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 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.