Still… Teaching to Transgress

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bell hooks’s book, Teaching to Transgress, in part based on her series of taped, public dialogues that she has been doing at the New School (and her upcoming keynote address at NWSA) and, in another part, based on my own current teaching location.

I have felt for a long time now that if we want to talk about a radical, transformative education for young people of color, we need to be teaching in the schools that actually enroll them in large numbers.   I have said it and I have meant it. And I do not mean after-school programs, though our presence there is vital. I mean bearing witness to the day-to-day of current schooling regimes as an insider there, not merely as an academic researcher/note-taker. You can call me an Old Skool Black Studies Scholar in that regard, because I just can’t see giving all that I know how to do solely to white students at a privileged university, no matter how much they might need to see and hear someone like me.  I have worked now in three spaces as a tenure-track professor at colleges whose enrollments are largely or mostly students of color from racially subordinated groups: a state university (not the flagship campus, but a space trying to be that); a private university; and a city university. Teaching to Trangress in these spaces is more than just a notion, especially when it is so dauntingly unwelcomed by what Sylvia Wynter would often call “the grammarians of the social order”— those academics whose intellectual lens are so deeply ingrained with dominant reproductive modes of racism and social stratification that their sole, intellectual job is the maintenance of our current systems of logic. You don’t even need to strain your mind and imagination to recognize who these folk are.

Today, I have been looking at the ELA Regents exam in New York State, the state exam in English Language Arts.  Here is the August 2014 exam posted on the state website:

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Congratulations Seattle Teachers!

Teachers, students and parents in Seattle, Washington have drawn a great deal of public attention in the past few months for their campaign to reject standardized tests in reading and math. Despite threats of a 10-day suspension without pay, a January boycott led by teachers at Garfield High School quickly spread.  A week ago, the school district announced that the MAP test (Measures of Academic Progress) is now optional, allowing schools to design/create their own assessment cultures outside of for-profit, corporate-designed/controlled measurements systems.

Here is Jesse Hagopian, a high school history teacher at Garfield High School, interviewed by Democracy Now.

And here is Jesse Hagopian with Wayne Au, author of Unequal By Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality:

I am most impressed by the website and research that teachers themselves engaged as part of how they would imagine and create alternatives to a rampant testing culture.  Here are the important reminders they give us about standardized testing:

  • Narrows curriculum both within a subject and across the entire scholastic curriculum by de-emphasizing untested subjects
  • Decreases rigor by emphasizing memory recall and test-taking skills over critical and creative thinking
  • Exacerbates inequities for students of color/poverty
  • Is often used for the purpose of implementing policies such as holding back elementary students and tracking students, which are shown to be detrimental
  • Negatively affects students’ self-perception as competent learners
  • Narrows debate on what’s considered important in education– ignores larger issues such as poverty, class size, funding equity

I think their three recommendations are also stunningly clear and provocative:

Assessments should incorporate a variety of measures, possibly gathered into a body of evidence that demonstrates abilities. These measures, taken together, should:

  • Include classroom work
  • Allow teacher and student choice
  • Integrate with curriculum
  • Demonstrate student growth as well as standards achievement
  • Be free of gender, class, and racial bias

Valid assessments:

  • Reflect actual knowledge and learning, not test taking skills
  • Are educational in and of themselves
  • Are differentiated to meet students’ needs
  • Allow opportunity to go back and improve
  • Have tasks that reflect real world thinking and abilities

The creation and review of assessments should:

  • Include community input
  • Undergo regular evaluation and revision by educators
  • Be graded by teachers collaboratively

SeattleTeacherProtest-1As I read these teachers’ collaborative research, watched their protests, and followed their blog, I couldn’t help but think of a Latino high school teacher who I met at 4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication) a few years back, himself an educational activist and researcher.  He had come to 4Cs to learn new radical literacy approaches for high school work with his predominantly Latin@ students but instead was dismayed by how irrelevant almost everything he heard was to any critical awareness of race and the experiences of students of color in schools today.  It was the BEST conversation I have ever had at 4Cs and, perhaps, the most engaging.  When I think of him and these teachers at Garfield, I think about how far, far behind we are, as compositionists, in terms of educational activism for communities of color.  I am often surprised by how many compositionists think they are doing something so much more advanced than what happens in high schools with their traditionalist notions of discourse and college curricular content.  I have never met a person who moves towards this self-congratulatory gesture who I thought actually deserved the praise they were bestowing on themselves.  I am grateful for the high school teachers like the ones being chronicled here.  They remind me of what is possible beyond the social limits of composition studies.