Posted by: Magistra | May 8, 2006

Access Reality

I have now, for all intents and purposes, finished my course on access and equity. Today’s class was focused on a speech Jesse Jackson gave in February 1994 at the CA Association for Bilingual Education Annual Conference. It was classic Jesse Jackson – take a moral stance, throw in a current event or two, quote and paraphrase the Bible, and you’ve got a great address. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t, but I’ll say this for Jackson – the man knows how to speak.

My class got bogged down on the first question the professor asked, “What was new to you?” I read the speech twice, and listened to some of it, and my only answer was, “nothing” (but of course I did not share that with the rest of the class). Maybe the silent majority was agreeing with me, but the vocal ones started talking about how they didn’t know about Kristy Yamaguchi (and how Wheaties didn’t immediately put her on their cereal box the way they had all the other past American gold medalists – who of course had all been white), didn’t know about Rodney King and Reginald Denney (to be fair, it was the fact that it was a white guy who videotaped King that was unknown), didn’t know English was a minority language in the Western Hemisphere, didn’t know that a quarter of Africans are Nigerian (remember, this speech happened in 1994, but even if this has changed somewhat, a whole lot of people still live in Nigeria), and didn’t know that the population of India surpassed the USA and the USSR combined.

And I’m thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” You didn’t know that, to quote Jackson, “most people in this world today are yellow or brown or black, non-Christian, poor, female, young, and don’t speak English.” This is new? This is new after 13 weeks talking about access and equity in California public schools?

When I first saw that this was a required course for the credential program, I hoped it would cover all sorts of equity issues: gender, disability, special education, language, ethnicity, immigration status, sexual orientation, and other areas I hadn’t even thought of. When I read the class syllabus at the beginning of the semester, I quickly saw that the class was going to focus on language and ethnicity. Understandable, if disappointing. Then class began and the comments started coming in.

I think the worst part is that these people clearly mean well. But they also have clearly never been exposed to perspectives very different from their own. At the beginning there were lots of “I never heard that before.” Now, even though there is still surprise, there are pledges to treat each child as an individual; to get to know each child and where she’s coming from; to visit children’s homes; and to work with parents to get the best for each child. I don’t doubt the sincerity of these comments. I really don’t. But I wonder how people who only just seem to be recognizing that most people don’t share white middle-class experiences are going to do that. Nothing in this class talked about what those things look like in reality. And I don’t really fault the professor or the university for that. I don’t know how to teach people to embrace multiple perspectives, without just throwing them out there. Yes, there are things that can help (for example, my parents’ attitude), but there’s no substitute for just living the multicultural reality of life. And even though I haven’t started prac yet, this feels especially true for teaching.

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