Author Archives: Lucy Robins

Lucy Unessay

Guiding Questions: 

  • In what immediate ways can care transform the classroom for both students and teachers?
  • What does care look like in a school system driven by capitalism? Can those even coexist?
  • How can care shift from an individual act/practice to a collective project?

Full UnEssay Here

Focus:  I am interested in deepening my critique and analysis of the ways that “soft” care (Rivera-McCutchen, 2012; Curry, 2016;), problematic White feminist notions of caring (Katz, 1999), and damage-framed (Tuck, 2009) pedagogy play out at the school where I teach, in my own teaching practice, and in the culture of my school.  I also want to find ways to center student voices in the conversations we have at my school and in the decisions that the teachers, staff, and administrators make in seeking to push our school to embody authentic, “critical care” (Rivera-McCutchen, 2012; Curry, 2016).

Unessay:  One of the central spaces where students and teachers have the opportunity to build caring relationships is in “crew” – an advisory program where one teacher and between 8 and 15 students meet every day for 30 minutes for a two year loop.  I am a junior-senior crew advisor, and have been with my current crew for the past two years.  As part of the senior experience, my students have reflected on how the school has shaped them and how they have shaped the school in multiple spaces, including their final “student-led” family conferences, as part of their final expedition (our school’s term for the interdisciplinary approach to learning that uses a common guiding question and set of objectives to frame the learning that happens in each class to build towards an interdisciplinary final project), Legacy, and as part of their final project for English, “Final Words,” where they give a speech to the people who know them best about their growth and learning. Although these are all powerful spaces of reflection for students, our school has no real pathway for students’ reflections, expertise, and voice to be centered in the decisions we make as a school.  And in my conversations with students over the years, this has been their greatest source of frustration with the school, heightening feelings of not being seen, heard, validated, or respected. 

I wanted to build more space to center student voices in the work that senior crew advisors and teachers were doing to create experiences for students. I spoke to the other seven senior crew advisors, and asked if we could implement some common lessons that talked explicitly about care in ways that built on the senior reflections happening in other spaces. I created a set of three lessons, with feedback from several other advisors, that all senior students engaged with during the first two weeks of May.  The purpose of the lessons was to build a framework for students to talk about their own understanding and experience with care, and to build towards sharing their expertise about how our school does and does not embody critical care.  We began by establishing some common language about care, both authentic and care and “problematic” care.  Then students began describing moments and spaces in school where they had experienced those different kinds of care.  The final lesson opened up space to begin evaluating the core aspects of our school in terms of how well they aligned to our understanding of authentic and problematic care.  Some conversations led to project ideas from students who want to share their feedback with the school in different capacities (including their Final Words, and joining the final teacher meetings of the year). Students captured their thinking in a series of Jamboards, which they got to choose to either keep private or share with the other crew advisors.

As a crew team, we came together after implementing the lessons to share our experiences and document some themes that emerged.  Many of the advisors shared that the conversations were some of the most animated that they had seen in a long time, and that students seemed really energized to have a space to talk about care.  We discussed how we might better align all three of the opportunities for student reflection during senior year (SLCs, the Legacy expedition, and Final Words) in a way that would expand student voice and offer opportunities for students to share their wisdom and vision for making our school better that could have real, material outcomes.  We are hopeful that we might be able to expand the initial three lessons to build out a more robust crew curriculum for seniors that could support this process, and also build on the proposals of students to join teacher teams when they make decisions, offer feedback about key aspects of the school (school policy, school traditions and rites of passage), and have more space to actively shape the direction of the school as a whole.

Week 13 – Lucy

I felt the two readings this week deeply.  In particular, this line stood out to me in the second article: “King argued that Meier had “failed to comprehend the difference between integration as the demise of separate Black institutions, and desegregation, namely, the overthrow of the regime of racial subjugation defined by the exclusion of Black people “from access to power, wealth, education, status, and dignity” (pp. 19-20).  Integration has never served in any capacity as an “overthrow of the regime of racial subjugation,”  and her quoting of this statement called to mind for me two other pieces – Malcolm X’s 1963 speech “The Race Problem” and the Black Power manifesto written by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton.  In both cases, they write about the fact that both segregation and integration are controlled by whites and whiteness, and therefore neither gets to the heart of any fundamental shift to a violent or oppressive system.  

In the manifesto, Carmichael and Hamilton write: “‘integration’ as a goal…, is based on complete acceptance of the fact that in order to have a decent house or education, black people must move into a white neighborhood or send their children to a white school.  This reinforces, among both black and white, the idea that ‘white’ is automatically superior and ‘black’ is by definition inferior.  For this reason, ‘integration’ is a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy’” (p. 22).  Similarly, Malcolm X told us: “This new type of black man, he doesn’t want integration; he wants separation….To him, segregation … means that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors. A segregated community is a Negro community. But the white community, though it’s all white, is never called a segregated community. It’s a separate community. In the white community, the white man controls the economy, his own economy, his own politics, his own everything. That’s his community. But at the same time while the Negro lives in a separate community, it’s a segregated community. Which means it’s regulated from the outside by outsiders. The white man has all of the businesses in the Negro community. He runs the politics of the Negro community. He controls all the civic organizations in the Negro community. This is a segregated community.  We don’t go for segregation. We go for separation. Separation is when you have your own. You control your own economy; you control your own politics; you control your own society; you control your own everything. You have yours and you control yours; we have ours and we control ours.”

I am left thinking about Douglass-Hosford’s final call in her first article – “rather than continuing to produce and consume research that “discovers” the inequalities every person of color already knew existed, I wonder if we might instead envision a system of education where everyone is free.”  

Week 12 – Lucy

The readings this week highlighted for me how deeply ingrained individualism is within schools and within education discourse.  This was perhaps best encapsulated by Duncan-Andrade’s citation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – a framework that is hyper individualistic, where the top tier is self-actualization and focused on an individual’s needs within a single time frame.  I recently learned that Maslow stole his idea for this framework from the Blackfoot nation. However, because his ontological framework was situated in racial capitalism, he adapted and interpreted it through a lens of individualism and capitalism.  In the original framework, self-actualization is the foundation that built towards community actualization and then cultural perpetuity, expanding beyond both the individualistic scope of needs and the limitations of a single time frame or dimension of reality.  Indeed, the fact that meeting basic needs for survival needs to be explicitly stated or reminded about in a racial capitalist framework is because we have an individualistic rather than collective structure for society – it is not a given that every person should have their basic needs met, nor is it a requirement if the ultimate goal is individual attainment instead of community actualization or cultural perpetuity.

I appreciated Duncan-Andrade’s distinction between hokey, mythical, and deferred hope on the one hand and critical hope on the other, and found it a useful framing to analyze the kinds of “social justice” curriculum I see in my own school and in other “liberal” spaces – either teaching the kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” hokey or mythical hope that he describes as “profoundly ahistorical and depoliticized denial of suffering that is rooted in celebrating individual exceptions” (p. 184), or the damage-framed deferred hope that equates blackness with oppression, existing only through the white gaze, where teachers “have a critique of social inequality but cannot manifest this critique in any kind of transformative pedagogical project” (p. 184), leaving students both demoralized and without agency to exist fully as humans or to imagine or know that there are other ways of being.  Duncan-Andrade’s depiction of critical hope challenges both the ahistoricism and problematic damage-framework of these other types of hope by reconnecting us all to the “collective by struggling alongside one another” where “solidarity is the essential ingredient for ‘radical healing’” (p. 190).  However, by stating in his conclusion that critical hope is a “factor for improving achievement in urban schools” (p. 190), Duncan-Andrade still places his vision both as in service to individual achievement rather than collective liberation, and also as something only needed in “urban” settings, perpetuating a deficit framework that ignores the tremendous need for developing critical consciousness across all schools and for all children.  

Week 8 – Lucy

A couple of things stood out to me when reading the article this week.  First, I was struck by the fact that the IRB didn’t allow Rivera-McCutchen to include “student, parent, and teacher participants in the study” (p. 10).  Although she found other ways to include those voices into the study through surveys, I wonder about how much is limited in the scope of research by policies that refuse the inclusion of the voices of those most closely connected to, invested in, and affected by the spaces being researched.

I was also struck by Principal Johnson’s assessment of systemic racism in terms of pedagogy, when he noted that “schools in more privileged and White communities organized student learning in ways that encouraged choice and exploration, while low-income schools in communities of color emphasized standardization and testing” (p. 14).  His rejection of standardized testing seemed like a clear and explicit response, and in general his approach was bolstered by the radical care that Rivera-McCutchen defines – which centered on a sense of visionary optimism that allowed him to “strategically navigate a volatile bureaucratic landscape without losing sight of a vision of schooling that is grounded in antiracism and social justice” (p. 23), but then a set of grounded and relational practices when he realized that “encouragement, alone, was insufficient” (p. 21) to realize that vision.

Finally, I was struck by the discussions of teacher resistance to Johnson’s vision for the school.  I am wondering how much of that resistance comes from teacher’s own internalized (and racialized) sense of how school should be for their students, and how much came out of a lack of preparation or uncertainty about how to teach in a way that is different from the standardized forms of teaching that are replicated in teacher education programs. 

I am left thinking about all of the material and strategic obstacles that work to explicitly get in the way of authentically creating schools that are collaboratively, collectively, and “horizontally” imagined, designed, and evaluated.  From the explicit prohibition of including student, teacher, and parent voice in research, to the fact that teacher education programs run separately from principal programs, to the fundamentally vertical hierarchy of school systems, to the creation of policy by folks who are far removed from schools necessitating that individual principals must make decisions outside of that policy on their own, there are so many structures standing in the way. It was exciting to read about the ways that Principal Johnson operated outside of those structures to create a space of radical care for his students and school community. And I am left wondering what it would take to fundamentally dismantle those systemic obstacles.

Week 7 Response – Lucy

The readings and video this week made me think a lot about the fundamental purpose of schools, and who gets to determine and measure that purpose.  In particular, they made me think about the concept of standards and standardized structures in schools – who designs them, who enforces them, and who determines how they are evaluated.  Ultimately, it brought me back to our discussion last week of the danger of false “neutrality”.  Standards aren’t neutral and conceptions of care aren’t neutral, and so no single school structure, standard, or evaluative tool can be used alone or uncritically. 

This was most clear in the readings in terms of the concept of care.  It is clear that concepts of care are always filtered through the lens of the individual enacting the care – their positionality, relationship, race, and position of power.  As Antrop-Gonzalez and De Jesus (2006) explain, the “colorblind assumptions” of a White feminism define caring as “emotion-laden practice characterized by low expectations motivated by taking pity on students’ social circumstances,” (p. 411).  This is the kind of caring that Rivera-McCutchen (2012) describes as prevalent in her study of Highbridge High School.  As she notes – “without a fundamental belief that students are capable, the other qualities the literature identifies as part of a caring framework…are ultimately secondary” (p. 677).  Indeed, the White savior definition of caring is steeped in the racist ideologies of who is intelligent or capable. 

However, it is not possible to simply establish a set of policies or structures to address this fundamental difference in defining caring, because policies and structures are not neutral.  For example – in Rivera-McCutchen’s (2012) study of Highbridge school, teachers continual extending of deadlines was an example of this problematic form of caring – not in and of itself, but rather because “there was little evidence to suggest that teachers believed students would ultimately be capable of meeting standards without the additional leniency” (p. 675).  In contrast, a student in Antrop-Gonzalez and De Jesus’ (2006) study shares that a teacher’s flexibility was framed in the knowledge and belief in the students’ capacity – “I remember when I got a ‘C’ on a test. The teacher told me that I could’ve done better so he let me take the test again. I thought that was cool because it showed me that the teacher cared about me.” (p. 426).  As they explain, high expectations and academic press are not necessarily “extreme academic pressure, high-stakes testing or other humiliating practices aimed at raising test scores” but rather are “communicated through the patient investment of time and the creation of reciprocal obligations between students and facilitators as an important and active form of social capital.” (p. 426).

Further, if teachers demonstrate care by holding students to high standards, but those standards are problematic, how can that be considered critical care?  In the practices that Curry (2016) describes a powerful ritual implemented by the school as part of its “critical carino”.  However, some of the standards established for that experience – the “professionalism” of dress and language – upheld problematic and white-washed ideologies presented as neutral. As Curry writes, “firewalks through their symbolic endorsement of dominant, meritocratic paradigms as evidenced in ‘‘dressing for success,’’ the reification of a college education as the ticket to becoming valued, and bootstrap remarks like ‘‘You can do whatever you want to do!’’ or ‘‘The power is in your hands!’’ may be viewed as mechanisms propping up the status quo and co-opting students into false consciousness” (p. 909).  

This came up also in the powerful video about parent organizing in the Bronx, and work of CC9 and the CEJ coalition. The Lead Teacher program worked precisely because it was guided by the knowledge, care, and expertise of parents coupled with the support of other institutions taking their cues from them.  The parents established the standards – the goals of the program and the method of evaluating it – the parents conducted the interviews, devised the questions, and developed the “rating system, what we were looking for.”  Just like the description at the start of the video – “They [the parents] knew best. They were their children.”  The parents set the tone for what was most valuable and important, and then worked with educators they identified as having the qualities that were most important to design the measures of “good teaching” that would ensure the best for their children. However, when this program was taken and replicated by the DOE – the same institution that created and implemented the systems that the CC9 were fighting against – it lost the fundamental and central feature that made it successful – the specific and explicit input and structural power and decision making by the parents whose children were in that school.

As both the Antrop-Gonzalez and DeJesus article, and the parent video, make very clear – you cannot simply take a structure or a program and replicate it out of context.  Small schools alone are not the solution for authentic caring (p. 410) – indeed the size of the schools were not the defining feature, but rather the fact that they “were established by Puerto Rican/Latino community activists, revolutionaries and educators to address educational crises in their communities created precisely by urban school districts” and that “the relevance and quality of instruction and the interpersonal relations that form inside these schools is far more significant than their size” (p. 410).  A Lead-Teacher program alone is not the solution – instead, the allocations of power to parents, the alignment of goals for their children out of the most authentic kind of caring, and the contextualized and specific knowledge and expertise were what made it successful.

I am left wondering – is it possible to design universal standards and structures for schools that don’t replicate or reify oppressive and violent ideologies?  What would it mean for standards to always be designed, informed, or measured by coalitions of young people and adults – to have horizontal relationships (Tichnor-Wagner and Allen) set the goals and standards – for students and teachers and administrators? To include young people in both of those processes?

Week 6 – Lucy

I really enjoyed this week’s readings, both because of their hopefulness and openness, and also because they engaged so many concepts that are often explicitly omitted or erased from the discourse about teaching and school reform – love, faith, and political action.  Each author built from Freire’s initial teaching to consider what it could mean to purposefully reenter those concepts to fundamentally transform the discourse.

In thinking about the role of political action, or “armed love” as named by Freire and Rivera-McCutchen, I thought about the common practice of telling teachers (and administrators) that they must be “apolitical,” or “neutral” in the classroom.  These calls to be “apolitical” are in reality calls for teachers to adhere to a very specific kind of politics.   The notion that it is possible to be apolitical (or neutral) is a political stance, and one that serves the interests of an oppressive school system (and by extension, the violent settler colonial logics that the school system upholds) – a stance that is easier for teachers and administrators who do not see their own humanity bound up in the liberation of all from oppression. As Rivera-McCutchen notes, “neutrality in the face of injustice, and particularly racial injustice, is unethical” (p. 244).

Freire directly addresses the question of a teacher’s position as a political agent in his discussions about fear and courage.  As he explains, “to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy.”  His identity as a political agent is tied up with the notion of “armed love” – “the fighting love of those convinced of the right and the duty to fight, to denounce, and to announce”.  Similarly, as Miller at el note, “Freire’s baseline discussions of love, humility, faith, hope, and solidarity … reintroduce language core to the human condition but foreign to the contemporary discourse on educational change” (p. 1091). This quote made me think about what Sohini wrote about and shared in the chat during class – that the violence of whiteness and settler colonial logics severs us from our innate human tendencies toward empathy and care, love and connection.  

And so the public school system in our country, which was hijacked and designed as a technology to uphold white settler colonial logics, necessarily needs to function to perpetuate the severing of those ties to our innate humanness – as political beings, as loving and complex beings, as relational and empathic beings – because settler colonial logics requires dehumanization, and the false definition of humanness based in ownership and domination.  The readings work together to show what it might look like to build a vision of schools, and larger communities, that are deeply connected to humanity in ways that seek to dismantle oppression, collectively.

Week 5 – Lucy

The readings this week pushed me to grapple with my own disillusionment with the power that principals could have to make real transformative change in schools, or shape schools to be liberatory, in an oppressive school system.  As Lomotey (1993) describes, I have seen the ways that principals experience the tension between the “bureaucrat/administrator” role and the “ethno-humanist” role. More often than not, the bureaucrat role wins out in a system full of problematic, racist structures and procedures that principals are left to interpret and enforce – including high stakes testing that reifies a white-washed curriculum and problematic measures of “success”, inflexible credit and graduation requirements, inadequate funding and complex budget requirements, and so on.  At my last school, for example, my principal was so concerned about how student regents scores could affect the school’s rating and funding that he policed which students were allowed to sit for the exam – resulting in students feeling demoralized and frustrated, and teachers feeling constrained to teach to a test that was deeply problematic.

This tension made me think about our discussion last week, and the ways that the African-American women principals profiled in the articles named the explicit ways that they chose to actively operate against or outside specific policies in order to demonstrate radical care for their students – both as powerful acts of resistance and also as a frustrating reflection of the fact that policy in our school systems are shaped by oppressive forces rather than radical care.

The Khalifa et al reading created some openings and possibilities that gave me more of a sense of hope for what could be possible.  As they write, culturally responsive school leadership is “not only liberatory and antioppressive, it is also affirmative” (p. 1278).  They describe practices that encourage critical self-reflection, and a shift in school priorities that focus on “connections with other people and putting people and individual contextual circumstances before bureaucratic rules and regulations” in ways that “empower their students” (p. 1291). They highlight ways that principals can shift the measures that are used to evaluate the school – gathering information from families about their priorities, and “interrogating … exclusionary and marginalizing behaviors” from teachers – including disproportionate and racilaized discipline, and even making the “hard decision to counsel out those teachers who recognize this work is not for them” (p. 1281).  I am still left wondering about how much change can be made without a total transformation of the system. I am also left wondering about the structure of principalship itself – is there another way to organize a school that doesn’t place a single principal as the ultimate leader and power-holder?  That redistributes power and agency across the school’s stakeholders and community members?

Week 4 – Lucy Robins

I was struck by Beauboeuf-Lafontant’s (2002) discussion of mothering, motherhood, and “other mothering,” and in particular by the way she named the distinction between motherhood as defined within a capitalist, racist patriarchy, and motherhood as defined by a womanist, Black feminist lens.  Motherhood defined by “mainstream, patriarchal” notions (p. 75) is “domesticated,” hierarchical, individual, and the teachers .  Thus, comparisons between teaching and motherhood, filtered through the lens of whiteness, capitalism, and patriarchy, is “resented” as “gender stereotyping” and viewed only in service to individual men and children.  Thus, the white teachers she profiles, in their attempt to push back against one form of gender oppression, reinforce the problematic conception of motherhood in service to racial capitalism. 

However, through the womanist and Black feminist lens, mothering is understood as a “communal responsibility” (p. 76) and “central to …resistance to domination, both patriarchal and racial” (p. 76).  Nurture and mothering becomes “inclusive in several senses: it is not limited to women, it is expressive of relationship within community, and it is not separate from the exercise of authority” (p. 76).  It is also a direct challenge the underlying racist, capitalist notions of property.  As Patricia Hill Collins writes, as quoted by Beauboeuf-Lafontant, “by seeing the larger community as responsible for children and by giving other-mothers and other nonparents “rights” in child rearing, African-Americans challenge prevailing property relations. It is in this sense that traditional bloodmother/other-mother relationships in women-centered networks are “revolutionary” (p. 77).  

Witherspoon and Anderson (2010) similarly name the ways that whiteness, capitalism, and racism have served to corrupt and hijack conceptions of care, nurture, and mothering.  As they write, “research in feminism, leadership, care, and justice has been located in European, White-accepted wisdom” (p. 220).  This form of care does not “interrogate patriarchy, privilege, and power inherent in exclusion and inequality” (p. 229).  Instead, this form of care works in tandem with systems of oppression – covering them up or sugar coating them.  What it would look like to fully challenge and dismantle these notions of care within teaching and teacher preparation programs?

Week 2 Reading Response – Lucy

The piece that I was struck most by in the Dixson article was the exploration of property and in particular whiteness as property, as it plays out in the “culture of Whiteness” of teacher education programs, and by extension, the teaching profession.  I was struck in particular by this line, “Whiteness operates as a form of property by which preservice teachers that possess the experiences, perspectives, knowledge and dispositions aligned with and valued by the dominant White society find reinforcement and success” (p. 128).  This is something I think about a lot in terms of the school where I teach, which has an almost all-white administration, and a predominantly white (myself included) teaching staff. Teachers who align with the toxic culture of white supremacy delusion (perfectionism, defensiveness, paternalism, either-or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, and most central to whiteness culture, anti-Blackness), end up getting into positions of leadership, and perpetuating and reifying this culture, while teachers who do not align with this culture or actively push against it are undermined and pushed out. It is violent for both students and teachers.

I was also struck by what Dixson describes as the “propertied right to determine meaning” (p. 128).  I found this exceptionally powerful, and a way to name the dynamics of whiteness that work to ensure its perpetuation, especially in schools and among white educators that self-identify as being “progressive” “caring” “liberal” or “anti-racist”.  As Dixson et al explain, white preservice teachers use this aspect of whiteness as property to “construct a definition of White privilege devoid of attention to structural power;” thus ironically exercising “their real White privilege—the propertied right to determine racial meaning—to deny their individual participation in the collective, structural racism that perpetuates racialized student failure. This is an exclusive right only engaged by the dominant racial group.” (p. 128).  White teachers and administrators naming themselves as anti-racist, while simultaneously reifying systems of oppression, is the ultimate form of this “propertied right to determine meaning.”

When a critical praxis, such as CRT, is implemented by those with a vested interest in perpetuating and maintaining toxic whiteness and anti-Blackness, then the language of that praxis can be manipulated, flattened, and shifted to serve those interests, while providing a veneer of “progressive liberal goodness”.  Ladson-Billings (1995) explained this tension best, when she described it as  “the difficulty (indeed, impossibility) of maintaining the spirit and intent of justice for the oppressed while simultaneously permitting the hegemonic rule of the oppressor” (p. 62). I am left wondering how to interrogate and dismantle that particular aspect of whiteness as property, and whether and how a praxis of CRT can do so, or can do so on its own, or can do so if the structures of power remain unchanged.