Our National Amnesia: Remember, Immigrants Make America Great

NYC in the distance from Alaska Air Flight 11 on Wednesday, January 24

NYC in the distance from Alaska Air Flight 11 on Wednesday, January 24

Earlier this week, I spent a few days in New York City at Inman Connect. On the way into the city when I caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, I commented in my broken Spanish to my Lyft driver: she’s still there, she’s still beautiful.

For me, this trip was a timely reminder of our history. Unless you are a Native American (they were here first), an African-American descended from chattel slavery (we were brought here in chains), or a Mexican-American from one of the areas “ceded” in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (they didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them) you are likely either an immigrant or descended from immigrants.

In 2016, during the GOP primary, the $20,000,000,000 wall that candidate Trump wanted to build along our southern border was a punchline that other candidates rightfully derided. Now, mainstream GOP figures have gone from mocking the Wall to embracing it. It is now the centerpiece of the immigration plan being proposed by the congressional majority. The capitulation on the Wall, first by Republicans, and now by Senate Democrats is an indicator of what ails us.  

If you are white or believe yourself to be white, your family’s story likely goes something like the plot of Sergio Leone's 1984 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America: They arrived from the working class neighborhoods or farms surrounding Sicily, Dublin, Stuttgart, Krakow, Sarajevo, or East London. Many of them were not considered white in their lifetimes--they were called Wops, Polacks, Jews, Krauts, Olafs, Squareheads, and Micks. They arrived broke as hell. They arrived not speaking English. They moved into neighborhoods full of other immigrants and shopped at ethnic markets. They found work, backbreaking manual labor--farm work, construction, working in sweltering hot kitchens, driving taxis for 60+ hours a week. They lived in crappy apartments or small rural houses. They met someone and settled down. They put their children in school and taught them the value of hardwork. Their children spoke English at school and their native language at home. They sent long letters home in pidgin English singing the praises of America and the opportunities here. More recent immigrants sent home remittances via Western Union. Soon others from their villages, towns, and neighborhoods followed the paths they tread to America. They learned English over time, but spoke with a heavy accent until their death.

This is the American story. Immigrants to the US have always come from what some might call "shithole countries" and "shithole neighborhoods". But, they came with dreams. They worked, saved, bought homes, and helped bring other family members here. This is the “chain migration” our national leaders refer to with such derision. Chain migration is simply a means of family reunification.

I have shirt that says “Immigrants Make America Great.” I don’t wear it to make a political point. I wear it because I know our nation’s history.

I have shirt that says “Immigrants Make America Great.” I don’t wear it to make a political point. I wear it because I know our nation’s history.

A call to my conservative readers and friends: Over seventy-percent of Americans support protections for Dreamers. Reasonable people can disagree about policy: should DACA recipients be eligible for citizenship or just permanent residency? Should we have a diversity lottery or move to a points based system like Canada? Those are points up for debate. But, we can’t allow American nativists to dominate the national immigration conversation with their ahistorical tales and white-nationalist tirades. We can’t normalize the Breitbarts and Stephen Millers, nor their monochromatic, ethno-nationalist lexicons and worldviews.

Watching our national conversation about immigration, I feel like we’re losing a part of our collective humanity. Watching Christians whom I’ve known for decades turn into belligerent nativists is breathtaking. Seeing folks who claim to support family values, prattle on in dehumanizing language about “anchor babies” or “the illegals” shows how lost we truly are. The Dreamers I teach have committed no crime and are as American as my US-born students. My immigrant students from Africa give their all in the classroom and then work after school to support their families. My Salvadoran grads work hard and then set up side hustles selling pupusas out of their homes to make tuition. They are all as integral to the American tapestry as you or I.
 

Stop Berating Black and Brown Parents Over Charters (and Give Your Twitter Fingers a Rest)

Cesar_Chavez_Public_Charter_School_-_Bruce_Campus_DC.JPG

I read too many edu arguments for my own good. It’s a known issue in my household.

The argument I find most cringe-inducing is the fight over charter schools. With the news that Secretary DeVos is coming to Seattle, I’d like to put this out there for folks.

If there's one lesson that I have learned over the last few years, it’s that you're never going to convince a black or brown mother to change her mind about where to send her child by demonizing her choices, calling her a “neo-liberal,” or labeling her a “tool of privatizers.” And since black and brown parents are the primary target of most charter operators, this presents a conundrum I want to help my (mainly white) progressive friends work through.

Before I go further, a few caveats: I’ve worked in public schools since 2006. This is by choice. I have been offered roles in teaching, as a principal, and on the board of charter operators in my state. I have declined. I consider myself a “charter agnostic.” I believe the traditional public school is the right venue for the kind of work I want to do and the student population I desire to work with. But, I don’t begrudge the choices others make for their own children.

Now that my cards are on the table, I want to give y’all some advice:

You must address their concerns and motivations: The loudest, most vociferous opponents of charter schools I see are middle class, white, college educated, liberal-progressives entrenched within the educational establishment. In contrast, charter parents are typically from low-income neighborhoods that are serviced by under-resourced, low-performing public schools. Understanding that dichotomy is essential.

The ed establishment has a lot to answer for. Folks in educational spaces systematically silence, marginalize, and awfulize parents of color and their children. We can cite example, after example, after example, after (local) example. Add to this report-after-report about disproportionate discipline practices and persistent Opportunity Gaps, it shouldn’t surprise us that parents of color are looking for options and not in the mood for finger-waggy lectures on privatization. For activists this is a long-term societal-philosophical-cultural-political issue; for parents it’s an immediate, pragmatic what-is-best-for-my-child issue. You have to approach them through that lens. 

Work to improve the experience of students of color in traditional public schools: In urban areas, students of color are the bread and butter of charter schools. If these students received the quality of education they deserve and were treated with the dignity afforded to white, suburban, and wealthy students, charter schools wouldn’t exist and wouldn’t attract families of color at the rates they do. If you truly oppose charter schools, the most impactful thing you can do is work to make public schools places where students of color, particularly low-income black and Latinx students, feel valued, welcomed, and loved. 

Every time a parent of color enrolls their child in a charter school it's a vote of no confidence in the traditional K-12 public school system. Sooner or later we have to reckon with that.

You can be right on the issue and still be wrong: Here’s the deal, friends. You’re right about neo-liberalism and the decaying of public goods, but ain’t nobody trying to hear that from you when it comes to their child’s well-being. We all know there are awful schools and school systems out there in desperate need of transformation. The folks who are supposed to send their kids to these schools deserve better.

Whether intentional or not, sometimes it seems activists value the “institution of public education” more than they value the "outcomes of the kids within it." I don’t think this is actually the case, but this is a rhetorical misstep that parents of color see and that school choice advocates seize on.  

Screeds, hot take FB rants, and 300 word newspaper comments berating folks may feel good, but they also turn potential allies into actual enemies. If you really care about public education, you’re better off standing shoulder-to-shoulder with parents of color in pursuit of fair treatment, (non-test based) accountability for teachers, better instruction, and funding equity than you are berating them in FB threads and with your Twitter fingers.

That's the real work.

Dedicated to my friends Sheree, Keith, and Korbett for putting up with more nonsense than you should ever have to about what’s best for your own children
 

 




 

The Power of Books: The NNSTOY Social Justice Booklist

My current to read or re-read pile.

My current to read or re-read pile.

I should read more than I do. Everyone should. I think we’d be better off as a nation and a species if we all read more.

Teachers have a unique role in fostering a love of reading and engendering an appreciation for the power of books. As I think over my life, most of my philosophical evolution, the changes to my worldview, and pivots on important issues were driven by the written word. I was a College Republican, until I discovered Orwell. I hated scifi, until I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin. I thought environmentalism was hokey, until I discovered Derek Jensen. I only survived my fourth year of teaching, because I discovered Vicktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. More recently, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen changed how I deal with public acts of racial aggression (I groan--I don’t sigh).

This blog is called “A Teacher’s Evolving Mind.” I try to model in my professional practice and personal advocacy what it means to “learn publicly.” Two summers ago, I was traveling in Spain and read The Fire Next Time basically in one sitting. I turned to my wife, with tears in my eyes, and asked “why the hell didn’t someone put this in my hands when I was younger?” Last school year, following the election, we started a political bookclub for our students. Baldwin was one of the first selections we read. Many of my students had the same “scales falling from their eyes experience” that I had on that bus to Gijon. This is what we get to do as teachers. We get to introduce students to just the right book, at just the right moments in their lives.

#LincolnReaders aka the Bowling Bookclub

#LincolnReaders aka the Bowling Bookclub

This is a privilege, but at the same time can be daunting. Over the last year members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year have curated a “Social Justice Booklist” with selections by grade band and subject matter, and including book recommendations for teachers. It’s a collective effort by some of the best teachers in the country and it’s a great place to start when looking for books for students.

Some of my favorites from the list:

Esperanza Rising, a middle grades book, shows the long, complicated relationship between the US and Mexican-Americans looking for a better life and opportunities.

War Against the Weak, a high school book, discusses the (often well-intended, but clearly misguided) history of the eugenics movement in the US and elsewhere. I read this book in college with my jaw in my lap.

This is Not a Test, a book for teachers, written by #Educolor Founder Jose Vilson. Vilson was one of the first folks I saw online describe my own frustration of being a teacher of color, unsatisfied with the status quo, and simultaneously feeling dissatisfaction with the reform movement.

And even though it’s not on the list, for me, put Baldwin in every kid’s hand you can. Don’t let the Nates in your class be thirty-five before they read The Fire Next Time.