On the Importance of Mirrors for Students (and Teachers)

A life in schools is filled with metaphors, and one of my favorites is the idea that the curriculum should be both a "window" and a "mirror" for students. I first encountered it years ago in a book chapter by Peggy McIntosh and Emily Style, and I've used it often since then -- both to reflect on my own teaching and in my work with new and prospective teachers in Chicago.

As McIntosh and Style see it, the curriculum is a structure that ideally provides "windows out into the experiences of others, as well as mirrors of the student's own reality." In other words, schools should be spaces where kids explore the unfamiliar, but also see their own lived experiences validated and valued. For students whose racial, cultural, linguistic, or economic backgrounds differ significantly from that of the mainstream, the "mirrors" part of the metaphor can be particularly powerful.

I was reminded twice in recent weeks that such mirrors are too infrequently found in schools --and that too many educators don't seem to see this as a problem.

The first reminder began with an essay titled, "My school district hires too many white teachers," by Glenn Sullivan, a 19-year-old recent high school graduate from New Orleans. Sullivan, who is African American, observes that the percentage of black teachers in New Orleans' schools has plummeted due to post-Katrina reform efforts, with a corresponding rise in "teachers from outside the city," many of whom are white.

Sullivan argues that in a school system where nearly 90 percent of students are African American, black teachers are vital because they are often better able to connect with their students. He cites one of his African American teachers, Mr. Allen, who "used language and cultural references that we recognized to challenge and inspire us." What young people need, Sullivan concludes, is teachers who "truly understand the environment that students come from -- rather than just knowing the statistics that describe their lives."

I thought Sullivan's argument made a lot of sense. What he's really talking about is the importance of mirrors -- that kids need to see their own lives and cultural experiences reflected in those who teach them.

But some teachers saw it differently. After the piece was posted on the Facebook page of a national teacher group, it generated hundreds of comments. A number of them were critical of Sullivan's central point. One commenter wrote, in part, "I don't give a shit what color your skin is as long as you can teach." Another called the essay "BS" and added: "Color doesn't matter. A good teacher is a good teacher regardless of race, sex, or anything else."

I don't know if these sentiments, and numerous others like them, were all posted by white teachers. But I've heard similar statements uttered by white educators over the years, and I think it's safe to assume that many of those who objected to Sullivan's essay were white.

I can understand, to a degree, how they might've felt defensive. Some white teachers may have taken Sullivan's critique personally rather than seeing it as an indictment of a school-reform blind spot. But for teachers to disregard the perspective of an African American student so swiftly and callously is troubling. It indicates a lack of awareness about -- or an unwillingness to seriously confront -- difficult issues of race as they impact the experiences of students of color.

As a white "outsider" who's spent over two decades working with students in Chicago schools, I've seen firsthand the importance of students having teachers they can connect with on a cultural level. While I build strong bonds with many of my Latino students, I'm not able to understand their experiences the way some of my Mexican American colleagues do. And that can make a difference in the classroom. When students feel a cultural connection, they're more likely to feel safe and respected. When they feel safe and respected, they're better able to learn.

That doesn't mean it's impossible for me to be a good teacher to students of color, or that someone who shares their racial or cultural background would be better by default. But to say that a teacher's race is of no importance -- especially in schools where most of the kids are black or Latino -- is to pretend that education in the U.S. exists in a post-racial dreamworld. The reality is that race has mattered for centuries in this country, and it still does today.

The second reminder of the importance of mirrors came following the recent death of Walter Dean Myers, celebrated author of over 100 books for teens and children. Many of Myers' young adult novels are set in Harlem, and most feature black (and sometimes Latino) teens struggling against the kinds of challenges that often face my 7th and 8th graders. Students in my classes -- especially boys -- love Myers' novels and can relate to his characters. Books like Monster, Slam!, and Lockdown typically engage even the most reluctant readers.

A couple days after Myers' death, I stumbled upon Alexander Nazaryan's 2012 blog post, "Against Walter Dean Myers and the dumbing down of literature." Nazaryan, a senior writer at Newsweek, taught middle school and high school in Brooklyn for several years prior to his career as a journalist. In his post, he remembers his students devouring Myers' work as eagerly as mine do. But Nazaryan saw this as problematic. Myers' books, he says, are "painfully mundane, with simple moral lessons built into predictable situations: the projects, prison and redemption." They fail to make kids think deeply, he writes, because "they are about those kids' own sad lives."

In Nazaryan's educational universe, mirrors aren't only unnecessary for kids in city schools --they're an obstacle, a crutch. He proposes that instead of using Myers' novels, urban teachers should do what he did at the Brooklyn Latin School: teach Homer and Virgil. Teach the classics.

I've never read more than a line or two of Virgil, so Nazaryan would no doubt discount my thoughts on the matter, but I found his post both arrogant and out-of-touch. I was stunned to see him so cavalierly dismiss the work of an African American author whose books have been a lifeline -- and an entryway to a love of literature -- for countless black and Latino teens. But beyond that, I disagreed with his central thesis: that young people in city schools can be intellectually challenged only by the so-called classics.

The 7th and 8th graders I teach are provoked, challenged, and (to use Nazaryan's term) "elevated" by a wide range of contemporary literature and non-fiction. From Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park to the poetry of Luis Rodriguez and the essays of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Occasionally, we read something from the "classic" canon, too, but many of those texts sit undisturbed in a book closet.

It's important to remember, too, that this issue extends beyond the perceptions of a few current and former teachers. If we look at the bigger picture, it's clear that the lack of concern about racial diversity and representation affects U.S. schools at a systemic level as well. The belief that "a good teacher is a good teacher -- race doesn't matter" morphs into realities like this one: In Chicago charter schools, 95 percent of students are black or Latino, while 70 percent of their teachers are white. Similar imbalances are common in curriculum offerings. The Cooperative Children's Book Center reviewed 3,200 books published for children and teens in 2013. Of those, only 116 were written by African Americans or Latinos.

The point here is not that African American and Latino students shouldn't have white teachers or read literature by authors of European heritage. After all, the metaphor points toward mirrors and windows. But the importance of racial and cultural mirrors for students of color needs to be seen as a priority, not a luxury or afterthought. Of course, that's an uphill battle in the age of Common Core Standards and "next generation" assessments, where anything that isn't viewed as an obvious link to increased "rigor" and higher test scores is routinely pushed to the back burner.

In an interview in 2009, the brilliant author and Pulitzer prize winner Junot Diaz spoke about the importance of having one's culture reflected in the broader society.

"If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves," said Diaz, who is Dominican American. "Growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn't see myself reflected at all. I was like, 'Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don't exist?'"

Diaz went on to explain that one of his inspirations in becoming a writer was to someday "make a couple of mirrors...so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it."

White teachers may not be able to create mirrors for students of color like Diaz can. But we can seek them out. We can hold them up. We can listen when students or colleagues of color voice their critiques. And we can make conscious use of windows and mirrors ourselves -- helping us to see our students more fully, our own backgrounds more clearly, and our teaching with a more critical eye.