This IS a Test

This IS a test, it’s a test that has been a long time coming for me, but one I have prolonged as much as possible.  The title of the blog was supposed to catch your eye, make you think of a man I am truly honored to call a friend, José Vilson. I wanted the name to make you think of his book, and the many issues we have in classrooms all over America. I want you to also think about those same issues that lie outside the classroom, that permeate every second of every day. That issue is the one of race.

It is an issue I have struggled with, one that I have not engaged directly in- because I am a white man of privilege.  As such, I have never been sure of exactly where or when I should insert my voice on this subject. As someone of privilege, I am aware of how what I say (or what I do not say) can influence the conservation on race.  It wasn’t until one Sunday night, when I was trapped in MSP airport for 3 hours waiting to catch my flight home to Bemidji, that I decided to reach out for help. I want to be part of this conversation, but I truly do not know where to start.  That is where this blog, and those that respond to it, can help.

I before I type these next few paragraphs, I want you all to know this- that I am scared.  I am scared to continue, scared to hit publish, scared to share these thoughts publicly on social media because they represent an internal struggle within me and my life’s journey. They represent a struggle I continue to attempt to balance every day when dealing with my students and in my life. I am scared of the weight of judgement that will be rained down upon me as a man, a husband, a father, a teacher of our youth. Although I have this fear, I am continuing to type this, and hopefully when I reach the end I can finally find strength to hit send.

I was born in Virginia, and as such, I received a very strong message about people of color as I grew up.  Children are very observant of what is happening around them, and adults in the community did a good job in demonstrating the beliefs of those with privilege.  The issue was this- I never was comfortable with the message I was receiving. I kept silent, hearing those words but never pushing back on them. As a youth in a military home, questioning adults was not an option.  When I was 3, we moved to Minnesota and I grew up on a farm in a white community. I went to a school that was predominantly white, even though we were located between 3 reservations. I was not experienced in the issue of race, and my only really experience with people of color was still from the experiences of my early youth.

I continued to struggle with that view until college.  In college I lived in a diverse community, I had many friends- and those friends included many people of color.  I started to push back against those early images I retained from my youth. While living on campus, within the dorms, I was able to push past those prejudices and focus on the people I was interacting with. I did not have to worry about judgement from others about my friends there, although they still suffered from judgement every day.

As a teacher, I started teaching in a public school located on a reservation. Throughout my 15 years of teaching I have taught in a school that was primarily students of color.  I try to be aware of my message and my voice, but coming from my background I am sure I can’t help but fall into those times of “well intentioned” teaching. I need someone to push back on what I say or do in the classroom, sometimes it comes from my students. I have lost count of how many times I have been called racist by a new student, and each time it happens I reflect on what actually happened in the classroom before I respond.  Many times they are saying that as a knee jerk reaction. “Johnny, I need you to continue your work on your assignment” is immediately followed by “You’re racist.” It’s the other times that concern me. It’s like being slapped in the face, and I always try to reflect on the conversation, body language, body positions in the room, and who I addressed first in a situation in the classroom. If I ever have a doubt that what I said or done was wrong, I immediately apologize, although by that time it is too late- the damage has been done.

There are times throughout the year where the class will talk about race, and how that has affected their learning.  It is quite an eye-opening conversation with every group I have. Although many of the issues remain constant, there is always a new insight that I take from each talk.  All of the talks will have a racist versus prejudiced thread, and many of my students do not know the difference between the two. Many students do not know how to articulate themselves beyond using the word racist, so we talk about ways to talk with a teacher about how they are feeling and what factors within the classroom cause those feelings.  Many of my students come from very diverse and challenging situations, they have a need to be heard and respected for who they are. They typically are not allowed this, but it’s one thing I try to address and acknowledge. They need a place they can feel safe, respected and valued for being themselves.

Like my students, I need a place where I can feel safe and respected for this conversation of race. I want to learn more about what I am doing right or wrong, or even what I am implying by not saying anything at all. The biggest reason why I have been struggling with this for so long is that I feel ashamed.  I am ashamed because I have not pushed back against what I know is wrong for so long, but I also feel shame and fear of how my family and friends will react to my seeking knowledge and how I will interact with the topic of race. It’s the latter that has chained me into inaction, and although I keep struggling against those constraints- they keep me silent, firmly entrapped.

I want to have a conversation about race: within me, my classroom, my community, my country. I know that conversation won’t be neat or easy, but I also want to be able to know that while emotions may run hot- that I am having it with people in a constructive way.  This IS a test, we all are being graded on this every day, and for me- I need a lot of review and chances to retest so I can get it right.

Would You Rather?

Would You Rather…

Drive to work in Traffic?

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OR

 

Bike to work and get paid for it?

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Here’s some info to help you decide.

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Your route to work driving:

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Your route to work biking:

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Which would you rather do and why?

 

Special thanks to John Stevens for sharing this discussion provoking format.

Gunner gives me a Lesson

Finally, May 2nd and we have 67* weather.  I get home, throw on my old shoes and take Gunner for a walk.  I don’t have any specific plan in mind other than I love going for walks with him.  For those who don’t know, this is Gunner:

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As you can probably tell, Gunner is a character and I’m not totally convinced that he knows he’s dog instead of a human. Anyway, back to the walk.

I’m on the walk, and it’s on a off-road so the pups can run around and enjoy themselves while I get to enjoy nature as well. (When I say pups, we also have 2 other dogs in the “family” Autumn and Harley).  I love being outdoors- I hunt, fish, run, play sports, but all of a sudden I noticed something.

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The ground gets sandy and deep, uneven, tough to walk and I notice that my view suddenly becomes that of the top of my feet.  While this gets me through the tough part of the walk, I can’t see the pups or where they are.  Walking this way has slowed me down, and I realize I don’t hear their collars jingle nearby.  I panic like any other parent and find them.  I make an effort to not watch my feet but keep my focus on the road, the end goal.  My view becomes this:

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As you can see, I’m way behind Gunner and Harley, but I know where they are, where I am and where I’m going.  Walking was faster, I found I could still make sure of my footing most of the time, as long as I visualized what was coming up and remembered that when it came near.  I walked this way a while until I noticed Gunner and the pups running back and forth, zig-zagging their way around the area.  It reminded me why I was here, not to quickly walk through the woods for some end goal, but to relax, have fun, take in the sights, perhaps see some other wildlife.  I quit focusing so much on the road and a great thing happened, I saw the outdoors.

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This stretch of our walk took us along the pipeline, opening things up a bit an allowing me to see farther.  I even stopped, circled around and took in the view.  That turned out to be a good thing, since I saw this guy:

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I love watching animals in the wild, and I have always loved watching birds in flight.  I can’t tell you how many times I have imagined I was there alongside them, riding the air currents, enjoying the ride and appreciating the view from above. I never would have noticed Mr. Bald Eagle if I hadn’t slowed down, looked around and took my time.  After watching him for a while, the puppies were worried about me and the next thing I knew we were all together again:

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I gave them some love, and we started off again.  A little slower for me, and looking around appreciating the beauty of nature.  Once again I was left behind by Gunner, but Harley and Autumn were sometimes with me, sometimes behind, but we were all enjoying the great afternoon.

We were in the walk a ways, and got down into a swampy area in the path.  I had to take things slow and I also had to worry about an obstacle in the trail- a mud-hole.  The funny thing about mud-holes however, they are an obstacle for you but a refreshing distraction for the pups.  By the time I got close, this is what I saw:

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I was taking time to plan how I was going to cross, what would be the best path- yet Gunner and Autumn charged straight through the puddle, and even took refreshment from the water within (No, I didn’t drink from a mud-hole.  I may be outdoorsy, but not that much!) It was during this time that things started connecting to me about this walk, my recent trip to NCTM at DC, and teaching.  But that will all come later, back to the walk as things kept filling my brain.

As I was walking, I started noticing things about the walk, how I moved, how the puppies moved, how we moved together.  There were times I was leading, and times that the puppies went off on their own, and others where they went together to investigate a particularly good-smelling track.

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By the end of our walk, we were all tired- it had been a great afternoon!  We piled in the truck and enjoyed a much needed ride back to the house:

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The odd thing I noticed, is that even after that long walk there were different attitudes and energy levels in the pups. Autumn just wanted to lay down and sleep.  Harley was tired, but she was still interested in what was going on and was looking at where we were going.  Gunner didn’t seem phased by the walk and wanted me to roll the window down the whole way- I almost thought he’d jump out and start running around some more!

This adventure got me thinking about my teaching, my paths, my student’s paths, and our adventure together.  I don’t want to spoil all the fun right away but I want you to read and reflect on how this story could connect to you.  Perhaps you can even anticipate what I will tell you in the next blog in a few days, when I talk about how I reflected and made connections.

Thank you Gunner, for showing me the path.