With the start of a new decade and all of the 10 year photo challenges going on, it is worth reflecting on what exactly has transpired over those years. In 2010 –just ten years ago– I was a 10th grade student. 16-year-old me had dreams of who she wanted to be, no idea of the work that dream entailed, but still believed that in the promise of education.
Along the way, I hit roadblocks, stumbled, considered giving up (and did) and even though the common narrative is that “you can’t be what you can’t see,” I became who I am, a first-generation college graduate, without having ever seen it.
Now, ten years have passed and I teach 10th graders that remind me of myself.
Given my rocky but ultimately successful path, I spend a significant amount of time framing academics in hopes that my students will buy into the idea of school like I did. I hope that they will see past their current circumstances and believe that they ultimately have the power to decide who they want to become, regardless of what societal or personal issues may stand in their way. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I don’t want to shield my students from the realities of racism, I want them to have the tools to go up against it.
“Reading Is for White People”
Many white progressives, when disparaging explicit methods of teaching will invoke Audrey Lorde’s famous quote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” They wield Lorde’s words to push impressionable young educators to neglect standardized tests because someone white created them. They seem to believe that using research is just white-settler colonialism, and reinforce the idea that teaching poor children to read using explicit and systematic phonics is infringing on their mental health because life is just too damn hard to expect kids to learn.
Lorde’s words have been taken out of context and reduced to a sound bite, for in the same speech Lorde says, “Survival… is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.”
In my class, we acknowledge what knowledge our cultures bring, but also what barriers will be in the way. I tell my students explicitly why I push academic writing in our essays. Not because one form of language is better or more worthy than the other, but because they need automaticity with both. If the people who currently run systems expect a certain type of writing, if they have a certain standard or expectation –white supremacy or not– tell your students as I’ve told mine: “This is what they expect and they have the power. Let’s master it and when you go out into the world and get into positions of power, you can make the change.”
Teaching My Students to Play the Game
For those of us currently in positions of power, I encourage you to reflect on how you got there. While we were taught to read classic texts that didn’t automatically relate to us, to write “academically,” and have academic discussions, somewhere along the line in the midst of privilege it was decided that the kids we teach don’t need that because… racism. In fact, withholding these skills, and in turn, power, is its own form of racism. You oppress children when you refuse to teach them what they need to access institutions of power.
Although school may be the only place where students can read for fun or play, in the same vein, it is also the only place they should be guaranteed to learn. Rather than confine our students to a life that they already know, we should adopt a stance that pushes them to dream further and in the words of Lisa Delpit, say to them, “You know a lot. I want you to know more.”
With this job comes the opportunity to influence my students the way that so many of my teachers did, even the teacher that told me I wasn’t a good enough writer. I’m becoming someone that I never imagined that I could be. I’m never perfect, some days I fail, and I can’t be everything to everyone. But, as the semester winds down and student schedules shift, I hope that when they cut through the noise of school my students know these three things about their teacher: that I saw them, I knew where they struggled, and I was committed to helping them be successful– now and in the future.