Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Magic Formula

Recently I received two similar requests from two different sources within the span of a few hours.  Maybe there was something in the air, but suddenly people were thinking about race.  A high school teacher wrote to ask for reading suggestions that might help teachers (read: white) to reach African American students.  A short time later a college administrator asked if I would be available to do a diversity training for faculty (read: white).  They had a 20 minute slot available in which to address the issue.

Both of these individuals were well meaning and I'm glad they asked for help. This is not a critique of their intentions. Reading is always a good idea, and 20 minutes is better than no minutes, I guess. (Although it did make me think of Father Guido Sarducci's Five Minute University. If you've never seen it, it's worth a watch -- now that would make for an interesting session.  Marianne Modica's five minute diversity training. Hmm...).

Here's the thing -- both of these requests are based on the premise that somewhere out there exists a magic formula for educational equity. Just say this, do this, repeat this phrase, ask these questions in this tone of voice, maybe learn to rap a little, and your students will magically respond and learn, learn, learn. Sadly, there is no magic formula. Yes, there are some basic concepts that white teachers can start thinking about, such as their own position of privilege and how our educational system is designed to reproduce racial and social inequity.  They can think about creating culturally relevant classroom spaces, and how to maintain high expectations for all students while differentiating instruction to meet the needs of those same students. Most importantly, they can commit to making a sustained effort to equity that will require reflection and a rethinking of classroom policies.

The five minute diversity training approach might make us feel better about ourselves as whites, but will do little to equal the woefully unequal playing field that we've inherited through centuries of oppression.