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Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

In this post, we see an argument brewing between Jose and Mr. Vilson (my alter-egos, whose personalities you’ll see in a minute). Today, they’re arguing about the value of teaching Christopher Columbus in schools. Check:

Mr. Vilson: Here’s this: we both agree that Christopher Columbus was at best, a wayward fool who didn’t fully understand his actions at the time, and at worst, was a megalomaniac hellbent on stealing, raping, and murder entire peoples for his own avarice.

Jose: Why can’t it be both?

Mr. Vilson: True. Now, the argument becomes: should we teach Christopher Columbus in schools? Obviously, the topic of the “New World” and 1492 won’t go away. Too many people are invested in the story of this man, and the happenings of how these explorers discovered …

Jose [interrupting]: Excuse me. Found erroneously. Tripped on.

Mr. Vilson: Etc. etc, and on the other hand, we have a guy who spur on the genocide of an entire people and the exploitation of our Earth’s riches while raping women and children, enslaving them, and laying waste to their cultural histories. So, should we teach it?

Jose: That’s a dicey proposition. At this point, even with books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, many educators haven’t ventured past the assumptions we have about Columbus, especially his shortcomings, and perhaps with good reason.

Mr. Vilson: I’m not sure I’d want my kid getting the shock treatment that this country was founded on bloody murder, dead bodies, and pestilence, either, Jose.

Jose: Man, you’re morbid.

Mr. Vilson: It’s a gift.

Jose: The thing is, based on what we know now, kids are getting the most vanilla version of the events of 1492 possible. Why give that any validity? Why should we have kids imagining the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, much less painting them as part of their October projects? Why do we still have a reverence for him, and by proxy, his legacy?

Mr. Vilson: I hope it’s not the case that people actually revere him, but in the case that they do, their only real argument is that, if not for Columbus, we wouldn’t be here right now, a strange argument considering that millions of lives were lost on the count of us being here. Maybe we need to rethink the way we teach Columbus overall.

Jose: Agreed.

Mr. Vilson: Instead of teaching kids about Christopher Columbus in the early grades, perhaps we’ll bring him up in the sixth or seventh grade. With as many students as we have who play Call of Duty or live in a town with a Native American name, we could develop units that introduce conflict and discussion.

Jose: Wait a minute. Why wouldn’t we want our students to have our point of view about Columbus? He really was a no-good scoundrel, and we ought to excoriate his image whenever we get a chance.

Mr. Vilson: Yes, we should. It just doesn’t make any sense telling students explicitly what to belief because it takes away their agency, their ability to question, and their independent thought processes. Anytime we don’t let students think things through, we lose everything we believe for students in one fell swoop.

Jose: You win. Though, please believe, if I’m asked, I’m telling the students exactly what we think.

Mr. Vilson: Yes, we’ll call this a Day On instead of a Day Off.

Jose / Mr. Vilson

*** photo c/o ***


Mr. Vilson (left) vs. Jose (right)

For some reason, GQ Magazine (Yes, Gentlemen’s Quarterly) decided not to publish their interview with me for Man of the Year 2011. Those of us who’ve been occupying and marching on Washington, DC, got a little shine via Time Magazine’s Person of the Year issue as “The Protestor.” Obviously, we can do better. I know, I know. I’m as disappointed as you are. At some point, I’m hoping teachers get some props nationwide. But at least they passed me the first draft of the interview, and here’s what we came up with. Enjoy.

Interviewer: We have in this chair, Jose Vilson, writer, activist, and Spongebob enthusiast. He’s been rather critical of the testing industry and the proliferation of corporate rule in public schools. In the other chair, we have Mr. Vilson, math coach and teacher in a NYC public school. He handles data, technology, and a plethora of other hats, or should I say Kangols, for his school. Let’s start with this question: what’s it like working for one of the highest profiled school systems in the world?

Mr. Vilson: I must admit, it presents its challenges. I think there are definitely opportunities for schools to be at the forefront of modeling quality education. We as educators have to do the best job possible to make sure every student has the opportunity to get access to quality education. That’s why, for instance, I know of teacher groups grounded in taking the lead on work within the schools to develop their own systems for improving pedagogy via dialogues, visitations, and productive technology use.

Jose: Fuck that! I’m all about the kids, but let’s be real: we’re not even close to where we need to be to meet the challenges presented to us by our kids. We’re doing so much with less that it’s amazing we get anything done at all in this school system. While you know I’d never want to talk about my school specifically, the general gist that I get when I go to meetings across the city is that achievement often feels fleetings.

IN: Meaning …

JLV: Meaning, we don’t even address poverty effectively. And the minute we think we have something working for a kid, something changes. NYC Department of Education objectives change. Administrators change. Teachers leave. Parents go through unemployment. I get that NYC schools can’t control all of this stuff, but we’re joking if we think we actually invest in education well for the 1.1 million kids. Charters can’t fix that.

MV: Jose, don’t diss all charters. A couple really do the work that Al Shanker intended, as a progressive site that includes the most in-need. Besides, until you can reform …

JLV: Ahem, revolutionize …

MV: Revolutionize education, we gotta buckle down and do what we can with what we have. That’s all we knew about life. It’s a catch-22.

IN: Fair. Now, there’s been some discussion about the latest move from New York State to increase the amount of time on the test to three hours. What are your feelings on that?

JLV: It depends. Am I still allowed to curse around this guy?

MV: I’ll allow it. [belly laughs all around]

JLV: It’s bullshit. Mr. Vilson barely feels like he has time as is. Now he’s gotta get three hours of testing for kids who barely want to take it. It’s a lose-lose situation.

MV: I don’t believe there’s a correlation between time on test and achievement, or rigor, or anything of that nature. I know I can assess whether a student “got it” by asking five good questions. However, I do know that more testing means less time actually teaching. We in schools try to design curriculum based on the frequency of questions on previous tests, and then what order makes sense. Somewhere mid-year, we all realize that we’re going too slow and we’re going to need to speed our timeline up to have enough time to prepare students for the test. Not a functional thing.

JLV: Why would standardized testing take precedence over in-class assessments anyways? With the way kids have been doing, maybe there’s something inherently wrong with them.

IN: It seems like the climate for teachers in school gets muddied by mandates on the local, state, and federal levels. What do you believe about the perception of teachers in this country?

MV: We have a long way to go in order to professionalize ourselves. I believe the little things we do, from lesson planning and teacher teams to dialogue with colleagues in our professional development meetings and the parents of our students.

JLV: We also have to get out there with whatever talents we can muster. We need to be present and have the balls to speak up when we don’t like something. There’s a difference between the “whiny union” teacher that most people want to push on the general public and the multi-faceted and multitalented teacher that the general public gives strong approval ratings.

MV: Including myself. [more laughs all around]

IN: Now, both of you seem to have this confidence, but you have stark differences in approach. What would you eventually want your legacy to be given how you both express yourself?

MV: Well, I hate to use borrowed cliches, but it’s all about the kids. Despite all the other hats I wear, the one I’m most proud of is my teacher hat. I don’t think I’ve always worn it well, but I’m constantly trying to find ways to improve my craft. I tweak the things I like, and stick with the things that work for me. Hopefully, I can make some contribution to their lives that makes it worthwhile.

JLV: I think we agree. I’d probably say that we’re trying to make sure students get a good education. We have to live with some truths that hurt. We can’t always reach the students in front of us that we like. It’s a cold world out there and we’re only one person. But I know he doesn’t sleep until he’s thought through the week of lessons. I try to express those frustrations through our blog, through our activism, and through our discussions with people not in the education field. Those are all important.

Jose and Mr. Vilson, who can have this dialogue all by himself …


Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., The First Meeting (Melvin Hale)

Jose: First off, you and I both know I don’t even like the word “minority” because, in the words of Piri Thomas, there’s nothing minor about me.

Mr. Vilson: Whoa, buddy! HAHA!

Jose: You know what I mean. There’s just no way we’re ever going to get respect in this country if we keep using that word on a daily basis about us!

Mr. Vilson: OK, fair enough, but I want to get to the question because it’s a fair question. I’m of the opinion that if everyone benefits from having people of different races and cultures in the classroom. It might not be the same thing for sex, though you know going to an all-boys school has its side effects in the relationship area …

Jose: Yeah, but what happens when kids from different background go to a school that’s supposedly diverse (meaning, there’s more than one color) but it’s overwhelmingly White and middle class? How does that environment support the few who’ve experienced the culture shock there?

Mr. Vilson: I’m not sure. In some schools, I’m sure it helps to have understanding faculty and colored staff that those individuals can lean on, and if not then …

Jose: YES! They fall by the wayside. All I’m saying is this: in history, there was a time when having all-Black schools was fine because Black teachers and staff made sure that kids had the skills to deal with the outside world. They learned their own histories and empowered each other in ways that can’t happen when culture is driven out of you by the dominant culture. When we read history books, it’s the same story. When we watch films, it’s the same story. When we listen to “good” music, it’s the same story.

Mr. Vilson: And that’s great, but you also know the struggle in this country to find equitable education for others. Separate and equal often meant separate and unequal. They didn’t get the same quality of books, the same facilities, or the same treatment when they tried to move on to high schools and colleges. I can’t imagine that people like Martin Luther King Jr. or anyone from that generation fought for nothing. How could you even think of perpetuating segregation when all that did was continue the deplorable socioeconomic treatment of our people?

Jose: Well, let’s ask then: did they? Look at how schools look now. Studies have shown that schools are more segregated than they were in MLK’s time, and that’s with MORE cultures in this country. Look at the situation in Arizona where only the curricula with heavy Mexican concentration in places where there’s a heavy Chicano influence have gotten bullied by local government officials. Now look at what’s happening all across the South where some districts have found ways to desegregate school districts …

Mr. Vilson: And government officials there are trying to fight it? So we’re going to give up desegregating because this country’s officials have found a way to tie race and economy in a way that creates a virtual caste system on too many levels? No way. We need to push for re-desegregation, because the only way our kids are going to get out of their little cocoons is to go out there and see what others are doing.

Jose: At the cost of their culture?

Mr. Vilson: It’s a risk they may have to take.

Jose: Well, we’re going to have to agree to disagree.

Mr. Vilson: Whatever that means.

Jose, who has these discussions with Mr. Vilson all the time …


Jose Vs. Mr. Vilson, Part 1 (or Love Me, Love Me Nots)

August 20, 2009 Jose
Ryu vs. Ken, Street Fighter, as interpreted by EastMonkey

Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen. I just got back from a wonderful vacation out in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and spent quite a lot of time relaxing, taking in sun, and being as un-teacherly as possible. Today, I’d like to show you a bit of a conversation between Jose, the writer / socialite / homebody, and […]

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