Teach for America Coursework 1

TFA sent along a bunch of coursework to complete prior to training in summer. Though the coursework is apparently not going to be tracked by TFA in any way, I figured I’d dive in and try to glean some good information from it. (Note: this is not going to be a polished, well-written post. It’s mostly just for me.) There are lots of readings and post-reading questions in the packet, so I’m going to use the blog to keep track of some of my initial responses to the questions and ideas TFA is posing. The first section presented four topics: Charter Schools, Common Core Standards, Politics and Teacher Evaluations. I was to choose three, read the corresponding articles, and think to myself about how these issues will affect me and my students, and what elements of the issues are not covered in the readings. Continue reading

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On Privilege

So, I went to this show last night in TriBeCa. My friend Abeline curated it. Her dad owns the space—a huge space, three floors or something—and he allowed Abeline and her friends to put on an art show there. The idea is that the show separates commerce from creativity; since the space was provided for free, artists could create just to create rather than to sell. Since the space was divorced from commerce, it also allowed people who don’t generally see themselves as artists—or maybe do, but haven’t been able to represent themselves as such to society because they don’t have the money, time or connections—to gain exposure. This resulted in a diverse representation of artists’ voices, in contrast to an increasingly homogenized TriBeCa culture of corporate consumerism that surrounds the gallery (think SoulCycle, double strollers, people saying “on the marriage track” a lot).

The show’s goals were lofty and the the output was interesting. I’m no art critic so I can’t speak to specific influences at work in the show, but there were different mediums of expression—paintings, sculpture, sketches, collage, multimedia. There was a lot to consume and consider—or not. At one point I asked one artist about the intent of his piece, and he succinctly replied, “Well, I’m the graffiti king of New York City, and they asked me to do something. And this is what I did.”

Simplistic as those artistic motives may sound (if such things exist), the friend who accompanied me, G, was also impressed by the show—as much by the conviction of these young artists than the work itself. And yet, as we walked through City Hall Park afterward on our way back to Brooklyn, she was noticeably quiet. “What’s up?” I asked. “Tell me what you’re thinking.” Continue reading

“Still Don’t See the Arab”

When you meet new people in New York, it’s not uncommon for them to ask something along the lines of “What’s you mix?” Crude as the phrase may be, it’s a valid question for residents of an ethnically mixed city like New York. If you stand on a street corner in this city, it’s almost 100 percent guaranteed that you will hear five different languages spoken in the space of one minute. Everyone here is from somewhere, and lots of New Yorkers throw political correctness to the wind when making acquaintances and just delve right into ethnic/cultural/racial backgrounds.

Of course, you also have your cautious, extremely PC people, who either play the “color-blind” card and act like they aren’t interested, or are just too nervous to ask. The ethnicity game is always kind of funny for me because to most people, I look either straight-up white, or ethnically ambiguous. (I am half Arabic and a quarter Italian.) Today I had a few pointed experiences related to my ethnicity. First, my professor stared at me and said, “I still don’t see the Arab.” (There was some context, but not much, so the comment was pretty much as out-of-the-blue as it sounds.) Later, some of the sixth-graders at the school where I work asked where I’m from. When I told them, they literally went “WOAH” as a group. They were shocked because they too are Arab, and they couldn’t believe that this whole time I had been, as they saw it, basically hiding in plain sight.

These interactions sort of cracked me up because, even though they could arguably be perceived as offensive or at least awkward, I am happy to live in a place where 1) the population is not so ethnically homogenous that such conversations are unnecessary and 2) people are willing to engage in those conversations. Talking about race and ethnicity can be awkward because they are such personal concepts; they’re so wrapped up in our senses of self, so when someone questions our race or ethnicity, it can feel like he or she is questioning a very intimate, inextricable part of our identity. And yet, I feel like it’s far better to have transparent conversations and risk awkwardness than to ignore the conversations altogether.

When sixth grade first started this year, lots of the kids were meeting one another for the first time. It was a new school, new peers, new grade—a lot to adjust to. And there were some uncomfortable moments. On the first day, one of the few black kids (I’ll call him ‘J’) started calling one of the few blonde, white kids (I’ll call him ‘Z’) albino. Z is not albino, and obviously nobody should be called names, but J’s nickname wasn’t meant as a pejorative term. Rather, he was calling Z albino because he wanted to acknowledge their differences but didn’t really know how to navigate that. And even though Z was unhappy with the nickname—which quickly was extinguished, by the way—having to confront his whiteness really wasn’t the worst thing. Now I see all of these kids hanging out together, teaching each other words from the languages they speak at home and arguing about whether or not God is called “God” or “Allah,” and I feel excited by the fact that they’re being exposed to different cultures so young. When my professor told me he still doesn’t see the Arab in me, I told him he probably just doesn’t know enough of us. And these kids—despite some bumps along the way—will never have that problem.

Thanks, New York

Sometimes you are having a horrible day. Like, you go to your first job and work straight through, then go straight to your second job. Then you have to go shopping at Target for an all-day job interview the next day. And you hate shopping, and it’s stressful, and you try on three different outfits and variations on those outfits and ruin your done-up hair, that you paid fifty dollars for so you can look professional at the interview.

And then you get home, back hurting, train delayed, exhausted. And you realize you forgot to print out something crucial, something you need for the interview. So off you go, at ten o’clock, to Staples all-night copy shop. And of course none of the machines are working. Your debit card gets eaten up and a manager has to be called. You spend thirty dollars on copies, of which you accidentally make too many.

You leave Staples at eleven-something. You feel just about ready to give up, and you know there is reading and preparing to do for the interview. Then your best friend FaceTimes you, so you sit down on the steps of Union Square, eyes tired, copies in hand, purse weighing heavily on your shoulder.

Your best friend’s big birthday dinner was yesterday, but you missed it. So you talk about the birthday dinner with her, and you watch people amble to and from bars and dates and work. You hear a coarse male voice in the background: “Damn, she FaceTimeing.” He likes the technology; he thinks it’s cool. You turn and he is about what you expected: a middle-aged Black man, an MTA track worker who has risen from the depths of the subway tunnels to have what amounts to lunch with his coworkers. Your back hurts, but you can’t imagine running around the tunnels all night with the rats, taking a lunch break at eleven-something. And yet, he’s so jolly. He smiles widely and peers at the FaceTime.

“Say hi!” you exclaim. He laughs. Your best friend gets embarrassed, but you turn the screen so that he can address her.

“Hi gorgeous,” he says to her, waving. She giggles. “Where is she?”

“Brooklyn,” you answer. “It’s her birthday.”

Your best friend is saying something like “Why would you tell them that?” in the background, but suddenly the whole construction crew, ten or fifteen men in their neon orange vests and plaid, are peering at the rectangle where she resides. They all wave and grin and laugh. “Can she hear us?” they ask. You turn an earbud toward them and they all serenade her with ‘Happy Birthdays.’

“She can see us?” one of them inquires, incredulous but delighted.

“Yeah!” you reply. Everyone in the square is laughing, and then you place the earbud back in and they gather a few feet away to eat. It’s just one of those moments—like the other day when you stopped to stare at a new Banksy, and strangers gathered around to discuss the additional tags, and what they would do if that was their wall, whether they would tear it down and sell it or leave it there, not for profit. One of those moments you only get in a city, when the different spheres—the MTA nightcrawlers, the students, the barhoppers—intersect, briefly lift one another. It’s just strangers making strangers smile, but there’s something powerful in that.

You hang up with your best friend, telling her you have to catch the train. As you walk toward the subway entrance, another group—a group of girls that had been sitting a few feet away the whole time—call out: “Tell her happy birthday!”