Teaching outside one's race: the story of an Oakland teacher.

Author:Picower, Bree
Position:Essay
 
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The Warning

"Oh, the District placed you at Prescott Elementary? You better watch out--they hate white people. Especially that Carrie Secret--she's one of those black radicals, you know, the Ebonics people." This was the warning I was given multiple times in multiple ways when people found out that I had been assigned to Prescott Elementary School for my first teaching position, in Oakland, California in 1999. The "warners" were other white folks who were trying to protect what they saw as a young, new teacher from what they perceived to be a hostile place. However, I really didn't fit the stereotype. I had been involved with several organizations that explicitly addressed issues of race and education for several years, often as the only white person there. I was thrilled to be placed at a school such as Prescott, whose reputation for high achievement for African American children and adoption of the "Ebonics" program had placed it at the forefront of national debate.

I am writing this paper in order to reflect on my experiences at Prescott Elementary School. Here, I discuss the aspects of the school that are unique: the culturally relevant pedagogy, the other teachers on the staff including Carrie Secret, the professional development at the school, the Ebonics debate, and, finally, racial identity development and how it informed relationships at the school. A goal of this paper is to contextualize what was really being done in Oakland schools in contrast to what the media reported as teaching Ebonics. (1) I also hope to show the importance of successful mentor teachers of color in the development of new teachers at a mission driven school.

Prescott Elementary School

When I was first assigned to Prescott, I drove to the school to see what it was like. It was summer and the school was gated and locked. From the outside, it looked like a barren and dismal place. There was no grass, no playground, only a huge, concrete excuse for a yard. The main building and the portables were all a drab shade of industrial yellow. When I was finally able to enter the school weeks later, the difference between what I had seen from outside the gate, and the reality of what it was really like inside was like night and day. The walls inside the main building were covered with a vibrant mural tracing leaders of African American history. Even before the school year started, kids were everywhere, helping teachers set up their rooms, playing in the yard, and welcoming me and the other new teachers. The children, primarily African American, but also Latino and Asian American, seemed to feel so at home at the school, as if they had a real sense of ownership of the place. Because I wasn't initially assigned to a room or grade, I took the opportunity to walk around and introduce myself and help the other teachers. When I did finally get my own room, filthy from being used as a storage space by construction workers, many children, from kindergartners to graduated middle schoolers, came by to help me unpack.

My class was a second and third grade Sheltered English class which consisted of a very diverse group of students reflecting the multilingual community of Oakland. While Prescott as a whole was primarily African American, my students were Guatemalan, El Salvadorian, Cambodian, Filipino, and Arabic as well as African American children. My classroom was in a building off the main school that housed three classrooms--mine, Carrie Secret's, and that of another teacher whom I had also been warned about Aileen Moffitt. I had been told that I should align myself with Ms. Moffitt because she was "the only white person that has ever been accepted at Prescott."

Afrocentric Environment and Culturally Relevant Teaching

The political nature of the school soon became obvious. Walking into the classrooms and viewing the bulletin boards of the veteran teachers, I could easily see how central African American history was to the school. The library was filled with multicultural texts. Carrie's and Aileen's rooms were explosions of color, with paintings, posters, and photographs dedicated to telling the story of African American people. The school assembly calendar, handed out the first day of school, listed events honoring not only Black history, but Mexican history, Cambodian dance, and multicultural art.

I breathed deep and knew I had found my home. It seemed that the teachers here fit Gloria Ladson-Billings's (1994) definition of culturally relevant teachers. "They see themselves as a part of the community and they see teaching as giving back to the community. They help students make connections between their local, national, racial, cultural, and global identities" (p.25). This was the kind of teaching that I longed to do, and I was relieved that I had found a place where it was not only going to be safe to do it, but it would also be valued and accepted. I couldn't believe my luck.

Veteran teachers who came by my room saw the same kind of respect for cultural diversity reflected on my walls, and it wasn't long before they were sharing materials and ideas to help me with my teaching practice. After Miss Moffitt saw me at the copy machine reproducing U.S. maps depicting European colonization and diminishing Native American land (from Bigelow, 1998), she came by my room to give me a song about Columbus. The lyrics began:

In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It was a courageous thing to do, But someone was already there. The song goes on to describe the destruction of the land of various Native American tribes, the ensuing slavery, and the spread of disease that decimated the people. My class performed this at the Thanksgiving assembly along with other students who celebrated Native American dance and recited poetry about different forms of colonialism. Because my personal philosophy was so closely aligned with the mission of the school, this year was turning out to be a powerful and positive experience for me.

Carrie Secret

Prior to the beginning of the school year, I had attended a new teacher training that was led by veteran teachers from the district. The first session was facilitated by none other than the infamous Carrie Secret. Her talk was inspiring, energetic, and straightforward. She shared a wealth of actual classroom ideas that I was thirsty for as a pre-service teacher. I approached her after the session and let her know I would be teaching at her school. We ate lunch with another teacher, an older African American minister who would also be teaching at Prescott in the fall. Afterwards, I couldn't help but wonder if Ms. Secret was the same person I had been warned about, or if I had gotten the names confused. I had to question why the "warners" had felt so much discomfort and animosity towards her.

As Jordon-Irvine (2003) highlights in a story that shows the development of Kipp Academy, a white founded charter school successful with African American students, it is often veteran teachers of color who educate not only their students but other teachers as well. The school was started by two white, Teach for America interns who learned to teach under the mentorship of Harriet Ball, a veteran African American teacher. "This story of the Kipp Academies illustrates that the culturally-specific pedagogical teaching strategies of teachers of color can be taught and adopted by all teachers, regardless of their race or ethnicity. There are, in fact, many urban teachers who have survived and thrived only because experienced teachers of color have mentored and provided them with assistance and encouragement" (p.13). I know I too benefited greatly from the mentorship that I received from Carrie Secret.

Early on in the school year, I asked Carrie for her advice on a unit I was planning on African American inventors, and within the day she delivered to my room a huge bag of materials for me to use. She also gave me a book that described the historical relationship between Africans and Cambodians. This was Carrie's way. She waited for an opening, and once it was there, her generosity for working with new teachers was as endless as her historical knowledge. She shared countless ideas and materials with me and was always available before and after school to talk about issues and concerns I was having in my class. We began collaborating on different projects and we made copies of materials for both of our classes that we thought the other would want to use.

Carrie's classroom was truly a unique place. From floor to ceiling, student artwork...

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