Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 02 2013

I guess Lisa Delpit interviewed my kids

I’ve done a fair bit of reading about racism, but until now the only connection to education has been that I occasionally post things here about what I read. Recently though, I read bell hooks’ “Teaching Community: A Pedogogy of Hope” (which was admittedly mostly about undergraduate and graduate students) and started Lisa Delpit’s “Other Peoples’ Children.”

I think grad school had conditioned me to believe that all books written about education are boring, irrelevant, and written either by Captain Obvious or Sergeant Bullshit. Turns out, though, that reading books that connect something you’re passionate about to something you have a little experience in can be pretty great.
A lot in these two books has caused me to think good, hard thoughts, but what’s on the front of my mind right now is Lisa Delpit’s point in her second essay about power and indirect communication:
She quotes John Gwaltney’s Drylongso to say “the difference between black folks and white folks is black folks know when they’re lying!” and follows up by explaining how usually, when people are acknowlwedging or expressing power, they speak explicitly and directly (i.e. “Put on your shoes, now”). When people are de-emphasizing their power, they move toward indirect communication.
Middle-class, usually white teachers, she contends, often de-emphasize their power in the classroom by using indirect communication and relying on their position as the teacher, rather than on unmistakably authoritative behavior, to maintain authority. While I don’t think I’d go so far as to use the old “would you please like to please maybe sit down now, please?” (anymore), I was uncomfortable with the power differential between me and my students of color. And I probably did use a lot of indirect communication to make myself feel better about that.
But veiled commands are commands nonetheless, and DO hold power, whether it’s acknowledged or not. To deny it is just to make that power harder for students to decipher. She writes “to act as though power doesn’t exist is to ensure that the power status quo remains the same” — which of course reminded me of everything I’ve learned about smiling, color-blind Racism Without Racists.
So I was reading all this, chewing on it, enjoying that the book was saying something new to me — when suddenly, I’m reading my own students’ words:
“this class is boring, boring”
“she doesn’t teach us anything”
“we here to learn from YOU, not from each other!”
The quotes were used to make a point about the failures of some kind of indirect “process writing” get-something-anything-down-on-paper approach (no idea, literacy people maybe you do?), but all I could think about was all the miscommunication that must have gone on in my own classroom. Even while I was working so hard to change my perspective and listen, I was still unable to really make my students feel understood and heard.
I’m still trying to figure out exactly what lesson to take away from that shock of suddenly seeing my own students jump from the page describing me. These were comments I heard all the time and usually dismissed, either as moody teenager-talk or responses to poor grades or reactions to challenging work. I guess the lesson is that I’ve still got a long way to go, considering that it took seeing these words written down in a book to legitimize them and make me think twice about what the comments might have really meant.

2 Responses

  1. Kafi Carrasco

    This is a great reflection. I’ve been following Delpit since the 90s and was looking for an article for my summer staff and found this post. It is hard to step back and analyze what is transpiring especially if it points out critiques. Teachers pour themselves out for their students in so many ways that is becomes hard to hear the critiques some times. I applaud your self-reflecting spirit and courage to see and hear something that is difficult. This will make you a better teacher- one that connects with students in ways that transform them and you.

  2. I love Delpit’s books and recently found another really great book, Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code Switching, and African American English. The book is by Vershawn Ashanti Young, Rusty Barrett, Y’Shanda young-Rivera, & Kim Brian Lovejoy. I’m going to try to play around with the concepts and activities introduced in this book over the next year.

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