I generally loathe arguments that start with personal anecdotes, but you’re going to get one. There is also, regrettably but necessarily, profanity – I apologize in advance.
A friend of mine was teaching history in a troubled school [in an unidentified city] and her students were underperformers: behavior problems, couldn’t read well, didn’t care about school, etc. She was a relatively young, white teacher and she was sure that her ineffectual performance was due to the racial gap – white, young, female teacher, not from that city, and an almost entirely black/Hispanic ‘economically disadvantaged’ student population. I didn’t think so.
She was so worn out one morning that she called and asked if I would be a “guest speaker” in one of her afternoon classes because she simply couldn’t handle it and needed that period off. I agreed and asked her what topic she was covering. She was holding back tears and said, “History.” I didn’t ask any more questions.
I put on a Brooks Brothers suit, shined my Bostonians and showed up. She said, “Thank you, I’ll be back at 2pm,” and rushed out. There were about 20 kids in the class, most of whom were yelling or talking on their cell phones. One student had a notebook out and I asked to see it. Her latest notes had something to do with prohibition and Al Capone.
I yelled to get their attention – it gave me about a 15 second window to hook them or lose them. I said, “My name is Mr. Tabor. I’m going to pick up right where Ms. _____ left off, so we’re going to talk about Tupac and Dre. Listen up.” The only thing I could understand above the laughter was the, “Nigga, what the fuuuuuck is this?” that a student in the back said to a friend. They quieted down and listened for a bit because I looked and acted as though I was there for a purpose.
“Someone tell me about Eliot Ness.” No one responded and a few went back to their conversations.
“The Untouchables?” I lost a few a more.
“How many of you know the lyrics to “California Love?” More than half of them either started laughing or singing parts and a few raised their hand.
So I sang as loud as I could, “Caaaaali-fornia Looo-ooove! Dahhhh-da-da! Dahhhh-da-da!” and motioned to a few of the more animated students to sing it, too.
[I chose this particular song because it's a popular, pervasive tune that most everyone young knows well. It's been referenced in plenty of songs, media and art, including most recently on South Park [watch the video clip, link opens in a new window] – students know it, minority or not. And hell, Hank Williams, Jr. is my favorite artist and I still know the lyrics to California Love. If you don’t know the song, watch the original video on YouTube – the link opens in a new window].
This gave me another window – about 30 more seconds. If I didn’t tie in the subject in a meaningful way, it was over. There were 4 or 5 kids giving solid backing with the, “Dahhhh-da-da!” so I went on:
“Now let me welcome everybody to the wild, wild west /
A state that’s untouchable like Elliot Ness.”
Then I yelled, “Stop!” abruptly and asked, “What’s that mean?”
No response, but they stopped and listened. Then I explained that Pac and Dre were talking about how great California was, right? Yeah. Yeah, California has integrity and Pac and Dre want everyone to know it, yes? Yeah.
Then I told them why Pac and Dre referenced Eliot Ness and the Untouchables in the lyrics. That no one could buy them off, that they were principled and dignified. That they were respected – just like Pac and Dre wanted people to think about California. I knew they got it when one said, “Ohhhh, shit!” which is the normal version of what obnoxious educators call the “A-ha! moment.”
Then I related it to prohibition and Al Capone, who they were shocked to find out was the inspiration for Scarface. We talked about that, too. They all listened and started to participate and answer the brief, simple questions every 20 seconds or so – you know, the ones designed to foster engagement and monitor understanding.
I ended by talking about how important it is to know things in history because then most everything in their life will make more sense – even the music they listen to. About a minute before the end of the period, Ms. _____ walked in on her 20 attentive former-hellions listening to me talk about the importance of studying history. The bell rang and they exited, during which I got about half a dozen daps and some comments like, “Yo, that was tight,” and overheard but not said to me, “Y’all is Professah Dre, muthafuckah!” [referencing a line in Dr. Dre's "The Next Episode" featuring Snoop Dogg] I regretted his use of profanity, but I understood what he was getting at.
Ms. _____ and I talked about why our race, backgrounds, interests, behavior, mannerisms, and everything else about our personalities just didn’t matter much in the classroom – we could teach effectively even if we were radically different than our students. Sometimes we have to take a different approach than would be most natural for us [my favorite music is Southern and Guitar rock, a la Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Scorpions]. We focused on what it means to teach and how to do it.
Being an ineffective teacher has to do with not knowing enough about how to teach or who we’re teaching. It has nothing to do with something inherently in or missing from our physical makeup or personality.
And that’s the way we need to approach issues that involve race, class and gender in education. It simply doesn’t matter who we are – it’s what we know and how we’re able to convey it. It might be easier for some to get started than others, but the end result is what matters if we’re truly concerned with education.
Ms. _____ called me the next day to tell me that some of the students in that class told her that they’d never had a white teacher talk to them like that. She also said that they treated her with more respect than before – they treated her as a teacher, not a white annoyance who exuded irrelevance.
They also asked when Professor Dre was coming back. I didn’t have to.
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