Where I’m From

I am from the motto: “Do you mean where I was born or where I live now?”
from here, there, and both at once
from the ROK with its morning calm
and the USA and patriotic fervor
but my heart belongs here in the PNW

I am from kimchi and rice
but also mashed potatoes and gravy
a goose mounted in the living room
and moon vases located in places of honor.
I am from wafts of Mom’s designer perfume
and camouflage ironed and hardened by starch,
spit-shined boots missed when absent

I am from roars of jets but always children laughing
the Mustang playground then the move to a fenced-in yard,
complete with weeds, neglected garden and
giant trees impossible to climb
but not from a lack of trying

I am from Hal-mi and the child she wounded
from Emos and Unnies and Dong-saengs
who claim me as their own
but see me as a foreigner
I am from indomitable Ans and selfless Jettes
and a baby brother who embodies both

I am born from a dying tradition
given up to new opportunities
with no love lost in-between

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Teaching is…a metaphor

Teaching is transforming old constructs.

When I started my college education, I did not expect everything I believed to be challenged. Some of those beliefs I have held on to steadfastly, while others have transformed and although some in my life would tell me I have been “brainwashed” by “liberal institutions” like the media and the university I attended, I know the transformations occurred because I was asked to look at and think critically of the social constructs that have shaped our lives and the ways in which Americans interact with each other.

This metaphor and the image that brought it to my mind is the reason I decided to become a teacher. One of the many responsibilities of teaching, as I have progressively learned over this past quarter, is to competently create and navigate a classroom and school community that is increasing diverse, with a myriad of strengths and weaknesses. Connecting my teacher education to my previous undergraduate education, and having the perspective that is a result of my life’s experiences, I can acknowledge that students are individuals with individual experiences, but also the products of greater forces at work: race, gender, government institutions that are inherently biased.

Margaret Buchmann calls teaching an act of taking up moral obligation to students, families, and communities. If we accept this as true, then it is our moral obligation to help students think critically about the social constructs that shape our daily lives and even for some, our fates. Why are certain people portrayed a certain way in movies and television? Why, when at the toy store, are certain toys advertised for boys and others advertised for girls? Are there certain people who are over represented in American prisons than in the larger population? If we decide these things are unjust, how do we go about fixing them? 

I am also reminded of Sir Ken Robinson’s idea of “Changing Paradigms” and his arguments for the “transformation” of the schooling structure. Indeed, I at first intended my metaphor to say “rebuilding,” but decided “transforming” would make more sense. “Rebuilding” sounds like tearing down and then putting up the same structure. It would not be enough to just analyze or “tear down” these social constructs. We would also need to help create citizens who leave our schools and make it their work to “transform” these unjust constructs into ideals of equity, social justice, and understanding.

“Rethinking our classrooms requires teachers to be activists, requires us to defend our right to engage students in a rich curriculum that promotes academic achievement and social justice.”

Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume 2

It’s Sunday and I’m excited to go to class tomorrow night. Yep, that’s right, I’m totally excited for SCHOOL. I usually am, but maybe it’s because class was cancelled last Monday that I’m a little over-the-top pumped. Or maybe I’m just really excited to finally discuss tracking and standardized testing and see what the group facilitating the discussion has in store for the rest of us.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I completed the readings for the tracking/standardized testing discussion, so I just went back and reviewed them, looking over the notes I’d left for myself in the margins. Next to the above quote, which I had emphatically underlined, I had written in the margin, “LOVE.” I’m reading it over and over again, like a mantra, and I’ve decided it’ll be my mission statement. The quote is intended as an introduction to the section, “Rethinking Assessment” so that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, both unconsciously and plain ol’ forcing myself to sit here and write it out.

I was tracked. I took many standardized tests, whether they were chapter tests given by my teachers or state tests proctored by those same teachers. I was tracked on honors/AP classes and I always did fairly well on those tests. In short, the system worked for me. And I didn’t question it because, well, I was a beneficiary of it and also, no one else questioned it. Not my fellow classmates, not my teachers. Even in fourth grade, I can remember being part of a “reading group,” and it was clear which one was the “able” reading group and which one was the “remedial” reading group. I don’t think there was ever any cruelty displayed to the students in the “remedial” reading group, it was simply generally acknowledged and accepted that they were “not that smart.” It never occurred to me as a child to question whether this was fair, or just, or even basically kind to think of other people this way. But I did it, and I wasn’t the only one. We knew, even then, there were the kids who would do well in fourth grade, in tenth grade, in college, and become respected professionals with a say in the world, with power. And we knew there were the kids who would, in some way, shape, or form, answer to us. I didn’t hate it then because I didn’t know how to. But I know how to now and I am capable of pointing to this system and saying that it cheats way too many of our students out of a fair and exceptional education.

I’ve heard the argument before that arguing against tracking implies a derogatory view of vocational schooling and careers. I give this argument some credence, because there certainly is an existing viewpoint that being a doctor is more respectable than being a vehicle mechanic. However, I have to ask: When our schools and teachers explicitly and implicitly tell some students they are smarter than others, doesn’t it create that viewpoint that doctors are more respectable than vehicle mechanics? Aren’t we creating that divide between our students by segregating the “able” from the “remedial” and then presenting one group with engaging, challenging, hands-on curriculum while spoon-feeding the other work that may suit their “ability level” but certainly not their intellectual capacity? 

I realize it’ll take more than public schools untracking their classrooms. Colleges and universities and their admittance policies also have to change so we can stop pressuring all of our students to adhere to a shallow version of intellectual ability and capacity and educational success.

There are more important things than doing well on a test. Being able to communicate with people from diverse backgrounds with respect, kindness, and empathy and engage in critical discussions seems to be one of those important things. I don’t think you can measure that on a multiple-choice test.

 

Poverty

The Beegle reading was a perspective of the issue of poverty I had not really been confronted with or considered before. In my experience as a student studying any topics concerning how institutions are structurally biased, poverty was inextricable from issues of race. Any discussions about poverty were built into discussions of race and the discussion was usually about how disproportionate numbers of minorities, particularly Blacks and Latinos, live in poverty.

While Beegle acknowledges this fact, she also made the argument that white is the only race that you can attach “trash” to and remain culturally acceptable. At first, I had an adverse reaction to this quote because I felt, and still to a certain degree feel that there is hesitancy to acknowledge that the privilege of being white encompasses more than economic privilege. However, the more I dwelled on it and especially after the group facilitation of this topic, I think I am taking more of Beegle’s argument to heart than I did before.

In order to eradicate systematic, inherited poverty, we have to stop making assumptions that white people who are poor are poor by choice. People in poverty, regardless of race, have to fight the same systemic issues in order to successfully meet their basic needs.

Education is almost universally acknowledged as being “the great equalizer.” The people within the institution, then, should make sure that we are, at the very least, the one place where being poor is not a barrier to success.

C18 as a Professional Community (an excerpt from Journal #3)

One of the joys and challenges of our UWB program is that we are already starting to set standards for ourselves as to what kind of teachers we will be. We have to uphold these standards for ourselves and I think we are beginning to expect that the rest of our cohort will be doing the same for themselves. Beyond our cohort, we should be able to hold our future co-teachers to similar standards and the moral, ethical obligations we hold inherent in teaching. We should be able to rely on each other for support the way I know my dad relied on his fellow Airmen during his time in service, the way my brother relies on his fellow firefighters and the way my artist boyfriend relies on his artist friends. This is not just friendship, it’s a mutual understanding of the work, the struggle, and the deeper call to participate in that particular field. If we are going to take up work like the work Lisa Delpit advocates, then I want to know that my work is being supported in the classroom next door and the teacher there and the teachers across the country have similar feelings of moral obligation to our students and to each other. Simultaneously, we have to share our success and failures and works-in-progress with each other and make our profession–the hours, the effort–more visible to the public. If we demand that the public treats us better and change popular opinion about our stature as a “real” career, then perhaps we should begin behaving like one as a whole.

I once attended a lecture given by Geoffrey Canada, and I remember specifically his opinions on one of the first steps we should take to improve schools in America–treat our teachers like the professionals we expect them to be. We do not expect doctors and computer scientists to run the same gamut year in and year out. We expect them to be innovative and try new things and take (acceptable) risks. And they get paid a corresponding salary. Why shouldn’t this be extended to teaching? We would never allow doctors to practice medicine or lawyers prosecute criminals without the appropriate credentials and experience; why should we allow teachers teach without proving dedication to this “role orientation” described by Buchmann:

“role-oriented teachers…placed themselves within a larger picture in which colleagues, the curriculum, and accountability figured in some fashion. They looked outwards rather than inward…[T]hey felt bound by obligations; the personal element in their responses was framed by a sense of the collective” (536).

It seems that while our work is easily ignored, we are highly susceptible to quick criticism and judgement. It seems unfair to me that people can freely insult what I do, think that my career choice is due to some personal failure, yet expect me to achieve the results promised to them by politicians and/or other well-meaning member of the education discussion, without paying me for the time and energy required by innovation. And it is easy for them to do this because the effects of our work are not immediate and definitely not immediately measurable. It is not life or death or life and imprisonment, but we are the difference between a thoughtful life and an unfulfilling life. Maybe this is overreaching, the bright-eyed optimism of a preservice teacher to think teachers have this kind of power and efficacy in an individual’s life. But if us teachers as a community want our profession to receive the respect we know it deserves, we should work to elevate its status by agreeing with each other that competency is a requirement, just like any other profession.

The more time I spend with this cohort in this specific program, the more complex my feelings and understanding of the profession become and I am asking questions just as fast as the information is coming in. Although I think that is one of the best benefits of having this cohort, I have to wonder how much push-back and hesitancy we are going to receive when we are out there as certified, practicing teachers. But I do feel encouraged that coming out of this cohort, I will not be the only advocate.

A Critical Incident

Last night’s discussion in 427 reminded me of something I wrote in my educational autobiography: the “critical incident” when I realized that my public education had not been multicultural, diverse, or very critically engaging. I thought I would post that part here, and also suggest that one easy way of making our curriculum multicultural is to make sure what we teach is inclusive of diverse peoples and cultures. Why shouldn’t we tell students from the get-go that the Mayans invented zero? I didn’t learn that until I read it in Delpit’s chapter from To Become a Teacher! Why not talk about Malcolm X in conjunction with MLK Jr, even if he is a more “controversial” figure of the Civil Rights Movement? And as Annie Johnston writes in “Out Front” in ROC Vol. 2, “Gay has to be integrated into our picture of current events, historical reality, literary themes, and scientific exploration. We need curriculum in which ‘gay’ is not relegated to the ‘Sexuality and Sexually Transmitted Diseases’ discussion in health and social living classes” (197). In just the same way, race and culture shouldn’t be relegated to specific months (Black History Month) or shallow “culture fairs” where kids choose a country and talk about the food eaten there. We should be “integrating” heroes, historical figures, previously marginalized viewpoints, artists, authors, and so on, into our curriculum so students see and feel how diverse experiences are truly ingrained in the larger American culture and experience.

The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I was shocked–shocked by its visceral language and the emotional reactions it incited in me with every page. But mostly, I was shocked that I had never heard of Toni Morrison. I was surprised because judging by the accolades this author and scholar and her novels had earned, I should have at least heard mention of her name. Yet here I was, a relatively educated individual who considered herself somewhat “well-read” in the classics of American literature, ignorant to the genius and prolific work of one of America’s most respected writers. In the context of the course, with the help of great material and a great instructor, I began to question Morrison’s conspicuous absence from my education. As I began to question, I began to decide: it was absolutely not okay that in the course of twelve years of public education and four years in high school honors and AP English classes for me to have never read Toni Morrison

This “critical incident” was the gateway to my pursuing teaching as a career. I realized how sheltered my education had been, how I had been taught only the prevailing, mainstream viewpoint of history and even though I had been lucky enough to have many great teachers, none of them had prepared for me for the intellectual challenge I faced in college. Why was I getting the feeling that everything I learned was wrong? I realized it felt “wrong” because it left out so many views: views of the oppressed, views of the minority, views of the marginalized. I ran across this quote by Morrison a few years ago and it has stuck with me ever since: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’” My family and I have been given certain privileges we did not necessarily earn. When I realized this and came to terms with what it meant about me, that is when I made the conscious choice to get into teaching.

When we fail to recognize children’s social identities, we erase fundamental aspects of who they are and who their families are.

— Ann Pelo, Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume 1, page 40

I was instantly drawn into Pelo’s article by the anecdote of the three little boys playing mother to their babies; besides agreeing with her assertions on the importance of cultural identity and thinking how innovative and intentional she and her staff were being with their research and curriculum planning, I drew a lot of inspiration from this reading. I drew inspiration from the knowledge that there are people, maybe especially in the education profession, who are as committed to inquisitive and explicit and relevant anti-bias work, in trying to create anti-bias attitudes in others, and in recognizing our own cultural identities and “perspectives” (40) in order to do this work, as I think we all ought to be.

On Monday, I was part of a group that co-facilitated a discussion on readings that addressed race/culture/diversity and equity in a schooling context. It was wrought with emotion, with discomfort, and it was quickly apparent to me that I’ve been relatively sheltered in this uber-liberal, politically engaged city. My opinions about race relations and the ways in which racism and sexism have been institutionalized are ones I learned from my undergraduate education in a liberal university, my political beliefs (very liberal), as well as my own experiences. They are the opinions of most, if not all, of my friends. They are the opinions I have accepted as factual and I defend them with vehemence.

So sitting in on some of my classmates’ discussions on Monday and hearing opinions that didn’t mirror my own was somewhat of a surprise. I might say I was even a little disappointed? Partly because I’m self-centered and I want everyone to agree with me and tell me how right I am, but mostly because I wanted to know that my fellow future-teachers would be as dedicated to being anti-“colorblind,” as I am. And as I was reading “Playing With Gender,” noting that Pelo lives and works in this wonderful city, I began forming explicit reasons for why I think the way I do, why I agree so much with Pelo’s analysis of the importance of culturally relevant and anti-bias work.

Living in a liberal, highly educated city means most of the people I know acknowledge that being white comes with certain privileges in America. This is not to group all individuals of one race together and assume they all share the same experiences, but to say that there are groups of people (with some exceptions, of course) who have been and continue to be excluded from educational, economical, democratic successes and are marginalized by our government and society.

I once had it explained to me by a professor, who was explaining a reading (and of course I can’t remember the author), that being white is the “normative,” and everything else is the “other.” And because white is the norm, and because of the historical actions that created and protected the hierarchy of race, the inherent benefits of being white that we often think are a thing of the past has actually continued and is just as relevant today as it was during the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s hard to label whites as being privileged, because there are many people from many different backgrounds who are also privileged and there are innumerable white people who live in the margins, but I think it’s impossible to ignore the concreteness of white privilege (even while it’s a complex, often abstracted issue). One thing I would posit is that white people are judged little by the color of their skin; since white is the norm, everyone accepts that white people  should be differentiated by their individual identities. Do black, teenaged boys get this same privilege? A white privilege is not to be held to a stereotype as other races are; a white privilege is that everyone accepts that white people are different from each other. On the other hand, people of color often have similar experiences and while we often quickly identify with someone else from our minority group, it’s still disheartening to be held to a stereotype knowing you possess an individual identity that exists without those stereotypes.

If anyone actually reads my little ramblings here, I hope they don’t assume I’m hostile to white people or that I think white people should be punished for their privileges. I think hostility towards people who are white because they are white is misdirected hostility towards the institutionalization and inherency of the benefits of being white. I just think if you are lucky enough to have any privilege at all, you should make sure that privilege stops being a privilege and make sure it becomes the norm. Also, these same arguments could be made for the state of gender equality in this country. Boy, do men have it good. 😉