Education Opinion

All Together Now

By Gregory Michie — February 01, 2002 25 min read
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After Sept. 11, many wanted schools to promote American values, not multi-
culturalism. But a Chicago educator who trains teachers has discovered that diversity is the stuff of democracy.

Two dozen 18-year-olds from across Illinois sit circled inside a classroom on DePaul University’s main campus, nestled among the pricey greystones and trendy taverns of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. All are fresh out of high school, plan to become teachers, and are here to participate in a six-week summer institute—part of a scholarship program—that immerses them in city schools in the mornings and educational coursework in the afternoons. This class is called Diversity, and I—white, male, middle-class, and heterosexual—am the facilitator. On the face of it, not exactly a recipe for success.

Around the room, I’ve posted sheets of paper on the walls, each with a different heading, including: Puerto Ricans, people with disabilities, women, Muslims, and suburbanites. Each paper is covered with multicolored Post- It notes on which my students have scribbled stereotypes they’ve heard, at some point in their lives, about the listed group.

I ask for volunteers, and three come forward. I explain that I want them to walk along the wall, one at a time, pull a note from each category they identify with, then read it aloud and attach it to themselves. It’s an activity designed to show how indiscriminately stereotypes can be applied—one I stole from a corporate diversity trainer. As was the case during my nine years of teaching middle school, few of my lessons for this class are true originals. I come up with one or two really good new ideas each year, but everything else is borrowed, recycled, or straight-up swiped.

Illustration by Matt Collins.

I recognize, of course, that the categories on the wall have a certain falseness about them. Though it’s true, for example, that I’m white, male, middle-class, and all the rest, there’s also more to me than any one of those labels—or any combination of them—might suggest. Over the course of six weeks, I plan to delve into these complexities more deeply with my students. But we have to start somewhere, so today, we’re labeling.

“My name is Sherelle. I’m African American, so I’m loud,” the first volunteer says as she plucks a note and places it on her shirt. She continues down the line, pulling off stickies and reading them as she goes. “I’m poor, so I live off the government. I’m a female, so I’m a bad driver. And I’m from a small town, so I’m closed-minded.”

The two others follow. “I’m Luis. I’m a male, so I’m a jerk. I’m an immigrant, so I steal jobs from Americans. I’m a city kid, so I’m dangerous. And I’m Mexican, so I drive around in cars with 15 people inside.”

“My name is Jenny. I’m from the suburbs, so I’m spoiled. I’m white, so I’m a racist. And I’m Catholic, so I’m—" She does a double take. “Sexually repressed?” The others laugh as Jenny reluctantly slaps the Post-It on her Chest.

After several more students walk the line, we spend half an hour talking about how it felt to write down the stereotypes, to hear them read, and to have them applied to each other. Some students share personal experiences of being unfairly lableled bcause of skin color, accent, or religious beliefs. The conversation then shifts to how such stereotypes might impact them as teachers.

“It’s just sad to know that there’s people out there who really think those things,” Jenny says. Several of the white students—who make up about half the class—nod in agreement.

“What do you mean, ‘out there’?” Sherelle shoots back. “There’s people in here who really think those things.” That’s right, I say in my head. Sherelle and myself included.

“Well, I just think people are people and kids are kids,” says Jenny. “I don’t care what color my students are. I love children. They’re all the same to me.”

When I agreed to take on the Diversity course in the summer of 1998, I wasn’t sure what I’d gotten myself into. I first witnessed racial intolerance at a young age—growing up in North Carolina during the early years of forced busing—so I’d long believed that educating about human differences should be an integral part of what schools do. And I’d taught 7th and 8th graders in Chicago since 1990, so I’d also seen first-hand how issues of race, class, culture, and language impact children’s lives, both inside and outside the classroom. But how to pass these understandings on to future teachers was something I hadn’t much considered.

Before I took over, the class was known as Multiculturalism, and the course catalog stated that it was designed to focus on “celebrating the varied ethnic composition” of students in urban schools. Despite this sunny description, racial tensions had boiled over in the class during the summer of ’97, resulting in hard feelings and deep divisions among some participants. The situation was so tense that the program’s director considered dropping the course from the next summer’s schedule. When I offered to give it a shot, he relented.

The events of September 11 thrust multiculturalism back into the political cross-fire.

Some may wonder, why offer a class on multiculturalism at all? If young people want to be teachers, why not give them a head start on lesson planning or instructional methods or classroom management—something they can use? The trouble is, you can’t teach a lot of that stuff. The only way to really learn the craft is to do it. So the basic problem with being a “teacher educator”—a title I’ve uncomfortably adopted since leaving full-time classroom duties in 1999—is that the term itself is something of an oxymoron.

Still, we ought to be able to impart something to aspiring educators. But what? It’s a question that continually troubles instructors in teacher-prep programs. Although many agree that the answer should include some sort of multicultural component, just what that should look like has been the subject of much debate.

Born in the 1970s out of the civil rights struggle, the multicultural movement spent much of the ’80s being dogged by critics on both the right and the left. But the political correctness of the ’90s brought widespread acceptance and, with it, a predictable watering down of multiculturalism’s more radical elements. By decade’s end, the term had been adopted by so many textbook publishers, school districts, and professional-development consultants that it didn’t mean much of anything. As with phrases like “children first,” it became ubiquitous, non-threatening, and—ultimately—empty.

The events of September 11, 2001, changed all that, thrusting multiculturalism back into the political cross-fire. The terrorist attacks reinvigorated those on both sides of the divide, arousing supporters and detractors alike to re- stake their ground and refresh their arguments. “Those people who said we don’t need multiculturalism, that it’s too touchy-feely, a pox on them,” Judith Rizzo, deputy chancellor for instruction in New York City’s public schools, told a conference audience while discussing bias incidents shortly after the attacks. “I think they’ve learned their lesson. We have to do more to teach habits of tolerance, knowledge, and awareness of other cultures.”

But if opponents of multicultural education indeed had learned their lesson, they weren’t letting on. If anything, they were circling the wagons. Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, said in a speech to the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture that, rather than embracing multiculturalism, schools should place a stronger emphasis on teaching American history. And Diane Ravitch, in an Education Week commentary last October, blasted the notion that a renewed commitment to multicultural education was an appropriate response to the tragedy. “The implication is that this unprecedented atrocity was caused by a failure in the schools’ curriculum, rather than by heartless, inhumane terrorists,” Ravitch wrote. She added later: “I suggest that what our schools must do is teach young people the virtues and blessings of our democratic system of government. Our ability to defend what we hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of it.”

In the weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I visited several elementary schools to observe new teachers, and I didn’t see much evidence that Ravitch and Cheney need worry. What I saw instead were lots of flags. Big flags, little flags, quilted flags, painted flags. The flag frenzy was so intense that a friend who teaches in a predominantly Mexican American community—and who doesn’t display the Stars and Stripes in her classroom—got a letter of reprimand from a substitute who’d taken exception to her apparent lack of patriotic spirit. “Your students look to you for direction,” the note concluded. “In the mist [sic] of a national crisis our schools must instill unity in our students.” It was the first time I’d ever heard of a teacher being admonished by a sub, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. As countless politicians have reminded us in recent months, extraordinary times inspire extraordinary measures.

When I talk with my students about the kind of teaching I believe in—teaching with a critical edge, with a political consciousness, with cultural relevancy—I never tell them it’s easy.

But it’s easy to sneer at such blatant nationalism. What’s harder—extraordinary times or not—is to actually do something different, to nurture a classroom experience that is engaging and meaningful to kids, and that doesn’t sell out to mainstream blandness. During my years as a middle school teacher, I struggled with that constantly. My efforts to help my students think critically, to provoke them to examine the constraints and possibilities of their lives, were far too sporadic. I’d rock the boat one day, then bail water for the next three.

As a teacher-educator, I still spend a lot of time bailing, but I’ve discovered that one of my strengths is an ability to empathize—not because of any inherent goodness on my part, but because I’ve fallen on my face so regularly in my own classrooms. When I talk with my summer students about the kind of teaching I believe in—teaching with a critical edge, with a political consciousness, with cultural relevancy—I never tell them it’s easy. I only tell them it’s possible.

“OK, I want everybody to find a partner.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, a few students are already dragging chairs across the carpeted floor. “But hold up,” I add. “One condition: I need you to pair up with somebody who identifies racially the same way you do.” The chair-draggers slam on the brakes.

At this point, it would be easier to say, “OK, white people pair up with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos,” and get on with it. But because we’ve been discussing the complexity of identity in general, and of racial identity in particular, I don’t want to take the easy way out. So I repeat: “Find a partner who identifies racially the same way you do.”

Silent confusion reigns for a couple of seconds. “Oh, you mean like black people with blacks and whites with whites?” someone asks. I grin and shrug my shoulders, then watch as the students begin to pair up. Some move haltingly. Others uncomfortably survey the room. Though they’ve acknowledged in the past that they self-segregate at certain times—in the dorms, on weekends, during social events—being asked to do so obviously has made some people self-conscious.

After they’ve settled on partners, I check to make sure everybody’s ready: two Mexicans here, a Korean and a Filipino there, two African Americans next to them, and—this being a group of future teachers—pairs of young white women all over the place.

Part of what I try to do in the Diversity class is wake teenagers up a bit, push them to consider ideas they may not have thought about before and, in doing so, clarify their reasons for teaching. This is especially important for white students, many of whom—though certainly not all—come from comfortable suburban subdivisions or two-stoplight towns. While such places are saddled with unfair stereotypes of their own, the opportunities they provide for whites to interact with people of other races or cultures are often minimal. Many white students enter the class with cheery attitudes and good intentions, but they’re usually expecting the sort of rah-rah positiveness associated with superficial gestures toward multiculturalism. Sing a stanza of “We Are the World,” and be done with it.

Part of what I try to do in the Diversity class is wake teenagers up a bit, push them to consider ideas they may not have thought about before.

Jenny’s comment during the stereotyping activity exemplifies such an attitude. When she said it didn’t matter what color her students might be, that they all would be the same in her eyes, I wasn’t surprised. I hear variations on that theme every summer, and I know there are other students in the program who agree with Jenny. They hear her words not as an expression of naiveté, but as the crystallization of why they want to teach in the first place: They love kids. All kids. That’s not only the summation of their budding philosophies of education—it’s the whole thing. Part of my job is to help them see that, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with loving children, teaching is about a lot more than just that.

This is not to say I tailor my lessons to white students. Teenagers of color come in with their own limited experiences, and whether the topic is race, religion, or sexual orientation, it soon becomes clear that bigotry knows no boundaries. But as a white person myself—one who has struggled to comprehend both racism and the unearned privileges I’ve received because of it—I feel an added responsibility to help white students become more aware of their blind spots. In that sense, being a white, middle-class, straight, male instructor has its advantages. I can ask students to confront racism without whites being able to dismiss me as an angry African American or Latino. I can also have them wrestle with homophobia without straight kids thinking I’m doing so out of a personal agenda. In other words, it’s harder for those who need to open their eyes to simply turn away.

I display a poster at the front of the room, then pass out a photocopy of it to each pair. It’s a collage of notable African Americans—120 of them, to be exact. Pictured are historical leaders such as Marcus Garvey and Mary McLeod Bethune, athletes and entertainers like Josh Gibson and Billie Holiday, and contemporary figures, as well—Mae Jemison, Louis Farrakhan, Kweisi Mfume. But no one is identified by name; each photo is accompanied only by a number.

I tell the pairs they have 15 minutes to see how many people they can identify. Renee and Karen, two white students seated next to me, simultaneously blow out exasperated breaths. “Oh yeah,” I add. “And these people don’t count.” I reel off a list of names—Michael Jordan, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, James Brown, and Malcolm X among them—that I think even someone who’s been in perpetual hibernation should recognize. “Thanks,” says Ryan, another white student. “You just disqualified everybody I knew.”

‘I can’t believe how much I don’t know,’ a student confides at the end of one class.

The next quarter-hour is a study in contrasts. Most pairs of African Americans struggle to recall faces, whispering names to one another, reminding themselves of each person’s claim to fame, and writing constantly. With few exceptions, everybody else just stares at their papers, shaking their heads.

“I think I know her. I just can’t remember who she is.”

“This guy looks familiar, but . . . ”

“This is embarrassing,” says Ryan, who I note has incorrectly identified Maya Angelou as Aretha Franklin.

When time is up, I call on Jonathan and Rodney to give thumbnail sketches of a few of the 55 people they were able to identify. Sarah and Jalisha then do the same with some of the 40-odd names they wrote down. The scores for most of the white, Latino, and Asian duos aren’t so impressive: six names, nine, seven. And some black students are disappointed at their own lack of knowledge. “That’s a shame,” Nicole says to a friend. “At least these other people have an excuse. I’m black. I should know this stuff.”

Of course, identifying famous faces isn’t the same as having in-depth knowledge of the African American experience, and I reassure the class that I’m not advocating a names-and-dates approach to teaching history. The poster is intended to symbolize what’s missing in the curriculum, and they seem to get the point.

“I can’t believe how much I don’t know,” Ryan confides to me at the end of class. If that’s the only thing he gets out of these six weeks, I think to myself, it will still have been time well spent.

I’m teaching two classes of Diversity back-to-back this afternoon, and the first one, which just ended, blew up in my face. After watching a documentary video about California’s Proposition 187, whose proponents in the mid-’90s sought to deny education and other public services to undocumented immigrants, things got ugly fast. “I don’t want to sound harsh,” said Lance, an African American from rural Illinois, “but there’s a lot of black people in this country who are Americans who need help. If these people are coming here looking for a free ride, they need to look somewhere else. We have enough problems of our own.”

Despite Lance’s disclaimer, his words did sound harsh, especially to many Latinos in the room. And after two other black students echoed his feelings, the session degenerated into an awkward and sometimes confrontational back-and-forth. I tried to steer the conversation in a more productive direction but with little effect. Arguments didn’t exactly divide along racial lines: Keisha and Gabrielle, two vocal African American females, openly challenged Lance’s views, and most of the white and Asian kids just kept quiet. But the air was thick with tension and, without question, racially charged. Worst of all, I could tell that some students had simply shut down, that too much was being left unsaid.

While teaching Diversity, I’m always a little on edge because I know that when you mix controversial topics with passionate feelings, there’s the chance that a fuse might get lighted. But I’d never before felt this uneasy. It was one of the few times that I was actually watching the clock, begging the 90 minutes to hurry up and end.

Now, as the next class saunters in, I’m wondering if I should even show the video again. Part of me realizes that conflict is inevitable in this type of course and that I shouldn’t try to avoid it. Another part, worried that bad feelings from the last class will spill over into dorm rooms, doesn’t want to risk making things worse. One of my many aims in Diversity is to help build solidarity among students of color, to provide opportunities for them to see common threads in their experiences. I certainly don’t want to cause deeper divisions. But after weighing both options, I decide to go ahead with the video. It’s a powerful work—one I think my students should see.

When you mix controversial topics with passionate feelings, there’s a chance that a fuse might get lighted.

Directed and narrated by a Los Angeles teacher, Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary looks at the impact of California’s anti-immigrant initiative on students, teachers, and community members at Hoover Street Elementary School. Although Proposition 187 was eventually shot down in the courts, the xenophobic fervor it stirred up took on a life of its own, and the film depicts the damaging effects on the children of undocumented workers. In one scene, a white librarian tells five Latino students that he’s watched conditions in the area get progressively worse as more and more immigrants arrive. For example, there’s now litter on the ground where there used to be none, he says. “It’s my country,” he tells the kids, “and I want to take care of it.” One child, stung by the librarian’s words, snaps back: “It’s not yours. It’s everybody’s.” I’ve seen the film many times, but it never fails to leave me feeling frustrated and sad and outraged all at once.

After the video ends, the room is silent for what seems like five minutes. No one says a word. As I flip the lights back on, I notice that some of the Latino students are wiping away tears. Omar, a Mexican American who’s said little in class all summer, slips out the door and into the hall. I’m bracing myself for another nasty confrontation.

As with the last class, it’s black students who eventually get the discussion rolling, but instead of kicking things off with defensive comments, they ask questions: What’s the process immigrants have to go through to become citizens? What’s a green card? Is there anything like Proposition 187 in Illinois? It’s a gesture that opens up dialogue rather than shutting it down, and the conversation that follows has an entirely different feel. Latino students share their personal knowledge of immigration law, and others listen and learn.

As the discussion continues, Omar returns to the classroom, his eyes red. A few minutes later, he tentatively raises his hand.

“I don’t wanna talk about the law right now, or about how people get their papers,” Omar tells the group. “I wanna talk about my family.” As soon as he gets these words out, he is convulsed in tears, openly sobbing. Judy, a Korean American whose father also immigrated to the United States, takes Omar’s hand and holds it. Tears begin falling from her eyes, too. “I just went out in the hall and cried for five minutes,” Omar continues, his voice trembling, “because I can’t understand how there can be that much hate. I don’t understand how people can have so much hatred for defenseless people who don’t know their rights.”

Omar’s words spur others to share personal accounts. Across the room, Nelly tells of her father’s struggle to provide for their family. “He’s a landscaper, and everybody sees that as a degrading job,” she says, starting to cry. “They look down on him. But he’s an honest, hard worker.” She and Manny, both from Mexican immigrant families, hold each other and slowly rock back and forth.

“My father will come up to me when I’m watching TV or something,” says Judy, still hanging on to Omar, “and he’ll hold out his hands, and they’re really rough, ’cause he had to do a lot of manual labor when he first came over here. And he’ll tell me: ‘Feel these hands. This is what I’ve sacrificed for you.’”

Then Carlton, an African American who grew up in a Chicago public-housing development, raises his hand. “I just want to say that I have a lot of respect for Omar, and for the rest of you whose families have had to struggle like that. And it’s hard for me to believe that this country . . . ” His voice breaks off, and his eyes, too, begin welling up. He gathers himself. “If being an American means having that kind of hatred against another group,” he continues, “then I don’t want to call myself an American. I just . . . ” He chokes up and, unable to continue, waves his hand as if to tell the rest of us to carry on. At this point, my eyes aren’t dry either.

‘If being an American means having that kind of hatred against another group,’ a student pronounces, ‘then I don’t want to call myself an American....’

Tears, I realize, do not necessarily equate with learning. A bunch of crying teenagers might make for good ratings on Oprah, but it doesn’t automatically translate into a meaningful educational experience. This class is supposed to be about edification, after all, not therapy.

But as the period winds down, and the talk circles back to equity issues in schools, I sense that the students are making connections. Perhaps a purely academic discussion about immigration would have produced the same results, but I doubt it. Could the white and black kids in the class really begin to understand the ramifications of an initiative such as Proposition 187 without hearing stories like Omar’s, Nelly’s, and Judy’s?

The positive vibe that’s emerged from this group has picked up my spirits, but in the back of my mind, I’m still recalling the meltdown in the earlier class. When it’s time to go, I decide to walk over to the dorm to check on a few people. On the way, I hear someone say that Diversity is the first class she’s ever taken in which she’s learned as much from other students as from the teacher. I consider that a compliment.

“This class has been an eye-opening experience,” Melissa begins. It’s our final session of the summer, and we’re back in our circle of chairs, listening as each student shares parting thoughts. “Even though I’ve always viewed everyone as the same, and never had any biases or anything, it was still good to hear about the prejudices other people have.”

One of the wonderful, and maddening, things about teaching is that you never know in advance what impact your work will have—or if it will have any at all. Whether you’re working with kindergartners or adults, 8th graders or college students, you undertake what you do, as educator and activist William Ayers puts it, “with hope and purpose but without guarantees.” I’ve learned from teaching Diversity these past four years—and this is not such a mind-blowing revelation—that the class is experienced differently by different people. What students take away from it depends, in some measure, on what they brought to it.

“I feel guilty and ignorant to an extent,” says Andre. “I used to get all wrapped up in thinking that African Americans were the only neglected people in this country. But now I see that Hispanics are going through similar things every day. I guess I learned that we all face issues. Nobody has an easy road.”

If students leave my classes feeling more committed to respecting differences among people, to listening to alternate views, to learning more about other cultures, I won’t complain.

Juana is next. “One thing I was shocked about at the beginning was that there were people here who had never really come in contact with Mexicans before,” she says. “But it was exciting in a way, ’cause I wanted to share my culture with them. I wanted to let them know how beautiful it is and how beautiful we are as a people.”

“I think I came in here thinking racism was dead,” Sadie admits. “But now I see it’s just more silent and subtle. I guess I was one of the ‘sugarcoaters’ who just tried to cover up the problems and pretend they weren’t there. But they are, you know? And now that we’re gonna be the teachers, we have to do something to change that.”

At a forum I recently attended on zero-tolerance policies, an audience member objected to the notion that schools can be reformed in any meaningful way. Trying to change practices and policies is pointless, he said, because the public school system was created to subjugate and control the masses, not educate them. In his estimation, the only real solution, the only way to truly change things, is through revolution—a complete overthrow of the capitalist system. Anything less is mere window dressing.

If I could write a guy like that off as a wacked-out Marxist, my work as an educator would be far less complicated. But I can’t. On many levels, I agree with him. I know that too much of what I do—both with middle school students and future teachers—is simplistic and superficial. I’ve heard people say that, in classes like Diversity, teachers spend too much time on identity issues— looking at things from an individual, psychological perspective—and not enough on institutional oppression and structural barriers to equality. They may be right. But, as I said before, I have to start somewhere. If I hit students with white privilege and colonialism on Day One, a few might be ready, but those who aren’t might permanently tune out. And once people stop listening, what can you teach them?

If students leave my Diversity classes feeling more committed to respecting differences among people, to listening to alternate views, to learning more about other cultures, I won’t complain. The world isn’t such a kind place sometimes—a fact that was evident even before September 11—and I’m all for any effort that promotes greater understanding. It may sound corny, and educators at both ends of the political spectrum may scoff, but it’d be hard to deny that such empathy is needed.

What matters is helping aspiring teachers begin to see schools as arenas of struggle and to see themselves as people who can bring about change.

Of course it’s not all that’s needed, and that’s where efforts that call themselves multicultural often come up short. According to the editors of Rethinking Schools, a quarterly journal that focuses on issues affecting urban classrooms, multicultural education should be about much more than nods to diversity and tolerance. “At its best,” they write in a recent issue that looks back on the movement’s 30 years, “multiculturalism is an ongoing process of questioning, revising, and struggling to create greater equity in every nook and cranny of school life. . . . And it is part of a broader movement to create a more equitable society. It is a fight against racism and other forms of oppression. . . . It is a fight for economic and social justice.”

I have no illusions that I achieve such lofty goals with my Diversity classes, but I know that’s the kind of education I’m after. Call it multiculturalism, call it teaching for social justice, call it what you want— labels don’t matter all that much.

What matters is helping aspiring teachers begin to see schools as arenas of struggle and to see themselves as people who can bring about change. What matters is helping them understand that there’s no such thing as a neutral classroom, that teaching, by its very nature, is a political act. We’re all teaching for and against something, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. Though I doubt they’d ever admit it, those who rant and rave against multiculturalism understand that all too well.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2002 edition of Teacher as All Together Now


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