—but wondered about why local officials felt it was OK to leave me alone in the counting room, with opened ballots laying on the table, but not to use the restroom. Where did they learn to be petty and punitive?
In 2018, all indicators showed a modest ‘blue wave’ which I assumed was the slow turning of the great ship. I am doubtful about that now, as I have witnessed armed militias and kidnapping attempts.
No matter how this election concludes, America is now a different country. Nearly half of the voters have seen Trump in all of his splendor—his infantile tirades, his disastrous and lethal policies, his contempt for democracy in all its forms—and they decided that they wanted more of it. His voters can no longer hide behind excuses about the corruption of Hillary Clinton or their willingness to take a chance on an unproven political novice. They cannot feign ignorance about how Trump would rule. They know, and they have embraced him.
Sadly, the voters who said in 2016 that they chose Trump because they thought he was “just like them” turned out to be right. Now, by picking him again, those voters are showing that they are just like him: angry, spoiled, racially resentful, aggrieved, and willing to die rather than ever admit that they were wrong.
It’s been another tough week in Teacher Land. My music teacher buddies in Michigan are writing about coming inside from the cold, after a few weeks of humming softly in a circle on the grass, playing ukuleles or meeting under a canvas canopy with tubas and flutes.
How to make music safely, indoors: a challenge I never had to meet, but creative teachers are figuring out, on the fly, every day. Kudos, and more kudos, to every teacher struggling to make whatever form their instruction is taking effective. Y’all rock.
There have been lots of jokes today about needing a middle school teacher at the next debate. Ha ha and all that, but as a veteran, 30-year middle school teacher, let me lay down the law: No more debates.
Media outlets and sponsoring organizations don’t need mutable microphones or better rules. (Better rules and guidelines are a feeble solution to a much bigger problem—something every classroom teacher comes to understand, eventually.)
It’s not about Chris Wallace’s failure—and it was a botched job– to control Donald, either. It was clear to anyone who watched Wallace’s credible interview with him, a few weeks back, that the president was getting his revenge on Wallace and Fox, in a deliberately crafted (and rehearsed) strategy: Dominate. Flood the zone. Humiliate your opponent.
Trump openly abused everything: His opponent. Family loyalty. Voters’ intelligence. Norms of civility.
Turning off the president’s microphone is the political equivalent of making him write ‘I will not interrupt’ one hundred times on the chalkboard. It also opens up the possibility that he would walk offstage, as is his habit during ‘briefings’ at the White House. None of this is something children of any age should witness, if we want to preserve a democracy and civic dialogue.
What we need is a consequence with teeth that also protects the whole country from the harm: No. More. Debates.
There’s enough time for media outlets and sponsoring organizations to make other plans. Maybe they’re just done. Maybe they offer Town Halls around policies, with candidates appearing separately. Whatever. But what our children and our country saw last night on television should not happen again. It wasn’t rough-and-tumble, bare-knuckle politics. It was, instead, obscene.
Biden, in what I thought was one of his best moments last night, turned to the camera and assured us that we could use the institution of free and fair elections to save the republic. Just vote, he said. Trump followed up by declaring the election a fraud and a joke. That’s another thing we don’t want our children to see or believe.
One more teacher story: An award-winning teacher I know in Mississippi started a post today by saying ‘I really need you to read this.’
She said that as a first grade teacher, she had a student whose mother had a blog. After ‘Meet the Teacher’ night, blogging mama wrote about my friend’s ‘weird’ (and ethnically Asian) last name and what she thought about her child having a teacher with that last name.
It was incredibly hurtful, my friend said. Mama ended up pushing to remove her kid from the class. When administration wouldn’t remove him, she withdrew him from school.
I think this is the first time I’ve talked about this, my friend said. It is hard to do. A lot of people never experience racism and xenophobia themselves, so they just aren’t aware of it. I get it. That was me when I was younger too.
She said: I unequivocally denounce white supremacy. I ask that my friends and family join me. I want to see all of my friends and family come out strongly against white supremacy to show love and support of me and my children, as well as love and support of our brothers and sisters who occupy this wonderful planet with us.
She posted two hours ago, and her post has dozens of ‘I denounce white supremacy’ comments, and commiserations from other teachers about dealing with racism in the classroom.
What if every public school teacher said to their class today, in developmentally appropriate language, I unequivocally denounce white supremacy. I denounce it in this classroom. I denounce it in this town. I denounce it in this great nation. White supremacy is—and always has been—wrong.
When I was a junior in HS, my American History teacher was in a serious car accident in the fall, and did not return to teaching. This was 1967, and Social Studies teachers weren’t thick on the ground. The situation was personally worrisome: I had somehow persuaded this history teacher to let me take his required class as an ‘Independent Study’ so I could take both band and choir (which were infinitely more important to me than American History).
As rounds of fill-in teachers appeared, I was basically living in fear that my arrangement with Mr. Gilbert would be uncovered. He apparently left no record that I was even part of his class load. I might have to drop out of the choir—and I loved the choir—being coerced to return to conventional, one-chapter-a-week-test-on-Friday American History. It could go on my permanent record, or something.
Then fate smiled. My school district hired a young, spanking-new graduate of Western Michigan University, in December. She was cool with my studying American History on my own, added my name to the official grade book, and offered me her college history texts. Assignments would be short papers—and conversations with her. She recommended paperbacks I might enjoy.
In one of those conversations, I mentioned that her college Am-Hist textbooks presented things differently from our HS text. Things like the smallpox-infested blankets and how Andrew Jackson might not be a totally upright guy.
She smiled her praise. Good work, she said. You now understand that the people who write about history are usually the ones who benefited from the outcome. There are many ways to interpret the events of history—the ones you’re getting here in high school are pretty sanitized and one-sided.
This was a revelation to me, and made me vastly more interested in (and suspicious about) reading history. Most of my teachers seemed to regard their anthologies and textbooks as gospel truth, and thought we should, too. A fact is a fact.
Learning that there are lots of reasons to argue with the bland, evasive rhetoric found in textbooks was a great gift. I am still friends with that teacher—Marjorie Foster Trapp—and we still poke at each other’s thinking on social media. I got lucky.
As I said, this was 1967, the first year I ever saw those black and white diagrams of how enslaved African people were shackled, head to foot, in ships’ holds. When the Detroit race rebellions were still in the headlines, and in the thick of the Civil Rights Revolution, American students (at least in my school) were reading columns of sterile information about Whigs and Custer’s Last Stand. Has there been significant change in the teaching of our nation’s history?
Let’s hope so.
We’ve got vastly more resources at our fingertips now—the Library of Congress, in fact. A well-read teacher can serve as expert guide to artifacts and stories about important historical events and issues, across the developmental spectrum. History could be engaging, even fascinating; more importantly, students could understand what can be learned from mistakes made in the past. We might even teach them to be suspicious of believing much of what they hear or see on Instagram. To be informed citizens.
I believe this is happening in many, if not most, American classrooms. And I also believe that the teachers in front of those classrooms should be able to select the right materials to challenge their students.
The 1619 Project is not, as some have suggested, a curriculum. It’s a set of digital materials—essays, photo stories, editorial pieces and features—on the impact of slavery on all people and institutions in the United States. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay, America Wasn’t a Democracy until Black Americans Made It One, would be a great assignment to tackle at almost any point in the traditional HS Social Studies chronology. A little close reading, even; there are easily a dozen provocative ideas about American history in this one piece.
Naturally, Mike (Fordham) Petrilli had to weigh in. The Fordham folks think Trump’s proposed anti-1619 response, the 1776 Commission curriculum (as yet mostly unwritten, but absolutely going to be chock-full of real patriotism and heroes), is our window of opportunity to craft an all-American curriculum that does the impossible: pisses off nobody but instills reverence for our exceptionalism, with all the usual Important Dates and lots of winning. Petrilli has several nit-picking critiques for a contemporary media series on the legacy of having been a slave-owning country for 250 years, and other sources:
‘Take the famous Howard Zinn textbook, A People’s History of the United States. Central to its narrative is the premise that the world is, always and forever, divided into oppressors and the oppressed. This is a deeply cynical idea, though resurgent today in discussions of “anti-racism” and “critical race theory.” Do its adherents expect conservative-leaning parents—scratch that, most parents—to welcome this ideology into their children’s schools with open arms?’
First–anti-racism is real, not a word you put in quotes.
And what is Petrilli’s big idea? He is going with Trump’s 1776 Commission. No, seriously. He wrote that Trump was right to question the too-liberal teaching of social studies in our public schools. We need a commission.
You have to wonder what Fordham thinks high school history teachers do all day.
What pedagogical and philosophical errors could they be making, that would somehow be fixed by a Commission? A Commission inspired by Donald Trump’s petty rage over a successful media launch involving the NYT and a topic critical to the health and progress of the nation—dealing with our racism problem? A topic of high interest and importance to teenagers, as well.
To all American History teachers: hang in. Teach your students to embrace America, ugly warts and all, and to vote as if their lives depended on it. Our highly imperfect democratic republic is worth saving, and they’re going to be in charge some day.
Shortly after George Floyd was murdered, openly, in front of the nation’s eyes, Tre Johnson said this, in the Washington Post: ‘when things get real — really murderous, really tragic, really violent or aggressive — my white, liberal, educated friends already know what to do. What they do is read. And talk about their reading. What they do is listen. And talk about how they listened.
What they do is never enough. This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss black pain in the abstract; it’s the time to acknowledge and examine the pain they’ve personally caused. Black people live and die every day under the burdens of a racism more insidious than the current virus that’s also disproportionately killing us. And yet white people tend to take a slow route to meaningful activism, locked in familiar patterns, seemingly uninterested in really advancing progress.’
‘while the crafters of anti-racist reading lists are mostly making an earnest effort to educate people, literature and dialogue cannot supplant restorative social policies and laws, organizational change, and structural redress. When offered in lieu of actionable policies regarding equity, consciousness raising can actually undermine Black progress by presenting increased knowledge as the balm for centuries of abuse.’
So—I realize that I am, relative to the antiracist discourse happening right now, at square one or two, and can’t read myself into full partnership. I have to act.
Mentioning things I used to do, in the classroom, would be nothing more than empty virtue signaling. Sharing whatever anti-racist initiatives I’m currently involved in? Ditto. I’m sick of wading through articles from academics analyzing racist and anti-racist literature, in their (white) opinions. I don’t want to be one of those (white) people who are content to take the slow route, because I can.
But I’m still reading. Because I read a lot. It’s my greatest pleasure, and lifelong habit, and it’s currently safe, unlike going downtown to protest, something I’ve promised my children I won’t do.
Last year, and this year—because of the dark cloud of white supremacy manifesting itself everywhere—I decided to read as many books as I could, over both summers, around themes of discrimination. For myself—and perhaps to share with other people who are looking for really powerful things to read. Fiction and non-fiction. How-to books and memoirs. While I understand that reading is not action—it won’t lead to change or redress—sharing what I’m reading might have value.
Because, in the particular place where I live, racism most often manifests as callous and clueless disregard of the history of the land we live on, I looked for books by indigenous writers and people who came here initially as migrant farmworkers. If you have suggestions, I’ll add them to my list.
And because I’m a teacher, I looked for books around discrimination and inequity in education. If there’s a window for important themes and transformative ideas right now, it’s here. We shouldn’t be pointing to Jonathon Kozol and Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings—or even Diane Ravitch—all of whom wrote seminal books on inequities in education. What we need now is new volumes, authors of color who don’t simply rehash the deceptive and racist policies that built our imperfect public education structures; we should, instead be gutting rigid curricula, experimenting with new instructional forms, re-examining the damage done to students by high-stakes tests, throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into demanding equitable access to devices and broadband for the kids who don’t have it.
Since February of 2019, I’ve read 26 books on how racism and discrimination manifest in the United States, through multiple lenses. Some thumbnails:
Two Books that Absolutely Blew My Mind:
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson) This book is phenomenal. And it’s pointedly not about race, per se. It’s about caste–the societal decision to place its members in a constructed hierarchy, then arrange policies and habits to support that hierarchy over time, defining it as ‘natural’ or God-given. It’s a stunningly good book, and makes a great leap over skin color and the fact that race is a human construct (something that many other authors begin with)–to actual behaviors and policies and how they impact both dominant castes and suppressed castes. The experience of reading now, as the country suffers under a pandemic and its worst leader ever has been almost surreal. Wilkerson gets it–sees why we have failed, perceives what happened. Donald Trump, she tells us (and this is one of those places where she uses data effectively) is the logical endgame for a country that traditionally values and rewards its citizens in a rigid hierarchy–a deeply rooted caste system.
The last chapter, an epilogue, stands alone as the case for recognizing and rooting out caste. Other countries have done so–to their great benefit. Americans would similarly benefit, were we to see how our clinging to our bad habits and self-delusions have held us back from developing a just and democratic society.
So You Want to Talk about Race (Ijeoma Olou) This book hit me right in the solar plexus. It was like Ijeoma Olou was sitting across the table, answering questions—some embarrassing–and responding to ideas I’ve heard for most of my life, but never had the courage to ask or bring up. She’s not pandering to you, trying to make you feel virtuous or even well-meaning. Some of the things she says are painful. But she offers hope that things can get better if we keep trying to listen with an open heart. If you haven’t done much reading, this is the place to start.
Best Books by Scholars
How to Be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi) This book is thick with ideas and intellectual challenges. It’s neither an easy nor quick read. I found myself re-reading paragraphs, to squeeze out the core ideas, which are not intuitive. At first, some ideas–racism is rooted in bad policy, not inborn hate and ignorance–don’t make sense. But read on. If racism is rooted in bad policies, those policies can be changed. Ah. And then better policies will change minds. It’s a hopeful idea. We can change.
How the South Won the Civil War (Heather Cox Richardson) In our history books, we are taught that it was a stunning idea to overthrow the idea of a rigid class structure, the divine right to rule, and the pre-eminence of property (including human beings). When America won its independence, it settled on an extreme and fundamental change in the way it chose to be governed. But the founders were not 100% certain that all men were created equal. More like all white, male property owners. As for men in the rural South, dependent on slavery to retain their ‘natural, God-given’ right to manage the affairs of their women and enslaved workers, the concept of ‘all men are created equal’ was not only wrong, but loathsome. Richardson takes us through the Civil War, westward expansion and shifting political loyalties, and finds that, with Donald Trump, we have come full circle, fighting once again against the core principle of democracy, in favor of old, rich, white men and the rights of the individual over that of the community.
White Rage: the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide(Carol Anderson) Anderson writes lucidly and persuasively about a 400-year old criminal enterprise, taking us through eras in American history–Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the ongoing battle for equity in education, the role of the courts and Congress in shutting off civil rights, the trashing of free and fair elections. The text is data-rich and, while very readable, scholarly. These are not Anderson’s opinions–they are documented facts. And they’re damning. She’s right–it’s white rage that matters as we ask who is to blame for rebellion in our streets.
White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo) This book has recently taken a beating in the book-reading press. And it shouldn’t be the only book you read, if you’re choosing to read about bigotry and intolerance—you need multiple perspectives. But DiAngelo made sense to me, laying out a clear sociological framework for white fragility. It’s not easy to read her deconstruction of why all white people are, inherently, racist–and how that manifests in our behaviors and words, even as we think we’re trying to be open and affirming. She uses examples from her work as a diversity trainer, the things white people say and do that reveal their deeply held biases. She teaches readers who want to learn to recognize those defensive and reflexive responses, and deal with them, even learn from them. There’s value in that, even if it’s an imperfect primer.
Best Books for YA and Student Readers
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You(Jason Reynolds) What a wonderful, energizing, lively book–not descriptors you generally find describing a book about racism. Reynolds uses casual, breezy language in explicitly laying out the 400-year old roots of racism in America–without losing the no-shit seriousness of the topic. I would love to be in the classroom (any classroom) right now; this book could supplement a history text. Let me re-state that: this book would slyly correct, then poke at any American history text. Here’s what The Man (and all the books you ever read in school) say–but let’s examine it from another viewpoint. Reynolds rolls in media, from ‘Birth of a Nation’ to ‘Planet of the Apes’ to ‘The Cosby Show’, illustrating how white racists, time and again, marshal all their resources to push black people and black culture down.
Me and Carlos (Tom Perotta) This is a 50-page novella, but Perrotta packs a lot of teenaged confusion and rationalizing into a well-told story. Digger is the perennial second-stringer, who can’t quite rise above some petty resentments. Told in his voice, you can see what’s coming, the point at which male jostling and a re-arranged pecking order will lead to something really bad. Perrotta, always a good writer, adopts Digger’s voice and makes the reader uneasy. The novella feels breezy—a young adult-ish story. But I found myself thinking about all the layers—unearned privilege, the blithe male entitlement that high school jocks seem to adopt, jealousy, ethnic discrimination and how the country we live in supports these.
Red at the Bone (Jacqueline Woodson) The book has a YA feel to it, in spite of the ‘adult’ subject matter (which isn’t really adult, at all). There’s no padding–it’s all raw feeling, five different perspectives on a teenage pregnancy, and how family is at the center of both survival and happiness. Woodson’s language is evocative, and all the characters feel very real.
Richest, Most Illuminating Fiction
Salvage the Bones(Jesamyn West) broke my heart. You don’t know it’s going to break your heart, at the beginning of the book. Life in Bois Savage, at Esch’s home, feels chaotic and half-assed. There are four children, and Daddy–Mama died, giving birth to the youngest–so everything, from eating to washing sheets to taking care of Junior, is disorganized and unpredictable. And Esch, 15, and believing she’s in love with one of her brother’s friends, has a terrible secret. Right from the beginning, however, the language used to tell the story is almost poetry. There is beauty in everything, for Esch–the simple curve of her little brother’s skull, her older brother’s jumpshot, and her brother Skeetah’s dedication to his pit bull, China. Gradually, we see how tight this family is, how bonded they are, how forgiving of each others’ sins and failings. How they hold each other up, through unimaginable horror. How brave they are. How faithful. The book will break your heart, too.
The Night Watchman (Louise Erdrich) This book grew on me, as I read it, and the stories of the people, and how life had treated them, began to weave together, powerfully and even tragically. Erdrich always speaks plainly and truthfully, and the story here is greatly enhanced by knowing that she’s writing about her grandfather and his quest to keep the Turtle Mountain Tribe from being ’emancipated’–cut free–from the government that has already taken the best of their land (and, not coincidentally, their people).
Washington Black (Esi Edugyan) A rambling adventure, populated by a young, enslaved man (George Washington Black) and his master’s brother, an abolitionist and world-class eccentric. And many other unique characters, in a world–the 19th century–where slavery is both dying out and accepted as natural. Edugyan makes this world come alive, slipping into the mind of an 11-year old boy who has never lived outside the cruel confines of a sugar plantation in the British West Indies. How to understand the odd words and actions of the plantation owner’s brother? How to understand what real freedom is?
Jubilee (Margaret Walker) Written in 1966, Jubilee presents story of the Civil War from the eyes of one of the enslaved people. Walker goes far deeper in the minds and motivations of all the people in the typical plantation story, covering things like slave owners’ predilection for sexually abusing and impregnating the people they enslaved, the biblical and ‘moral’ rationales they employed, how slaves were terrorized into submission, the lack of information about the real world given to enslaved people–and an introduction to the evils of Reconstruction.
The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead) Outstanding, on many levels. The writing is perfectly styled for the story–the shorthand sentences and the plain thinking of the Nickel boys and their captors, reflecting both the times and the rotten values of the criminal justice system. And the characters are carefully drawn, by an unsympathetic narrator, who lets Elwood and Turner speak for themselves, instead of explaining what makes them tick. The plot is heart-tugging, driven by the boys who found themselves, by hook or crook, living in a version of Hell. And the epilogue is wonderful–it made me cry.
There, There (Tommy Orange) There’s almost too much in the book–the entire history of the Urban Indian, back to the 16th century, the myths and dreams, the horror, compacted in a few pages. There’s so much in it, history and backstory and rationale, that at times, it’s hard to find the story–the intriguing tale that keeps you reading to find out what happens. The book is rich with characters (none of whom feels much joy or hope), and very cleverly structured. You can see what’s coming a mile off, and feel powerless to stop it. And just when you want to know the specific outcomes, Orange pulls the plug. It’s easy to see why he did this–American ‘civilization’ has been doing this for 400 years. It’s a lesson to the reader.
Memoir and Essays
Becoming (Michelle Obama) The book is a festival of little, very human moments: Running to the corner store to get her mother a pack of Newports. Piano lessons. Her teenage boyfriends. Excruciating moments from the campaign. And, of course, what it’s like to love a man with Obama’s fierce intelligence and ambition. The tone is casual, a conversation with a friend—the book reads almost like a novel. A masterpiece of political biography.
All You Can Ever Know (Nicole Chung) As a (white) adoptive parent of a Korean son, the book rang my chimes on many levels. Chung notes, deep in her narrative, that some transracial adoptees do not experience the feelings of being an outsider or the persistent search for identity that she did, and I think that’s true. Each adoptee’s emotional journey is unique. Nonetheless, I think the issues Chung raises are vital, well worth reflection on the part of all parties, including adoptive parents. I learned from her story, which gave me many insights to chew on.
Thick and Other Essays (Tressie McMillan Cottom) Cottom’s essay on being considered ‘incompetent’ in the birth and subsequent loss of her infant daughter will rip your heart out. Her essay on why David Brooks gets to be a full-time writer while producing columns about deli meats, and the NYT and WaPo don’t (or didn’t, at the time) have a full-time black woman op-ed writer is hilarious and spot-on.
Born a Crime (Trevor Noah) The first half of the book is little stories about growing up in South Africa, small examples of cultural differences from a vastly different world. Taken together, they present a picture of what it was like to be Trevor Noah–and what it’s like to live in a world with alternate boundaries and beliefs. It’s a good memoir, easy to read. It gets better, as Noah looks at apartheid, crime, gender dynamics, and so much more. The chapter entitled ‘Cheese Boys’ is brilliant-and his explanation of why South American families call their sons ‘Hitler” was a revelation. The book would make a worthy addition to any course on cultural perspectives.
The first thing I thought of when people started murmuring about getting groups of kids whose families were connected together for a little home-based mini-school, was the much-heralded advent of charter schools in my state, back in 1995.
Just about everybody who was around and in the thick of education reform back then thought charters held promise. Throwing off the regulatory shackles! Schools with a unique vision and purpose! No more factory-model instruction!
A group of parents, led by one of those perennial PTA-president moms, approached a group of maybe a dozen teachers in the district where I taught, hoping to start a K-8 charter. Several of the teachers had already been discussing a new, arts-infused ‘dream school.’ The parents had a centrally located vacant building in mind, and had run some numbers that showed, somehow, teachers would be paid commensurately with the district’s salary scale, including benefits—and would be freed to run their classes the way they saw fit.
It’s worth noting that this was before NCLB, the Common Core and mandated testing in grades 3-8. I’m finding it hard to remember, in fact, just what we found so onerous and constraining about practices in the buildings we were working in, but that group of teachers (male and female, including several movers and shakers) agreed to meet with the parent organizers.
The parents were super-enthusiastic. They, too, had ideas to roll out, and were thrilled at the prospect of having a greater say in their children’s education, without having to pay private school tuition. The new charter law let them pick and choose teachers and set the tone for who would be welcome there. The leader of the group declared ‘We’re going to have the cream of the crop in our school!’
And that was it. All of the teachers immediately realized why the parents had done so much research and organizing: it was all for their kids. Kids whose parents did not have similar resources and savvy would be left behind, a phrase that hadn’t even entered the education lexicon yet.
I have long been a defender of the idea that parents should do whatever makes them comfortable, when it comes to their children’s education. If you want right-wing religious training, or single-gender education, or a place where your child will not stick out–thinking here of the Obamas not placing their girls, symbolically, into a public school—hey, go for it. One size does not fit all, although a lot of public schools try to accommodate pretty much everyone.
I think trying to tell parents, during a pandemic–especially when there’s a dearth of authentic leadership around making healthy choices for kids–that they have to play by a particular school’s rules is utter folly. Nothing will, or should, stop parents from trying to figure out how to get the best deal for their children during a crisis. That’s what parents are for.
Is that what pod-parents are intending? A way to use a virulent virus to duck out of feeling responsible for all children, or at least those in the immediate vicinity? Or is pod-learning a temporary solution that might lead to a new appreciation of the utterly democratic and cost-effective nature of public education?
~ Pod-learning has no concrete definition. A tutor (please don’t call them zutors) who works with a half-dozen children, twice a week, to accomplish their assigned schoolwork, is a far cry from dropping your child off at someone’s home every day so you can go to work and they can go to school. Do pod-teachers create their own curriculum or merely adapt what’s available, free, from the local public school? Who hires pod-teachers and what recourse do they have when conflicts occur? And on and on.
~ None of this is new. There have been private tutors, one-room schoolhouses and home-schools since colonial times. More recently, we’ve had distance learning and a revolving carousel of online, customer-friendly, charter schools. There are plenty of ways to get your child at least nominally educated—and also into college. Best to keep the focus on genuine learning, which might involve some deeper involvement and hard questions about what your schooling plan does for your child, besides keep them occupied for six hours a day.
~ If you’re counting on your schooling bubble to keep your kids—and hence, all the people in your household—free from infection while enjoying the freedom of not wearing masks or social distancing, there’s a great graphic for you to study at the end of this blog.
~ Surprise! One of the two great benefits of public education is free/inexpensive childcare. (The other is an educated citizenry but almost nobody talks about that.) What that means is those who can afford to chip in on a pod program can also afford childcare. By hiring a bona fide teacher who is fearful of returning to a public school, you’re deepening the division between haves and have-nots. If, as some talking heads are suggesting, you hire a college student at loose ends—you’re doubling down on the false idea that anyone can teach. Didn’t you already figure that out, back in April?
~ Here’s a certainty: if people form pods to educate their kids, bypassing public schools, it will weaken the commitment to annual high-stakes testing, the Common Core (and its identical cousins with different names), and tightly controlled teacher licensure. That’s not all bad, but deregulation has its downside. Think of it as public education being re-created as a gig economy. Teaching as Uber. Caveat emptor.
~ Teacher professionalism and expertise will be devalued. What will suffer then are the (admittedly idealistic) concepts of deep learning, custom-tailored curriculum, relationship-driven instruction–things that can only be supported by an established system run by professional educators.
~ And, of course—the questions around equity. You can argue, correctly, that schools are already inequitable. But what makes a school equitable is not its location or demographics. Equity is built by a reliable stream of resources, committed and talented teachers and genuine leadership. You can’t have an equitable school or provide an equitable education without good people. Temporary, just-in-time pod education disrupts what is good in public education: community-building.
Short synopsis: Old white Road Commission member in Leelanau County (Tom Eckerle, 75) makes egregiously racist remark, using the N-word, at a public meeting. When exposed, and contacted by other news outlets, he compounds the ugliness by using the word repeatedly and making eye-rollingly racist comments about Black Lives Matter and Detroit. County erupts in disgust, mostly, with some people defending him. A recall petition is initiated. The other Road Commission members send him a signed letter asking for his resignation. Even the Republican legislator serving the county asks him to resign, after a lengthy conversation to hear what he really thinks. After 48 hours of repeated insistence he will not resign—Tom Eckerle finally does.
And now, of course, if we are smart and principled, the real work begins. And by ‘real work’ I don’t mean all of that under-the-rug sweeping.
I live in Leelanau County. And I can attest that people make racist remarks here all the time. What made this instance unique was not what Mr. Eckerle said (although his blatant use of the N-word was appalling). It was the fact that it was reported, on the front page of the Leelanau Enterprise, as news. If the reporter (who was tuning into the meeting via phone) had just let his crapola go by (and by all accounts, this guy is full of crapola), the only people who would have been offended would be the other Road Commissioners and the two or three people listening in, waiting to discuss road business.
It is worth mentioning that Eckerle’s anti-BLM outburst was triggered by someone asking him to wear a mask. Think that through.
Leelanau County is the ‘little finger’ of the Michigan mitten. It is a peninsula, surrounded by the beautiful waters of Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and it is spectacularly beautiful country. We have both a National Park (Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore) and an Indian reservation, home of the Grand Traverse Band. While the county is outlined by many multi-million dollar waterfront homes, and thriving resort towns, there are also pockets of desperate poverty, an affordable housing crisis and a complete lack of available, reasonably priced broadband for rural consumers.
There are only about 22,000 people in Leelanau County, and 94% of them are white. Of the remaining 6%, nearly all are Native American–or Hispanic, most of whom landed here first as migrant fruit pickers (and yes, ICE has recently made arrests here). Historically, the land has been dominated by farmers—especially fruit farmers. When the cherry and apple trees blossom out—hilltop orchards, overlooking lakes– in May, there is no more beautiful place on earth. And now, there are 26 wineries and upscale dining.
Politically, the county has been deep red for more than a century, but the influx of retirees from downstate has been moving some of the resort towns in a bluish direction. The county voted for Obama in 2008 (not in 2012), but there remains a die-hard core group of generational residents who are deeply suspicious of things like unemployment insurance, early childhood education, recycling and fancy-pants internet. Not to mention a Black President.
Many of these folks hold public office. Sometimes, for decades, in family groups. Republican candidates, even if they are known cranks (as Tom Eckerle appears to be), get elected. I once attended a Township Board meeting, to promote a resolution to stop Enbridge Corporation from using a crumbling 65-year old oil pipelinethat runs under the Straits of Mackinac. After we did our pitch, one of the Board members was clearly shocked at what would happen if the pipeline ruptured, and said so—she had not heard about Line 5. The Township Supervisor turned to her (and to her sister, who also sits on the Board) and said, out loud, ‘We’re voting NO, Shirley.’ And they all did.
Just politics in Leelanau County.
After the Eckerle affair, the local Facebook page, where people post beautiful photos of sunsets over lakes (we have lots of inland lakes) and sell their outgrown ski equipment, was alight with comments, running about three-to-one in favor of forcing a resignation.
There was a lot of pearl-clutching, worries about people thinking everyone in Leelanau County was like this–the local economy depends on tourism–and demands that the Governor yank Eckerle. Governor Whitmer said (correctly, in my opinion) that, dreadful as his comments were, it was the voters in Leelanau County who needed to recall him.
There were also way too many comments about his remarks being ‘just a word—one that Black people use all the time’ and cryptic statements about ‘Detroiters’ looting and bringing COVID up here. To paradise. White person paradise.
“Hatred, which has destroyed so much, never failed to destroy the one who hated, and this was an immutable law…..I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.” (James Baldwin)
Facebook post, shared by a colleague: Started band camp last Sunday, two rehearsals per day. No more than 25 students in a group. They wore masks while moving between stations, and after the second rehearsal, two students went home because of low grade fevers. One tested positive. We were forced to shut down for a minimum of two weeks. There was no precaution we didn’t take.
Welcome to 2020, music educators.
About six weeks ago, Texas band directors (a fierce and highly competitive bunch) started posting summer band-camp photos, on a band directors’ site I follow. Flute players with facial shields. Trumpets and mellophones with their bells bagged. Masked percussionists, labeling their mallets, so they’re touched by only one person. They were fired up. Creativity and safety would win the day!
The page today is really tough reading: Shut-down camps. Lost jobs. Will there be a marching band next year if there’s none this year? Pictures of band rooms where precisely 13 students can play while social-distancing. Deep, philosophical chats about the value of music in kids’ lives. And this—how the hell am I supposed to have a band online?
Well, the bad news is: you’re not. And when this pandemic abates, the best-case scenario for all powerhouse performance-based music programs is the option to rebuild. Any teacher (raises hand) who’s ever had to build, then re-build, a music program of any kind knows how difficult that job is, what losses are suffered when your dynamic program loses the thing that makes it magnetic: Pride in performance, fun in preparation.
So don’t think I’m Pollyanna, telling music teachers to keep your chin up and try something new. I know you’re righteously sad about your good work being threatened. What I am offering is this: a few suggestions for doing some authentic music teaching during a terrible time.
For starters—stop calling yourself a band/choir/orchestra director, and begin calling yourself a ‘music teacher.’
Second—understand that your college education and years of experience have given you all the musical expertise you need to create some new ideas about music that can be delivered to students in multiple modes. You know enough about the structure and history of music to create some great lessons. And what you don’t know offhand, you can easily find, without leaving your living room.
Third—don’t think the only curricular options students have are limited to music theory, music history and practicing. Much of our college-level theory and history instruction was deadly dull—no need to repeat it. Also– please don’t assign practicing. You need to give kids a good reason to practice, and logging time for a grade is not a good reason to practice. Learning to play another instrument would be—Bari sax? Ukulele?
Fourth—you know what tools, student interests and previous skills are available to you. If you’re meeting students in groups, and they all have Zoom, you might be able to do some bucket drumming. Or maybe your orchestra would be more interested in a History of Popular Music survey unit—to find out where the music they listened to originated.
Perhaps you’re stuck with phone calls and emails, and have to do something written or shared via email groups. I used to play what I called Sound Samples for my students, around a theme. They listened to a series of 10 or 12 clips, each a couple of minutes long, with a list of what they were listening to (each with a brief description). The list was out of order. The trick was to listen closely enough to identify key features of the music and thus, identify the pieces. Ungraded—but I know from experience students love guessing right, or figuring out what they’re listening to, using the clues.
For those incredibly lucky teachers who have the right technological tools and skills, teaching students to do ensemble playing via technology, with themselves or others, is a possibility (not Zoom, by the way—it’s the wrong tool for ensemble singing/playing). Only a narrow slice of music educators have the equipment and expertise to do this—but perhaps it’s your personal challenge, right now.
Fifth—Keep in mind that students take a music class to play. Teachers are fearful of play. Not only because their professional evaluations and livelihood are often linked to a mandate to produce satisfactory evidence–data– but open-ended play is not generally The Way We Do Things.
In schools, and in the grim, we’re-behind education policy discourse, a teacher who encourages students of any age to poke at ideas, learn from mistakes, and approach established disciplinary content as a treasure chest to explore is seen as disorganized. You tell ‘em what to do. And then you evaluate how well they’re doing what you told ‘em to do.
I am a music teacher–theoretically a creative art–but can state categorically that music, as traditionally taught in secondary schools, is not very imaginative or playful at all. School music programs tend to become performance-oriented only–and often rigorously competitive—as students get older.
There is an important body of information and skills in music. The more of that disciplinary knowledge students have mastered, and the more proficiency they develop, the greater their ability to capably perform interesting and satisfying music, and become a more appreciative and knowledgeable music consumer. These are all worthwhile educational goals, by the way. Far more worthy, in the long run, than bringing home another trophy.
After I’d embraced the rehearse-rehearse-perform model for 20 years, I realized I wasn’t teaching my students much about music other than How to Play Band Music. I started experimenting with composition. I had adopted the practice of thematic teaching—focusing on one broad aspect of music each year. The first year I tried to include composition, our theme was World Music—identifying the musical features that make something sound Italian or Scottish, rustic or refined. We listened to gamelan bandsand balalaika choirs and West African djembe drummers.
And then I asked them to compose something in an ethnic style.
It’s nerve-wracking to turn kids loose to create. How do you structure that lesson? What’s the subject matter takeaway? What if your students create inferior products (as they certainly will, at first)? Must you grade them?
I had to deal with “Just tell me what to do” and “Can’t I do a report instead?” We persisted. And eventually, it was fun, playing with our acquired skills, creating new music–recording it on audio, video, electronic keyboard discs and paper. Their choice.
Some students performed their compositions live, including several groups and soloists playing the blues (that’s how you teach theory, by the way—using it). There were R. Carlos Nakai-ish recorder solos and improvised polkas. And lots and lots of drumming.
Most of the work was fairly unoriginal, but some of it was stunning. Here’s the best part. I assigned it on a Friday, giving them almost a month to get things in. On Monday, there were maybe two dozen completed assignments in my inbox, and groups wanted to know: Can we do another one?
Sixth—like most things about school and learning, music programs that are well-funded and adequately staffed get better results. It costs money to support a music program at any level, and a great deal of money to outfit a HS performing group, beginning with a facility. In some ways, losing daily rehearsals and summer camps and access to a world-class auditorium levels the playing field and lets musicians focus on the heart of music—human expression—rather than being best. This could be the year where imagination and creativity (and, in the process, justice) is the focus.
What if this urban district courageously liberated itself from narrow and rigid quantitative measures of intelligence that have colonized the education space for generations, and instead blazed a trail for reimagining what qualifies as valuable knowledge? What if we put our money, time and energy into what we say matters most? What if this school year celebrated imagination? What if healthy, holistic, interconnected citizenship was a learning objective? What if we designed a school year that sought to radically shift how communities imagine, problem solve, heal, and connect?
Virtually all of the discussion between educators is now centered on whether it’s feasible, with any kind of plan, to return to in-person schooling in the fall. I believe this national conversation will follow the Major League Baseball template: schools will begin closing as viral clusters pop up, perhaps re-opening, then closing again for the balance of the year, as it finally dawns on the most resistant anti-mask parent and school board member: This just ain’t gonna work. It’s too dangerous.
Teachers settle into a teaching practice– gathering, testing and adopting habits and materials that are effective (and discarding those that aren’t). Many teachers had difficulty abandoning those standardized resources and pedagogies when forced to teach online. They tried to do what they always did—at first, anyway. When that didn’t work so well, they began experimenting, with personal calls and meetings, extending or modifying assignments—and plenty of other strategies.
Teachers quickly discovered that the usual deliver/practice/test model was a bust, with students randomly not showing up or completing things that would have been finished, had the teacher been strolling around the classroom looking over their shoulders. How would this impact grading and testing and comparing? District and state leaders eventually said—we can’t grade (or test or compare). It’s not fair.
Why does the general public assume that learning only matters when it’s quantified? Because we’ve taught them that is the case. Let’s cut to the chase instead: Now that we’re here online (or mailing packets, using phone-in conferences or emailing)—what would be the most useful things to learn?What might be jettisoned in favor of things that address important and current issues?
For children in primary grades, this amounts to lots of basic-skills building around interesting things in their world. When we talk about very young children, most people assume that they’re the ones who need the traditional high-touch curriculum: learning to read, do simple arithmetic, and socializing. In person.
That may not be possible. And I’m not entirely convinced that older kids do better with remote learning. I can think of a number of things that are central to early-childhood learning that might be adapted to learning at home. Vocabulary, speaking and listening, stories that teach us something, counting games, virtual museum visits, nature walks with items being shared and discussed, puppet shows—the list is endless.
The catch, of course, is having someone older around to supervise that nature walk, find the link to the virtual museum, and watch the puppet show after the teacher shares creative ideas and content.
I can also identify the teachers in secondary schools who will struggle the most to develop online models of teaching: music teachers with performing groups, art teachers, physical education and drama teachers, career and technical educators and those with hands-on pedagogies.
“Even when we focus on academics, we too often target low-hanging fruit like graduation rates rather than teaching and learning. Shallow successes allow us to pat ourselves on the back. But a high graduation rate is meaningless when our graduates enter the world without a fundamental grasp of the tools and knowledge necessary for full participation in life and citizenship. We can hope for a reimagining of schooling during this time, but nothing will change in our schools until we prioritize the education of our students.“
We could call it the 2020 Interim Curriculum, to keep those heavily invested in CCSS and annual testing from freaking out. It could be a place-based, context-sensitive approach. Learning during a pandemic. Making it up as we go along. If the things we always do can’t be done, because they require conditions and materials that can’t be had, what worthwhile topics—things currently in the news, things that our students might want to know—can fill in?
I’ve had some practice in the art of making it up as I went along. Here is a brief example:
I taught 7th grade math for two years, when the music program was cut. Both times (more than 20 years apart), all math teachers taught from textbooks. In 2004, it was a new curriculum that used different soft-cover books for individual topics. I was the last teacher in the rotation, and while waiting for the previous teacher to finish the topic and pass books on to my class, I had a few days to fill. No challenge for a veteran math teacher, with dozens of field-tested tricks, but I was new.
The Detroit Free Press had a special section on housing. It discussed housing prices across the metro area, square footage, interest rates on mortgage loans, down payments and the fact that for many families, their homes functioned as their savings investments. Lots of charts and graphs and tables, as well as dozens of photos.
I (illegally) copied a couple of the tables and graphs to interpret, and brought the whole section into class. I read the copy on the front page, and then spent the rest of the week showing them how to figure out why a large down payment might be better than a minimum amount, how housing increased (or decreased) in value, the differences between buying in a popular area and a run-down part of town, and how much of a house payment was principal and how much interest.
Seventh graders, it turns out, know nothing about the price of a home. The idea that the homes they were living in might cost a quarter of a million dollars was stunning. Equally surprising was the idea that a genuine mansion in Detroit, with four times the square footage and six bathrooms, might cost less. We briefly touched on redlining, and its impact on Black families in Detroit. We calculated down payments, monthly costs and equity. There were no homework assignments, but each day was full of math and learning. At the end of the year, in the survey I gave them, lots of them mentioned that learning about housing was the thing they remembered, and enjoyed, the most.
And that was before that kind of information was readily available online. I imagine teachers gathering links to stories about housing, the job market, education loans and careers—practical advice plus practice in calculation and understanding how to use math (or literature, or science) in making a better world.
How do things work? How could they work better, for all of us?
The possibilities are endless. In Part II, a blog about teaching music composition, something face to face music teachers in performance-focused classes seldom do.
About twenty years ago, I served on the team of teachers who crafted the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification assessment for music teachers. The 16-member team was carefully drawn from an array of music education specialists, with an eye toward balance. Balance between K-12 and higher ed, vocal and instrumental music, male and female, geographic—and ethnic balance.
Everyone on the team took the work seriously. All of us were experienced master music teachers. We were trying to lay down valid and reliable assessments that could measure a music teacher’s pedagogical skills and content knowledge. It was good work, based on a set of standards drawn up by another diverse national team of teachers.
The National Board Certification process has changed since then—we were the first teachers to tackle these tasks—but the assessment consists of portfolios of the candidates’ classroom practice, including videotaped lessons, and a set of on-demand content assessments. It was our job to design the assessment model, then provide alternate items so the assessment could be used for many years.
The content assessments were designed to be rigorous—for example, composing, in 30 minutes, a short piece of music for specified instruments, voices, key and time signatures and in a prescribed style. If you’re not a music teacher, that might sound impossible, but music specialists compose and arrange music to fit their musicians all the time. A music teacher who couldn’t sketch out a quick composition meeting certain parameters could not be considered accomplished.
In addition to assessments around music teachers’ curricular knowledge, rehearsal skills, theory and composition, there was an exercise to assess teachers’ knowledge of music history. Four members of our team were Black; three had attended an HBCU. And they thought that ‘drop the needle’ exercises, where teachers listened to discrete samples of traditional Western composers and identified the composer, historical period and other compositional or historical features were—not to put too fine a point on it—baloney.
Two team members (both white and male) were music education professors at well-regarded universities. And they believed this knowledge was music history. They refused to entertain the thought that music majors anywhere were not well-grounded in the Western canon. They kept saying things like ‘you’re telling me you can’t identify all nine Beethoven symphonies? That you didn’t study them in college?’
The Black teachers said things like ‘Can you tell me what a field holler is? Can you sing one, right now? Can you trace hip-hop through its various incarnations, back to New York City and the Caribbean? That’s what I studied in college!’
The conversation grew heated at times, and eventually boiled down to this nugget, the thing we’d said we were considering, all along: What knowledge is essential for any music teacher to be effective and accomplished?
There were two distinct schools of thought:
One, there is an established canon of Western-generated art and folk music in the United States that represents music of worth. These are the materials we should be teaching our students. The rest is somewhere between inconsequential and trash.
Two, our students are immersed in popular music, nearly all of which can be traced back to African roots, in some aspect. Jazz, in fact, is the first truly American art music. To avoid what came before and after jazz in the realm of popular music—or to set it aside as ‘less than’ dead, white, Eurocentric composed music—does our students, black and white, a terrible disservice.
At that point, I had been a music teacher for nearly 25 years and considered myself an exemplary practitioner. Many of the points raised by the Black teachers were new to me. I spent the weeks between the team’s meetings studying ‘multi-cultural’ music. What was the same? What was different?
More importantly, what did my students need? Was I just following in the footsteps of white music educators, using the same music, teaching the same sterile skills, pursuing the same goal of ‘excellence,’ without really considering more important questions about music and human creativity in a culture? The first aha moment for me? Noticing that the method book my beginners used featured ‘Jump Jim Crow’ in a lesson about dotted rhythms.
The ultimate outcome for the National Board music certificate was designing two different assessments—one called Western Music History, testing teachers’ knowledge about the traditional, Eurocentric canon and another called World Music which drew on samples from around the globe, and occasionally tossed in a ragtime or swing tune. It was a decidedly imperfect compromise. By the time our work was done, three of the four Black team members had quit.
When the certificate was rolled out, I was a scorer for the World Music assessment, where it was obvious that many American music teachers didn’t know a lot about non-Western music. In working with candidates—white candidates, especially secondary band and orchestra teachers—I was likely to hear that they found the World Music assessment irrelevant or unfair. Make-work, even—not knowledge they needed to have or use. Those conversations between team members rang in my ears.
The trick is to ask, and to listen, and not behave as if your favorite pancake syrup has filed for a name change. White people have been in charge of music classrooms, instructional materials and evaluating what ‘good’ music is for centuries. So what if you ‘always’ used Oh Susannah! to teach sixteenth note pickups? Do better.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in ‘How to be an Antiracist’says that racism doesn’t spring from hate and ignorance. Racism is a result of racist policies, policies that form racist systems, and encourage and maintain racist behaviors. That’s a hard concept to understand, at first.
But when I think about all the white music teachers defending the songs that make light of slavery, and enslaved people, it is clear: choosing music that Iprefer is making policy. Teachers make this kind of policy in their classrooms all the time. Being an antiracist music teacher begins with our most fundamental responsibility: making the best possible musical choices.