This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education

Published in Spring of 2014, Haymarket Books | Foreword: Karen Lewis - Afterword: Pedro Noguera



“Out of this cacophony rises a beautiful, lyrical voice—one that is uncompromisingly self-aware, reflective, and analytical. That transcendent voice belongs to “The” José Luis Vilson.”Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union
“For those who have lost hope about the possibility of using education to create a more just and democratic society, this book will be a reminder of what can be achieved when educators act with the courage of their convictions to speak out and write about what is occurring in our schools today. Vilson is a gadfly, an education activist, and a “griot,” or spokesman, for all those who are not just tired of the direction our policy makers have taken in the name of reform but are willing to do something to challenge it.”Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University
“Jose Vilson hits right between the eyes, exposing how hardscrabble poverty and the pernicious effect of racism distort young lives.”
Dennis Van Roekel, Past President of the National Education Association
“We lost Bel Kaufman. We have Jose Vilson.”Sherman Dorn, Professor at University of South Florida
“José Vilson writes a personal narrative that counters folks like Coleman’s concept of education, literacy and language, their valuation of people’s voice and experience. This Is Not a Test is a refusal to be silent. It’s a refusal to capitulate or conform.”Audrey Watters, Writer at Hack Education
“Vilson has written a spell-binding book that explains the joys and burdens of teaching.”Diane Ravitch, Education Historian at New York University
“I’m reading your book This Is Not A Test, A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education! It’s AMAZING”Dave Zirin, Writer for The Nation and Edge of Sports
“Vilson is a bold and fearless writer, weaving his own story and struggles into broader conversations about race, equity, and the future of public schooling.”Gregory Michie, Teacher and Author of Holler If You Hear Me
“When a teacher like Vilson raises his voice — and it’s a hell of a voice, because Vilson is a beautiful writer, doused in authenticity simply through his command of his prose — no one goes free without coming under scrutiny.”
Jersey Jazzman, Education Blogger
“José Vilson, with his in-class experience and poetic energy, would be the top choice to write A People’s History of American Education.”Daniel Larkins, Truthout

Synopsis

Graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in computer science, Jose Vilson left campus with no job and a few hundred dollars to his name, propelling him (eventually) to his calling: teaching middle school children math in a public school in Washington Heights / Inwood, Manhattan. From his own background as a boy growing up on the drug-tainted, community-centered projects of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, this book takes the reader on the coming-of-age story of a naïve young man struggling to mature through the first few years of his career, balancing the lows of murder, poverty, and academic failure to the highs of growth and eventual triumph.

His career takes a twist when he starts a blog with incisive commentary on the state of education on his eponymous blog TheJoseVilson.com, taking prominent figures and institutions like NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and The New York Times to task. (As of this letter, the site is banned from most NYC Department of Education computers, yet read by central offices.) In his collection of multifaceted essays, he provokes discussion on issues of race, gentrification, and the teaching profession from the eyes of a Black-Latino educator with a mix of research and first-hand experience.

This education book is not to be missed!

This Is Not A Test: The Video

“This Is Not A Test”

Welcome, America, to the latest installment of a people’s march
For the next 3 minutes, I will ask you to defy protocol
Disband the status quo
Bust open these deformed gates
Unlock the teachers’ lounge
Unlock the teachers’ lounge
Unlock the teachers’ lounge
I beg your pardon, but I am not your proctor
I march with the protestors, and our hands are raised,
A pledge for a new narrative
This is not a test!

This is not a test, Mr. President.
This is an assessment written against the idea that
the dates and places of our history
Can be shrunk to the choice between B&C
And that is our purpose for this assembly
An extended response to a failed corporatist agenda
A reflection on the state of our most public of options
Measured through the rubric of human rights
But this is not a test!

This is not a test, Mr. Duncan
Take note: this is not us asking
This is not us begging
This is not us pleading
This is us fighting for all things equal
This is us uniting as a more perfect union
This is us reminding America of a promissory note unpaid
This is us writing our own documentation when
Politicians refuse our kids the opportunity
We are all DREAMers, and this is not a test!

This is not a test, Mr. Bloomberg
This is the generation of children from the classrooms where
teachers boldly stood and thought kids could learn
Educators, stand firm, whether in cafeterias, mess halls, or prison halls,
School is in session
And we submit our entire lives for millions of students a year
So even when I stand in front of the class, I am always children first
This is not a test!

This is not a test, Ms. Rhee
This is an exam unmoved by mayoral cycles, and I?
A bubble you cannot erase
A mouth you cannot tape
A heat you cannot beat
I come in a swarm of thousands
So I am a bee you cannot eat
This is not a test!

This is not a test, Mr. President
Given an answer sheet, these students shaded in L-O-V-E over ABCD
A set of standards commonly set forth before
Acing geography by means of peace instead of war
Shaping the world henceforth
They will elevate our math to where the sum of the people
Is greater than the parts
Becoming fluent in the languages of English, Spanish, and caring
America, please put down your pencils
This is not a test!
This is not a test!
This is not a test!

Deformers, you are dismissed.

What People Are Saying

Read what people have said about the book and continue to say.

“Drawing from his own insight as a teacher, Jose Vilson hits right between the eyes, exposing how hardscrabble poverty and the pernicious effect of racism distort young lives. In This Is Not A Test: The New Narrative On Race, Class, and Education, Vilson argues for more teachers of color, more time for teachers to support each other, and more ways for teachers to shape policy. Bristling at the “cold calculus” of tests, This Is Not A Test calls for practices that engage imagination and respect students as people. In gripping language, Vilson sends students an urgent message: “When we find our passions, we must enter into them boldly” and believe in the value and gift of oneself.”
“Jose Vilson offers us a riveting combination of classroom experience, common sense, and culturally-critiqued educational theory, flavored by genuine passion for teaching and social justice, all delivered with exquisite hip-hop dexterity. He represents voices in the U.S. education community too long muted and silent no more. If there were a test, this is what should be on it.
“Jose Vilson is a teacher of the highest order. Through the powerful narrative of his life both inside and outside of the classroom, Jose teaches us important lessons on every page of This Is Not a Test. Jose teaches us about the intersection of education, race, class and activism while calling all of us to do better – to be better – as we strive along with him to be the educators all our children need us to be. This book is a must read for educators, soon-to-be educators, parents, students and anyone who cares about education and the children of this country.”
“Jose’s autobiographical journey offers a big window for seeing why our nation must blur the lines of distinction between those who teach in schools and those who lead them. With powerful prose and poetry, his narrative as student and then later, NYC teacher leader, loving father (and husband), and advocate for children paints a portrait of what public education can and must be for American society. Jose’s last chapter, “Why Teach,” offers a hopeful vision for the future of the profession in spite of wrongheaded policymakers who seek to control teachers rather than listen and learn from them. Jose represents so many teachers across the United States, whose pedagogical skills and leadership acumen have yet to be tapped in the transformation of teaching and learning. Read “This is Not a Test” now!”
“Jose Luis Vilson has written a spell-binding book that explains the joys And burdens of teaching. The joys are the kids, with all their heartaches and dreams. The burdens are the politicians and careerists who snuff out the spirit of children and teachers. Read this book!”
“This Is Not A Test opens with a poem and continues reading like one – full of imagery, rhyme, and hip hop rhythm. It’s a life story, a love letter, a song…in which Jose Vilson uses his teacher voice to speak candidly on issues the rest of the world discusses in whispers: free speech, sexual orientation, child abuse, race, poverty, education, and the inequities that surround each of these issues. Reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, Vilson paints a picture of his life as a student, and as a teacher, in New York City, all the while his words relating to students and teachers everywhere. Be prepared to set aside some time. Once you open it, you won’t put it down until you’re done. And then Vilson’s words will continue to spin around in your head and will provide a forum for important, and necessary, discussions about teaching ALL children.”
“Jose Vilson writes from a place of authority about the intersection of race, class and America’s education system. His straight-talk about the absurdity of America’s test obsession, failure to meet or even acknowledge the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, and a “reform” movement that has reformed nothing, failed at much and distracted from students’ very real needs is a telling portal on what’s really going on in American education today. Those who can relate to Vilson’s experiences as a student or a teacher will welcome his unvarnished honesty and reflections. And those for whom this is terra incognita will find an insightful and illuminating window on the educational experiences of America’s emerging majority—students of many hues and languages, whose families struggle everyday, for whom their education may be the only way up, yet who too often are failed by systems ill-equipped to foster their success. Vilson’s visceral accounts remind us of the humanity of teachers—their struggles and triumphs, their frustration with forces outside their classroom walls and, above all, their devotion to their students. By telling his own story and those of his students, Vilson shows why teacher voice is essential to shedding the failures of the past and to reclaiming the promise of public education.”
In its telling, Jose Vilson’s evocative collection of essays are ferociously honest and, as expected from someone whose creative impulses are informed by hip-hop, unapologetic and lyrical. A thoroughly engaging narrative about the intersection of race and culture, identity, economic disparity, and education, This is Not A Test is a must-read for parents and educators who want to understand, truly and deeply, the challenges inner-city students face. It was, after all, written by one of those children, a young man from a marginalized community, who grew up and bum-rushed the system he dedicated his life to changing from within.
Too many books about teaching read like dull academic treatises, condescending how-tos, or simplistic Hollywood scripts. Jose Vilson’s This is Not a Test avoids these traps with a narrative that is by turns passionate and funny, angry and vulnerable, and full of keen insight born of on-the-ground experience in schools. Whether referencing Jay-Z or John Dewey, discussing corporate school reform or the intimacy of one-on-one interactions with students, Vilson is a bold and fearless writer, weaving his own story and struggles into broader conversations about race, equity, and the future of public schooling. His singular, urgent voice is one we all need to hear.

“In This Is Not A Test, José Vilson writes a personal narrative that counters folks like Coleman’s concept of education, literacy and language, their valuation of people’s voice and experience. This Is Not a Test is a refusal to be silent. It’s a refusal to capitulate or conform. It’s an expression of a vision where we do give a shit about what you feel or what you think, because we care about people. Because in doing so – particularly in education – we help support one another in growth, in coming-of-age, in learning, and in liberation.”

Audrey Watters, Hack Education
This Is Not a Test (This Is a Review of José Vilson’s New Book)

“At its essence this narrative is an aggressive act in that it addresses race and class through its own codes and it flips the codes of the dominant culture on itself. This is not for the faint of heart. Vilson asks us in education to give up our distanced “professional” self for one that thirsts for understanding and the ability to empower those we teach.”

John Holland, The Learning Studio
Vilson Decoded (A review of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education)

“The book is a powerful commentary on the world of school today, woven through his narrative as both a student and a teacher. Jose uses the lens of his own experiences to speak to some of the most important issues facing our schools, from issues of race and class in our schools, to the need to understand our students as far more than a test score to answering the fundamental question of “Why Teach?” This is Not a Test is a deliberate creation of both memoir and social commentary that is woven together in such a compelling way as to remind every reader of the power of story to educate us of what we can and should value in our schools and in our society.”

- Chris Lehmann, Practical Theory
This is Not a Review: Jose Vilson’s “This Is Not a Test”

“In Vilson’s struggles with race and education, one hears echoes of W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic work, The Souls of Black Folk. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century when the Jim Crow regime was at the apex of its power, Du Bois took note of the special place of leadership that had been accorded to preachers and teachers within the African-American community. At the head of the church and the school, the two social institutions in which African Americans in the South were able to exercise a small measure of self-determination, the preacher and the teacher were the political and spiritual visionaries of the community, the molders of community thought. According to Du Bois, they ‘embodied the ideals of this people—the strife for another and juster world, the vague dream of righteousness, the mystery of knowing.'”

- Leo Casey, Dissent Magazine
The Souls of Black Teachers: Reading José Luis Vilson with W. E. B. Du Bois

“But even though he doesn’t necessarily shy away from blogging about the personal, This Is Not a Test takes a different approach than is found in Vilson’s blog. Here, embedded within his autobiography, is a large-scale critique of the education system and society at large. That it comes from a teacher and a man of color makes it all the more powerful.”

Jersey Jazzman, Jersey Jazzman
Book Review: This Is Not A Test

Rafranz Davis, Rafranz Davis
This is Not A Test: This is My Reflection

John Spencer, Education ReThink
This Is Not A Test (Review)

Jennifer Berkshire, Edushyster
This Is Not A Test: The Interview

Steve Hinnefeld, INSchoolMatters
“‘This Is Not a Test’: a passionate book on schools, teaching

Maureen Devlin, TeachWellNow
“This Is Not A Test” by Jose Vilson | I Recommend

Daniel Willingham, Real Clear Education
“‘This Is Not a Test’ Shifts Education Perspectives: Is Technology Just Standardizing Education More?

Aaron Pallas, Hechinger Report
Summer reading: Teachers near and far

“He says it in powerful and compelling ways in This Is Not a Test, illustrated by stories from his own life and the lives of his students. Vilson’s deconstructed anecdotes cut through the platitudes of politicians and the endless alibis of central office admins, into the heart of America’s unresolved contradictions: public education and democratic principles; equity and privilege, race and class.”

John Norton, MiddleWeb
José Vilson’s New Narrative

“But most importantly, I walked away thinking I want someone like Vilson to be teaching my kiddos. This is a teacher who cares and a teacher who is making a difference each and every day he steps into his classroom. We may disagree on the finer points of testing, with me hoping he would give more credit to the value of interim assessments in improving both teaching and learning. But there is no disagreeing that Vilson gets it. He knows what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong in the American classroom. He cuts through all of the flowery language and platitudes and excuses we hear far too often, and speaks truth on issues where honest truth is often absent. And he lays out issue after issue that I want to further engage him on, have a deeper discussion of, and, yes, try to change his mind about.”

Patrick Riccards, Eduflack
Divining Wisdom from “This Is Not a Test”

“José Vilson, with his in-class experience and poetic energy, would be the top choice to write A People’s History of American Education. The spirit of Vilson’s argument reaches its crescendo in a poem called ‘This is Not a Test.’ … As a whole, its rhythm and anger is reminiscent of the oeuvres of Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg. One can argue that in “This is Not a Test” the “this” can be symbolically replaced by “school.” It’s tempting to say school is about overcoming hurdles and establishing grit and perseverance. School, believe it not, should be a lesson. The lesson. Not the assessment.”

- Daniel Larkin, Truth-Out
Testing Narrative: José Vilson’s Vision of Race, Class and Education in the US

” If you have ever doubted the commitment of teachers or taken as evidence of the many, a story of a teacher who can’t do simple math, but because of the unions cannot be fired, this book is for you. A simple tale of one man who gets up every day to teach our youth, but also fight for a system that does not test them to boredom, values them as humans, respects their heritage instead of stripping it from the history books, and above all wants every child to not just race to the top, but grasp their dreams and be happy.”

- Veronica Arreola, Viva La Feminista
Book Review: This Is Not A Test

“One way to read Vilson’s memoir is as a journey toward authenticity in the classroom, as he finds ways to reconcile the inevitable tensions that arise from this dual consciousness represented by José and Mr. Vilson. The current NCLB testing regime, with its requirements to rank and sort his students, places the greatest split between these two selves. Vilson is clear what his cause is: it’s not anti-testing as much as it is pro-children. He sees firsthand the injustices and pressures that the current accountability system places on them. But his objections are full of nuance and detail, making them worth listening to.”

- Ilana Horn, Teaching / Math / Culture
Reconciling Dual Consciousness in Teaching

Fred Klonsky, PREAPrez
Jose Vilson’s This is Not a Test is released today.

Bill Fitzgerald, FunnyMonkey
Thoughts on “This Is Not A Test” from José Vilson

Michael Klonsky, SmallTalk
This is not a test…

Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy
What I Love About Jose Vilson’s This Is Not A Test

That Math Lady, That Math Lady
Book Review: This is Not a Test

NYC Educator, NYC Educator
Summer Reading Suggestion