Four Reflections on Pre-Institute Work

I just finished packing for Institute, and before that crazy adventure starts, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on my pre-Institute work. A major caveat before I begin: Mostly, I only did the reading that was required of me. I rarely chose to investigate the optional resources, and I acknowledge that necessarily limits my analysis. That said, here are a couple of thoughts:

1. I wonder if the time spent on understanding the “achievement gap” would have been better spent on learning pedagogy.
The survey about the pre-Institute work I took after I was all finished asked if I better understood the achievement gap and possible solutions for it. I think I probably do. And I think it was really important for me to read a variety of literature that talked about how poverty affects communities. But I still have very few real ideas about actual classroom strategies. Even the passages we read from Teaching as Leadership were focused more on community-building and building relationships with students and parents rather than pedagogical technique. I think that’s all really important, but I’m thirsty for pedagogy. I’ve been ensured that I will get that at Institute so I’m really looking forward to it.

2. I worry that much of the discussion of “the achievement gap” revolved around deficit thinking.
Many of the resources focused on things that communities with high levels of poverty do not have. Very rarely did a resource make it clear that communities have many identities, one of which is income level. In fact, the pre-work often focused on “cage-fighters” and “latch-breakers.” individuals who are working to “better” communities. A lot of these individuals are doing great work, but there seemed to be a dearth of information about communities that are bettering themselves. A high proportion of the examples given were about TFA teachers (which was alright, considering that’s what I’m doing. But wouldn’t it be swell to see non-TFA teachers, too?!) or individuals who came from outside a community. In basically every instance, this made me feel uncomfortable. It made me feel like I was being trained to think of my future students and community as needing help. And, like, they do need help. But so does everyone everywhere. There were two notable exceptions of this pattern. First, this video from Cory Booker:


Although Cory Booker is often accused of the same things I take issue with in the previous paragraph, the hero of this story is a woman who forces Booker to stop thinking he is a savior. I like that.

Second, this video from Jeff Duncan-Andrade.


I have mad respect for Jeff Duncan-Andrade. I saw him speak in New York once and found him extremely impressive. He lives in the same neighborhood as his students and routinely has his students over for dinner. The student-teacher relationship for him is extremely intimate, and I think his work serves as a really well-thought-out alternative to the “no excuses” model.

3. I really enjoyed the Detroit-specific pre-work.
I found it much more pertinent than the rest of the pre-work. One of my main arguments with the rest of the work was that it often felt like I was being told that communities in low-income areas have enough similarities that learning about one will help you in another. I’m not sure I totally agree with that premise. So having work that was specific to Detroit was really awesome. I even spent a lot of time looking at optional texts in the Detroit-specific area. I’ve read or am reading several of the recommended books, including Made in Detroit by Paul Clemens, The Origins of the Urban Crisis  by Thomas Sugrue, Hidden History in Detroit by Amy Elliott Bragg, and Reimagining Detroit  by John Gallagher. These last three are amazing, I highly recommend them. Sugrue’s book is especially informative.

4. Made in Detroit may have been racist.
Made in Detroit is a memoir by a white man named Paul Clemens who grew up in the region between Six Mile and Eight Mile in Detroit in the early 80s. Clemens, the son of working-class parents attempts to argue that Detroit in the early 80s had the opposite racial power structure as the rest of the nation. He claims that since the city had its first black mayor in Coleman Young and since the majority of the population in Detroit was black, white people were often victims of oppression. For instance, affirmative action programs in law enforcement instituted by Young resulted in holding white policemen back (since the majority of the population was black). But claims like these ignore important historical truths. Like, for instance, that although the black population grew steadily throughout the 1900s, black people remained chronically underrepresented in law enforcement. Likewise, when Clemens complains that his family and others had to retreat to further outskirts as neighborhoods were overrun by crime, he ignores one racial component while pointing to another. He’s quick to point out that these crime-ridden neighborhoods were predominately black but never tells his readers that black people experienced a long history of real estate discrimination and disrespect from the city government who often seized predominantly black neighborhoods for city projects like freeways. He also doesn’t seem to connect the dots to the fact that his family had the means to move out of the crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Clemens, confusingly, often quotes James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Ralph Ellison. He takes contention with these writings, claiming an identity as a minority in a “black” city. But Clemens’s interactions with black people are incredibly limited. He plays on a football team with mostly black children in middle school, and as far as pre-college interactions with black people, this is about it. He goes to a private college prep high school with mostly other white students. Then, when he finds out that his wife had been raped by a black man before they had met, he develops a scary hatred for random black men he meets. Perhaps, this is simply an attempt at honesty. But it lacks any recognition of self. In Clemens’s world, he is the hero. Black men have only ever hurt him. He was born into a city that did not grant him the immediate privilege that white people had in the rest of the country, and he was bitter about it.


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