Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Problem #3 Rules to basic societal interactions

This is a continuation from the last post. Don't read this until you read the previous post.

In 1993, my family moved to France. I wasn’t too worried about the move because I had already changed schools many times, and everyone told me that I made friends quickly and easily. My nine year old psyche had learned the rules for making friends in America: exchange names, agree and find common ground, then invite them over. I was very surprised when the same formula didn’t work in France. The code for social power has different rules in France. People who always agree and look for common ground are seen as weak, dependant, and un-interesting. In France, in order to make a friend, you don’t give your name first, or find a common interest, you talk about an idea, preferably one on which the two interlocutors have differing opinions. Once you show your independent thinking, then an exchange of names takes place, etc.

It took me some time to adjust to this change of rules; no one ever told me that the code of societal power was different in France, nor how it was different. I had to figure it out blindly. So do thousands of American tourists and ex-pats who leave France feeling the French are rude. They are wrong; the French take manners much more seriously than we do, but a Frenchman who disagrees with you is probably trying to befriend you.

Similarly to my own difficulties in code switching many students in urban school districts must learn to code switch when interacting with their scholastic and future professional environments. Their native codes, whether they are the code of a mother country, a gang, or a certain neighborhood, are often notably different from mainstream America’s culture of power. Simple gestures like a handshake, eye-contact, or a hug have significant meaning in our culture of power – meanings that are often significantly different in other cultures.

Some of my students who never look me in the eye do so because they have been taught deference to authority means not looking an authority figure in the eye. Imagine the impact this could have on their first interview… any interviewer would assume they were either lying about everything they said or too shy to function normally. Handshakes are similar. For many of my students a certain handshake is a symbol of gang membership. Gang members (this might not be true of all gangs, but it is with those I deal with) don’t just shake anyone’s hand, only those they know belong to their group. In a society where a handshake is a gesture of greeting and simple acquaintanceship refusing a handshake is almost never permissible.

These simple physical examples are a metonymy for the greater malaise that many students have as they attempt to learn both the codes of their native culture, or neighborhood along side the culture of power taught, or at least demonstrated, at school. Differences in interactions, exchanges, and all types of relationships abound between various codes. Students who fail to learn the codes of the culture of power close doors to their own futures, doors that open with the passwords that everyone around them seems to know, but no one bothered to tell them about explicitly.

Direct instruction in code switching helps students significantly. Just as I would have appreciated someone telling me explicitly how to make friends on a French playground, my students need someone to tell them explicitly the differences and similarities between the codes they have learned at home and the codes that prevail in the greater American society.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Code of Power -The secrets almost everybody ignorantly knows-

I have been trying to untangle and decompress everything that I have learned from my first year on the front lines of a public school in a challenging neighborhood. The first thing that comes to mind as a lesson learned is the importance of a secret I didn’t know I knew until this year: The Code of Power in American society.

From day one I have wondered what the purposes of the public school system ought to be. What is it that we really need students to know, understand, and be able to do at the end of each successive grade level, and finally upon exiting the public school system? While I don’t think any short answer is sufficient; independent, functioning, upstanding, contributing citizens in American society is certainly one of the products that our public schools aim to produce. There are many schools that are systematically failing in this regard year after year. Of course, the question why is an important one, one that desperately needs an answer. I have read several enlightening authors and thinkers who highlight The Code of Power as a key lever in probing these questions.

From my reading and own ideas on the topic, here are four fundamentals about the Code of Power followed by three problems I have observed this year that I believe trace their cause to these four ideas (borrowing and adapting mainly from Lisa Delpit).

1) There are codes that govern how we interact with each other.

2) The degree to which we know these codes of interaction is proportional to our ability to get what we want.

3) These codes are culture and context specific; they reflect an amalgamation of the beliefs, tastes, habits, values, and traditions of those in power in any given locality or institution.

4) To ignore or to be ignorant of these codes is to perpetuate the societal or institutional status quo. Those in power are often oblivious to the existence of these codes because they learned them gradually and inexplicitly and because understanding of these codes is widespread enough to be assumed ubiquitous.

Problem #1: How authority is attained and communicated

While teaching summer school in LA’s Watts neighborhood, I had a very rough first few days with a tall 14 year old African American student named Keiwan. I felt that he simply had no respect for me as a person or teacher. I complained to an advisor that Keiwan usually did exactly the opposite of what I asked him. My advisor replied by asking if I ever yelled at him, I responded that of course I did not. He recommended that I yell at him to show that I am an authoritative person. The next day when Keiwan refused to stop talking after several requests I shouted “Keiwan shut up and get on task!” Much to my surprise, he did exactly that.

First this highlights the different understanding that Keiwan and I had of how one attains authority. I feel that I have authority in the classroom because I am the teacher. Similarly I think the police officer who pulls me over has authority because he is an officer, and the President has authority because he is the president. Keiwan’s cultural code held a different rule for how authority is distributed. In his mind the authoritative person has authority, thus the authoritative person gets to be the teacher, or the officer, or the president because they are authoritative. Once I showed Keiwan that I am an authoritative person, then he was happy to co-operate. In a twisted irony, Keiwan’s code frankly makes a lot more sense from an anthropological lens, but his code isn’t the one that governs power on main street or high street in America.

This anecdote also illustrates how the American code communicates authority. Our American culture of power is structured to de-emphasize power through indirect communication. Consider the way we make requests and even commands… in my inbox of emails from my superiors asking me to do one thing or another here are the words used: “maybe you could”, “perhaps”, “when you have time”, “it would be a good idea”, “If I were you I would”, “when it is convenient”, etc. These are coded commands. As early as I can remember my mother said to me “What do you think about cleaning up your toys” of course she didn’t want my thoughts on cleaning up, she was de-emphasizing the power inherent in commanding me to clean up my toys. The codes are different however in Keiwan’s house. His mother is likely to have told him “Boy, clean up your toys this minute!” Ironically, both of our mothers meant exactly the same thing. My mother used a code the de-emphasized the power issue at hand, while Keiwan’s mother probably used a coded phrase that emphasized this power. This doesn’t mean that my mother loved me more or less than Keiwan’s loves him, it is simply a different code. The problem for Keiwan is that most of the teachers, principals, public officials, employers, and customer service reps that he will interact with will use the same code my mother did. If Keiwan doesn’t learn the Codes of Power, he simply won’t be able to get things that he wants from the aforementioned groups of people.

Problem #2: Teaching critical thinking and problem solving without basic skills

This problem is certainly worsened and perhaps even caused in part by the previous one. The culture of power in America is uncomfortable exercising or acknowledging that issues of power are enacted in everyday interactions, thus we hide it behind indirect communication. This spills over to our teaching and classrooms, where a lot of our teaching is very top down. Starting from reasonably early ages, although admittedly not right away, our teaching focuses on problem solving and critical thinking much more than on direct instruction of skills. While no longer widely popular, the whole language approach that taught my generation to read exemplifies this idea. This program taught students to read by reading, first with the teacher, then in small groups, and finally independently. There were no phonics lessons or skills lessons, rather these were taught indirectly. For many students this worked well but for many, especially minority and immigrant populations, (read those less versed in the current American culture of power) it didn’t work at all. Top down indirect teaching has produced high school seniors who can’t read, write, or perform basic arithmetic operations – the very skills our culture of power most values and discriminates on. Instead many graduates have learned to problem solve and think critically but since they don’t have the skills required to participate in the culture of power their logical alternative is to turn to the underworld where the barriers for cultural entry and the codes of power are different and more familiar for many.

Anecdotally, I was baffled at first as to why my brightest thinkers and best problem solvers in class seemed to be those most attracted to and recruited into gangs. I quickly discovered that most of these students were lacking the most elementary reading and writing skills, and thus felt like failures in school. The underworld gives a sense of validation to their intelligence despite their inability to learn the building blocks of the Culture of Power.

Problem #3 Rules to basic societal interactions will wait for another article, as this one is getting rather long. Instead I want to address a simple solution: Direct, explicit teaching to students about different codes, and how to code switch from one to the other. To survive in their neighborhoods my students need to be well versed in their own codes and cultures of power, but to survive at school, they need to learn a new code. They will have a much better chance of learning it if it is taught to them explicitly. I teach my students how to shake hands, how to appropriately express dissent, how to fill out a job application, how authority is distributed in the culture of power, etc.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Every week in the classroom has some moments when students say or do crazy or hilarious things, there have been some good ones over the last couple of weeks…


1)      Two girls stayed after class and timidly walked up to my desk.  When I asked what I could do for them, they both looked at each other then one whispered to the other “you ask him”, the other replied “I don’t want to, you are the one who has it” finally they looked up at me and one of them asks “Mr. Wilson, do you know how to get rid of a hicky?”  I told her to put some ice on it and eventually it would go away.


2)      A tall girl who is notorious for skipping class and behaving poorly walked confidently into the back of my room a few days ago.  I asked her who sent her, and she replied calmly “Mr. Wilson did”  My class giggled, and for some reason, instead of putting her out of her misery, telling her I knew she was lying, and sending her back to her own class I asked, “Why did he send you?”  She paused and replied “so that I could do my work”  I responded “Mr. Wilson sent you so that you could do your work… I am Mr. Wilson, you may go back to your class now” She squawked and ran out of class.


3)      One of my quietest students who aspires to be a veterinarian showed up Friday in the back seat where he usually sits with those latex looking gloves that dentists and doctors wear.  He wore them throughout the day during class, at the end of each class he would take them off and place them in his backpack.  During the last class of the day two fingers of one of the gloves ripped off.  The student, who almost never talks in class, put his partially gloved hand in the air and said out loud “Oh no, now I can’t operate on my test.  Oh, well, you will see in a few years this will be the fashion, everyone’s gloves will be missing two fingers!”  I started laughing so hard I could hardly contain myself.  He aced the test despite feeling incapable of operating on it.


4)      One of my students has recently made significant improvements on his performance in math class.  I told him a few days ago that I am proud of him.  Now, every time that I circulate throughout the class to check students work which probably amounts to 4-5 times per class period this student earnestly asks “Are you proud of me?”

Sunday, March 1, 2009


I haven’t kept up either of my blogs for some months now.  That doesn’t mean that I have stopped thinking, or stopped having interesting experiences, on the contrary… it just means that working full time and going to school full time have taken precedence over blogging.  I want to air some of my observations from the trenches of America’s public school system in underprivileged areas.  Most of these thoughts have been brought on by a question that Teach for America asked its corps members on our mid-year survey.  One of the questions read “Is educational inequity the most pressing issue facing our country?”  I paused to reflect on all the factors that contribute to educational inequity, and then to the factors that feed those factors.  Trying to place them into a hierarchy of most pressing is somewhere between difficult and impossible.    When I started TFA I (correctly) assumed that some of the fault for educational inequity and other societal problems lay with the actual school system.  While there are lots of broken pieces in our school system, and there is fault and blame to go around, I want to call attention to some principals that I find lacking in America’s underbelly.  Principals that I think have been fundamental to America’s success and could be fundamental to her fall… today I will start with modeling as a teaching technique, and keep a look out for more on the way.


While I have considered a career in modeling, that is not the topic of this post.  Rather modeling is something we talk about all the time in teaching.  Modeling how to do a task, operation, or procedure is simply good didactic practice.  Modeling is how much of our learning occurs both in school and at home.

I have had some funny run ins with parents who perhaps don’t see that the modeling that the student sees at home is being acted out with detrimental effects in school.  For example, we recently called in a parent to discuss her child’s insatiable appetite for hitting his peers every time anything slightly annoying happens to him.  As soon as we told the parent about this issue, she turned to her son and walloped him upside the head and said “Don’t hit” she seemed to think that she had resolved the issue.  I had to turn away and cover my face so that the parent wouldn’t see me laughing at her… all that she had taught her child in that instance was that when frustrated, the natural response is to hit.

The modeling that my male kids see out of males is usually even worse than what I’ve described above.  Only a small percentage of my students have male role models in the home, and some have no males in their lives whatsoever.  So where do they see male behavior modeled? TV, movies, music, sports and me.  This translates into a myriad of problematic beliefs and behaviors including machoism, objectifying women, defiance towards authority, pride, etc

Sports figures have a chance to redeem the males that my students see on TV.  Of course the fact is that TV shows A-Rod doing steroids, J-Rich doing 90 in a 35 zone, and Pacman Jones starting gun fights in strip clubs… great male models.  This week was another example: A friend invited me to a Sharks NHL game, I was thrilled to go, not only for the good company but also because my kids love the Sharks and watch their games often.  I am not much of a hockey fan, and haven’t been to a game in quite some time.  I was disappointed to see the stupid kind of macho flare-up fights that occurred at least every five minutes in a hockey game.  The fighting is completely purposeless, and detracts from an otherwise beautiful game.  Just as bad as the actual skirmishes is the crowd’s reaction.  They seemed to cheer louder for each one of the tiny flare-ups than for goals scored.  I felt like inviting the man next to me to my middle school so he could cheer on the brawls there too. 

Is that really what we want to encourage? Many of my students who don’t have male role models at home take notice of whatever other models they see.  It is no wonder they get up in each other’s faces every time anyone says anything that could be construed as offensive -- they see it on TV, they see it in the arena and they hear thousands of adults cheering for it.

While I hope that I am a good model of how a man ought to interact with his world, I fear that what they see in me diametrically opposes 12-15 years of their own observational experience.  Those years of observing bad models aren’t easily undone.

 You reap what you sow America.  We have sowed some violent winds, and now must face a forecast for a lot of storms.