You are on page 1of 16

Mohiuddin 1

An Honest Homeplace for All: Creating an Inclusive Classroom Adolescent Development Tishna Mohiuddin October 28, 2013

Mohiuddin 2

Part I I am currently in the midst of teaching a unit on race in my ninth grade African-American History class at SLA-Beeber, a small public magnet school. The school is in its first year; and therefore, there is currently only a ninth grade. The student body represents a diverse array of students both racially and geographically. The faculty is primarily white. Of the eight present (including student-teachers), there are three Caucasian males, two Caucasian females, one African-American male, and two (including myself) Asian teachers. The class that I am currently teaching has five Caucasian students, sixteen African-American students, two Puerto-Rican students, three Asian-American students, and one Haitian student. Due to the novelty of the school, many are still in the process of adjusting to the social scene. A number of individuals have expressed a discontent with the school and a desire to potentially transfer. Their complaints have primarily been centered on the current lack of organized extracurricular programs and the lack of other grades in the school. One student complained that the school was full of weirdos, although, to my knowledge, he did not specify what he meant by this. I have noticed that the students who have openly complained are primarily AfricanAmerican and female. Although they have been vocal in terms of their hatred of the school, they have not specified their reasoning. I wonder whether their expressed dislike of the school has more to do with academic performance or with a cultural disconnect with the school. This is not to say that all the African-American females in the school have complained. The cultural disconnect, therefore, does not necessarily fall along distinct racial lines. My hypothesis is that the disconnect occurs for those who have are primarily interested in associating with students with similar cultural backgrounds, but are not finding a sufficient number of students to associate

Mohiuddin 3

with. I say cultural, and not necessarily racial, because I think that the mistrust that the group of the discontented are not necessarily distrustful of all white students, but more so, specifically those that they perceive to be comfortable with the dominant white culture. This hypothesis is supported by my observations and experiences in the classroom. This very same group of African-American females, who professes a dislike for the school and those attending it, come alive when we are discussing race in a contemporary context. In classroom discussion and in their written responses to homework prompts, they recount incidents in which they experienced racial discrimination. I really respect the honesty and insight with which they describe these experiences. Interestingly enough, many say that despite these experiences, they still remain strong and fixed in the belief that they are capable individuals. I admire this sentiment, but I cannot shed the suspicion that these students have been impacted by their experiences. I have seen several interpersonal conflicts during small group work in which members of this group have demonstrated a clear mistrust of white males. Students who do not seem to share this distrust and are relating with greater ease to other students in the class respond to this isolationist behavior with anger or derision. From written responses and classroom interactions, I have seen the African-American females who are adjusted to the school culture markedly distance themselves from those who are isolating themselves. The Caucasian and Asian students seem thrown off by the behavior and the means by which this group expresses themselves; some respond by making fun of them and some complain whenever they are made to work in groups with them. I, as always, am caught in the middle of these groups, both as an educator, and as a person who has had to code-switch between cultures all my life. I can fully understand and

Mohiuddin 4

empathize with the group that is mistrustful of dominant white culture. I myself went through a similar phase, which arguably is still playing out in some areas of my life. Similarly, I have had conversations and built relationships with the students that the discontented group mistrust and see that they are not hateful people and do not appear to have any fixed prejudices. Certainly, stereotypes are being held on both ends, but that, I think, is a function of the adolescent brain and its evolution as it processes the surrounding environment. All of this is occurring in the midst of my attempts to teach a unit on race. In my awareness of the social dynamic that has been characteristic of the school in its first few months; I have attempted to diversify our conversations between neutral, general discussions of race as a concept, to more personal, contemporary discussions. In a week and a halfs time; however, we will be embarking upon a unit on slavery which will inevitably more explicitly explore the atrocities that have occurred and been shaped by Americas evolving social construction of race, which victimizes the African-American community for decades to come. As an educator, I want to welcome personal responses to the material as I believe that people function best when they can utilize reason and emotion. However, in being sensitive to the underlying social tension that already exists in the school, is it possible to make these personal responses a regular part of classroom discussion or should they be limited to written responses? I am committed to the idea of creating a homeplace in my classroom, but in attempting to do so, I do not want to feed into the divide that is emerging between various groups. Ultimately, the central issue I am currently concerned with is how I can differentiate my instruction and the materials I present to my class in order to accommodate the variety of racial identities that exist within my classroom. Similarly, how do I respect the diversity and individual expressions of racial identity while simultaneously building a sense of trust and respect?

Mohiuddin 5

Part II It is only recently that these students have transitioned from a more neutral discussion of culture as a concept and the various components of Sub-Saharan African culture (a unit led by my classroom mentor, who is a white male) to the current unit on race (led by me), which is asking students to reflect on their own experiences regarding their racial identity. Therefore, in terms of data collection and experience, I will say that there is much left to be seen. I have noticed; however, that there appears to a significant increase in a participation from a variety of students who were previously silent. As I have mentioned before, it is primarily the AfricanAmerican females who are breaking their silence and now driving the conversation. The content thus far has primarily been centered on a variety of assigned readings, ranging from texts such as Black Men in Public Spaces by Brent Staples that speaks about contemporary matters on race, to an interview with Horton O. Smith, a historian, who discusses race as an evolving concept. It is through the latter that I am introducing the notion of race as a social construct, which hopefully will help make the conversation more inclusive to all. When explicitly discussing race, it is the more vocal African-American females who shine. After providing concrete definitions of the terms stereotype and discrimination, it was these students who pulled from a reservoir of personal experiences to provide detailed examples of the terms. Their responses fed into a more nuanced discussion of race and culture. However, as these students opened up, I noticed that the rest of the class a mixture of white students, one Asian student, and the remaining black students, who had not expressed a dislike of the school culture, fell silent or drifted off into unrelated side conversations. I found myself trying to hold

Mohiuddin 6

the discussion together and felt pulled in very two different directions. For instance, in one class when I asked students, after providing a concrete definition, to provide an example in which they saw or experienced discrimination. One African-American female student spoke about an incident in which she saw that an old white male had fallen on the street. As she went to help him up, he pulled away from her and refused her help. She said; however, that a few moments later, a white family came by and offered him help, which he accepted and appeared to be grateful for. She added that she was not surprised; she had anticipated that he would be racist. When I asked her why she had thought that prior to the encounter, and she said that her grandmother had told her that all old, white men are racist. Throughout this conversation, one side of the classroom was engaged in side conversations. Although Ive been told that this is behavior that is typical of fourteen year olds, I cannot help that students have already decided which students have something of value to say and which do not, and that it is this pre-judgment that is partly the cause of their unwillingness to listen to those outside of their peer groups. My suspicion is supported by observations I have made in dynamics between students during small group work. Recently, students had to work in assigned groups of four, which in and of itself caused a great deal of outrage. I thought this to be natural, but what was salient to me was the pattern of conflict that emerged between more vocal African-American females and quieter students as well as students who were more sarcastic in nature. These students responded extremely negatively to the sarcasm of their peers, particularly when it came from the white male students. Similarly, some were frustrated when they were grouped together with a person who was very quiet and never talked. The conflict began within the first five minutes of group work, which suggested to me that there was some prior schema that students were responding to.

Mohiuddin 7

The contrast between the outspoken African-American female population and the Caucasian and quieter African-American female population is mirrored in students written responses to readings that I have assigned for homework. One such reading was an excerpt from an interview with Anna Deavere Smith, a playwright, who is asked when she first became conscious of her race (see Appendix A). After asking students to re-state Smiths response to this question, I asked them to answer it in regards to their own consciousness of their racial identity, it was evident that based on the quality of their responses, the African-American students had disproportionately more experience in examining this question. In all fairness, it could be that the students of other races simply did not put as much effort into their assignment due to the demands of other classes. Nevertheless, due to conversations that Ive had thus far with educators in the Penn program, I cant help but think that this disproportionate interest reifies my belief that it is the African-American students, and particularly those who are more extraverted in their communication styles, that will shine when explicitly asked to elaborate upon their understanding of race and racial discrimination. Part III What I hope to gain a sense of as my experience teaching this particular class progresses is what the range of attitudes towards social identity exist within the classroom. I feel that I have a pretty clear understanding of the more vocal African-American girls. I can empathize with their frustration. Nevertheless, I worry about losing insight to the other forms of racial identity that exist within the classroom. Students, of course, are still in the midst of forming their identities. I strongly believe that Social Studies is a discipline, when taught meaningfully, that can facilitate this identity exploration. However, as one might expect, it is evident that these vocal AfricanAmerican students are considerably more comfortable and interested in engaging in this dialogue

Mohiuddin 8

on race and racial inequality than their peers. As I assess the social conditions of my classroom, I wonder how where the proportion of my students fit in terms of the four identity statuses prescribed by Marcia. Although, the Rotheram-Borus article on personal and ethnic identity cites a study in which women and African-American males have been reported to more frequently delay their search for a personal identity until midlife and thereby are said to have a foreclosed identity for their adolescent years, I wonder if this is particularly the case for the African-American students in my class (1996, Rotheram-Borus, Dopkins, etc., p. 36). I will say that I have seen some evidence in support of this argument in the homework responses of my students. When asked how one could inform others that their stereotypes of a racial group were inaccurate, many of the AfricanAmerican female students suggested simply continuing to do what they were doing before that contradicted the stereotype. Many also said that they themselves placed more of an emphasis on a persons personality over their race, which suggests that they were most concerned with identifying with only one aspect of self that is determined by the individual and perhaps had not yet explored the multiple aspects of self that can exist in ones racial identity (Jones, McEwen, p. 405). This indicated that these students felt a greater degree of agency in determining how they were viewed by others and that those who were not able to envision them similarly would be disregarded. After reading the Ward article on resisters, I could easily see these students having been taught from a young age to resist internalizing the notion that the enemy resides within the psyche of the black individual (1996, p. 89). One student explicitly told me that she internalized the belief that old, white males were racist, because she was told so by her grandmother. In responding to the possible reality that my students have been taught carefully

Mohiuddin 9

constructed narratives by their families and communities that are intended to combat the uncertainty and helplessness that can become ingrained in the psyche as a consequence of anticipated racial discrimination (1996, Ward, p. 94). I want to be careful not to rob them of strategies that are embedded as a form of resistance for liberation that are intended to act as long-term, empowering methods of coping with the harsh reality of racism (1996, Ward, p. 95). I am unsure as an educator exactly how to detect the difference between resistance for survival and resistance for liberation, and I believe this is part of what is making me hesitant to make any attempt to re-direct or aid students to re-define their observations about racial relations (1996, Ward, p. 95). However, I worry that if I am not able to detect a difference between the two in the near future, white students or those who are in moratorium may feel uncomfortable in the classroom and hesitate to participate (1996, Rotheram-Borus, Dopkins, etc., pg. 36). I believe the ability to resist maladaptive changes is an important skill to inculcate in all our youth, particularly at such an age where they are all exploring various possibilities of self (1996, Ward, p. 89). I dont think its appropriate for me to dictate what a maladaptive change is in every circumstance, particularly because it is subjective to the student. However, I do believe it is part of my job to provide them with communication and critical thinking skills that allow them to assess the pros and cons of various choices that become available to them in order to decide whether it is maladaptive, or beneficial to their psyche. Part of the solution might then be to identify what common communication strategies can be used by students when they are disagreeing with one another in the classroom. Another article that has been instrumental in my interpretation of the environment being constructed in my classroom is the one in which Stevenson and Arrington outline the various types of messages that adolescents have internalized through family racial socialization, which

Mohiuddin 10

include, coping with antagonism, alertness to discrimination, cultural pride reinforcement, cultural legacy appropriation, and mainstream fit (1996, Stevenson, Arrington, p. 126). My concern as of now is primarily that I am alienating those who fit comfortably into mainstream culture. These students are not necessarily all white. I have noticed that some African-American female students have pointedly placed themselves within mainstream society as an effort to distance themselves from the stereotypes of being ghetto or ratchet. For instance, after Student A, an African-American female, intimated that she would hit a person if they were behaving in a racist fashion with her, Student B, another African-American female responded, But that wouldnt be the classy response. As Stevenson and Arrington state, Some African-Americans publicly identify themselves as Black and some do not and this can influence the type of social tensions one identifies, is distressed by, or deems worthy of addressing (1996, Stevenson, Arrington, p. 126). In this case, Student B further elaborated on her desire to disassociate herself from a particular interpretation of African-American culture in a homework prompt. She wrote: The stereotypes that are associated with these are that I am ghetto. This is rude, ignorant, and disrespectful. [This] stereotype is absolutely inaccurate and gets me extremely aggravated. The tension about the perception of being labeled ghetto is an example that conflicts do not emerge necessarily along clear-cut lines, but instead along the lines of how each student processes his or her identity. Student B, placed more importance in identifying with multiple aspects of self whereas Student A placed more importance in relating with the aspect of herself that she determined as an individual (1996, Jones, McEwen, p. 406). It is not as if Student A is anymore eager to be classified as ghetto, but based on her response, she did not seem as conscious of whether or not others would perceive her that way when she spoke. This example illustrates, just as many of the authors of our readings imply, that tensions emerging from racial

Mohiuddin 11

identities do not simply fall along the lines of color and whiteness, but also exist within communities as well. Part IV The tension as an educator, and specifically as an educator of Social Studies, is acknowledging the salience of individual choice and social influence in the construction of identity. They advantages I have at my particular placement, is that SLA-Beeber utilizes an inquiry model of education for its students, which it extends to what it permits in terms of teachers individual pedagogies. Therefore, I have a lot of freedom to explore various methods of teaching in order to respect the differentiated needs of my students. This is particularly important as my students clearly are experiencing their respective identities racial and otherwise in a variety of ways. Although we are only talking explicitly about race as a concept and its relation to our students identities for one unit, tensions between races and culture will be studied throughout our course as we move on to slavery and the hypocrisy of the American founders in declaring freedom for all and allowing the continuation of the dehumanization of AfricanAmericans. The last thing I want to do is reproduce the racial tensions that exist in our society at large within the classroom, particularly at an age where students are extremely reactive. It is my responsibility to teach students that racism is a hierarchical system built around the social construction of race, but in doing so; I do not want students to feel disempowered. I think the importance students place on their own conception of their identity is a powerful coping mechanism to the many external changes theyll experience. Therefore, in proceeding through my lessons, I think its important to provide, both protective messages, which highlight oppression and racial dynamics as well as proactive messages which address

Mohiuddin 12

cultural empowerment racial dynamics (1996, Stevenson, Arrington, p. 126). In teaching African-American History, I think this means, that in my unit on slavery, for instance, I need to both outline the horrible tragedies of enslavement as well as the efforts made to resist passively actively both by members of the black and white community. Another strategy that I can employ (which was suggested to me by members of my Social Studies Methods class) is to explore the concept of stereotyping and discrimination via a topic that students share in common and that does not fall along the lines of race. I already attempted this in a class in which I asked students how they, on the first day of school, determined who they would befriend, who they would avoid, and who they were indifferent to. I then asked them how long this process took, and through students answers, I lead them to the understanding that well engage in the process of generalizing and oversimplifying, which are the processes by which people form stereotypes. I noticed that everyone participated, and students were more open to listening to each others answers. Another approach to facilitate an inclusive, honest and respectful conversation on sensitive subjects is to allow students to first discuss a set of questions within a small group of their choosing. I used this format for the aforementioned class, and I think that it allowed students to first speak openly with one another, which might have made them more comfortable and willing to express their ideas to the class at large. I believe this approach can be related to the concept of a homeplace which is mentioned in the Pastor, McCormick and Fine article (1997, p. 229). I believe the homeplace can be instrumental in aiding students to bridge the gap between how they experience their personal lives and how they relate in different spheres of society. As the authors state, insular homeplaces can provide young women with a space to transform their isolated analyses and make the personal political with profound opportunities for

Mohiuddin 13

development (1997, p. 30). The only revision I would make to this statement is that I believe students of both gender need a homeplace in school. Perhaps the homeplace is not organized around the same activities or in the same type of environment, but I see the need to be personable in a space within the school in all my students. The challenge becomes finding a way that they feel comfortable to do so with one another as well as when interacting with the teacher one-onone. In thinking of how I will proceed in my lesson planning as I move forward into the next week, I am thinking of a sentiment expressed in my Teaching Diverse Learners class what is good for those who are struggling, is good for all. The manner in which the goodness is imparted may vary, but I think ultimately, my challenge will be to create a sort of third space in which students various attitudes and communication styles and identities are accepted. Beyond acceptance, I also must find a way to provide students with communicative strategies that allow them to open their identity-construction to the materials I am presenting in class. To fulfill my end of the bargain, I must ensure that those materials and class activities address the variety of racial identities that are forming in my classroom. Ultimately, it is a need to create a model that is differentiated to suit a variety of personal, racial, and ethnic identities encompassing both students of color and white students.

Bibliography Garcia Coll, C., Lamberty, G., Jenkins, R., Pipes McAdoo, H., Crnic, K., Wasik, B.H., &

Mohiuddin 14

Vasquez Garcia, H. (1996). An Integrative Model for the Study of Developmental Competencies in Minority Children. Child Development, 67 (5), 1891-1914). Pastor, J., McCormick, J, and Fine, M. (1997). Makin homes: An urban girl thing. Chapter one in Leadbeater, B., & Way, N. (Eds.) urban girls: Resisting stereotypes, creating identities, Pages 15-34. Rotheram-Borus et al. Personal and ethnic identity, values and self-esteem among Black and Latino adolescent girls. Chapter 2 in Urban Girls, pages 35-52. Stevenson, H.C. & Arrington, E.G. (2009). Racial/ethnic socialization mediates perceived racism and the racial identity of African American Adolescents. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2): 125-136. Ward, J. (1996). Raising resisters: The role of truth telling in the psychological development African American girls. Chapter 5 in Urban Girls, pages 85-99.

Appendix A Interview with Anna Deavere Smith (from

Mohiuddin 15

Question: When did you first become conscious of race?

Anna Deavere Smith: Well I cant remember not being conscious of race. I guess Id have to have been pretty lingual, because even though most of the people around me were African-American people, there was still a sense when you went into other parts of Baltimore that there were White people. Or for example, my maternal grandmother took my brother and I and enrolled us in a camp when I was eight and he was six. And everybody in that camp was white except for one AfricanAmerican girl. My brother had blue eyes and blond hair, so people didnt always know that he was black. And so, you know, I was very conscious in that camp of not being white, and I was eight years old then.

So I think its something that in my generation is pretty deeply ingrained. I dont think that my niece, who is nine, has the same experience. Shes conscious, but I dont think shes selfconscious in the way that I was, because the message to us was that it was something that wasnt necessarily that great. And so you had to count on the people in your family, your church, and the people who were closer to you to try to make sense of that.

HOMEWORK QUESTIONS: Answer on a separate sheet of paper. You will be handing this in! 1. Write at least two to three sentences on how Smith became aware of her race. What is her race? Was her race defined in a positive or negative light?

Mohiuddin 16

2. How is her nieces awareness of her own race different than that of Smiths? 3. Reflection: When did you first become conscious of your race? Write down your experience in a well-thought out paragraph. If you need more than one paragraph to express your thoughts, that is more than okay. I will be collecting these on Thursday. Describe a particular encounter/conversation/setting. Was it defined in a negative or positive light? If you have never been made aware of your race, how else did you discover it? Appendix B Table 1 Race Number of Students of that Race in the Class Number of Students who Submitted the Homework Assignment Percentage of Students Who Submitted Assignment Number of Students who had a Salient Experience with Race Percentage of Students who had Salient Experience with Race 88.9%

AfricanAmerican Caucasian Puerto-Rican AsianAmerican Haitian



5 2 3

3 0 3

60% 0% 100%

1 0 2

33.3% 0% 66.7%