Preface to the Memoir

We who are white do not want to talk about our white skin or explore what “whiteness” has to do with all that is going on in our own lives and in the lives of our students.  Now, I believe, more than ever, it is time to talk.  It is time to let our children talk and our colleagues talk.  It is time to study our memories: to explore what it was in our childhood that formed our racial definitions, our prejudices.  It is time to let our students teach us, to look for historians who will tell us the whole truth, to look for activists who can inform us.  It is time to make mistakes and learn from them (Landsman, xii).

This book had its origins in my urge to write about the intersection of my commitment to equity and my life as a teacher.  My personal litmus test as a teacher is that every one of my students learns as much as they can while they are with me, no exceptions, no excuses.  My personal litmus test as a teacher educator is that every one of my student’s public school students learns as much as they can while they are with the people I am teaching, no exceptions, no excuses.  It’s important that they learn a lot, and that they like what they are learning. That’s my definition for what it means to be an equity educator. How to do this has taken me on a number of pedagogical journeys across the years of my teaching: teaching in urban schools and drop-out programs, conducting research on successful multiage classrooms, creating a teacher education program for teachers who wanted to teach in multiage settings, being a teacher of teachers, and now, teaching how to conduct complex instruction, a particularly powerful form of cooperative learning.  I’m taking a chance that these journeys might be an interesting, even instructive read for those of you who might share common interests and even motivations.

I am beginning my thirty-eighth year of teaching.  I began teaching in a school that urged me to connect everything I taught to the lives of my students.  The key to hooking their interest, I was told, was to make it real!  That was in 1964.  Last summer, the summer of 2004, I attended a Faculty Resource Network seminar at New York University entitled Sampling Hip-Hop: Popular Culture As A Pedagogical Tool.  Once again I heard that theme of connection.  I was once again drawn into the pedagogical power of keeping whatever it was I was going to teach, real!  Thirty-eight very different years separated the two messages.  The ingredients for student engagement remained very much the same.

I’ve always tried to keep my teaching real.  What that means has changed from that very first summer school at Croton Elementary School in Syracuse, N.Y. to this past year as a teacher educator at the University of Vermont. This book is my story about trying to  keep it real over my years of public school and university based teaching.  We keep it real by learning to connect with the individuals we teach.  We connect with them as individuals, and we connect with them as members of social groups.  Connection comes in all kinds of ways.  This book explores the connections that have become thematic in my professional life.

I’ve written these stories as personal narratives of connection.  They all start with me.  Some refer to classroom experiences, others refer to historical events during the years I was growing up, others relate moments in time where I made clear decisions about my path of development. Some are intensely personal recountings of a few demons I had to meet and make amends with so I could get on with the good work of being the best educator I could be.

Three sub-themes thread their way throughout these narratives of connection: relationship, race, and reciprocity.

  • Relationshipsimply means that at the heart of the teaching/learning process is the relationship between and among the people who are engaged in that process; big people, little people, big and little people, big and little people of many shades of color.  This relationship is about connecting with the content of what is being taught and hopefully, learned.  But it is also very much about affective caring and having concern for the “other” who is involved. “Unconditional positive regard” I believe is the way Carl Rogers termed it when he wrote about the facilitation of interpersonal relationships.  I would also include the unconditional positive regard we must have for each other across the groups we affiliate with and relate to in our multicultural nation.
  • Racesimply mirrors my belief that our thoughts about race and racism, stated and unstated,  form the subtext of every teaching/learning endeavor in this country today.  When I consider race, I must consider my “place” in the dynamics of power, privilege, and pigmentation.  I don’t think any, let me say that again, any discussion of what to teach, who to teach, how to teach, how to measure what we’ve taught, and why teach it in the first place should take place without deeply considering the dynamics of power, privilege, and pigmentation that inevitably affect the people involved in the teaching and learning process.  Finally,
  • Reciprocity.Reciprocity simply affirms my belief that when I teach, I am in a transactional exchange with my students. I stand to be changed in some way by the nature of that reciprocity just as I expect them to be changed because of what we do together.  If I am open to that change, then I am more able to keep it real.

Ultimately, this book is about a reformation of my own identity.  The last several years has seen a renaissance of scholarship concerning the social, political, and educational implications of white people coming to know their privilege.  My considerations of my own pigmentation, power, and privilege has re-shaped my identity as a teacher educator, for sure.  The narratives herein surely show how that process is working for me.

Each chapter is written to stand on its own merits.  The narratives also follow the chronology of my life.  As I took time to step back and see my life as one life rather than a collection of separate events occurring in decidedly different times,  I saw clearly for the first time that the soil that nourished and fed the interests I pursue today was tilled in my very early years.

Part One contains several narratives from these early years. These narratives highlight the impact visual imagery had on how I both thought and felt about the blatant racism of America.  They also show my membership in the community of privilege which refused to see or could not see its collusion in maintaining the racist underpinnings of so much of what goes on in this country.

Part Two refers to events in my learning-to-teach days, 1964 – 1975.  This was a time when each day seemed framed by blockbuster historical events.  These events have become the stuff of nostalgia, their power to inspire action dulled by a new generation’s concern over more material definitions of well being.

Part Three continues with my career as a teacher educator in Vermont and brings my narrative history of learning about the stuff of connecting to its most recent manifestation.

I have written this book from the vantage point of today, looking back on events that have been important as I’ve thought about the power of connection in the teaching/learning relationship.  It has been impossible to really “get back there” although from time to time, I’ve used journal entries made at the time the events of the narratives were unfolding.  But I want you to understand each story is constructed hindsight.  The conceptual structure I have today is what I’ve used to write the understandings of this book.

Prologue and postlude narratives bookend the chapters.    Each is part of one story, a story that happened recently; a story that had immediate implications for my classes and my equity challenge.  I have tried to employ them in such a way as to evidence the fact that my past is very much a part of my present, and vice versa.  I leave the connections to be made between the bookends and my stories to you.