“There Is the Racial Conversation Which We Need to Dive into, Right?”

Talking with José Vilson about transformational conversations, boostrapping, national schools, and more.

José Vilson is a New York City middle school math teacher and author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education,(Haymarket Books, 2014). He’s also the founder of EduColor, a coalition of teachers, parents, and other concerned citizens dedicated to the uplift of people of color in education. Vilson writes regularly for Edutopia and Progressive Magazine, and has contributed to The New York Times, CNN.com, Education Week, Huffington Post, and El Diario/La Prensa NY.

MSEA spoke to Vilson recently about transformational conversations with students, bootstrapping, culturally relevant schools, and more.

In a recent blog post, “A letter from an inner city classroom teacher,” you said, “Ask people who yell to the rafters about doing an initiative for children if they’ve had a transformational conversation with a student in recent memory.” What does a transformational conversation sound like with a student of color?

When I made that comment, I was thinking about folks who come in, they have photo-ops with children, they make a grand speech, and they assume that everyone who listened to the speech was inspired, or suddenly feel some sort of allyship with them. Unfortunately, as we know with fly ins, too often it’s fly in, fly out, “I’ve done my duty,” versus a transformational conversation.

If you think about a student and a teacher, for instance, the teacher technically has the power in the relationship. When I talk to folks about a transformational conversation, I mean a conversation where the interaction between the teacher and student is one where the student is trying to teach the teacher something about their own experiences and the way they approach the world. A transformational conversation happens when, even if we don’t agree on certain world views, we understand that we’re learning from each other.

What does a White educator need to know about entering into a transformational conversation with a student of color? And can that legitimately happen?

It could legitimately happen, I think, because we’re all human beings — we’re allowed to give each other lessons, and approaches to life, and things to think about as far as our work.

There is the racial conversation which we need to dive into, right, which is like saying I sympathize with your experience as a student of color, but I could never empathize because I could never be of color — that’s something that’s out of the realm of a White educator who comes in and has never experienced being a boy of color trying to navigate the world.

Obviously, there is a racial component to the conversation which we need to acknowledge and I think it goes something like: “Ok, as a White educator, I’m here to teach you, but I also know I have to build a relationship with you so that you trust that I am going to listen to your concerns, even as I’m going through our curriculum.”

We want the educator to be willing and able to build the relationship so the student can trust that the teacher actually wants to educate them, and educate them well. We do that from a vantage point of saying “This is a way I’m trying to help you; I’m not trying to save you,” which is a different mindset.

What do educators need to know about the American ideal of bootstrapping for kids of color? What conversation, skill, commitment, and/or dream should take its place?

For me, when I hear of bootstrapping, we need to talk about the fact that lots of kids don’t have boots, let alone straps. When we really get down to the root of it, it’s that there are so many children, for whom just getting to school is a pretty darn good goal. We are very happy with them just being able to make it to school because of all the things that they have to deal with on a constant basis, and that goes double for a lot of our kids who live in very desperate conditions.

We have teachers who may not live in the same areas that the students are living in and maybe they don’t understand why, when they can get to school early, the students themselves can’t get to school on time. For so many of our kids, just getting there is a big deal.

I find too often, for instance, that we talk about grit as kind of a shorthand for overcoming some of the educational inequalities that we ought to address as a society. Too often people say that people ought to have grit, but that’s not the only thing it takes.

Some folks never want to talk about the institutional things we need to do in order to make sure that kids get not just resources, but also caring adults in their buildings — people who actually want to teach them well and who treat them as fully human beings. We need to address those elements. So, I find that when we talk about grit, it kind of side-steps all the conversations around how we make institutions that are equitable for every single child, and make sure everybody’s children are taken care of.

What is the conversation missing, what is it that so many districts or individual schools aren’t getting? You said “I remain convinced that the diversity conversation means nothing without accounting for the hearts and minds that come with it.” Where is the disconnect that we are failing so many students?

I’ve become a believer in nationalizing schools at large because we want a unified understanding of how we approach education in this country. But then when I talk about the heart and mind, I mean why is it that so many of us are okay with our kids and students going to schools that are underserved, and yet we would never put our own kids in those very situations.

So many of us have diluted our own conversations by saying “these kids, those kids” versus saying “wow, I would never accept this for my own child and why is this allowed?” If we’re not in that second level, then we’re not talking about the hearts and minds. And then I also think about how many of our fellow colleagues frankly are racist, are sexist, are Islamophobic, or homophobic.

I would say that conversations around culturally relevant pedagogy have been powerful, specifically because they get at the heart of what it means to have a quality school culture, to really address the intangibles of the school. It’s good to talk about school attendance numbers, per pupil spending, and all these different numbers, but it also takes so many different people in a building to come together and say “what are the things that we’re going to stand for in our building?” and “who are we actually trying to address when we teach our children, or when we’re addressing the general body?”

So many of these things come from an administrator, or a leader — someone who says “Okay, I firmly believe I am actively listening to what the community is saying, to what everyone is saying, and I’m trying to come up with something that makes sense for everyone involved.” And they build something that says that everyone is included in this vision.

There’s a fear that our schools are only academic spaces instead of saying no, they’re actually centerpieces for many of our communities, and if we’re not able to address that, then we’re going to have a real serious issue. That’s what I find so promising with having these questions around culturally relevant pedagogy. Even in New York City where there are a lot of different districts, people are willing and able to come together on afternoons and weekends to say, “Hey, how can we do this math better, so that it actually addresses our students and doesn’t fly over their heads.”

How do we look at all these different books and curricula and really have the conversations where students feel involved, or even how do we switch the power dynamic between student and teacher so that the teacher doesn’t have to do all the talking? Even in the little things where you can say “well, these don’t explicitly call out race,” well, no, it doesn’t, but at the same time — if you change that power dynamic — it opens the doors for us to have those more difficult conversations.

What are you reading right now?

The latest book I fully finished reading was These Schools Belong to You and Me. The book goes through just a series of thoughts around how to build democracies in schools, but from the lens of one legendary educator, Deborah Meier, and another who is up and coming as a national voice on this conversation around democracy in schools, Emily Gasoi.

It was inspiring for me in two ways. First, it exposes some of their own flaws, and some of the things they saw as mistakes in their own work, which was super powerful for me. Second, it went through the systems that they did in their own school, and the systems that they had to create in order to make this stuff work. It isn’t necessarily a handbook in that way, but when you read it, when you read it for narrative, and read it for function, it can help in both ways.