What's this about?

What's this about?

This blog is not about the animal. This blog is writing by a Latino. A writer. An English teacher. A man who once lived in Chicago's 26th Street neighborhood.

My blog's title comes from a converstion I had with my friend Tony Laurel. When we met at an English teachers' meeting about a year ago, he said I was the only other Latino English teacher he knew: "We're white rhinos." According to National Geographic, there are about 11,000 white rhinos struggling to survive in the wild.

Unlike the animal, Latino English teachers are not an endangered species--there have never been many of us in the Chicago Public Schools. And we know the low number of Latinos with college degrees in our city.

I have a perspective that, like the white rhino, must fight to exist.

This is a challenge to myself: I must write. The writing here will include my responses, reflections, reactions to Latino- and education-related issues. Occasionally, I will promote others' writing, too. I will reveal my perspective without compromising the privacy of others. My goal is to post a couple times each month.

I invite you to read. Comment on my posts. Follow this blog by e-mail. And write.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The White Rhino Has Moved to Chicago Now!

My blog was accepted by Chicago Now, an online community of blogs.  Chicago Now is owned by the Chicago Tribune Media Group.  Follow the link in this post's title to see the new blog. 

Please continue reading.  And writing.


Monday, August 1, 2011

Keep Dreamin': Immigration Reform Ain't Gonna Happen Soon

The Dreamers are sleeping better this week.  This week’s passing of the Illinois DREAM Act allows undocumented high-school graduates, who have attended high school for at least three years, to apply for privately funded college scholarships.  Anyone with a taxpayer or Social Security number can also enroll in a state-run college-savings program.  Furthermore, high-school counselors must provide college information to immigrant children.

Although fundraising is just starting and although this does not pave the way toward legal residency for undocumented students, as the federal DREAM Act bill does, this law does provide promising opportunities so students fulfill their dream of attending college.  Nothing is being handed to them.

This victory also emphasizes another important point: U.S. immigration reform can only happen if it is linked to other efforts that will benefit this country.  Immigration reform for its own sake does not stand a chance.
A July 27 National Council of La Raza (NCLR) press release highlighted their survey results: "Immigration overwhelmingly trumps both the economy and education as the most important issue for Latinos, according to a recent poll of 547 supporters and attendees at the 2011 NCLR Annual Conference. Almost half (45 percent) of all respondents chose immigration as the top issue, as opposed to jobs and the economy (25 percent), education (21 percent), and health care (6 percent).”

I challenge NCLR’s interpretation of generalizing immigration as the priority for Latinos.  It’s not.  It’s a priority.  Besides the fact that this is a tiny poll for a national organization, NCLR’s results are distracting us from issues that can be won.  The Latino community, with many other groups, has worked to promote immigration reform for the last decade.  While I believe in this reform, while I support these efforts, immigration reform will not happen before the 2012 presidential election.  Quite simply, Obama needs to guarantee his second term.  If he pushes immigration reform with the same zeal he used for health-care reform, he’ll likely be  a one-term president.  A republican will replace him.

What NCLR should be promoting more is education reform—like the Illinois DREAM Act—that can be won and can change immigrants’ lives.  As of 10:00 a.m. on August 3, NCLR’s press releases still made no mention of Illinois’ accomplishment, further proving NCLR’s disconnect from true Latino issues and the Midwest experience.   

What we also need to realize is that there is not enough of an incentive for the U.S. to pass immigration reform now.

This fall will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  The anti-immigrant force will be strong and the reasoning senseless.  Not even Captain America could extinguish the generalizations and exaggerations that will be flung like fireballs at uncorrupted undocumented immigrants.  Immigration reform in and of itself cannot pass, no matter how many times we shout, “YES, YOU CAN!”

The struggling economy and high unemployment rate are other obstacles that fuel the anti-immigrant force.  Opposition leaders will say, “Reform immigration so more people can compete for jobs that are hard to find?  No way.”

Even if we imagine for a moment that immigration reform does pass soon (let’s pretend), it still will not solve the Latino educational crisis in this country.  We know that approximately 50% of Latinos drop out of high school.  According U.S. Census stats, in 2008 about two million Latinos enrolled in college compared to about twelve million white students.  In Chicago, not one high school in a predominately Latino neighborhood exists with the words “college prep” in its title.  When I taught at a top selective-enrollment high school  a few of years ago, I realized that there were only about one hundred low-income Latino students enrolled in a school of about 750 students. 

Every year, according to commonly used stats, approximately 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools (about 2% of each year’s graduating classes).  But not all of these undocumented students are Latino.

While immigration reform alone will grant legal residency to many Latinos, it will not guarantee success or political influence.  Citizenship and voting turnout will require additional efforts.  Education reform, on the other hand, has a better chance of changing our communities’ futures.  We must remember, there is not one Latino community.  The Mexican experience in this country is very different from the Puerto Ricans’, from the Cubans’, from the Dominicans’, from the Columbians’, and keep on going for all twenty-one Latin American countries.  Even in Chicago, the 18th Street Latino experience is not the same as the one on 26th Street.  As one of my students once said, “It’s the same but it’s different.”
This diversity is what keeps immigration reform from becoming the Latino priority.  Our poor Latino education experience, however, affects the entire country.  And reforming this system will benefit everyone.  A better education for Latinos will produce non-debatable gains:
  • We can increase high-school graduation rates and job readiness.
  • We can decrease the number of Latinos on public assistance.
  • We can change college enrollment and degree completion stats.
  • We can educate Latinos about better health care options and lifestyle choices.
  • We can make better financial decisions that will lead to long-term stability.
  • We can convince ourselves that civic involvement has an impact.
  • We can change this country’s cultural capital so our experiences mean more than a few pesos.
  • Finally, we can push more educated people into policy-making positions to lead immigration reform, not stand behind it.
On August 3, President Obama will celebrate his 50th birthday at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom.  I know some immigration-reform advocates will be “welcoming” him with chants of “Yes, You Can!”  I wonder, though, if we’re hurting our own progress by asking for the impossible this term.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Trouble at Home: How Should Parishes Respond to Domestic Violence?

As I searched for a subject for my next post, I came across this article written by the former pastor at my parish, St. Pius V in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.  Known for its progressive approaches to Catholicism, this parish provides numerous support services.  A well-recognized program helps couples, women mostly, who are dealing with domestic violence.

This topic is, unfortunately, too well known to our Latino students.  This article provides a perspective that challenges out-dated, irrelevant religious philosophies and reminds us that domestic violence cannot be tolerated and should not be ignored--even if culturally we are raised to ignore others' domestic disputes.

I'm interrupting my writing to share this article because of the important work my church does.  Even if you are not a religious person, please read the article for the sake of social consciousness.

To read the article, follow this link:


Friday, June 24, 2011

Cameron Diaz and Other Reasons People Hate Chicago Teachers

They say there are two topics to avoid among new friends: religion and politics.  These days, I add a third—education.  Cameron Diaz’s new movie Bad Teacher isn’t going to make conversations about education easier.  Diaz plays a teacher in the profession for all the wrong reasons.  The movie isn’t getting good reviews and, this summer, neither are Chicago teachers.

I was at a birthday banquet in May and sat at a table with a family member’s friends.   After they learned I was a teacher, one woman skeptically asked me what I thought of my new boss, Jean-Claude Brizard.  “I haven’t met the guy,” I said, “but I hope his vision is beneficial for our city. And, actually, the principal is my boss.”

She responded quickly with another question: “what do you think of those dual-language programs?”  I said, “I love the one my son is in.”  I explained Namaste Charter School’s program and emphasized the value if they are run properly.  But this wasn’t a conversation.  It was an interview.  Or an inquiry.  Luckily, the mariachi started playing and we couldn’t hear ourselves anymore.  We sipped our drinks and, after dinner, I moved to another table.

When people ask teachers for our educational view, I don’t think many of them really care what we say.  Most people, like with religion, like with politics, have their minds made up about education.  It’s almost as if people listen so they can tell themselves, “I knew it.”  In many conversations, I’ve sensed the skepticism people have for teachers.  Part of the reason (to quote my wife) is everyone has been educated; therefore, everyone thinks he’s an education expert.  Many people value what teachers do, but, in many more cases, teachers do not have public support.  Even in Bad Teacher, Diaz’s suburban Chicago character fails at getting reviewers to believe in her. 

It’s probably because the comedy isn’t funny.  Diaz’s character wants a job with short hours, summers off, and no accountability.  Sadly, there are teachers who teach for exactly these reasons.  Not funny.  Those of us who do work beyond the bell, in the summer, and hold ourselves accountable don’t think that’s funny either. 

Recent CPS decisions make the conversation about teachers, especially those bad ones, even less humorous.  Because of the Board’s recent decision to rescind the annual 4% raise, 25% of teachers will not get an increase.  The 75% with less than fifteen years of experience will receive a 1-5% increase.  I will not get a pay increase this year.  I’m O.K. with this. 

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is organizing protests but I won’t be attending any.  They have some public support but I wish they would let this issue go.  The public, in general, is not supporting this fight. 

A June 16 Tribune article emphasized these facts:
  • The average teacher salary in CPS today is $69,000.
  • In 2009, a teacher with 10 years of experience and a master's degree earned $74,526. This year, that teacher earned almost $6,000 more.
This makes it too easy for the public to say, “Teachers have it good.”  Sometimes CTU President Karen Lewis cites a rise in health care costs as the reason we need the raise.  Everyone else’s costs are going up, too.  Many have lost their insurance.  The public isn’t going to jump on the bandwagon of CTU support.  “Teachers,” they’ll say, “have it really good.”

In a June 17 Chicago News Cooperative article, a CPS teacher recognized that once upon a time, “People paid us attention. It’s a joke now.”  

It’s our own union’s fault.  The public cannot be engaged with the generalizations CTU regularly uses.

On WTTW’s Chicago Tonight June 15 show, Karen Lewis said, "We are still shocked that the Board would take an action that could possibly lead to a strike.”

I wasn’t shocked.  And many colleagues predicted the Board’s decision. 

In a June 19 Tribune editorial, Karen Lewis wrote, “That's what drives our 30,000 members to stay at work late.”  But we know not every single union member works late.

Later, she writes, “It's what drives us to make sure that every last student gets the help she needs.”  But we know that not every single student is getting the help she needs.

She continues by writing, “Come what may, our teachers will always put our children first.”  But we know there are teachers who do not.  Many of us sat in front of one or work with one.  We know that unions are designed to put their members first, not the people their members serve.

Some may criticize me for being anti-union.  I believe in unions but not in the CTU’s generalized reasoning.  If the CTU accepts a Board decision, we are not going back to medieval teaching conditions and women will not be prevented from taking maternity leave—these are the consequences critics use against me. 

Instead, if we accept the Board’s decision to rescind raises for 25% of us, teachers will gain more public support.  Let’s face it--central office administrators are going to make more money than lots of us.  But central office is not a pleasant or stable place to work.  I worked there two years and left.

Union leaders complain about central office salaries but they haven’t published their own salaries recently.  Lots of us are wondering, with any special allowances and benefits, how much do union leaders make?  On June 22, Lewis’s spokesperson told a Sun-Times columnist she didn’t know the president’s salary.   

What the CTU needs to do is lead the conversation on performance evaluation instead of following it.  I was at a focus group meeting a few months ago and left confused.  I believe in merit pay as an option.  I just don’t understand how it will happen fairly.  CTU cannot wait and then react angrily to a merit-pay plan.  Karen Lewis’s team needs to provide realistic options that will help good teachers succeed in a merit pay system that is on its way. 

A longer school day is also in the works and, possibly, home visits.  For too long, CTU has used enough resources to protect bad teachers.  I’ve seen it.  Now it’s time to lead the talks to help the good ones, not the bad teacher.

Cameron Diaz’s movie director got the title right despite the bad reviews.  If CTU does not change its focus or its generalizations, our bad reviews are going to continue.

Sources mentioned in order:
June 15, 2011 WTTW Chicago Tonight

Friday, June 17, 2011

Listen to me on National Public Radio

With the help of producer Teshima Walker, I'm back on National Public Radio.  A version of my first blog post aired today (June 17) on Tell Me More as part of their Father's Day essays series.

Check it out at the link below.  If you're reading this after June 17, select that date on the drop-down menu.


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

You Speak So Well

It was after a faculty meeting a few years ago that one of my colleagues came up to me in the parking lot and said, “Ray.  You speak so well.” 
I responded, “Uh. O.K.” She continued to talk and, in her mind, continue the compliment while silently, in my mind, I wondered, “Why do you sound so surprised?”
I thanked her and used the growing traffic as an excuse to end her monologue.  As the year went on, I got to know this colleague better and despite what I believe to be her sincere intention, I still count her compliment as a reality check.  No matter how many college degrees we earn, how successfully we lead in our careers, how articulate we are in one or more languages, we can still be treated like the indios tourists admire condescendingly from tour buses near CancĂșn: “How charming.”
It’s our cultural charm that has allowed Latino students to accept inferior educational services for decades.  We remain, in many ways, like the indigenous beggars who hold out their hands for whatever benevolence the wealthy release in their favor. 
In Chicago, many Latino students remain like those beggars, waiting with anticipatory thanks for any handout that will get us through the academic year. 
Our city’s educational reform movement has failed the Latino community.  While many schools in African American neighborhoods have been torn down, rebuilt, remodeled, renamed, restructured, or re-imagined for success, schools in Latino communities remain insignificantly changed.   The African American community—by all means—deserves better schools.  And they should not sacrifice their gains—by any means.  What we as Latinos must learn from our African American counterparts is we must speak up and—above all—remain united in a cause.
What educational leaders must significantly recognize to improve the poor quality of Latino education is—the poor quality of Latino education is not significantly recognized.
On May 12, Time.com published an article titled “The Education Crisis No One Is Talking About" (link at the bottom).
The problem with the article is that it misleads the conversation by de-emphasizing the low-quality of educational settings many Latinos face—overcrowded schools, limited school choice, deficit-based educators—and emphasizes the same ol’ argument that they’re (we’re) all English-language learners.
No wonder people are surprised when one of us can speak well.
While the article may stir some coffee talk, it does little to highlight the deeper, widespread educational problems in our communities.  The biggest obstacle not recognized in the article is the deficit-based view we confront every day.  I faced it with my colleague in the parking lot.
In Chicago, we face it when we look for a high school in a Latino community with the words “college prep” in the name.  Not one exists. 
We face it when 2010 U.S. Census data tells us that in Chicago's 26th Street neighborhood there are at least 10,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 14 (link at the bottom).  With only two high schools that cannot hold all of them and many others bus rides far away, our young people are destined to drop out.
The other disadvantage not mentioned in the article is that, in general, we are a population too nice to work with.  Quedamos bien.  Regularly.  Our music, art, cuisine, and soap-operatic history make us pleasant company.  If our humility overtakes us, we are powerless.
Our organized revolts do not compare in number or impact to those of the African American community.  We can organize around immigration reform but even that is losing its momentum.  Furthermore, these efforts just contribute to the notion that we’re all recent immigrants that should be grateful we are here.  We’ve been here.  We’re staying.  Lots of us know English.
Another problem not mentioned in the Time article is the ill-founded view of cultural capital.  Some teachers think they’re giving Latino students the knowledge they need to make it in America.  Students have to read the “classics,” know all the Greek gods (Roman, too), and regurgitate Constitutional amendments in chronological order.  All of this is done too many times without looking at any national standards.  Will all of this help low-income Latino students compete with affluent students whose future is guaranteed? Not if it is unconnected to what the ACT has identified as the essentials for college readiness.  Like it or not, ACT controls whether or not our students get into college. 
No.  We, as teachers, can control that.
What our students need is educators who believe students can learn the College Readiness Standards—and educators who can teach these standards.  That means teachers have to know their content as evidenced by more than our self-imposed expertise.   Our communities need teachers who believe our students can analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.  That means our teachers must be able to do this as well. 
We need educators who believe the cultural capital our students need is grounded in today’s ever-changing reality of ideas, not in their own educational experiences in a context from another time, another place.  This means we need teachers who can look beyond their personal bias against standards and realize that standards can be used to engage students with real-world tasks that make them question and change social structures. 
I remember another conversation with a colleague who said he didn’t teach the ACT’s College Readiness Standards and looked down on me because I did.  When I asked him how he would explain his reasoning to me if my own children were in his class, he couldn’t. 
If any teacher looks at the ACT College Readiness Standards (I mean really looks at them not just says he did) and says he won’t teach them, that teacher doesn’t belong in education—especially not in the Latino community.  We’ve had too many people make decisions for us.  What the obstinate educators may really be hiding behind their opposition is their own ignorance: “I don’t know this stuff” or “I don’t know how to teach it.”  In that case, they better learn because our students deserve someone who does.

We need to take our high-quality real-world projects and connect them to national standards.  But there's a caveat.  At one high school where I taught briefly, we had over 50% of the students in honors and college-prep English classes and all of these students came from a middle school where over 70% of the students met or exceeded writing standards on the ISAT.  But the writing curriculum--created by our literacy coaches--was still deficit based.  We were given curriculum maps that started writing instruction with lowest English College Readiness Standards about subject-verb agreement and prepositions.  One of the worksheets had students identify prepositions like this: Fish swim (above / below) the water.  Circle one.  

We need to align our work with national standards in challenging ways.  If we do not, we are limiting our students’ opportunities nationally.
What I realized after teaching at one of Chicago’s top selective-enrollment schools for four years is that magnet-school students are not always gifted.  They are, however, always confident.  Many people have told them they can succeed.  So when their intellect struggles, their confidence kicks in.  Low-income Latino students can learn this survival technique, too.
As educators, we need an asset-based view of our students so we can look beyond language issues, migration patterns, poverty.  We need to believe our Latino students can succeed with a college-prep curriculum and include this belief in a high school’s name—just like Chicago’s Hope College Prep, Brooks College Prep, King College Prep, North Lawndale College Prep, UIC College Prep, Westinghouse College Prep, Jones College Prep, Payton College Prep, Northside College Prep.  None of these is in a Latino neighborhood.
Most of all, we need to stop being so condescendingly surprised when Latino students succeed.  We can speak well; write well; think.  And we should speak up more.

Links referenced above:

Time.com’s “The Education Crisis No  One Is Talking About” http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2070930,00.html?xid=fbshare

2010 U.S. Census data on Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Like the cell phone, the teen is on silent

I have 13-year-old students who have fancier phones than me.  Despite the fact they have these high-tech gadgets, they struggle to communicate--with me, their parents, each other, and, probably, themselves.

What teenager wouldn't want a fancy phone?  It plays music. It takes pictures.  It connects them to the Web.  It does everything.  It does everything for them.  So we have a population of Latinos growing up with a sense of entitlement I had only witnessed in white culture. 

I've been in education for sixteen years.  I remember the struggles of my Latino students at an alternative high school in 1995.  They just wanted to survive, get their diploma.  They were scared about what came next.  At another Southwest Side high school about ten years ago, the Latinos knew they were better off than those living in Pilsen (before it got more gentrified) or Little Village.  But I don't remember the arrogance--the "booshwazee" attitude.

The housing boom helped many families leave Latino low-income neighborhoods around the time my wife and I did eight years ago.  They, we, moved to West Lawn and other Southwest Side communities.  The housing crisis now, however, has these same families who "got out" struggling in a lifestyle that is difficult to keep up. 

I've heard more than one parent say, "We give them everything."  But the problem is that many of the kids are not giving anything in return.  One young woman I know is planning her cotillion.  I told her she swears so much, she's probably going to let an F bomb slip out when she's welcoming her guests.  She joked: "I'll be like, 'You're all bitches.' "  We laughed.  She's been a lot quieter in class since our conversation.

Then there's the other type of rebellion.  Teens (and pre-teens) hide in their closets to text, talk, or Facebook all night.  They keep passwords from their parents.  I wonder if the parents ever read the texts.  Parents will say there's trust.  But there's also the unknown.  Who's texting?  At what time?  What kind of pictures are they sending?  How many contacts do they have?  Who's Rooster?

When parents don't instill a value of responsible communication at home, it makes my job as a writing teacher much harder.

I know most parents' intentions are honest: we want to give our children what we did not have.  But with these new objects and opportunities, we must give them the values to be responsible with the phones and with themselves.  I know I will struggle with this as a father.  I think about it every day. 

I understand how necessary it can be to silence the conflicts in our lives like we can silence our phones.  We can reject our calls--kindly even, with a text.  So I think many parents who are struggling with house payments and car loans want to silence the challenges of adolescence.  "It's so I can call you anytime," the mother says.  But the kid may not accept the call.

It's not just the lower-income families who face this problem.  More-financially-stable families also run this risk, maybe more.  Parents see giving them everything as an investment in the future, but my concern is that the teens are growing up with the idea that opportunities can be bought, assumed.  And like many in my generation, the next generation of Latinos will grow up in extreme debt buying cars, TVs, phones that distract us from problems and possible solutions.  Or they'll wonder, "Why can't the school give me more financial aid?"

Until then, we can focus on the present.  We can limit how much time our kids spend with the portable DS video game thing my own kids have.  We can take away phones at night.  We can get their passwords.  We can sit next to our teens and review their posts and teach them to respect themselves.  We can make them get summer jobs--even if they don't get paid.

Most importantly, we can hear our kids and they can listen to us.