We had a great start to our PAA Book Club last night. Unfortunately, the record function did not work and we were not able to record the session. So, instead, here is a written summary of the session.
Summary of PAA Book Club meeting March 29, 2016
We discussed “Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance” by P. L. Thomas, who graciously agreed to join us for the meeting.
Julie Woestehoff, PAA interim executive director, welcomed everyone to the meeting and introduced PAA Board member Nathan Harris, from Indianapolis.
Nate introduced Dr. Thomas, whom he had met in the course of his doctoral studies. He was impressed by Dr. Thomas’s focus on education and the many roadblocks children of color and low-income children encounter as they go through school. Nate asked Dr. Thomas to participate in a workshop he presented at the PAA annual meeting in 2014, and we have been working with Dr. Thomas ever since.
Dr. Thomas gave a brief overview of his thinking behind the book, which is based on a series of blog posts he wrote (see https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com) linking various films and books to social justice themes. He likes to use artistic evidence in addition to traditional facts and data in his essays. He has great respect for the many writers he studies, teaches and writes about – he mentioned specifically James Baldwin, Haruki Murakami, and Margaret Atwood among others, and finds that they speak to important issues we face in education today, and particularly to the imbalances of power, oppression, and the misguided treatment of children of color and poverty.
Dr. Thomas also shared some of the processes he went through in turning a group of blog posts into a book. He mentioned the difference between blogging with hyperlinks and having to write out citations. He tried to include generous quotes from the various works he wrote about so that even people who had not read the specific piece could appreciate the artistry and the references. He likes to begin his essays by describing “what people think” and then challenging that opinions. He also likes to begin with provocative images or stories from literature, film, comic books, etc.
Dr. Thomas talked about the “slack” that cushions the lives of white people, who more often have resources that create a financial and personal safety net, while poor children of color, who are likely to live in much harsher circumstances, are “doubled down on” in school and life, told to have “grit,” and actually required to live up to much higher standards of personal conduct and academic performance. He mentioned research that has found that employers prefer hiring white college drop outs over black college graduates. A new study found that wealthy black people are more likely to be incarcerated than poor white people.
His wish is that all children be given more “slack” in school and at home, to allow them to be children, to make mistakes and learn from them, and to be treated with patience.
A participant offered a high-profile example of this disparity of treatment: Cindy McCain, the wife of John McCain, who ran for President against Barack Obama in 2008, had been a drug addict who had stolen from her non-profit to pay for her habit, yet this did not seem to concern anyone very much or evoke much talk in the media – meanwhile, a significant segment of the US population seems to consider the Obamas morally and ethically reprehensible, despite nearly flawless behavior on the part of the girls, Mrs. Obama and the President himself, politics and political positions aside. Had Michelle Obama had a history of drug use, or had one of their daughters been arrested for underage drinking, as a daughter of George W. Bush was, it’s not hard to imagine what would have been said about them … and it’s highly unlikely that people would even remember the Obamas today. She believes that this is evidence of pure racism and the double standard applied especially to African-Americans.
Dr. Thomas added that he often invokes George W. Bush as an example of the “slack” that white privilege offers, given his biography of late-blooming achievement. A participant later raised a concern that members of the group seemed to be promoting President Obama. Several participants mentioned that they have long opposed the Obama administration’s education policies, but that the issue of the racial double standard, which was the point of those comments, was clear.
Another participant commented on the book’s references to the common “deficit” view of the cultural resources of poor children of color — that the very rich culture they bring to school and life is not valued. Another participant described working with immigrant parents whose children are able to act as translators between non-English-speaking parents and non-Spanish-speaking school staff, and who have the ability to bridge that gap, often at very young ages, and usually with enormous grace and care. Yet those same children would usually be labeled as failures based on standardized tests. She also mentioned having worked with students of color and their parents in school discipline issues, and how she felt she had to caution them that the student could not make a mistake, because that would be giving people in power a tool to use against them, and could lead to their losing their opportunity for an education- that it wasn’t fair but it was something they had to do for themselves. No level playing field.
Dr. Thomas said that “Standard English” is simply the speech style of the people in power. He specifically mentioned Ralph Ellison’s speech to teachers, “What these Children are Like.” Dr. Thomas believes we need to cherish our rich heritage of language rather than try to eliminate it. This is why he promotes culturally-responsive pedagogy. But he also believes in telling children that there are consequences to their language use, and that they need to be aware of when and how to use standard English.
Another participant mentioned how sad she is that Key School in Indianapolis is having to close. This was a school that was founded on Howard Gardner’s principles of multiple intelligences.
Nate brought up the writings of Thurgood Marshall and his emphasis on public work. Nate appreciates the efforts of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rainbow PUSH, which works with corporate America to open up new opportunities for people of color. Nate would like to see us moving in the direction of action.
Dr. Thomas agreed. He and some colleagues have committed to writing regular letters to the editor, which can be like writing poetry given the fact that you have to be persuasive and factual in a very limited number of words.
He also wants people to campaign for more slack for students, to celebrate all children’s efforts – to post everything on the refrigerator. The lives of poor children of color are hard enough – school should be a place where we give them lots of slack.
We wrapped up the evening with thanks to Dr. Thomas for his generous participation and his wonderful writings, and thanks to all participants. We hope to hold another book club within 2-3 months and will be in touch with everyone who registered with details.
Apologies for comments left out or anything misquoted…