Notes and Takeaways from #AERA19

A few notes on each of the 7 sessions I attended and some overall thoughts.

  1. Basically, white educators really need to sit down and examine what whiteness and white supremacy means. The evidence and analysis is out there. The only thing preventing learning and growth is the willingness to examine oneself.
  2. “White privilege” was once a great framework to use, but it’s become so watered down that people use the phrase to lightly acknowledge reality without doing any hard work. So I’m done using it, because the real issue is, as the scholars in this session said, white supremacy.
  3. The school to prison pipeline is spoken about frequently, but little consideration is given to the root causes of the issues. This theme was everywhere: surface-level acknowledgement, but no risk to the comfortable (myself included).
  4. A really interesting point made in a study on trauma and truth – black parents who help their children see that the system is stacked against them actually help their children perform better, but they accordingly lose trust in schools and schooling. And you know what? Why should they trust schools that aren’t doing the necessary hard work?
  5. “Equity” needs to go. It’s just weaksauce.
  6. Baldwin looms large over every discussion of race and black life.
  7. Data is being irresponsibly and deliberately misused in the Affirmative Action debate. East Asian students do tend to score higher on tests, but colleges look at more than test scores. But in East Asia, where many such parents were raised, schools do not have holistic admissions, so the parents are merely following what they know.
  8. As ever, East Asians are often used by white parents as a cudgel to beat back brown and black people. We need to work together, and then we’ll be strong.
  9. Literally no one cares about the invisible labors of black women educators. Within the ELT field, race is erased.
  10. It’s this last point that has solidified my commitment to fighting racial erasure in the ELT field. We need to speak on race, we need to say it loud, and we have to work together and support each other to deal with the (mostly) white supremacist system that tells us our discomfort is acceptable and desirable but that theirs is almost criminal.

I have a lot more to say, so please ask if you want to hear more. But I’m really glad I came and learned so much. I made connections, met a lot of the people I had only known through twitter, and feel as though I really have a future making the ELT field more supportive of racialized educators.

The 4 Groups of Teachers for Learners of Color

Reading more of the handful of responses to my survey on race in English Language Teaching (you can take it if you are an ELT, let me know if you want to…), I’m getting the strong impression that there are basically four groups of teachers with respect to how they treat learners of color. I am investigating this with respect to ELT, of course, and more specifically with adult educators, but I wouldn’t expect this to be any different for K-12 environments or outside of language teaching.

I’m going to work on this and add to it, but this is my initial sketch of the four types of teachers for students of color. I will need to do research to come back and fill this in with data, and some of that research will be my own.

These groups will go from worst to best.

A quick note: this isn’t really about teaching ability per se, since I’m not sure that’s fully quantifiable. That said, if you’re in the first or second group, it’s unlikely you’re all that effective an educator for the students who might just need the most support, and it’s their experience I am most focused on.

Group 1: The Susans

That would be Susan as in Susan Smith. Apologies to kind people out there named Susan.

These teachers are actively antagonistic to the progress of students of color. They may or may not have voted for the current president, but at the very least they think he might have some points about “sh*thole countries” and Puerto Rico.

A student of color who excels is a fluke, a student of color who is deeply engaged in the classroom is disruptive, and every other standard stereotype you can think of.

I am enough of an optimist to believe that these teachers are few and far between in most educational institutions, although I am and many other students of color have encountered them. They are the foot soldiers of racism rather than the mere beneficiaries.

What do they need?

To leave the profession and go someplace where they don’t have to interact with people of color. So, Vermont, maybe. Or Finland. But those places are probably too “socialist” for them, so maybe they can go to Wyoming.

Group 2: The Beckies and Brads

I actually believe, though I will have to do considerable work to prove it, that this is the largest group of teachers in this country, and even in racially-mixed cities like the one I call home.

These are the teachers who are both “colorblind” and “colormute,” who, in an ELT context, talk about culture but never color, and, crucially, consider their decision to teacher students of color to be somewhere between inherently altruistic and heroic.

Whereas the Susans are most likely white, these teachers could be people of color themselves, as neither internalized racism nor a desire to avoid conflict are exclusive to Caucasians.

These teachers will say they treat all of their students the same, which may or may not be true, but considering that all students are different, this hereby erases students’ full humanity, be it racism, sexism, or what have you (though I’m focusing on the first of these).

Because these teachers feel they’re owed thanks from their students by virtue of their presence, this group is probably the hardest to change and the most resistant. The Susans wouldn’t even bother to read this article (or whatever I do with my opinions within it), and are sort of a lost cause. The Beckies and Brads give the Susans cover when the Susans wear blackface to the Halloween party, because it’s not that bad if they’re dressing up as someone they admire.

The Beckies and Brads are honestly why I decided to write this. They are aware of racism and will condemn a Charlottesville, and they might nominally agree that some institutional educational policies are unfair, but will find it difficult to ever acknowledge their role and complicity in the system and its outcomes.

They are the people who, when they learned I was merely asking about race (not even racism) in ELT, told me that discussing race was, itself, the cause of ongoing prejudice, or the otherwise “smart” people I’ve spoken to who think their own discomfort with race is reason enough to avoid the topic entirely.

I could go on and on about the Beckies and Brads forever (and I might, some day). They are the biggest problem, in my view. They are Dr. King’s “white moderate” (even if they’re not actually white or politically moderate), yet they are never going to admit to their membership in this group. And they’re tragic, to me, because many of them could be good teachers for learners of color, if only they engaged in some deep introspection.

What do they need?

They need their defenses broken down. Of all the groups here, this is the largest and perhaps more intractable change that must be sought, and the main roadblock for true racial equity in education. I have a few pet theories on how this can be achieved (Transformative Education, for example), but denial is a hell of a drug, and I can’t say I really know the cure.

Group 3: The Nkechi Amare Diallos

Who is Nkechi Amare Diallo? That surely sounds like an authentic African name. And although I said it was entirely possible to be a Becky or Brad as a person of color, surely someone suffused in an African culture couldn’t be anywhere other than the final and best group, right?

Well, google the name (or click this link) and tell me who she is.

(waits)

Yeah, exactly.

So, back when she was Rachel, the thing about her is that, until she decided to act a fool very publicly (and one suspects there’s some serious mental and emotional stuff going on there), she was genuinely trying to do good work for the community. I don’t know how good her work actually was with her… unique mindset, but she wasn’t just talking. She was employed leading a local chapter of the NAACP from day to day. She seems to genuinely love black culture. It’s just that it’s not a really healthy kind of love.

Leaving her aside for a minute, the teachers in this group are people who have probably read some research and theory on deficit mindset and other such concepts, and they are Not Going To Let You Forget It, like any evangelist recently converted to the church of Scientology, LDS, or Crossfit.

They know their facts to an encyclopedic level and they take their work seriously, telling everyone in the Susans, Beckies, and Brads about how they could be doing better, and making at least the Beckies and Brads very uncomfortable.

But there’s something missing.

Ultimately, these teachers are on the right track, so as much as I am teasing them, I would only criticize them gently, since they’re a lot better than the previous groups.

The fact is, though, that there is often a humility missing, especially when these teachers aren’t members of racialized groups themselves (or even when they are).

Doing education work correctly requires a certain amount of pride. If you have no confidence in yourself in the classroom or while you’re researching or writing it will be readily evident to a student or observer. Yet, in my opinion, the people in this group need to take a step or two back and assess whether or not they’re positioning students and educators of color for leadership. In other words, are they centering the marginalized or centering themselves?

I freely admit I was this person in my early days of teaching, walking into my classrooms in South Korea being treated like a celebrity (I was the first black person they’d ever seen). I thought I could really help them in my own naive way. I’ve grown out of this mindset, but I really did care about the students and wanted to treat them with love and kindness. This group, while often incorrect, is not acting out of malice, and even the best of us (which I am not claiming to be) slip into this from time to time.

Think about it, though. If a performatively woke teacher takes the lead, it’s a better situation than being led by someone who out and out ignores the reality in front of them or being led by one that revels in the status quo.

And hey, careers in education are tough – I’m not saying turn down a promotion or a publication. But being an ally isn’t really about leading so much as it’s about supporting, or, more precisely, it’s about using your own privilege and platform to help others lift themselves.

What do they need?

Just some guidance, really. They’re trying, and most of them aren’t truly fetishizing other races or coming back wearing cornrows after vacation (although some of them are…).

I feel as though group 3 needs to take the reins of educating group 2 (who probably comprise most of their relatives), since that work usually falls to group 4 and group 4 has enough work to do.

Group 3 is doing good work, but just needs to ask themselves if they’re really listening to the marginalized or speaking on their behalf.

Group 4: The Taranas and Bayards

The people in this group don’t really have cute nicknames, though I chose names for the sake of symmetry. If there’s an example from another field, it might be someone like Tarana Burke, or a Bayard Rustin, people whom you probably need to Google, which is sort of the point.

Look, teaching, if you’re in front of the room, is a performance to some extent. You can’t really do it well if you don’t command attention. I certainly feel most at ease in front of a class or else I wouldn’t do it. And maybe the examples I cited here really wanted to be stars and it didn’t work out that way, though I doubt it.

The Taranas and Bayards are authentic and committed, and most likely the only group that leads to seismic change. You can be of any color and become a member of this group, but you have more (and different) work to do to join if you’re white.

These are the people that group 2 thinks they are, the actual heroes of the profession. And we need them.

What do they need?

More support, more money, and more group members if our education is ever to truly become equitable for students of color.

****

I plan to come back to this and flesh it out with some numbers and anecdotes. But this is my preliminary assessment of the groups of teachers out there with respect to how they teach learners of color. I expect to analyze how to move people from group 2 and 3 to group 4 in the future, and how group 1 can possibly be rooted out of the profession altogether. But for now, I’m happy to have offered my opinion on the state of things.

 

On “Studying” Race

What does it mean to study something?

I mean, if something is mentioned in passing, does that mean it’s been studied in a class?

If something is not the direct topic of a paper or an assignment but is implied, does that count? Is that better than nothing?

I ask because I’m in the process of collecting data from a survey on race in ELT, and one of the questions I’m asking is whether or not race was covered as a topic during the participants’ training.

Now, not all of these participants are people I know (which is probably good), but most of them are fellow alumni of my MA program. Some at different years than I was there, but still, many of us overlapped.

And I wonder, what does it mean to someone to have “studied” race? Because in my current program, even if the class isn’t about race (none have been), race comes up as a specific topic in every class, as well it must in education. We dig into it and chew it over.

Yet I wonder if the implication of race is enough for some to consider a topic studied, handled, examined. I think people’s general discomfort with race means any hint of it feels significant, but for someone like me who wants to really research the topic, the majority of discussions that could be considered racial were really about “culture” and rarely about the lived experiences of racialized people.

Do I blame them for this? Not really. I don’t even really blame the programs. I just think my data analysis is going to have to account for this, and that further studies may inquire as to what, exactly, is studied about race in TESOL preparation programs.

In Their Feelings

Oh boy.

So I am currently running a survey (which you can take if you’re an English Language Teacher, but I’m not putting the link here so that I don’t influence the data). The survey asks, in a few different ways, whether or not ELTs incorporate race into their lesson planning and instruction. It’s entirely okay for someone to answer “no,” because it would give me something to write about in my analysis. In fact, I’m expecting most respondents to say “no.”

But people are in their feelings.

I get it. Despite the things going on in the news, most people do not harbor deep-seated ill will towards members of other racial groups. I do believe that.

At the same time, almost everyone who is a part of a large institution is, by defintion, furthering institutional racism (and sexism and classism and so on, but race is my focus). That’s what “institutional racism” means. That’s what the modifier is for.

And this is hardly just a white/black problem, especially when it comes to adult ELT, where the student population is comprised of many different races. I just read a study from Hawaii where the “old school” ESL students – who were Asian – discriminated against the Micronesian students. But the problem in that study wasn’t so much the students treating each other poorly, which is just sort of what teenagers do. It was that the school did nothing to address the issue.

Look. Hate crimes are a huge problem, but they always have been. We know enough now to know that race is a factor in human lives and outcomes. You can call it a social construct – it is! – or something that shouldn’t matter – it shouldn’t! – but the fact is, to get intensely personal, if a cop wants to talk to me, it really doesn’t matter how many degrees I have, does it? I look the way I look. And I’m one of the luckiest ones.

King spoke of his issues with the “white moderate,” but I don’t think this is really about them, no matter what CNN would like us to believe about the Obama-Trump voters.

No, this isn’t really about white people per se. Because the insidious thing about institutional racism (and sexism and classism and so on) is that you don’t necessarily have to be a member of the majoritized group to perpetuate the system in place. Trump wouldn’t have won if several million women hadn’t excused his awful treatment of their gender, and you could replace him with other politicans and policies when it comes to race or class or other things.

So if it’s not the “white moderate,” then who is it?

It’s the “woke ally.”

I’m not calling being “woke” bad. Nor is allyship a problem, obviously. It’s the people who want to claim this status without doing the work to interrogate themselves and their own role that need to be challenged. And it’s a shame, because generally these are the people who can help, and who want to help, and whom we need to help.

I have no hope for the followers of Steve Bannon. I’m sure there are a few of them teaching, but mostly not so. And there are a lot of educators out there fighting the good fight, even despite their own discomfort with issues of race (for which extra training and support is needed).

But the woke ally needs to actually be woke enough to pause and look in the mirror if they want to really be an ally instead of just a performer on the public stage.

The System

Of course we need to change the education system. I don’t think anyone who pursues a degree beyond undergrad in the field thinks it needs to remain exactly the same.

But for a moment, let’s think about how many things need to change. Let’s start from the very top.

Ultimately, all the prestige and pomp and circumstance is about power, right?

Schools want to be able to say they helped create wealthy people (who then donate to the schools), and wealthy people are powerful, either literally because of their money or because they have prominent roles (in politics, say).

So, at the very top, we need to change who is allowed to get lucrative jobs, change the fact that people hire (and vote for) people who resemble them, change what jobs earn the money in our society. I offer no solution to this, but if this part doesn’t change, nothing else will, because it all leads to this.

But IF we change who gets to have the power – that “if” is doing a lot of work – then we might be able to change post-graduate education.

Not every powerful person has extra degrees, but many of them do, and the fact is that, even though many are pushing for free or affordable undergrad tuition at public schools, graduate school remains either very expensive or has an extremely high opportunity cost in preventing many such students from working.

But IF we change who gets to have the power and IF graduate school were more accessible, then maybe people wouldn’t be as competitive during undergraduate programs. And then maybe there would be less of a gap in outcomes for students from different backgrounds.

And then if everyone really did have the same chance at success once they got to college – any college – maybe getting into the “right” college wouldn’t dominate childrens’ lives for the decade beforehand.

I’m not even really going to talk about the scandal in detail. I’ve said enough about it. Suffice it to say that it’s a hell of a lot of work to do instead of helping your kids achieve the grades and scores required for acceptance.

But maybe this sort of nonsense wouldn’t happen if getting a college education itself was more important than the name of the school.

And in order to change that, though, what do we need to change? We need to change people. We need to change the conversations people have in certain circles, where pride is tied only to achievement. Because we could change the entire system, but if we don’t change the pressure people feel to make sure their children are good enough to be bragged about, then nothing will matter, and we’ll stay in the same position forever.

Some folks try to change the entire system, and I commend their idealism. It would be much better if we had a different system, one where education really did matter but wasn’t so tied to “prestige” or lack thereof, but the best our current students can hope for is to be allowed a chance at accessing the system that exists.

And that’s a shame.

A Hypothesis

I’ve been in and around the TESOL world for eleven years now. That’s not a lifetime or anything, but it’s not nothing. I know a couple of things.

From my vantage point, the TESOL field is far too homogenous. However, I’m looking at this from the perspective of adult education and the program I studied in. Maybe it’s more diverse outside of the prism through which I have viewed it.

So I need to find out of it’s truly as monochromatic as I assume.

But then, I also need to find out if that’s really a problem. I believe it is, and studies have shown as much for the achievement of students of color, but good language teaching is not “just” good teaching. It’s a specific set of skills (alongside teaching skill in general), and would my push to diversify the field necessarily lead to better outcomes? I supect and hope as much but I don’t know it for a fact.

In my heart of hearts, I suspect that the lagging attendance and success rate of adult English programs can be tied to the homogeneity and lack of explicit intersectionality in TESOL. The former is probably going to take forever to fix. But the latter could be changed.

I just have to gather evidence that doing so would be beneficial, and doable.

We talk a big game about being learner-centric, but how learner-centric can we be if we never provide space for our students to really explore their full identities in English?

On Linguicism on Race

I mentioned linguicism last week. I think we’re all guilty of it, and the problem is that even the people responsible for teaching English are full of language bigotry.

I shall recount some examples from my decade-ish in the field.

-All of the people I knew in Korea who thought of teaching English as a stepping stone, compared to the Korean educators who felt their work was their life’s calling. I used to make fun of the people who stayed in Korea forever, but those people actually took joy in their work, and there’s something to be said for that. The people who plopped into teaching, with no training, and then left with no interest in the field, are not bad people – they are simply examples of a system that prizes their native language above all others. And they were usually not people of color, though that’s just anecdata. I had little training myself, and could have easily gone that way. But after a few months I realized I wanted to really connect with my students and I did. I’m not sure linguicism allows most to connect with those who speak languages of lower status.

-S. Korea is not the friendliest place to non-Koreans, and not to black people either (though I’d rather be there than many parts of this country). But speak English? You’re okay. In a way I experienced the way different forms of bigotry can work against each other. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

-In my good fortune to be able to travel to some very interesting places, speaking English is almost (but not quite) akin to whiteness. Especially during the Obama years, you could almost believe you held the same social status as a white English speaker when you went to certain places. English meant the assumption of money and power, and a life different from what people in less fortunate countries had. There are a lot of issues in the TESOL field, and they need to be studied and unpacked and never glossed over. But I don’t think it will stop being aspirational for many. And as such it’s very important that we treat this duty we’ve chosen for ourselves with the reverence it deserves.

A Thought On Deficits and Language Education

Those whose English is not at native-speaker levels are placed into the ELL box in public schools, and the label is more harmful than helpful, in my opinion. Teachers I’ve known have referred to these students as [their] ELLs, as if this attribute was their most defining characteristic.

This is not to say that these students do not need help with the language, but this label connotes a linguistic deficit, and an overall deficit, whereas their language skills are probably stronger than those of their classmates.

Think of it this way. While a handful probably do arrive in school without knowing the Roman alphabet, most come fluent in another language and with rudimentary (or better) skills in English, whereas many Americans will never get beyond “hello” and “goodbye” in another language. These students start from a point of knowing more than one language and should be seen as some of our most valuable learners instead of poor little creatures who need help.

Similarly, though a bit differently, students of color are often shamed for not speaking “correct” English. We are told to adopt the dominant register and diction, and that we are behind if we are unable to do so. While Af-Am Vernacular English isn’t an entirely different language, the ability to float between it and standard American English is itself a strength rather than a weakness.

Am I advocating that all students who use slang be considered fully bilingual? Not really. However a term being used in many of the scholarly articles I’ve been reading is “emergent bilinguals,” and perhaps many students of color (depending on their background) can be considered “emergeny biculturals.” The terminology and jargon don’t matter much to me (I hate jargon anyway), but any way that we can move on from deficit-based teaching would be to the benefit of the majority of our students, and in fact would help the mainstream students as well.

Just my brief thoughts on this, and of course I didn’t cite any studies here, so feel free to disagree. I’ll get back into full scholar mode once school resumes next week.

 

A Forgotten Population: Pell Grants for Ex-Prisoners

This is something I hadn’t known or thought about at all.

Take a look.

    • Restoring Pell Grant access to people in state prisons could stand to help some 463,000 individuals enroll in postsecondary education, boost their job prospects and reduce their chance of recidivism, according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown University Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The question to me is, do people actually want them to be educated and improve their standing in life upon release? Or do they want them to struggle and therefore have a much higher chance of re-offending… and bring more profit to the prison-industrial complex?

I think you know the answer to this.

Connecticut’s Asnuntuck Community College, for instance, offers inmates either an associate degree or a certificate in manufacturing, an in-demand field in the state. Likewise, the Milwaukee Area Technical College is helping create a steady pipeline of workers for Wisconsin’s growing manufacturing industry by certifying inmates in the field.

Some partner programs go beyond technical fields. In New Jersey, inmates can earn a bachelor of arts in criminal justice through Rutgers University. The program was created specifically for the incarcerated population to find jobs in areas such as research and policy.

Education can be a critical component in reducing recidivism rates. A 2014 Rand Corporation report found that inmates who participated in education programs while in prison were nearly half (43%) as likely to be reincarcerated than those who didn’t.

Does this have any chance of happening?

In December, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, which will allow the early release of thousands of federal prisoners and will cut the length of future stays. In addition, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has called restoring Pell access for prisoners “a very good and interesting possibility.”

Even so, other signs suggest prisoners may remain banned from receiving federal student aid.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he’d consider reinstating inmates’ access to Pell under the next Higher Education Act, but opinions are mixed on whether that legislation could survive a divided Congress. Moreover, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced a bill in February that would have restored prison Pell access…

Wow!

, but it failed to gain support among Republicans.

There it is.

Worth keeping an eye on.

The Academy

I’m about 10% through an EdD in Instructional Leadership.

When I’m done, I may have a few choices, some of which I need to make beforehand to position myself better.

Presuming I’m a strong student and I am lucky enough to present at a conference or two (or even publish), I could:

  1. Just keep doing what I’m doing but with expertise
  2. Work in ed industry leadership in some way
  3. Try to enter the academy

There’s a lot of others, but that’s what I’m really thinking about. I can analyze options 1 and 2 later on, but I’m writing about number 3.

So take a look at this awful situation. The scholar in question is a good friend of mine, and someone I greatly admire. But even if that weren’t true, it would still be resonant to me.

I haven’t at all had the career or life of Dan-el. But I could certainly be a new scholar or professor in ten years. And I’m definitely black. What’s to stop me from having to fight that like he is?

Would I be unable to deal with it? Dan-el provided his own perspective here and it’s a useful addition to the news article. And like him, I’m sure I would swallow my anger and write about it (though not as well as he does).

But I don’t want to have to. Like Dan-el I’m sure, I’ve dealt with nonsense like that being the only black guy in the room, both in education and in working. And I think it had a really serious impact on me, mentally and emotionally. It takes a toll to hold back your responses, and to know fighting back would be more severe than it’s worth.

On the other hand, teaching and researching at the university level sounds really interesting and cool. I think I’d enjoy the field, even as it changes into what it might be thirty years from now.

I’ve been reading a lot of what it’s like, though.

My own professor said, and data backs this up, you’re basically getting 67k a year when you start as an assistant professor, depending on the school. There are other benefits, of course, but still. And most postdocs are lower (I said most, not all).

Basically, it’d be a paycut now, and by the time I was in a position for such a thing, it might possibly be a large one. I may well have a child by then, and frankly, I might not even be able to afford that line of work.

That’s not the only reason, of course. It’s also the possibility of needing to move for work, and no.

But even if it was more appealing, there’s the bigotry. The education research field isn’t remarkably more diverse than that of academia in general. It’s better, yeah, but it’s still a rough go.

Part of me thinks it’s a revolutionary act to join, to try and change things from within. Part of me thinks, as I read online at some point, that you don’t fix a broken system, you just break people.

So I really don’t know. Do I have less strength than my forebears? Or would opting out be a wise choice from which I could do more?

I have no answer to this. I’m going to attend a few conferences, do some strong writing, and see how it shakes out.