Monday, April 7

And Still We Rise...

And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students 
by Miles Corwin

This is the book that I read for our Book Club discussions. And it was so difficult to read.  I had to stop twice for a few days and wept for hours at the tragedies and trials in these students' lives.  Both because the things they had endured were horrific, and because I was helpless to fix it, or assist them at all.  I also wept because I had survivor's remorse, that I was privileged and succeeded where many of the students did not. Throughout my reading of the book my eyes have been opened to issues that I haven't really thought about before, such as affirmative action, and if a literature teacher is responsible to bring cultural diversity into the classroom.  Corwin also effortlessly addresses subjects that I have been pondering and studying about all semester through my class on multicultural education. Topics of social and cultural capital, the truth of meritocracies, the benefits of privilege and inheritance, and the devastation of racism, discrimination and prejudice.

The basic premise of the book follows an AP English class in a gifted magnet program in a South-Central Los Angeles high school.  The author chronicles the lives of the students in the class and of the teachers and administrators that counsel them, detailing, like the title claims, their trials and triumphs.  He gives their backstories, how the students have worked so hard in school and in life to get so far already, and the obstacles they have faced.  I am not a good enough writer to try and replicate what he does in a summarized version here, but let it stand that the accounts pull at your heart and help you know the students. You can connect with them and want them to succeed.  These aren't your typical inner-city students either.  All of them have been classified as gifted, and through their efforts in school, are qualified to attend college and university after graduation.  They are taking honors and AP classes, scoring high on the SAT and passing AP exams. They are atypical in their school success and abilities, but they are typical in the obstacles, family life, and work schedules they maintain.

Throughout the book I was reminded of the importance of affirmative action to assist minority students who are qualified and want to attend college, and the difference between equality and equity.  During the senior year of these students (all of whom were black), California voted to end affirmative action in their state. They did it on the name of equality, that it was unfair to treat some students differently and give them acceptance privileges.  However, it was obvious from the trials the students faced, from their lack of privilege in other areas of their lives, that to "treat some people equally, we have to treat them differently."  It reinforced to me the importance of equity in my treatment of my students.  Though I can only help everyone in the way I am politically involved, in my classroom I can do my best to provide support for all of my students.  To be fair, I must treat students differently.  I am not sure what this will practically look like in my classroom.  But I know I am committed to the higher standard of equity, not equality.

This diatom between equality and equity was played out in the novel in the way the two English teachers for the gifted program taught. Both teachers were forty-one, but other than that were complete opposites.  One was white, and the teacher for the senior AP English class.  She was committed to preparing her students for the AP exam, and so made sure that they read the "great" literature and understood the literary terms to "compete with middle America".  They read Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, Portrait of an Artist, and other works by dead white guys.  She expected traditional and well-written essays with thought-out literary analysis and criticism.  She was preparing them to compete and so taught them like any other gifted class in America.  The other English teacher, a black woman in charge of the 9th and 11th graders, was more concerned with teaching the students about their heritage, including literature by black authors with black characters.  She wanted her students to become politically active, for them to go out and succeed, but never forget their roots, the roots of African Americans.  She was committed to teaching them morals, and what they needed to succeed not only in English, but in life.  The two teachers fought and argued because their teaching styles were so opposed.  Was there too much cultural integration and inclusive pedagogy in the Junior class that hurt the students in their AP preparation? Was there too much of a push for them to assimilate, to read and understand as white people did, to require them to become like others? I am not sure which teacher had it right, but I think some of both.  You don't want your students to flounder in the world because they have none of the dominate cultural capital, but you do want to acknowledge and validate their own roots and history.

Social and cultural capital and privilege and inheritance were also addressed in the book.  The author discussed the advantages that many middle-class students have for standardized tests, such as the SAT and AP tests.  Some privileges I feel were over exaggerated (at least I never experienced them), but others I hadn't even thought of as privileges.  The fact that I had books in my home, that I had time to study instead of working everyday after school, simply that I got enough sleep almost every night, is a privilege of my upbringing and inheritance.  Compared to many of these students, I had social and cultural capital aplenty.  Other advantages included parents that loved me, were still married, and never beat me.  They were both college graduates, and expected me to attend also. They had the time to invest and participate in my education and extracurriculars. Throughout the novel, I was reminded of my own parents and the inheritance they gave me.

But I was also reminded of other students' parents, those in the book, many of whom cared deeply about their child's success in school, and wanted the best for them, but didn't have the time or energy to invest in their education. Many of them were working 60 hours a week just to get by, so coming in for a parent-teacher conference, or helping with their child's homework were not options for them.  As a future teacher, I have a responsibility to remember the situations of my students and their parents, and not to expect more than they can give.  I want them to be involved in school, and for them to be able to help their child, but I also will know that they care and love them even if they can't.  I want to provide ways for parents to be involved in their own time, on their own schedule. Communication might be difficult, but I see it as an important part of my role as a teacher to contact the parents and discuss with them concerns and successes.  Always assuming that they care deeply.

The subject of our school system's broken meritocracy could take pages, in and of itself, but I will try and address it briefly here.  A meritocracy is supposed to be a system that awards privileges and success based on a person's merit, or achievement.  And at the core, our system does that.  But the paths to merit are skewed and biased by all of the privileges and obstacles listed above.  The author discusses the corruption of the admissions process to the University of California, and that many minority students enter standardized tests cold, with no way of affording preparation courses or books.  Students score lower because they are struggling to survive, through no fault of their own.  For many, a meritocracy is an uphill battle, fighting against the detriments of poverty and prejudice.  The merit they have is not properly unveiled, and so the judgments passed are not fair or right.  A true meritocracy is a myth, when we still have so much inequity in our society.  As a teacher, what can I do to make a difference?  I am not entirely sure.  I am not a billionaire that can raise their families out of poverty, I am not a politician that can move the laws toward equity, and I am not a college admissions officer, who can look for the potential and amazing feats of all students.  But I am a teacher.  I can mold minds and help them believe in their own success.  I can push them to achieve, and to have big dreams.  I can teach them and give them some cultural capital.  I can do my best to prepare them for standardized exams.  I can give them a listening ear and hear their many stories, and try and help them through to a happy ending.

I will be a force for good, in a position of responsibility.  For my students, I will remember the truth of equity and the disadvantages they face and strive to help them accordingly.  I will be a knowledgeable teacher, and I will teach the truth.

Yes.  I will teach.