Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Black Girl Head Roll

I've recently written about how we, as art education bloggers, need to discuss the challenges of cultural, racial, and financial gaps present in the classroom. One of the commentors on that post, brought up an excellent point. It is awkward, challenging, and even risky to discuss race, culture and finances in relation to a difference between ourselves and others. We run the risk of making racist, unsympathetic, and misinterpreted comments. Yet, every time we type anything into the internet, we run that risk.

I've written about many things that gracious commentors have been quick to point out as being a little bit less that what one would desire. The truth is that we all make mistakes and that part of the reason we blog is to open ourselves up to the idea of others. I'm not writing this blog because I have the answers (sometimes I'm convinced I don't even know the questions!), but because I need a sense of community and feedback about what I do. . .And, I like to share; and this community gives me an avenue in which to do that. No matter if we always agree or not, no matter if I disagree with a comment, I'm always happy to have them.

crayon batik made in the much-endured trailer

I can hardly ask others to take the risk of writing about gaps between ourselves and our students if I'm not willing to participate. So, in that vein, I share with you the story of how I learned to do the "Black Girl Head Roll."

If you've read here before, you know that during the 2006-2007 school year I worked in a very racially and culturally diverse environment. This environment was compounded by issues from the school district at-large, which during the 2007-2008 school year lost it's accreditation through SACS. The school was not financially diverse, but over 1/2 of the school population qualified for free breakfast and lunch. For nearly ALL of my students this meant the only meals they received at all were during the school-day and were free.

I was raised in an upper-middle class environment by two very caring people. We weren't rich as my father began a new business (which is now doing great) during the recession of the 1980s, and because of that I was well aware that most everyone I knew was "better-off" financially than me. Yet, still, I wanted for nothing.

I have 3 younger siblings and we all attended award-winning public schools; all of which were predominately white. My brother's graduating class had such a large percentage of "gifted" students that it was tossed out of the averages when the state test scores were averaged (because it was such an anomaly). All of my siblings and myself went on to attend large, well-respected public Universities. Today, my brother is a "molecular architect" working on his PhD, my sister works as a child-specialist advocating for serious ill children in a prominent hospital in Georgia, and my youngest brother is finishing up his last year in college and is studying ecology and has completed two National Outdoor Leadership courses and has traveled to 5 of the 7 continents.

It is important you know the above because when you compare my background to those of my (then) students, you can already see a gap. The school I worked at was 78% black, 15% hispanic, 6% white, and 2% Asian/Pacific Islander. You should also know that prior to the 1996 Olympics the city of Atlanta decided to relocate Public Housing to outside of the city, in an attempt to mask the large numbers of impoverished persons living in Atlanta. They relocated these people into the school district in which I worked. And, while, all of that happened 10 years prior to my working in the district, this relocation meant that a large number of the students I taught were children of relocated persons (who were already impoverished at the time of their forced move).

a project we did about "diversity." Notice how the student had difficulty finding other races represented in magazine articles. Can you imagine how frustrating it must be to have so few references to someone who looks like you must be?

For the first 1/2 of the school year the entire school was in a series of trailers located on the grounds of another school. My school was "new," but the building wasn't finished at the time the school year began. My "trailer" was the furthest trailer from "civilization" and the point at which students would try to "escape" from school. There was also a neighborhood pervert who hung out in a tree just off of the school grounds and would hungrily watch my students. I called to report him several times, but as he was sitting in a tree off the school grounds not much could be done.

I'm not going to lie, I did use that creep as a strong argument for staying on campus when I reprimanded those attempting to skip out.

My only materials were crayons and paper. I had no sink and no easy access to water. I also had no "call button" with which to alert someone that I needed help. AAnd, y'all I NEEDED HELP all the time! The school leaders weren't good, in fact one is gone from the county all together. Fortunately, the football coach, also white, had the trailer next to me. He had a similar upbringing to me, and was a semi-new teacher like me. We bonded over a mutual sense of culture shock and he kept an eye out for me. I was assaulted physically by students more than once. Nothing long-term damaging, but it felt good to have another adult witness the madness.

The first day of school the students got into a huge crayon fight (new crayons were broken into bits and hurled at one another). Instead of this being funny, those "hit" were highly offended and "disrepected" and a physical altercation had begun. I had been taught by the school district officials to not get involved in fights, to let the kids duke it out, and call for help. But, out there in the last trailer of civilization, how was I to call for help before more kids got entangled in the brawl?

I shrieked for everyone to stop in my high-pitched white-lady manner and that illicited no response. I tried to get to the students fighting and the non-fighting students locked arms to prevent me from getting to them (I guess it was entertaining?). I finally ended up crawling over tables in a skirt and heels and jumped from the tables into the fray and stopped the fight the way I knew how. I may be a white-lady but all the neighborhood kids growing up were boys; I know how to scrap.

By the time I got things calmed down (as much as it was going to happen), it was time to go. The students all dashed for the door of the trailer and hauled out. As I was left with the epic mess of the crayon fight to clean up, I started wondering what I had got myself into. When I found fresh, human urine in one of the chairs; I cried. What the hell had I gotten myself into?

My eventual "new classroom" (look Ma, no crayon fights!)

I had started the year knowing there was going to be a culture and racial gap between myself and my students. And, I thought that any attempt to look and/or behave as if I knew something about their culture was going to be offensive. I mean, no one wants some geeky white lady to start trying to talk like she knows anything about the 'hood, right?

Well, yes and no. I was grew up to value school and most of my classmates had similar values. We were also taught to "avoid fighting" and taught that true respect is earned, not demanded.

Well, my students didn't know any of that. To them, respect was something you demanded, and if you didn't get your due, you did something -usually painful- to demonstrate that you were owed that respect. I can hardly blame them as this is how a majority of their parents behaved (based on what I witnessed). This bizarre to me definition of respect continued in strange ways. Once, when I called home to report a student who was being a little too aggressive her mother told me: "I told her, 'Baby Girl, you gots to go and get your revenge!'" And, this concept was very common thinking for many of my students. In their line of thinking, sometimes people needed a good beating just to stay in line.

I mean, y'all, I can't say I haven't thought that before. . .

Community projects: working on a cathedral

The first half of the school year continued in much the same way as my first day had gone. The students would act however they wanted, I had no ability to control them, and sometimes someone would get hurt. I felt like such a failure. I cried every night. Once I got my head out of my butt, I started looking around, and I noticed that NONE of the black teachers had the issues I did. Honestly, some of it could have been due to the fact that they were black, but I would say nearly 90% of it was due to something else. The black teachers were going about classroom management in an entirely different manner. They were loud, they sometimes shouted, and while they often sounded crazy angry (to me) the students sometimes chuckled like they were being good-naturedly teased.

I decided I would try to get in touch with my "inner black girl." I tried talking to students in the same manner, but mostly they laughed at me. I was sometimes called racist, and I'm a lot of things but not racist. This continued until a the technology teacher, a very nice black lady named Ms. Thompson, saw me floudering while trying to emulate the black teachers.

Ms. Thompson waited until the students were dismissed and said: "Little white girl? Little white girl come here. I'm going to teach you how to do the black girl head roll."

And, she did. After that, Ms. Thompson would give me small hints and tips about how to have "swagger," and how to "get down." She LOVED laughing at my worst attempts, but was always really kind about it.

At some point during these lessons something occurred to me. I wasn't being racist to try and emulate a culture to which my students responded. I was still me, and my core values at their deepest point, were very similar to the students. I, too, wanted everyone to respect me, and I, too, had a hard time understanding that it must be earned, not demanded. Most of my students came from a culture that was raucously loud, community-driven, joyful, proud, and enduring. I'm 100% down with celebrating that, aren't you?

My students were never going to responded to quiet cajoling because very few people they admired spoke in that manner. I had to be loud so that my students knew I meant business, and if I could make it humorous, well then, that was better. Saying something like, "Please stop telling me what to do, it is very disrespectful," relayed very little to my students. If anything at all, it told them I was being disrespected, but was too "weak" to do anything about it. When, what I wanted them to do was simply shut their mouths. So instead, I would put my hands on my hips and say: "Young man, once you go to college and are grown you can speak to me like that. Until then, shut your mouth."

Once I got in touch with my "inner black girl" things improved quite a bit. But, the other half of getting control of my students was reading "The Essential 55" by Ron Clark. These rules are meant to teach communal respect and extend to the teacher. My students LOVED enforcing rules on me when I broke them (sometimes on purpose, just to see if they would catch it). I venture to say that once I used my new schema for school and employed the "Essential 55," I was running a tighter ship that a few of the seasoned teachers at the school.

And, even at the private school I had a black student who would frequently back-talk me. I took him out in the hallway and unleashed "inner black girl" on him and he responded so quick. After we worked out our differences there in the hallway he even said "Wow, Ms. J. you're like my Grandma!" haha!!

I hope this is just the first time I share how I handle and hurdle gaps between my students and myself. I also hope that I haven't been offensive, and if something I've written has offended you, it was unintentional and I would appreciate you letting me know, so we can discuss it.

11 comments:

  1. Hmm. This is a lot to think about. And most of what you are writing goes against EVERYTHING I've been reading about classroom management. Though, as I've been reading about creating my "dream class," I've often thought, no, you really need to come into my class and then tell me that I should speak in a quieter voice and never yell. So many of these books that I'm reading tell me how to respond to individual students, not what to do when half of the class is acting up in the first five minutes on the first day.

    I grew up middle class, but in a nearly all-white community. My first teaching job was 99.9% African-American and very poor, 99% free and reduced lunches. It was such an incredible shock. This was the first year they had an art teacher, and the school was so unprepared (didn't have scheduling, budget or even my classroom details worked out.) So was I. I was only there a year, then moved on to another school that was more diverse, racially and financially. Immediately, my classroom management improved. This past year, my job was more like my first year. And, boy, did I ever feel like a first year teacher all over again. I haven't managed to get the "black girl head roll" down. Of course, I'm at another school this year, with similar financial, but mostly Hispanic. I expect different challenges, but I've only been at schools with smaller Hispanic groups before.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I have been reading like crazy this summer to prepare for next year.

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  2. Angie,

    Thanks for your comment. I should clarify that there is a difference between being loud and angrily (and ineffectively) shrieking. My students at that time responded to loud; that was what they were used to. At the same time, once I was able to get their attention, I could use a quieter voice to teach. And, eventually, we got to a point where we could share about what made us like and what made us different. It wasnt all sunshine, but we did get a lot of quality work done and I liked spending time with them (and I think -hope- they felt the same.

    I felt once we had found common ground and had mutual respect I could code-switch and use more traditional classroom management ideas.

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  3. Of course, I understand that screaming at the kids is not effective, I just meant the advice of "if you get quieter, the kids will get quieter." Or, maybe they will have no idea that you are talking at all. I did feel like I was able to relate better to the students in my first school by the end of the year. This past year, I just wanted the year to end.

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  4. And, really, I guess it isn't that what you are saying goes against other things that I am reading, but that race is almost never mentioned.

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  5. Angie,

    I take no offense! I totally understand what you mean. The books DO talk at length about if "you are quiet, the students will be quiet." And, generally, um yeah, they will. . .

    But ONLY after you've earned their respect, they understand the repercussions, and they either like you enough to want to please you or like the subject enough to want to do well on their own.

    And, my issue, and I think the issue a lot of teachers have, is how the heck do I earn respect, relate strong classroom management and get students to want to excel on their own without yelling like a "she-banshee-bitch" when they are too loud and/or unruly?

    My favorite bits to read in grad school were from teachers working in challenging environments. I learned so much from reading about how they overcome their personal and classroom obstacles in order to succeed. And, while I'm sure they don't shriek at students, the focus of their discussion did not revolve around "using a quiet voice." Instead, they mostly spoke to relating to the students, understanding their needs, and earning and extending respect to students, parents, and local communities.

    I think a lot of the most well-respected authors on art education are those who have strongly contributed art education research. I believe these scholars are brilliant, serve an important role, and very much to be respected. At the same time, when you read their bios, the time they spent actively in the K-12 classroom was often over 10 years ago and for who knows how long.

    I know when I look back on my life during the 2006-2007 school year, I remember the times fondly. I do and did truly love the students. But, at the same time, I spent so many nights crying about my helplessness to be as effective, and crying due to frustration.

    Yet, I'm sure, even now, as I try to address how difficult my year was, I'm still over-simplifying it and making it too-rosey. I'm sure it is the same with those who write the art education texts about "being quiet." It is easy to be idealistic when you are years away from the day-to-day grueling experience of teaching.

    I also think that race isn't mentioned because it IS so sticky to discuss.

    We would like to believe that we are all the same. . .And, at our most basic we are. I believe this and know it to be true.

    Yet, the soda machines at my school this past year had coke, diet coke, dr. pepper, and sprite (boring) and my faculty soda machine during the 2006-2007 school year had coke, sprite, grape fanta, orange fanta, peach fanta, and sierra mist (which I prefer, actually). My point is that there are small differences and sometimes these difference are magnified in the "goldfish bowl" of the classroom.

    But no book could say: "When addressing white students. . ." Because even within our racial groups we are even further diversified by culture. My black, South-Atlanta students are (no doubt) subtle, yet distinctly different than black students even one district away. Just as I, a 30 year old white woman living in the burbs (verging on country) am very different than a 30 year old woman living in midtown Atlanta. I think book shy away from race for fear of making over-generalizations (which they would).

    I think when addressing race and culture we have to look at a small environment, like our schools, in order to identify what gaps -if any- we may have and how to cross them -if needed.

    I'm sorry that you had such a tough school year. I hope next year proves to be more simple.

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  6. Angie,

    I had to share something funny with you that speaks to "culture."

    During the 2006-2007 school year a student stuck his hand the air and asked if he could "go and release some air."

    I was totally dumb-founded, but 100% intrigued. He was so polite about the request. I asked him if he could do this on the porch of the trailer. He looked at me like I was stupid for asking and said: "yes."

    So, he walked to the porch, left the door opened and proceeded to keen forward and make a "gratifying" sound like "aaaahhhhhhhh."

    It was very obvious he had just farted.

    I waited for the class to erupt in laughter, but NO ONE did. I was shocked at their lack of interest in someone farting.

    I looked around and addressed the class collectively: "Is this what you always do when you need to pass gas?"

    They told me, yes.

    And for the rest of the year, that is what we did. Someone at some point had taught all of them this, and it had become a part of their normal day-to-day activity. Dare I even say, culture?

    I've asked hundreds of people since, and NOT ONE has ever heard of "going out to release gas," being typical (or even heard of it for that matter).

    So, I guess there are all sorts of mini-cultures inside schools!

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  7. Angie,

    I had to share something funny with you that speaks to "culture."

    During the 2006-2007 school year a student stuck his hand the air and asked if he could "go and release some air."

    I was totally dumb-founded, but 100% intrigued. He was so polite about the request. I asked him if he could do this on the porch of the trailer. He looked at me like I was stupid for asking and said: "yes."

    So, he walked to the porch, left the door opened and proceeded to keen forward and make a "gratifying" sound like "aaaahhhhhhhh."

    It was very obvious he had just farted.

    I waited for the class to erupt in laughter, but NO ONE did. I was shocked at their lack of interest in someone farting.

    I looked around and addressed the class collectively: "Is this what you always do when you need to pass gas?"

    They told me, yes.

    And for the rest of the year, that is what we did. Someone at some point had taught all of them this, and it had become a part of their normal day-to-day activity. Dare I even say, culture?

    I've asked hundreds of people since, and NOT ONE has ever heard of "going out to release gas," being typical (or even heard of it for that matter).

    So, I guess there are all sorts of mini-cultures inside schools!

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  8. I realize this is slightly off-topic and I am not sure if you have done a whole blog post on classroom management but was wondering if you could do a post outlining exactly how you handle issues in the classroom like hand washing and getting attention during an activity and anything else you can think of. If you have already addressed those issues, just direct me to the post. Many thanks for always frankly sharing your experiences.
    Regards and best wishes as you start your new school.
    Sara

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  9. Funny to me that noone laughed. And, yes, it is not just race that creates a cultural difference. My husband was active duty army for more than 10 years and each school I've been in was fairly different.

    In my first school, race was VERY much on the students minds. Students would insult each other by calling each other "white" or "black" (skin could be either too dark or too light.) The kids thought it was hilarious when they would tattle to me that someone had said I was white, and I would just say, "yep. I am white. Moving on." I haven't experienced anything quite like this since.

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  10. I feel like you described my first year of teaching (last year). My days often ended in tears (from me) and some days I wondered why I even bothered. Unfortunately I have other issues (including unsupportive, even blatantly demeaning staff, etc) but I think I have learned so much about different cultures and their learning styles. I will be going back this year for round two with some different strategies but I was glad to have your book recommendation. It is always good to hear from people in similar situations that have survived and thrived :)

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  11. I found your post too complicated to fully read due to typos, lack of punctuation and run-on sentences.

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