Claire Bove, Carnegie Scholar - CASTL K-12 Program, Carnegie Foundation
When I was in elementary school, English was easy for me. Social studies and science were easy. Math: a piece of cake. The subject that was really tough was recess.
I spent a great deal of time alone with my mom. My dad, who was a physicist, died when I was two years old. My mom and I spent all our free time together, just the two of us. She talked to me as if I were an adult. Her favorite thing to do was to read. She and I spent most of our time reading and talking. I had an adult vocabulary and an adult view of the world. I was a shy, quiet and well-behaved little girl. My mom married my step-dad, also a physicist, when I was eight � I started learning about science, and met a lot more adults.
My teachers thought I was smart. My peers didn't. I realized that I was very good at the school game and I knew it was not because I was smarter than the other kids, but because I knew how to interact with the teachers, almost to read their minds. I had learned how in those years with my mom.
I knew I had an unfair advantage in the classroom, an advantage I paid for at recess. In the sixth grade, the girls in my class decided it would be fun to tease and torment someone. I was shy and gentle, not likely to fight back, and they chose me for their scapegoat. This game lasted about two weeks. My best friend was in the class. She didn't join in, and she didn't speak up.
We went on to junior high. I got some new friends, and learned an important junior high school skill: how to gain the acceptance of your peers by pretending to be someone you are not. After that, I started doing better at recess. Still didn't like it, though.
In elementary school, my peers were all white and middle class. Many of their parents worked in academia. When I got to high school, I met students from other cultures. My African American friends and acquaintances had a facility with language, music, fashion, and dance so superior to mine there was no way I could compete, I could only appreciate. I met people from other cultures, and people from my own culture, who were creative, and who knew how to think for themselves.
I could come up with the �right� answer in the classroom, other people could do it at �recess.� Each of us was skilled at what we had practiced most. And what we practiced most was what we liked the best, what we felt most comfortable doing, what other people told us we were good at. When you are good at something, you do it more, and you get better at it. Teachers valued my abilities; I valued those of my peers. I began to see the point of �recess.�
This was in the 1960's. We thought, then, that equality and justice and true integration were coming soon. And when Dr. King said, �At the end of the day, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends,� I knew he was talking to me.
I dropped out of college in my freshman year. Many years later, I went back to finish my undergrad degree. I was interested in a lot of things so I took science courses, English courses, and social science courses. I went to Berkeley, and in the early 1990's, equality and justice had not yet come, but the campus was more diverse than it is now. As I pursued my academic education, the puzzle pieces of my education in diversity started to form a picture. In my science classes, where students were planning to pursue medicine and scientific research, my fellow students were Asian and white, about 60% Asian, and 40% white. In my English classes, most students were white. In my social science classes, many students were African American and Latino.
I heard African American students in my social science classes saying that they would have chosen to go into medicine, but did not have the necessary high school preparation to take the science classes required. I thought about how hard it would be to be the one African American student in my science classes. I witnessed a lecture hall of chemistry undergrads heckle an African American chemistry professor. I heard a professor of anthropology complain that affirmative action was causing a drop in the academic excellence of the campus.
As a requirement of one of my classes, I spent a year and a half tutoring in a middle school near the campus. And I could see that even in sixth grade, the separation that was so obvious in my college classes was beginning. The language of science was foreign to many students, including my African American and Latino students. If I had wanted to be a doctor or engineer, I had the privilege, the access to do it. But when my student Bryant looked at me and told me he wanted to be a doctor, it made me sick to think that he might find himself on the outside.
Dr. King had been dead for a long time. I had been silent for a long time. I began to see how I could break my silence. I decided I wanted to be a science teacher. My belief was that my background in science, in English, and in urban education would help me bridge the distance between my students of color and the world of science � where a person must travel to gain access to careers in medicine, technology, and engineering. (If they want to go there)
However. When I first started teaching, the students I most wanted to reach often said, �I hate science.� My students who came from families of scientists didn't say this. Just everyone else. I felt like a failure: my knowledge, my commitment, and my hard work did no good at all. Gradually, very gradually, I realized I needed to create for my students the kind of family-like culture that had helped me feel at home in the peculiar world of science. And I realized that for students of color, this would have to reflect what made them feel at home, not exactly the same thing that made me feel at home.
I looked at my colleagues. Those who were successful at teaching all students were particularly good at recognizing and acknowledging the individuality of each student, and connecting with each student on a meaningful personal level. As Claude Steele writes,
The first step is for the teacher to value the student, to believe in the student. And before a teacher can do this, he or she needs to find out who the student is. This is true for all students, and it is particularly important for students of color. When a student feels that he or she is seen as an individual, and valued for his or her gifts and potential, it is safe to relax and learn. When the teacher believes in me, I can accept her demands for excellence as evidence of caring and support, not of rejection or doubt.
These ideas are deceptively simple. It has taken me years to begin to figure out how to put them into practice in the classroom. I am not there yet, but I think I am getting closer.
1. Steele, C. M. (1992, April). Race and the schooling of black Americans. The Atlantic Monthly , 269(4) , 68-78.