Ask questions

Abolition & Justice, Education, Text Talk

As a graduate student, one of my favorite topics of discussion and research was inquiry. Asking questions, conducting investigations, and building knowledge through exploration are powerful tools for thinking and learning. As I continued in my studies, I learned of critical inquiry, which expands the idea of questioning to include a political or sociocultural lens. Developing conscientização, or critical awareness/awakening, is akin to taking the red pill. You start to ask sociopolitical questions and suddenly  you are hard-pressed to see anything as flat, uncomplicated or devoid of nuance. This isn’t a negative thing, but it makes for interesting conversations.

The Meaning of FreedomI mention all of this to introduce a quote by Angela Davis. I’m currently reading The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues,  a compilation of speeches she delivered between 1994 and 2009. One thing I appreciate about Dr. Davis’ work is her constant admonition to reflect upon, reconsider, and rethink long-held ideas about “normalcy.” In her speech titled Race, Power and Prisons Since 9/11, she discusses the embodiment of evil and its requisite opposite good, xenophobia, militarism and the ever-expanding punishment industry. Although this is the context for the excerpt below, it’s a salient word, and useful for all serious thinkers reflecting on the world.

Things are never as simple as they appear to be. It is incumbent on us to think, to question, to be critical, and to recognize that if we do not interrogate that which we most take for granted, if we are not willing to question the anchoring ground of our ideas, opinions and attitudes, then we will never move forward.
~Angela Davis

Today at lunch…

Feminist Thought, Personal Narrative

I mentioned my plans to transition out of K-12 and into reading/writing/teaching about women’s issues. I highlighted rape culture and sexual violence and fibroids by name, although my net is cast a bit wider than these. The woman who inquired about my goals made the raised eyebrow/pulled down lips/impressed face and nodded. “Wow. Good for you. What got you moving in that direction?”

Who knows?

It brings to mind a similar question asked of Angela Davis. In a lecture recorded as The Prison Industrial Complex, she discussed her activist beginnings: “What made you decide to become an activist? What was that pivotal event in your life? And for years and years I thought about it.” She went on to mention the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, and how she initially believed that to be the catalyst. Upon further reflection, she realized that wasn’t it:

Finally, after struggling with this for years, I decided that there really was no particular moment when I decided to become an activist. As a matter of fact, I grew up with the idea that in order to live in segregated circumstances… my parents basically taught us that we had to be critical of the way things were. Otherwise, we could not affirm our own humanity. And that we had to dedicate our lives to the kind of transformation that would make this a better world to live in for all of us. And so I’ve learned that wherever I am, whatever I happen to be doing at the moment, I have to fulfill that commitment that has informed my life.

Now, I don’t have years invested in feminist activism and advocacy, so it’s not like I have a long history to consider. Despite my brief affiliation, I’m hard pressed to supply a satisfying answer. In fact, today was my first encounter with the question; I’ve simply never thought about why. So I sputtered. In fact, I’m writing now, more as a think-aloud, than to offer a definitive answer.

I think it’s a series of dots that are just now being connected. For instance, I’ve practiced Nichiren Buddhism for 13 years now. Studying and practicing a life philosophy grounded in human potential and equality leans one ever toward more progressive and compassionate ways of knowing and being. Encountering Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy in graduate school 5 years ago is another dot. A huge one really. Unlike the constant flow of the water of Buddhism, reading Freire and studying critical inquiry pedagogy caused a fiery, seismic shift.

Then there was the class that wasn’t. The University of Georgia offered a course on Black women’s narratives. I attended the first day, but enrollment was low, and the class didn’t make. The professor showed Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk on the Danger of the Single Story – which became seed as much as dot – and I eventually ordered all the books on her syllabus. I started my own class really, and began reading (and writing) when I could. Dot.

A series of shares in the Red Clay Writing Project’s Summer Institute led me to brainstorm a study on teenage rape narratives, and I wrote and studied my own as a pilot. Dot. An article here or there would move me to anger, tears, or elation. Dot. And suddenly, here we are. At the beginning, still. And like any other journey, each day is an opportunity for another step.

Onward.

Right outcome, wrong reasons.

Education

A few days ago, I wrote on the multiculturalism of language, and the absolute futility of excluding words from standardized tests because they aren’t “neutral enough.” Well, it looks as though New York’s DOE abandoned the (doomed to fail) effort:

One week after New York’s Department of Education drew controversy with a request to ban 50 words and references from the city’s standardized tests – including “dinosaur,” “birthday” and “religion” – the department announced Tuesday that it is abandoning the plan.

I disagree with those who think it is simply political correctness gone too far. That dismisses the larger issue as a problem with “some bureaucrats somewhere” trying too hard to “be nice.” The truth is, because of the inherent multiculturalism of life events and the words used to describe those events, someone will always be impacted when asked to reflect on those words. That’s just common sense!

When we acknowledge the reality of the diverse and divergent experiences of our students, we’ll move toward teaching/assessing that inquires into and critiques language, rather than continuing teaching/assessing that encourages memorization or avoidance of language altogether.

Here’s the update on the NY DOE.

The Multiculturalism of Language

Education

Divorce. Dinosaurs, Birthdays. Religion. Halloween. Christmas. Television. These are a few of the 50-plus words and references the New York City Department of Education is hoping to ban from the city’s standardized tests.

What interests me about this topic is not the seemingly careful selection of words for inclusion/exclusion. Nay, I’m intrigued that we still hold firm to the belief that language is, can be, or should be, neutral. Maybe someone has identified a few “hot button” words that are potentially “more loaded” than others (debatable), but this idea, that somehow language and word choice is ever truly decontextualized (or even should be) is not just silly, it’s dangerous.

In this world of high-stakes testing, an ever diversifying population is expected to magically measure up to standardized notions of sameness. Those who don’t are deemed failures.

Actually, conversations like this – that some words and concepts are potentially offensive, triggering – should help us to see that standardized tests can scarcely measure a neutral or objective standard. The standards are always someone’s standards. What is assumed common is always someone’s view of what’s common. This means that for someone else (often people of lower socioeconomic status or people of color), these concepts, ideas, words, are NOT standard.  The truth is, we each embody many intersections. Our language choices, including “neutral” words like family, reflect those intersections.

This discussion shows that testing (and schooling) cannot really be “culture blind,” despite the fact that the very idea of standardizing rests on this premise.

Read Brian Vitagliano’s article in full, here.

The Danger of the Single Story

Personal Narrative

I really appreciate Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk: The Danger of the Single Story. She reminds us that we are all “vulnerable in the face of a story.” The lesson is that we should realize there is always more to the story or that there are other stories not represented in what we assume to be true.

We assume we understand a relationship because we’ve heard all the stories from our friend’s point of view. But that collection of stories is still a single story. It is the single view of a given situation (further, only as it is narrated by one person). And that story isn’t a permanent one as the situation or the persons in it change over time.

The same is true with our own lives. The overarching story of us, the story we tell (or understand) about ourself, is often grounded in other single stories or assumptions. This is limiting. And it’s quite possible we can never get the “whole story” as it were, but I think we can always strive to move beyond our narrow conceptions of reality through our grasp of single stories by seeking to understand (and write) other stories.

So here’s to realizing the danger of the single story, and to striving toward a broader reading of life: