Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Guest Blogger: Democracy, Integration, and the Classroom

by Cara Furman, New York City Elementary School Teacher

Since I began teaching, the first questions that people ask me about my school are where I teach, is it public, and what is the racial demographic. My impression is that when people are asking this, their interest is connected to what each answer connotes. When I explained that I worked at a private school on the Upper East Side, people asked about facilities, famous families and spoiled students. When I described my work at a public school in Harlem, people asked about behavior problems and test scores. They often offered consolation.

Now, when I share that I teach in the East Village, people seem less clear on how to categorize, which typically elicits questions about demographics. When I explain that my school is mixed racial and mixed income, people seem shocked and unable to categorize. "What is that like?" they ask, "I didn't know there were schools like that in New York." In fact, when my father came to visit my first and second grade classroom, he spoke later in awe to a friend: "its amazing, there's everyone, children with nannies and the children of nannies. About 17 different countries represented in a class of 21!"

In my current classroom, my students are learning about diversity and human relations from each other. After one student told another that he “didn’t like black people,” my class spent two hours (their choice) trying to figure out why the student had said that, what he meant, and what such comments mean in our society. For the first time all year, some of my shyer African American students rose to the center of the classroom articulating frustrations and hurt. White students who often dominate conversation took a back seat, listening and processing. These six and seven year olds, who typically start to fidget after 15 minutes, listened, spoke, and processed the incident instead of having free time. Within the conversation, for the first time in my teaching experience, Martin Luther King (who we had discussed months earlier) came alive for them in important ways as they debated whether anger was a fair response to the comment and then worked past their anger to try to explain to the student why he had hurt them. The conversation ultimately ended when the student refused to apologize and we seemed to have hit a stalemate. Yet, despite this result, my African American students (and their parents when told) expressed pride and some feelings of success. They had explained themselves and defended themselves. Nevertheless, I went home concerned that maybe I should have defended the African American students and punished the child for his comment. Yet, when the next day, the child returned to school prepared to apologize, I became convinced that dialogue in safe places--where students of different races share power--is the most effective tool against injustice.

Today, I am horrified that diverse classrooms, which teach children how to be human in a diverse world, are at risk. My research, conversations, and experience have made clear to me that, where the white community holds the power, there will never be equality when there is not integration. While we remain a nation just as representative as the students in my classroom, we are not a democracy where the people of these nations necessarily interact. In a country where, according to public school advocate, Debra Meier, schools provide one of the last places for people to have sustained interaction with those from a different background, schools are crucial to maintaining the interaction necessary for the democracy to viably exist. If we do not integrate our schools, if our human sense of community does not cross racial lines, then as long as one community has power and another does not, separate will always be unequal.

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