Saturday, January 21, 2006

Blame It On The Griots

It's called culture. Or racism. You decide.

Today I had to attend my stupid teacher induction program. My stupid teacher induction program has Saturday seminars which annoy me. They are in Moraga. I have to get up at six in the morning to get to Moraga, take BART, and then a cab. I don't care for this.

This month's 'standards' are the ones having to do with diversity in the classroom. This is better than last times'--technology--because I actually have diversity, as opposed to technology, in my classroom. But it's not great. Basically, talking about diversity in education settings sucks. But we had an interesting, if weird and intense, keynote speaker, and I attended a pleasant workshop in which we learned that it hurts children's feelings if the teacher doesn't react to racial and sexual slurs in the classroom. In the immortal words of Mr. Mackey from South Park, "Prejudice is bad, m'kay?" (Actually, the man teaching the workshop was excellent, and we had a good conversation. I'm just being snippy, 'cause I don't like being in Moraga of a Saturday.)

Then comes the grade-alike group. This is where a bunch of people I'm in a group with go and sit and are facilitated in discussion of the day's events. Unfortunately, I was put in the Special Education group. I don't teach SPED. I teach ELD, otherwise known as ESL. But there aren't enough of us, so we got SPED as our grade-alike group. I am trying not to feel that the message here is not loaded.

So we're asked for responses to the day, and one young woman starts to talk about how she attended a workshop about working with African-American students, and the disconnect they have from school. In the course of talking about this, she explains that the guy teaching the workshop gave an example of a project where students have to write about their family and heritage. She explains that Mexican-American students could write about their Mexican heritage. And Italian-American students could write about their Italian heritage. And black students say, for example, 'I'm just from Mississippi,' and the guy teaching the class tries to explain that no, that's not the point...

I raise my hand and say, trying not to be too snippy, that this sounds like great material, but that I'm at a loss to see what misses the point about saying you're from Mississippi, especially since African-American students saying this probably have a heritage in that area that goes back rather a long way.

I do not add, but think, that black American culture from the South is a cultural richness almost beyond belief, producing, among a lot of other things, great inventors, great writers, and the greatest music and musicians ever to rise from this earth. (OK, I know prejudice is bad, but I'm slightly skewed in judgement here. Sue me.)

Unfortunately, I'm dealing with STUPID people. The facilitator begins to explain to me that he was educated as a white intellectual (he's Asian by heritage) by Jesuits, and he has this whole range of awareness of the sweep of history, and blah, blah, blah, and when he visits, say, St. Paul's in Rome, he's aware of its significance, and, etc. Then he looks me straight in the face and says, "It's called culture."

Well, shut MY mouth. I will regret for days that I did not have the presence of mind--or foresight--to look back and say 'it's called culture by WHOM?' Instead, I tell him that St. Paul's is very nice, but that I had understood the assignment to be one where students wrote not about the sweep of human history, but about their own heritages, and I still don't get why Mississippi isn't a good one.

The theme is taken up by a young white dude in the group, who explains to me about ethnocentrism. He does an excellent job. I do not tell him that he's a condescending jerk, and that I have an effing degree in history from a liberal college. Instead, I explain that, once again, I understood this to be an assignment about personal family heritage. He explains carefully about family history not coming down from slavery days.

I wonder to myself how many white students outside Boston prep schools can give detailed family histories from the mid-nineteenth century. I repeat again my basic question, which is now starting to sound almost pathetic. It was basically an aside at first. I assumed she would laugh and clarify what they meant. Now I'm getting ticked off.

Our facilitator explains that Mississippi represents a small world view. I say that come to that, Mississippi is no smaller than Sicily. A couple of young women explain to me how black students are DISCONNECTED from school. I wonder silently if this could be because their heritage isn't considered adequate to write a school paper about. The facilitator explains that when he says a small world view, he doesn't mean the literal size of the place. I imagine banging my head on the table.

I sort of surrender, because this is starting to get surreal. Then we talk about how to connect black students. One white teacher explains how her class does a unit every year where they research the heritages of every person in class. She has seven black boys in her class, and "NONE of them knew where they came from until we learned about Africa in class."

Somehow I doubt that statement, lady. I do, however, see part of their unstated 'point', which is that West Africa, rather than anything that happened in the last, say 350 years, is the real 'heritage' of African-Americans.

Shortly after this we start hunting reasons for the African-American academic failure in earnest. We talk about this for about twenty minutes. No one says 'money', and no one says 'racism'. In fact, the word 'racism' is not spoken once during this whole discussion.

The facilitator discussed the school-phobic history of many black families--this is real enough--and then begins to explain that another problem is that 'Africa'--they never give a country or culture name, they don't even say 'West Africa'--has an ORAL tradition. These students come from an ORAL tradition, and then they wind up at school in a white, paper-and-pencil tradition, and, of course, feel alienated and fail.

I've got my jaw hanging open here. Of course black Americans have an oral tradition, but they also have a very imposing written one. (Thank God these people never got ahold of Richard Wright.) To be blunt, enslaved people risked their lives to learn to read. Over and over again, everywhere in the U.S. that it was forbidden. And plenty of white kids in U.S. schools had great-great-grandparents who got off the boat knowing how to write no more than their names. And now we say these kids fail in school because they have an ORAL tradition? Can I say that America has a RACIST and CLASSIST tradition, and perhaps we should put some blame on this rather than blaming the griots?

Sheesh. You know what the worst thing about this is? The worst thing about this is that these eejits think I'M uninformed, and maybe a little racist. And that they teach black students.


Eliyahu said...

on shabbos, a visiting rabbi gave over a teaching on kabblah. what is the Jewish version of one hand clapping, he asked? Answer: he smacks his palm against his forehead, while saying, "OY, VEH!"

some colleagues of the folks you've written about seem to be in charge of the whole government. i believe they designed the new medicare prescription drug benefit.

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Robbie said...

It's a common thing - to avoid the issue at hand by making up others. When I was in college, they taught classes in the (coincidentally all white) honors college that focused on the need for whites to avoid taking advantage of any situation that may benefit them. It was always my belief (and still is) that leveling the playing field doesn't mean going to the lowest common denominator, but bringing the lowest up to the highest - rather than me give up what I've been given, it's my responsibility to help others get what I've used as well. But, they never quite saw it that way, and made me look like the bad guy.