Our Most Important Conversation: Equity

This post was also published in The Paper Graders.

This post has been percolating for a while now, ever since I left NCTE in Houston.

Until now, all I’ve been able to cobble together so far are a few disconnected notes in my writer’s notebook:

  • I need to sit with my discomfort.
  • I’m a teacher with privilege OF privileged
  • What can I do?
  • What does it mean to be a good ally?
  • I can’t be so terrified that I’ll mess something up that I don’t even start.
  • When I don’t actively disrupt, I perpetuate.
  • I thought I got it, that I understood the issues. But I have so much to learn.

That last one is the one that’s been nagging at me most.

See, I’m writing a book right now. I’ve been working on it–with the care of a very patient, supportive, and insightful editor–for about 3 and a half years. It’s about grading practices that support readers and writers better than the typical percentage/points-based approach.

I’m writing the book to share what I’ve learned on my classroom journey over the last few years as I’ve worked to circumvent the negative impact that traditional grading was having on my students. I want to place the book meaningfully in the most important conversation we are having right now about education: equity.

My thinking about why the book matters really started coming together after seeing Cornelius Minor talk at CEL in 2017. I had this a-ha moment: grading practices are one of the many places oppression hides in schools. If we don’t actively change our grading practices, we perpetuate the grades-for-compliance exchange that organizes schooling by forcing students to work for grades, and it hurts our students. All of them.

Some students buy in to what they get in the grades-for-compliance exchange. Instead of focusing on learning, they focus on point collecting to get what they want out of the exchange–grades they can cash in for college admissions or car insurance discounts or scholarships.

Other students don’t buy in to what they get in the grades-for-compliance exchange (or the tricks of point collecting are a mystery to them). They end up with constant reminders that school is not for them because they remain, perpetually, on the bad end of the grade scale.

In neither case are students actually focusing on the important learning they need to do.

Last weekend, I finally read Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. I’ve had it since NCTE. In the chaos of the end of the semester I just didn’t get to it until now. I read it within about 36 hours in between the various tasks that filled up my last weekend of the semester break. It’s powerful pedagogy. I love his call–through what he terms “reality pedagogy”–to teach in ways that work for the kids who are sitting in front of us. He challenges us to actively seek to understand who they are and how they think and what matters to them, bringing into the classroom their culture in ways that show them that who they are matters. He offers concrete methods for doing this, and the stories from his classroom and the classrooms he’s worked with are inspiring portraits of what’s possible in classrooms across this country.

Here’s where I need to wrestle with my privilege. I’m white. I teach (and live) in a college town in Colorado with a healthy tech industry. It’s a safe place to live. I have miles of hiking trails about a ten-minute walk from my front door.

The school where I teach is also a ten-minute walk from my front door. Though Colorado’s school funding is abysmal, things are better here thanks to high property values and voters who nearly always say yes when the school district asks for funding. My district has one of the highest salary schedules in the state, which draws really strong candidates anytime we need to hire for a position.

My school is one of the best public schools in Colorado (based on test scores, high #s of national merit finalists, low #s of our students who need remedial courses in college, continual success of athletics and fine arts, and a vibrant set of extra-curricular activities). We have the books and supplies we need in general. You should see the million-dollar mountain view out of the nearly floor-to-ceiling school library windows–the heart of the school. As teachers, we have a lot of freedom from a stable administration that supports innovation. My job is pretty secure. My life is pretty secure.

This post, by Tricia Ebarvia, has helped me to identify the thinking I need to do. I’m grateful for her honest and insightful writing on this topic. She articulates things I didn’t even really realize I needed to be thinking about. Because here’s the thing: I thought I got it.

I grew up in an urban neighborhood in Denver. I went to schools with classrooms full of kids of all colors and varying socio-economic status. My family decided to move to the suburbs right before my 9th grade year, so my high school experience was in a less diverse school. By the time I was finishing up college and looking to do my student teaching semester, I chose to go back to my roots, to an urban high school, where I would be surrounded by the diversity my life had lacked since my family chose to leave the city eight years before. After that, my first three years of teaching were in a high school just outside of Seattle in a district more diverse than the schools where I’ve taught since. Even so, due to my early years of growing up in a city surrounded by diversity, I thought I got it.

But what I was missing was this: my slice of the city life during my childhood was a privileged one.

I have always been grateful that my childhood was stable, my home life secure, that I had everything I needed. My parents struggled to pay for college, but it is a privilege that I had parents who even could pay for college.

I got out of college with zero debt and the title to the car I had been driving for the previous few years. I didn’t have much money, but I was steeped in the wide-open possibilities that someone of privilege takes for granted. Yes, the idea that I could move wherever I wanted, find a place to live, and get a job was a certainty that I didn’t question.

So I took off to launch my adult life. The journey I started just a few weeks after I finished college led me through three states, two school districts, one master’s degree, and almost nine years before I made my way back home with a husband and daughter collected along the way. Rather than settling in Denver, or in the suburbs where my parents were still living, we chose the college town, and here we’ve been ever since.

I know this is an excellent place to raise a kid (strong schools, safe neighborhoods, healthy activities, easy access to healthy food), and I do not regret that this is where my daughter’s childhood memories reside. But in choosing to be HERE, throwing our money into the local economy, weaving our way into this community and fitting in to what it is, we perpetuate what it is.

I live in a mostly white community that considers itself progressive but is largely clueless about actual diversity because we don’t see much of it as we move through our lives from day to day. As such, we contribute to social stratification based on race, even within our own community.

So while I thought I got it, what I was missing was this: I have so much to learn.

I have, over the years, found myself defending my school and community from people who write both off because of the privilege people assume is there. The privilege IS there, yes. But we also have some of the challenges that more diverse communities have. In the 13 years I’ve taught in my school, our population of students of color has grown from around 15% to around 25%. Our free and reduced lunch students have grown from around 4% to around 10%. We’re adding resources we didn’t have before to support students we didn’t have before.

The changes in our student demographics are notable, but mostly, I do teach the privileged. I can keep doing what we have always done because it’s easier and it works (if our test scores are the indicator), but then I have to own the ways I’m perpetuating a system that will produce citizens who will go on to perpetuate social structures that oppress humans. As Cornelius Minor explained in his 2017 CEL keynote address, systems are like machines that keep operating until someone actively turns them off. If I don’t actively work to disrupt the way the systems of our society run, they will keep on running, and I will be complicit in that.

Back to my notes in my writer’s notebook–what can I do?

  • Educate myself. It is not the job of the people of color in my life to teach me about diversity or the need to decolonize schools or how to examine my own privilege and bias. I must do this work myself. I’m reading about it. I’m following conversations in Twitter about it. I’m attending conference presentations about it. I’m writing about it.
  • Listen. When I do find myself with an opportunity to hear from a human typically marginalized by our world about their experiences within it, I shut up and listen, even if what they say challenges the way I’ve always understood this world to be. ESPECIALLY when what they say challenges me.
  • Seek stories of others. In 2019, I will read books written by marginalized voices wherever possible. If I hope to create a classroom that disrupts the way my students move in our world so they can disrupt oppressive systems, I have to break apart/ disrupt/ problematize the understandings of our world I carry with me, one story at a time.
  • Speak up. This is the one that I know will challenge me the most. But I must, despite how terrified I am that I’ll mess something up. (There’s my privilege again–if I choose to stay silent, my life goes on as it has, safe and secure with plenty of opportunity for me and my family. Many don’t have the privilege to stay silent.) I must speak up, wherever I can, both in and out of my classroom. I love this call to be a co-conspirator rather than an ally:

Being a co-conspirator—forget “ally”—means thinking about the areas in which you have power and privilege and then actively, consistently using your voice to advocate in those areas you have power and privilege to make visible those who are marginalized. (Thread)— Tricia Ebarvia (@triciaebarvia) November 20, 2018

Friends, lives are at stake here.

Our country’s heart and soul are at stake here.

Yes, there are a lot of conversations in education that are important, but THIS one trumps all of them. I really see no point in doing any work right now as an educator that does not help us down the road toward equity in our schools as intentional work toward equity in our world.

I need to create classrooms that show my marginalized students that their voices matter. I need to create students who will use their voices to speak up for the marginalized in our world. I know that grading practices sit at the center of this because what we emphasize with our grading is what we are showing our students is most important. Competing for points to cash in for grades at any cost? Or using grades to get students focused on the literacy skills they need to hone to be full agents of their own futures?

I need to keep examining my own biases, privileges, blind spots, and misunderstandings of human experience. I need to actively seek the places where I am complicit with structures that oppress and marginalize so I know where I can resist. I need to invite my students to do this work too.

I want to close this post by pointing you to some of the resources that have been useful for me beyond what I’ve already mentioned in this post (and please send me yours in the comments):

  • The teachers behind #DisruptTexts are inviting important conversations about the texts we choose to teach. And they are four teachers heavily involved in equity work beyond the #DisrtuptTexts work. If you’re not already following them in Twitter so you can read their threads and blog posts and see the resources they share, you should be (that’s Tricia EbarviaLorena GermánDr. Kimberly N. Parker, and Julia Torres.
  • I lurk in Twitter more than I tweet. Aside from the #DisruptTexts Twitter gold on the issue of equity and decolonization, there’s also the conversations happening around the #ClearTheAir hashtag. I’ve found several folks there that have been important for my thinking, like Val Brown and Christie Nold.
  • Maja Wilson’s book, Reimagining Writing Assessment from Scales to Stories, breaks down the damage of any grade scale that we might use in the classroom. They’re all nothing more than a good/bad binary, and we can’t divorce them from their insidious roots in the birth of the educational measurement movement. Wilson shows that around the beginning of the 20th century, with the influx of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, very early efforts of educational measurement used scales to justify social stratification for the benefit of keeping some in the higher ranks of society and others in the lower ranks. The ranking we do in schools via grades (or any other scale we use on a rubric, for example) continues to do this. I’m hoping my book will help teachers figure out ways to avoid continuing this damage.
  • I love the powerful optimism and practical strategies for making change in Cornelius Minor‘s We Got This. I have already given it to the teacher I’m mentoring at school and will be talking about it with a group of colleagues later this week.
  • And everything I’ve got here, on a Pinterest board. I’m collecting Twitter posts/threads and articles I come across that help me think about equity.

How are you doing this work? How can we work together on it?

As always, thanks for reading.

One Comment on “Our Most Important Conversation: Equity

  1. Pingback: Attempting to #DisruptTexts in AP Lit | Sarah M. Zerwin

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