Chapter 15. Opportunities Everywhere

Chapter 15.

Opportunities Everywhere

Whether we like it or not, we all figure in the trouble that the trouble around difference is about. The bad news is that no matter who you are, the trouble is your trouble. But that’s also the good news, because it also gives you the potential and a reason to do something about it. (Johnson, 67.)

In my desire to help eradicate racism in America I learned that the responsibility for a racist society rests with all its citizens – not only with those who, being dark-skinned, bear the physical marker of “race.” How many times a day must a visibly dark-skinned person think about, talk about, be injured and diminished by, racism, while a light-skinned person doesn’t have to give white supremacy a second thought? In a purportedly democratic society, such injustice – a daily burden for most visibly ethnic Americans – must be challenged. (Tusmith,125)

The most terrible thing I can make myself say about white people is also the most wonderful. Somewhere, however buried and refracted by guilt, the truth lives in our souls. We know what we are doing. It’s why we are susceptible to improvement. (Schutze, 18.)

By presenting her personal journey in unadorned, incisive prose, Moraga teaches us to stare down the “oppressor,” the enemy –her message the more urgent when the enemy is, above all, ourselves. The intensity in such writing demands our attention as socially responsible readers, as foot soldiers for social change. (Tusmith, 117)

My personal commitment to taking on the role of ally has focused the social justice orientation of my work. Dottie, and all my other students in very intentional ways, are the recipients of that renewed commitment on my part. I have realized that my action is fluid with regard to this “commitment” because subtle acts of systemic injustice are not readily obvious to me. As a member of the dominant, privileged, academic culture in this country, I cannot see what others can so readily feel. Violations of dignity can go unrecognized by me unless the dignity that is violated happens to be my own.

There’s a sliver of my ACOA inheritance that reinforces my positioning here as well. As a kid, I was protected from much of the drama that surrounded my life by learning not to feel it. I carry some of that obliviousness with me today. Not wanting to expose myself, one way of protecting feelings, has meant I’ve been cautious about entering debates. On the other hand, when I do enter a debate and participate fully, I am often asked how I felt about what another participant did. Didn’t I react personally to a statement, or look? Well, no, not really. Not only may I not have taken the statement personally, it may not even have registered as something derogatory!

Most of the time, though, my feeling intelligence is working pretty well and I think I’m getting better at registering affronts to my friends of color. This means as an ally, if I travel with my eyes really open, I have daily opportunity to engage situations of institutional racism, daily opportunities to decide what to do about it, daily invitations to act.

Action takes several forms. Action can be proactive, predetermined, planned. This kind of action would include my work with Dottie, and my other students. This is the stuff I control, I teach about, I frame for others. Action can be reactive. I find myself in a situation and I am unsure what to do. Action can also be learning-in-action. I find myself in a situation and I try to learn more about just how the racism inherent in that situation is playing itself out.

Once awake, we have all kinds of opportunities to expose trouble and do something about it. These examples from over the past year are everyday examples of what I’m trying to say here.


My 19 year old daughter Kyla has of late begun to talk with us at the dinner table. It has not always been so and I love hearing her talk about her day. Us is myself, Ann, my wife, Amarido, Kyla’s good friend and the father of their daughter, Cianya, my granddaughter, who sits in her high chair directing most of the interaction among us at the ripe old age of two. On the skin color palate, Ann and I are white. Of the group, we are most easy to identify. Kyla is not quite white. Her biological Mom is white and her biological Dad appears kind of coffee colored in the one color photograph we have of him. Amarildo is ginger skinned reflecting his Cape Verdian heritage, and Cianya is kind of midway between her Mom and Dad. Light cream with a touch of café latte. Why do I go through this taxonomy of family’s skin color? Because tonight Kyla chooses to talk about a movie she had seen in class today. A movie that very much involved the color of skin, race, position, self-identity, and how racism in America “colors” our perceptions of each of these tags.

The Color Of Hate portrays a group of men sitting in a circle, pealing back the layers of pain and anger and suffering that most all of them feel as “people of color” in these United States. The film evidences racism’s effect in each of their lives, and by implication, our lives, the lives each person at my dinner table lives. Even the one white guy who questions the anger that others in the group feel and then use in their confrontation with him. He hasn’t a clue that his expression of incredulity is exactly what pisses his group members off. He does not know nor has he chosen to educate himself about the enormous energy it takes just to make it to the end of any particular day for most people of color in this country. I’m reminded of the T-Shirt that says on the front, “How was your day?” and on the back, “Fine. I made it through another day in racist America.” For the white guy, hey, he’s even hired some people of color and they’ve been his good friends. They weren’t angry?!

Kyla shares that the film wound down close to the end of class and to fill the short space of time remaining, the teacher asked what people thought about the film. She shares that still, with all that was portrayed in Lee Moon Hua’s stark, emotional portrayal, “you could tell from the questions that some people still just didn’t get it.” When I asked how she knew, she said one of her classmates, a young woman of color, had shared she didn’t feel comfortable on campus. She didn’t like not being recognized for who she was. “People are always asking me if I’m from Columbus, assuming I’m one of UVM’s affirmative action students.” After an uncomfortable pause, a young white woman responded that she didn’t even know what or where Columbus High School was. A few other comments. Time runs out. Class ends.

I’m sitting there listening. My mind is doing time travel down six different paths at once. How is Kyla feeling about this interaction? Why does she share this portion? Does she side with the young woman who offered her feelings to all to hear or with the white student? Does she side with anyone? Does she draw any parallels with conversations she had at Milton, her old high school. I remember car talk with her on long drives back to Vermont where she shared she kept her mouth shut as the only student of color in those discussion groups. The white kids didn’t know what they were talking about when they were talking about race relations at the that school. That’s what she told me then. When I asked her if she’d drawn the parallel, she’d forgotten our car talk. I’d never forgotten it. I remember almost its exact words. And at that moment, sensing a confusion I didn’t feel, Ann moves in to the dinner time talk to help me clarify what Kyla was talking about.

The Dad side of me thinks Kyla feels the disconnect in that classroom. She sees that many students see this film and draw their own conclusions about what’s going on, who has a right to their feelings, who doesn’t, and on and on. She has her own ideas about what drives the behavior in the video but that isn’t what she chooses to share. Perhaps she doesn’t want to share which she herself may not be sure about. As her Dad, I believe she isn’t sure about where she stands with some of what is portrayed. Hell, I’m forty years older and I’m not either. I’m not sure I ever will be sure about these questions of positioning and responsibility because this isn’t a wisdom that comes from age. This is a wisdom that comes from a conscious understanding of how racism works in America. And in America, because I am one of the privileged, this wisdom is not really mine. This is America, and like the white guy in the film, what I see and understand even with Kyla is shaped by my history of growing up as a white male guy who’s privilege and rural parochialism has masked societal dynamics that are painfully obvious to others.

The learning side of me simply observed how nice it would have been had that white student merely said, “Tell me more.” to the young woman who didn’t like being perceived as “an affirmative action student.” “Tell me more. Let me learn from you. I have no idea what you really meant when you said those words. Tell me. Help me understand! Being recognized as a category must have really felt awful!” But instead, the response was something like, “Well, that’s not me. I don’t even know that school.” End of conversation. White girl rejects everything the young woman who’s not from Columbus shared. Risk taken. Personal feelings exposed. Statement rejected. Episode done. No clue as to what was really communicated. Everyone, it seem to me, feels discounted. The white student is left wondering how it is the young woman could possibly have thought she’d have made the “affirmative action student” assumption. The young woman who was brave enough to share in the first place is left naked in the room with her feelings rubbed raw. And Kyla watches all and learns once again at this predominantly white institution that it’s dangerous to expose yourself in class by revealing your feelings and thoughts in conversations about race, racism, and the collective us. Especially if you aren’t sure just what your own identity is. Kyla learns once again it’s best to duck and keep your head down.

Bonnie Tusmith, an academic like me, writes how racism shaped her growth and development as an academic activist. Her essay is an interesting juxtaposition to my own activist becoming. She begins her essay with a story about a decision she consciously made – one of my “reactive” decisions – to reciprocate a Black colleague’s racial challenge in mirrored fashion. She models cultural sensitivity and cultural strength to younger versions of herself seated at her table. She ends observing that racism will end only when all citizens take on the responsibility of dealing with a trouble that belongs to all of us. Love, she suggests, is the capacity and desire to listen to, to try to understand, and each other’s stories. It is only through the telling of the stories that we can be of honest, authentic help to each other.

Her essay enlightens me. I share her narrative. Through it, I glimpse her world, a world I was ignorant of until I read her words. Her anger helps me “see” her frustration at the invisibility she feels as she stands before the Black/White debate that too often defines “racism” dialogue in this country. I understand better what the negation of her daily experience with racist acts must feel like to her. I understand her decision to stand up and become a visible brown skinned foot soldier for social change. She makes sure I know that racism goes way beyond the Black/White debating society that so often owns and defines racism discourse. I recall my own journey to move beyond envisioning racism in more simplistic, categorical black/white terms.

I am relieved at the validation I feel from Tusmith’s. I need reassurance. How do I know what’s going on in Kyla’s brain? How do I know how she’s interpreted the racist attitudes and prejudices that lay just beneath classroom discourse? With all these thoughts going on in my brain, accompanied by my own considerable measure of self doubt concerning the “correctness” of my reflection on my daughter’s story, it is almost as if Tusmith has heard me! Being heard in this shared cross color narrative is what helps anyone feel more validated in someone else’s heart, even if the other person in revealed only in words. Tusmith’s words help me feel real in the same way the Skin Horse expresses his sense of reality to the Velveteen Rabbit:

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

Tusmith equates story telling, love, and deep listening, the kind of listening where you hear inner emotion as well as the external narrative. Her words move me and reaffirm that my story as well is important in our ongoing dialogue to deal with our “trouble.”

This quiet observation defines love among humans as telling and listening to one another’s stories, thus affirming the value of life. The caveat is that someone has to be listening. 126

When I first began Tusmith’s essay, I assumed that once again, I was going to experience criticism as a white person from which there would be no escape. Understanding, yes. Guilt from accusation, no. I got a surprised. More than anything, I want desperately to put my words in Kyla’s mouth and get that class conversation going in a different way. I want the young woman, left exposed, to feel my power of healing. I’d like my young white sister to realize how much she has to learn by digging deeper, wanting to know more about the other person rather than listening only to protect herself and render judgment. But none of this is within my power; not with Kyla, and not with the two young women.

What is within my power is to listen better, and to test the utter vulnerability of this new kind of love with those around me. My students. My friends. My acquaintances. This disposition to listen and to question and to understand, especially in matters of race with people across the color spectrum, isn’t about being right. It’s about needing to understand what life is like for someone other than yourself. I will learn as I listen, and just maybe that’s what this foot soldier business is all about.


I am a member of our University’s President’s Commission on Racial Diversity. As such, I’m privy to email that circulates occasionally with stories of racial conflict at UVM. This note came through the electronic airwaves last Thursday: “Please share the attached letter with anybody who tells you that racism is not ‘that bad’ in Vermont.”. Marie-Claire, a colleague and an affirmative action officer at UVM, had asked her colleague Ricardo, a faculty member of my department and the long time director of UVM’s Trio programs, to do the sharing.

The letter is a formal complaint Marie-Claire had filed with the manager of our local Michaels, a national chain of craft stores. In the letter, Marie-Claire lays of the details of an incident that happened to her and her three-year-old daughter while they shopped at Michaels. Michaels is the kind of store that has that friendly cluttered look. It is filled with rows and rows and shelves and shelves of items, some tiny, some not so tiny, some individually positioned on shelves, many poured into bins. It isn’t a store where finding just what you want is easy. But the store has a personal, friendly feel to it. Craft work is that way. It’s personal, and it has its own unique human charm. Their inventory of plastic flowers, scrapbook paper, pens and crayons, molds and holiday decorations must run into the several thousands. So it was natural that Marie-Claire was having a bit of trouble finding just what she wanted. I’ll let her letter tell what happened.

“I came out of one of the aisle of the Kids’ Crafts section to find two white female employees engaged in a lively conversation with a customer. I approached them and said ‘Excuse-me, would one of you help… ?’ I did not have time to finish my sentence because they both walked away from me. I stood there frozen, in shock and unable to believe what had just happened.”

The incident left her shaken. Carol, another employee had seen the incident unfold and took Marie-Claire to the store manager. In a subsequent letter to the store manager, Marie-Claire recounts the experience:

“I told you what had just happened and shared my conviction that your employees walked away and refused to assist me because I am black. I told you how deeply hurt I was by the behavior of your employees: I was teary and shaken just by recounting the incident. I also told you how great Carol had been and that she should not have to apologize for somebody else’s unjust and racist behavior. I am proud to say that I never raised my voice while talking to you, despite the deep and searing anger that was coursing through me; anger at those two employees who for no other reason than the color of my skin judged me unworthy of their time, anger at all the white people who are trying to convince me that racism in Vermont is not as bad as minority people make it sound.”

My feelings are jumbled. Upon first reading, I’m not sure whether the note has come from Ricardo or from Marie-Claire. My first reaction? Denial. I want to focus my attention at the electronic distribution path. I think I intuited that something awful was to follow and I really didn’t want it to disturb my calm and productive Thursday afternoon. At the same time, I’m feeling grateful that the other employee, Carol, had been there for Marie-Claire and her daughter and had taken direct action in the incident. At least, I told myself, Marie-Claire experienced immediate interposition by an advocate and had a place to go in the chain-of-command to lodge her complaint and follow-up demands. That felt good to me and as a white person in this mostly white state, somewhat smugly I noted overall progress to myself on these racial issues. Second reaction? Justification. Vermont has more Carols today than ever before and to me that is a sign of progress, especially for a state where I’d venture to say the majority of people don’t think we have racial problems of any particular magnitude or who might excuse such an incident by reasoning, “what do ‘they’ expect when they come to a place like this?”

And then Marie-Claire’s forwarding sentence re-emerged in my consciousness.

“Please share the attached letter with anybody who tells you that racism is not ‘that bad’ in Vermont.”

What did that phrase mean to me? I assumed I’d received the forwarding because I am on the Commission. The e-mail was distributed to the Commission list. Beyond that obvious fact, however, is the intimation that I am an “anybody” “who tells you that racism in not ‘that bad’ in Vermont”. Was she assuming that I was inactive in my daily lefforts to witness and bring to light potentially racist behaviors? Was she thinking I especially needed the prod? Third reaction? Autonomy.

What was my responsibility now that I, Charlie, had her forwarded information? The “cool,” anonymous medium of email had become hot and personal for me. There I was, in my doubly conscious world, wondering what she and Ricardo would be thinking of me and whatever response, if any, I chose to mount as a result of receiving this letter. I was unable to think clearly about how to respond without simultaneously processing how my response would be received by my friends of color. On the other hand, in-your-face racial intimidation was not unknown to me.

When Ann an I were younger, twenty-one years younger as a matter of fact, we’d taken our precious, newly adopted, one year old son to Burlington’s City Hall Park for an early morning bagel. The day was what we Vermonters like to call a “Vermont Life Kind Of Day.” The air was clear, the sky intensely blue, the breeze fresh and ever so cool on our skin, the early summer birds cacophonous in their morning invitations to mate. There we were, sitting on a blanket with Justin, munching our cream cheese and garlic bagels.

I saw him coming from the corner of my eye, a vision of dirty blue denim, shuffling towards us in a zigzag kind of motion. A greasy engineers cap sat awry, high on his forehead. His face was etched and craggy, filled with premature lines of aging, of a difficult life lived . He came close, stopped directly in front of us, and began. What came out of his mouth was racial invective I’d only experienced once in my life, on my one foray into the South, twenty years earlier, to march the last day of the 1965 Selma to Birmingham voting rights march. It took a moment grasp what was happening. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I looked up to make eye contact but it was tough to make out the details of his presence because his features were silhouetted against the intensity of the blue morning sky.

But make no doubt about it. The Nword and stream of epithets directed at us let us know that he didn’t like the fact that these two white people had a child of color as one of their own. What was interesting to me, and I remember I had the thought clearly even in the midst his diatribe, is that his remarks were directed in large measure at Ann. His twisted reasoning was that she had whored herself and produced this mutant offspring and I somehow had ended up with her as partner in this unholy trio.

Once I’d figured out that this crazy man was unarmed, I began to move from my seated position of total submissiveness to take my stand. I can remember wanting to attack forcefully and take the guy down at the knees with all the power I could muster, a power honed by eight years of high school and college football. I knew I could hurt the bastard good. At the same time was the opposite overwhelmingly protective desire to shield Justin from the awfulness of the moment. He, innocent that he was, looked back and forth from the man to his Mom and Dad, saying, “Nice man, mommy, nice man.” I decided against physical confrontation because that would make an even bigger impression with my young son than this guy’s words. I reasoned to form a seal between the man and my family, grab his arm, and move him on his way. As I rose, I saw our protagonist was not alone. He was accompanied, another man who decided to act at the same moment I’d settled upon my course of action. He called to our tormentor to get away from us. He did. Whether it was that he’d had his moment, whether it was the call to disengage, whether he’d sensed my own growing outrage, whatever it was that made him move I’ll never know. The apparition shuffled off towards his buddy muttering he’d like to put “all of us in his car crusher in Milton .”

Ann was so upset she almost threw up in the midst of her tears. I looked anywhere for a cop. And Justin started asking what was the matter? This was our first family experience of overt racism in Vermont. We did nothing with it except to internalize the emotions that came from the sudden attack. That was enough. From that moment on, my psyche had changed. I knew beyond comprehension, that I was now a target, that Justin was a target, that Ann was a target, and that at any moment we were vulnerable to other random attacks. The emotions of that moment still play through my mind when a racial event seems near.

What’s interesting to me is to compare this moment with one that had happened ten years earlier. My first wife and I had been out for a Sunday drive, a drive with our two young children (Justin’s older stepbrother and stepsister). These two were two and three years old and were car seated in the back seat of our van. We were exploring the Vermont countryside and had just come upon a T in the road. Not knowing quite where we were, I’d stopped, started forward, and stopped again. My indecision was troublesome to the large, obese woman driving the old rusty Pontiac. She, too, was trying to negotiate the stop signs and my indecision bothered her. She leaned out the driver’s window, pointed at me, and shouted, “Why don’t you get the hell out of here and go back where you belong. We don’t want your kind around here.” I even think I remember a rifle barrel in the car, cradled by what I imagined to be her son, riding shotgun next to her. She evidently had seen the New York State plates on this VW van and had drawn her conclusions about who we were. I remember being surprised then but not shaken, certainly not as shaken as I was by the City Hall Park confrontation. I’d laughed the incident off, dismissing her and her kind, with all the certainty and confidence that was mine by position: my white, male, middle class, professional and privileged, position.

These two memories flooded my thinking as I pondered my reaction to receiving Marie-Claire’s email and my thought about what response I would make, if any, to her comment, “Please share the attached letter with anybody who tells you that racism is not ‘that bad’ in Vermont.”

What I understand about being an ally to my brothers and sisters of color is that I can’t make life feel any better for them. All I can do is to name trouble when I see it, even if I’m unsure whether or not I’m one of the troublemakers. So I have taken as my course of action to witness (when I choose) incidents that I think reveal racial prejudice, incidents that are demeaning (again from my point of view) to the descendents of the African Diaspora. The choice is mine. I can be asleep or awake. I can see it or not. I have the choice to respond or not. The good news for me, I suppose, is that I’m committed to doing something and that I do act. The bad news for me of course, is that I’m not running around asking for a litmus test from a person of color before I act. I act only on my own judgment and pray that I get it right.

I decide to take action, one, because Marie-Claire is a colleague; two, because the incident itself was terribly troubling to me, especially because the more I thought about it, the more my own personal memories began to engage my anger; and three, because I felt responsibility in what happened to her. My sense of responsibility is indirect. It is a responsibility that occurs through acknowledging the interlocking web of shared responsibility that institutionalized racism presents to all of us. I now know that Whites have to act, especially when requested. This letter was a direct, electronically face-to-face request for action.

I had a range of options. I could go to Michaels’ myself and congratulate Carol. I could go to Michaels and confront the two women who had denigrated Marie-Claire. I could go to Michaels and talk with the two women who had denigrated Marie-Claire and try to work with them to show them the error of their ways. (Maybe there really was another explanation? Maybe they weren’t being overtly racist?) I could write my own letter to the President of Michaels and support/demand/whatever Marie-Claire’s request for written corporate antidiscrimination policy. I could support Sue while simultaneously letting her know I was holding her feet to the fire as well. I could stand out in front of Michaels with a “Michaels Supports Corporate Racism” sign every Saturday for a month. There were lots of possible actions. Was there a right one?

I think the point is not which action is right or wrong or how best might I move Michaels? I think the point is to do something. Act. Period. So I wrote Marie-Claire. I haven’t the slightest idea whether it was the right thing to do or not. But it was a right thing to do. Only time will give me some indication of that. But I’m getting more comfortable with the idea that what I do ought not to be measured by the fact of how many other people agree that it is the right thing to do. What I choose to do I choose because of what I think and feel. I have learned the only behavior I can control is my own. Just (pardon the replication of a much more well know corporate invocation) do it!

It wasn’t a long letter. In it I shared my anger, I expressed my support. I acknowledged my connectedness to our nation’s history of institutionalized racism. I told her a bit of the City Hall Park story, and I apologized to her, her husband, and her daughter “on behalf of the ignorance that breeds this intolerable behavior .”

And yet, the desire to know was this an okay thing to do, still lingers for me. I’ve not heard one way or another. I remain unsure whether my words were comforting, supportive, or revealing of another kind of ignorance to which I am blind. Being a conscious ally is tough work to do alone, especially if I want to be right. If I just want to be out there doing something, anything, then it’s not so tough. It just takes a willingness to be wrong and for a guy with my history, that’s not a problem.

There Are No Shortcuts

I’d written at the outset to this chapter that I have daily opportunities to engage in situations of institutional racism, daily opportunities to decide what to do about it, daily invitations to act. In no way do I wish to leave the impression that because I am aware of the opportunities, and because as a teacher I can plan a process of instruction mindful of issues of social justice, that I get it right. If you accept a model of teaching that attempts to draw knowledge from the students in order to provide more authentic and inclusive classroom discourse, then the instructional environment gets messy. Dialogue has to be structured in a way the accounts for participation. To do this well takes pedagogical knowledge, planning, and classroom time. Going for deep learning is not an efficient form of instruction. Effective, yes. Efficient, no.

Groupwork is one way to advance classroom discourse that is more inclusive and inviting of all students, when done correctly. Although groupwork has potential for learning, talking and working together with peers is the source of a whole series of problems. Neither children nor adults necessarily know how to work successfully in the group setting. American culture, in particular, provides very few opportunities to learn group skills (Cohen, 3).

I use groupwork a good deal in my teaching. I spend time trying to get it right. And sometimes, I assume the class has “got it” and I can take short cuts with my method. Inevitably, when I do that, someone gets hurt. Unless I actively try to control participation, a rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer form of social darwinism takes over. I can see it happening.

It was the end of class. Time was over and students were moving out of the room. Our room is an up to date technologically capable lecture room. Tiered, all eyes front. Comfortable chairs. Attached but moveable, left and right and front to back, even a bit of leaning capacity to them.

My time was occupied by a student across the desk from me. We were talking about a late assignment or something that had occurred in class. I don’t quite remember. There’s usually a crush of students after class who want to share something or ask a question and quite honestly, when its over I can’t quite attach what was discussed with who offered the brief conversation. She came in from the side and waited there expectantly in the kind of pose that not only says I’m next but also when are you going to finish up with the one you are talking to now? I could feel her energy. It was heavy, focused, and charged.

I finished. There was a slight pause as she moved obliquely to face me.

“Groupwork!!?” She said. I can’t get words to describe the tone. It was not quite disparaging. Not quite disdainful. But enough of both of those terms so I knew things hadn’t gone well.

I’d put two of our smaller work groups together that day. Two work groups that hadn’t worked together before. Each of the pairs had worked on the same set of questions during my previous class. All I wanted them to do was to share together the main points they’d derived from the previous discussion, decide on the three or four main points they wanted to report to the larger group, and do it.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do I detect that something didn’t go well?”

She looked at me and not quite spitting out her words noted that no one in her group had offered anything to the assigned discussion. They weren’t prepared, they didn’t offer information. No one took on an organizing function to get the task done. Taking on the responsibility to make sure they were prepared to answer, I’d imagined she’d pushed the group to comply with my request.

“They were ‘Whatever,’” she said with a frustrated edge and a toss of her head, eyes flipped upward in an accurately mocking mime of the behavior that had angered her.

“I finally did it myself. Here are our answers.”

“The discussion didn’t go well?” I said, reflecting the obvious.

“They just didn’t care. It’s was all just ‘Whatever.’ ”

I immediately flashed a little anger, and a lot of frustration myself. This particular young woman had announced to me within our first two classes that she didn’t like groupwork. It didn’t work for her. When ever she’d done it in the past, she’d ended up doing most of the work.

Her experience was that of the Social Darwinist. The strong took over, the weak kept quiet. The work got done. She resented always being put in the position (or conversely, having to take on the position) of doing lazy people’s work or the work of people who “whatevered” their way out of it. So I’m thinking what we had going in this present situation was the self-fulfilling prophecy doing its very predictable thing, once again.

But there’s another thing that I think was going on with this group as well. This particular student is a bit older than the rest of the students in this class. She also is from a different program. She is a more mature person in terms of University experience. Though she looks like most everyone else in this largely white, dominant culture class, her life experience has been very different, and my observation is that because of this, she communicates in a way that is very honest and direct and even brusque. Others who have grown up in more refined households might look at her communication as opinionated and negatively critical, in tone if not in content. So I can imagine one other dynamic operating in this group is a kind of insider outsider/passive resistance thing going on.

Others in this group may have been caught short by my request, even though it was written out and everyone had an agenda with the task written upon it. Cryptically, no doubt, but written out nevertheless. It was 8am and I’d asked them to be into this reconfigured interaction early in our seventy-five minutes together. For some of them, sleep deprived, and probably wishing they could be somewhere else, my task was pushing the limits of expectation . Grudgingly, they would have been more willing to sit passively through a lecture. But I was requiring them to talk and work together, to think, analyze, and synthesize information from the previous class that to many of them must have felt like months ago. Not only were they facing this requirement, in addition I was asking them to do this with a group member who was actually serious about the task, who pushed them, and who probably pushed them in ways that from their perspective were sharp, denigrating, and offensive.

And finally, there’s at least one more structure operating in this scenario. We are in a room that is set up for lecture, not group interaction. So these eight people are seated in chairs that are bolted to tables that are bolted to the concrete floor, all facing forwards. Half of them, one whole group, the group of passive resistors, had to sit in these forward facing chairs and if they wanted to look at their group partners, turn around in seats that didn’t turn around very well. So there they are, draped over wood that cuts into their fronts or backs or sides or backsides, probably knowing they should be facing each other, feeling uncomfortable for reasons of physical orientation as well. When a peer who really isn’t a peer starts to push you in this kind of situation, it was easier for you not to comply, to look away, disengage, and move into “whatever” mode. After all, they’d learned from years of school based training that passively resisting in this way meant a self appointed leader would represent them well enough in front of their peers.

So here we are. Most of the group feels uncomfortable for these reasons: its ungodly early in the morning (hasn’t the teacher read the research on adolescent learning?), the task is unclear, the terms are still vague and uncertain to me (cause I really haven’t engaged this content yet), the seating sucks, and this stranger is making me feel put upon because actually, her message is what I really know to be the case – if you were going to ask for honesty here. This is a group task and I’m supposed to be helping out here even though I don’t really know or care about what’s being asked (its just too early!), and I don’t really know how safe this new group is –(who are these other people?). What I really know is that if I just don’t make eye contact, chat about the Red Sox riot to the one or two people I do know and not do the work. The stranger person pushing us will do the work and get it done. She’ll even report the results of our discussion when we share with the whole class because she is concerned about looking unprepared and ignorant. I can hide and I’m safe in my hiding. Let her do the work if she cares so much. I’ve got the power to not participate. The only power she has is her own. She has no status whatsoever in my eyes! What difference does it all make, anyway? Whatever!

Easily, I could say the group was awful. These irresponsible college kids were just too damn cool to get involved. Here I’d put together a great morning for them. We’d had at least three different activities going on, purposefully designed to get them moving and thinking and talking. I’d had the music on when they came in so they had an invitation to get out of their eight o’clock numbness through some pretty cool sounds (my assessment of course) and we were digging into social development content that was really interesting. So of course, I could say that what happened was their fault. Just another example of students going through the motion of their education. They knew better. This wasn’t the first time we’d done group work. They knew about roles and rules and working together and reporting out. All they had to do was transfer those behaviors to this new task, with these new people; take a little responsibility to engage the content, the discussion, and the reporting to the large group. Instead, I was left feeling I had to hold their hands one more time.

Sound familiar? Probably. It was sure familiar to me. I felt anger that morning. I was angry at the group for being so disengaged. This was an 8am class and typically, I rise at 515 am on these 8am teaching days to make sure I’m ready to go. I expect the same from my students. I was angry at this young woman because I’m sure she said things in a way that put off her group and by this time in her life, she should know better. And I was angry at myself for not doing the last final bit of preparation that would have avoided this situation all together. Sure, most of the class had worked out well. But I wanted it all. I hate it when the normal processes of disengagement take over and get sanctioned by the very fact that they happen in my room. I don’t like it. I won’t have it.

Improperly done groupwork occurs just as much in higher education as it does in the public and private schools. Sure, students could have done what I’d hoped, and in fact, many in this class did. But this one young woman, standing before me, was a spokeswoman for all that can go wrong and often does when university faculty strive to innovate their by using small discussion groups to get their students actively engaged with their content. And when it does go wrong, we faculty are quick to name the crash a learning problem. We are quick to place the blame on the student. Their failure to thrive in groupwork is their fault.

Well, it’s not. This was a teaching error. It was a teaching error that had consequences for this student just like the improperly handled discussion about The Color of Hate was a teaching error for the students in that classroom. In this case, the young woman was white and of a different social class than her more advantaged peers. This example serves to point out that the social processes that define our society outside of school define the society inside of school unless we are diligent and unrelenting in our efforts to alter their negative consequences.


Assumptions about race, class, and gender permeate relationships in American society. If we are teachers, knowledge of our own social positioning and the effects of that positioning on our professional offers us the opportunity to be more inclusive and equitable in our teaching. Seeing is the first step. Knowing your story and how you got to where you are today is another step. Knowing the stories of “the others” is equally as important. Knowing the consequences of social positioning on what you see and do is what this book is about. I go to sleep every night a little bit smarter about my vocation. I hope my actions show this. My life at this point is not living out a teacher’s that’s been set through years of experience. Am I effective as a teacher? Perhaps. The real answer for me at this point of my career is seeing every day as a bunch of small steps on a journey that in this society, will not end soon. I invite my students to walk with me and to teach me as I teach them. I offer to you the same invitation.

Chapter 3. First Encounters of Another Kind

Chapter 3.

First Encounters of Another Kind.

The stereotype acts both as a justificatory device for categorical acceptance or rejection of a group, and as a screening or selective device to maintain simplicity in perception and in thinking. Once again, we point to the complicating issue of true group characteristics. A stereotype need not be altogether false….We can distinguish between a valid generalization and a stereotype only if we have solid data concerning the existence of…true group differences. Allport, 192.

The initial fact, therefore, is that human groups tend to stay apart. We need not ascribe this tendency to a gregarious instinct, to a “consciousness of kind,” or to prejudice. The fact is adequately explained by the principles of ease, least effort, congeniality, and pride in one’s own culture. Allport, 19.

Along with valuable emerging scholarship on “propertyless” whiteness, Harris’s point that poor whites do possess the property of whiteness helps to recast debate on the tragedy of why those who derive so little material benefit from white supremacy often firmly cling to white identity, the only property they hold…All of the best critical studies of whiteness old and new implicitly warn us against claims that any significant drama in US. History is “really about race” or that any single dynamic is isolated from the social processes within which it unfolds. Roediger, 24.

A moral position is not a slogan, or wishful thinking. It doesn’t come from outside or above. It begins inside the heart of a character and grows from there. Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it, however you can, and you will be richly rewarded. As Molly Ivins put it, freedom fighters don’t always win, but they are always right. LaMott, 109.

I was born in New York City and spent my first four years in Spuyten Duyvil, a little green corner of the Bronx, just north of Manhattan Island. I am fond of telling people my first years were in da Bronx, and some of the happiest memories I have of times with my Dad are those times spent on the “terrace” behind our home listening to Mel Allen play-by-play of “da Bronx Bombers”. Dad was a Yankee fan. Allie Reynolds, Moose Skowren, Phil Rizzuto, the great Yogi, Mantel, Maris, Whitey Ford, those were all familiar names between us. But the truth be known, I don’t have any real memories about my birthplace. When I was four years old, Dad came home one day and announced to my Mom that the house was sold and we were moving to Hamilton, New York, home of his alma mater and his future place of employment as university physician. As far as I know, that was the first Mom knew about the change in our life circumstance.

Growing up, Hamilton was the best of small-town America, made somewhat less provincial by the presence of Colgate University, Dad’s alma mater on the hill. Everyone pretty much knew everyone else. The grocers, the police, the volunteer firemen, the telephone operators – yes, my first telephone number was Hamilton 129 – everyone spoke to everyone else as if we knew each other. It was a very safe place to be. And it was a very white place to be; so, perhaps I should say it was a very safe place for me to be and grow up. I started kindergarten and graduated from high school with pretty much the same group of people. Fifty-one graduates in the class of 1960 and I’d say forty-five of us were together at the start in the fall of 1947.

We basically sorted out into the Townies and the Aggies. The Aggies were the farm kids and the Townies were the kids who lived in Hamilton. There was economic variation within and across these two groups but generally speaking, we who considered ourselves the Townies also considered ourselves better off. I never knew if the Aggies saw themselves having any particular sub-groupings. Clearly, some of the farming families were more prosperous than others but that didn’t seem to affect their relationships, much. From our Townie perspective, they all seemed to hang together and school augmented this perception. We were tracked long before tracking became an issue of concern. Most of the Townies were college bound. We took the courses that would prepare us for college entrance. Most of the Aggies would graduate to work on the family farm. A few would go on to agriculturally oriented colleges and universities. The Townies had several subgroups: the jocks, the intellectuals, the artists, the musicians, and everyone else. Everyone else usually translated into the kids of little means who lived down by the basket factory. Even in Hamilton, NY, there was “the other side of the tracks” and we knew the families who lived down there had it rough. You could see it in the bruises, smell it in the clothes, and watch it play out in school as we separated ourselves into those for whom school was a struggle and those for whom school was not.

But we were small in number. So it wasn’t as if we were segregated from each other. I rode the bus with, sat and talked to, played soccer with – the whole gang. We were in school together. When choice time came, though, we self-segregated. In the lunchroom, we sat with our own. On the playground, we played with our friends. Even then, we sorted ourselves predictably on the economic scale that separated us by ease of living. So early encounters with difference were very natural to me. This is the way life was. Some people had means, others didn’t. Some people had opportunities, others had few. Sam was Italian, Billy was Irish, Roger was Armenian, but we were all white, we were all Americans. And that’s just the way it was here in small town America. I was born lucky. My family had means and even though I wasn’t geographically a Townie, for I lived a mile and a half from the village park, for all sociological purposes, I was. I walked like them, I talked like them, I was seen as one of them. I grew up White with all the unquestioned privilege and assumptions about who we were that came along with the synonymous existence of being white and American. They were one and the same.

So my first encounters with kids who looked different from me were more dramatic for the unquestioned mono-hued existence that I lived. They were also more dramatic for the actuality of it all.

Every summer they’d suddenly appear as if they’d crept in under cover of night. Black migrant laboring families arriving from someplace south of us, families who followed the crops, families who returned to the large truck farms year after year, families who stayed for maybe two to three months, families who it seemed to me were just like the slaves I’d seen woodcuts of in my schoolbooks. Large groups of chocolate dark, strange speaking people would suddenly arrive in Madison County, carried in on patched together rattletrap cars, rusted junker school buses, blue smoke spewing panel trucks. Their clothes were threadbare and tattered, faded and torn. Their odor was dusty and acridly palpable. They lived their migratory days with us in what my family called Labor Camps but what my friends called The Nigger Camps. Places not much better than chicken coops, minimally converted to house these farm laborers. Sometimes I’d see them downtown, I’d pass them on the sidewalk, and I remember feelings of fear, of being scared in their presence.

Why fear? Our home was bordered on two sides by a large field that was always planted in beans back then. Later it was cattle corn, but in my younger years, beans were it. A different kind of street noise signaled the arrival of the pickers. We’d look out and see, already too early in the morning, old cars and pickup trucks and stake trucks full of workers pulling up along side the road, unloading their human contents to bend to the task of the harvest. I used to watch them from the corner of our property. God, it must have been hard work. Hot summer sun, bent to the task, bushel after bushel being thrown up to the gathering truck that would make the rounds of the various fields where the pickers were employed. Often one or two either parched dry or in need of vertical exercise would walk to our house and ask for water. My Mom was scared of them and fearful for my safety as well. She’d tell me to get in the house if I saw them coming. I wanted to get some water and ice ready for them on the terrace picnic table but Mom just turned on the hose and went back inside, fast. I picked up her fear and anxiety and I think that’s why I felt caution and fear on the sidewalks of our little town when we’d pass by each other, rarely making eye contact, always looking away, wondering if they were embarrassed to be seen looking the way they looked.

Interesting, they were a “them” to me, not a “people.” Our community didn’t know what to do with these migratory collections of fellow human beings, so clearly in need. I don’t think any of our local church congregations or social organizations ever took it upon themselves to make the life circumstances of these laboring people any easier. At least I don’t remember any stories to that effect. What I do remember is that white Mennonite church people from other states would travel almost in parallel to these groups. They would settle in town and they would provide for their needs by making links to our churches. So it would be the Mennonites who made the connections, not us. They would bridge local resources to these laboring farm workers. They would make requests for clothes and food and medical services and education and our Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian churches would respond through them. They were a buffer. You never saw one of these workers in church, ever. At least not in my church. The same was not true for school, however. School was the one place we could meet up and form a relationship.

A boy named Samuel returned to our class three years in a row. I look back now and wonder what it must have been like for him to have to go to our school, or the school in the town that he would next travel to. I wonder now who made the decision that he would attend and how did he get there. No school bus ever stopped at the Labor Camps. Some one, some adult, some parent who believed in the importance of school must have done whatever it took to get him there. There were others, too. More of them girls than boys. But not many. They’d show up. Maybe if they were lucky be introduced to the class. And sit with us day in and day out as we did our 3Rs.

This is just so much of a stereotype but Samuel became popular with us boys because he was big, and fast, and could play football pretty well. So during elementary school lunchtime and gym time, we’d get to choose up sides and have a game or two and every team wanted to choose Samuel. He was a pretty serious kid. Maybe a pretty scared kid. But we had fun with him and I think he with us. He’d sit with some of us for lunch, unlike his female counterparts. I remember he’d eat a lot of food. He could go through more tuna fish sandwiches on Friday than I and that was saying something ‘cause I loved those mayonnaise-laden sandwiches. Ma Yackel, the lunchroom Czarina would cut us off after three. I’d often trade him a sandwich for carrots. Something inside my brain or heart or both made me know he needed the food more than I. Samuel was hard to understand, he couldn’t read hardly at all, but we’d help him through if the teachers would let us. Samuel was the first person I knew who looked like the people in those pictures I saw in the red History Book. I distinctly remember wondering if he knew about any of that but of course, I didn’t ask. No one talked about lynching in school, then, or ever, for that matter. And then, just as he’d arrived, one day he’d be gone. The peas would be picked, the beans gone, his family would move on, and it would be over.

In my whole time growing up in Hamilton, there was one Black family that lived there and that was Charlie Wright and his wife. I never knew where Charlie worked. All I knew is that he was the most spectacular drum major the Fountain Fire Company #1 Drum and Bugle Corps ever had. Charlie Wright played out the best stereotype of the high hatted, smart stepping, happy talking, ever so compliant black man that I ever saw. He was in his last days as drum major, probably nearing sixty years of age, when I first started to play in that very fun group and I remember just beginning to gain a consciousness of a different side of him than I had seen when I was younger, just before he ended his run. I saw him alone one day, after we’d finished our parade. Alone, and serious, and in the midst of people, very by himself. Many people said hello to him and he always responded with his resplendent smile. But it seemed that was where it always ended. He seemed very by himself. Although he was known far and wide as the person who gave our group its own special pizzazz, I remember thinking this man appeared totally alone in the midst of all the music. And of course, I didn’t act on that observation. I just noticed.

Even with Charlie, I heard town folks use the N-word when they referred to him. Never my family. But people who should have known better. Thing was, that’s just the way it was. There was rampant prejudice against the migrants, particularly. And I bet Charlie Wright, if he’d been able to tell his story, he’d have a thing or two to mention as well. It bothered me. My Mom often talked about treating everyone with respect and even though these laboring farm workers scared her, I never heard the N-word in my house, even though Mom had been spat upon by a “big, black woman” while getting on a bus in NYC where Mom had gone to visit Minnie, her own Mom. But the society of the school bus was a different matter. Jimmy Cheesbro lived on Madison Hill in a very big white house and he, like I, rode Bus 5 every day. I don’t think his Dad was a farmer but they had a big barn, some horses and were involved in agriculture in some way. Jimmy was a big, tough kid with a quick temper, quicker fists, and a very foul mouth. Bully would be too kind a word to describe his relationship with lots of his peers. Jimmy would brag about how he and his friends, they’d polish off a bottle of rum and then get in one of their pick-ups with their twenty-twos and take off for one of the N-camps. One of his buddies would drive through the camp while Jimmy would hung over the tail-bed of the truck, shooting upside down at anything that moved. They’d do this in the early evening when people were out and about, some cooking over open fires. If this story was true, and I have no reason to believe it wasn’t, I never heard of anyone reporting the incident(s) or moving to stop it.

How was social justice played out? Over very long distances. Trick or Treat for UNICEF once a year. More regularly, Sunday morning offerings for poor people very far away. My high school church group worked hard to sell plates embossed with the image of the First Baptist Church. After a good deal of research and discussion which I remember did have the effect of opening our eyes and naming the poverty that was out there in the world, we sent the proceeds off to Albert Sweitzer’s African leper mission work. Sweitzer’s secretary wrote us back in real ink and said the Doctor was too busy to write but wanted to make sure we knew how much he appreciated our effort and how well the money would be used. To bad he didn’t ask us to look around our own community. We were all institutionally blind, so it seems, to the grinding poverty that was right in front of our noses.

The only good story I ever heard involving an act of kindness was double-edged. An act of kindness maybe, but still replete with the same racial epithets, inspired by the vision of quick profit. One afternoon that was late both in August and in the day itself, after the heat had begun to transform to the coolness of evening, a knock came at our front door. Not many people ever stopped by our house so a knock at the door was always something of a surprise. I answered it and it was Bruce, a fishing buddy of my Dad’s, though considerably younger. Bruce was a veteran of the Korean “Conflict” and was getting on his feet in Hamilton as a jack-of-all trades. Bruce was always enthusiastic but that afternoon he was bubbling out of himself. He said we had to come and see what he had in the back of his truck. When we walked down the little hill that was our driveway, he hauled a large garbage can off the back of his truck, took off the top, and there in the bottom of it was the ugliest turtle I’d ever seen. “Turtle soup tonight! Gonna take it out to the N-camps and sell it for dinner. They love turtle soup. I’ll get maybe $20 for this baby.” I heard later on he’d taken $10 for the turtle and that they were “real appreciative.”

I think about these stories now and just shake my head. All these events happened in a context of unquestioning acceptance. Only once do I ever remember a voice raised against an epithet; otherwise, no voice raised against an unkindness bragged about, no voice raised to question the treatment of the pickers, no voice raised to offer comfort or clothing, or anything to ease what must have been an awful existence. This was simply the way things were in Hamilton. We had our roles. We lived them out. The few experiences I had were solidly framed by racial stereotypes – Samuel the athlete, Charlie the dancing drum major, turtle soup for dinner, and the poor people in the world lived somewhere else. It wasn’t until after I’d left for college that dialogue and eventual confrontation began to challenge public attitude with regard to the racial attitudes and oppressive behaviors that were present right there in our little community. And I suspect that was only because Colgate had begun to admit a wider range of students without, of course, realizing that the world was changing and students of color were arriving with a different attitude about what constituted proper behavior between and among themselves and white folks. In the same year that Colgate established a Black Student Union, armed graduate students took over the administration building at Cornell University to demand academic rights and support services heretofore denied them.

Change was in the air. It was about time.

Chapter Two. Race Becomes The Window

Chapter Two.

Images In My Brain

Questions Out Of My Heart.

Race Becomes The Window

There are many ways I could have come at this issue of privilege, many positions I could have taken to deconstruct the privilege I embody in my teaching role as a white male. I could have looked at privilege in terms of economic privilege. In my early years of teaching, my seventh and eighth graders “came from nothing,” as I might even have said at that point in my life. I was educated into teaching at a time when poverty equated with cultural deprivation. Thus with Ray and Bobby, Moses and Christine, Mary, Della, Mart, and others, I could easily have spoken from my teacher self said they came from very little with respect to worthwhile prior experience. I accepted that framing of their lives.

I could have looked at my maleness and the power that carried with it as I worked my way into school systems. After a scant three years of teaching in the schools of my first and only city school system, the director of personnel told me I was in line for an assistant principalship. What was that all about? I think my gender had something to do with it although at the time, I just figured it was because I was a good teacher. Being a good teacher naturally meant I’d make a good principal. Easy equation. It didn’t dawn on me that there might be some additional preparation necessary to be a good assistant principal! It was all about perceived competence and being able to control kids and gender had a lot to do with all of that. Voice, size, ability to challenge, threaten, back it up. But I was blind to any of that analysis at the time. It was just as natural that my elementary teachers were all female and my secondary math and science teachers, male. Likewise, it was natural that my high school administrators were male and my elementary principal was female. It was natural to me that all my college professors were male. Men were wise. Men were smart. Men held the keys to the kingdom. Women “manned’ the offices and postal rooms and food courts and dining hall kitchens. Clearly, knowledge about gender bias in social institutions was unknown to me. Gender was not a window through which I connected inequality and privilege.

My first sighting of the relationship between privilege and inequalities happened through a very different window and happened when I was quite young. Even now I can remember that at the time what I felt was profound, and filled with dissonance. What I did not know at the time is that the particular window that worked for me would be the window that would eventually take hold of my consciousness as the single most important nexus of inequality, power, and privilege our nation could offer. That inequity is the inequity bred from racial prejudice. Race became the social justice lynchpin for me and the narrow conceptual window through which privilege and power and control and oppression all began to make sense.

My awareness of race prejudice as the most divisive issue tearing at the fabric of our democracy occurred for me when I wasn’t yet using the tens column to write my age. My awareness was enflamed as much by strong emotions as it was by intellectual understanding. I believe this event held such power for me for so many years is because my introduction to racial prejudice was an visual event of 9.4 on the Richter scale. What I saw and simultaneously concluded was seared into my cognitive apparatus where it remains almost as powerfully entrenched to this day.

First occurrences can be like that. First occurrences when they are accompanied by powerful emotions get burned into the psyche. Chemically, the connections are made in a way that any future occurrences, similar enough to recall the first, will trigger the felt emotions of the first impression. Thus, the new event is experienced with close to the same high emotional energy of the ancient first impression.

Recent unpacking of the physiology of emotions in the cognitive processing of information suggests this is the case. The fight or flight response happens deep in the mid brain in a place called the amygdala formation. The amygdala is responsible for sending emergency warning signals to other parts of the brain that demand immediate reaction. Like the startle reaction from a fire alarm ringing three feet from your ear, when the amygdala calls, you go. Only milliseconds later does cognition mediate what’s going on. The first impression is reaction. Thought comes later. Fleeing the reach of a famished saber tooth tiger is more important to our specie’s survival than thinking, “Now what should I do here with this large tiger who appears to be looking at me as if I’d make a nice meal?” By the time we’d taken a reflective pause to answer that question, the tiger would have her fill.

Here’s one Rathbone example of what I mean.

When I was nine years old, Dana Walker and I were playing “Catch” in front of Dana’s house. Growing up, Dana was one of my few playmates whose home I could walk to. I grew up “in the country” as we said. The only boys I played with were Dana, who lived a quarter mile up the dirt road, and Stuart, who lived a half mile over the hill that rose from the dirt road just behind my home. I crossed the same small spring fed stream on my way to either house. Dana’s Mom was a homemaker, his Dad worked at the local weekly newspaper. I held the impression their family struggled a bit. Their old farmhouse showed it. Dana had absolutely the best hay barn for swinging and jumping and rough-housing. I knew it was a great barn because my Mom told me to stay out of it whenever I left to journey up the road to Dana’s house, without exception! I wasn’t there the day the swinging rope broke and Dana broke his arm but my Mother didn’t have to say, “I told you so!” for that event to register. I knew. The generally un-mowed portions of Dana’s property, replete with ancient climbable apple trees, meant there were great spots for two active boys to play cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, or whatever good guy/bad guy American myth we happened to be playing out on that day. This day, it was baseball. Of course it was also part of my ongoing education about how privilege operated and who had power and who didn’t, but like the lessons on gender, it was years before I’d even have a clue as to the social positioning that was happening in that barn and in and among the apple trees. Even more so, between Dana and myself.

Dana had an old Beagle named Pal. Pal was always kept in the house because he occasionally decided to be a mean old Beagle so I never saw him much until this day. Dana’s younger brother Robby – isn’t it always the younger brother? – let Pal out of the house, unbeknownst to Dana and I. Dana knocked one past me and as I was bending over to pick it up, Pal charged me from behind and nailed me good right in my goodie locker. It hurt, I was bleeding, and I was mightily embarrassed when his Mom ordered me to drop my pants so she could see the damage done. Well, if blood spent and damage done were somehow equal, there was enough damage done to scare us all! Dana’s Mom called my Mom, my Mom jumped in our ’41 gray Plymouth coupe and picked me up, and down we went to see my father, the doctor. He was a kidney specialist but at this point in his career he was mostly the university physician at Colgate University. Same routine with the pants. He took one look, went for the smelly antiseptic liquid green soap, and simultaneously started to whistle and wash me off. By this time in my life, I knew to beware whenever I heard that whistle. But that’s a story for another time. Oh how I hated that dog. As the burning of that soap ebbed and flowed, my hate for Pal only increased.

The point I’m getting to here is that even today, I am shall we say, “unfond” of Beagles, especially Beagles with graying whiskers. I can smell them coming! It could be the gentlest dog in the world but the amygdalic juices that seared the dogbite/old beagle/embarrassment/burning soap connection into my cognitive structure still fires up today when a Beagle and I meet eye to eye. I have to consciously stay present because a whole bunch of hard wired neural synapses flash, “Cover up and get the hell out of there”. The power of first impressions. The hard wired, emotion seared physiological reality of dramatic first impressions stay with us forever. That’s why my first encounter with race is so present in my life over fifty years later.

Reconstructing Why

I keep coming back to these images. All are experienced. All are “felt.” They effect emotional impact in my heart, my viscera, my breathing, all together at one time.

This picture of police, uniformed and plain clothes, a trained German Shepard, and a “colored man from the South” is one of them (Figure One). There are many more. Americans beaten, set upon by animals trained to kill, fire hosed, screamed at, gestured to. This was the time of the civil rights movement in the United States. It was my high school and college years. 1955 through 1968. From thirteen years old to twenty-six years of age. These were my formative years. My social consciousness, begun by my Mom, provided for by my Dad, augmented by my first church, placed in perspective by Prof. Lindley, was forged by the searing intensity of these images.

This morning I woke up at 339am. And the images started reeling through my head, once again. I lived about a mile and a half from town. We didn’t have a television until somewhat late in my growing up life. Maybe 1957. It was a steel black and white “portable” with a long, slender chrome handle on top. Two tone. Cream and some kind of redish brown. Another thing Dad brought home late one on his return from the biweekly sojourn to his NYC upper west side office. I never saw it enter our home. It was just there when I got up the next day. It sat in the living room protected by its protective plastic wrap for weeks. It was there I watched the flickering images of an unfolding American history that didn’t make sense to me.

There was another source of images in my young life, images that didn’t make sense to me that I cannot forget. One particular image haunts me to this day. That image was in an oversized, illustrated book of American history : pictures, woodcuts, broadsides, and drawings and text from colonial times onward that my parents had on our “library” bookshelf. Lest this word “library” conjure up visions of oak paneled sitting rooms, smoking jackets, and cigars, our library was really a small sitting room that tied the old and new parts of our converted country farmhouse. The room had two easy chairs, a huge window that faced south, and was shelved on the bottom half of the walls and the adjacent walls that framed that window. The oversized red book sat on its side on one of those lower shelves hidden and almost purposely out of the way. I would take it out and leaf through it, reading the text and reading the pictures. It was a surprisingly comprehensive documentary of America’s history. My brother has it now. And though a little jealous, I’m glad it remains within the family. My memory tells me that in that book, somewhere was a picture of a lynching.

This may be the one. As an even younger child, I kept returning to this picture. Staring at it. Fascinated with the horror of it and wondering, how could this be. How could people do this to one another. What had these black me done. Look at the faces of those white people. How could they be there, do that. They look happy. How was that possible. This is a scene of obscenity, horror. It was awful. I couldn’t stop looking at what they had done. And the evidence of this picture would indicate neither could they.

I remember distinctly having the same feeling that I did later on in life when I would look at what we used to call “scantily clothed women,” a phrase used before Lenny Bruce and the courts began the unfinished journey of defining what we now call “pornography”. I literally felt that I wasn’t supposed to be looking at this. I remember having to remember to breathe while looking at the lynching. I felt guilty. There was something wrong with what I was doing. My mother and father, for that matter, wouldn’t like me leafing through that book. I felt like there were pictures and words in there that I wasn’t supposed to see. They would be angry at me for viewing what must have been something like a secret. A horrible secret. A horrible secret best left shut away in the red oversized book that lay on one of the lower shelves in that small sitting room we called a library.

In these early experiences of peeking through that book, I gathered within a visceral fascination to the elements of degradation and horror and power and oppression that we now fit ever so neatly into a concept called politely “social justice.” These two words roll so effortlessly off our tongues. Social justice. The impulse to right the wrongs of society, to make our lives better for everyone, equal protection before the law, equal opportunity, ensuring high outcomes for all students no exceptions, no excuses. It seems to me now the impulse was so much more primal and basic than that. No more terrorizing and mutilation and killing of human beings and no more police actions that put dogs on people to keep them in line.

The first moments my eyes gazed upon those hangings were definitional for me. This is why social justice work for me is first and foremost anti-racism work. This is why I still believe that everyone in this country has to understand the deep, deep rooting that racism, personal and institutional, has in this country. This is why I believe all the other reasons we do social justice work must originate in the struggle for racial equality in this country. My social conscience, my sense of social justice, my understanding of the absurdity of race as a biological concept are entirely fused together because of the impact that one image had on me. What I understand now is that the red book and its attendant image of the lynching became the window through which my concept and definition of social justice originated.

I can see it now where I didn’t see it before. My fascination with the images that beamed out of the American south in the late fifties and early sixties, the images of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the burning buses of the Freedom Riders, the pictures of the Black college students sitting at the Woolworth lunch counters, the iconic photos of the hundreds who marched from Selma to Montgomery, the pictures of King speaking at the great Washington Rally, the tilted black and whites of the kids standing down Bull Connor’s fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama, Malcolm X sprawled on the floor of that Harlem Ballroom, I stared at them all, all because of my fascination with that original image of the two tortured souls swinging in the tree, dangling above the white mob. I stared at them all despite the fact that this little kid didn’t want to be found out that he was looking at something I would now call America’s dirty pictures.

There were other early experiences that affected my particular reaction to these pictures, for sure. Mom was fair and good to most everyone she came in contact with and she clearly expected that from me. Dad the kidney surgeon was paid in collections of eggs left at our front door or hand made seven-piece bamboo fly fishing rods given to him by patients who couldn’t afford to pay for his services in money. And of course there were the ladies of the First Baptist Church who left no doubt on Sunday morning or Wednesday afternoon Church School that Christians were to be always good and kind to everyone, and that we young ones should take up and live the golden rule or for sure there would be hell to pay.

These occurrences in my life were just everyday life. Nothing out of the ordinary. But the images of unnatural, undeserved, and most certainly horrible and excruciatingly painful death and juxtaposed celebration were wholly unordinary to me. My viewing of them was like the historical record had smacked me across the face and dropped a symbolic leather glove of challenge. My eyesight caused my concept of America to shift, and kept bringing me back again and again to those two bodies swinging in the tree, silently voicing my growing sense that injustice was present and alive and very much a part of America’s history. No one said it better than Billy Holiday.

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Music and lyrics by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol), @1940.

My mind wanted to proclaim this cannot be, this isn’t right, not in America. This happens elsewhere, not here. And yet, this was here. These photos are not from South Africa or Brazil or even those places that existed for me only as photo essays in the National Geographic Magazine, places like Madagascar or Tahiti or Brazil or Timbuktu. In seventh grade we’d memorized the Preamble to the Constitution and the beginning of the Bill of Rights. These pictures, these images gave lie to those words. It didn’t make sense to me. It wasn’t right. I don’t remember talking about it at all in school. My friends didn’t talk about it. My dialogue was an inner dialogue. My family never spoke about the Civil Rights struggle in America, or anyplace else for that matter. The only peace advocate who’s name I ever heard mentioned was Mahatma Ghandi, and then it was just that my mother had strong feelings about his simple white wraps. And though it was years before I finally figured out what my response to those pictures needed to be, the die had clearly been cast, and significantly for me, the die was a visual die, the die was pictures, not words.

Privilege, and its attendant capacity to have power and influence and control, even to death, of those without it, first emerged as an idea worth taking apart through the window of understanding provided by those images. Race and privilege were related. If you were of the Black race (“race” wouldn’t achieve its rightful place as a socially constructed concept for another fifteen years), then white people had power and control over all aspects of your life. That power and control was grounded in white privilege, something I clearly possessed but something I didn’t know I possessed and if I had known it, I surely wouldn’t have wanted it. But at the time, I didn’t know that just because I didn’t want something didn’t mean I wasn’t to have it. Like it or not, I had it. I couldn’t get rid of it. The trick was to figure out what to do with it. But it took me another forty years and many much more experience that I had to learn from and many people who know it or not, served as my teachers and helped me figure that one out.

It’s amazing how clear these very same images are to me even today. Damn. It’s almost fifty years since the Boycott. They are icons that define to me why I do what I do. Even today, when my focus on the purpose of my work dims or gets fuzzy, or gets replaced by other inclinations, or just gets buried under a pile of committee driven, multi-tasked responsibilities, the lynchings will themselves into my consciousness at the oddest times: on a run, on the walk to work, in the middle of a class, while someone else is talking. I can hear the voices. I see the gathering, I hear the screams of torture. They are always there, even now, in my cognitive matrix, quietly insistent, urging my attention. Don’t forget. Don’t forget us. Do something about this. Everyone White in America should do something about this. We cannot do this alone. Don’t you see. This is the power we have. We are dead. This is what we are trying to tell you. We die in vane if you fail us. This is our burden and your legacy. You have to end this. You.

It took me a long time to find my place in the movement, and even longer to understand what my place should be, and the longest time of all to know what I could change, what I couldn’t, and what I wanted to do about all that.

The JoHari Window of Interpersonal Awareness

Johari Window

Go to the link to see the actual window. If you prefer to use your imagination, imagine a 2×2 matrix defined horizontally by these two categories: Known to self and Not known to self.

defined vertically by these two categories: Known to others and Not known to others.

Label the top two cells from left to right cell one and cell two .

Label the bottow two cells from left to right cell three and cell four.

Each cell has a name.

Cell one = open awareness

Cell two = blind awareness

Cell three = hidden awareness

Cell four = unknown awareness.

Read on. From

The Johari Window, named after the first names of its inventors, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, is one of the most useful models describing the process of human interaction. A four paned “window,” as illustrated above, divides personal awareness into four different types, as represented by its four quadrants: open, hidden, blind, and unknown. The lines dividing the four panes are like window shades, which can move as an interaction progresses.

In this model, each person is represented by their own window. Let’s describe mine:

1. The “open” quadrant represents things that both I know about myself, and that you know about me. For example, I know my name, and so do you, and if you have explored some of my website, you know some of my interests. The knowledge that the window represents, can include not only factual information, but my feelings, motives, behaviors, wants, needs and desires… indeed, any information describing who I am. When I first meet a new person, the size of the opening of this first quadrant is not very large, since there has been little time to exchange information. As the process of getting to know one another continues, the window shades move down or to the right, placing more information into the open window, as described below.

2. The “blind” quadrant represents things that you know about me, but that I am unaware of. So, for example, we could be eating at a restaurant, and I may have unknowingly gotten some food on my face. This information is in my blind quadrant because you can see it, but I cannot. If you now tell me that I have something on my face, then the window shade moves to the right, enlarging the open quadrant’s area. Now, I may also have blindspots with respect to many other much more complex things. For example, perhaps in our ongoing conversation, you may notice that eye contact seems to be lacking. You may not say anything, since you may not want to embarrass me, or you may draw your own inferences that perhaps I am being insincere. Then the problem is, how can I get this information out in the open, since it may be affecting the level of trust that is developing between us? How can I learn more about myself? Unfortunately, there is no readily available answer. I may notice a slight hesitation on your part, and perhaps this may lead to a question. But who knows if I will pick this up, or if your answer will be on the mark.

3. The “hidden” quadrant represents things that I know about myself, that you do not know. So for example, I have not told you, nor mentioned anywhere on my website, what one of my favorite ice cream flavors is. This information is in my “hidden” quadrant. As soon as I tell you that I love “Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia” flavored ice cream, I am effectively pulling the window shade down, moving the information in my hidden quadrant and enlarging the open quadrant’s area. Again, there are vast amounts of information, virtually my whole life’s story, that has yet to be revealed to you. As we get to know and trust each other, I will then feel more comfortable disclosing more intimate details about myself. This process is called: “Self-disclosure.”

4. The “unknown” quadrant represents things that neither I know about myself, nor you know about me. For example, I may disclose a dream that I had, and as we both attempt to understand its significance, a new awareness may emerge, known to neither of us before the conversation took place. Being placed in new situations often reveal new information not previously known to self or others. For example, I learned of the Johari window at a workshop conducted by a Japanese American psychiatrist in the early 1980’s. During this workshop, he created a safe atmosphere of care and trust between the various participants. Usually, I am terrified of speaking in public, but I was surprised to learn that in such an atmosphere, the task need not be so daunting. Prior to this event, I had viewed myself and others had also viewed me as being extremely shy. (The above now reminds me of a funny joke, which I cannot refrain from telling you. It is said that the number one fear that people have is speaking in public. Their number two fear is dying. And the number three fear that people have, is dying while speaking in public.) Thus, a novel situation can trigger new awareness and personal growth. The process of moving previously unknown information into the open quadrant, thus enlarging its area, has been likened to Maslow’s concept of self-actualization. The process can also be viewed as a game, where the open quadrant is synonymous with the win-win situation.

Much, much more has been written on the Johari window model of human interaction. The process of enlarging the open quadrant is called self-disclosure, a give and take process between me and the people I interact with. Typically, as I share something about myself (moving information from my hidden quadrant into the open) and if the other party is interested in getting to know me, they will reciprocate, by similarly disclosing information in their hidden quadrant. Thus, an interaction between two parties can be modeled dynamically as two active Johari windows. For example, you may respond to my disclosure that I like “Cherry Garcia” by letting me know what your favorite ice cream is, or where a new ice cream shop is being built, kinds of information in your hidden quadrant. Incidentally, it is fattening, so be careful on how much you eat!

We believe disclosure to be healthy, at least that’s the impression one gets after reading Freud. However, Anita Kelly recently wrote that self-disclosure of personal secrets has its dangers. We are often better off not telling secrets regarding our sexual behavior, mental health problems or large-scale failures. “If you give people information about yourself, you give them power over you,” she says. Monica Lewinsky’s disclosure to Linda Tripp and the ensuing scandal that enveloped President Clinton is a case in point. Be forewarned that most secrets get passed along to at least two more parties. People also misjudge how others respond to secrets. Sometimes you get negative feedback. For example, a women who reveals that she was raped may be seen in the future as a victim, or by men as damaged goods. Now, if you must tell your secret to someone, chose that person very carefully. Chose someone whose response will give you some insight into your problem. Unfortunately, such a person is often hard to find. So if you cannot find anyone appropriate, consider this: that keeping secrets is healthy and tasteful, because it is a way of managing your identity, and indicates you are secure and have self-control. But it takes energy, because you have to be on constant guard not to accidentally reveal something that is potentially damaging.

As ones level of confidence and self esteem develops, one may actively invite others to comment on one’s blind spots. A teacher may seek feedback from students on the quality of a particular lecture, with the desire of improving the presentation. Active listening skills are helpful in this endeavor. On the other hand, we all have defenses, protecting the parts of ourselves that we feel vulnerable. Remember, the blind quadrant contains behavior, feelings and motivations not accessible to the person, but which others can see. Feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, impotence, unworthiness, rejection, guilt, dependency, ambivalence for loved ones, needs to control and manipulate, are all difficult to face, and yet can be seen by others. To forcibly reveal what another wishes not to see, is “psychological rape,” and can be traumatic. Fortunately, nature has provided us with a variety of defense mechanisms to cope with such events, such as denial, ignoring, rationalizing, etc.

The Johari window, essentially being a model for communication, can also reveal difficulties in this area. In Johari terms, two people attempt to communicate via the open quadrants. On the simplest level, difficulties may arise due to a lack of clarity in the interaction, such as poor grammar or choice of words, unorganized thoughts, faulty logic etc. This induces the receiver to criticize you, the sender, by revealing something that was in your blind quadrant. Then, if the feedback works, you correct it immediately, or perhaps on a more long term approach take a course in reading and writing. On a deeper level, you may be in a group meeting, and while you secretly sympathize with the minority viewpoint, you voted with the majority. However, blind to you, you actually may be communicating this information via body language, in conflict with your verbal message. On an even deeper level, you in an interaction with others, may always put on a smiling, happy face, hiding all negative feelings. By withholding negative feelings, you may be signaling to your friends to withhold also, and keep their distance. Thus, your communication style may seem bland or distant.

And let’s not forget the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Our society is constructed so that many of us get very specialized, knowing only a small academic field very well, while being virtually ignorant of all others. This specialization is blinding many of us to what is happening in the world today. According to R. Buckminister Fuller, this system of education was done on purpose, to channel the most intelligent people into specialties, enabling them to be more easily controlled. Noam Chomsky has made similar comments with regards to the manufacturing enterprise, and how Adam Smith’s writings have been purposely misrepresented. See my webpage On Education.

In the construction of this website, I am putting more of my knowledge into the open quadrant. I am consciously using the Johari model to improve my awareness of the world. If you see one of my blind spots, please feel free to contact me, and let me know!


Luft, Joseph (1969). “Of Human Interaction,” Palo Alto, CA:National Press, 177 pages.

Kelly, Anita E. and McKillop, Kevin J. (1996), “Consequences of Revealing Personal Secrets.” Psychological Bulletin, v120(3), pg. 450 .

Roan, Shari (1996). “Our secrets are spilling out all over,” Los Angeles Times

External Links: Annenberg BOLA Contact

Last updated 26 April 1999

Copyright © 1999 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.


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The hidden curriculum of hesitation

Haven’t posted much in a while. Been involved with a fascinating round of Doctoral dissertation defenses as well as Master’s orals. I think I’ve got most of the necessary stories down. It’s hard work shaping the overall text which is the major effort at hand…narrowing down the concept for each chapter and the specific themes that flow from that concept. And finally, trimming and/or expanding the narratives to fit the overall whole. I’ve spent a week creating several entries to the book, entries that take the form either of an introduction or an actual first chapter. Today, i think I nailed the first chapter, at least with enough specificity to allow me to go on to chapter two. I’m poking around in the area of maximum blindness for me – that area that other folks would see exceptionally well. It’s a bit nerve wracking. My good friend Andrew suggested I write about my feelings given the fact that if I were having these feelings, other people, white people particularly, might be similarly inhibited by feelings similar to mine. Unpacking mine might help them unpack theirs. We move in duo… . This ended up as C1 – the hidden curriculum of hesitation.

Oh yeah, I’ll also try to post JoHari’s window. If I can’t do the window, at least I can do a link. It’s an old gem!

Feelings Before I Write.

Should I Really Be Doing This?

The Hidden Curriculum of Hesitation.

I think I’m on the white hot edge of writing honest thoughts writers describe as the point of no return. Deciding to share what I have written is not without it own special form of panic. If the real truth be known, I harbor doubts about whether any of what I have to share will be interesting enough to keep a reader reading. I’m not trying to be a well informed pundit here. I’m not writing from the usual place of academic expertise. I’m writing about an area that almost by definition, others know a whole lot better than I do. Q2. Ohhhh yeah. The area of the JoHari Matrix that contains awareness known to others, unknown to self. Starting out writing about events in my life that others know better is downright scary. Maybe also stupid! Why would anyone choose to do that? My doubt is coming through in very uncomfortable feelings.

In my doubt I hear laughter, imagine the sting of personal attack, and feel embarrassed. I encounter my own personification of shame and doubt speaking to me: “Well what did you expect? There are experts in this field. What could you possibly add? What you have to say about working with your own whiteness is neither enough nor is it particularly edifying or even accurate for that matter.” Self doubt dies hard.

The laughter. Some of this laughter comes from Black folks. You’ve read my attempts to come to terms with something that you live and breathe every day. You read my imperfect words, my intellectualizations, my real inability to truly see the effects of my pigmentation on how society perceives and treats you. You laugh because its easier to laugh than cry. You’ve cried enough. Your laughter is a sardonic laughter that acknowledges 10,000 stories by people like me can’t do anything about your. Give it up, you say. It don’t mean a thing.

I worry about personal attacks from all sides. Blacks will attack me for being so numb for so long. How could I not act with all that was around me, right in front of my eyes. I saw all these injustices going on and still I chose to work within the system. What a honkey! (Is that word still used?) They will say I am weak and without courage because I chose to work in only safe places. I am unworthy of respect. From Whites, the attacks will come from two directions. The first attack will be from what I think is the more conservative, essentialist side. They will tell me I’m out of my mind. What I’m describing is just the product of an overactive imagination. Prejudice and bias are part of the human condition. They will say its just so much navel gazing to try to separate myself and see my behavior as influenced by privilege. I’m spend way too much time dreaming up things that aren’t there. They would encourage me to get a real job.

Liberal whites, expecially those who are already considerably knowledgeable about White privilege, will join in as well. They also will not believe it took me so long to see what was right under my eyes for most of my life. And now that I’m at least aware of some of the effects I have on others for what I am (not who I am) it’s way too late to mean much of anything to anyone, certainly them. Others have gone way beyond where I am in my analytical work. And they’ve done it better and much more comprehensively. Too bad I wasted a career. I might have been half good at this work if I’d started forty years earlier. Too bad I didn’t have a mind, then.

Part of my reticence to share my writing is firmly grounded in my feelings of shame. I will spend some time on the role of alcoholism in my life later on in these stories, but for now, one consequence of my lived life is the rather constant tendency to second guess myself, put myself down, criticize my work as I imagine others might criticize me. So at this moment of clicking on these keys, Mr. Shame has got me by the throat and he’s hissing into my face, “No One Will Care! Your life is mundane, predictable, uninteresting, mindless, even. Don’t You Get IT? Nobody will care what you have to say. You already feel stupid enough. Can’t you imagine how really stupid you’ll feel if you share any of these so-call ideas with anyone! Don’t compound your inabilities by putting yourself out there.” I picture myself agreeing with him, tucking my tail between my legs, and slinking off to my room of “if onlys:” if only I had done this sooner, if only I’d read more expert witnesses, if only I could get it just right, if only, if only, if only.

My feelings are jumbled. The pit of my stomach is a dull ache; not pain really, more a pressure, present and constant. Even my breathing changes when I choose to stay with these feelings for more than a moment. It gets shallow and more rapid. What’s that all about? The little boy in me is wanting acceptance again and he’s scared that putting this out will lead to rejection by my family, my friends, colleagues known, and colleagues unknown. He wants to be loved, not hated.

And yet I realize these feeling, though real enough, are all products of my psychic imagination. What purpose do these psychic questions and barriers serve? Interesting question. Do other White men besides myself who consider the effects of their own whiteness on their careers ever feel the same feelings I do? In the same places? Do they unconsciously rub their solar plexi when the dull numb pressure becomes insistent? What was it like for Paul Gorski? What was it like for Gary Howard? Did they feel weird or have weird feelings when they began their work of writing down their radical racial revelations?

I begin to wonder if the terrain is so unsettling, so unknown, that the project is in actuality, quite a big risk and the feelings, therefore, more natural. I also begin to think that because I have these feelings, the topic is an important one to write about. If I have these feelings, what about all the other teachers of no color who desperately want to do something about how teachers unknowingly promote social injustice in the classroom but can’t quite get a handle on how to go about it. They, too, may have these feelings.

Maybe any white person would experience a psychic tremble at the thought of jumping into this discussion of participation in constructing our country’s racial past and present. After all, it wasn’t too long ago the racialized beings in the world were THEM, not Me. What they hell am I doing trying to turn the THEM into ME. I’m reminded of something Shirley Hill once said about a white gospel choir in which I sang. She commented to a

friend, “Now, they even want to take this away from us. It just makes me so damn mad.”

Now I was pretty clear how that comment made me feel. Guilty. And worse than any old guilt, it was White guilt. Here I was trying to enjoy myself, sing with the spirit, even project an appreciation for the gospel music so many Black singers and congregations had brought to us and Shirley gets to the utter core of her reality and accuses us of stealing. Accuses me of stealing. Stealing! Me!

Those feelings in the pit of my stomach, the psychic tremble when thinking about jumping into the discussion of my certain historical collaboration in constructing the institution of our country’s racism, maybe these are all just other kinds of signs of my own guilt. “Good intentions, excused.” That’s what Albert Ellis said the function of guilt was. Feeling bad about not doing something about an issue, a situation, a certain context you know should be different but you just haven’t gotten around to do something about it. Feeling guilty lets me off the hook. That’s the snapshot Ellis would make of these dynamics.

When I write about how privilege has framed my perceptions, choices and behavior, I begin to see my complicity in keeping me on top and others not on top. Not necessarily consciously (although there have been times when I have knowingly used my privilege to gain advantage for me or my family), but effectively nonetheless. The guilt comes when I choose to go beyond the blinders of my white world and acknowledge how others have to live and how our system of political power works to keep inside groups influential and self-serving and groups on the outside, ineffectual and powerless.

What is so interesting about this position, and perhaps even key to removing myself from the guilt spotlight is my fuller realization that I’m here by the roll of some genetic dice. Regardless of my skin color or place of origin eons ago, my biological parents borned me into the upper middle class professional culture of the borough of Manhattan in New York City and my skin pigmentation guaranteed me sure access to all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities there of.

I know I have a racial past as well as a racial present and racial future. My white guilt knows my contribution to it. My unquestioned, unrecognized, and if I keep to my own kind successfully, unchallenged contributions. When I make that step into the spotlight, then I have to rationalize complicity in everything from growing up on stolen land to daily letting others witness injustice to knowingly allowing racially biased instructional events pass unnoticed in my classroom because I need to get on with other subtleties of content. Let me tell you, staying out of the spotlight, hiding in the murkey shadows of awareness that define unexamined systemic racism is a whole lot more comfortable to do, especially because I am the dominant culture and the dominant culture sets the standard for what’s right, proper, and spozed to be. Plus, I don’t have to feel guilty in those shadowy places of unexamined behavior. “Just do it!” is a catchy phrase. Live your life. Don’t worry, be happy. Well, happiness all depends upon whose “it” you are just doing. Just doing my “it” comes at great expense to all those people shoes “it” is excluded by my “it.” And because they are on the outside looking in, they are a whole lot more aware of what my “it” looks like than I am.

So coming to terms with the way my own whiteness, male whiteness, even, a double whammy in terms of privilege, means I have to begin to live within a brutally honest zone of self definition in order to be clear about who I am, the who I want to be, and how I want to represent myself to others. Most particularly, to the other younger white versions of my self who are thinking they might want to be teachers someday.

That honesty plays out something like this. The truth of the matter is I’ve never slurred anyone racially. The truth of the matter is I didn’t advocate for separate but equal facilities in 1894. I didn’t cause black army units to be segregated in 1942. I didn’t make decisions that gave young black learners outdated facilities and decades old schoolbooks in 1936. I didn’t sell anyone into slavery from the Charleston Slave Market. And for damn sure, I haven’t thrown any ropes over tree branches to lynch anyone across the entire 350 years of domination by people of my skin color of our darker skinned counterparts. I haven’t avoided public facilities used by Black Americans or people of any other ethnic group for that matter. I haven’t ignored or hurt children in school because of their skin color. I make it a point to say hello to everyone I pass, especially people who I think might appreciate the recognition and greeting. The list could be endless. Its point is that I have not been responsible for past grievances.

Except for one thing. Look at that litany of “haven’ts.” The events that ring truest are those that are historically placed. I wasn’t alive when they happened. I hear this a lot from my students these days. Racism isn’t my problem. I wasn’t alive when all those awful things happened! But guess what? We are alive now. Institutionalized racism is part of the fabric that defines the ways in which we are all living together right now in this country, all of us. It’s absolutely true I didn’t cause anything to happen before I was a mote of DNA. It’s also absolutely true that I am most surely a participant in all the ways systemic racism augers to keep me on top politically, economically, socially, and even it might be argued, professionally, now. Dominance has been confirred on me, as Peggy McIntosh so aptly suggests. Power, whether I sought it or not, is mine to wield. And the standards of what’s spozed to be, were set by people who look a lot like me.

So this shifts the white guilt dilemma just a bit, since I’m being brutally honest. The greatest guilt to be had in all this is not the guilt felt from my historical past, but the guilt felt from my failure to act in the historical present! And that means stepping into the spotlight. Is claiming to have avoided public facilities used by Black Americans really mine to say? Is claiming not to have ignored or hurt children in school really my judgment to make? And that saying hello thing. Who’s to say my making sure I say hello to Black students on campus especially is appreciated by them? Maybe they get really tired of having to make me feel good by responding back? Once I acknowledge the fact that just because I judge a situation to be right in a certain well meaning way, doesn’t mean it’s in fact, right! My Black friends might receive my actions in quite a different way than the way I intended them.

What this means for me, of course, is that the world under my feet suddenly, for as long as I choose to stay in that spotlight, shifts composition from bedrock to ooze. My footholds are reality shift dramatically. I can never again infer that what’s right for me will have beneficial consequences for my students, for example, especially my students of color. Certainty becomes a negotiated reality. What I can hope for is an agreement that some portion of what I declare may have a kind of universal truth to it, but I have to be ready to understand that from another perspective, the some portion looms large. They will have their portion of truth as well.

Standing in that spotlight of white awareness means I acknowledge myself as a multicultural being, one among many, not a representative of the standard around which all things are judged and enforced. Standing in the spotlight means I stand less as an expert but more as a witness to my own place in this really interesting world and in my witnessing what it is like to be me, comes my kinship with others as they work to define their place in their own particular spotlight. My witnessing means I am an ally and a friend, but not a participant in your reality. The only reality we can participate in is the one we create together in our present and future moments.

Maybe Shirley would say the same about these efforts of mine. “Leave the analysis of racism to us.” You caused it with your history of deliberate lawmaking and mindless adherence to the racial totem pole. You can’t possibly figure yourself out. Leave it alone. Let it be. Don’t mess with what you can’t change. She makes me think maybe it’s plain wrong for to take on this deconstruction of my racial past. This process is best left to those who have a racial past. You haven’t a clue. Leave the deconstruction to us. Let us alone. Don’t stir things up.”

But that doesn’t sound right to me even in this state of sweaty hesitation. Shirley’s is old thinking, right for a time perhaps, and maybe even still right for now in circumstances that are more safely viewed from a far away distance. Leaving the work of deconstructing racism up to the descendents of the African diaspora has a necessary protective quality to it, especially (I imagine) for Black Americans who are reminded of their separate status by daily acts of maginalization that happen again and again and again. What is it the T-Shirt slogan says? “I made it through another day.”

But that attitude won’t help us move along together and from my privileged perspective, doing this work separately has only kept us separate. Retreating to our separate lunchroom tables helps us lick our wounds and helps us recharge our own separate group identities. But not working on this together won’t help us figure out what’s going on between us. Retreating to our separate lunchroom tables won’t help us learn how to live together, work together, play together, argue together, be honest with one another together.

What’s kicked me over the edge now – in terms of race – is simply realizing what it was I had to do through the intervention of a model. Of course it helps to know something of the academics of White studies. But that’s natural. I am an academic. But I can do that and never get out of my reading chair. Worse, I can learn all that stuff and keep it in my head, and never behave differently except by telling everyone how much I know. But that isn’t the point, at least it isn’t the point for what many of the black students I’ve read would have me do. The point is not to be an expert in the field, but to be expert in myself. What is important is to know my story from the vantage point of race and privilege, to be able to share it comfortably or uncomfortably in class so that I prepare the way ahead for others in my class to do the same thing. That’s what I’m told makes a classroom safe and honors the contributions of others. Getting up close and personal about what happened to me, what I learned from those experiences, and how that learning changed and deepened over the years as I learned more is what I should be doing. That’s the point. Forget the demons that sap my courage. Just tell them my stories and what I’ve learned from them. Introduce them, tell them, interpret them as best I can, and leave them open for others to ponder. That’s what I can do best.

The purpose of this book is not to put that past and present into an abstract context. The purpose of this book is to show what I learned from this past and how it affected my teaching what I’m learning about this past now and how I am bringing that into my teaching. I think I’m the best teacher I ever was right now in my career. I think many of my students would agree with me. I think this is so because the reflection on my racialist past informs decisions I make as I teach today. I’m not saying I’ve arrived or that I’m the world’s greatest teacher. I am saying that consciously attending to my racialist past makes me do different things today in my classes. This story may be useful for other teachers who continually work to get better at this craft. There are a lot of us out there and I think we could afford to communicate with each other more than we do. This book, despite my feelings of uncertainty, is my attempt to do so.

In all actuality, when that little boy goes back into his room and my adult side reasserts itself, when I put Old Mr. Shame back in his chair, I hope that what I have to say stirs controversy. I hope others do get incensed about how long it took me or how blind I was or how little I really understood about being in the role of “other” in this American culture. Advancing the dialogue about how racism formed the approach to teaching of one white teacher in this American society may be a very good thing. Showing how one white teacher got smarter about his whiteness over the years and changed his teaching will be a very good thing. Advancing the dialogue about where white teachers stand in the face of the ever shifting pigmentation of American society will be a very useful thing. Advancing the dialogue about what white teachers can do in the face of the ever shifting pigmentation of American society will be a very useful thing.

I’m the only one that can do that. No one else can do this work about me. Only I can do this work about me. Will it benefit others? Maybe. Who knows. My task is not to worry about and just tell the stories the best I can. That may be enough. That may plow enough personal terrain that now lies fallow and untouched in other white teachers who can connect to my experiences. Turning it over may permit other stories, their stories, to take root, to become obstacles that get tripped over in their own life terrain. When you trip over something, you tend not to do what led to the tripping, twice. But I can’t decide that. What you do with what I put before you is not my decision. That’s up to you. My job is to identify the yeasty stuff in my life in terms of these issues of race, culture, whiteness and teaching and just tell them the best I can. Just get on with it. Don’t wait ‘til I’m fully awake. I may never be fully awake to all the ways racism and whiteness affects what I do. But I can never be fully asleep again and how that plays out for me now should be worth something to someone.

A working title with chapter headings

Title: Teaching Others / Teaching Self: My life as a teacher.

1. Now.

The girl in class.

Why choose this story to begin? What it shows about the decisions I make and the methods I employ as a teacher.



effects on them, effects on me

Where did I learn all this stuff. What were the influences.

The Roadmap

The Drawing

Significant Points and Surrounding Contexts

Social – the “times” and their effect

Pedagogical – where I learned about teaching

Personal – baggage I brought to the task

Positioning – privileged white male

2. Early programming.

Pictures in the red book.

School memories.

Miss Kendrick’s fourth grade.

The migrant kids.

High School earth science.

Lots of activities.

Throwing up student council experiences.


TV and the Bus Boycott

3. College

Going to college. Boxed in. No choices.




Time of threat.

Growing up in the cold war.

Intellectual growth: the truth of multiple perspectives.

What comes after?

The inevitability of fighting or alternative service after graduation.

The rejection, the bounce, UTPP.

4. Learning to Teach: teaching as a social justice mission


What’s good money?

Marching in Montgomery.



5. The Move To Vermont

Cleveland or Burlington: was this a choice

What informed me then.

early childhood

kindergarten classes


6. Vermont


Political Encroachment

The Standards Board

the promise

the fall

political games in the name of equity

Standards and Curriculum

Barnes: the decision

7. Complex Instruction

working with dottie

data informed

structured inquiry



delegating authority

status – focus where it should be

emphasis on the “all”

it works

the girl in class

empowering my students, empowering me.

8. Epilogue – Uncovering my hidden curriculum

gender and race

what I’ve come to know

the me others say I am

the me I say I am

keeping on, with ever larger senses

contact, relationship, growing through others

re-starting again? or am I stuck…

Was in Florida last week at the JFK Charter school. Having trouble getting my writing feet back under me today. Doing some detail things that saps energy and need to be done. This is hard. Maybe tonight after all is quiet.

I’m not quite sure where to go at this point. Momentum has lagged.

Had another a-ha over the weekend. Had read a wonderful little piece from Vanessa’s loaner, called “Can I Get A Witness: Testimony from a hip hop feminist.” Shani (Jamila) was writing about the seeming conflict for her of being a hip hop (per) and a feminist at the same time. She writes

“They are the two baic things tha mold us. However, we must not confuse having love for either one with blind defense. We have to love them enough to critique both of them and challenge them to grow – beyond the materialism and misogyny that has come to characterize too much of hip hop, beyond the exptermism that feminism sometimes engages in. As women of the hip hop generation we need a feminist consciousness that allows us to examine how representations and images can be simultaneously empowering and problematic.”

The phrase “simultaneously empowering and problematic” really hit me. I wasn’t expecting where it sent me. My mind went right to the core of what I’m trying to do with my writing. That called to mind a conversation with Joel Heir following Suzanne’s oral on Thursday. I was trying to explain to Joel what I was doing and I felt I was really stumbling around, almost apologizing for what I was trying to do. What was that all about? He said something like this in response: So you are trying to write to guys like me and what you are trying to say to us is ,

“Hang in there. There are moments in your life that made you the power that you are today. If you understand them, you’ll invigorate your place and purpose in your piece of our collective struggle for social justice in this country. I’m writing to show you mine and to show you how I’ve come to understand their place in my life’s journey. Knowing they all kind of fit together is at once comforting and inspiring to me. Maybe my journey can spark a greater awareness on your part of your journey and how they person you are now is a kind of culmination of all the good stuff that has come before.”

Awfully wordy. But the idea answers some basic questions…

What’s important to you now?


How did you get here?

What is it you want to accomplish now?

How is this different from other times in your life?

What leaves you with a smile on your face and feeling of having done your “mission” well?

How do you answer the “you” others want to make you?

What’s the difference you see between how you see yourself and how you think others might see you?

How is this true for a privileged white guy? How do you make sense of it? How do you come to peace with it? What would you say to critics?

Oh, here is the a-ha. It goes back to Shani’s “empowering and problematic” comment. I was struck by the realization that all along, I (white male privileged dude) may have been writing this stuff in order to gain acceptance, in order to feel empowered. But its like in the politics of race and gender, I can never really clear the deck, make a clean sweep as it were, of who I am by trying to state clearly once and for all, “Now I understand who I am.” Whatever understanding(s) I arrive at will always be empowering and problematic. I have to understand the problematic nature of them goes with the territory and I don’t think I quite realized that before.

So what this has me thinking is to create a series of responses to paragraphs that from the point of view of African American social critics, are critical of who I represent. My responses would situate the criticisms in my life stories. They would particularlize broad sweeping statements and in the particular personalization, establish a personal meaning for me and perhaps, for others. Maybe the quotes become truth texts to the stories, and part of the stories is my working with the truth texts. Or maybe the quotes introduce sections of several stories that allow me to interpret and ground the meaning of the quote in the particular experience of one man.


The Multiage Years


Multiage Classrooms in Vermont:

Mismatch Comes Home To Roost


When I came to Vermont, I quickly became immersed in the progressive ferment that enveloped Vermont education in the early 1970’s. The Vermont State Board of Education, led by Harvey Scribner, a visionary Commissioner of Education, had adopted a framework for learning called “The Vermont Design for Education.” The Vermont Design publicly put the world on notice that Vermont considered the most facilitative environment for children’s learning in schools to be an environment that was personalized, child centered, and developmental. It was a classroom setting where children were free to pursue learning that was motivated by their own peculiar interests. If a child’s interests could be sparked, promoted, and extended, then with skillful teaching, all else (ie. everything else they needed to know along the way) would follow. This was the era of the Open Classroom.

Across the length and breadth of Vermont, school boards reconsidered the organization of their schools. By the time I made my (first and only) academic home the University of Vermont, so-called open classrooms, complete with integrated curricula, mixed aged family groupings of students, and lots of inquiry based learning were in full swing across the length and breadth of Vermont. Teachers everywhere were encouraged to read the latest publications to emerge from the schools of Leistershire, England. It seems where I was, everyone was scrutinizing the works of John Blackie, Joan Tough, Joseph Featherstone, Vincent Rogers, Casey and Lisa Murrow, Lady Plowden, and Sir Alec Clegg. And it also seemed like everyone, whether they wanted to or not, was studying Jean Piaget.

I thrust myself into the middle of these very exciting times. Weekly my phone would ring. On the other end would be a teacher, or a principal, or a parent asking for perspective, assistance, help. There was great variety in the quality of Open Classroom teaching in Vermont. Smart teachers trained by those in the know created some amazing classroom learning environments. Other smart teachers, dumped into untenable grouping arrangements who knew better than to believe in the magic of what they read, struggled. Well organized open classrooms were seductive places. It all looked so simple. Well functioning rooms were set up with several study areas, kids met to plan their work and solve their conflicts, often two or three times during a day. Visual expression and physical movement as well as the more traditional products of reading and writing defined the learning tasks, and children were busy, busy, busy. In the rooms that worked well, learning was hard and fun and engaging, all at once and for most of the day.

Learning in Multiage

To me, the multiage classroom/family grouping aspect of the open classroom was by far its most interesting component. Unlike those who were drawn to the open classrooms because of their connection with Vermont’s rural one room schools, or those who liked the freedom of choice inherent in the open classroom model, or even those who believed the only good education was an education that gave children direct, hands-on experience with what they were learning, the strongest attribute of well functioning multiage classrooms that spoke to me was the “mismatched” nature of the classroom environment. I interpreted these mixed age groupings of children to be an ideal developmental arrangement of minds when it came to fostering academic learning. My point of view clearly derived from my own teacher education at the hands of my Urban Teacher mentors and the research I’d done with CST during my doctoral program. In addition, I believed most children learned and achieved more in these informal, choice driven, indirect learning settings than settings that were more formal, rigid, and teacher-directed. When these classes functioned well with a proper degree of structure and routine, they were the best of possible school worlds for children. I loved spending time in multiage classrooms where the conceptual development of children hell bent on investigating something of fascination was palpable. When a hush came over the assembled multitudes, I could almost hear the synaptic connections forming.

Multiage classrooms were on an up cycle when I came to higher education. Why? Well, any time schools in the US appear to be in a downward cycle of failure, proposals to change school organization flood the school policy world. The last 60s and 1970s were such a time. Spurred on by Sputnik and driven by an almost paranoid fear of losing the cold war, school reorganization became one more societal change advocated during this era.

The idea of mixed age, family groups children learning together in richly provisioned classrooms held an amazingly powerful symbolic attraction. Don’t forget, this was the era in education over which Jerome Bruner’s invocation that any child could learn any concept if that concept were properly presented (ie. developmentally “tuned”) held sway. This meant, of course, that failure to learn was in reality, mostly a failure to teach. Ideas like older siblings teaching their younger brothers and sisters, family groupings bonded together with warm affection across children of different ages, the emotions being seen as useful in the motivation of cognition (feelings at least accompanying if not provoking thinking, in other words), extended families supporting and nurturing the development of children, close collaborative ties between school and home; well, they were enough to fire anyone’s imagination of what could be and even should be, rather than what was.

Schools were considered in need of renovation from the ground up, animosity between whites and blacks in the cities, continued disparity among rich and poor with respect to school success, all these dynamics drove an increasing strident national call for school reorganization. It didn’t hurt, of course, that news from mother England carried with it stories of school success even in huge industrial coal towns such as Birmingham. The Plowden Report, England’s NCLB act of 1967, an amazingly child-centered document, was read extensively in this country. Surely, if there was a way of schooling that could reach English children, even those from bleak, depressed cities, then such schooling could work here as well, or so the reasoning went. America’s naivety shown forth in its full glory. If the Brits could do it, then we could do it better. It didn’t hurt that urban models in this country, models like Lillian Weber’s Open Corridors Program in the heart of New York City were successful in emulating the ideas if not the actualities of the British Infant Schools. Of course the Open Corridor Program had Lillian Weber, an brilliant translator of the English model to the American reality. Way too many programs were started as implants, driven by our youthful and ignorant enthusiasm for success.

The question that was subtext to all these conversations, of course, was, “In what kind of learning environment do children learn best?” Not a new question in American education. And from the perspective of 2005, perhaps not even the right question to ask. But in 1970, educational research was beginning to use new systems and protocols to think about how to research that question. Computer analysis was just beginning to change the face and facility of educational research, forever during this time. And more complicated computer models and observational protocols that used those computer models were beginning to come on line. I was quite taken by one of these protocols and it gave me an angle on the learning process/achievement (aptitude/treatment interactions) relationship that provided a different kind of insight into the success potential of multiage classrooms. The observational protocol was called Flanders System of Interaction Analysis, after Ned Flanders, designer of the system.

Interaction analysis allows you to keep track of ongoing interaction between two or more actors over a period of time. Flander’s system tracks verbal interaction between teachers and students. Heavily weighted towards teacher talk, Flanders permits you to keep track of the following categories of classroom talk over time:

Teacher Talk

1 = teachers statements that accept student feelings;

2 = teacher statements that praise and encourage;

3 = teacher statements that accept student ideas;

4 = teacher questions;

5 = teacher statements that lecture or give information;

6 = teacher statements that give directions;

7 = teacher statements that criticize or justify teacher authority;

Student Talk

8 = student statements that respond to a teacher question or comment;

9 = student statements that demonstrate student initiated thought or extended thinking;

Silence and/or Confusion (category #10).

Combining Categories 1-3 created a measure of indirect teacher talk, while combining categories 4-6 created a measure of direct teacher talk. IA allowed us to record the type of verbal interaction over time, then created a way of entering the chronological data into a matrix presentation where anyone could see the pattern of the interactions that occurred over the observational period.

Interaction analysis was not a new research methodology. In 1951, Robert Bales and Fred Strodtbeck authored a similar system for analyzing small group interaction. Flanders extended their idea to the teaching/learning arena. Thousands of studies of classroom teaching and learning in many countries around the world were analyzed using Flanders’ system across all grade levels and content areas. In graduate school, we became so intimate with the categories, we used to have numbered conversations, just for the fun of it.

Flanders eventually carried out research linking interaction patterns to school achievement. Relatively high positive correlational data associated indirect patterns of interaction with higher academic achievement and test scores. There was a certain degree of face validity to this research. In classrooms where children’s ideas were promoted and accepted with ample amounts of praise and encouragement, children would be processing information more actively. Talking about what you were learning serves to consolidate and elaborate information. Naturally, if you were tested on this information, children who had the opportunity to actively process what it meant as opposed to children who merely listened to teachers process what it meant, seemed to learn more. These findings, though disputed – not uncommon in educational research, especially with claims that attempt to link teaching style and student outcome – achieved a fair degree of notoriety (?) across the decade of the seventies and it was in the midst of this wave of excitement that I arrived in Vermont.

Multiage Up-Close

As I looked at multiage classrooms, what I saw before me was what might be called an archetypical indirect teaching environment. In Flanders terminology, these were classrooms where verbal interaction was more indirect. Teachers facilitated rich curricular investigations by children. Highly effective open (multiage) classrooms generated high rates of both teacher and student input. Teacher input was non-traditional. A table might have several sets of colored linking cubes upon it, each one an example of halfs but expressed in different mixed fractions (2/4, 4/8, 5/10, and so on). On the table would be a question: “What’s the same about these constructions? What’s different? Record your answers in a complete sentence. Find someone and compare your answers. Be prepared to share your answer in circle.” High teacher structure (the table was organized in a particular way for a particular outcome, the routines of investigation were firmly established) and high student structure (look, handle, discuss, write, present, defend) typified this seemingly obvious task. In situations such as these, students constructed multiple responses and found multiple ways to address the interesting questions that appeared before them. Rich arguments would ensue, all supposedly ensuring that student understanding of the abstraction “one-half” would deepen (be understood and demonstrated in several different ways). The multiage classrooms I learned from in Vermont were classrooms that provoked learning because the mix of children age wise guaranteed there would be ways of viewing questions that were both more primitive and sophisticated at the same time.

This overlapping of complexity was rich indeed. It was the personification of the ideal mismatched environment that Hunt and a host of other cognitive psychologists advocated for healthy intellectual growth. It meant children could attack fairly sophisticated concepts at their own level of entry, while simultaneously seeing and hearing how other children pursued their solutions. Children could rehearse the creation of solutions for problems that were beyond their level just by looking on. Other children, in explaining their thinking, established deeper understanding for having to explain why they did what they did. Thinking was always propelled forward in those moments. And from Flanders’ perspective, what was going on was a whole bunch of open ended questioning, accepting of student ideas, encouraging student work, and acknowledgement that this learning was both exciting and challenging and frustrating and joyful – accepting student feelings. These kinds of classrooms were where thoughts and feelings and actions moved together as one. Learners were whole human beings.

The fact that educators could ground these practices in the elaborate cognitive philosophy of Jean Piaget and later, Lev Vygotsky, provided a powerfully persuasive ethos to advocate for multiage practices. In Vygotskian terms, a multiage classroom was a zone of proximal development for all its learners. Anne and her teammates over time created their own multiage culture and language. I could hear it in the rituals and practices pursued by their children, every day of the week.

Explore Time Up Close and Personal

One of my favorite times during the day in successful multiage classrooms was a time known variously as explore, explore time, activity time, choice, or even free (horrors!) time. Still is, for those few remaining classrooms who have been able to hang ont to “explore” in the face of absurdly unreasonable curricular demands. Functionally, it is a time during the day when children get to choose what it is they want to do and with whom they want to do it.

The concept by itself is enough to drive human beings who don’t think children can make good choices on their own behalf, and most certainly not good educational choices on their own behalf, nuts! They imagine, and probably can cite actual evidence imagined or otherwise, that as soon as Explore begins, kids turn into destructive monsters, jumping from game to game, running roughshod over each other, promoting all kinds of horrible chaos –what a favorite word to the denigrators of the open classroom movement. Teachers of explore time totally abrogate their academic duties for which they are graciously paid, leaving their children unattended to or worse, fully ignored. And so on, ad nauseum.

At the time, there were precious few books describing what excellent multiage practice, including explore time, looked like in American schools. So I decided to do something about it. I felt I’d cut my eye-teeth on coming to understand multiage in all its varieties. I hadn’t taught it, but I’d come close in all my observing and advising. During my second sabbatical at UVM, I decided to spend a semester studying and describing good multiage practice. My book, Multiage Portraits: Teaching and Learning in Mixed-Age Classrooms, came straight out of this research. This book was simply an attempt to picture in words what good multiage practice looked like. Four very good teachers of multiage classrooms co-authored sections of Portraits with me. During this period of research, I looked closely at explore time. I was determined to show that far from the chaotic mess that often accompanied public diatribes against multiage (open) classrooms, well functioning explore times were quite the opposite. They were times of intense focus and over time, they became what was remembered as the best of this genre of classroom.

I’m going to describe part of a forty minute explore that occurred on March 20th, 1990. The description that follows comes directly from notes taken in Anne Bingham’s classroom on that Tuesday morning. But first, a little context about Anne’s room.

Anne’s classroom was one of four large sunlit rooms on the first floor of the Shelburne Community School. The school fronted the main street of Shelburne perhaps less than a hundred yards from the town center. Four teachers comprise the multiage team for this school. As a team of four, they’d been teaching together for eight years and taught a K-3 span of age. Each teacher had twenty children ranging in age from young fives to older eights in each of their four rooms. Ann and two of her partners had taught together for well over a decade and had been trained by Marion Stroud, an English “Headteacher” who had helped establish the Prospect School in North Bennington, VT. Their rooms were filled with a delicious variety of child tested games and puzzles and blocks and paints and worksheets and books and writing implements and, well, you get the picture. Children’s work was tastefully posted everywhere including the hallway outside the classroom doors. The work often illustrated some child’s solution to a problem or issue directly below the posting.

The team scheduled their Explore Time the same time every day of the week except Fridays. On Fridays, instead of Explore, they did a four-classroom assembly and sing-along. Once Explore began, children from each room could choose to go to any of the four multiage rooms. The rules were something like this: you must declare what you are going to do for explore time before leaving the opening circle, you can move to wherever space you want, you must respect each other’s space and property, no disrupting noise, you have to be able to explain what you are learning at any time anyone (a teacher) asks, and you can do school work if you want to. Here’s what it looked like that Tuesday morning.

I’m sitting in Ann’s room, watching the beginning of Explore Time. It’s 10:10am. Bright, warm, mid-morning sunlight floods in through the windows. It’s getting to spring and the mornings are actually a little hot in this room because the windows face the east. We are a little late beginning Explore this morning because circle time has gone on a bit with the unpacking of the dead cedar waxwing. The children are starting to twitch a little. Rosie can barely contain herself. Ann’s physical touch is the only tether to a system that wants to get moving! Ann pulls them all together and quickly polls what each is going to do, nodding seriously after each offering and questioning some of the more questionable decisions.

Again I am struck at how well this collection of five, six, seven, and eight year old boys and girls get along with each other. There are very tall third graders here waiting their turn with very small and delicate five year old Kindergarteners. They’ve learned each other pretty well. Now she excuses them in pairs and in ones. They are off. The chatter as they head off is like the heavy plug on a pressure cooker releasing it’s load of steam. Even though the bird study was really fascinating – Anne had brought it from home; the bird had broken its neck against her window and she’d stored it in her freezer until the right moment – they were really ready to go! I’ll see the bird again, I’m sure.

The room is as it always is. The diagram I’ve provided shows it is definitely not a place of rows of chairs and desks. There are clearly defined areas for large block play, small block play, reading and writing, painting, computer work, tables for constructive arts, and the rug space for practicing plays. A mix of coats chosen for a late winter’s day are hang along the wall opposite the warming windows. Boots line up mostly in pairs, outside the door on the east edge of the long first floor hallway. It surprises me how many kids can be in the hallway at this time and not get enamoured with playing kick the boot!

At 10:10,

• Two third grade boys, one kindergarten boy and two kindergarten girls are working together with the unifix cubes. Their space is cramped. In a few minutes, one of the kindergarten girls moves on to play a board game with the teacher; the other one moves one container of cubes to an empty adjacent table. She starts to play with them, exploring and investigating different ways of fitting them together. It looks like she is following a plan in her head but I don’t know what it is and I don’t want to interrupt her to ask; I think she watched some third graders make complicated constructions with them the day before, constructions where squares were hidden within squares;

• Two second grade girls are playing with the legos on a yard square building sheet toward the back wall. The building sheet is used so their construction can be moved all together in one piece and so it can be continued the next day. Lego constructions and big block constructions (when the center is open – it isn’t today) are the only constructions that can be left up over the course of three or four days; it allows for much richer and deeper play;

• Two second grade boys and one kindergarten boy play Uno. The kindergarten boy joins the unifix group after a short while;

• Two third graders, a boy and a girl, work on the computer; I’m not sure what they are doing. I’ll have to get over there.

• Two first grade boys paint on the easel, they joke and laugh quietly back and forth with each other; their painting continues a pattern of concentric circles that they were drawing yesterday; David finishes the painting he started the day before and leaves the easel;

• A kindergarten girl plays a board game with the teacher on the black board. This girl is joined by the girl who moved from the unifix activity;

• Mallory, a third grade girl reads a story to herself at one of the tables. She is so intent, I don’t think she’d notice if an elephant strolled in the room. Maybe in her mind an elephant is strolling in the room. Maybe that’s why she’s so intent.

At 10:15,

• The two boys, a kindergartener and a third grader, and the two girls, also a kindergartener and a third grader, continue to play with the cubes; Brent, the third grade boy, is basically fooling around. He is quite immature. He keeps grabbing Sean’s construction. Sean calls Anne, loud enough for Brent to hear but not for Anne to hear; Brent stops.

• Two second grade girls continue to play with the legos;

• Two second grade boys continue to play Uno;

• One more third grade boy joins the computer crew;

• Two kindergarten girls are now painting; both boys have finished their work;

• A first grade girl now works with Anne on the board game; the game is really a conversion activity for measuring using the European system;

• Mallory continues on with her story. She’s actually frowning now.

At 10:20,

• The two kindergarten children continue to work with the cubes; the two third graders end their involvement and join the computer crew;

• The two second grade girls continue to play with the legos;

• The two second grade boys continue to play with Uno;

• One kindergarten girl continues to paint at the easel; the other joins the board game;

• Mallory continues on with her story.

So far, six children from other rooms have participated in activities in this room and seven children from this room are in one of the other three rooms.

At 10:25,

• The two kindergarten children continue to work with the cubes;

• The two second grade girls continue to play with the legos;

• Bonnie Douglas, special educator, comes in and takes one of the second grade Uno players out of the room so the Uno game ends. The other second grader leaves the room;

• Five third graders are now huddled around the computer, three are from other rooms;

• One kindergarten girl continues to paint at the easel;

• One kindergarten girl continues to play with Anne on the board game;

• The third grade girl continues on with her story.

At 10:30,

• The cube play has ended;

• The two second grade girls are still at it with the legos;

• The Uno game is over;

• The five are still huddled over the computer though they have switched who’s at the keyboard;

• The easel, story reading, and board game is as before; and,

• Two kindergarten boys have started to draw with markers.

And on it goes. No chaos here. Kids enter and leave the room not quite quietly but not in a manner that disturbs anyone. I hear it if kids were disturbing. The computer group is animated and having a good time playing Oregon Trail. Their noise is clearly within bounds. I know this because I’ve seen Anne look their way a couple of times but she doesn’t speak to them. The kids feel her eyes, I think! Most kids are involved in conversation about what they are doing . But I also hear that other kind of conversation, the kind of parallel conversation that kids have while they are doing something that doesn’t require or invite talk about what they are doing. The flavor of these conversations is all about what’s going on in their lives right now. Vacation coming up, what happened in gym yesterday, what they’ll do during lunch recess today, who will play what game with whom, a movie seen over the weekend, and so on. I notice lots of smiles flash across their faces during this time, I hear some giggles and laughter here and there, especially with Mallory reading that book – it must be funny now. There’s little noticeable activity jumping during this forty-five minute explore time: the cubes were worked with for twenty minutes, the legos 40+ minutes, Uno 20 minutes until the special educator interrupted and stopped the game, the computer 40+ minutes, the painting easel was in use for twenty minutes, the measuring board game 40, the drawing 20, and the cutting and stapling 10 minutes.

Explore time charted out like this day after day. It was a time of significant continuity and routine. If anything, the kids were involved in extended activities, far from the imagined idea that explore time was nothing more than a noisy period of time filled with kids flitting from activity to activity. If flitting went on, the teachers stepped in, usually involving the child in some work with them until they settled down. But on this day, my chart has no “f” upon it indicating that in this room, anyway, no flitting was observed. I also note there is no off task behavior during Explore. This is especially significant when compared with another portion of the day, math time, a time of day when kids work independently in their math folders while Anne calls groups of children to work with her. My observations indicate that over another forty-five minute period of time, an average of five kids are off task during every three-minute chunk of time.

Rarely did Explore Time take more than forty-five minutes. When it did, it was during a time the teachers used Explore to get ready for a larger event happening in Multiage. That event could be the preparation of materials for a parent’s night, it might be to get ready for a play, or it could be a wholly academic activity. For example, a teacher might decide pure and simple that more time was needed for math work. Explore was a period of them that could be taken for this kind of work. It happened, rarely, but it happened.

My observation concluded that Explore Time was worth its weight in gold. Years after, when adolescents and even graduates were interviewed about their memories of multiage, what they remembered the most was Explore Time and the things they did during explore. Explore time carried with it lasting positive emotions for the children of multiage, at least this multiage team. In many ways, Explore Time symbolized what Multiage came to mean not only to its advocates, but to the entire community. During my time there, the second generation of multiage children (children of the original children to go through multiage in its first years at Shelburne) were coming into multiage. Their parents talked about what a positive tone their time in these classrooms had set for their school experience. They asked if the end of the year camping trip still went on, if the teachers still held T-Shirt day, if the kindergarteners still made morning snack. Clearly, there was a culture operating here, a culture with common rules, roles, and understandings that persisted over time. These parents wanted their children to experience the same thing.

Why Multiage Worked; The Sadness of Its Loss

These days, it seems we have to justify anything we do in school according to whether or not it will lead to higher reading scores. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. If it doesn’t, do more of it. This is an unfortunate and misguided evolution in my mind. With ever increasing numbers of kids disassociating from the school experience, with the dropout rates climbing higher and higher, with statewide testing programs increasing the pressure on children and teachers to achieve at higher and higher rates, the idea that school should be a place where absorbing work happens has become an artifact of the past. And yet it is just such work that unifies the heart and soul and mind and spirit of children. And the last thing I read about children’s development, work such as this is a good thing. Having the mind, body, and soul working together as one strengthens the psyche and unifies a child’s identity. And teaching in a way that recognizes emotions, encourages children’s work, and accepts their academic ideas and builds from their self expressed interest, well Ned Flanders, at least, would have us believe that these kinds of setting lead to higher achievement as well.

What made multiage so powerful for learning was the fact that by definition, the multiage classroom had differential norms of achievement. Every child didn’t have to be on the same page at the same time, by definition! It made natural sense to have differing norms of achievement because everyone accepts that children of different ages have (and should have) different capacities and capabilities. Learning at the highest possible rate for YOU was an important standard in multiage practice. It was okay to be academically different as long as you were progressing along in the right direction.

The single age classroom has quite a different set of norms inherent within it. The assumption here is that there is a second grade standard (for example) that every second grader should be held up to. Pressure to succeed is built into the single age graded setting. No wonder schools continually experience children who fail at every grade level. The fact that every grade is leveled determines that a priori, we will have some children who don’t make it. What kind of sense does that make? It never made much actual sense to me. It still doesn’t. And to be honest, NCLB only magnifies the issue. Case in point? Drop out rates in Texas have increased precipitously since the implementation of school programming upon which NCLB is based.

Multiage Declines With NCLB

Multiage has died with recent standards based initiatives. Yes, multiage groupings remain in some schools. But they are a shell of their former selves. Children are re-grouped several times during the day for ability based math and ability based reading. What’s left? Not much except the affirmation that really, the only kind of learning that counts is that which strengthens your ability to read and compute. All else is, extra.

After fifteen national workshops on Multiage practice, I stopped my performances on the lecture circuit. National initiatives had overtaken me and I could no longer in good conscience advocate for a form of school organization that was going to disadvantage children given the way schools adopted required and graded curriculums in order to meet testing requirements. Frankly, I believe it is the lack of unified, holistic, interest driven, child centered curricula in schools today that drives the disaffection of young adults with their school experience. We live in a time of psychic alienation from the academic pursuits we force them to endure. And we are very much paying the price as the numbers of unmotivated, resisting school children continue to rise. These figures are reflected in the dramatic rise in special education referrals, emotionally driven outbursts, school violence, increase in dropout rates, rise in co-curricular participation and the professionalization of co-curricular activities for those who can afford it (this makes the drudgery of school more palatable, spectator and participant alike), and the continued separation of white and minority populations on almost every measure of school achievement.

keeping at it/meeting with RN

I felt like I’ve was telling more than showing, especially in the urban teaching/education entries. For the multiage entry, I used actual notes from being in that classroom, what ? fifteen years ago? Is that possible? Today I am going to go over this piece of writing and see if I can add some color – what it smelt like, sounded like, looked like. I wish i had the photo’s here. They would say a lot. I have them. I just have to remember to add them.

The breakfast with RN was very helpful. In prep, I’d put everything I’d written in a binder. Thinking of that organization was in itself, helpful. His comment was to keep on with the stories. Tell them. The time line was a good strategy. Just keep getting them out. Try to show more than tell, and see where it takes me.

I am starting to wonder about how to dig into APEX. It was so huge in my life, and yet how can I now show its relevance. maybe the florida trip, coming up Saturday. Tying that backwards to Beth, and forwards to the perhaps promise of new work… . Present and past, all in one.

I’ve also gotten clearer as to what I’m doing as a part of my corresponding with friends. Explaining it helps. I’m exploring the intellectual roots of my present work in equity… . I’m searching out in my life story, where the interest in teaching with a social justice agenda in mind came from in my life. And there are strands of thinking that create in a way the perspective i have on this work. The first strand, of course, is what I’ve learned about my “position” as a white, privileged, male and how this has affected my understanding of what’s happened to me and even influenced what’s happened to me. The second is a strand that traces the effect of shame in my life – the alcohol stuff – and how I work to get on top of it. It is so interesting pulling them apart because they are so intertwined. My consciousness of course goes right to the stories. The stories, though, are set against this tapestry of shame and privilege.

I’ll keep at it.

Original Text – The Primary Source Is Me

I found the journal/notes I kept the entire time I was in the Urban Teaching Program. So as I work through this writing, I’ll connect to some of this original work as it seems appropriate or illuminating. It is interesting to see my perspective while I was going through it all. I had varying perspectives on my embeddedness across the breadth of the program. Translation: sometimes I had perspective on what was going on for me; other times, not much. Just getting by, day to day.