The Poverty Paradigm: Resisting This Narrative

I can’t tell you how many educators I have heard say that poor, Black kids can’t learn and that poverty is their deficiency. On top of that, poor, black parents/guardians do not care about the education of their children.

Full stop.

I, for one, grew up as a poor, Black kid.

I learned.

I, for one, see how poor, Black kids can, will and have always excelled academically. See, it takes educators that are there to teach with high expectations that will push all of his or her students, no matter the background.

Being poor doesn’t make you deficient.
Being poor doesn’t make you deficient.

Let me tell you, my parents never thought I was deficient. They never sent me to school saying I was an inadequate black kid because of poverty. They always told me that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I can succeed in anything if I had the will to believe. We were broke and struggled at times, but that never stopped me from going to school and excelling. Sure, you may have been through some dark times but my parents didn’t want to see no bad grades. They weren’t about to have me sitting up in a school and not learn.

Let me tell you, my folks made sure to read to us. They made sure to see if I had homework and if I needed additional help. So, please dismiss yourself if you have the belief that poor folks, especially black and Latino folks can’t learn.

Let me tell you, most of us poor folk are serious about our education. We set high expectations for ourselves and the kids around us. In the words of my black mama, “I ain’t raising no dummies”. There you have it.

So, the next person that I hear saying that poor black kids can’t learn than we about to have some problems.

Let me tell you something else, these black and brown babies are pushing hard in these classrooms. They are pushing hard against the social-inequities within their lives. They are pushing against the oppressions that face them just because they are poor and black.

Let me tell you something else, if my black and brown students want to beat-box on the table, braid their hair back in cornrows, dab on it and everything else that screams “Black and brown” then go ahead. There’s too many people that wish to police them. There’s too many people seeking to silence them. There’s too many people that wants to see them fail.

We are not deficient. We are not going to silence ourselves. We are not going to fail.

What is Your Purpose?

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As time passes, I often as myself the question, “What is my purpose?”.  In working with elementary-aged students for the last year, I’ve observed and experienced many things. I found myself in joy from working with them and seeing them progress socially and academically. However, I’ve seen the amount of work and dedication it takes to become and remain a teacher. In Education, you have to know if students are a part of your purpose. For me, children will always be a part of my purpose. In Urban-schools, you will often find poverty, trauma, struggle and creativity. In this creativity, students often find ways to cope with their own pain. In this creativity, you will find that you’re able to learn a lot about your students. However, if this is your purpose then you will find ways to connect to your students. The question is, “What is your purpose?”.

Why is this question important? It’s important because it forces you to re-evaluate your choice. After a year of instructing students, I’ve realized that my heart became attached to these little people. You become a part of their lives. They become a part of your life. They will look to you for guidance, love, and attention. The end of the school-year is hard for me. I’m realizing how tough teaching can be for a teacher. A teacher doesn’t only teach, but he/she counsels and parents, as well. A teacher wears many hats within the daily routine of school. However, all these hats include the ability to deal with political issues within the school and surrounding the school.

In the wearing of many hats, the teacher is truly an amazing person. They can give students the ability to dream and to believe in those dreams. Why is this important? Well, in my experience, dreams can be everything for a student. In the lives of many inner-city students, the reality of trauma and struggle is ever-present. Instability may be the order of the day. I’ve seen kids come to school with dirty clothes, hungry, shoes with holes, no coats during the winter,  and etc. So, if an educator is able to give students the ability to believe and to achieve, this give students something to yearn for. This give students something to hunger for. In my opinion, many parents care. If not parents, guardians of the student want the best for their child. However, many parents/ guardians are struggling themselves to keep food and a roof over their family’s head. Let’s not begin to talk about structural oppression that occurs to people of color. Sometimes we find that people argue that ‘these’ people do not work hard enough, but this claim doesn’t hold water. In the history of America, structural oppression has always been ever-present in the lives of people of color.

So, it is important to think about all of these aspects when thinking about the purpose of why we do what we do. We may not be educators. But our purpose is important. Our purpose usually gives some feeling of satisfaction or contentment in living life. Our purpose isn’t always black and white. However, our purpose should bring some happiness to our daily lives. Being an instructor has taught me a lot about purpose. It has taught me a lot about caring for others. It has taught me a lot about social justice in our country. It has taught me to never give up on what you truly enjoy and find important in the sustainability of your personal happiness.

Education: Upholding Domination in Schools

Everyday I think about my role as an educator. Is it enough to simply deliver instruction? Is it enough to simply manage a classroom of students? The question is no. The question is absolutely not. However, educators sometimes believe that this is the secret of teaching. If you’re able to deliver your content and manage your students then you’re doing a fabulous job of teaching. I’m sorry to say that this is not the case. In seeing the beautiful smiles and sometimes frowns of students, I ask about my relation to them as an authority figure.

In my daily life as a paraprofessional, I am able to see teaching upfront.  I am able to see the good, great and despicable. I am able to see students’ responses to their peers, teacher(s) and various authority-figures within the school. On the otherhand, I am able to see teacher’s and their way of teaching. In seeing these important aspects of education, I question myself about my future self. As a preservice teacher, I am constantly going back and forth with my personal motives for going into education. Am I ready to deal with the everyday happenings of a school’s system? The school is a system. It’s a system that may or may not support your stance on social-justice. As a staunch supporter of social justice, I am often faced with myself as an authority-figure and as an advocate. Do I use my power of an authority figure to correct the injustices that I see or do I simply accept a school’s blind eye to them? In the classroom, do I simply yield to domination in order to manage students? Or will I see to create an atmosphere of love and healing for students?

In unlocking my own anger that often drowns me daily, I juggle questions internally that I think teachers may ask themselves. What is more important- money or justice? Could you have both? Sure. However, I believe that it is sometimes one or the other. I absolutely love my job, but I am constantly faced with questions of ethics. What is my philosophy on education? What is my role as an advocate for social-justice? In a system that is often structured around domination, you are often called to yield to schools that reinforces: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and etc. It is unreal how you will find yourself hearing sexist, racist, homophobic, and classist speech from individuals that are supposedly leading the way for students. For any educator, it takes strength, dedication, loyalty and heart to stand up for the wrong that you see. You have to remember that students are often looking up to you for guidance. Your curriculum and your daily-living should embody the values that you seek to teach. Your personal life should not be disconnected from your work life. Sometimes we believe that it is okay to be different in our personal and professional life. No, it is not okay. If we preach tolerance in classrooms, tolerance should be a personal practice that we observe in our personal life. However, this may not always be the case. So, we need to work on ourselves. We need to practice decolonization. We need to practice truth.

Social-Justice in the Classroom: Practicing What You Preach

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I listened to stories from children that hold worlds inside themselves. Worlds that are forever unfolding and adding depth to their own knowledge of the world. They cry. They laugh. They hold themselves. They hold each other. They hold nothing. There is nothing to hold but hopes and dreams. On many days, I sit with students in classrooms, along stairwells, by the buses, on the way to lunch, coming from their support-classes and in hallways to listen to their stories. To listen to their voices. To teach them to speak. To teach myself that I have much to learn about humanity. In working with young students, I have learned the importance of creating space for healing within the lives of students. To be an educator means to stand for social-justice. this is what I believe, but is this always the case?

I watch and listen to teachers, staff members and administrators on a daily basis. I mentally take note of my philosophy on education and ask myself if I am truly practicing what I preach. Am I standing up for what is right? Am I practicing ethics in my decision-making? Am I taking my task of being an educator seriously? Am I serving the students that I teach? These questions are important. They are asked in Education programs. They are posed to us in articles. They are there to be examined. However, are we aligning ourselves with these social-justice questions? In “Narratives of Social-Justice Teaching” by sj Miller, Laura Beliveau, Todd DeStigter, David Kirkland, and Peggy Rice, a teacher named Judith said that “The university is idealistic and doesn’t teach prospective teachers how to deal with tough issues that just aren’t solvable. I learned some starting points for curriculum in the program but not strategies for the complex situations that we find ourselves in” (p.XVII). In real-world context, educators have to deal with themselves. We have to deal with our own issues internally.

In working with students, we have to constantly ask if we are aligning ourselves with social-justice. In one of the classes that I had today, one of the students wanted to give up on a grammar problem that I assigned for them to answer. She stood at the board, became frustrated and told me that she gives up. Once she said that, a class of hands shot up in the air. However, I knew that this student didn’t need a pass. No, she needed someone to push her. Someone to tell her that she could do it. In working through the sentence as a class, she soon figured out the answer. As a class, we learned that giving up is never an option. We must not give up on others or ourselves. We must always push each other no matter the problems that we may encounter.

I remember when I was in the sixth grade, there was a student in my Social-Studies’ class that was called on to read. In waiting for him to begin his section of reading, we soon realized that he couldn’t read. In looking back on the moment, I can’t remember the teacher helping the student in facing this moment of slight embarrassment. My peer wasn’t helped nor encouraged to work through the words in front of him. In that moment, I’m sure the student would’ve liked for someone to help him. However, he never got that. He was there drowning. Sinking. I would hate for any student of mine to encounter this kind of embarrassment. Yes, some teacher failed this student. Yes, someone must be accounted for this. However, what do we do when we see a student is struggling? Do we simply let them take a pass or do we help them work through the tough stuff? Is simply giving a pass the way to help them achieve their ultimate success?

Today, I visited the library at my university and found a PhD candidate doing his usual research on the computer. In a story he told me, I learned about his experiences with education and the act of passing students. In his story, I saw myself asking the questions that I raised above. As an absent father for a good period of his son’s schooling, he told me that his son’s teachers consistently passed his son with F’s year after year. These teachers told him that they didn’t want to prevent him from going on due to his home-life, so they passed him. However, he wasn’t appeased by this answer. He said that he felt that is was a disgrace to not prepare a student for life. He felt it was a disgrace to see that educators wouldn’t think about the bigger picture. However, he didn’t want think it was simply due to his son’s home-life that he was passed with failing grades. He felt that his son’s racial-background allowed teachers to simply give up and not see the potential in this student.

So, I asked myself the question, “What biases and stereotypes do I hold that will prevent me from pushing a student towards their ultimate success?”. In this father’s story, I felt speechless. I was speechless. I was humbled by his story. We can judge this father’s action of being absent, but it doesn’t explain his son’s years of passing with failing grades. However, what should an educator do? Is it ethical or morally acceptable to fail a student, allow them to continue onto the next grade without mastering or grasping the content? This is a question that one may want to ask. We are consistently faced with hard questions that may not have an immediate answer. However, we must work through these questions because no one can answer these but ourselves.

Social-justice is about action. It’s about putting into reality what we pass across our lips. Sometimes we allow ourselves to teach without practicing what we preach. We give our students lectures without giving ourselves these lectures first. In preparing students to be conscious in their words and deeds, we must awaken ourselves from our slumber. In the eloquent words of Ruth Vinz,”Part of preparing teachers is to help them learn to negotiate ways to disrupt, critique, and challenge accepted practices and beliefs rather than simply trying to survive the school day or assuming the curriculum will engage students in social justice understandings and practices”.

Are You Playing Oppressor In Your Classrooms?

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In our schools, are we silencing the students that sit in front of us? Are we putting out that fire in a student? Are we teaching students that dissent is unpatriotic? In one of the classrooms that I work in, I heard the teacher tell her students that good citizens support their country and government. Say what? My mouth dropped. My heart flopped out of my mouth. In the history of America, wrong has been done and committed by this country. Laws sanctioned by a government doesn’t make them right. The creation of America was based in slaughter, subjugation and domination. So, I ask you, “what are you teaching to your students?”.

Are we teaching students to simply accept authority as truth? I refuse to teach this. Ever! In understanding the history of America, I know that students must be taught to question and to be critical in their thinking. I want them to know that authority-figures doesn’t warrant your blind-following. You must think for yourself. You must look at the various parts that make up a system. You must eradicate oppression(s). You must ask yourself the questions that aren’t being asked of you. I could care less about being a good citizen if this means accepting: war-crimes, state-sanctioned torture, war, racism, sexism, homophobia and etc.

One of the most powerful statements that one can hear is this:

Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner. You must be eating some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.

“THE BALLOT OR THE BULLET,” SPEECH, APRIL 3 1964, CLEVELAND, OHIO (PUBLISHED IN MALCOLM X SPEAKS, CH. 3, 1965)

For the past century or so, several revolutions and movements have occured within America and other countries due to the fact that groups were and is denied rights that one would think as being inalienable. However, this has not and isn’t the case for several groups in America and across the globe. This work isn’t easy. It will never be easy. It has never been easy. Nonetheless, more work has to be done. And this work begins with the current and next generation. We have to educate this generation to be radical in their thinking so that they can teach those that come after them to be just as radical, if not, more. There’s no time to waste time.

In many classrooms, teachers are playing the role of the oppressor. Teachers are rewarding obedience and punishing those that are rebellious. Why are we rewarding obedience and silence? Because this is the way of domination. You strip the oppressed of their voices. their narratives. their lives. You want the oppressed to simply yield without questioning. You want them to take your word as being truth. as being their narrative. The oppressor can’t afford to have dissenters because this disrupts the system.

As an educator, when will you begin to teach wholeness? In the words of activist and feminist, Nawal El Sadaawi,

How many were the years of my life that went by before my body, and my self became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from the people who held me in their grasp since the very first day?

In our classrooms, there are many students that are fighting to belong to themselves. To love themselves. To hear themselves speak. To see themselves. To know that they matter. That their narrative matters. However, this act of resisting doesn’t happen easily for students that are located in classrooms with teachers as oppressors. I’ve seen teachers break the spirits of students. Put out that flame. Put out that narrative. Silence students. Forever. Where is the healing in this kind of environment? Where is the love?

In the words of the beloved bell hooks in her text Teaching to Transgress:

To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences. (130)

Students must have space to voice their narratives. On the other hand, educators must be vulnerable in this process as well. It’s not good enough to believe that students can simply disclose personal experiences without the educator doing the same in return. There must be equal vulnerability. A relationship founded upon love is one in which subjugation and domination is not apart of its framework.

So, when will you stop playing oppressor in the classroom?

My First Black Studies Course: A Place of Resistance and Healing

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Three years ago, I took one of my first Black Studies’courses as an undergrad. As an undergrad that was wavering in so many directions with so many points of interest, I wanted to do something for myself. I wanted to learn about me. For the first time in my life, I was going to delve into Black History. As a young child, my parents never told my brother and me about our history as Black folks. So, I depended on school to do the work. However, this dependency quickly became my downfall.

As a student of color that attended schools in suburbia, I wasn’t afforded the privilege of learning about my history, thus I felt disconnected. I felt lost. I felt robbed. I felt as if my Blackness was less-important than European-history. I felt as if my peers were gaining insight about their history while I was being erased and treated as an invisible. I can remember my ignorance of self becoming a place of self-hatred. I hated myself. I hated my skin. I hated my hair. I hated being poor. I hated everything about myself that ‘they’ made fun of. I didn’t want to be an invisible anymore. I wanted to be acknowledged. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be validated. I wanted to fit in. However, I never received this during my years of school until I took my first course in Black Studies.

My Black Studies course became a site of resistance for me. It was a place of community and it felt like it. My course had all African-American students with the same desire to learn about self. We were all desiring to learn about our genesis. In our class, we were a family. On our campus, we were outcasts. We were having to face an institution that prides itself in urban-education while enforcing Whiteness.We were expected to unknow ourselves. We were expected to smile in our urban-based institution while being told that Black Studies is where we should go to learn about ourselves. We were departmentalized. We weren’t given the privilege of having our voices, bodies and names heard in a typical curriculum. We had to go to a department that catered to our needs because the other spaces on campus were White with bourgeois values.

For many of my courses at my university, I felt that my Blackness was a disruption. I felt that my voice and my body was unwelcomed. In one of my undergrad classes, a professor asked me on the first day of class to tell everyone where I was from. Due to my brown skin and my hijab (Muslim headwrap), she felt the need to pry into my life and to humiliate me in front of my peers as if my body and visual representation wasn’t acceptable to our predominant White-class. In  seeking to remain calm with such a request, I told her that I was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri with parents from Mississippi and Missouri. In telling her my answer, she gave a faint smile with the rest of the class gazing upon her expressionless face. However, this was not the first or last time that I felt as if my body and voice was a site of disruption. I soon had to find strength in knowing that I had a choice. I could become knowledgeable about myself and feel pride in my Blackness. Or I could simply cave in. I could curl up. Assimilate. Continue to hate myself.

However, I knew I had gotten too far to simply cave-in. I wanted to grow intellectually. I wanted to begin the process of loving myself. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to know my history. So, I took my first course in Black Studies’ to start my journey. At the beginning of my first Black Studies’ course, our professor asked our class if we knew our native tongue. In being caught off guard by his question, we all looked around and nodded ‘no’. In feeling upset about this reality, I wanted to do something about it. So, I started learning Kiswahili. In an effort to learn Kiswahili, I knew I would be one step closer to Africa, in someway, in some form. However, he never told us that the English language can be a site of resistance. In Teaching to Transgress by Black feminist, Dr. Bell Hooks, she stated that “learning English, learning to speak the alien tongue, was one way enslaved Africans began to reclaim their personal power within a context of domination. Possessing, a shared language, Black folks could find again a way to make community, and a means to create the political solidarity necessary to resist”.

In thinking about Hooks’ statement, I knew that I have a responsibility to speak. I have a responsibility to be truthful to myself in my endeavor of learning about myself. I do not seek to live my life through the lens of White-supremacy. In knowing the history of Black folks in America, we can take the English language and find it as a starting point for healing. We can take this language of oppression and use it as a place of resistance. We can write books. We can write poetry. We can change the way we view ourselves. The way we start to think about ourselves. We can use this language to center ourselves. To find healing. To find wholeness. In thinking about my professor’s question, I knew the validity of such a thought. He wanted us to think. He wanted us to see the oppressive nature of those that came to take. To conquer. To spread the blood of our ancestors. However, our African ancestors knew that there was power in taking the oppressor’s language to their advantage. They knew that they had to form community, somehow. They knew they had to start somewhere. So, they started with the English language and created a new Black culture out of it. A culture that we can call community. The same community that I had found love and healing within on the first day of my Black Studies’ course. My Black Studies’ course was the first place that I learned to think critically. To think about myself as a whole person. To think about my responsibilities as a student of color. As a person of color in our world. 

She Told Us, “This May Be Her Healing”

We sat in our space of healing. Our space of community. We became beloved community. It was the second day of classes for me at my new job. As a paraprofessional, I helped one out of two French teachers that I am assigned to daily to delve into the concept of community with our fourth and fifth graders. As a practitioner of visionary feminism, I felt it necessary to hear the voices of the students that sat in front of us. In a class of twelve students of color, we created space for narratives that are so often missing or silenced from many textbooks and curricula within schools. In creating this space, we promised to respect one another in our risk-taking. We understood that such risk-taking may be painful, but necessary. In the prompt they were given, “What do you like and dislike about your community,” we were able to speak the joys and pains associated with the places we come from. In reading Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, I learned that educators shouldn’t expect students to take risks if they aren’t willing to do the same in return. In being a past and current student, I’ve always felt distance between myself and a teacher and/or professor that would expect students to disclose personal information without them doing the same. This felt unfair. A bit skeptical. A lack of trust on the teacher’s behalf. In wanting to be different and to build rapport with my students, I chose to participate in the same prompt that I gave to them. I chose to dig deep to share a part of myself. To be vulnerable. To be open and honest. In detailing my own community, I told the students that I lived in their city and saw the same things that they themselves would see. I see homelessness. I see poverty. I see run-down houses. I see pain. However, I see the joys of living in my community. I see smiles. I see individuals pitching in to help others. I see kids walking together to the local corner-store. I see the beautiful and ugly parts of my city- our city.

In sharing this part of myself, I saw the students sit in awe. They listened. They knew that I wouldn’t expect them to take risks that I wasn’t willing to take. In starting off, the students started to read theirs’ one-by-one. The journal-entries were personal. Open and honest. Painful and quite personal. For many of the students, the presence of gun-shooting in their communities is reality. The fear of what is outside is real. However, the students shared their joys too. Some of the students felt joy in seeing their neighbors help out in their neighborhoods, or seeing kids playing with other kids. In one student’s journal-entry, she shared with us how she feels scared in her neighborhood. She doesn’t like going outside. She prefers to stay indoors. In the telling of her narrative, some of the students giggled at her fear of going outside. In hearing these giggles, the French teacher quickly told the class that “This may be her healing. So, let her speak. She is being honest. She wrote what is on her heart”.  In this moment of truth, I felt something happen to me. I knew this woman’s words were from the Most Divine. The Creator had allowed her to be the vehicle for such healing. In her simple, but powerful words, all of us started to realize that beloved community allows for healing. Beloved community allows for pain to be said and heard. In beloved community, we work together to get through the pain.

In gathering the daily journals of the students, I began to read about the lives of those that chose to not read. In reading these entries, I understood the importance of loving. We must love. We must choose to love to live. We are all coming from different circumstances and lifestyles. We all hurt. We all need to express ourselves. The path to healing is not easy. It comes with its own struggles. However, it must be taken, if we are ready. These students didn’t have to write anything and some didn’t. Some simply left an empty sheet of notebook paper to be collected. However, the ones that did choose to participate had chosen to risk everything. This act of risking is hard. It’s brutally painful for many of us. However, as the French teacher had told the class, “this may be healing”.  Healing. this. may. be.