What do we hear differently when students tell us what we already know from our own data?
Last month, I was asked by a district to conduct a focus group of African American students who were experiencing challenges in their academic progress. As is true for so many school districts, this one has identified African American students as one of the sub-groups it is least effectively educating. With the students’ permission, I did a mash up with the students’ collective quotes and wrote a letter from a composite African American student for that district.
At the end of this week, we will be hosting CES’ annual Fall Forum. This year’s theme is “Making the Invisible Visible: stories and counterstories for educational equity.” The message from the focus group students is one counterstory that makes an invisible perspective quite visible.
Dear School System,
I am your African American student.
I am your black female student.
I am your mixed student who looks and identifies as a black male.
I am the student who has attended your schools since I first attended school. And I am the student who has had experiences outside this school system, but now am in your hands.
I have attended your west side schools – and your east side schools – sometimes in the same year. While the schools are different, my experience has not been.
I am the black student who did not do so well – because I wasn’t understood in my classroom – because I have a strong voice and good vocabulary. I am the black student that might intimidate you.
I am the student who should have the same privilege as other students in class, but I don’t.
My family and my community expect a lot from me. As long as I can remember, they have told me to go to school and get my education. They said I would need it if I wanted to be somebody in life.
My Mom – she wants me to graduate. She tells me all the time to do my work – not to become a statistic.
But my family and my community know – they told me – it would not be easy.
They taught me, “You are who you are, and you aren’t gonna get treated the same as everyone else.” They told me straight up, “you probably won’t be liked.” They even told me to expect people to hit me at school – but they also told me, “if someone hits you – hit back!” They said,
“Make sure your ass graduates!”
“If you are not getting attention, sit in the front.”
“Do what you gotta do to pass.”
But it ain’t that simple.
I know you don’t like me
I knew in the kindergarten that you didn’t like me.
I knew in the fifth grade that you didn’t like me.
I knew in the eighth grade that you didn’t like me.
I know you don’t like me.
I get it. It’s ok that you don’t like me – but with all the effects of life out of school, I need someone to understand me – better. I need someone who won’t start with the negative when talking to me. Even in your black schools – where most of you and most of us are black, when all you say is negative, I hear you; you are telling me I am a lost cause.
Some of you act like you know me off the top – just because I came from a different school or because you looked at a paper about me or because you knew my brother (or someone you thought was my brother). I already know that is what you do – and I hate that. I know what I need to do; I just need acknowledgment of what I am feeling and experiencing. Can you talk to me and ask me where I am coming from before you judge me because of what is going on or what I am doing? If you cannot – the conversation is over.
I think I am treated this way because you think black people act a certain way – not all of us do.
I think you probably have past experiences – and since I am black… I gotta put in effort. Because I am who I am, I have to do more to get what I am entitled to have.
It’s not enough just to do good work. Even when I come in and am good right from the start, I don’t even get noticed. But when I am bad, I am deemed as bad because you had a bad student before who was black.
Ms. F. – Mr.. M. – Mr. O. – Ms. Y – Ms. K. – I know you don’t like me.
I see you when you are having conversation and then when you see me, you stop. I believe you have something to say – but you won’t say it. You are the same as the woman on the bus who grabs her purse when she sees me.
But you do compare me to other students who are sitting still and not doing anything and tell me that I won’t amount to anything if I don’t act the same. I hear your message – I am not going to pass. It is the same message even when I do the work or ask for help.
When I do what you ask, you say nothing – until I do something wrong.
When I ask for help – you don’t have time for me; then someone else asks for help and I see them get a lot of help and wonder, “why not me?”
When I don’t do what you ask, I get sat in the back – and then you don’t come back there. I get sat somewhere you know you won’t come.
I have to sit in the front to get noticed – and still, I see others getting all the help they want with doing so much less.
Listen, I know you don’t like me, but I need credits.
I hear you; you are trying to push all your stuff on me and trying to convert what I am thinking to what you are thinking!
I don’t have patience to sit in your classroom. So I fight – a lot, or I miss class – a lot. But I need credits.
You expect me to keep messing up. How is it that you gave me an F AND an S?
Don’t tell me to read from the book and make me teach myself. How am I supposed to learn if you are not teaching or helping me?
I learn the same way as everybody else does.
Do what you gotta do.
I want to pass. I am scared. I always try but the message never changes.
My family was right – I am treated different than other students.
I am publicly shamed – I am told I am lazy – then left not to be bothered with.
Still, I stay – even though I know this is not my place.
No one wants to feel like they are doing nothing, so at the minimum I can say, “I went”… and “see, you are not teaching me.”
I know we are all human.
When I think of you, I think of white people.
When I see you, I see white people. (Even though it’s not just white people. Even some black teachers act white.)
White people feel they are more entitled to stuff.
Not all white people – but white people
…think they know where I come from
…they are better and have more stuff….
Even in my own school, when white people walk in MY school – they look at me like I’m hella strange!
They don’t understand who we are and what we have been through – well some white people.
I don’t experience this with the teachers who teach me.
Can I have teachers who don’t come off as racist? Can I have a teacher who works well with all races – can you check if they really know how to work with all races?
I need black history teachers – not just in February – but throughout the year. It doesn’t matter what race they are – as long as they know what they are talking about – and won’t change it. I have been taught about MLK and Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. I know there are more people who can be role models – I just don’t know about them. I feel like I am being kept unaware.
I want to be more creative in class – not stuck. I want to work with teachers who have patience and are willing to understand me – and help me to help myself.
I need teachers who will try to get me to be successful – who will just try.