On a morning when we might normally be having breakfast at the Sweet Maple Café on Taylor Street, my friend Vickie Trinder and I were Zooming instead. It was a date we had made weeks ago when I contacted Vicki to let her know that, after endless delays – publisher? Post office? – her book Teaching Toward a Decolonizing Pedagogy: Critical Reflections Inside and Outside the Classroom by Victoria Trinder (Routledge, 2020) had finally arrived and I wanted to talk as soon as I had finished reading it. I’ve written before about what a painfully slow reader I am, but I was ready now and eager to talk.
Vicki is the director of the undergraduate teacher education program at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, so we had a lot of interests in common with which to fill the time between bites of our Sweet Maple breakfast. A while back she told me about the difficulty she was having with a paper describing a decolonizing curriculum for her UIC program. When I learned about her book on Facebook – typical of Vicki not to have even mentioned it at our meetings – I assumed that was the focus of her book. The title sets you up to expect some heavy, albeit important academic reading. Instead the book harked back to a period more than two decades ago when she was one of the founding teachers in a school devoted to immersing its Mexican American students in the linguistic and artistic richness of their native culture. The school was part of a mid-nineties phenomenon called the Small Schools Movement, which advocated for teacher-led schools within schools that provided some breathing room for innovation. It was soon overshadowed by the charter school movement, and Vicki’s former school is pretty much all that remains 20+ years later of that promising experiment.
I know from our many conversations over the years that Vicki and I share a dislike of the all-too-ubiquitous genre of superhero teacher books – the kind that parachute a young, idealistic, almost always white teacher into the dysfunction and disarray of a school serving low income kids of color. In short order the teacher’s classroom is transformed into a hub of creativity and social action. Vicki’s book stands that genre on its head. It is the painfully honest and self-critical account of the struggles of a young white teacher to understand and honor a culture into which she was not born and to help her students escape and negate the efforts of the dominant culture to erase and invalidate their home communities.The book’s chapters give the impression of taking us, month by month, through a complete school year, but they are in fact a condensed account of years of growth toward the virtually impossible task of liberating her students from a perception of themselves rooted in the testing numbers which are the system’s coin of the realm and which fail to measure their true wealth of knowledge.
In our Zoom call, I told Vicki about a time early in my professional life when I directed a program in New York City devoted to children’s writing. My responsibilities included editing a monthly magazine containing articles that were mainly accounts of writing activities our team of professional writers tried with their classes, accompanied by samples of student work. When I took over the editing of the magazine, I insisted that it include a regular column in the back pages called Failures, accounts of lessons that bombed. If you only promote successes, you leave your readers with a feeling of inadequacy. They know that they encounter failures all the time, so there must be something lacking in them. Yet, as Vicki shows, each failure, each misstep brings with it new insights and new levels of understanding.
I don’t intend this to be an exhaustive review of a book that will definitely reward your attention. Instead I wanted to focus on one point that emerged in our conversation that grows out of the parallels and divergences in our experiences.
Both our new schools – mine almost contemporaneous with hers – were completely segregated, hers 100% LatinX and mine virtually 100% Black. I spent three years in Mississippi living my commitment to integration, so how did that jibe with my involvement in a segregated school whose population was the product of decades of housing discrimination? There were few white students within reasonable traveling distance to create even a semblance of integration. The same was true of Vicki’s school, situated deep in one of the city’s traditionally LatinX communities. I had no choice but to put aside my commitment to integration and turn instead to making the school an exemplar of what Black children were capable of, given the proper resources and the unequivocal belief in their ability. I think Vicki and the founders of her school would echo this sentiment in their context.
But here lies the paradox. If you believe, as I do, that it is important for children to develop a strong and positive identity as members of their rich and vibrant cultural community, then that task can be better accomplished in a homogeneous, i.e. segregated, setting. I will invite my teaching partner and mentor Lou Bradley who shared last week’s blog post back into the conversation. Lou believed strongly that our Black students could not achieve their full potential unless we addressed the negative self-image they had internalized from the media and from the ways in which they were treated by all the white institutions that controlled their lives. At her suggestion we instituted an annual rites of passage ceremony rooted in African traditions. She insisted that we begin our study of Black history not in slavery but in the glorious African cultures from which their ancestors had been snatched. When I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with my class, I was able to engage the students in conversations about the ways she had been damaged by internalizing white conceptions of beauty. It’s not that I couldn’t have had a similar conversation with an integrated group, but I would have had to pitch it in a much more muffled way. The conversations we had about the way they perceived and treated classmates based on the depth of shading in their skin color would have been muted or would never have occurred at all.
In the same way, in Vicki’s school the effort to build the academic program around Spanish language and Mexican history and Mexican arts was infinitely easier because almost all her students came from Mexican families. What the school was trying to do ran a lot deeper than the Cinco de Mayo or Day of the Dead celebrations that are now common in many multi-cultural settings. The school was invested in the decolonizing work of helping her students, their families and her overcome the erasure of their language and culture by the larger society. There is a powerful metaphor at the heart of her book. On a trip to Mexico with colleagues from the school they visited a church which contained a small cross. The guide recounted that this cross had been used at the head of numerous religious processions, and to the astonishment of the missionaries who had founded the church, the cross had been struck by lightning many times. It was only centuries later that the use of x-ray technology revealed the presence of a small metal idol at the heart of the intersecting cross beams.
“They (the missionaries) had not been able to see what they’d never understood about the kind and patient way in which the human beings they had sought to ‘save’ had instead maintained their core beliefs while humoring those who so desperately clung to the need to make others into versions of themselves.”
In both Vicki’s school and the one in which Lou and I taught, the work of bringing that hidden idol back out into the light was made that much easier because the homogeneity of the students we served allowed for a more full-throated exploration of their identity. That fact leaves many questions unanswered. Do we abandon the goal of an integrated society or is this a temporary condition we must endure until all cultures can establish themselves on an equal footing where there is no longer a need to speak of a dominant culture? What right did people like Vicki and me have to be engaged in our students’ decolonization? Her work and mine took place in the cultural context that existed more than twenty years ago. Is there still a place for people like us in this liberation?
Again, there’s so much more to Vicki’s provocative book than we discussed in that Zoom conversation and that I’ve touched on in this piece. I encourage you to see for yourself.