A New Day

On Exploring the Contemporary Child

I can barely lift my head out of the sludge. The alarm clock beside my bed reminds me that I am home again, back to reality. Ironically, as I stare at that short rectangular box on top of my vanity, I am reminded that my alarm stopped long ago. Back when I was a teacher, I spent many a night praying for freedom from that insidious inhumane ring that would wake me up before sunrise. When I was granted my wish and left teaching for a more flexible job, the corpse remained in place and now squeals at my husband like a charcoal colored Poughkeepsie crow. He sets it daily and without it, my husband would completely forget that we are after all earthbound still.

Vacation is over. There is beer here and there but ultimately I know the difference. Plus, the calories weigh down upon me and it’s time to face the work ahead of me. I wallow a bit more in the pain – I remember failed plans and the death of a part of me. Optimism flounders but all the same, I look to Obama, once again, for a little bit of hope, encouragement and inspiration. The Nation sprawled across my floor screams at me. The words, “What He’s Made Of” beckons me to think and I sigh heavily. I am a woman with the wind inside her, the ocean is far away but it is there, a low but notable tide. The school year is about to begin and I think of the children and the teachers and I trump my depression with the joyful memory of sharpened pencils, silly friendships and new books. In this space, I make a wish, a New Year’s wish, as September for all academics like me is really the start of the New Year. My wish is in response to the Obama question: What is he made of? What am I made of? I ask.

I wish to be made of insight, humility and imagination. I wish to see into the eyes and hearts of those around me, find compassion and unity even as we disagree, share in the wrinkles that crown our brows and in the hesitance of our speech. I wish to remember that there is nothing that I can teach if I am not open to learn, that there is no other experience lesser or greater than my own, that those that I fear are similar in nature to those that I admire for they are both inside me – after all — we are all reflections of each other. I wish to open my mind to discover un-chartered territory knowing that the future will greatly depend on my ability to believe, that our children need us to reach past the limits of our present day. I wish for insight, humility and imagination on this September day.

Imagination is difficult for most of us. Our children are living and breathing a totally different world than we could have ever imagined and it continues to change rapidly. How can we keep up? What do we as educators have to offer this new species of child that is so easily bored with traditional modes of education? Just think politically. John McWhorter writes in New York Magazine’s August 18th issue on race, “If Obama becomes President, there will be a shift in the conception of race in this country that neither side in the culture wars can control. It’s all about youth. Think about it. If Obama is elected to two terms, an entire generation of 10 year olds will come of age having been barely aware of anyone other than a black man in the White House,” (Obamakids, p 28) While some of us are stuck on the “I don’t see race” which according to Patricia Williams, becomes “I don’t see racism” dialogue and many more of us are listening to Rush Limbaugh singing those subterranean fears of “Barack, the magic Negro,” or to Pat Buchanan fretting that Obama is a radical, unpatriotic, extremist, elitist to whom the liberal media hands a pass as a “special-ed,” “affirmative-action” candidate (Talking About Not Talking About Race, p. 26) – our children are being immersed in an already changed world where race and culture means something very different. Skip the rhetoric, the code word de jour, presumptuous (Alterman, 2008, The Nation), ladies and gents and keep your eyes focused on the new day because the new day is already here and most of us don’t even know it. As McCains’ politics are virtually identical to those of Bush, so Obama’s stated platform is virtually identical to Hillary Clinton on every matter from women’s issues to defense. If one was going to vote for Clinton but will not now for Obama, what else could it be but the most insidious, self defeating form of identity politics? (Williams, 2008, The Nation) And while identity politics has a strong hold on many of us who live in the past and tired circles of the present, know very well, folks that whether Obama wins the presidency or not (and I believe that he will), the shift of our conceptualization of race has already been taking place because it is in process. It is not the end result where change occurs, change is in the process. It is right to assume that the children we teach today have already absorbed a different language around race and culture. That is why John McWhorter writes: “And the 10 year olds shall lead us.”

In fact, in contemporary US culture, young children are not only oriented by their own multiple cultures (racial, ethnic, age, gender and family, to name several), but also by living and learning within a socio-culturally conditioned world filled with many different conditions of cultural difference (Hyun, 2007). The contemporary child experiences early exposure to multiethnic perspectives and are often more adept at negotiating multiple perspectives and realities then they are given credit for. In this way, traditional schooling can “box” children into traditional groupings that no longer suit the needs of the contemporary child. That is why, progressive schools are looking to critical pedagogy – that is an approach to teaching that embraces the students’ multidirectional, multidimensional, multilingual and multiethnic experience (Hyun, 2007) and builds upon it towards non-linear forms of critical thinking and subsequent agency in a global community.

What does that mean in laymen’s terms? It means that we have to ask a lot of questions to start. Start off September not with a plan of action based on information that you are anxious to impart. Start off September with an active research plan based on critical questions that you are anxious to explore. Who is the contemporary child sitting in your classroom? Is it possible that there is a world inside them that you do not know? A world that might sprout out of a brown face or a thick skin or a quiet mouth or darting eyes or “dangerous” grin – but does not stop there. We all see the world through multiple identities, whites are not white after all, for it is a color that stops while the human being is an endless journey of multiple intersections including sexuality, faith, language, economy, geography, personality, family, birth, physique to name a few. And blackness while we must see it, it is only the first step into a multifaceted being where there you find incredulous diversity. Why not start September with daring to start impossible conversations that you have every day with yourself, in your heart of hearts, the real conversations that are important to ALL of us? And your job, dear educator, is to guide your conversations and make critical and transformational connections with your students, your self and your subject matter. Start September with knowing that it is the child in front of you who will lead you this year. Find out where they are already taking us and find creative, challenging and safe ways to guide them towards this place.

Here are a few sample questions that I imagine would be particularly interesting in their exploration: (and wonderful writing prompts!)

Open Question: How does my unique history influence who I am?
Focused Question: How might Obama’s bi-racial & bi-cultural upbringing influence how he sees the world?

Open Question: What does it mean to belong to a community?
Focused Question: How could we have avoided the disaster of Hurricane Katrina?

Open Question: How can we resolve conflicts peacefully?
Focused Question: How can I protect myself from the neighborhood bully without fighting?

Open Question: What do I call home?
Focused Question: Why are some neighborhoods cleaner than others?
If you are interested in hosting a REAL World Educators dialogue at your school or scheduling a professional development workshop on how to implement literacy based dialogues in your school or classroom, contact Dr. Raquel Rios at Dr.RaquelRios@gmail.com or realworldeducators@yahoo.com.