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Whistling in the Dark

By guest blogger Jonathon Medeiros.

I used to see problems of access at my school in terms of equity, not justice. Isn't justice what The Avengers bring or what Atticus was seeking? I don't deal in justice. I was only concerned with convincing students, families, communities, and fellow teachers that they deserve excellent teaching and an excellent education. They deserve an education that recognizes them as valid individuals regardless of creed, color, gender, or dollar.

Recently, I was at a national ECET2 (Educators Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers) conference. Educator William Anderson shared something that hit home. He said that we must teach with heart first. Mr. Anderson reminded us that students need to feel that it is right and good to be exactly who they are and that we will teach them, regardless of who they happen to be.

When he said this, I realized this was something my students and I discussed in class. One unit we cover centers on beliefs, with a focus on the song "Whistling in the Dark" by They Might Be Giants. At one point, the band sings, "Be what you are, be like yourself." This easily allows my classes to begin discussing what make us who we are and we eventually realize that we are all similar and dissimilar at the same time and that's not just okay, but it is necessary. My students hopefully realize that being themselves is preferable to being what they think they should be.

They Might Be Giants go on to sing about the joys of "whistling in the dark," a concept that my students invariably do not understand. To be honest, I was singing the song for almost two decades before it occurred to me to figure out what those words exactly meant. To "whistle in the dark" is to approach a difficult, even impossible situation, with optimism. This sounds naive in practice, but some might argue that the entire profession of teaching is whistling in the dark.

If I approach impossibly dangerous situations with the simplistic attitude that I will succeed, distracting myself with good cheer, I will most likely fail or perish. But as I think about situations that are scary or overwhelming, I realize that this is what we do every day. We are all walking through life with an incomplete map of an unexplored world and most of our required paths are labeled with a simple "here, there be dragons."

For many of our students, walking into school every day is as daunting as jumping into a pit of vipers. We ask our students to smile, work hard and be successful when, in reality, they are staring into the darkness every day, wondering if there really are dragons in there. We need to remind ourselves and teach our students that they can survive, that they have the right to succeed in the unexplored hinterlands of "school." We also need to show them that they can admit their fear and uncertainty and succeed anyway.

During my first week as a teacher ten years ago, I looked around my "remedial reading" class and immediately noticed a stark contrast between the students in my class and those out in the school courtyard. The "remedial reading" class was full of students for whom doors had been closed; these students lived lives in which some doors were made to seem invisible so that they did not even recognize the options they were denied.

Not one of my "remedial" students had ever considered rigorous or AP classes as an option for themselves. For them, school was Math, Science, Social Studies, English, repeat. For the school, these were the students at the very bottom of the state test results every year because, let's be honest, that is where we decided to put them instead of taking the time to teach them. They were in the dark, where we hoped no one would notice them as they awkwardly made their way towards a less-than-meaningful diploma.

When I looked out to the courtyard during that first week, I saw that my school represented every race, gender, socioeconomic status, and skill level. My class was mostly brown, largely poor, and 95% boys with referral problems or who were non-native speakers. My colleague's AP class was (in)explicably lighter skinned and devoid of students needing free and reduced lunch. This dichotomy troubled me from that first week on the job.

Thumbnail image for classroom.jpgA few years later, when the teacher asked me to take over the AP Language Arts program from her, I decided to open the doors to all those students that didn't even know the door was there. I allowed anyone who wanted to take the class to enroll.

Two students that I had years earlier returned. Jovilyn, a student who had moved to Hawaii from the Philippines just a few years prior, and Kalea, a native Hawaiian girl who had been classified as "Special Education" student, had both been in my "remedial reading" class as freshmen.

School, up to that point, had been an exercise in following other people's preconceived ideas of what was right for them. Up to that point, they had been dragged through remedial classes-- mine included-- because of their cultural backgrounds, accents, and personal challenges. They had learned over the years that they were "behind" the others and would always be behind the others.

I treated Jovilyn and Kalea as individuals in my 9th grade "remedial reading" class, so they were willing to walk through the door I had opened to Advanced Placement courses as they entered the second half of high school. When I first opened the AP class, they both signed up. This raised vocal opposition of counselors and other teachers. "They'll drag the class down," they reasoned. "They'll be left behind and feel discouraged. They'll get bad grades," some worried.

My response worried them even more. I reminded them that my course was about how much students learn, not the letter grades they got. What I care about are the skills they master, their desire to learn, and the sense of their own power to control their fate in this dark world.

Jovilyn and Kalea were allowed to stay, and both took more AP classes during their senior year. This access to the same high-quality education that, before, had only been available to a select few, was liberating. It validated them and their rights to the same level of education. Jovilyn and Kalea now see it as their right to go out into the world and go after what they want. They have gained the strength to whistle in the dark. I continue to welcome formerly unwelcome students and they have all been greeted and taught as exactly who they are.

Educator Joseph Bolz calls this "teaching about, for, and with social justice," teaching in such a way that all students and teachers, regardless of trials and tribulations both trivial and tremendous, know they have a right to belong in this world and to be accepted as individuals with equally powerful stories and futures.

Unfortunately, Jovilyn and Kalea's happy ending is often not what awaits students that have been similarly discriminated against. In the Washington Post's piece, "These kids were geniuses -- they were just too poor for anyone to discover them," Jeff Guo writes:

Critics say gifted programs amplify inequality because they disproportionately recruit children from high-income families -- another example of how opportunity accrues to those already blessed with opportunity. In the early 2000s, white children in Broward [County, Florida] were nearly four times as likely as black children to be labeled gifted. Broward was mostly composed of minority students, but white students far outnumbered black and Hispanic students in the gifted program. Of the 10,000 children considered gifted at the time, 5,600 were white, 1,500 were black and 2,000 were Hispanic.

Like Jovilyn and Kalea, we have whole generations of students swept to the margins, never shown their own brilliance. The cycle is only continuing: those statistics have widened in recent years. 

As a teacher, I didn't have control over Jovilyn and Kalea's past. I can, however, keep my doors open and teach with heart first, and remind my students that they can be exactly who they are and I will teach them that way because they all deserve to have their thoughts heard and their minds pushed. I teach them to face the darkness, not ignore it.

We need to create a self-sustaining cycle of individuals who value themselves and each other in part because they are individually valued by us. We need to create a stream of students that know to seek out and have access to what we all deserve so we can build a healthy and effective public education system in place of the one that currently operates across an inherently unequal landscape. We need to learn to whistle with them, to learn with them, so Jovilyn and Kalea aren't outliers. Instead, they are the daily reminders of how powerful education is.

medeiros head shot 2.jpgJonathon Medeiros is a high school Language Arts Department Chair, English teacher, and AVID elective teacher at Kauai High School, in Lihue, Kauai. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and currently a Hope Street Group state fellow, and a former participant in the Institute for International Exchange and Fulbright-Japan's Education for Sustainable Design teacher exchange program. When he's not teaching or writing, he is probably surfing or hanging at the beach with his daughters and partner. Follow him on Twitter.

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