Issues of Diversity on a Volatile School Campus Part II

A First Year Teacher in the World of Difference and Same (Part 2)

Written By: David Carr
Photo By: Colin Bootman

View Part I here.

So there I was and there we were, those sixty pairs of eyes staring at me, wondering what would come next. As I turned to the chalk board sweat starting to work its way on my brow, I started to write down a list of questions on the board. I turned to the sixty students and said in a commanding voice, “I need everyone to take out a sheet of paper, a pencil or pen and write these questions down right now.” These were not tough questions by any stretch of the imagination. “What is your name, where do you live, do you live in a house or an apartment, when is your birthday?” These were the questions I had the students write down.

“What do we do after we write these down?”

Good question, I thought to myself but before I even knew it, I had the answer. I told the class that the Spanish I kids were going to have to ask my Hispanic students these questions in the best Spanish they could muster. My kids, the ESL kids were going to have to try and answer the questions in English. “When you are finished, I stated you will simply switch. My students will ask the questions in English and the Spanish I kids will answer back in Spanish.”

“What will happen when we finish?” another student asked. “Don’t worry; I replied there will be more questions.” A funny and somewhat peculiar thing happened after I gave the directions. The students actually did what I said!! I almost fell over. At that time in my short career lesson plans were still tough for me to write but I had mastered the art of sounding like I meant business no matter what! I watched as the students asked each other the questions. I listened as the students stumbled through the answers and I looked on as the students tried to help each other with the assignment. This was truly the first time I had seen a large group of African American and Latino students working together on the campus. Even in classes where the two groups were mixed they often sat apart from each other and never interacted.

It was an anomaly to see the two groups now forced to work with each other. They finished the assignment by the time the class was over. They repeated the same assignment on Tuesday and I came up with new questions as I promised. By Wednesday the students were coming up with their own questions and I had become a non-entity in the room and to top it off, the kids seemed to be having fun.

The following week the Spanish I teacher was back at school. She was a bit perturbed at me for not having executed her lesson but she seemed interested in what had gone on in my class, because her students remarked that they had, had a good time with my kids. As fourth period began in my room my students seemed to lack focus. Finally one of my students asked, “Mr. Carr where are the students?” “Which students I asked?” “You know Mr. Carr los…los…los Africano Americanos, where are the friends?” This was the first time I had heard one of the immigrant students try to find a word other than ‘mayate’ to describe the Black students on the campus.

Now it seemed they had built some type of relationship with these students. However fleeting the relationship was they had no choice but to try and refer to the Black students with some sense of humanity and dignity. I suspect the same thing was happening in the Spanish I class. The Black kids had learned that not every Latino child on our campus was Mexican and that all they really had to do was ask and they would find out where some of the kids were from. At that moment I realized something about the champions of diversity and multicultural education.

These “do-gooders” often want to get kids of various ethnicities together to do one of two things. Either they have the kids talk about their differences to no end or they have the kids dialog on what it means to be “oppressed.” The former in my mind is a mute point. The kids know they are different. They can see the differences as plain as day! The latter again in my humble still makes no sense. The kids know they are different and depending on where they live they know that their communities have been hard hit. They live it everyday.

What these folks never have kids do is get them to talk about what they actually have in common! How about that for a novel idea? Now my kids did not do that at all in that fourth period class, what they had to do was work together in order to finish an assignment. They had an assignment and they knew (or at the very least they believed) they had no choice and they needed to finish it. The only way that was going to happen was for them to work together.

I am not naïve enough to think that in one week you can solve racial issues on a high school campus or in a community. The problems that existed in my school and community still went on after that week. But what I do know is that if multi-ethnic communities are going to thrive and not just survive then we have to do more than just talk about our differences. We will have to find the ties that bind, find common ground and then work together to get things done.

I often look back on that week as the moment when I finally became a teacher. Kids were working together, checking each other’s work, correcting each other while I merely looked on and coached. That was the week I learned of possibilities. It was the week I started to feel like a teacher and it was a week in which both teacher and student discovered hope…

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