Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There

Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms by H. Richard Milner IV

My principal gave all of us teachers a copy of this book and we read it over spring break. The overall goal of the book seemed to be to change the attitudes of teachers so that they will be more effective with their diverse students. The most valuable part of the book for me was the first chapter, which summarized some mistaken attitudes that teachers often hold and why they’re wrong. Teachers who claim to be color-blind, who believe in the meritocracy myth that says that the poor deserve poverty, who have low expectations for disadvantaged students, are unable to teach effectively because of their own attitudes. Changing these subtly (and not-so-subtly) racist and classist attitudes is the necessary first step, without which all of the other work is useless.

I planned two new lessons based on the information from this book, because I thought this attitude-changing isn’t only good for teachers, but for students as well, especially since mine are old enough to begin to grasp the complexity of these issues. They need to learn to make sense of their world for themselves, and I hope these readings and our discussions of them will help them do that. To deal with the issue of meritocracy, I’m resurrecting a chapter from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and excerpting a new chapter from Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. I think it’s important for students to know that though the world will say it is their fault or their parents’ fault that they have not had some advantages, it’s not true, and I hope that this takes away some of the guilt and shame that come with poverty. If they can see the bigger picture and realize that their success or failure in life is dependent on things far outside their control, they can be freed from the stigma of struggling financially. I also have a new lesson on poetry about America, poems that try to make a statement and define America, that includes a rap song (in addition to Whitman and Emma Lazarus’s sonnet). This one is an effort to include the things that the students are interested in–hip hop is explicitly mentioned in the book as a potential learning tool–and to show that the stuff that we read for school is sometimes not all that different. I really wanted some perfect short reading that would illustrate the “culture of power” that Milner talks about here (quoting Delpit), but couldn’t think of or find one in time for the start of our new  term (I’d love suggestions!).

My only complaint about this book is that it was kind of vague about what exactly the profiled teachers did to create good relationships with students and engage them in classwork. The advice is pretty generalized and consistent with established best practices. The book seemed to spend a lot of time describing the teachers’ personailities, identities and attitudes, and how these attributes made them successful, but I would have preferred a focus on actions that lead to success, since we have more control over our actions. It’s so hard to read books like this when I have specific problems in mind and of course there’s no immediate answer. It’s like the book is a magic 8 ball or something. I’m always looking for specific things that I could try to do tomorrow; maybe that’s not a fair expectation because there is no magic key. Still, it’s somewhat frustrating to read about perfect Mr. Hall, who “treats his students as individuals” in discipline matters, because how does that create the consistency that every other education text has told me is so necessary? What happens when students protest this inconsistency? He gives his students multiple opportunities for success, and that makes me wonder what he does when grades are due and several students still haven’t succeeded yet. I would love to see how that works in his gradebook: that’s how specific I want to get in these books. I want to go beyond the generalized theory and see how it works when you translate it to real life. The picture painted is so rosy that I want to push a little and find out what really makes these model classrooms tick. These expectations and frustrations of mine are not fair, I know. I’m wishing for the moon. The important thing is that the book is useful for the perspective it encourages teachers to take and its focus on social justice in education.

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