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Teaching Opinion

Beyond the Curriculum: Educators Reflect on Racism, Democracy, Purpose

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 26, 2023 13 min read
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This post continues educators sharing questions they’re pondering, along with possible answers ...

‘The Reality of Systemic Racism’

Vernita Mayfield, Ph.D., is an educational consultant who supports leaders in creating systems that result in more equitable student outcomes using data-driven processes with observable, measurable results. She is a speaker and the author of Cultural Competence Now: 56 Exercises to Help Educators Challenge Bias, Racism, and Privilege (ASCD, 2020). Follow her on Twitter at @DrVMayfield:

In the early morning as I lie in bed with little more than the sound of crickets to answer me, I ponder on the state of education and the fumes of racism that poison it. I trace the trail of violent school desegregation to the disparate distribution of school financial resources based on local residential taxes—a legislative legacy that serves to preserve the segregation of school assets.

I juxtapose the pained fury of educators made aware of cruelty toward animals with the silence, apathy, and dismissive excuses made when cruelty is executed on children of color. (“They should have . . . and maybe that wouldn’t have happened.”) I cogitate on the regular microaggressions that nibble on the identity and self-worth of children of color. I deliberate why some fellow educators are more enraged at the achievements of scholars of color than the systems that tried to prevent those achievements from occurring. (Yeah, I said it.)

I am baffled at the educators who marched for social justice and then turned around and called it critical race theory when we tried to address it in schools. I contemplate and thoroughly reject the acceptance of poverty and its related trauma as a normative result of being a citizen of another country. How soon we forget that this country was founded by immigrants! I marvel at the unmitigated gall of people squatting on stolen land with wealth funded by extortion who criminalize immigrants—most of whom are willing to work for wealth.

I consider the years of physical, emotional, psychological, and financial abuse levied on families whose ancestors were kidnapped, raped, extorted, enslaved, and murdered. I ponder why the reparation checks are not in the mail. And why aren’t educators and historians who understand the long-term ramifications of slavery, sharecropping, re-enslavement through forced imprisonment, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and policy-endorsed oppression leading the charge?

Why aren’t educators demanding punitive compensation at a minimum for the ways in which their fellow educators and students have been abused? How can one advocate educational justice without advocating economic justice as well? Is the correlation not glaringly apparent? Could it be that some educators favor the notion of generational poverty and disparate student outcomes provided it escapes them and their family?

Before you take to the computer to criticize these musings, you need to understand there is nothing you can say that will change my pattern of reflections. They are not based on any political affiliation, though that might serve as a convenient way for one to dismiss the gravity of my words. I was born blanketed in skin that has been problematized and stigmatized since the minute I hit the 1st grade classroom door clutching my Flintstone lunch pail. My reflections are based on my life and my work as a student and an educator who chooses to identify as Black. They are based on the way I am perceived when I walk in a room, when I speak with a team, when I lead a group, and when I interact in the world, with educators and with professionals who often claim to support change yet fight like hell to preserve the status quo.

But until said educators confront the reality of systemic racism and anti-Black sentiment in educational institutions, I’ll continue spending my early waking hours pondering the plight of students and educators of color.

Then I will begin my day raising consciousness, building cultural competency, discussing racism, collaborating on change, and asking critical questions. With the hope I will continue to hear more than the sound of crickets.


‘The Dispositions of Democracy’

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is Distinguished Professor of Literacy Education at Boise State University. He currently is directing a Dispositions of Democracy project supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. His latest book, Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must Make Moves explores the approach taken by his democracy-building project:

Due in part to challenges of teaching/learning exacerbated by the pandemic, and of escalating tensions arising on the American cultural scene, my National Writing Project site (the Boise State Writing Project) fellows and I often found ourselves pondering the question of how teachers and schools can promote the dispositions of democracy. When we considered our deepest values, hopes, and commitments both right now and for the future—for ourselves, our students, and our communities and country, pondering this challenge was front and center. As a result, we developed a project for defining and teaching the dispositions of democracy and for building the culture of democracy.

At the end of his life, John Dewey, the most prolific educational philosopher in American history, was asked by a young reporter to summarize his career. One might think this question laughable and impossible to answer in summary form. But Dewey quickly replied: “Democracy is conversation!” Likewise, current cognitive science posits that “understanding” requires “conversing with” and seeing all possible perspectives on any issue or topic, deeply considering the evidence and disciplinary-based reasoning about the data patterns regarding the issue, and then making reality-based decisions about where to stand, justifying why one stands there and why one does not stand in other possible positions, always mindfully cultivating a “categorical tentativeness” in conclusions. This means cultivating a willingness to change one’s mind in the face of new evidence or ways of reasoning about it.

These are “must-make moves” of democratic engagement, knowing, thinking, doing and being—and yet we all know that our capacity to converse, along with other capacities of democratic living—are eroding in obvious and public ways.

Our project, now supported by a NEH grant, showcases the work of Idaho teachers involved in a yearlong fellowship focused on Dewey’s notion of democratic conversation and the current cognitive science regarding the development of deep understanding. Our purpose is to foster more open inquiry and dialogue in schools around highly contended issues that have historically preoccupied us as Americans. The purpose of our work is to learn to teach and think historically (in any subject), to promote civic engagement through the humanities and across the curriculum, and to appreciate the deep history of American conversations—and of Idaho (or by extension, any region) in the context of ongoing national conversations.

To support our students to develop the dispositions and the classroom/community culture to strive toward “a more perfect union,” we have developed instructional approaches to build the following capacities:

  • relationship building, community-building, and community-sustaining behaviors
  • empathic listening, through tools like “free listening” and “clarifying questions,” nonviolent communication
  • curiosity and openness to difference, through guided-inquiry approaches
  • social imagination (the capacity to enter into perspectives different from theirs in time, place, ideology, personal history . . . ), e.g., through drama in education strategies
  • celebrating and naming the wisdom of uncertainty, of being categorically tentative in one’s positions
  • understanding of one’s own personal history and its value and limitations, one’s cognitive biases and allegiances, and the value and limitations of other perspectives—including tools for understanding the manipulative power of social media
  • capacity for civic discourse and dialogue: developing tools like mirroring, uptake, procedural feedback, and feed forward
  • questioning: self-questioning, after listening/reading, on the factual/interpretive/critical-evaluative levels, evaluating and justifying information sources and data in ways that fit disciplinary standards
  • understanding and valuing the “constitution of knowledge”, i.e., time-honored disciplinary processes for developing and verifying knowledge, through rule-governed ways of establishing, cross-checking, and revising understandings in social networks
  • honoring different perspectives if grounded in reflective experience, justified data and reasoning
  • cultivating mindfulness and mind sight, metacognition
  • reframing problems into possibilities, complaints into commitments, topics into new angles
  • reframing argument from winning and compelling to learning and deepening understanding (moving Toulmin to Rogerian argument)

We have found that all of these tools for democratic living are also great tools for academic learning and fit easily into any inquiry-oriented unit and are powerful tools for invigorating and healthy relationships and relational living writ large. We have also found that these capacities are what most of our teachers are most committed to teaching, as these tools mirror their deepest hopes, values, and commitments to their students and to society. Finally, we have found that these tools can be taught in any unit at any grade level in ways that enrich learning, classroom discourse, and community, and—we hope—future democratic living and citizenship.


The Purpose of School

Michael Pershan is a math teacher and writer in N.Y.C. He is the author of the book Teaching Math With Examples:

I have no idea what the purpose of school is. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to know what the purpose of school is. Is it to prepare students for college? For work? For voting? For life?

This can be a pie-in-the-sky philosophical question, but sometimes, it’s a practical one. There are all sorts of extremely tangible value conflicts that appear in daily school life. Do we push the class to focus a bit more on test prep, even if they hate it? Do we hire a reading specialist or an art teacher with the available funds? Should students repeat the grade or be socially promoted?

Value conflicts are lurking behind some of the most perennially controversial issues in teaching. How much homework do kids need? Should we track? How do we grade? Nobody can agree because we’ll never be on the same page about school’s purpose.

If absolutely put on the spot, I’d say that school does all and none of the things people want it to. Schools are compromise institutions, built out of our attempt to navigate conflicting expectations. We emphasize core subjects not because they satisfy some particular purpose of schooling but because they represent agreement amid the conflict, like an overlapping region in some giant Venn diagram of values.

Researchers have begun to find ways to tease apart some of these purposes, so we have a better picture of the choices and tradeoffs. One recent study, for example, found a conflict between teaching styles in elementary classrooms: Some teaching was associated with greater mathematics learning, while other styles went along with higher enthusiasm and engagement with school. Which is more important in the long run for a young student, learning or engagement with school? Hard to say.

In another study, using data from Trinidad and Tobago, one group of researchers found that parents make value choices when ranking schools. At the top of some lists were schools that tend to prepare students well for high-stakes tests. Others put at the top of their list schools that excel at promoting healthy life outcomes. I suspect in wealthier countries, too, parents disagree about what they most want schools to excel at.

So, what can we do? Because conflicts are inevitable, and because navigating them is an important part of our work, every school should be looking at more than just test scores. We need to understand that, at times, maximizing learning is in tension with other valid goals of education. And to the extent that schools are evaluated, a wider range of variables—like student satisfaction, attendance, behavior—should be considered. We need everyone involved in education to understand that, as long as we disagree about the purpose of schooling, great schools can be excellent in different ways.


Thanks to Vernita, Jeffrey, and Michael for contributing their thoughts.

This post is the second in multipart series. You can see Part One here.

The question of the week is:

What questions related to education do you periodically “ponder” and don’t feel like you—or others you are familiar with—have a good answer for? Do you have ideas for what would be required to get those answers?

In Part One, Matt Renwick, July Hill-Wilkinson, and Ann Stiltner contributed their reflections.

Matt, July, and Ann were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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