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.

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 Cancún: “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


  1. As a Texas school leader I constantly witness the negative effects of the "pobre cito" syndrome. Many families and students expect this and unfortunately many teachers provide it. All students, regardless of socio-econominc status, race or gender need to be challenged and guided towards success. In addition schools need to engage and partner with the community and families.

  2. AnonymousJune 01, 2011

    ¡Bien dicho y bien escrito!

  3. AnonymousJune 02, 2011

    My son is a latino student succeeding and soaring @ Walter Payton College Prep. He is a product of the Pilsen neighborhood but more importantly a product of a mexican immigrant parent who understood the value of education and nurtured and believed in him and always pushed him to reach for the stars.

  4. AnonymousJune 07, 2011

    The school system is flawed no doubt! The educational system cannot be solely to blame for our academic short comings! You succeeded, anonymous 1's kid is doing well, I've done pretty good so far. Another part of our academic failures as a culture is the huge influence of gangs in our communities. A big number of elementary students don't know what the world has to offer other than the boundaries set by the neighborhood gang. Thats all they know, what color and sign to use. Our parents and us as individuals have to learn how to think and explore what the world has to offer other than what is told to us. Like you said analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. Help yourself before you can be helped. We have to take responsibility for our own deficiencies before we blame CPS entirely. With all that said I still agree with your entry. We have to change their opinions about us one success story at a time.