Teaching Trayvon Martin: Three Strategies for Teacher Educators

Every year as a faculty member in an urban-focused, university-based teacher education program, I pose the following questions to the teacher certification candidates and certified teachers in my classes: What is your vision of social transformation, and how far are you willing to go in your capacity as classroom teachers to achieve it? Sadly, the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida is the latest of a never-ending series of tragedies that underscores the urgency of these questions. As teacher educators, it is crucial that we seize this moment to encourage and support classroom teachers’ efforts to end white supremacist violence in the lives of youth of color.

Those who deny the permanence of white supremacy in America will surely concoct a litany of excuses and justifications for George Zimmerman, the man who has admitted to killing Trayvon Martin. As demonstrated time and time again, white supremacy is amazingly adept at defending itself by denying its very existence. Regardless of whatever preposterous defense may prevail on Zimmerman’s behalf, the details of Trayvon Martin’s final moments paint a clear picture of a young man who became yet another casualty of American society’s enduring, well-rehearsed, and unforgiving assault on black bodies. That advocates for redress on Trayvon’s behalf are forced to make the case for the obvious—America’s suspicion of and contempt for young black males—detracts time and energy better spent on strategizing our collective responses for justice. Consequently, I will not devote more time to asserting the obvious. Readers who want to debate the “merits” of the case against Zimmerman are encouraged to do so in other spaces.

What I hope to do in this blog entry is to engage fellow teacher educators in discussions of the roles that we can play in the aftermath of Trayvon’s death. The public outcry over Zimmerman’s audacity and the Sanford Police Department’s complicity has turned the murder of Trayvon Martin into a potentially powerful teachable moment. The following are strategies that teacher educators can use to help teacher certification candidates and certified teachers transform this tragedy into a springboard for critical thought and collective action.

1) Engage teachers in rigorous examinations of white supremacy. The gravity of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent silence that surrounded it cannot be fully grasped without a critical understanding of white supremacy as a systemic arrangement of power that has privileged the lives and interests of white Americans from this nation’s inception, and that continues to do so despite social and political struggles for racial equality. Framing the historical and systemic nature of white supremacist power in America is crucial for helping white educators—specifically those who bristle at critical analyses of white supremacy—to understand those analyses as critiques of oppressive systems of power, not as indictments of individual white people. A critical examination of white supremacy can also help teachers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to understand that while white supremacy privileges white people over racialized others, it can be reproduced by a multicultural cast of characters that aligns itself with white supremacist power structures (e.g., someone like George Zimmerman). In my experiences as a teacher educator, work in critical race theory by scholars like Gloria-Ladson Billings, William Tate, and Adrienne Dixson, analyses of privilege and power by Allan Johnson, and racialized examinations of white teachers by scholars like Christine Sleeter and Gary Howard, have been great resources for teachers who are learning to grapple with the realities and repercussions of white supremacy. A rigorous understanding of white supremacy is a prerequisite for teachers who want to stand against the white supremacist domination of youth of color.

2) Help teachers to connect youth of color to resources and strategies for negotiating white supremacist oppression, both individually and collectively. Learning to resist is not just a political undertaking—it is also a pedagogical act. As Paulo Freire’s groundbreaking work has taught all of us, just as the oppressed have to learn the terms of their oppression, they can also learn to create the conditions for their liberation. Teacher educators who are committed to social justice must find ways to support classroom teachers’ efforts to facilitate analyses of and resistance against white supremacy with youth of color. Continue reading “Teaching Trayvon Martin: Three Strategies for Teacher Educators”

It’s Elementary!

On the Monday evening of April 2, Warner’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) and Allies Special Interest Group screened the film It’s Elementary, shining light on how educators can address LGBTQ issues in the classroom. Throughout the movie and into the panel discussion, I began thinking about this idea of ‘teaching’ students about LGBTQ issues. As a Warner student, this topic was addressed in a number of my classes and in one case, a few of my fellow students asked the question, ‘Why do we need to bring this up with children?’ Beyond my own beliefs about social justice, eradication of oppression, tolerance and promotion of diversity, this question is important to deconstruct on a different level. This question is worded in such a way as to suggest that children are too young to learn about ‘sexuality.’ First, this implies that the heterosexuality that is reinforced in schools is not a ‘sexuality,’ yet somehow only homosexuality is a sexualized term. Second, the implication with this statement is that children are living independent of homosexuality and it is this implication that I challenge here.

Given reports that ten percent of the population will identify as LGBTQ, this means that one in every ten students in your classroom, one in every ten teachers, one in every ten administrators and staff and one in every ten people you meet on the street will in some way be a member of the queer community. So, if every one in ten students are queer, then does homosexuality not already exist in the classroom? This denial or simplistic view of children as asexual is not only inaccurate but is an erasure of the experiences of these queer students in particular. How can you as a teacher ignore ten percent of your students? Not only will ten percent of students be queer, but given the increase in gay and lesbian adoptions and family planning options, students who are heterosexual could be coming from a queer-headed household as well. Whether one wants to admit it or not, queer individuals and families have a growing presence in our schools.

It’s Elementary demonstrated that students, even in elementary school, are familiar with the topic of homosexuality and especially with the misinformation and stereotypes that the media portrays. In the film, students referenced afternoon talk shows and popular movies as their source of information about homosexuality. In terms of homosexuality in schools, even elementary students mentioned the ways in which words such ‘gay’ are used in a derogatory manner in the hallways on a regular basis. Therefore, students are very familiar with the topic and it is this permeation of anti-gay language in the hallways that especially makes it a school issue. Some may attempt to argue that ‘sexuality’ is a private matter, but when hateful speech is used to bully peers in the school environment, it becomes a school matter that educators have a responsibility to address.

At the panel discussion after the film screening, a panelist made the point that school administrators can sometimes demonstrate this denial of queer issues by implying that those issues do not exist here. This denial is a huge disservice to queer students, particularly those who are at risk for depression or dropping out of school. The avoidance of taboo topics in general places students at risk, all for the sake of adult and parent comfort. Some parents, administrators, and teachers seem to forget this concept that ten percent of the population is a part of the LGBTQ community. Therefore, the truth is that students are here and they are queer. So, we can either admit that they exist or contribute to the deafening silence of oppression.

How Athletics and Education are Mutually Exclusive

I love this time of year. This is the time of year where the snow begins to melt and the sun starts to shine, when it is no longer dark outside at 5pm, and when my utility bills starts to creep down to an affordable price. Additionally, last Thursday’s commencement of the Division I NCAA Basketball Tournament began what is the best four weeks to be a sports fan each year. Over the course of the next 30 days March Madness will ensue, the Major League Baseball season will start, as will the NHL playoffs, in a normal year NFL free agency would be in full swing, and my once again relevant New York Knicks will begin their journey in the NBA playoffs. While we as a nation prepare to spend countless hours in-front of the television idolizing our sports icons, we must also be aware of the effect the multi-billion dollar enterprise of American sports has on our nations youth, particularly in poor urban areas.

As Jonathan Kozol illustrates throughout his book Savage Inequalities (1991), youth growing up in poor urban areas are often told their only way to a better life is through athletics. Children are told that if they practice hard enough, they will earn a scholarship to college and shortly after be paid millions of dollars to play professionally. For any youth, specifically for one from lesser means, this dream is a difficult one to let go. Yet, the reality is that very few high school athletes get the opportunity to play in college, and even fewer move on to play professionally. Let us take basketball for example. According to the NCAA, 3.1 percent of student-athletes on their high school basketball team go on to play at any level of college; and only 1.2% of student-athletes on their college basketball team go on to play in the NBA. This means that only 0.03% (3 in 10,000) of student-athletes on their high school basketball team will go on to play in the NBA(1). Even if they make it into the NBA, most will not have sustained careers. In 1999, the average career length of an NBA player fewer than 5 years(2). Even when a student earns an athletic scholarship, it is unlikely to cover the expenses of college. In 2008, the average athletic scholarship was less than $11,000 a year(3). The truth is that a college freshman is 22 times more likely to be the recipient of an academic scholarship than he or she is to have been awarded an athletic scholarship. Despite the fact that we often tell kids that their best way to a sound education and a better life is through athletics, this is not the case for the overwhelming majority.

What is even more troubling than the message we send our youth about the possibilities of athletics, is the disconnect between athletics and education within schools. When schools face budget cuts, physical education, recess, and inter-school athletics are often times among the first programs cut(5). For example, South Carolina just proposed a 15% cut to state funds for physical education in school(6). Additionally, according to the American Heart Association, only 71 percent of elementary schools nationally have recess for students in K-5, a number that is drastically lower in urban areas (28% in the city of Rochester)(7). This is troubling not only because of the health and educational benefits youth reap from physical activity, but because of the message it sends to youth about the lack of association between school and athletics. The message that we are sending to our kids, specifically in urban areas, is that athletics and academics are mutually exclusive. Our priorities are broken. We are telling our students that athletics have no place in school, but that athletics are the only way to success. Given this contradiction, why should we expect many of our students to value education? If we are telling our urban youth the only way to a better life is through athletics, but we are not providing the opportunity for athletics at school, can we really expect them to value school?

Work Cited

1) http://www.ncaa.org/wps/portal/ncaahome?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/ncaa/NCAA/Academics+and+Athletes/Education+and+Research/Probability+of+Competing/Methodology+-+Prob+of+Competing

2) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,990035,00.html?promoid=googlep%29

3) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/10/sports/10scholarships.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

4) http://www.pitchengine.com/pathwaycommunications/8-facts-about-college-athletics-and-scholarships–what-every-high-school-athlete-needs-to-know/81212/

5) http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,176168,00.html

6) http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D9LV731O0.htm

7) http://www.democratandchronicle.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2011103120316

You too, Sir

Last Wednesday I arrived to campus at approximately 9:00am. After having a quick conversation with a fellow doctoral student I decided to take a walk on campus. While on my walk I was greeted by a familiar face, a service worker who I often have a 30 second conversation with, usually consisting of the weather and weekend plans. We had our conversation as usual and when the conversation ended I said, “Have a nice day” and began to walk off, when I heard him say, “You too, sir.” I almost stopped in my tracks because I was unsure as to whether this gentleman who appears to be my senior by at least 20 years would call me sir, but I just looked back at him and smiled. As I continued my walk through campus I began to wonder and think to myself, “Why did this man call me sir?” I tried to remember whether he called me “sir” in any of our previous interactions, and I do not believe he did. Why today? I usually dress the same I thought to myself. Today was a class day and I did have on a dress shirt, tie, sweater, and slacks, but was my attire the reason he called me “sir”? Did he think I was a professor, or perhaps an administrator? All of these things swirled around in my mind like a tornado in early spring in the Midwest.

Once those thoughts began to disappear another thought came to me. I guess I am privileged. I walk around the University campus usually dressed up and try to smile or speak to everyone I pass. I usually see several custodians and other service workers everyday as they complete their rounds throughout campus, performing routine services for all of us; however, many of us do not think much of it. The fact is that we have a group of service workers who clean up after us while we walk around smiling and holding conversations that I am sure many of us would consider much deeper, more philosophical, and of more important than the weather and weekend plans.

I must admit that it did bother me that someone I believed I should call sir, even if only out of respect of age difference referred to me as “sir.” Later that day I had a conversation with a colleague about the interaction and we discussed what we thought it might mean. One of the first thoughts we discussed was that of class issues – was it a social class issue? Did this man call me sir because he felt or believed he should, or that it was necessary? Or did he call most people “sir” regardless of where he is or to whom he is having a conversation?

Furthermore, all of these questions reminded me of critical theory which focuses on an individual’s response to social, political, and economic oppression and assumes that social life functions at various levels of meaning (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993). Did this service worker call me “sir” because of social oppression and pressures in our society? Do I appear or exhibit aristocratic characteristics that might give the impression that I need to be called or referred to as “sir”? Or does my dress and status as a doctoral student represent a “higher class,” thereby placing me in a social and/or economic oppressive group?

Finally, I understand that this interaction may not seem like a “big deal,” but I believe that social and class issues are important. In fact, some may argue that critical theory lacks objectivity and that it is a theory that argues that complex interactions and situations are reduced to simplistic explanations and conclusions. I realize that many of us may not have thought twice about the interaction as I did, however, to be called “sir” outside of a formal interaction by a service employee requires some extra thought on my behalf.

Speaking Truth to Power: Reflections from The Pauline Lipman Scandling Lecture

As I sat at my desk – situated in the basement of the graduate student office of The Warner School of Education – the evening of November 8th, I had overlooked that in less than a half an hour the Pauline Lipman Scandling Lecture would begin. At the same time, I also realized that I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap, two mutually exclusive observations.  Although appearances are momentary, appearing in The Hawkins Carlson Room of the Rush Rhees Library in leisure attire was not on my Top Ten list of things to do in representing the Warner School of Education to a renowned scholar. Moreover, it was unlike me to wear sweatshirts to campus, yet that was my burden on this Autumn evening: to attend in embarrassment of my garb, or to not attend and miss out on what I knew would be a riveting lecture. I attended the lecture that evening thanks to the 3-5 minute reassurances from my office mates, and fellow doctoral students that I looked like a “student” and that at least I wasn’t wearing pajamas with fuzzy boots, the chosen attire by many undergraduates.

Dr. Pauline Lipman, an urban education activist and scholar, spoke in the words of Edward Said, “truth to power” at The University of Rochester that night.  Her upcoming book, The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City, challenges the market-driven ideology that has plagued much of America’s domestic and foreign policy for decades, and now urban public education. Being a former Rochester City School District student who lived on the northeast side of Rochester for most of my life, I understood first-hand what in Lipman’s words was “the assault on public education.” Her lecture was fast paced and her Power Point images illustrated  how gentrification in neighborhoods around the country, but specifically in Chicago, were changing the urban landscape to the detriment of many poor, Black and Latina/o residents. A process we are familiar with in the Rochester area.

Toward the end of the lecture, a question was raised regarding how Dr. Lipman seemed to be an opponent to all forms of Charter Schools: independent charters schools and the corporate chain of charter schools like KIPP and Uncommon Charter Schools. Her response was that independent charter schools began as an experiment to find solutions for public education and not necessarily to replace public education. I remember being a proponent of charter schools in the Rochester area.  In fact, I even interviewed to run one.  I was also a supporter of mayoral control, so I can understand opponents of Lipman’s argument challenging neoliberal policy and management in urban education. However, I have discovered The Matrix-like presence of neoliberalism in education. My course work this semester, which includes a class on Contemporary Issues in Higher Education taught by Dr. Andrew Wall, and Concepts in Social Science Research taught by Dr. Ed Brokenbrough have been instrumental in my evolution on these compelling issues influencing my past educational experiences and the present experiences of the plethora of poor, Black, and Latina/o mis-educated students across the country. These courses helped me to understand how neoliberalism and positivist research are at times grounded in more than just economic rationalism.  It took making connections from Dr. Signithia Fordham’s course, Whiteness and Privilege (Spring 2010) to concur with the Pauline Lipman lecture that neolibrealism is a process that can be used to disguise racist ideologies grounded in Western hegemony.  A process that codes disadvantaged communities as in need of saving from themselves, and a process that disinvests in poor areas in order to increase profit-margins for businesses and corporations not located in these communities.

Coming from Cuba in 1980, and being raised by parents who fled communism in Cuba, I have always believed capitalism to be what made America a better place to live. However, the dichotomy is not that simple.  Although I am nothing of an economist, and although I am only in my second year of my Ph.D. program in Educational Leadership, the Pauline Lipman Lecture allowed me to envision myself as a future activist education scholar who aims to speak “truth to power.”

Don’t Take a Side, Make a Side: Progressive Latina/o Education – ¡Basta Ya!

The following article was also published in La Voz Magazine on Tuesday, March 23, 2010.  Amalia has requested that we post her article in in this medium as well.

Before I dive in on Latina/o education in Rochester, I just want to express so many thanks you’s to all of my family, friends and colleagues for their support after the passing of mi papi on January 14, 2010. My words will never express the totality of my father’s absence or the grandeur of his legacy. Yet I will spend the rest of my life attempting, if nothing else, for an ounce of this expression.

Just as the temperature rises outside, the Rochester education scene is heating up -the mayor, the superintendent, the school board, parents,  vocal community members, university professors, university presidents, everyone has their take on what to do, what is next, and what urban students need and don’t need.  Well, now it is my turn and I am carving out my own side.

As I have always made clear in my monthly pieces, I do not represent Latina/os, although I am as Latina as they come.  I do not represent city school district students, although I attended all city schools, and finally I do not represent anyone but myself. As my bio states, my doctoral research program is in educational leadership with a concentration on higher education.  Therefore, my arguments are coming from both research and personal experience. Not that I am going to provide solid solutions, but as always, insight.

That being said, I would like to challenge the gatekeepers of the economic and educational pipelines of the Rochester community to look at the sea of young faces that will not graduate this year, that will not meet New York State test standards, and tell them, we will not admit or employ you, again. In essence, what is needed are Law Guardians for students just like in Family Court, attorneys that only seek the benefit of the student first and foremost.

I am not a gatekeeper, but I am here to put accountability on the gatekeepers who run this city, state, and country.  I want my readers and the gatekeepers to start thinking clearly about the correlation of under-education, Latina/o underemployment and poverty.  The correlation and the research is vast, if you are poor you are usually undereducated and your family is usually plagued with varying social problems.  So people, stop blaming everything on parents and students.  Yes, it is possible that some parents and some students are not working to their ability. But using the same line of reasoning, there are parents and students who are working at a 110% of their potential, and are not successful journeying the economic and educational pipeline. Do people understand that the systems that guide who learns and who doesn’t, does not care about Latina/os?  I am unapologetic in my assertions that this city, this state, and country neglect Spanish-speaking populations.  Why?  Because 60% of Latina/o students will not achieve the bare minimum in education this year and it is getting worse every year.  The gatekeepers believe it is an individual, family problem only.  That is why they think our students continue to fail disproportionately and why they are not held accountable.  They think  ‘We can’t speak English; we can’t get it together and learn the rules.’ When in reality the rules weren’t written for all of us.

Let’s re-write the rules looking at Spanish-speaking Americans as Americans who have as much potential as non Spanish-speaking populations.  I have met so many educated Puerto Rican families that have degrees from Puerto Rico that are worthless in Rochester.  And these are American citizens born in America. These same parents want their kids to go to college but have them in city schools that are not preparing them for tests, graduation or higher education.

So to all the gatekeepers:  How do we turn Clinton Avenue into Park Avenue – with more cultural azucar of course?  How do we invest, prepare and employ newly arrived Puerto Rican families from Puerto Rico to become successful in Rochester?  And last but most importantly, how do we – now think about this long and hard mi gente – make you gatekeepers accountable for the tax dollars that are educating Latina/o children in schools that have accepted failure for longer than Ricky Martin’s last performance with Menudo (Okay I am an eighties child. So it was more like 50 years of failure. I just wanted to type Menudo for the first time in my adult Latina life and probably the last, but you get my point).

The following is the Spanish translation for Amalia’s article.


Antes de zambullirme en la educación de los latinos en Rochester, solo quiero expresar muchas gracias a toda mi familia, amigos colegas pro su apoyo después de la muerte de mi papi el 14 de enero 2010. No hay palabras para expresar la totalidad de la ausencia de mi padre o de la grandeza de su legado. Sin embargo, voy a pasar el resto de mi vida intentado, si nada mas, una onza de esta expresión.

Al igual que la temperatura sube afuera, el escenario de la educación en Rochester se está calentando. El alcalde, el superintendente, la junta escolar, padres, miembros vocales de la comunidad, profesores universitarios, presidentes de universidades, todos tienen su toma en qué hacer, qué sigue, y qué es lo que realmente necesitan los estudiantes urbanos. Bueno, ahora es mi turno y voy a calvar mi propio lado.

Como siempre he dejado claro en mis piezas mensuales, yo no represento a los latinos, aunque soy tan latina como vienen. No represento estudiantes del distrito escolar de la ciudad, aunque asistí escuelas públicas y por fin no represento a nadie más que a mí misma. Como dice mi perfil, mi programa del doctorado es en liderazgo de educación con una concentración en la educación superior. Por lo tanto, mis argumentos vienen de ambos lados de investigación y mis experiencias personales. No que voy a proveer soluciones sino ideas para divulgar.

Dicho esto, quisiera desafiar los guardianes del sistema económico y educativo de la comunidad de Rochester que miren al océano de rostros de jóvenes que no se graduarán este año, que no alcanzarán las metas de aptitud de pruebas del estado de Nueva York, y diganles, que no los empleará ni admitirá jamás. Lo que se necesitan son guardianes de derechos para estudiantes tales como en la corte de familia, abogados que primordialmente se preocupan por el bienestar del estudiante.

Yo no soy portero pero estoy aquí para exigir responsabilidad de los porteros que dirigen esta ciudad, el estado y el país. Quiero que mis lectores y los guardianes empiecen a pensar  claramente acerca de la correlación de la falta de educación, el sub-empleo del latino  y la pobreza. La correlación y las investigaciones son enormes. Si eres pobre, eres usualmente poco educado  y de una familia sufrida de una variedad de problemas sociales. Así que, mi gente, dejar de culpar a los padres y estudiantes por todo. Si, es posible que algunos padres y algunos estudiantes no trabajen a lo máximo de su capacidad. Pero usando ese mismo razonamiento hay padres y estudiantes que si trabajan al 110% de su potencial y no tienen éxito en navegar por la tubería económica y educativa. ¿Comprenden la mayoría que los sistemas que guían a quienes aprenden y quien no, no les importa los latinos? No me disculpo en acertar que la ciudad, este estado y país abandonan a las poblaciones de habla español. ¿Por qué? Porque el 60% de estudiantes latinos no cumplirán el mínimo en su educación este año y cada año es peor. Los porteros piensan que se debe únicamente a una sola persona o problema de familia. Por eso pienso que nuestros estudiantes continúan a fallar desproporcionadamente y la razón por la cual no son hechos responsables. Ellos piensan, no podemos hablar ingles, no podemos asimilar las reglas. Cuando en realidad las reglas no fueron escritas para todos.

Vamos a escribir las reglas de nuevo fijándonos a los americanos de habla español como americanos que tienen tanta potencial como las poblaciones que no hablan español.  Me he rosado con tantas familias de Puerto Rico con títulos universitarios que no tienen ningún valor en Rochester. Y estos son ciudadanos americanos. Estos mismos padres desean que sus hijos vayan a la universidad pero están en escuelas que no los preparan para los exámenes, graduarse o la educación superior.

Así que, para todos los porteros: ¿Cómo convertimos a la avenida Clinton en  la avenida Park- con más azúcar cultural, por supuesto? Cómo invertimos, preparamos y empleamos a los recién llegados de Puerto para tener éxito en Rochester? Y por ultimo pero más importante, ¿cómo, y piensen en esto un largo rato, mi gente, lo hacemos a ustedes guardianes de los dólares de impuestos que están educando a los niños latinos en las escuelas que han aceptado el fracaso por más tiempo que la última actuación de Ricky Martin con Menudo? (Bueno yo soy niña de los ochenta pero es mas como 50 años de fracasos). Solo quise escribir Menudo por primera vez en mi vida adulta latina y probablemente la ultima pero, ya entienden mi punto, no.)

A call for collective reflection: Keeping the dream alive

Blooming dandelionIn browsing websites over the weekend and on MLK Day, I was struck with how many people posted quotes and called for action. It seems that a collective reflection, in writing, by Warner community members may be an opportunity to consider how it is that we, as a community, incorporate aspects of Dr. King’s commitment and work in our own teaching, learning and action. Below are two questions that seem germane. Please respond as you see fit.

“Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.
Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967

Each of us should look in the mirror and ask the question, “What are you doing to keep the dream alive?”
We could extend this to also answer the question, “What are we as the Warner community, doing to keep the dream alive?”