Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hidden Histories

Market Sq: Local produce & slaves
At Market Square in Alexandria, Virginia, there is a beautiful Saturday farmers' market.  It is located in the center of the Old Town.  Vendors surround a central plaza with a water fountain and sell their wares to tourists and locals.  I love going to farmer's markets when I am away from home not only because it is a chance to get local produce but also because it gives me a brief glimpse at life in a different part of the world.
Just over 200 years ago, next to produce vendors in the very same Market Square, they were selling other human beings - enslaved Africans.   I have walked past Market Square dozens of times in my life.  I spent weekend nights, hanging out in this area as a teenager.  I was born just a few miles from here, I went to elementary and secondary school in Alexandria, and my parents live here now. I have thought of Alexandria as my birthplace and hometown.

But, in these thirty-five years of my life, I never knew that it was one of the largest slave trading hubs for the east coast. I never knew that it also had a large population of free blacks who became emancipated by buying their own freedom, by taking advantage of  loopholes in VA state code, or by the efforts of Quakers and abolitionists.  I never knew that my parents live in a historically black neighborhood known as the "Berg."  In the mid 1800s, more and more freed blacks took residence in this southeastern part of Alexandria though many have been pushed out in recent years.  I have often strolled over from my parents' home to the Queen Street Library.  I never knew that this library was the site of the earliest sit-in protest in American Civil Rights History.  In 1939, six high school students and a lawyer sat in the "whites-only" library until they were arrested.
Plaque commemorating the 1939 sit-in protest

While those activists did not achieve integration, they were successful in bringing a library to their community in 1940, which is now home to the Alexandria Black History Museum.  Yesterday, I stepped out of my parents' home, walked six blocks to the museum, and had my world turned over.  As a history teacher, I am always trying to help students see the connections between the past and present.  So why was it shocking to learn about slavery and segregation in my home town?

There is a difference between intellectually understanding history and experiencing history.  I learned about slavery and Jim Crow laws in high school.  I read books and listened to my history teacher lecture to the class.  It was awful; but it also felt faraway.  After all, it was history.  Now, knowing what I learned yesterday, I could walk the same roads where slaves, chained together, were unloaded off of slave ships.  I could stand with a new awareness at Market Square, feeling rage and grief because people had been sold like cattle in this very place.  I could check out a book from the same library where black students were arrested for trying to do so.  This whole time it was in my backyard and front yard.  It was at the farmers' market.  It was in my library. 

How much history is hidden before our eyes?  Particularly, the history of people of color and other marginalized groups in the United States?  The collective American consciousness seeks a happy ending, but in doing so this culture whitewashes the past.  Many would rather forget about slavery and racism.  But in doing so, this country continues to support policies and practices that oppress people of color.  History lives in our reality.  We can attempt to hide it from plain sight, or we can seek to understand it fully and learn from it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Crossing the threshold

There's a 1/4 inch gap in the floor between the cork and marmoleum, exposing concrete slab and creating a border between the bathroom and the office.  Our contractor says we need a threshold - a strip of wood or metal - a physical marker placed on the floor designating two spaces as unique and different.  It is in this moment that I understand for the first-time what a threshold actually is and what it therefore means to "cross a threshold." 

At every threshold, there exists something tangible and visible, telling me that I am indeed moving into new territory, perhaps for the first time or for a return visit.  Each territory has landmarks and purpose, like my kitchen, with the stainless steel box in the corner slowing the process of decay.  The refrigerator signifies where I am and what I am here to do - cook, eat or browse the selection of foods.  Or perhaps, by crossing the threshold, I may ecounter someone new.  Feelings are evoked - fear of the unknown, discomfort, negative emotions  - mingled with excitement and a sense of possibility.

Each day, I easily cross a 100 thresholds.  Effortlessly, at times.  Unknowingly, most of the time.  But at some times, the presence of a threshold screams to my conscious attention, warning me of the what I am about to encounter.  Flashback to the age of seven, I crossed the threshold into my own home with trepidation, staring down the long, cold tile path through the kitchen.  At the end of my view, my mother sat amidst work in the dining room with afternoon sun angling in, illuminating part of her face and casting shadows over the rest.  I paused before entering; with a hand in my pocket, I felt for the edge of the note, feeling the paper press sharply into my fingertips.  At that tender age, I knew I had committed the cardinal sin of not doing my homework and knew that I had to get her signature on that note.

Fast forward to 1998, I stand quietly before another entrance, the threshold into a high school classroom.  I take several deep breaths.  I am unaware of whether there is a physical piece of wood or metal on the floor to mark the border, but I am acutely aware that I am on the outside about to step into a place foreign to me - a public school classroom in the United States.  Despite eighteen years of formal education, I am a stranger to publicly funded education.  For this reason of my privileged upbringing, I am here, hoping to be a teacher in this new place, somehow intending to redistribute my privilege.  And for the reason of its unfamiliarity, I am scared about where I am about to step foot.  Who are these black and brown youth in their third year of high school in New York City?  Will they accept me?  Will they learn from me?  Can I make a home in this foreign land?

I pretended to be in control.  I used phrases like, "If you give respect, you get respect."  I searched for authority in my own voice.  Determination masked the trembles and other hints of my fragile confidence.  If someone had barked, I would have surely jumped.  But I got through the first days.  I calmed down enough to see my students. 

Who are they?  For some of them, the journey to that classroom spans a much longer distance than my own.  The fabric of those journeys are woven with spiritual, emotional, cultural, and political complications.  Angelica spent five years in Honduras with an alcoholic father while her mother was trying to establish herself in the United States.  She shrugs it off, smiles, and tells me, "Mr. Young Whan, it doesn't bother me."  Kika is a light-skinned Dominican girl with reddish-brown hair, creating a wide frame for the narrow features of her face.  Her subway ride to school is a welcome escape from an abusive father, but she struggles in school to memorize the names and dates for her U.S. history exams.

It dawns on me that each of them is crossing a threshold by coming to school, and I may, in fact, be the one most comfortable with school culture.  I'm the one who did well in school.  I'm the one whose ego felt good as teachers gave me praise.  I'm the one now who is writing the tests that they need to study for.  So even as I face my fear at the threshold each morning, I know that they too are afraid.  It becomes increasingly clear that it is my responsibility to make this classroom into a place they can cross into without fear.

Thresholds aren't just a warning sign, indicating that you are entering into another space.  They have yet another purpose.  While delineating the distinct border between two spaces, a threshold can also unify those spaces.  When our remodel project is done, instead of the gap that presently exists in the floor of our office, there will be a bridge connecting the distance.  In choosing the threshold, we have to decide on the color and material that will best reference the style, or culture if you will, of the two spaces.

So, for the first time, I am contemplating buying a threshold, but as a teacher I have been the one in control of the threshold to my classroom for many years.  Certainly, district policies and school administrators dictate much of what we must do, but I set the tone for our space in many ways - how do we talk to one another, how we listen or not, which cultures and experiences are valid.  When I consider how scary it can be to cross a threshold into the unknown, I can remember that this is the meaning of coming to school each day for each of my students.  My first and most important task may be that they can make a home in this foreign land.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Farted at...

One of the eventualities of working as a high school teacher is being cussed out, ignored or otherwise disrespected by a student. In my first week as a student teacher some twelve odd years ago, I tried getting a student to go to class. The student responded by farting at me. This is a different, though no less humiliating experience from being "farted on," which as the youngest of three boys was not a foreign experience. What exactly does it mean to be "farted at"? Allow me to describe... he turned his back to me, leaned over thereby protruding his butt in my direction, and audibly expelled gas. In shock, I could not respond before he laughed and scampered down the stairwell. Determination, stubbornness, a sense of humor... some combination of the above gave me the strength to show up to school the next day.

That was my first lesson that being disrespected was part of this profession I had embraced. Still, acknowledging this truth about my work has not necessarily lessened the sting. This week, in a nearly identical scenario, I was trying to get a student to go to class. His response, though less odoriferous, was greatly triggering. "Get the fuck outta my face before I rock your shit." As a guy of small stature, I had two reactions to those words. The first was intense heat. I imagined putting him in a headlock and punching him in the face until blood was dripping on the floor. This emotional reaction was wrought from years of being picked on and feeling physically intimidated. The second reaction was one of fear, aka self-preservation. Along with having "little man" rage, I had also learned quickly that being small also meant that fighting was generally not a smart choice.

While anger and fear were coursing through my body, I was breathing. I was noticing these intense emotions. I was noticing that I was a teacher - a conflict resolution teacher, in fact - in a school hallway with a student who was clearly not in his right mind. This was not a rumble in the jungle. My survival was not on the line. Even though my ego was demanding respect and begging me to at least say something with the voice of authority, I could see that any words might only provoke a physical response.

This young man was angry. Why? There could be a million reasons. How had he suffered in his life up to this point? Fifteen or sixteen years old, how many murders had he seen? How many fights had he been in? How much abuse did he witness in his home or at school? So even though my ego felt attacked, was this even about me? A few simple breaths helped me to look beyond the haze in this young man's eyes and to see the pain in his heart. Violence, intimidation, and fear are realities of this society, and we as a species have cultivated these emotions.

Thankfully, I walked away. I am breathing now, taking care of my emotions. I hope that schools will continue to prioritize teaching young people to take care of themselves. Who knows when they will cuss, scream or fart at someone who won't know how to walk away.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Wooty Woot Woot

In response to a question about how to deal with conflict constructively, a student recently wrote, "ask nicely if you told woot woot woot that wooty woot woot." I will attempt to translate.  Rather than assume that someone is saying negative things about you, ask them nicely what they said, if anything.  As a teacher, reading student work can be one of the most mundane tasks.  Try reading dozens of essays that all attempt to describe the criteria by which someone should receive a key to the city (this was an essay writing prompt for the CAHSEE a few years back).

Strangely though, I find my students' work to be fascinating.  At times, I am filtering through for clues as to what students gained from my instruction.  This process can inject my instruction with more purpose and motivation when I see examples of student work that reveal that students are moving along in their writing or thinking.  Or it can be equally as disheartening when it appears that my instruction has had little to no impact.  And then, in my more centered moments, I can just approach their work with curiosity, seeking to have insight into my teaching and figuring out what needs to be retaught and in what ways.

And then, my students' writing provides moments of hilarity, as in "wooty woot woot."

I laughed when I read this.  In part, I am a fan of this expression, "wooty woot woot."  It just has a more positive ring than "blah blah blah," which hints of disdain for what the other person has said.  "Wooty woot woot" is one expression in a long line of innovation championed by young people.  Some phrases may last and others may go extinct - losers in a linguistic survival of the fittest.  Maybe one day, more mainstream North Americans will use the phrase "wooty woot woot," forgetting that they once passed judgment on young people of color as ignorant for their ways of expression. 

Yet even as I'm laughing, I wonder about the state of the English language.  I'm all for creativity and innovation, but I'm also a traditionalist.  I want my students to master the fundamentals.  I want them to know how to use a semi-colon and add apostrophes in the right location.  I want them to know the rules, so then they can break them consciously and with purpose.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My head hurts... and other symptoms of learning

Ouch! My head hurts...
I have often thought of my emotions as following into two categories: "good" emotions and "bad" emotions. The good ones include such well-accepted feelings like joy, happiness, love, bliss, and contentment while conversely I tend to lump anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, and despair into the "bad" category. It turns out that I'm not the only one who has such ideas. Many of the young people that I work with, not to mention most of us humans in the developed world, seem to be on one continuous pleasure hunt.

And in the modern world, there's plenty of opportunities. My particular version of this often consists of eating really delicious food and being unable to get enough. As soon as I'm done eating a meal that was too many calories for one day, I'm thinking about what my next meal is going to be. Or maybe I'm strategizing how my next errand is going to take me past my favorite chaat spot or fish taco joint. The bay area is just one hedonist, local, organic delicious love-fest.

On the flip side, if I'm experiencing pain of either the physical or emotional variety, it's really hard to get perspective. The muscle knot in my shoulder becomes a major physical handicap for the day, the tiny stomach rumbling is a symptom of some nasty gastroenteritis, and my scratchy throat warns of impending sickenss that will confine me to a bed for days.

So what does a splitting head pain mean? Well, when one of the students at my high school went complaining about how her work has been causing her head to split open, my principal responded with a smile and what sounded nearly like "congratulations! you've won the lottery!" Literally, she said, "That means you're learning!"

For the last few years, our school has been on a mission to get students to see pain as normal, to see mind-taxing work as beneficial exercise for the muscle in our head, and ultimately to embrace hard work. Just like me, our students seem to have a desire to feel good and avoid those "bad" emotions. Thus, many would much rather spend all evening developing their social networks than writing a thesis statement to a prompt they don't understand or solving math problems whose answers elude them. They would just rather not feel dumb. Based on my own experience, this seems like a totally logical response to work. My problem in high school, which turned out to be more beneficial in the long-run, is that I was much better at figuring out answers to textbook questions and solving math problems than becoming cool and popular at school. Therefore, on Friday nights, you might just find me saddled up to a desk, solving math problems instead of getting twisted at a party.

Unfortunately, by the time, most of the students reach MetWest, school work feels like pain more than pleasure. They feel stupid more of the time than smart. So, somehow we need to convince them that the pain they experience when faced with challenging work is actually a normal and healthy process. They are, in fact, exercising their brains to be stronger and smarter. Luckily, we are not a cult, brainwashing them into working hard so that they can have both the analytical prowess and disciplined habits to be successful in life. There are studies that seem to indicate that what we are espousing has some truth.  One's intelligence is indeed malleable.  The brain, particulary during adolescence, is developing, and students who perform certain types of tasks will become more and more proficient in those tasks. The implications are high-stakes. As long as young people experience failure in school and carry the idea that they are dumb, they will likely avoid work in school and never develop those parts of their brains that would actually help them do well in school. The cycle is vicious.

Until someone comes up with a magic homework powder, I will keep cheering when I hear students complaining of their heads hurting in school. No need for aspirin, pain is what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Benevolent dictators

My classroom has served as a microcosm of the larger world in many enlightening and disturbing ways.  For example, as a young idealist, I wanted to empower my students in the decision making process.  What better way to learn about democracy, then to give them the chance to consider and debate those decisions that would directly impact them, right?  Well, after weeks of trying to plan a trip with my group of advisory students, benevolent dictatorships started sounding like an ideal form of government.  Instead of debating the relative merits of Waterworld versus playing video games at Boomers, I could just decide that we would go rock-climbing.  After all, I knew that there were some students who would be eternally embarrassed if they were ever seen in a swimsuit.  And wasn't I supposed to be helping my students unplug from all the technology that drowns their minds in stimuli?  I could think of ten reasons why rock-climbing was the perfect trip, but could I convince 17 independently-minded youngsters?  Much easier to dispense of the veil of democracy and just come clean - I'm making this decision and I hope that you will all come and have fun.   In fact, this is how it went down last May in my advisory.   Supreme benevolent dictator Young Whan decided that we would go rock-climbing and we did.  Bottom line - we all had fun.
Look, they're smiling!

I must admit that I did experience a mild feeling of regret at pushing their ideas to the side in order to make this decision.  While the outcome of the class trip was ostensibly a success, I wonder about what they learned from the process.  Perhaps, the takeaway was something like, "I don't need to work with others to make decisions.  It's easier if I trust someone in power and go along with what happens."  The radical college student in me was reprimanding me for having fallen so far from my ideals.  "Tsk, tsk, shame on you."  But, there is a harsh reality of competing agendas.  So many important objectives to reach and so few classes.  I want to teach students to think critically, understand content, read, write, pass the CAHSEE, catch up three grade levels in English, write a proficient Document Based Question essay for Social Studies...

Still, I remember the words of a young monk who was expressing his appreciation for the profession of teaching.  He told me that teachers have the ability to help young people learn how to live happily.  What's the point of being smart and doing well in school, if you use your success as an opportunity to exploit others.  It's funny that in his gratitude for teachers he was able to leave me with wisdom and guidance.  Without knowing me, his words had crystallized the essential value of my life's work.  Even if I churned out a bunch of Ivy League students who were great thinkers, it would be for naught if they did not have integrity, if they were unable to reflect honestly, or if they could not live in harmony with others.

Reconnecting with my core values as a teacher needs to be an annual exercise.  It would probably be useful to have this planned into my calendar for each summer vacation before I sit down to do any planning.  Thankfully, I work in a school where we have a vision statement that centers us on our purpose, and we have a culture that values social and emotional development on the same level as academic success (For more information on our school model, check out

This summer our staff was faced with a dilemma.  We wanted to introduce a model known as Discipline that Restores, which begins with students and a teacher in each classroom co-constructing "respect agreements" that everyone in that class agrees to.  In the midst of a professional development workshop on this topic, questions came up about how these agreements work across different classrooms.  "So, if a student has five different classrooms and teachers at the school, does that mean that she needs to adapt to five different sets of respect agreements in the course of her day?"  Luckily, most of our students stay with only a couple of teachers given our structural model, but still there could be confusion.

During one of the breaks, I huddled with my principal, and an elegant solution appeared.  We would bring all the class agreements together and create a master document that would apply to the entire school.  At MetWest High School, this means bringing together eight classroom's respect agreements.  I took on the task of convening a representative from each class to work collaboratively on examining the original eight documents and drafting a whole school agreement.   Certainly, this was a more manageable task than in your traditional high school setting, but I still harbored some doubts as to how this process would go.  As the adult member of the group, would I need to intervene and make some decisions for the group, and what message would that send if I did?

This story is still playing itself out, but this past Friday I was reunited with my own belief in the value of process... and it felt good.  It was our second session as a committee, and the students were reviewing each other's attempts at consolidation.  In total, we had roughly 30 agreements from each classroom, leaving us with 240 agreements that we needed to condense into a usuable document - somewhere around 40 agreements.  At this point, we had a draft of our final list, and our process was to read through each agreement of the original 240 agreements and determine if each one was represented in some way in the final document.  Can you say monotony?  I feared that this would slip into an exercise in rubber stamping, but the students approached the task with concentration and integrity.

It was truly inspiring to witness their dialogue.  Should we include "be kind?"  How is that different from "be supportive and helpful?"  We delved into the nuances of language and made both significant and subtle revisions.  But instead of seeing revision as annoying and time consuming (a response that I am all too familiar with), they approached revision with serious focus.  In fact, we were less than halfway done after an hour.  Before I could say anything, a student volunteered to keep working on it during her next free period without me.  Others quickly agreed to join in.  While I felt urgent about finishing, I could see the power in the process.  They were learning to make decisions, to see the impact of word choice, to listen to each other's opinions, to share their perspectives, and most importantly, they were fostering a sense that their collective work could help create a safer and more positive community at the school.  I believe that entrusting the students with this level of responsibility called forth their best efforts.  They knew that their work mattered.  It was real.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Do I love teaching?

Yes, I do.  In fact, it has been a part of my identity for the past twelve years, one-third of my life on this planet.  When I meet someone new, I looked forward to telling them that I am a teacher.  Not only that, but I teach public school.  I particularly like to emphasize that I teach public school in Oakland.  In the world of social justice, what you do is important.  All of us soldiers of change want to be recognized for serving the community and serving it in the right ways.

Part of my desire to teach in Oakland Unified School District was exactly because it had such a reputation for being under-resourced and difficult.  I was living out my own little Dangerous Minds type fantasy.  (For a hilarious spoof on this, check out Mad TV's "nice white lady" skit) Being a public school teacher was an ego boost, even as it shattered my ego on other days when I felt totally incompetent.  In contrast to my idealism, it was hard to reconcile the fact that 50% of my students were regularly turning in homework or that despite my best efforts helping them develop a habit of studying for tests often felt fruitless.

Then in the middle of last year I gave notice.  I was emotionally spent, and moreover, I felt that I was no longer learning in my profession.  I needed to shift some things in my life and seek new challenges.  I was scared.  From January to June I was mostly too busy to be scared, but when summer vacation hit, the reality of the transition began to set in.  During the summer I tried on new identities.  Well, half of the time, I told people that I still was a teacher at MetWest High School in Oakland.  This felt comforting but a bit false.  Even though I was technically on summer vacation, I knew that come September I would not be in my usual role in the classroom.  Still, I attended conferences and introduced myself as a teacher.  Other ways I described this period of my life included: early retirement, a transition, setting priorities, seeking new challenges, figuring out what's most important in my life...

It is and continues to be all of those things, AND I still am a teacher at MetWest High School.  I have excised those parts of the work that were dreadful - calling the same parents every week to report little to no progress or effort in their child, feeling awful when I looked at the homework that only some of my students turned in, and sensing impending doom every Sunday evening even though my rationale mind knew that all would be okay.  In my new part-time role as a contractor, I get to teach without all of that.  I am sure that there will be other opportunities to experience frustration and anxiety, but in the meantime, I am enjoying my new role as a teacher of mindfulness and conflict resolution at our school. Bottom line is... I can still say that I love teaching.