Celebrating failure. Isn't that an oxymoron? How can you celebrate something like failure? But that is precisely what is going on in schools today, especially among Black males. What I find interesting is that my African males are not a part of this group, now that I think about my students from last year. And to be honest, I tell my students that failure isn't an option. I had one student tell me last year, "Ms. B, I learn a lot from you, but you are kind of scary." Yes, I am. I've never gotten that Minnesota nice thing down.
I liked what Sarah said yesterday about making it real clear to students of color that there is a system on how to "do school." Without that explicit knowledge on how to do well in school, because they don't have that support from home, students of color will always be "left behind." The predominant white culture has this underlying and unspoken code of behavior and thinking that white kids come to school knowing and understanding. Students of color come to school trying to figure out what white kids know. I learned in an earlier class the importance of explicit instruction with students of color. (I believe it was by Lisa Delpit. Anyway, the basic assertion was that MN nice (my words not her's) isn't going to cut it in the classroom with students of color. Students of color need the teacher to be direct with them about expectations, behavior, how to succeed in a white world, but still retain who they are culturally. (I am simplifying her article "The Silenced Dialogue"). So for example, instead of asking a student, "Is that where the scissors belong?" You would TELL the student directly, "Put the scissors on the shelf." (Delpit 288). It sounds way too simple, I know. But students of color need to know that you are in charge. They need to know what is expected of them. You can't tell someone to "behave" when they don't know what that is supposed to look like. Your version and their version might be totally different. As a result, I am a hard-ass and sometimes my white students are put off by my directness, but I know my students of color appreciate it. Students know right of the gate, I am in charge; I tell them explicitly what I expect from them. Failure is not an option, and yes, I will push and pull them until graduation. Most come along willingly, but there are always a few that I have to run the last few miles with cheering, coaching, encouraging and yes, yelling at them to finish school. That is not to say that I don't lose a few, because every year someone breaks my heart and stops a foot, an inch from passing my class. But it's not because I quit caring.
That's the other thing with students of color: they need to know that you see them. I had this student one year that he and I started off on the wrong foot. He was sleeping in my class, then talking all the time, and finally just not doing anything. I was always on him to wake up, or to take the notes from the board or to turn in his work. Finally, he said I was picking on him, and he wanted out of my class into another teacher's (who he had had the same problems with coincidentally). I sent him to the office (not because he wanted to be in a different class, but because he walked out of my room yelling expletives to me) and he was gone for about a week. I am not sure what transpired, but he came back a week later and said he was going to clean up his act and wondered if he could come back to the classroom. Before I would accept him back, I made it VERY clear to him that I was in charge; I would always be on his case to do well in my class, and that I would send him out if he was disturbing students who were working. He came back with, "Are you always this way?" I said, "Yes, you should worry if I don't get in your face. It means I don't care anymore." And he said, "Damn." I never had problems with him again, and he went out of his way to see me in the halls during his senior year. It is an exhausting process, and you can't go it alone. When I work with students of color who are in danger of failing, I have a team of people who are supporting me and this student. Students of color need to know you care, need to know how to work in a system that is dominated by white culture, need to know that you see them and need to know what you expect of them in very clear terms.