Six Reasons Why the Opt Out Movement is Good for Students and Parents of Color

By Jesse Hagopian, first published in The Progressive magazine

Corporate education reformers who seek to reduce teaching and learning to a single score are beginning to realize they are losing the public relations battle. Hundreds of thousands of families across the country are opting out in what has become largest revolt against high-stakes testing in U.S. history.

Because most of their arguments are increasingly discredited because of this uprising, they are desperately attempting to cling to one last defense of the need to subject our students to a multibillion-dollar testing industry.

Charles F. Coleman, Jr. supported this last ditch effort for the “testocracy” when he took up former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s argument that opposition to standardized testing was only from out of touch “white suburban moms.” Coleman has in the past written pieces in support of making black lives matter, but in this careless piece he dismissed the opt out movement as a privileged white effort:

Boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most….White parents from well-funded and highly performing areas are participating in petulant, poorly conceived protests that are ultimately affecting inner-city blacks at schools that need the funding and measures of accountability to ensure any hope of progress in performance.

Here are six reasons why Coleman’s belief that opting out hurts students of color is fundamentally flawed and why his belief that accountability and academic success require high-stakes standardized testing is just plain old wrong.

1. Extreme over-testing disproportionately harms students of color.

Coleman admits in his essay, “there should be concerns raised over excessive testing and devoting too much classroom instruction to test prep.” But he doesn’t acknowledge how destructive excessive testing has become (especially for children of color) or credit the opt out movement for revealing the outsized role that testing is playing in education. No one — certainly not the media — would even be talking about the excessive testing in schools if it wasn’t for the opt out movement. And the amount of testing in the public schools today isn’t just excessive — it’s extreme. The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation!

But the crux of the issue is that the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color. Schools that serve more black and brown students have become test-prep factories rather than incubators of creativity and critical thinking. The corporate education reformers behind high stakes testing, like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family want their own kids to have the time and support to explore the arts, music, drama, athletics, debate and engage in a rich curriculum of problem solving and critical thinking. Rote memorization for the next standardized tests is good enough for the rest of us.

2. Communities of color are increasingly joining and leading the opt out movement.

While it’s true that currently the students opting out are disproportionately white, to portray opting out as a white people thing is to make invisible the important leadership role that people of color have played around the country. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, a black women, is one of the most important leaders in the country against corporate education reform, and she led the union in the “Let Us Teach!” campaign against high-stakes testing. The Black opt out rate reached 10 percent in Chicago last year. PTA co-chairs Đào X. Trần and Elexis Loubriel-Pujols at New York City’s Castlebridge Elementary School (comprising 72 percent students of color) led the opt out movement there. They gained national prominence and helped to ignite the opt out movement across the country in 2013 when more than 80 percent of families refused to allow their kids to take a standardized test. The school had to cancel the test altogether.

One of the largest student protests against high-stakes testing in U.S. history occurred last spring when many hundreds of students in New Mexico — at schools that served 90% Latino students — walked out of school and refused to take the new Common Core exams. In Ohio, a recent study shows that communities of color and low-income communities opt out at nearly the same rates as whiter and wealthier ones.

In my hometown, the Seattle/King County NAACP hosted a press conference last spring to encourage parents to opt out of the Common Core tests. As Seattle NAACP president Gerald Hankerson put it, “…the Opt Out movement is a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice in our region. Using standardized tests to label black people and immigrants ‘lesser,’ while systematically under-funding their schools, has a long and ugly history in this country.”

Or check out the brilliant podcast, “These Tests Will Go,” The Opt-Out Movement in Urban Philadelphia, which documents the uprising of African American parents determined to make their kids more than a test score and fighting for the programs their kids deserve.

3. The federal government hasn’t punished schools for opting out.

Coleman argues that if the number of students taking the required standardized tests drops below 95 percent, the government can cut funding to schools, and that will be most damaging to students of color. However,the federal government has never — not even once — cut funds to a school district for its high opt out numbers. While No Child Left Behind initially had a provision for penalties against large opt out numbers, which carried over to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the “testocracy” seems to be too afraid to use this clause.

Moreover, the opt out movement holds the potential to actually increase the amount of school funding. The many millions of dollars wasted on ranking and sorting our children with standardized tests every year could be spent on tutoring programs, counseling services, art teachers, nurses, librarians, music programs, ethnic studies classes, and many services our children deserve.

4.Test-and-Punish policies are cruel and inequitable.

High-stakes tests are being used around the country to label children and schools as failing, to prevent kids from graduating, to fire teachers, and to close schools. Chicago Board of Education voted in 2013 to close some 49 of the city’s public schools — schools that served approximately 87 percent black students. In 71 percent of the schools had a majority of teachers and staff were African-Americans. The standardized tests the students take register racial and class bias, measure the lack of resources available to schools, and then provide cover for shutting them down.

A review by the National Research Council concluded high school graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement, but they have raised the dropout rate. African American, Latino, American Indian and low-income students are far more likely to be denied a diploma for not passing a test. High stakes tests often inaccurately assess English language learners — measuring their understating of English and the dominant culture rather than the subject they are being tested in. Boston University economics professor Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed,” links increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams to increased incarceration rates.

5) Standardized testing was invented by white supremacists and maintains institutional racism today.

Once you know the history of standardized tests in public schools, you can never fall for Coleman’s absurd assertion that, “boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most.” Standardized tests first entered American public schools in the 1920s, at the urging of eugenicists whose pseudoscience proclaimed that white males were naturally smarter. As Rethinking Schools editorialized, “high-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a ‘mental ability’ gap and now an ‘achievement’ gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.”

One of these early eugenicists was Carl Brigham, a professor at Princeton University and author of the white supremacist manifesto, A Study of American Intelligence. Brigham developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known as the SAT. Some of the most important early voices in opposition to intelligence testing — especially in service of ranking the races — came from leading African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Long. Horace Mann Bond, in his work “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,”noted in 1924 what today we call the “Zip Code Effect” — what standardized tests really measure is a student’s proximity to wealth and the dominant culture.

6. There are better ways than high stakes testing to improve education for children of color.

Coleman asserts that, “Standardized testing, albeit imperfect, remains one of the best ways to ensure that teachers, schools, and school districts are held accountable for making sure children are succeeding.” A huge body of evidence contradicts this statement, and points to the power of an inquiry based pedagogy, coupled with authentic forms of assessment. Take, for example, the New York Consortium Schools for Performance Based Assessment. These fully public schools have a waiver from state tests and instead use performance-based assessments. Students work with a faculty mentor to develop an idea, conduct research, and then defend a body of work to a panel of experts — including school administration, other teachers, and outside experts and practitioners in the field of study.

If the testocracy is right — if it’s true that high-stakes standardized testing is the key to improving accountability and performance — then these New York consortium schools that don’t give the state standardized test should be the very worst schools in New York City. However, comprehensives studies show Consortium Schools have higher graduation rates, better college attendance rates, and smaller gaps in outcomes between students of color and their white peers than the rest of New York’s public schools.

Conclusion: Hold the system accountable

Coleman’s arguments lamenting students of color score worse on the tests than their white peers — without acknowledging the ways in which systematic underfunding of schools, poverty, and institutional racism have disfigured our school system — end up pathologizing communities of color rather than supporting them. The U.S. school system is more segregated today than at any time since 1968. The majority of students attending public school in the U.S. today live in poverty. The school-to-prison-pipeline (including disproportionate suspension rates and the use of high-stakes testing) has contributed to the fact that there are now more black people behind bars, on probation, or on parole than were slaves on plantations in 1850. As education professor Pedro Noguera has said, “We’ve developed an accountability system that holds those with the most power the least accountable.”

Our task must be to build multiracial alliances in the opt out movement that can produce the kind of solidarity it will take to defeat a testing juggernaut that is particularly destructive to communities of color — while causing great damage to all of our schools. And while must begin by standing up to the multibillion dollar testing industry by opting out, we must also create a vision for an uprising that opts in to antiracist curriculum, ethnic studies programs, wrap around services to support the academic and social and emotional development of students, programs to recruit teachers of color, restorative justice programs that eliminate zero tolerance discipline practices, and beyond.

Now, back to writing that opt out letter for my son.

Jesse Hagopian is a Rethinking Schools editor and the Progressive Education Seattle Fellow. Jesse teaches history and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School–the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013. Jesse is the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. You can follow Jesse on his blog, IAmAnEducator.com, or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian

Moé Yonamine Blog on Black Lives Matter

Hoodies Up! Black Lives Matter!

By Moé Yonamine

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“I don’t understand why people talk about him like he’s a criminal. He was a 17 year-old kid,” Kiana said. Kiana was one of more than 100 students in my Mock Trial classes at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon. As the most diverse high school in the state, our students brought in stories and connections to the criminal justice system that could not—and should not— be ignored in critically analyzing the justice system.

Many of my students have expressed feeling excluded by the legal and criminal justice system in talking about what is truly “just.” From the first day of class, students made it known that they were hungry for the real education—one that was relevant to their lives, that empowered them with learning about fighters who looked like them, and that gave them tools to change systemic injustices that they have seen in their own lives. Learning about Trayvon Martin was an important example.

Many students who are now juniors and seniors, brought up Trayvon Martin’s name when offering examples of injustice in the criminal justice system. Even some of the youngest 9th-grade students could recall where they were as middle schoolers when they learned about George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict.

Students could see themselves in Trayvon or in someone they care about. The heartbreaking question that continued to surface was: If this can happen to Trayvon, what does it say about society’s love and value of our lives? We read, we wrote, and we shared about each other’s stories of a time they or someone they know or watched experienced racial injustice. Several students gave recent examples of being stopped or harassed as they wore their hoodie. Dave, a white freshman student chimed in compassionately, “But it’s not like everyone gets stopped,” he said. “I could probably walk around with a hoodie on all day long wherever I go and not get harassed. It’s just wrong.”

Through these first months of school, we continued to hear on the news about Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice. We watched Usher’s new music video, “Chains” and Janelle Monae and Wondaland’s recent performance in Portland of their song, “Hell You Talmabout,” that sings through a painful list of unarmed African Americans who have been killed nationally, and in the Portland area.

“Why don’t we know about any of these people?” asked Reanna. “What can we do? I just want to cry.” Over winter break, many watched the news, and learned that the police officers who shot and killed Tamir Rice would not face trial. At the chime of the bell to begin class on the first day back, Myia began, “I could not wait to come back to school and talk about this. What was so reasonable about shooting a 12-year-old kid?”

As a teacher, I want to create a community where students can feel embraced in their sense of justice and injustice, to be able to imagine a more just world, and to learn how to be agents in making change. We had to learn how to organize for action and it needed to start in our own neighborhood. I encouraged students to go back to the questions that we started the year with as we began to educate ourselves on the criminal justice system and the prison system: What is the problem? What is the solution? Whose voices are included? Whose voices are missing?

Our Mock Trial classes watched a speech by Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who spoke at Maranatha Church in Portland last April asking the community to remember her son on his birthday with a special message to youth to be a part of taking action to creating a more just community. The students quickly reflected that their voices as youth from their North Portland neighborhood were missing. Our neighborhood is comprised of immigrants and refugee peoples with historically underrepresented African American and Latino groups, as well as low-income white families. Students were inspired to target February 5th, Trayvon Martin’s birthday, as a day of action to address systemic racism and racial profiling.

The students busily designed not just one project, but six projects leading to their day of action: creating fliers calling on a school-wide wearing of hoods, drafting letters to teachers and administrators, developing a student survey to ask about peer experiences, reaching out to the media about the day of action, and organizing a panel of prominent fighters from the African American community. Students in my three classes composed this letter:

Dear Teachers,

When we learned about Trayvon Martin, a lot of us were very impacted by his story. He was 17 years old from Miami. He, like us, had many dreams; one of which was to attend the University of Miami to study aviation and become a pilot. He was known for wearing his hoodie all year round even on the hottest summer days and was wearing a hoodie on his last day. What got to us also was the way that he was described in the trial and in a lot of the media as if he was “suspicious” or bad because he, as a young Black man, walked around wearing a hoodie. This is something that many of us can relate with and we want it to stop.

We put on a trial back in the fall and learned a lot about what happened on that last day. We also have been paying attention to reactions from around the country and learned about how “Black Lives Matter” began as a response by one of the founders in hearing about the verdict of George Zimmerman. Even since that verdict, we still keep hearing stories like Trayvon’s and we want to take a stand… We ask you, our teachers, to stand with us by wearing your hood. We also ask you to support your students in keeping their hoods on during class. It is a silent statement but a loud statement we hope to make together. He could have been someone we know or someone we care about.

Having our school united on this day with our hoods up will send a message that Black Lives Matter and our lives matter here. Our school may be the first one to have a school-wide Hoodies-Up Day in Portland and can lead our community by making this an annual reminder. We hope to inspire our neighborhood to take action by taking this stand against racism and racial profiling. If there is one thing we have taken away from this organizing for this day, it is that we will be active participators in making history and not passive bystanders watching it all happen.

Their statement was read over the intercom the morning of the Hoodies-Up day this past Friday. As students and staff flooded the halls in hoods, students boldly sought solidarity in their stand to end systemic racism and racial profiling.

In the afternoon, the students were met with a dynamic presentation on “Justice Is…” by educators, activists and community organizers: Julian Hipkins of Washington, DC’s Teaching for Change (via skype), Nyanga Uuka and Llondyn Elliott of the Portland Urban League, Kayse Jama of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, CJ Robbins of the City of Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights and Black Male Advancement, and Renée Mitchell, a prominent slam poet of Spit/WRITE who teaches journalism and storytelling at Roosevelt. Panelists spoke passionately about their own experiences with racial injustice, sharing stories of taking action individually and collectively, while commending this day of action and students’ courage.

As more than 120 students leaned in hungry to take in the panelists’ every word, a sophomore student of mine, Miley, leaned over to me and said, “This is just the beginning.” She smiled proudly, adding: “We’re never going to forget this day.”

To the media, the students had a strong message. “A hoodie doesn’t define me,” said TJ, signaling his resistance to the prejudice and discrimination he sees around him. “Know the person under the hood,” echoed Carter, demanding the world to see the humanity in the child that Trayvon was. Roosevelt’s Mock Trial students hope that this will be the first of many events where they as youth will be central in the vision and action for the changes they want in our community and society.

Roosevelt students

Roosevelt Black Lives Matter Panel–View more photos from the day of action on Portland Public Schools flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/41430185@N08/albums/72157664399122315

Moé Yonamine teaches at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon. She is a Rethinking Schools editor.

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Abolish Columbus Day

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Christopher Columbus was the first European to send enslaved people from the Americas to Europe, as well as the first to promote the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. And yet we still honor him with a national holiday? Please donate now to help Rethinking Schools teach a new generation of students the truth about Columbus and the people who were here first.

Almost 25 years ago, Rethinking Schools published our first booklet, Rethinking Columbus. We believed there were teachers besides us who would be eager for an alternative to the rah-rah Columbus-discovered-America textbook fare. We had no idea just how eager teachers were: Rethinking Columbus sold a thousand copies a day, seven days a week, for the first three months the booklet was in print. And, thanks to Native American organizations, teacher unions, social justice education groups, and progressive teacher education programs, Rethinking Columbus has gone on to become a resource in classrooms throughout the country.

Recently, we’ve been gratified to see the explosion of activism with cities and school districts voting to abolish Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day: Albuquerque, N. M.; Seattle and Olympia, Wash.; St. Paul, Minn.; Anadarko, Okla.; Portland, Ore.;  . . . and the list continues to grow.

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Have you seen my dad? image

“¿Qué es deportar?”: Teaching from students’ lives by Sandra L. Osorio

Image Credit: Joe Brusky 
(Text available in Spanish on our website.) 

Our class was part of a developmental bilingual program with all native Spanish speakers. I had introduced literature discussions the previous year when I had the same students in 1st grade, but now I was carefully choosing books with themes I thought would resonate with my students’ lives, including the complexities of being bilingual and bicultural. In Del Norte al Sur, José desperately misses his mother, who has been deported to Tijuana because she doesn’t have the right papers to be in the United States. I knew that some of my students were also missing members of their families. One student’s father had been deported back to Mexico and he had not seen him in years. Another student’s father had separated from her mother and moved to a city more than three hours away. I hoped these two students would connect with José’s problems and begin to talk about their feelings. I soon learned that many other students shared similar feelings and experiences.

Although immigration is passionately debated in the media, it is an issue often ignored in schools, even though it’s central to the lived experiences of Latina/o children — even those born in the United States. This was something I didn’t realize until I created space for students’ lives in the curriculum.

I originally decided to teach bilingual students because of the struggles I had faced as a bilingual child myself. I attended a bilingual (Spanish-English) preschool, but when my parents enrolled me in a private, English-only kindergarten, they were told to immediately stop speaking Spanish to me because it would “confuse me.” This was surprising to my parents — I had not even entered the classroom yet. My parents made the decision to continue to speak Spanish in our household; they wanted me to be able to communicate with our extended family in Colombia. I am grateful for this decision because it allowed me to grow up bilingual and maintain ties to my bicultural heritage.

At school, I don’t remember ever reading a story with a main character who was bilingual or bicultural. Because Latina/o culture and people were invisible in the curriculum, I felt I had to keep my Spanish language knowledge at home and hidden from my teachers and classmates.

I did not want another generation of students to feel like I did. I wanted to help students build and nurture their cultural and linguistic pride. I wanted to make sure that bilingual students were held to the same high expectations as other students. And I wanted them to understand that they did not have to give up their home language to be successful.

So I fulfilled my dream and became a teacher. All of my students were emergent bilinguals who spoke Spanish as their home language and were born in the United States, many in the same town where our school is located. Of my 20 students, 16 were of Mexican descent, three were Guatemalan, and one child had one Guatemalan parent and one Mexican parent.

Bilingual Isn’t Necessarily Bicultural

Our program was supposed to be one of academic enrichment, using both the students’ native language and English for academic instruction. The primary goal was development of biliteracy. In 2nd grade, 70 percent of the school day was to be in Spanish and 30 percent in English. But since 3rd graders in the program were not “making benchmark” on state tests, I was pressured to introduce more English in my 2nd-grade classroom.

For the first couple of years I was a rule follower. I implemented the exact curriculum passed down from the administration without question, including the required language arts curriculum. It was a scripted basal reader program — the exact same one used by the non-bilingual classrooms — only it had been translated into Spanish. Each week we read a story from an anthology and worked on the particular reading skill dictated by the manual.

This was convenient for me as a beginning teacher because it is challenging to find quality texts in Spanish. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, of an estimated 5,000 children’s books published in the United States in 2014, only 66 were about Latinas/os. At least, I told myself, my students were reading in their native language on a daily basis.

Yet I began noticing that my students were not seeing themselves in the stories we read. The basal reader had more than 20 different stories, but only one that included a Latina/o-looking individual, and nowhere in the story did it talk about any of the complexities of being a bilingual or bicultural child.

My students were learning to read in Spanish that had been translated from the English, with texts that were Latina/o-culture free. The basal reader conveyed a clear message: Diverse experiences don’t matter. Every student was treated the same, given the same story to read, and taught the same skills. There was no differentiation. There was no mirror. There was no joy.

I began to question whether what I was doing was in the best interests of my students. I realized that I had to be the one to advocate for them.

I decided to bring in more literature written by Latina/o authors about Latina/o children. I began to compile a list of books by award-winning authors on such lists as the Pura Belpré, the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, and the Américas Award. I also looked for additional books by authors I already knew: Alma Flor Ada, Gloria Anzaldúa, and René Colato Laínez. In addition to Del Norte al Sur, the books I chose included La superniña del cilantro, by Juan Felipe Herrera; Esperando a Papá, by René Colato Laínez; Prietita y la llorona, by Gloria Anzaldúa; and Pepita habla dos veces, by Ofelia Dumas Lachtman.

The greatest challenge I faced was getting multiple copies of the books I wanted my students to read in small groups. To clear this roadblock, I applied for and received a grant to purchase books. I also borrowed copies from colleagues and scoured the shelves of multiple public libraries around the area. One way or the other, I was able to get four to five copies of each book.

I centered the literature discussion groups around four themes: Family, Cultural Stories, Language, and English. For each theme, I gave students four or five titles to choose from. I started each unit by giving a book talk in which I shared a few passages from each of the book choices. Then I gave students time to browse through the books and fill out a ballot ranking their top choices. Each group of literature discussions was five days long, including two days of preparation and three days of group discussion that I facilitated. Students prepared for discussions by reading the story and marking the book with sticky notes. They used the sticky notes so they would remember what they wanted to say in the discussion group. To help with that process, I gave them a sheet with sentence starters.

When our classroom shifted from basal-based reading instruction to literature-based discussions, I noticed an immediate change in my students. They were more engaged in the stories. Through the personal connections they shared, I learned new things about them and their families. Our literature discussion groups became a place where we came together and shared our joys and the difficulties we were going through. It became a place where we learned that we were not alone, and that the curriculum could be a space for reflecting and holding our own experiences. Students who had been labeled with “low proficiency” in reading on the benchmark test at the beginning of the school year were often the ones talking the most during the discussions. Our conversations helped them feel more comfortable, see themselves in the curriculum, and explore their multiple identities. They were acquiring the tools and space to unpack complex issues in their lives.

Making Space for Students’ Fears

In Del Norte al Sur, one of the books in our Family theme, we read about José going with his father to Tijuana to visit his mother, who is staying in a women’s shelter while she tries to assemble the documents to return to the United States. José, who lives in San Diego, is able to go visit his mother on the weekends and help her with the garden at the shelter; his father pays for a lawyer to process the paperwork. Although the situation is challenging for José and his parents, it is far milder than the reality of most individuals who are deported. Most children are not able to see members of their families who have been deported for extended periods of time. Many who are deported are never able to return to the United States.

Even though the story wasn’t a perfect match to my students’ own experiences, they started making personal connections to the text. When Lucia shared that her uncle had been deported, I asked her to explain what that meant. “Es cuando la policía para a una persona y les toman los fingerprintes y después se fija en una máquina si los deportan o no, pero deportar significa que los van a mandar a México”. (It’s when the police stop someone, take their fingerprints, and look on a machine to see if they will deport them or not, but deporting means they send them to Mexico.)

Although I was excited that my students were discussing this topic and I asked questions to further the conversation, I wanted to make sure I didn’t push them into an uncomfortable or upsetting space. I paid close attention to everyone, looking for cues about how they were feeling. My ultimate goal in the introduction of these literature discussions was to get my students to develop their critical thinking skills, but first I had to make sure they felt safe enough to share their stories. Before we began the literature discussions, we had developed community norms. Two of our norms were “we feel safe” and “we respect and listen to others.” When we created and reviewed the norms, my students and I talked about not making fun of each other, not laughing at individuals who were sharing, and not interrupting.

When Lucia shared her uncle’s story, it opened up a group discussion. Alejandra told us about a time her father was stopped by the police while they were driving to a nearby city. She also told us about a time her family was driving and her mother spotted a police officer. Her mother said, “Bájense porque ahí está la policía y qué tal si nos detiene”. (Get down because the police are there and what if they stop us.) Alejandra demonstrated how she slouched down in her chair. Her mother told Alejandra and her sisters, “No escuchen lo que está diciendo el policía”. (Don’t listen to what the police officer says.) Alejandra said, “Entonces no escuchamos”. (So we didn’t listen.) As Alejandra talked, we just listened. I made sure not to ask questions because I wanted to allow Alejandra the opportunity to share just as much as she wanted to.

Staying silent took lots of practice. I was so accustomed to jumping in and guiding my students in a particular direction. The pressures I felt to cover the curriculum and raise test scores made me want to push my students along at a faster pace. I had to change that mentality. I wanted my students to do most of the talking because I wanted to open up space for their lives. I didn’t want them to feel judged. I wanted our discussions to be a place where they felt safe discussing any topic. Too often, I found my students waiting for me to speak so they could agree and repeat what I said. I wanted to move away from the idea that teachers were the only ones with answers. My students had important things to share. I wanted them to realize that their experiences could help us understand each other and the book.

Alejandra finished her story by saying that the police officer followed them home and talked again to her father when they arrived. She explained that she and her younger sister were born in the United States, so they are allowed to stay, but her parents and older sister don’t have this advantage. If they are stopped again by the police or ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), her family might be split apart. I had never seen her so vulnerable.

I turned to Juliana and asked if she had anything she wanted to share, or if she knew anyone who had been deported. She fidgeted with her hands, staring at the table, before looking up and saying “Sí, mi papá”. (Yes, my dad.) Lucia nodded. “Oh, sí, ella ya nos contó la historia”. (Oh, yes, she already told us the story.)

Taking Time to Listen

At one point in our discussions Lucia announced, “No me gustan los Estados Unidos para nada.” (I don’t like the United States at all.)

This caught me off guard. “¿Por qué?” (Why?)

Lucia said that here in the United Stated she felt enclosed, but in Mexico she was free to go outside every day.

Alejandra added, “Mi mamá dice que no le gusta aquí”. (My mom says she doesn’t like it here.) She told us about a lady who helped her mother fill out some paperwork and told her mom to call her if she ever got stopped by the police. The lady told Alejandra’s mom that the police had gotten harder and that they didn’t want people from Mexico. They wanted to deport everyone.

Lucia jumped in. “Sí, están mostrando mucho de eso en Primer Impacto, que tratan de sacar a los mexicanos”. (Yes, on First Impact, they are showing lots of that, that they are trying to get rid of the Mexicans.) Primer Impacto is a popular Spanish-language, daily news program. My students were watching the media alongside their parents. This is where they were getting a lot of their information about the current political context in the United States, including hostility toward immigrants, harsh deportation policies, and family separations.

Although I felt pressure to keep the students reading and to move things along so that they could answer specific questions about the text, I resisted the temptation and asked, “¿Cómo se sienten ustedes con eso, ustedes siendo mexicanos y americanos?” (How do you feel about this, being both Mexican and American?)

Alejandra answered: “Yo me siento mal ser mexicana y americana porque mi mamá dice que si la van a deportar que no sabe a quién llevarse, porque le toca llevarse a Perla pero puede dejar a mi hermana y a mí. Y dice mi mamá que si llegan a pararla, que puede que ya nunca la veamos”. (I feel bad being Mexican and American because my mom says that if they are going to deport her, she won’t know who to take because she’ll have to take Perla, but can leave my sister and me. And my mom says if they stop her, we might never see her again.)

Hearing Alejandra talk this way made me extremely sad. Why did a child this young have to deal with issues normally reserved for adults? When I was growing up, I didn’t realize my parents were undocumented. They had overstayed the tourist visas they used to enter the United States, but I only learned about it when I was 10 years old and my parents became U.S. citizens. Both of my parents were given amnesty under the Immigrant Reform and Control Act of 1986 signed by President Reagan. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to worry about my parents possibly not coming home.

My students’ narratives shed light on the complex lived experiences they navigate on a daily basis. On the one hand, they want to be in Mexico or Guatemala with their extended families; on the other hand, they know how hard their parents are working to stay here. As a child, I had many of the same contradictory feelings. My entire family, other than my parents and brother, were in Colombia. I felt like I didn’t belong here in the United States. At the end of one trip to Colombia, I cried and begged my father to leave me there to continue school. He said no, that there were more opportunities for me in the United States, but I’m not sure he realized the impact of the fact that none of my teachers or classmates acknowledged the difficulty of being in a learning environment that ignored and devalued my language and culture.

Embracing Complexity

While Lucia, Juliana, and Alejandra were reading Del Norte al Sur, the other literature groups were reading La superniña del cilantro and Esperando a Papá. (So many students wanted to read La superniña del cilantro, we ended up with two groups working with that book.) Both of these books also raised issues of family separation and the border.

Students in the group reading Esperando a Papá told personal stories about family members crossing the border. One day, I explained that, according to the U.S. government, it’s against the law to cross the border without the right documents. I asked them what they thought about that — was it a fair law? Was it OK to break that law? Camila said, “Mi mamá y mi papá nomás cruzaron, porque querían a lo mejor ver lo que estaba aquí, pero si tú matas a alguien y te vas entonces eso es como no seguir la ley”. (My mom and dad only crossed because maybe they wanted to see what was over here, but if you kill someone and then you leave, then that’s not following the law.) Camila was talking back to the dominant discourse that says it is “wrong” to cross the border without papers and expressing a more complex view of the moral issues involved.

When I brought up the same question to the whole class, the children saw both positive and negative aspects to crossing the border illegally. In terms of positive aspects, they knew and retold stories about family members coming over to find a better life or get a better job. But many of them experienced the constant fear of family members being deported, and they had heard stories about hardships in crossing the border. For example, one child said her female cousin had to cut her hair like a boy for fear of being hurt as she tried to cross over. When Eduardo talked about how hard it was for his dad to climb over the fence, Carlos looked confused. I pulled out my iPad and showed the class pictures of the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Together, we read stories about immigrants to the United States from other parts of the world and the difficulties they faced, including In English, of Course, by Josephine Nobisso; I Hate English!, by Ellen Levine; and No English, by Jacqueline Jules. I wanted my students to understand that they shared experiences with people from other cultures, places, and times. I wanted them to see the injustices and prejudice they faced as part of a bigger pattern of power and marginalization. I tried to help them better understand these aspects by connecting them directly to the stories they shared.

For example, one day Camila told us about a conflict she and Lucia had during recess with English-speaking students from another class. Camila and Lucia were playing on top of the play structure when two girls started pushing them and calling them names. Camila said she told them “That’s not right,” but they continued. Then, Camila told us, “Yo le dije a Lucia en español que mejor nos vayamos de ahí y nos fuimos.” (I told Lucia, in Spanish, that it would be better if we left and we did.) After we gave Lucia and Camila support, we talked about the lack of integration between the bilingual students and non-bilingual students at the school. We discussed what they could do to make friends from other classrooms.

Soon these conversations influenced my planning across content areas. I realized I had to make space for students’ stories beyond literature discussions — in writing, math, and social studies. In social studies, for example, students and their parents became experts as we studied their home countries.

My students’ stories were different from my own. Lucia’s, Juliana’s, Alejandra’s, Eduardo’s, and Camila’s stories have similarities, but also differences. I realized the importance of not grouping all Latina/o narratives into one stereotypical box. Giving my students voice and exposing them to a range of multicultural literature gave us the opportunity to dig deeper and see broader vistas.

. . .

Sandra L. Osorio was an elementary bilingual teacher for eight years. She is now an assistant professor at Illinois State University.

Originally published at www.rethinkingschools.org.

What if stories were for everyone-

Renée Watson on #StoriesForAll

Renée Watson is a frequent contributor to Rethinking Schools. Her most recent article, “Mirrors and Windows: Conversations with Jacqueline Woodson,” appeared in the fall issue of Rethinking Schools and is featured in our upcoming book, Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality. We wanted to make sure you saw this thought-provoking blog on how racist and sexist thinking about marketing can limit which children read which books.


This blog post was featured on Bloomsbury’s Tumblr in hopes that by opening up a dialogue among authors and gatekeepers, we can fight the harmful practice of genderized reading and make all books truly accessible to all genders.

This Side of Home Cover

There’s a feeling I get in the pit of my stomach whenever I see a message from my editor in my inbox with a subject line that says, Cover. I take deep breaths before I click the email open because I know that in many cases, the cover sells the book. The cover is a marketing tool. One image is supposed to convey the essence of the entire novel, while also being aesthetically pleasing, while also whispering to readers, “This book is for you.” And then of course, there are my own feelings. I want to be proud of the cover. That image will be side by side with me on book tours, on posters and flyers for events. I need to like it, want to love it.

I’m sure all authors have some degree of anxiety over the cover. I’m going to assume that female authors who write stories where the main character is a girl might have even more anxiety because we know that books with girls on the cover get put in the “For Girls Only” category. I know many authors have experienced doing author visits to girl-only audiences because the school thought their male students wouldn’t relate to the author, to her book. What this teaches young people is that stories by and about females are less than stories by and about men. It teaches young boys to silence the female voice, to disregard it, to give it less weight than their own.

As an author who is black and female, who writes stories about young black girls, I know that many librarians and teachers will only recommend my book to black girls. And let me say, that I want black teenaged girls to read my work. I hope they see their experiences mirrored in the pages. But I also hope my work opens up the world a bit for readers who are not black, not female. That they learn new perspectives, that they find ways to relate with the characters who maybe seemed so different from them. Most importantly, I want books by and about women, stories by and about people of color, to be made available for all readers. Because our stories matter. Because the young people sitting in our classrooms, coming to our libraries, will soon be adult citizens who will need the life skill of empathy and the ability to understand and analyze themselves, their society, and contribute in a positive way. They will need to understand the importance of valuing many viewpoints.

I am thankful for the educators, librarians, and parents who have shared my work with young people regardless of their ethnicity or gender. These gatekeepers know that themes of loss, change, resilience, love, and redemption are universal. These gatekeepers are committed to pushing against the norm and asking themselves, What if we recommended books to young readers based on the quality of the story, not if the cover has a girl or boy on it? What if we were intentional about making sure young readers have a variety of stories to choose from where protagonists may or not look like them or come from places similar to the place they live? What if the cover of a book that looked “different” or “too girly” or “too ethnic” was seen not as a deterrent but an invitation to step outside of oneself? What if stories were for everyone?


More From Renée Watson

Renée’s “Art is Action Blog”: http://reneewatsonauthor.tumblr.com/

You can find more information at her website: http://www.reneewatson.net/

Teaching Social Justice through Fashion: a blog post that highlights Moriah Carlson and her fashion class at DreamYard.

Beginning the Journey Towards Social Justice: Baltimore. Charleston. Ferguson. How do arts education leaders respond? To help answer this question, The National Guild recently spoke with Renée about her work with
DreamYard & other arts-ed organizations that are hoping to align their internal structures and practices with a justice-driven mission.

National Writing Project’s Radio Interview: Listen to Renéeread from This Side of Home & talk about why she writes.

Books on Home, History & Hope: Renée shares some of her favorite books to use in the classroom & to give as gifts to young readers with Multnomah County libraries.

Mirrors and Windows: Conversations with Jacqueline Woodson by Renée Watson: Jacqueline andRenée have a follow up conversation to their Between the Lines event at the Schomburg Center for Rethinking Schools. Want even more from these two writers? Click HERE


Renée’s Fall Events

After a summer break from touring, Renée will be back on the road again for book events and readings. Visit www.reneewatson.net for event details, updates and changes.

OCTOBER

10/23, 10am
Behind the Book Author Visit
Brooklyn

10/27, 10am
Behind the Book Author Visit
Brooklyn

NOVEMBER

11/5, 12noon
Writers In The Schools
Workshop
Portland

11/6, 10am
Author Visit, MLC School
Portland

11/7, 10am-5pm
Wordstock Festival
Portland
*Check HEREfor full schedule

11/11, 9:30am-4:30pm
National Guild Pre Conference: Social Justice Beyond the Classroom:
Moving Toward Equity and Organizational Change
Philly

11/14, 9am-12noon
The Art of Peace: creative approaches to conflict transformation
University of San Diego

11/19, 1:30pm – 3:00pm
NCTE Conference:
Black Lives Matter in Your Classroom
Minneapolis

11/21, 8am-9:15am
NCTE Conference:
Bringing Voice to the Voiceless: Writing Persona Poems
Minneapolis