Why Field Trips and Experiences Matter: Building Social Capital

I often wonder how it was that my siblings and I were all able to graduate high school, get accepted to college, and graduate from college to go on to successful careers. There are six of us, five girls and one boy. But the thing that makes our story extraordinary is that we are all first generation Mexican Americans and we all graduated from NMHS. We are a living and breathing example of the capability that our students have. I have often thought about the magic formula that my parents used to help us achieve these great feats. One thing that I have found indispensible is social capital.

The Puente Southern California Trip is an exercise in building social capital. Think about it. Where did you get your social capital? How did you get the knowhow to be where you are today? For many of you, that may have been your parents. For first generation college students, social capital is not gained by their parents, especially if they are students of color.

What is social capital? “Social capital is defined by the OECD as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups”. In this definition, we can think of networks as real-world links between groups or individuals. Think of networks of friends, family networks, networks of former colleagues, and so on,” (OECD).

One of the ways that we gain social capital is through experiencing the world. When students get a chance to break out of their immediate environment, they face new challenges, meet new people, gain different perspectives and ultimately, learn new things. All of these things help them grow as people. But perhaps more importantly, these experiences expose them to the shared values and norms of the learned, of the college-educated world. Without first handedly experiencing the norms and values of another culture (college culture in this case), how will our students learn to navigate that culture? How will they learn not to fear it? How will they learn to start making it part of their culture?

I was fortunate, growing up, that my mother was a housekeeper for a lot of kind, liberal, educated people in Palo Alto who treated my family like family. They answered my mother’s questions about the American schooling system. They validated our efforts when I wrote a good story or when my brother tried out for the swim team. (I wonder if my brother would have become a swimmer had it not been for the Swigarts being totally cool with us using their pool while my mom cleaned. In fact, I wonder if I ever would have fancied myself an aspiring writer had it not been for my mom sharing my book with Mrs. Swigart, who was a writer.) My mom saw their kids go off to college. She pushed us to do the same. We grew up thinking of these people as friends who shared with us not just hand-me-down clothes but also kindness and knowhow. When Mrs. Debbs read to me, sat me down for tea, baked me cookies, she shared with me an awareness of being around learned, kind, good people that helped me when I went on to AP classes, college, and now in my career.

When we limit our students from exploring, from gaining social capital, we really limit their future. Think about how you gained your social capital. Now honestly think to yourself, where in their lives do my students get a chance to gain social capital into the culture of the educated, prosperous, and well-to-do?  Ask yourself, how can I help them gain social capital? How can I be a fount of their social capital?

Poem for Brown Boys from Their Teacher

Look into the eyes of knowledge; they are not hard to find. The eyes of knowledge and

opportunity are the two typed pages staring up at you from the novel you ignore as the

teacher reads. The Dunning Kruger effect states the less someone knows about a subject,

the more confident they are about it. Well, the Dunning Freddie Kruger effect says what

you don’t know is my nightmare. The truth is I can’t make you learn if you won’t. The

truth is…terrifying. The truth is…I want you to learn truths for yourself. The truth is that

although our ancestors invented the zero I don’t want you to be defined by it–by the

nothingness you feel that you are because you’ve allowed your teachers to think that’s

what you turn-in and therefore what you’ve turned into. No, you are a kind man whose

parents have taught kindness and pride; I see that in the eyes that tell me, yes, I want to

learn but I don’t want to be schooled; the eyes that beg for another way to learn that

doesn’t feel like a slap in the face to your sense of wonder. But you have to want it. You

have to try. Horses that are led to water and won’t drink die and remember that horses are

sacred to our people like you are sacred to our people. We need you to be a businessman

and not a hustler, we need you to be a lawyer not a liar, and we need you to fight with

words of the law and not be put away by them. Know that “the world is tough, but so are

you” (Kid President). Know that if you want to be something, you’ll have to have to have

to learn to write so you might as well learn it now. Know that I put effort into the lessons

I present you with and the least you can do in return is put effort into listening. Know that

nothing I teach you is bullshit; it’s all the filtered information that I have found

indispensible through the prickly lessons of an educated life that I wish someday for you,

but maybe you can escape some of the bramble, come away with fewer scars and

humiliations if you just listen to a little bit of my advice that has value because my skin

has pigment and I’ve read and understood literature with these brown eyes, shared my

insights that others couldn’t see because their privileges never gave them reason to.

Listen to me when I say that education is a currency that can never be bankrupt; it is gold

that the government can’t tax you on; it’s capital that doesn’t depend on the markets.

Listen to me when I tell you that my expectations for you are as high as the sky and your

expectations for yourself should be no lower, cause you fly like an airplane and you go

like a bullet train of progress that refuses to be defeated no matter how many politicians

drag it down; you go and get it, at any cost, not that green, but that beige that hangs in a

frame above the fire place at your momma’s house because that is the very least you owe

to her, to me, to the world, to yourself.

An Algebra for Equity

Remember that feeling that you always had growing up, of knowing you knew the answer but letting someone else tell you that you are wrong? Remember those times when you spoke up and said something brilliant and everyone was shocked? Remember that shame that you felt when someone spoke at you a little too loudly or over-enunciated using hand gestures when communicating with you and your family? Remember the time that you bought flowers for your boyfriend’s mom for her birthday and then took your siblings to lunch and the manager at McDonald’s yelled at you that “you guys can’t sell those in here? I am guessing that if you are white,  you probably have not experienced many of these actual experiences that I have undergone throughout my life. And there were so many more, and there will always continue to be so many more because people will always judge me first on what they think I am as opposed to treating me as a human first and letting their perception of me form thereafter.

I see this in our schools every day. Teachers who have no idea what it is like to be X assume that

a) they do know what it’s like to be X

b) the knowledge of them as Y gives them knowledge about their student as X

c)  all X students are losers whose families don’t value education

d) there is a certain way that you deal with X students

e) I, as a Y was able to do it, so you, as an X should be able to do it

Doesn’t this seem so stupid when we put in these stand-in variables that could be anything? Like, why would anyone who is Y purport to think that they could understand what it is like to be X? This is funny because in the objective algebraic world, Y does not equal X and Y and X can stand for anything, they can change from one problem to the next; in short, being Y is not better than being X and in every single problem, in every single situation, you need to figure out what X is before you going making any assumptions about the value of X.

So, what do variables have to do with race? I would argue that most teachers come to their students with this idea that I am Y most of my students are X and therefore they cannot do Q, except for those students that come from homes that teach them to be Y’s. Again, going back to my algebra analogy, wouldn’t it make more sense to figure out what X is all about before you start making assumptions about what x can do—what its value is?

I believe that all people are genuinely good at heart, and I believe students genuinely want to learn. I do believe that there are those students that you just won’t be able to reach, but I also think there are maybe like 2-5 per class, not half a class. Unfortunately I often see classes where half of the class is failing and I just think that is unacceptable. There can’t be that many unreachables in your class. And also, how many of those unreachables are a difference color and gender than you?  And so, I believe that the key is to treat every student that comes into your care as his or her own special variable that you need to figure out, get to know, understand. And, treating them them like both of you are kind, decent people is the way to solve the problem that gets you the answer to the variable. And don’t say that you don’t see differences between Y and X. There should be differences between Y and X. To say there aren’t invalidates X’s X-iness!  And also, none of your students buys it for a second that you don’t see difference between them and you—X will not become more like a Y just because Y says it doesn’t believe in variables.

Ultimately, I believe that all educators would agree with the following suggestions that  a) they should get to know the individual needs of all their students b) they should treat their students as people (aka, how you want to be treated—with respect, in a way that keeps your dignity in tact) c) they teach with compassion d) they teach with a realization that not all students perform at the same level and some will need lots of extra help. But I truly wonder how teachers actually put these beliefs into practice in their classrooms. How many educators say hurtful things, if not in class to their students, then behind their backs to their colleagues? Yes, I know that our students frustrate us every day. Yes, I know that they sass us and disrupt. These are not behaviors to condone, but we need to have more awareness of why they are doing what they are doing. And always remember, that is someone’s baby—that child probably has an aunt or uncle who is a teacher who doesn’t want you mistreating them and punishing them through shame and ridicule. I say, treat your students as though they are your nieces and nephews—stern but loving.

I would venture to guess that most of the teachers who are Y’s do not know that they are Y’s nor that they treat their students as X. At this point, I would like to ask all educators to reflect on their practice. Start by asking yourself—are the vast majority of my students learning in and passing my class? If not, ask yourself why you think that is. As a teacher, this should be your ultimate objective and if you have 30%, 50% even 80% of your students failing, you really need to look deeply at your practice and at your belief systems and see if you aren’t a Y who sees your students as an X. And if you come to realize that you are, that’s okay. You aren’t an immoral person who is going to teacher hell (you probably already feel like you’re there anyway, and I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way).  I have been there. There are some days when I still come back to being a Y. This whole business of (I know, you’re going to scoff) cultural relevance and cultural sensitivity is not a science—it’s a continuum of practice, reflection, compassion, and growth—just like all teaching should be.

So, what I posit is that we all foster an effective learning environment with discipline and dignity. Here are some suggestions for doing just that:

Have a well-thought out classroom management plan in place and stick to it; this will make sure you are seen as fair and that certain kids don’t feel like they are being called out. How many times have you been in a class where everyone is talking and off task, but the loudest kid, and probably the most striking, either because of his attire or color, gets the punishment. That child usually gets indignant, understanding that an injustice really has been perpetrated against him, since, basically, he got called out for being the most X. If you have an effective management plan, this can be avoided. Start by having the entire class get quiet before you go on. If and then that one child keeps at it, check in with him quietly, let him know you need to see him after class, and talk then about how he was breaking the norms that you really need in order to be able to teach him as best you can. Trust me, the kids don’t respect you any more just for being mean.

Understand the difference between cultural behavior and malicious behavior.

Discipline before you are angry

Decide what is really really important to you that you are going to enforce

Use the interactive lecture or I do, we do, you do class structure to minimize day dreaming and idle time during which kids can get in trouble—when kids work independently for longs period of time and it’s not a test, I rarely see a majority working.

Make class a fun/ safe/ inclusive/ inviting place where student will want to be; it should be a punishment to be sent out.

Have your first or second consequence be contacting parents.

Allow kids to earn the ability to get out of a punishment by exhibiting preferred behaviors after the consequence has been doled.

Keep students in for mini-consequence-conferences at lunch.

Use proximity to maintain a positive environment.

Don’t use eye contact with all kids as many actually see that as a threat in their culture.

When you want a kid to do something, like pick up something they “dropped” on the ground, start with, “Can you do me a favor…”

Remember, it’s all about allowing someone to change their behavior and keep their dignity in tact.

 

 

Cultural Amnesia

Please do not groan and roll your eyes when I say you might hold prejudiced views toward others.  Everyone holds prejudice. I always assume African American people are awesome, that Latinos probably think I’m pocha, and Indian people are so nice to me because they think I’m Indian. I always assume white people are judging me, asking themselves, why does this young Latina girl own a house, why does she drive a nice car, how is she qualified to teach English or to educate me on social issues? I feel eyes peering at me when I shop. When I first moved to Castro Valley, a white lady rudely asked me if I worked at Ross, despite the fact that I was perusing items and carrying a purse. But in her mind, a person who looked like me couldn’t be on the same social level as a person like her.  Growing up, my mom cleaned houses in order to support us, and when my sister Alex was accepted at UC Berkeley, my mom told one of her bosses (whose son was a college drop-out despite his privileged Palo Alto upbringing) who then angrily turned away, offended, without offering any sort of a dignified response. How could my maid’s child be attending UC Berkeley?! And that’s the rub. People still think this way whether it is conscious or not.  

As a nation, we need to understand that this is still a relevant issue, and that despite what Ann Coulter tells you, we do not live in a post-racial world. Before you roll your eyes and completely invalidate and discount something you probably haven’t experienced and most-likely do not understand, let me educate you a bit on what it is like to be Mexican in this state.

Everyone knows that the western United States were once part of Mexico. It wasn’t even that long ago. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848. To give you some scope, Lincoln was in politics when Mexico was double its current size. He opposed the Mexican-American war by the way. The United States started this war with Mexico in order to take their land. Many say the U.S. was just retaliating for spilled blood, but since Texas was still seen as being Mexican territory by Mexico, and since the U.S. came away with half of Mexico in the end, it does seem to me that the United States was the baddie. In school, I remember learning that Henry David Thoreau spent time in jail and wrote Civil Disobedience. But I don’t remember learning that he went to jail for refusing to pay a tax because he was against the Mexican-American War and did not want his tax dollars going toward an unjust war. When you see an unjust law, it is your duty to fight against it, is Thoreau’s argument. We learn that beautiful American sentiment, but we don’t learn about the War. We don’t want those Mexicans—those aliens—getting any ideas, thinking that what was done to them wasn’t what they deserved because the US had God on their side and God wanted them to have a country that reached from “Sea to shining sea” (Yes, this song’s about Manifest Destiny.) No, instead, after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Mexicans who were on the “U.S. side” were made American citizens, whether they liked it or not.  According to www.archives.gov, in the treaty “The United States paid Mexico $15,000,000 ‘in consideration of the extension acquired by the boundaries of the United States'” (see Article XII of the treaty)…Other provisions included protection of property and civil rights of Mexican nationals living within the new boundaries of the United States (see Articles VIII and IX).” So the U.S. got half of Mexico for 15 million. Wow.

 

As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. promised to protect the “property and civil rights of Mexican nationals living within the new boundaries of the United States (see Articles VIII and IX).” Ha…ha ha ha. Ha! I call Dingo! To quote John Oliver. The story of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who owned what is now the Vallejo and Petaluma area, will alone tell you how well of a job the U.S. did to protect the property and civil rights of its new well-tanned citizens. The Vallejo City website will tell you how Mariano Vallejo graciously gave up 153 acres of land to begin the city that now bears his name. But the website mentions nothing about how a group of rag-tag Americans took him prisoner and took away most of his property. (Seriously, watch Latino Americans on PBS). And basically, Americans did this to pretty much every land-holding new American. The Mexican-Americans were outnumbered and couldn’t afford the legal fees to fight land disputes and so—poof—it was just taken away. Read the book, Reign of Gold by Victor Villasenor, and you’ll get an understanding of what it was/is like to be a person who is constantly being illegitimized as a human being in order to, in my opinion, make them forget their past, their dignity, their culture and therefore turn them into someone who can be controlled. In the book, which is based on interviews the author conducted with his family, the main protagonist’s nephews are convinced, no, they are certain, because it is the way it is, that Mexicans cannot have good jobs, cannot have wealth, cannot have nice cars, are not as good as white people. And sadly, we are an amnesiatic people. I grew up knowing nothing of my culture and history except that we have quinceaneras, Dia de los Muertos, loud music, and are generally seen as a people who are somehow less-than. I actually think that the treatment of American towards Mexico itself is an argument for immigration reform as reparations for America’s injustices toward and subsequent cover-up, subjugation, and hegemony of the Mexican people. And as Americans insist that all brown people are Mexicans, I will then too use that logic to say that all apologies and reparation due to Mexicans are  due to all Latinos. You, know, at the very least, an apology for taking our land and like, for killing black and brown people for no reason and letting people get away with it like all the time.  Oh, and not exploiting us economically every chance you get…is that really asking too much? Giving us a fair shot?

When you make people forget where they come from, you can tell them what they are. You can form their identity by the way you treat them. Intentionally, American culture keeps us from knowing the truth about our history because they don’t want us to see how much power and legitimacy we actually have. And they are afraid of this. This is what they actually think of us: http://topconservativenews.com/2014/03/mexican-diplomat-sees-crimea-as-a-model-for-breaking-up-the-united-states/

They don’t want us to see that their arguments illegitimating us as a people; insisting they somehow deserve to be here and in charge more than we do is a crock of shit. They are terrified of us. Race relations in this country are at the worst they have been in a long time. What everyone just wants is to be treated in a way that allows them to maintain their human dignity. Honestly, what we want is just to be treated as individuals, and not to be seen as a scourge, as a generalization. Think before you start a sentence with the word “all” and a plural noun.

And it doesn’t work the other way because the people in power are the ones who get to create the narrative—they are the ones who get to ascribe identities onto others, and so obviously they only assign good identities to themselves. This is why there is no real insulting word to call a white man. So no, we are not post-racial, no, reverse racism is rarely ever an actual thing (although I’ll tell you about my one experience of it sometime) and it certainly is not even in the top five racial things we should even be thinking about let alone discussing and giving actual credence to (ahem Fox “News”).  And so I say all of this to try to give you, the person who has experienced life differently than me and people who look like me, context as to how to start trying to understand me and people who look like me, especially, if you are trying to teach me—and teach me well.

 

Resources:

http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/guadalupe-hidalgo/

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-03-23/site/ct-crimea-texas-flashback-0323-2-20140323_1_crimea-new-mexico-abraham-lincoln

http://topconservativenews.com/2014/03/mexican-diplomat-sees-crimea-as-a-model-for-breaking-up-the-united-states/