#Educon, Edu-Nerds, Chris Lehmann, and A Slice of Race in the 21st Century

Jose Vilson Jose 14 Comments

Cocoa Puffs On The Ground

I had the pleasure of attending EduCon 2.3 last weekend, surrounded by people I mostly met digitally and students I only envisioned through the stories of the Science Leadership Academy’s Chris Lehmann and social studies super-pedagogue Diana Laufenburg. I was impressed by the warmth and camaraderie in a place full of edulebrities and edunerds (I’m either / or depending on the day) from across the nation convening not in a large convention hall but in a school. Appropriate, but rarely happens for conferences of this newly found magnitude.

As I arrived, my lady and I went to a conversation (the un-conference word for meeting) with elementary school principal George Couros. The topic at hand was this idea of inquiry, a word I despise because of the aberration it’s become in my district, but one I reluctantly welcomed. I want my kids to learn how to question effectively, and inquiry-based education for students promotes that if done correctly. Before the conversation started, though, I wanted a little snack to munch on to quiet my grumbling stomach; the library had potato chips. Mmm. Potato chips.

Something interesting happened when I went to the library in search of these chips. A group of young ladies, with lab coats and bright smiles, looked at me and whispered, “Well, there’s one.” And here we go. Intrigued, I asked the young ladies with a mischievous grin, “So what exactly were you ladies counting?” They tried to change the topic, but I knew already. After a few other questions about their prospective futures, I bid my adieu and went to the conversation.

George, Chris, teachers, other principals, and other ed-specialists went back and forth about the models of inquiry-based schooling we’d seen and how we might approach moving our schools in that direction. One gentleman pointed out, “Well, that might be great for some kids. But some others might need direct instruction.”

I blinked a bit; I’m not afraid of speaking my mind in these environments, but I had to feel out the room. Before I could even let out a word, Chris said (and I’ll do my best to quote him here), “Well, I’d be careful with that, because when people hear that, then we start getting into whose kids should get inquiry-based school, and it means that we inevitably run into issues of race, class, and gender. I know that if enough of the Black boys started asking the hard questions, they’d probably feel like getting a gun.”

Collective gasp.

“And not so that they’d shoot another Black kid, but so they could run up to City Hall and ask ‘What’s going on?'”

Amazed at his acute response to a seemingly benign question, I sat there and looked around the room, walked the hall and counted with one hand the adult participants versus the plethora of children of color circling the hallways of SLA. Things like this usually don’t phase me, but it brought to my conscience the reasons why my work in the education sphere has been important. We’re rarely represented in these events, and those with the leverage and popularity to highlight that problem rarely do in their own spheres, instead waiting for another person of color to acknowledge the problem in their private quarters, or when it behooves them to do so.

Ballsy as I am, I openly speculated about this problem. The people with whom I speculated agreed, but in their heart of hearts didn’t have solutions. Chris pointed back to my integration vs. segregation essay a week or two back, which only made me more conflicted. As someone who’s forged his brand into the education discussions, am I obligated to bring up the color issue when others in this community refuse to? Sure looks like it.

I surely wouldn’t want to create my own sphere that isolated our people per se, but, similar to the Rooney Rule in the NFL, I’d have to promote fellow educators of color in ways they’re probably not used to.

I also don’t want to run around reminding my fellow edu-nerds of their commensurate whiteness, nor do I feel the need to constantly discuss our most racially underrepresented and socially disadvantaged children when, in pockets, that’s often hard to discern. Plus, I’m sure to hear replies of “Well, I know how you feel because my grandparents went through these struggles” rather than “There’s a problem. Let’s fix it.” The first condescends, the second empathizes.

The problem isn’t just at EduCon, TEDx_____, or any other edunerd conference du jour; it’s endemic of the education trend and the technology trend. Few of us in this world of the edublogosphere can simultaneously get called upon to opine on education without some fear or ostracizing once we belie our opinions on every and anything else. People considered in the mainstream do have that luxury.

All the more reason why I appreciated Chris Lehmann’s approach to the question. Unabated and honest, but real because he’s obviously dealing with it in the very school I had that moment of racial disparity. Rather than complain about the lack of colored people discussing education, I need to play my part in encouraging fellow thinkers and writers to bring their minds and bodies to a school much like ones they’ve been exposed to as students and educators.

I had a great experience at EduCon, and the only lesson you get out of this is that I’m the angry Black Latino educator / token, well, there’s one. It’s just the wrong one.

Jose, who waited until my thoughts fully marinated on this …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 14

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  2. Chris Lehmann

    So… one of my biggest take-aways from EduCon – I got to meet, face to face, someone who I was pretty sure was a friend. Meeting face to face confirmed it.

    It’s Friday night after a very long stretch, and I’ve written and deleted a half-dozen attempts at having more to say, and I am wondering if I just need to focus on the second half of the Celtics v. Dallas game instead.

    I will say this… I really am honored you chose to tell this story. I was very worried about saying what I said for many reasons, first among them – you were in the room. And I’m this close to deleting this again, because that doesn’t read the way it feels.

    I’m going to try one more time.

    It is very important to me to attempt to be an ally in the fight for a more just society, but I recognize fully that when I speak about issues of race, I speak as a white, male educator, and thus my role is “ally” and there are those who can and do speak with an deeper, more personal connection to the struggle than I can ever have. The first time I had to catch a cab for one of my students of color in NYC over fifteen years ago hammered that home.

    But / And (can’t decide which word) I think it is incredibly important that the chorus of voices saying the kinds of things that I said must be diverse – that is the role of allies. But there is subtle and powerful and necessary difference between saying that I was “speaking for you” which I could never and would never presume to do but instead, in that moment, “speaking so you don’t have to,” which I think it my way of processing what you highlighted in your post about whether or not you are obligated to speak when others don’t. It is my way of trying to make sure that it doesn’t always have to be a teacher of color who calls racial issues while remaining powerfully aware of how much I am still learning in this sphere.

    It is a huge challenge for me, and to even attempt it is to attempt to speak with a combination of conviction and humility that can seem nearly impossible. It is a fine line, to be sure – one I’ve screwed up before and, sadly, will screw up again. But it is an internal struggle that, to me, is worth having, and it was very much on my mind. I’m pretty sure I looked over at you when I was done with a look of “That didn’t suck, right?”

    And I don’t want anyone thinking that the only reason it mattered that Jose was in the room was because he is of color. It is because he is The Jose Vilson, poet, teacher, writer, thinker, friend and Black/Latino activist, because, as I have learned from some of the incredible teachers of color who have taken the time to mentor me in my role as a white teacher / principal in the diverse schools I have worked, we are never just one thing, we are always all that we are, and what I was aware of was that there was someone in the room whose views and writings and thoughts about race, education and “race and education” had powerfully and deeply influenced my own.

    I’ll end with this. We have to find ways to make EduCon more diverse. It drives me nuts. I have tried, but I can try harder. I’ve already realized (duh – I know) that we should be doing much more targeted outreach to organizations that represent educators of color. And I want to take you up on what felt like an offer in your penultimate paragraph. I ask for your help. Your voice will be more authentic than mine in that outreach, and perhaps (perhaps) our voices together will mean something too.

    We have work to do. I am proud, humbled, honored to feel like I can do that work alongside you.

    — Chris

  3. Post
    Author
    Jose

    Well, thank you both for dropping by.

    Here’s something I always think about when I write about issues of race: am I doing it for the embitterment of the reader or for their betterment? If it’s the latter, then this space has to be open enough where I can write these things without making someone feel I may castigate them for their point of view as long as it comes with the intention of building.

    Having said that, I believe I wrote the piece not just for the white educators but also the educators of color, too. I don’t wait to bring up the color issue if it’s pertinent but I suppose I became popular for my candor, and I’m ok with that. Chris, that paragraph was indeed an offer of sorts. I want to work on getting more voices out there but I need to go seek. If you find people who have a similar interest, by all means, throw them my way.

  4. Jason Kern

    Jose,
    It was great to meet you in Zac and Diana’s session at Educon and I look forward to learning more from you. Do you have suggestions of other educators of color to follow.

  5. Michael Doyle

    Dear Jose,

    I do not believe fro an instant that your “thoughts are fully marinated on this…” though that may be yet another one of your privileged readers trying to use you.

    Your voice matters for a lot of reasons, of course, but I think you (and maybe the whole world) underestimate your phenomenal ability to raise and speak of unconscionable truths that rip open our collective amygdala without causing a room to clear out. Your combination of wit and love tempers the emotions, but not the truth. (In the olden days we called folks like that “prophets.”)

    Your background imbues how others see you, “others” who deny (consciously or otherwise) that it makes a difference in perceptions; you don’t make a huge deal about this, but you keep it out in the open, where it needs to be, always, until it no longer exists.

    For years I spent most of my awake hours in shelters, in projects, in city hospitals, in churches, in schools, in food pantries–my biggest practice was on the corner of Spruce and Prince Street, officially Stella Wright Homes, but few called it that .

    I do not mention it much for a few reasons. Over and over and over again people of privilege use “good works” as a badge, as tokens to get to the next step up the public/non-profit feeding trough. People of privilege rarely hear the parts of my stories that matter. People of privilege find my story remarkable without thinking of the children I eventually abandoned.

    The biggest reason I do not talk about it much, though, is because of the rage the memories generate, rage that makes me impotent. But the stories continue, every day, and the hurts continue, every day. And every day we need to work to fix it.

    I pray you continue to have the courage to follow the places your words will lead you.

  6. teachermrw

    Hmmm…

    Well, Jose, I think you hit the proverbial nail on its head: The un–conference is ill-equipped to deal with issues of race, social inequality, and all the rest, and for all of the reasons you name. Thus ther reason why I don’t attend such conferences, and have no plans to do so. Which leads me to the following: Not every conference, and every venue is ideal for such conversations, and for such work. That is not to say that we as people of color don’t belong. I just think that such issues find arid soil as opposed to fertile soil in which such topics and such work are able to take root and be sufficiently nurtured.

    It’s interesting how the previous commenter says that “YOU underestimate underestimate YOUR phenomenal ability to raise and speak of unconscionable truths that rip open our collective amygdala without causing a room to clear out.” Therein lies the problem: It’s always OUR job as people of color to raise the topic, to motivate others, and to do the work. Perhaps that isn’t what he meant to say, but it’s certainly being strongly implied.

    Jose, I doubt for one minute that you underestimate your ability with respect to the subject at hand, which is, to be certain, phenomenal. It just cannot be left to people of color to do all of the work.

  7. Michael Doyle

    Dear teachermrw,

    To be fair, it is true that I cannot know how Jose sees his work. Yep, he’s good, yep, he’s clearly aware that he’s good, but I’ve read thousands of people in my lifetime, and he’s got a better handle on telling the story than anyone I’ve met or read thus far. Not that my opinion matters to him, nor should it. Maybe the “The” in The Jose Vilson reflects an ultra-supreme confidence that I simply missed.

    It’s his gift for seeing, and his gift for putting what he sees in words in ways that help others see, that makes him special. I was speaking of Mr. Jose Vilson as himself, I think, and did not mean to imply that he holds some sacred duty beyond what any (and all) of us hold.

  8. Post
    Author
    Jose

    Jason, I’m working on that as we speak.

    Michael and teachermrw, your comments had me thinking all weekend, which is why I didn’t say anything until today. Let me say that the “The” in “The Jose Vilson” was unintentionally an emphasis on my name, not the person or any personal capabilities to be anyone but myself, whatever that meant at the time. Thus, there is truth to the fact that I’m not sure of the potential I do have to communicate these ideas of race, class, etc. because I honestly don’t know all there is to know about race relations. I do have a really good idea of what I believe, and even when it changes, I get the chance to edit and re-edit why it is I believe what I do at that moment.

    I don’t know whether an un-conference is or isn’t the best place to discuss race relations. I’ve been to conferences with the biggest academics discussing race and solutions never came out of it. With un-conferences, the possibilities for coming up with solutions are less restricted by conference decorum. However, if not done by the right person, then the possibilities remain the same as a conference.

    There, I probably implied that someone like me would have to run one of these conversations about race, and both of you in your own way implied something similar. At the same time, as I hoped to imply in this post, it shouldn’t come on my shoulders. Until then, we of common thought and experience have to speak up if no one else does.

  9. bivey

    I don’t know whether this un-conference is the right place to discuss any number of social justice issues. I know from another perspective, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach struggled to some extent with the under-representation of women. I’ve never been, which limits my ability to have an informed opinion; I can, however, confirm I was jealous of everyone who was there, meeting each other for the first time, renewing ties, getting to interact face to face.

    But that’s not really the main point here anyway. I’ve wanted to comment since the moment I read this, because it touched something deep in me. But I had an experience kind of like Chris’s wherein I wrote and erased a ton of words, and ended up deciding to let my own thoughts marinate a few days.

    I keep returning to the passage in “If You Come Softly” wherein Miah (the African-American kid in the interracial couple around whom the book is built) and his dad are talking about white people and how they have the ability to retreat from race and just be if they want, a “luxury” not always afforded to people of colour, and Miah wonders why there couldn’t be white people who wake up every day and say, Okay, I’m white, so what am I going to do about that? (shoot, the book is at school and I can’t remember the exact wording) and his dad thinks and smiles and says there could be, that he hopes so. I love that passage because, for me, it makes it clear that race can and should be everyone’s business, all the while acknowledging it’s just not fair that whites can retreat from racial issues far more easily than people of colour. In that vein, I appreciated the notion (which I get out of Jose’s essay and Chris’s comment both) that there’s a difference between speaking for someone (presumptious and insulting) and speaking so someone doesn’t have to (considerate). The latter is something I try to do in my classroom, especially this year where a girl from Ghana is the only Black student in the 7th grade (15 kids), although at the same time I certainly try never to get in the way of her using her voice if she wants. It’s a tricky balance.

    Being an ally can be painful. The chances for making a mis-step seem so huge. But if the alternative is to allow a clearly unacceptable status quo to survive, what else can we do?

    Maybe these thoughts should have marinated a bit longer. Or slow-cooked in the crock pot. However, it’s getting late. Time to “submit.” And then listen.

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  12. Hipotecas

    it is sad that even in these times is continue talking about races and social classes, it seems that humans never learn from our mistakes and seguiresmo entourage again and again. Education is a right that everyone should have access, regardless of their origin.

  13. Pingback: I’m Beamin’ [I Get My Energy From My Inner G] | The Jose Vilson

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