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The Nice White Lady Tells a Thanksgiving Story

posted: 12.17.12 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

In reviewing my teaching notes for the grammar class I taught this term, I found many examples of how student used inductive reasoning to solve grammar problems. Most often and most successfully, the students would work together to figure out how to use inductive reasoning more actively in the classroom. Instead of memorizing concrete rules to apply to grammar exercises, the students learned to abstract the rules from the exercises themselves.

By the end of November, students engaged in heated arguments about the correct responses to the grammar problems they encountered. For instance, what was the difference between an action completed in the past and an action that happened in the past but was continuous? Jamie (a fictional character in one of the grammar problems) wished to quit smoking but did not succeed. Did Jamie’s attempt to quit smoking count as a continuous challenge or as a completed past action?

As I listened, I grew joyful, for here was yet another example of meta-cognitive thinking about language and its uses; or, as one student defined it, thinking self-consciously. The discussion about meta-cognitive thinking looped back around to our ongoing conversation about the differences between “proper” English and academic English, including the intersections between language and culture. Yet all of us were speaking in the abstract. Since this class took place the week after Thanksgiving, I asked the students if they wanted to hear an autobiographical nice white lady Thanksgiving story. They did:

Once upon a time, in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964, it was Thanksgiving. I was in the first grade that year, but we did not learn about the Civil Rights Movement in my segregated white public school. Instead, at Thanksgiving, our class put on a holiday play. I wanted to be a Pilgrim but the teacher said no, pilgrims did not have brown eyes. I would have to play an American Indian. I was a very serious child and I did what my teacher told me to do. But I never forgot her comment. While I still received an education based on unacknowledged white privilege, that teacher’s words and actions made me pay attention to how people are treated differently because of appearance. And I never forgot it.

“Of course you wouldn’t forget,” the students said. “Not at such a young age. Not to mention,” added the students, “that the teacher got the Thanksgiving story wrong.” 

I had experienced that difficult Thanksgiving moment only once. My early fluency in “proper” English reading, writing, and speaking helped me claim white privilege relatively early in my education. I grew up as a nice white child with brown eyes and black hair, and attended college and graduate school without having to worry about remediation in English. There would be other struggles, but being called out continuously for not using “proper” English would not be one of those struggles.  

Yet my experience in the first grade does not provide an automatic innocence for my work as a basic skills teacher. As a nice white lady teaching students of color, I urgently need to practice meta-cognitive thinking, as well as think self-consciously about my own relationship to issues of race and education. More specifically, addressing race directly in class did not cause a revolution and did not close down students’ learning or the class discussion. In fact, talking about race opened up our work together and allowed all of us to address the elephant in the room: that the students were people of color and that the teacher was a nice white lady. 

“None of us are born speaking academic English,” I offered.

“Yet,” the students suggested, “some of us learn academic English and then we forget where we came from.” Nods of agreement followed from students who had been listening carefully to their classmates and had not yet spoken on this topic.

“Indeed,” I said, realizing that my response would evolve from years of own enculturation in segregated white public schools that could not envision brown-eyed girls as Thanksgiving Pilgrims. “Keep learning academic English—and use your learning for the greater good.”

Learning academic English is not merely an isolated problem for individual students in need of “remediation.” Rather, our obsession with remediation is a societal problem for which all of us hold responsibility. If such interconnections seem initially invisible, consider the social impact of national disasters. As individuals, we remain vulnerable to the elements and to the fragility of the infrastructure of our surroundings. Yet as we contemplate relief and recovery, we come to realize that we need the greater community to support our efforts and to believe in our resilience as we rebuild our lives. We need not feel sorry for anyone, or conversely, to blame anyone for the randomness of a storm over which no one had any control.

Even if our choices limited, we hold ourselves accountable for interrogating deficit models of basic skills. As an alternative, we can discover the strengths we share as teachers and students, and create a more affirmative model for learning basic skills.   If our days remain fraught with challenges, we can remind each other of the larger goal. Working together, we have an opportunity to make it right for the next generation. Let us begin by practicing the present tense and moving beyond the past imperfect.



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