Today I helped Mississippi families.

Because I don’t think the government should intervene in every, single pregnancy in the state of Mississippi, I donated to help keep family planning up to families.

Here’s the blurb I got after donating. Maybe you’ll receive it in your email, too.

I just made a contribution to Mississippians for Healthy Families, which is leading the fight against Initiative 26. The amendment could ban birth control, prevent women with cancer from receiving life-saving treatments, and ban all abortion in any circumstance. It goes too far. Say NO on Initiative 26&mdashlearn more and make your contribution today:…

Scott Brown, why do you hate America?

Recently the Democrats introduced a bill to support teachers, police, and firefighters. It’s really short, so you should read it for yourself here. This law would help out the poorest people in the country. And do you know who they are? Children. Children are the largest demographic living in poverty in America today. They are not lazy. They are not riding welfare. They didn’t lose their jobs. They are children. And this law would help children.

And who would pay? According to this bill, only people earning over a million dollars a year. And the tax would only apply to the monies made over a million dollars. Joe Biden explains how easy the math is. If you’re only making $999,999 this year, don’t worry. You wouldn’t pay a cent to fund these teachers and first-responders. And if you do make more than a million dollars, you’d only see an increase of one half of one percent. That’s half a penny per dollar over a million. The average income of the people who would pay this surtax is 3 million dollars; they’d pay on average $500. That’s enough for 400,000 teachers, 18,000 police, and 7,000 firefighters. I only wish I could pay this tax!

But no one will. It got voted down, pretty unilaterally according to party lines in the Senate. The New York Times posted the tally here. All blue and independent voted yes; all red (and two blue!) voted no. Because I’m so baffled, I decided to write my senator to ask what he was thinking. I hope you will ask your senators why they think half a penny for every dollar over a million isn’t worth the stability and safety of our families and children. If you live in Massachusetts, please contact Scott Brown through his website or on the phone, (617) 565-3170.

Dear Senator Brown,

I am troubled by your recent vote against S.1723: Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act of 2011. Please explain why you chose to cut jobs that serve obvious public good, promote American innovation and prosperity, and keep families and children safe. Teachers, police, and firefighters from the poorest communities will lose their jobs first because the poorest communities are those least able to support their salaries. Your vote is strictly un-American and it clearly acts against the best interests of Massachusetts’ citizens.

Please explain why you turned on American families and children, Senator Brown. Why did you deny poor American children access to adequate education; why did you deny working American families continued public safety? As one of your constituents, I believe you should make the reasons for your action clear.

Joshua Reyes
A concerned citizen

Please, leave a comment if you contacted your senator!

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.

Clean up at Fenway

Above: The Angels slew the Red Sox 11-0, but the score didn’t matter. Fenway is one of America’s great cathedrals. Being inside is always a religious experience for me. And a bad sermon can’t spoil the majesty of a truly sacred place. So, I say, “Take me out to that transcendent ball game. Let me be part of the crowd.”

The great rain divide at Fenway

Above: When the rains came late in the game, the crowd was parted in two: on the right there were those who were dry; on the left, those who loved so much.

Privilege (Part 1): Feminism takes women for granted.

As a resident tutor at Harvard, I get tagged to help students prepare for all sorts of things. Giving mock interviews is my favorite student service. Firstly, I honestly believe that students who master this form of conversation will be better prepared to navigate the system after graduation. And that’s important to me. Plus I love playing the part of a disinterested panel member who mercilessly questions a student about deeply meaningful issues. As a bonus, I usually learn something new about my student and the world in the process. Earlier this spring one student asked me to quiz her before an interview for the Women’s Leadership Award. (Sadly, she didn’t get it.) It was my job to ask difficult but thoughtful questions as a representative of the liberal left to a self-proclaimed traditionalist from way over on the right. And so I did.

I started off with what I thought was a low-ball question, “How has your leadership advanced, strengthened or otherwise benefited the causes of women on campus?” After a few long pauses, I reframed the question. “What is feminism and how is your leadership aligned with your definition?” Now I should admit that I have no formal training in women or gender studies, or, for that matter, in any other field that qualifies me to judge her response with any authority. I was just genuinely curious to know her answer and thought her interviewers might be interested, too. So I wanted her to have an answer ready at her fingertips for the real thing. But when she started to define feminism in terms of women, I thought her description might be too limiting.

As I see it, feminism is a misnomer. The field studies the general mechanisms of oppression and societal priority and, if done well, tries to figure out how to redirect and/or obliterate those forces. Without knowing anything about them, I’d say the same goes for African American studies, queer theory and the like. They might differ in the details, but the spirit is the same. That’s why WGS departments routinely host courses on masculinity, reality TV, urban sprawl, colors, and boats. The point is to figure out what society thinks is important, how those prioritizations are implemented in daily behavior, what the consequences of those choices are, and then to do something about it if necessary. Each of us makes lots of choices everyday—from what to eat, where to be seen, what to wear, and who to smile at—and all of those choices communicate information. Consequently, we should rename women, gender, and sexuality studies to something more general, less political, and more honest. How about ‘social dynamics‘ or ‘advertising’?

Because it deals with the fundamental question of how large groups of people value things in society, gender theory is widely applicable wherever large-scale disparate treatment exists. Since taking that course this winter at the Ed School, I’ve decided that urban education tries to tackle fairly identical problems. Our urban public schools are flooded with poor students of color, while their privileged white (putatively all-male) counterparts escape to a protected life in the suburban lands of milk and honey. How did this happen; how can we fix it; and what do those questions even mean?

The rhetoric in class focused largely around some vague thing called privilege. As far as I can tell, privilege in this context amounted was code for having money and the things that money can buy. And there’s compelling evidence that at least some differences in education are simply a matter of money. The international PISA test results are pretty damning when disaggregated by poverty rate. It goes without saying that the physical conditions of many urban schools are deplorable. What these kids endure is heartbreaking, criminal. But to write off the problem to a matter of resource allocation is lazy, a little self-righteous, and doesn’t help kids. What’s money good for if you can’t keep it? The staggering poverty of some former NFL players provides a good case in point. What we need is to think carefully about the systems that generate and maintain wealth for some but not others. As a clumsy first step, we need to unpack that elusory notion privilege.

At the end of the day, privilege is the ability to avoid hardship. Money can get you out of a lot of difficult situations. That’s why I think that people often regard privilege as a heritable good like money or real estate. But its power really derives from interpersonal interaction. No man is an island; it takes two to privilege. As I see it, privilege is different depending on who originates the interaction. In one case, privilege is granted—like when a car stops to let a pedestrian cross the road. In the other, privilege is exerted—as when a family moves from one neighborhood to another that suits them better. Of course the two types are intertwined. In the first example, the driver noticed the pedestrian and stopped, granting the right of way. The pedestrian had to recognize the situation and then exert her privilege to cross the street. Like I said before, it takes two to privilege. More complicated feedback can and certainly does exist in real life. In this post I’ll focus on granting and leave exerting privilege for another time.

In education, it’s useful to know the sources of privilege so that we can teach our students how to leverage what they’ve got. If a student has good teeth, her smile is going to gain her, largely through the accident of her birth, an upper hand over her peer with a crooked smile. People will trust her more. She’ll get more attention from teachers and bosses. As a result she’ll be rewarded for the success others, in part, have granted her. If she learns how to exert this privilege, she can cash these chips in for more success down the road. Once you prime the pump, success flows more easily. (Anyone who’s been job hunting knows well that a good resume begets a better resume.)

And so positive feedback will reinforce the small but noticeable advantages she started out with, like her winning smile. We might believe her success comes from dispositional traits, like hard work and politeness—and to be sure, those pieces need to be in place as well. That’s the American Dream, after all. But we need to step back and see the system for the trees. People respond to visible traits like speech, posture, height, hair style, skin color, gender expression, and dress. They read social cues and reply in turn. When lots of people all respond to these cues in a sustained and coherent way, they generate full institutions of systematic advantage and disadvantage. That’s what urban education is trying to understand and rectify. But it’s hard not to judge a book by its cover. If you know that, it’s easier to game the system. I’ve personally benefited immensely from misread social cues, which I’ve gone on to exploit.

On paper I fit the urban stereotype, minus the urban part. I’m Mexican, from a poor, single-parent family in a rural suburb of Boston. My friends and I drank in the woods to the light of homemade bonfires on the weekend. But I look white. My body type is slender; I have blue eyes, fair skin and brown hair. People, even Europeans, regularly assume that I’m British or Scottish. (I’m not, but thank you.) In college I learned to play squash, developed a taste for sherry, and started wearing bow ties to formal events. When I walk into a room, people grant me all the privilege a white man could want, even if my family were homeless for a time while I was away in college. What’s on the outside matters first, because that’s what people experience first. In my case, my exterior purchases me privilege because that’s what people are willing to pay to someone who looks and acts like me.

Changing what society thinks is worthy of reward is a long, hard seed to sow. And we need to continue on that front. It goes without saying that the same positive feedback that has helped me time and time again could easily have hurt if I looked different, talked differently, or dressed differently. Systematic disadvantage is real and consequential. But as educators, we can hasten the process of useful change if we teach our students the rules society plays by explicitly. We can give them generative tools to acquire and maintain privilege for their own ends. It doesn’t require expensive smart boards or computers or even books. That’s why I love giving mock interviews, write tutorials for paper writers, and askers for letters of recommendation. The best part about this approach is that the rules themselves can help to suggest actionable points of intervention. (Yes, I know I haven’t pointed any out yet. I’ve been setting up the system. The opportunities for change are coming, I promise.) But we’ve only read half the the story. Students need to be able to generate, identify, and exert privilege when the circumstances are right. And who better to teach them than educators?


Power meters

Above: I often stand by these power meters while waiting to meet someone at Charlie’s Kitchen. Once inside, I always order the double cheeseburger with onion rings. When choosing seating, upstairs is better than downstairs; the beer garden is better than upstairs.

The Rewrite

Recently I promised to follow up on just how I rewrote that final paper for the course I took at the Ed School this January because I think the strategy I used probably works for many of the classes at HGSE and, to my dismay, many other classes all over the place. In the tutorial below, I walk through how I wrote my paper to show you exactly how these methods might take form in practice. After all, worked examples bring principles to life.

I couldn’t dedicate a lot of time to redraft my paper. Although I worked hard to come up with a new idea that synthesized what I had learned during the course, to demonstrate more fully that I had drawn on the sources explicitly for my inspiration would require a lot more thought and time than I had to spend fixing up a paper for a pass/fail course that I took for fun. I already came up with new ideas and understood old concepts differently. Now I needed to sit down for a few hours, write fast, and be done with it. So I decided start over from scratch. Here’s what I did:

  1. Don’t pick a thesis topic. Instead claim that the situation at hand—in this case, the historical blight that continues to trouble urban education—is complicated and that the solution must therefore be complicated, too. If you say anything more specific, then your grader can argue with you. Eschew statements of substance. It’s impossible to wrestle with a ghost.

    To combat these [aforementioned] structural evils, we must take a multi-pronged approach to balance the differences in access to and use of quality educational resources (including but not limited to adequate school buildings, textbooks, well-trained teachers and supportive administration) that have accumulated throughout the history of our nation.

  2. Next summarize each of the readings one at a time, one paragraph at a time as they appear on the syllabus. Restrict your attention primarily to the readings you did. If the syllabus is split into sections with obvious themes like “Segregation” or “Finance Reform”, preface those summaries with a paragraph explaining why that theme is important.

    To understand why my and many public urban classrooms around the country have a disproportionately high representation of poor and students of color today, we must look into political choices of yesteryear. While it is common knowledge that it is illegal to legislatively mandate segregation, other perfectly legal social forces can still institute de facto segregation silently and efficiently.

    Be sure not to inject your own thought. Summaries should not introduce new ideas or material. Tow the party line. The readings were selected because they are important. Demonstrate that you understand how important the readings are by rephrasing their main points. Again, try to leave out substance whenever possible. Justification and nuance only give the grader something to disagree with. You can get the details wrong even if your summary is correct.

    For example, if you ask a kindergartner the shape of the world, she’ll invariably respond, “It’s round.” That’s what we teach kindergartners, after all. And her answer is correct. If you push a little further, though, and ask her to draw the shape of world, she may very well draw a pancake. Round, but wrong. What’s the moral? Elaboration is dangerous. Simply restate generalizations mentioned in class without backing them up. The teaching staff will assume you know what you’re talking about.

    Multicultural education offers a hope for real change in the lives my students. […] By presenting academic heroes and ideas from a diverse range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, we validate the identities and experiences of our students. Students from marginalized groups will be able to see themselves in the narratives of a host of historical figures and interpret their stories into realizable, personal action.

    Aside: It pains me to offer the above quotation without qualification. Saying that students will automatically learn from role models just because role models are around is shortsighted. Such a strategy is just as effective as locking up kids learning to read in a library because being around books confers kids with ability to read. Sadly, that’s just not how the world works. Using resources is tough stuff. That’s why teachers exist, at least in part. Otherwise we could just shut kids up in prison cells outfitted with the newest and best educational tools and expect them to emerge smart and successful. But when you’re writing a paper, it doesn’t matter if your argument makes sense or lacks evidence, as long as it sounds good.

  3. Sprinkle in numerical examples whenever possible. The earlier you can unload a statistic into the paper, the better. Numbers always make arguments more authoritative. You can easily pull numerical examples from sources you didn’t actually read ahead of time. They can be used without presenting appropriate context and they quickly add to your paper’s reference count. In the following example, the statistic I quote has no direct relation to my claim. But the words sounds more or less similar, so the numbers do their job: my argument carries force. Notice how I follow up with another another sweeping, data-free assertion? It doesn’t follow from anything I’ve mentioned, but that’s beside the point. Numbers are really powerful. Use them to your advantage.

    Racially and economically segregated neighborhoods immediately translate into racially and economically segregated schools. In 1997, for example, Public School District 65 in the Bronx enrolled only twenty-six of the eleven thousand elementary and middle school-aged children who were white. The result was a legal segregation rate of 99.8 percent (Kozol, Shame of a Nation, CP p. 4). As a matter of course, such segregation persists in public urban university classrooms for much the same reasons.

  4. Acknowledge your own personal failings. Without being specific, produce broad mandates that will make up for your human frailties. Papers in education need to draw on personal experience and exhibit emotional appeal. Try to make your writing obviously smack of social justice, even if you end up being backhandedly racist. Any sentiment backed by good intention is ipso facto valid in this sort of class. The image of the noble savage was an especial favorite in this class. Of course you’ll need to swap out the word savage with something more suitable like “diverse”, “urban”, or “disadvantaged”. Do not define your terms. It’ll only make you sound condescending and/or prejudiced.

    As an instructor at an urban public school it is vital that I understand the social forces that have shaped my institution and positioned the students in my classroom so that I can be sensitive to their uniquely “urban” needs. To this end, as an urban educator I must celebrate the diversity of my students and expose and repurpose the mechanisms that have nurtured systematic inequality in order to level the playing field for my students.

  5. To illustrate the validity of your thesis, include at least one source to disagree with. If you can show that someone else is wrong, then you must be right. This tactic has been enormously successful in all sorts of political campaigns. (E.g., if evolution can’t explain the origin of life, then God must exist.) Moreover, there’s a fantastic chance that your professor will indicate which of the readings is wrong in lecture or during a class discussion. Just reiterate whatever the class decided was mistaken. Ostensibly, the course prepared you to write your paper. Don’t do any extra work. It’s already been done for you.

    In fact, [Hirsch] goes further to say that to merely understand the cultural circumstances of knowledge is not enough; he believes the truly literate person can wield this background information in her writing and that this incorporation is necessary if she wants her voice to be heard by other literate people. Of course, cultural literacy is really a polite way of signifying membership in the dominant power structure. Students from diverse backgrounds have learned to think, communicate, and live differently, not worse.

  6. Lastly, address some of the shortcomings of your approach. You merely need to acknowledge their existence and provide a slightly refined restatement of your thesis as the solution.

    If you can’t come up with a chink in the armor of your framework, then try to answer the following interview question: What is your greatest weakness? Your answer should pretend that a strength is actually a weakness and then explain how in reality your weakness is a strength. You know, “My greatest weakness is that I work too hard.” “I’m a perfectionist.” Straw men always fall easily.

    [I]t is not straight-forward how to assess a very bright student who does not display her intelligence according to outmoded though prevailing measures of standard success. Strict rubrics and standards seek to normatively define achievement, rather than to democratize education (Slater, p. 20). Therefore, it is important to expose the individuality of each student by providing [assignments] that engender creative and personally meaningful expression and accompany such exercises with opportunities to explain the thought process that help to generate the end product.

  7. In your conclusion, don’t be afraid to paint that better world we all could live in. That is, if only people took what you learned in your class seriously. Again, infuse your words with the spirit of social justice for a strong finish.

    While multicultural curricula, as I have outlined here, will not immediately change the large-scale structures that have created a landscape of imposed segregation and inequality in our urban environments, the long-term, coordinated efforts to celebrate the diversity in our student populations will eventually change the way students of privilege think about and understand their diverse classmates. As an urban educator, it is my hope that I will instill the values typified by multicultural curricula in my students so that they will choose to improve society over the natural but selfish inclination toward individual gain.

Good luck and happy writing!

Next Year in Jerusalem

Waiting for space on the tarmac
Above: The morning I left Israel was warm and wet. The rain was sudden and unsatisfying. Fortunately it did not delay our departure. From my window I spied on this security vehicle, whose presence, I assumed, guaranteed that my luggage would not be forgotten before we crawled onto the tarmac and sped five thousand miles home.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Strawberry carnage in my sink
Above: This is the carnage wrought by my roommate after a recent trip to Haymarket to stock up on fruits and vegetables for the week. An empty glass cleaned of its delicious salsa verde contents stands sentinel over the garbage disposal, as small fruit bodies await their final, environmentally friendly demise.

I recently purchased my first digital camera. Following my friend Emma’s suggestion (and perhaps inspired a little by Emerson), I want to find one beautiful thing every day. Okay, so this picture was taken a week ago. But I like it. Try and keep me honest. I dare you.

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

This winter I ventured over to a part of campus that I hadn’t explored in the ten years I’ve been hanging around Harvard. In January, I took a two-week boot-camp style overview course on the ‘Foundations of Urban Education’ at HGSE. As many of you may know, I’ve always had a sweet tooth for teaching and learning. As an undergraduate I helped teach in the Mathematics for Teaching graduate program at the Extension School. After graduation I ended up at a publishing company where I wrote the chapter exams for middle school math books. (If you’re a sixth grader in California, I’m sorry.) At the same time I started in a spunky, free-thinking masters program in education at UMass Boston before getting whisked away to teach introductory computer science elsewhere in the university. Along the way, I hung around an urban charter school in Dorchester as part of my coursework. To be sure, education is really important to me.

So at first I wasn’t sure what to make of my HGSE course. These days I spend most of my time in the lab with delicate scientific instruments, goofy and less delicate scientists, and large, slippery, and quick-moving frogs. The pressures of real-time classroom conservation in a field that I’d been away from for so long with people who live and breathe this stuff everyday was, to be perfectly frank, intimidating. We had received our course pack and reading list in early December. Because time was at a premium, all of the lectures were prerecorded and posted ahead of time. And the teaching staff encouraged us to hit the books nearly a month before the first day of class. Yowsers. I had a lot of catching up to do.

But then the course started. I assumed course discussion would reflect the same sort of openness and thoughtfulness I had enjoyed at UMass. But if I learned anything in those classes, it was that I need to dispense with assumptions, suspend judgment, and, as we say sometimes in biology, let the data speak for itself. And, oh, did my classmates speak.

Never before had I encountered such persistent intellectual bullying. Not just at Harvard, but anywhere. It was shocking to me that some ideas could be heretical; certain topics entirely taboo. The main theme of the course was exactly what I expected: there are large groups of people (mostly blacks and Hispanics) who have been systematically disadvantaged throughout their history in this country. On the other side, another group (of wealthy, white men specifically) has manipulated mainstream social and political structures so that their children are systematically advantaged. To level the playing field we need a swift injection of money and multiculturalism. All of this seems completely reasonable if done reasonably. I want to give a voice and power back to the dispossessed; don’t you?

The sermon was predictable. Course material provided us with sound bites that we could wield quickly in a pinch. But the way I was supposed to think was fundamentally unchanged. In fact, it felt like that was by design. Opinions that weren’t recognizably aligned with the gospel truth were denied flatly. Those ideas that actively disagreed with mantra of the noble but disadvantaged youth—savage is no longer politically correct, but the sentiment is—were silenced. My classmates rode around on the white horse of moral supremacy to quash discussion and avoid making concrete suggestions for fear of criticism. Whenever someone took a definite stance, someone else inevitably asserted their fears that the dominant power structure was secretly creeping in to rob the poor of their humanity. Now don’t get me wrong, many times that was exactly the case.

The extent to which people who extolled the enlightened practice of listening burrowed their heads in the sand to hide from new ideas would have been laughable were these people not actual educators who interact with actual children. In group break-outs, my classmates railed against me (and other heretics) with passion but without evidence. During an exercise on curricular planning, for example, I suggested that mathematics isn’t itself hierarchical and that our classes need not be. Algebra doesn’t need to precede geometry. We just insist it does because of an accident of history that has been frozen into the curriculum. I didn’t mention my experience in math education. I wanted my ideas to stand for themselves. A classmate of mine insisted that math follows a linear order. Basics first. Advanced topics later. And that’s that.

Another time, I pointed to models of inequality that abolished race but were unable to dismantle financial segregation. Consequently I suggested that we should investigate how people acquire and maintain wealth and incorporate what we learn into our classrooms. This time another student, at a loss for words, told me that segregation was about race. It just is. Full stop. My TF consistently commented that my response papers could be stronger if concluded something that I believed contradicted my main arguments. Naturally, her arguments recapitulated the party line: in this case, that honors tracks are categorically bad. Like Lisa Loeb, I was only hearing negative, “No, no, no. Bad.”

My meeting during office hours with the professor was the most surprising example of this multiple-ways-of-knowing, except-in-this-class philosophy. Initially I had scheduled time with her to talk about careers in education, but by the time our appointment rolled around it was clear that our conversation would focus on my final paper and its subsequent rewrite. I should admit two things about my final exam. First off, I was confused about what a semi-reflective, semi-analytical paper ought to look like and my first guess was bad. My paper was disjointed and poorly written. Second, I put a lot of original thought into it. The version I submitted contained what I believe to be a thoughtful proposal for urban educators that integrated, if indirectly, most things we had read, discussed, or otherwise touched on in class. In lecture, our professor asked, “how can we best respect the diversity in our classrooms?” To come up with an answer, I defined respect and diversity, drew meaningful connections between them and proposed a framework for thinking about diversity which differed usefully from those found in our readings. But my response wasn’t “recognizable” to my TF or professor. And more, importantly, it seems, my paper didn’t explicitly retell the history of inequality in American schools. They needed a book report narration to prove that I had done the assigned readings. These were important, after all. At one point during our meeting I asked directly if I should just parrot back the readings one at a time for my redraft. At this point the professor responded that she would not usually want to sound so “anti-intellectual”, but that yes, that would indeed suffice.

The point of my favorite reading, one by Hirsch, argued that in order for a marginalized voice to be heard, it needs to speak the same language that those in power speak. The class had universally dismissed Hirsch, because they claimed (incorrectly) that he privileges rich, white viewpoints. In doing so, they proved his point: if you don’t sound intelligible, no one will treat you intelligently. So figure out how intelligent people sound and talk like them, but say what you think. The conversation I had with my professor, who specializes in civic education, marginalized voices, and social justice, did just the same. My point wasn’t recognizable, so it didn’t exist. (Like my TF, she also decided that my paper was about the necessary evils of tracking.) I’ll tell you how I rewrote my final paper in case you ever take a class at HGSE. There’s a recipe you can follow. It doesn’t require much thinking but guarantees success.