Effective urban educators are committed to meeting the needs of a diverse population.
There was the White older gentleman who glared daggers at my mother and I on a D-DOT bus for speaking in Spanish.
The Black classmates who twitched a little when I told them that I had not been born in the US and that English was not my native language.
The store clerk who followed me and my Black friend around in Lord & Taylor.
The Arabic volunteer who asked me as we worked in Downtown Detroit, “What street is that,” then upon hearing my answer of “Larn-éd,” informed me that “We say ‘Larned’.”
The fellow college students at the old Marwill Bookstore who made me put my backpack on the rack at the front of the store—a store policy that should have applied to all customers—yet said nothing to the two White students who entered later and kept their bags on the whole time.
Every TSA agent who selected me for “random” searches while I was still traveling with a green card, everyone who suddenly stopped mistaking me for Mexican and started seeing me as Arabic after 9/11…
I would be lying if I said my commitment to diversity did not come most strongly from having felt the injustices suffered by those who do not conform to the expected national defaults. My experiences prevent me from being privileged enough not to see these problems and know that they need to be openly addressed to be solved. They have also allowed me to have empathy for those whose struggles may be different, but are struggles nonetheless.
In the process of trying to be good to everyone, I have also made mistakes. I will never forget the time I got on a soapbox to say that everyone should be participating in the training session provided by LGBTQ organization Affirmations of Ferndale, because I thought the two co-workers sitting quietly in frustration were bigots when in actuality only one might have been. Under the judgmentally “woke” glances of myself and others in the room, the other uncomfortable person felt forced to come out to us, telling us she had lost too many people to the kind of discrimination and hate we were discussing to be able to participate in the session. She was in tears. I learned a lesson at her expense.
As an educator, I reflect on these experiences and see that while not all of them happened in a school setting, they ultimately come up at school, too. If children are not blank slates to be written upon, then the collection of children known as a “school” is not a blank slate untouched by the world beyond its walls either. Students enter the classroom with different experiences, sets of background knowledge, expectations, etc. If they struggle due to factors beyond their control, the teacher must acknowledge the factor without seeing it as a deficiency nor acting as if the student is entirely powerless to improve their situation. This acknowledges and validates students’ experiences and empowers them. The following example comes to mind:
Some well-meaning educators believe that in order to get students who speak African American Vernacular English to speak “standard” English it is important to expose them to as much of it as possible to the exclusion of other forms of English. “Speak as properly as possible,” I once heard an administrator say to a room where only three or four of the thirty educators gathered there were not White, “Because you might be the only one they hear it from.” While I do not think that people who cannot actually speak AAVE (for example) should try to emulate it, I felt invalidated by the comment, as I grew up in Detroit with predominantly Black friends and sometimes “sound Black” in casual conversation. In my experience—as a City Year Detroit volunteer working at an East Side school, as an observer at various metro Detroit schools, and as a student-teacher in Warren—I have noticed that minority students respond better to teachers who speak in their genuine voice. If that voice echoes the students’, even better, but it does not have to. Regardless of race, hardly anyone goes around speaking academic English 100% of the time. I see insertions of dialect, slang, colloquialisms, etc., as natural code-switching. It is important for students to learn when to use what style of words and speech; this is not the same as invalidating their use of other forms of English entirely by never mentioning nor using them. AAVE is not Voldemort, it is not “That which must not be spoken.” When a child is working on a project and she asks “Is I doin’ it good?” I don’t distract her from her art by replying, “Yes, you are doing it w e l l . ” I simply say, “Yeah, you doin’ good. I like how you painted the sky with such bold strokes.”
While I am limited in what I know about students as a student-teacher due to confidentiality matters, as a Japanese instructor I have to be flexible and creative to accommodate students with diverse needs, both documented and undocumented. Especially in the case of students with undocumented issues, and thus without official interventions already planned out for them. For example, I had one student with handwriting that was practically illegible, even in English. Eventually I became used to their writing—there was some level of consistency to the deviations from standard letter and kana forms—but I did some research, spoke with the student, and came to the conclusion that it would be best if they just typed their homework up rather than writing by hand on the workbook pages. It would not be fair if they were actually understanding the vocabulary and grammar but could not represent that on paper if forced to write everything by hand. I could not make this change for the quizzes, but I did decrease the margin size and increase the line spacing to give this student more room to write.
Neither could I get away from handwriting for the final composition assignment, as writing by hand is very important in Japan and a big part of how Japanese themselves learn the language, which requires the use of three different scripts. But I did give the student the option of using composition paper that had 225 spaces to a page rather than the usual 400. This gave the student about twice as much space to write each character.
Not only did they write neater than I had ever seen them write, they even gave the 400-space sheet a try and managed to keep each character within the confines of the boxes. I felt this was a huge accomplishment for this student. Even though I’m fairly strict with students who do not have different motor control abilities about how they write Japanese, for this student, I was genuinely happy just to get his characters to stay inside their spaces, even if they weren’t necessarily formed in the designated way.
These are just a few examples of how I came to be committed to diversity and practice that commitment in the classroom. I will continue to reflect and innovate to make sure I keep this in my practice throughout my career.
The image in the header is from the documentary Precious Knowledge, about the Mexican-American Studies Program in Arizona which was eventually banned.