Saturday, October 26, 2013

Stereotypes and Race: A Sense of Belonging

"If we ever move from Madison can we move some place where I'm not the only Chamorro in my class?"


There are so many underlying microdynamics in Misa's question.  I felt her words so I probed a little.  Afterwards, I felt pained and wrote a poem.  Then a letter to myself.  Then I got on the internet and searched for teaching jobs on Guam.  I followed this up with a look at the census bureau to find out where other Chamorros are living.  I reminisced and recalled my childhood when I never thought about other kids looking like me because well, we all kind of looked like each other.  

What is it Misa feels but cannot exactly articulate?  If what she's feeling at 10 years old is similar to what I felt at 18 when I moved from the familiar to the not-so-familiar, then let me say that it's all recognizable - that sense of powerlessness, self-consciousness, intimidation - for being born as who she is experiencing things in a place that belies acceptance and transparency.

So what is the 'so what' of this experience?  Just 5 months ago at the end of last school year a team from my school was starting the transition process with the 4 elementary schools that feed into Sherman Middle School.  The primary goal was to gather as much information about each incoming 5th grader in order to create balanced teaching teams.  I'm talking about strategically looking at all aspects of the child in terms of academic levels and behavioral needs, language, ethnicity, and gender.

Admittedly, I initially balked at the time consuming effort this involved.  Interviews at the elementary schools with 5th grade teachers followed by meetings to make decisions that included recapping the child's needs which inevitably led to short discussions about the match-up - that entire process was just too much for me to imagine conducting at the end of the school year.  And anyway as a public school teacher, I've always been of the mind that you get what you get cause we teach 'em all.

That's true, still.

But after going through the process, and having met the 54 students in my classes, I could not be more thankful that there's a transition team in place.  What I learned was that each and every incoming 5th grade student was given remarkably careful attention.  What we discussed was that perhaps a "quirky" kid ought to be with at least one other kid with similar unique traits.  I discovered that there are kids who are really supportive of kids with specific special needs and that perhaps they should stay together.    I helped make decisions about academic placements so the wildly varying learning needs were balanced for proper differentiation.  We talked about kids of color - in particular, Hmong, Latino and African kids having others of the same ethnicity in the same class.  And in fact, it was pretty cool when a Pacific Islander was intentionally placed on my team.

I bring up this transition process as a way to give thanks that I was part of a process that was culturally, ethnically, academically, and - most of all - dynamically aware.   It's not all perfect, but it's sensitive and intentional.  After thinking about what Misa's question really meant, I empathized for her and for other young students who have felt uncomfortable or oppressed or out-of-place or intimidated or insufficient.  I mean, I know how it feels as an adult, but I don't really know what this feels like for a 10 year old. So in the spirit of this - that as grown-ups, we can find and build a sense of belonging no matter what, I conducted my own question and answer session using just a few questions I've been asked over time. . .

1) What would you say to a kid who says s/he feels "out of place"?   What if it's a kid of color - what would you do?  

Me: There are no right answers.  I am most comfortable sticking to addressing what I know, which is that I'm a minority from the island of Guam and a Pacific Islander and sometimes it's just hard to be the only one.  I can infer that at times, Misa feels disempowered so it might be confusing for her when her sense of belonging becomes an issue.  I would love it if educators would learn about the cultures of kids they teach and not just on a cursory or surface level - but really learned about them.  And what I would do is continue to do the personal work to unlearn internalized racism that has altered who I am.  Maybe that kind of work will in turn help Misa's sense of belonging.

2) What would you say or do when a kid of color stands out for being naughty?

Me:  I'm assuming you're referring to discipline and I'm assuming you're asking this because you've been called a racist or want to prevent this from happening?  Well.  Discipline means "to teach," and the purpose of setting limits is to help kids manage those moments when they feel powerless.  To be real, lets take race out of this - most of my students come with their own baggage.  However, I'm of the mind that I need to promote kids' commitment to learning, and more than that, to help kids learn and understand the value of being fair and just and how to navigate the world through those lenses.  So I'd discipline him or her with equity and fairness, as I do my own.

3) What resources are there to help understand the subtleties and dynamics around race?

Me: Tons, and lots of credible authors.  But just take a tour of MMSD and surrounding districts and private schools as well, and observe what you see.  Come to my school if you want to see the differences that exist on the east and west sides of this small city and you can take note of how geography has an impact on institutionalized racism.  Go to Misa's classroom to witness student life, and while there, look to your left and right and see where kids of color are placed.  As happy and engaged as Misa is - and as satisfied as I am with her learning in that school, there are some race-related problems in that building. And to answer the question - consider pursuing topics about cultural differences, development of kids and adolescents, racism and its effects on White people and people of color, personal narratives and memoirs from poets, artists, musicians and the hip hop community.

Actively pursue a venue with older folks of color where race, ethnicity, and cultures are discussed.  You can learn a lot.  Maybe even be transformed.  Draw upon the insights of others.  My former teaching colleague and dear friend, Ms. Matson could hands down, address the underlying microdynamics of Misa's question in a frank and open way.  She'd remind me that her walk was long and at times really, really terrible, but as a pillar of resiliency and wisdom, she would tell me to never diminish Misa's feelings about being different.  I know that my search for being me as an educator and parent came from a strong mentorship by Ms. Matson.

Above all, the main thing is to stay open and listen to the words from your kids and students - from the witty and blunt to the abstract and linear, to the words that seem small or inconsequential and even to the torrential rain of words that seem like blather.  Listen and then do something to cultivate their sense of belonging.

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