You Can Make a Difference for Students of Color. So Take the 'Red Pill'
Author's Note: This will be the last entry of this column. It has been more than a privilege to be able to use this platform to compose what I hope were thought-provoking entries on race and classroom practice. My writing will continue on in various venues and places, including Education Week. I look forward to continuing this very vital conversation.
"After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes."
-Morpheus to Neo (The Matrix)
So, how you have been?
Since the inception of this blog series over a year ago, how many students of color have you worked with to improve their academic outcomes? I hope you cannot count the amount. If not, there is still time left. After this Thanksgiving break, you have approximately six to seven months to make you mark in the lives of students.
But you already knew that.
In fact, you have already made the choices for the rest of the school year. Your job now is to understand why you have made those choices. And if need be, change them.
You are the one.
You are the one that is singularly capable of creating the classroom, school, or school system that will enable all students, but especially students of color, to break down the code in the matrix of the standards. But the question is, are you going to take the blue pill or the red pill?
Just like Morpheus presented those options to Neo in the movie "The Matrix," you have the option to either believe that students of color are currently achieving at rates that they are capable of and that good intentions outlined in school progress plans are enough (blue pill), or that you are a part of a system that actually supresses their achievement on a daily basis (red pill). The first choice allows you the freedom to teach how you like, hire who you like, and graduate who you like. Blue pill consciousness often manifests in a focus on growth instead of trajectory, certificated knowledge instead of content and curriculum-specific expertise, and professional-development systems that actually are implementation development systems (not catered to the needs of the teacher, but tailored to the needs of district and school-level directives). Blue pill living.
Or you can take the red pill.
Red pill consciousness can be seen in the creation of professional-development systems designed to surface bias, deepen standards knowledge and promote content expertise. Someone who takes the red pill as it relates to teaching believes that educators can create classrooms where all students and especially students of color can thrive and surpass grade-level standards. The educator who goes down this "rabbit hole" also sees him/herself as a gatekeeper. Teachers are gatekeepers of information, practices, and content. When we see ourselves as such, we begin to understand how we are the wires that supply energy to a system that does not graduate students of color with the same level of information and skills as their white counterparts. As the leader of Unbound Ed, Kate Gerson says, we are the system.
Red pill consciousness.
But, "I hate to break it to you kid," you have already made your choice. Now, here's why.
1. Choices are the byproduct of our biases. My choice to take a right turn when traffic has cleared is not only because I want to be safe. I have taken a driving course, passed a driving exam, and have come to conclude that when I turn at the same time as another car, I will get into an accident. Therefore, my mind has automatically associated oncoming cars in the lane I would like to merge into as dangerous and I instinctively wait. This instinct, or bias, is borne out of my mind making associations at a conscious level so many times that it becomes an unconscious truth that directs my actions. Automatically. Whether you have taken the red or blue pill, it is likely because at one point in time you have consciously concluded the reasons why students of color fail. Or, you have associated their frustration with difficulty as a sign of incompetence (or a part of the process of learning). This association has happened enough times and has passed into your subconscious, thus becoming your automatic and unprocessed reaction to educating students of color.
2. Comfort drives our habits. Additionally, you may have become comfortable (or uncomfortable) with the way things are. You have (or have not) come to accept that students of color will always be "a little bit behind everybody else," or that their "variety is just a byproduct of natural variation among the races." Besides, you may have concluded, if there is not a father in the home, or if they have had three bad teachers in a row, or if they are just predisposed to sports and entertainment, or *insert reason*, they are already at a disadvantage so great that there is not much you can do. Conversely, you have surmised that they have been acted upon by a system that views them as inferior and just as it has been done to them, it can be undone to them through a systemic approach to giving access to rigorous texts and tasks as well as providing the appropriate support and professional development needed for their teachers. You have either become comfortable accepting the status quo or comfortable disrupting it. Either way, you have made the choice in your heart many years ago that has led to the activity of your hands today.
3. We have made realities out of experiences. Finally, what you have experienced either first-hand or second-hand about students of color and their intellectual and social worth has become your reality. This reality is either unchecked by counter-narratives and reinforced by racist ideas through the media or the company you may keep, or it has been challenged and reversed, thus making you a believer in the inherent worth and ability of black and brown kids. A philosopher once said that "the unexamined life is not worth living." I believe that the unexamined experiences with students of color in classrooms creates unbreakable beliefs. When we turn deep emotional experiences about people into reality about them and others like them without actually processing the events, we are not learning. We are being traumatized. And in the end, we have no choice but to pass the trauma on to others...if we do not seek the aid of an intervention.
Despite all of those realities, you still are the one. You are the one that can make a difference in the lives of students of color. You just have to choose again (or keep choosing) to take the red pill. Therefore, in the last blog of this series, here are three actions you can take in order to begin to see the code in the walls of school buildings and systems. Here are three ways you can take the red pill:
1. Own up to your part. If students did not make gains against grade-level expectations, you are the reason why. In that sense, you need help. Inviting accountability into your instruction with students is key to actually helping to transform your practice. What I have found is that the biases that show up in instruction are almost blind to the teacher, but an outside observer notices them. These micro-decisions that restrict access to critical skill practice need to be identified and reversed. The process cannot start, however, if you still believe that what's wrong with students of color learning grade level content is actually their ability.
2. Educate yourself. We often say that we are trying to teach to the best of our ability, but we truly can only teach to the level of our capacity. Our capacity is a function of our learning - so we have to engage the work as students. Therefore, learn about the culture of the students you teach. Learn about how your culture has historically interacted with their culture. Think about how those ways may still inform how you interact with them, how your school reacts to them, and how your system allocates resources for them. Then, learn the standards of your state. You have to know these standards cold so that you will be able to actually judge whether or not students are practicing these skills or simply completing worksheets. Finally, know your content so well that you could write a book about it. Study each lesson plan so thoroughly that you could do it in your sleep and then sleepwalk to students having issues accessing the content and help them get up to speed in an efficient manner. Do the work of the lesson before students do. Have intellectual conversations with other teachers about the texts and tasks within your lesson plan(s). Ensure that you have mile deep knowledge of even just a few pages of content.
3. Invite students into your process. Finally, create the classroom you want with the students you teach. Talk to them at lunch and ask them to evaluate the lessons you teach. Ask them what their dreams are and what they would like to know more about. Inviting students into the process helps you come to an understanding of what really works for them and what doesn't.
It has been a pleasure to write in this space and it has been one of the joys of my career to have so many heartfelt responses to the ideas and suggestions put forth in these entries. It is my hope that if you do not remember anything else from a series that is focused on providing everyday equity in the classroom, you remember that great Baldwin quote: "For these are all our children—we will all profit by, or pay for, what they become." Because, as Dr. Ibram Kendi says ...
"The only thing wrong with black people is that we think there is something wrong with black people."
Peace to you all.