The authors respond to issues in the learning disability field raised by Sleeter's 1987 work to propose that work in teacher education can address the problem of overrepresentation of minority students in special education by making the discourses that produce disability visible to those who often initiate the process of disability diagnosis — teachers. An overview of current educational perspectives that have an impact of solving the problem of overrepresentation is followed by a dual-voiced presentation and reflection on labor that the co-authors performed in relation to an assignment for a graduate class entitled Positive Approaches to Challenging Behavior. We highlight complexities surrounding and materializing within teacher education. In presenting artistic work that conjures experiences of people of African descent in America, we problematize discourses of racial tolerance that continue to privilege Eurocentric approaches to reconciling historical and contemporary wronging.
Christine Sleeter's (1987/this issue) work is among the first in a family of scholarship to shift the discursive rules of what may be said and not said about learning disability. Her inquiry sought to understand not the occurrence of learning disability in children, but its production in society. She examined the construction of the learning disability label as it became a socially meaningful emblem and protector of socioeconomic, or class-based, entitlement, as well as a way to maintain racial segregation in schools. Toward the end of her 1987 essay, Sleeter notes the relative wane of high-stakes schooling through the 1960's and 70's, which alleviated a need for predominantly white and class-privileged families to seek a special category for their children. Of then-contemporary practice, she wrote:
At the same time, minority groups exerted pressure on educators to discard the notion of cultural deprivation and stop classifying disproportionate numbers of minority children as mentally retarded. As a result, children of color have recently been classified increasingly less as retarded, emotionally disturbed, or slow, and more as learning disabled. Although the majority of LD students are still white, the proportion of minority students in LD classes has climbed. (231-232)
Work over the past 20 years has positioned Sleeter's work as a harbinger of a troubling trend. The overrepresentation of particularly black and brown boys in special education — the disability categories, learning disability and emotional disturbance, the most infamous examples — is fact in the year 2010 (Arnold & Lassman, 2000; Artilles, 2003; Harry & Klingner, 2005; Losen & Orfield, 2002; Valles, 1998). Despite a Regular Education Initiative and inclusive school movement, those poor and "of color," continue to find themselves in segregated special education school settings and low track programs more frequently than their race and class-privileged peers (Ferri & Connor, 2006; Tomlinson, 2004).
Work in teacher education can address the problem of minority overrepresentation in special education by making the production of disability apparent to those who most often initiate the process of disability diagnosis — teachers and potential teachers. We can understand school practices of disability diagnosis as value-laden work, performed in discourse (or, social processes), which replicate and serve a particular image of schooling and society. In turn, we — in our positions as teacher educator (Baglieri) and middle-school teacher (Moses) — are enabled to imagine possibilities for interrupting the deployment of complicated social and cultural discourses that contribute to overrepresentation. We offer a dual-voiced presentation and reflection on an assignment for a graduate class to demonstrate the potential of intellectual and artistic labor in teacher education. We begin with a brief overview of current perspectives related to identifying students with learning disabilities to emphasize the need for complex approaches in theory and practice to address overrepresentation.
Contemporary Perspectives on the Problem of Overrepresentation
Solving the uncomfortable problem of overrepresentation relates to several perspectives on learning disability operating in the contemporary field. Those working from a positivist paradigm advocate for more clarity and accuracy in the definition and diagnosis of learning disability, demonstrating ongoing concern with its occurrence in children. A Disability Studies in Education (DSE) orientation carries out Sleeter's (1987/this issue) work to instead query the production of learning disability in schools and society. In this framework, scholars seek to understand and challenge schools and societal ideologies that construct a need for disability identification, rather than a more accurate way to identify children with the "condition." We offer examples of both perspectives, as they relate to the challenge of overrepresentation.
The Imagined Hope of Positivist Inquiry
Persisting examination into the occurrence of learning disability coalesces around the puzzle Samuel Kirk noted in 1963 (cited in Sleeter, 1987). That is, to figure out the tenets of a field "…not concerned with children who have sensory handicaps, … or with children who are mentally retarded, or with delinquent or emotionally disturbed children caused by 'environmental factors' (my emphasis, Conference Proceedings, p. 1)." (p. 229). Thus, LD is a concept born from a process of elimination rather than descriptive specificity, contemporary researchers Kavale, Holdnack, and Mostert (2005) propose: "The present Specific Learning Disability definition has always been too broad to be wrong and too vague to be complete." (p.3). They argue, "[specific learning disability] should reclaim its position as a legitimate category for students experiencing particular types of learning difficulties. A good place to start is with a new formal definition that articulates strict parameters for the condition" (p. 4). The line of argument upholds the possibility for an objective or more objective process of identification that can begin with narrowing the pool of those who may be diagnosed with specific learning disability.
Other researchers point out the impact of human subjectivity in school-based identification of learning and emotional disability, believed to mar an otherwise objective process. A strand of problem solving in overrepresentation focuses on ending "false positives." In addition to better defining the parameters of the "condition," an effort exists to acknowledge the "real" interests of educators in identifying children as learning disabled: getting struggling students help. Mellard, Deshler, and Barth (2004) hypothesize, for example:
…"street-level workers" (e.g., general education staffs of building principals and teachers; special education staffs of directors of special education, LD teachers, school psychologists, psychometricians, and diagnosticians; and parents) have a different conceptualization of LD determination issues that are not technical, but reflect organizational and resource constraints (Lipsky, 1980). That is, LD determination is more influenced by local efforts and problem solving than the relevant federal or state regulations. (p. 231)
In other words, good-intentioned teachers seek disability diagnoses for struggling children in order to get them educational support. Overrepresentation, in this case, may occur as a byproduct of interactions between "challenged" children and the unwieldy parallel systems of general and special education (Harry & Klingner, 2007; Reid & Valle, 2004). The distance between a "true" existence of learning disability and its deployment as a strategy to gain help, however, is evident in the comment of a special education teacher, who "did not feel as if she had ever had a 'true' LD student on her caseload" (Mellard et al., 2004, p. 237). Crossing (or being tossed over) the border from general to special education promises help, and therefore, garners teachers' acquiescence to the imperfect system.
Were special education a place for temporary help, and were special and general education "two houses alike in dignity," perhaps the drama would end here, with Plessy v. Ferguson's "separate but equal" claim an acceptable holding pattern. In Sleeter's (1986) assessment of learning disability, however, she proposes that even though "many people see tracking as a way of homogenizing students in classrooms so teachers can teach them better" (p. 47), there are negative effects of tracking and its ramifications for lower-tracked students. She writes, "[they] consistently fare worse than their non-tracked counterparts and rarely achieve upward mobility" (p. 48). Indeed, special education programs have been and remain "disproportionately of low quality in terms of curriculum, instruction, and ratio of students to teachers" (Harry & Klingner, 2007, p. 20). Efforts to improve the services provided to "really" disabled children seek to de-stigmatize placement in special education are certainly worthwhile, but have been slow to materialize (Vaughn, Gersten, & Chard, 2000; Williams, 2006). It seems, then, using the learning disability label as the means to get students help does not serve its own ends.
The search for a "true" meaning or presentation of impairment apotheosizes (specific) learning disability as an empirical brass ring, presumed to coincide with particular instructional methods that may be best carried out in specialized settings to children's benefit. In some views, improvements in special education are believed to be outcomes of incremental changes in the current structure of schooling (Andrews et al., 2000). To effect progress, then, we might refine disability definitions and seek better objectivity in disability identification, which could eliminate "false positives." Advocates of responsiveness-to-intervention (RTI), for example, recommend the provision of increasingly intense interventions provided to students before they are identified as learning disabled. Potentially circumventing educators' use of the learning disability label to get struggling students help, it is only after children fail-despite-help that they are labeled. Ostensibly, refining and clarifying diagnosis would curb the problem of overrepresentation, as the occurrence of learning disability in children would better conform to anticipated prevalence rates across racial groups. A solution here imagined for argument, it is the boundary of what positivist inquiry might offer to the overrepresentation quandary.
The Possibility for Social-Political Inquiry
In contrast to a hope for incremental change, others assert that segregated outcomes, which troublingly reify classed, raced, and gendered patterns of imbalanced school achievement, disability stigma, and persistently low quality of educational instruction, seem more substantive concerns than mere kinks in the system to be worked out in time. If, as Ferri and Connor (2006), point out, disability segregation carries out the historical tradition of racial segregation in schools, the problem more likely requires vetting in the social and political realms. A second perspective on the problem of overrepresentation, then, emanates from the DSE field. Similar to Christine Sleeter's (1987/this issue) examination of learning disability, Len Barton, in 1986, queried the underlying beliefs shaping special educational policies and practices in England. Barton pointed out the problem of two schooling systems. Rather than revising the "general" curriculum to respond to the needs of children experiencing school struggle, offering two options for schooling was a way to uphold democratic claims of equal educational access amidst the narrowness of "general" education practices. In other words, the creation of parallel systems of general and special education did not necessarily aim to serve children and their best interests, but to maintain the efficiency of the predominant schooling model — largely unchanged since the dawn of public schooling (Dudley-Marling & Dippo, 1995; Skrtic, 1991).
In Barton and others' views, contemporary kinks in the system indicate problems of inequity deeper than those able to be incrementally improved upon without a radical critique of schooling and its production of disability. Driven by stigma and justified in the reality of children unable to keep up with the curriculum or approximate complicit behavior, special education and disability labeling emerged as an acceptable form of discrimination — a way to name and contain, in Erevelles's (2000) words, "unruly bodies." Coupled with histories of racial oppression and segregation, it is hardly surprising that those deemed "unruly" in contemporary society are disproportionately black and brown boys and young men. Familiar territory in education literature, it appears that ideologies which privilege white and middle-classed ways of knowing and behaving in schools make students "of color" and those with lower class status most vulnerable to disability labeling when they fail or refuse to quickly adapt to the demands of a highly regimented discursive setting (Connor, 2008; Ferguson, 2001; Harry & Klingner, 2007; Reid & Knight, 2006). In addition, parents whose knowledge is subjugated within school culture and language are more vulnerable to pressure to comply with school judgments made about their children (Kalyanpur, Harry & Skrtic, 2000; Rogers, 2002). This phenomenon encapsulates the "other" side of Sleeter's (1987) account of parent participation in special education.
In today's field of practice, the problem of overrepresentation can be theorized through acknowledging complexities in interactions among social, cultural, political, historical, and scientific discourses. Those who initiate the process of disability determination — typically general education teachers — are already informed by a multitude of discourses that erect "acceptable" forms of school achievement, then locate school failure within children's bodies (Baker, 2002; Reid & Valle, 2004; Thomas and Loxley, 2005; Tomlinson, 2004). Determining, as Mellard et al. (2004) propose, whether good-intentioned teachers seek help for students through disability labeling, or seek a disability classification to resolve clashes resulting from mis-matched cultural expectations of White, women teachers imposed on black boys students, as Ferguson (2001) proposes, are phenomena too sticky and case-specific to be considered in simplicity. Beyond race, for example, Harry and Klingner (2005) point out that teachers with racial profiles similar to their students also initiated "false positives," which yielded racially disproportionate identifications of disability. It is unlikely that a single line of inquiry (e.g., refining diagnosis) can yield solutions to all of the factors that contribute to overrepresentation. It is similarly unlikely that any solutions can be reached without engaging the inquiries of those who are most embedded in the problem — school personnel, children, and families. As such, we (the authors) highlight work with teachers as one area of study through which to engage productive action.
Overrepresentation and Teacher Education
Teacher educators, like all educators, are subject to the pushes and pulls of the curriculum linked to their particular fields of study and the disciplinary apparatus that structures compulsory and post-secondary schooling overall (e.g., grading, gate-keeping exams, and teaching to the expectations of the current system). Influenced by the urgency in preparing those who work or will work with children, teacher education programs too often develop as marches of curriculum that provide teachers with just enough information to digest disciplinary knowledge and, hopefully, to turn it into effective practice. The condition of the forced march is made worse in fast-track certification programs that demand speed and efficiency to quickly certify/license teachers — a situation familiar to the authors, as it is the milieu in which our relationship was formed. Moses began work as an educator in the New York City Teaching Fellows program, necessitating long days and long nights balancing the demands of being a novice special educator and graduate student; Baglieri struggled to offer curriculum relevant both to what students might "do tomorrow" and to what they might appreciate or desire later.
Constructivist perspectives on teacher preparation are increasingly reported in research literature, which require a learner-specific pace of study as they bring the notions of reflective practice and self-study to fore (Beck & Kosnik, 2006; Richardson, 1997). Here emphasized are the development of deep understanding of educative practices and their implications for teachers and learners. Accompanying self-study is nurturance of perspectives — generally deemed "critical" — which invite would-be teachers to consider potentially oppressive and liberatory beliefs and practices. In education scholarship the necessity for curricula that may lead students of teaching to anti-oppressive perspectives on race, culture, and disability, for example, is apparent (Ladson-Billings, 2000; Peterson & Beloin, 1998; Sleeter, Torres & Laughlin, 2004; Trent & Dixon, 2004, Ware, 2006). Alongside curriculum that seeks to emancipate teachers from oppressive ways of knowing, instruction that addresses the development of culturally relevant curriculum and the value of drawing on perspectives and knowledge emerging from children's homes and lived experiences is also evident (Asante, 1991; Blanchett, 2006; Conyers, 2003; Ginsberg, 2007; Moll et al., 1992).
A rationale for a critical practice of curriculum in teacher education is found in the words of Foucault (cited in Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1983), who explained, "People know what they do, they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does" (p. 187). Engaging students of teacher education in ways of thinking about "what what they do does" in a wider societal context of race, class, and disability politics has potential to curb overrepresentation. That is, teachers and potential teachers can gain understanding of their positions as powerful judges in the classroom, thus requiring alertness to subjectivities that influence their perceptions of learning and behavior. Developing culturally relevant curricula that expands the scope of general education become effective to curbing overrepresentation when teachers are able to understand, appreciate, and engage students in ways that short circuit or make irrelevant the system's need for segregation and the means to that end — disability diagnosis.
To place the burden of overrepresentation on the backs of individual teachers and teacher educators is, we acknowledge, weighty responsibility. Barton (1986) and Skrtic (1991), among others, point out systemic and structural problems emanating from ideologies that naturalize disability segregation. The mere existence of parallel systems is structured by ideologies that position disability as an acceptable, even inevitable, rationale for segregation. In addition, several more examples of barriers to general education reform are:
- The threat of decreased federal funding to schools unless children demonstrate "yearly progress" on particular standard measures, which can exacerbate school workers' desires to segregate students identified as disabled (Bejoian & Reid, 2005).
- The bureaucratic practice of special education, in which children must receive a disability label to receive support for their learning, coupled with a heavy reliance on family advocacy to attain adequate access to learning opportunities (Brantlinger, 2003).
- The perception that segregated special education leads to better educational outcomes for learners, despite decades of research that have not validated the claim (Harry & Klingner, 2005; Tomlinson, 2004).
- A predilection to seek justification for educational segregation or inclusion through positivist inquiry, which avoids moral questions relating to the equity and belonging of all children to schools (Gallagher, 2001).
As in most bureaucratized relationships, members of society with the lowest status are more subject to discrimination and less likely to benefit from the institution. For example, schools in areas with lower-income families — generally with higher concentrations of people of color — are more vulnerable in policies that threaten education funding and are populated by adults less enabled to impact school decisions. Broader arguing against disability, social class, and racial inequity, which have been naturalized in USA policy and history (Ferri & Connor, 2005; Brantlinger, 2001), is an "uphill" battle.
We agree with scholars in DSE who constitute the problem of overrepresentation in its fuller systemic complexity, though we can still perceive the impact and potential of teachers' work toward reform. We (the authors) contend that individual teachers do have agency to comply with or resist exclusionary discourses, and propose teacher education as a context in which complexities in overrepresentation can be vetted and made productive in reform efforts to improve educational practice. Employing rhetoric of hope and activism evident in Paulo Freire's (1970) influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, we believe that the action of teachers, children, and families can — perhaps must — precede and lead education reform. Understanding that our work as educators is not only about learning how to negotiate the daily grind of work with "diverse" learners in schools not quite structured for them, but in connection to a broader vision of a society-in-progress, can differently situate the experiences of educators. Positioning teachers' work as political work gives meaning and honor to struggles felt in tired bodies and frustrated thoughts as they/we desperately try to figure out how to teach inclusively — often in ways yet to be imagined (Baglieri, 2008). Rather than perceiving struggles in curriculum as those between teachers and students deemed underachieving or disabled, teachers and students can becomes allies to resist the discourses that squelch their shared work in teaching and learning. If schooling is not just, those most closely observing inequity must be empowered to ask, "Why not?"
Engaging a Fuller Potential of Teacher Education: Our Story
To this point, our author's voice is unified in a "we" identity. What we have written represents our joint beliefs, though the experiences that have led each of us to them are different. Noted previously, we came to know each other in our positions as teacher educator (Baglieri) and graduate student/novice special education teacher (Moses). We make our voices distinct in parts of the remaining article because the unified "we" is inadequate to express the individual ways of knowing through which we will articulate the meanings of our shared experience in developing and responding to a course assignment. I, Baglieri, approach my teaching as an educational researcher in DSE and former public school special educator. I strive to turn what I have come to believe through my study of education scholarship and my experience as a high school teacher into topics of inquiry meaningful to teachers' understanding and practice of disability and education; I, Moses, am a child of poetry and have always tried to express myself by using art, which I believe is the most powerful tool of communication. As an educator, I understand the importance of interpretation. I work at an exhibition-based school where students show their knowledge through projects and exhibitions rather than tests and quizzes. Just as we have unique lenses through which we view our selves as teachers, it follows that in the teacher education classroom we make use of different identities and experiences to inform our teaching and learning.
We focus on a shared experience of reading and responding to Kathleen Collins's (2003) book, Ability Profiling and School Failure: One Child's Struggle to be Seen as Competent. Collins's book traces her relationship with a fifth-grade student named Jay. Jay is powerfully introduced in a transcribed dialogue of a meeting between him, his grandparents, and two sixth-grade teachers in Chapter Two. A child certainly perceived "at risk," Jay is chided in the meeting for his lack of behavioral self-control, his poor handwriting, and poor organization of schoolwork. The condition of unequal power between Jay's black family and his two white teachers is clear, as the family is told, "You all sit over there. Right there," (p. 16) and then interrogated on the punishments and disciplinary tactics used with Jay in their home. By the end of the meeting, Jay's family has been evaluated within and co-opted by a school discourse that sees Jay as "problem" and the teachers as the rightful evaluators. "'You gotta clean up at school.'" Jay's grandfather tells him after the meeting. "'Them people,'" he continues, "'they be lookin' at stuff like that. They think our home probably tore up'" (p. 26).
The story of Kathleen (Collins) and Jay continues to unfold through a mix of description, reflection, and Collins's theorizing of their experiences in and out of school throughout Jay's fifth-grade year. Able to be interpreted as a homage to and extension of Sleeter's (1986; 1987) work, Collins makes visible particular beliefs, experiences, and discourses that inform the classroom practices of Laura, Jay's teacher, which provide understanding of the variability of what disability comes to mean when processes of disability diagnosis are presented in their social and cultural complexities. Jay, it seems, has been profiled as having low ability in the classroom based on his race and on Laura's assumptions about his family's history and non-nuclear form. Her beliefs are then reified through her perception and interpretation of Jay's classroom behavior and academic work. Despite competencies that are perceived by Kathleen and other researchers observing the class, she is convinced that he is either learning disabled or emotionally impaired. "So who wrote it? Did you write it?" (p. 124), she asks of an essay of which he is proud. She does not believe Jay was capable of the work that he did.
Readers' are treated to portraits of Jay in his home, in his church community, composing blues songs with his cousin, at work with an entomologist learning about collecting insects, and then later collecting them himself. Collins also offers a vision of Jay through the eyes of a former teacher and his family. What Laura is unable to see about Jay is offered to readers, and leaves us with a view of Laura as racist, at worst; an uninspired or culturally ignorant teacher, at best.
Baglieri's Perspective: Why I Teach with This Book
I use Collins's (2003) book as the first text in a graduate course entitled Positive Approaches to Challenging Behavior. As a teacher educator and researcher, I am attracted to the strong linkage made from theories of ability profiling and the construction of disability to school workers' perceptions of classroom behavior and the limits of one teacher's perspective of a child. The culminating assignment corresponding to the text is to create a "Communication with Laura." Because there is so much richness and detail in the text, I ask my students to engage in a practice of tolerance and offer Laura some collegial advice on choices she may have made differently in her outlook on and approaches to behavioral struggles with Jay — a central reason for her belief in his being disabled. The collegial element of the assignment is often a challenge, as per the evaluation made of Laura through the book. In each of the six courses over three years in which I have used this assignment, many students have simply wanted to advise her to leave the profession.
As a former special educator, however, I believe that counseling the "Lauras" to leave teaching is advice unlikely to materialize; belittling her is also unlikely to be helpful to the "Jays" in the world. In turning Laura and Jay into symbols of some classroom-based practices leading to overrepresentation, I strive to emphasize our capacities as special educators to help "our" could-be students through working with fellow teachers. I require students to engage in analysis of a self-chosen specific moment of behavioral conflict by taking on the perspectives of Laura and Jay, as based on the information provided by Collins. The form of the "Communication" is open to students' choice. Until Fall 2008, responses to the assignment included many letters and emails, sometimes a one-time missive, others depicting dialogue; a plethora of transcripts of imagined conversations; a few voice messages; a video message; a newsletter; and a PowerPoint presentation. And then came Akintoye (Moses)…
Moses's Perspective: How I View My Work
Merging academics and art has been a fundamental part of my educational journey for quite some time. Inspired by the words of bell hooks, I recall writing analytical and literary essays in high school using poetry and prose. I recall writing complete essays without any "proper" syntax or punctuation — but it was all completed with purpose, and subsequently would be recognized. I would later double major in Africana Studies and Photography at New York University. In that context, I was able to confirm the contents of my heart and see the academic in my art as well as the poetry in my intellect. The task of the "dear laura" piece was to communicate with Laura. I knew that I would be able to do this very well because I know Laura.
laura was my teacher throughout my elementary and secondary schooling.
laura was my teacher; with me her words were harsh, never soothing.
laura was my teacher; she didn't help me grow.
laura was my teacher; but from her I'd never know I'd glow and shine. product of a miseducation, failure was synonymous with my name.
later learned how to play the game.
still learning how to play the game.
The "my name is jay" piece was an attempt to use poetry and photography to tell a story. As an adult, an educator, and an artist, I reserve my dedication to this creative process/outlet and extend that same mindset to my students. I invite readers of this article to view the original work, which is published on youtube.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qrg2-eJeejQ. The full text of my reading performance that overlays the photographic montage in the original work follows.
i don't like how you did my man jay.
lead astray, then we fall like kings.
unaware if you are deliberate with the way of which you take out our seams it seems, like my kids is not your kids.
i'm tired of this cultural diss
ignorance cliché yet still bliss
i sit amidst-
young brothers claiming they bloods, some crips.
dear brother, and sometimes sister why not write your own script.
bed stuy bullets miss
bed stuy bullets, excuse me miss..
bed stuy bullets rain and cover the air like mist.
opportunities be missed to see my pain. i remain a villager in this game. hunted like game. i tried to tell my fellow classmate this school shit nothing but a game. i the one looked upon insane angry black nigga feigning for riches and small time fame, laura, my name mean warrior bowoni adupe akintoye shey da da ni embedded in my childhood's songs. nigerian languages flow off my tongue. i the one to speak, my voice is everything to me. even when i whisper my mind speaks of secrets, ancestor speakers, intelligent reachers. gold stacked in brains. tears caked on face, it's the same in the homeland. my lineage looks strong. thankful for my mom. thankful for drumbeats and kicks. knowing that ancestor works don't never finish, laura, this just the beginning…
suns go up and down
sons go lost, never found
sons is dapping on street corners and blocks
sons talks of pain.
memories of yesterday remain, trapped
memories of yesterday's remains become trapped in white chalks on sidewalks
talks of reparations, change, and progress.
but i'm still not sure if jay or myself will ever be discussed in the congress
will ever be allowed to,
sit in on this conversation
laura, your words are racin' across my mind
and laura, my name is jay.
i'm facing hard times.
dodging mental bullets from educational troops in the school house,
even gramma can find the time to criticize as if what you say isn't enough i've had enough
laura, my name is jay.
you call me out there- but actually i'm right here.
in your eyes i see fear
in you i see the same teacher year by year.
last year grands came in, the teacher woman said go sit there
this disrespect is not fair
laura, my name is jay
you say my name is problem.
It's not my fault, i didn't cause them
caught in a system that don't got nothing for me. your curriculum bores me. how is it i fail in school but in the world white culture adores me? i am the tale of two worlds. the opposite of your 'perfect' cuz i'm not no girl, i'm not no molly and won't ever be. it seemed like you let her speak, and yet you shackled my lips, didn't want me to speak. but i'm going to speak, i'm gonna be heard. i do this for my people, i do this for young black boys and girls.
laura, my name is jay.
this game is real and you are a part of it.
unfortunately, you are my opponent,
but nevertheless i will come out on top.
or if not on top, trust me i will finish.
my culture has never diminished, and i am of the same.
this game is only for players.
i am protected by ancestral prayers.
my history is layered, complex.
my hand is missing cards out the deck.
but i'm still playing.
Baglieri: How I Responded
Akintoye's work signified a transformative moment in my work as a teacher educator. I suddenly realized the imposition of Eurocentric rationality and its drive toward tolerance that informed my structure for the assignment. I asked students to ally with Laura, certainly to try to understand her. I asked students to engage in a form of communication that was welcoming to her without considering the individual experiences and identities of my students that may make this an untenable task. I offer excerpts from my emailed feedback to Akintoye on "my name is jay," which captures my interpretation of his work.
I really, really enjoyed "my name is jay". I enjoyed it for the creativity you drew on, the passion and commitment that it shows about your work and your experience and perspectives, and for the literary/artistic accomplishment of the entire product — music, images, performance, and text. You used your Africentric/Afrocentric perspective to connect Jay's experience to those of a broader diaspora, thus constructing the "problem" as one embedded in a history of structural and cultural oppression/suppression. You carry the theme through in Jay's voice & perspective and use quoted text to demonstrate the evidence of the overall theme in the context of the book. The result of your work — the solution, if you will — is posed in terms of the resilience, self-protection, and pride felt and expressed by a boy who WILL ACT as liberated, regardless of the subsequent sanctions put on him; you attribute an embattled voice to him — "unfortunately, you are my opponent." The end is powerful in its un-settling, or refusal to settle, perhaps — still playing, still standing, still sangin. Your work is an anthem for Jay and those positioned as he has been. Your work stands alongside those that call for an overhaul and revolution in schooling, not merely "differentiation" or "tolerance." Because of the nature of your thoughts and the strong place from which they come, I believe that you have chosen not to offer Laura solutions in didactic form. Instead you offer her art; something to help her see outside of herself and consider a raced and powered world and her place in it. You offer yourself and the ancestral wisdom that lives in you. It is the most beautiful, expressive, and meaningful piece of work I have EVER received in my work as a grad school instructor. (S. Baglieri, personal communication, November 18, 2008)
Reflecting with hindsight, my feedback to Akintoye expresses an interpretation of his work, as related to my enjoyment of a perspective I had yet to encounter in its fullness in my experience as a teacher educator. That is, an Afrocentric perspective and expression of diaspora emanating from the very language forms employed. I immediately thought of June Jordan's (1988) work, "Nobody Mean More to Me than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan." She presents the labor of her class's decision as to whether letters written to express their outrage at the police murder of Reggie Jordan, brother to classmate, Willie, should be submitted to the press in Standard English or in Black English/Ebonics:
How best to serve the memory of Reggie Jordan? Should we use the language of the killer — Standard English — in order to make our ideas acceptable to those controlling the killer? But wouldn't what we had to say be rejected, summarily, if we said it in our own language, the language of the victim, Reggie Jordan? But if we sought to express ourselves by abandoning our language wouldn't that mean our suicide on top of Reggie's murder? But if we expressed ourselves in our own language, wouldn't that be suicidal to the wish to communicate with those who, evidently, did not give a damn about us/Reggie/police violence in the Black community? (p. 372)
Their labor permeated my thought, and it is not coincidence that Akintoye's "bed stuy bullets" reminded me of Jordan's story surrounding Brooklyn bullets. Their works span 20 years, yet center on gunfire unleashed upon, literally, the same community — Bedford Stuyvesant is a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City. Amidst my efforts to offer several layers of choice in the "Communication with Laura" assignment, I ignored a problematic assumption in its first conception: That Laura should be tolerated; that my students might, could, or should seek to empathize with her and her struggle of teaching and managing behavior; that they should privilege her — the oppressor's — ways of knowing in communicating with her. Marcuse (1969) calls this repressive tolerance, or the acceptance of an unfettered moral relativism that positions oppressive and emancipatory perspectives on the same level of acceptability. Akintoye exposed, perhaps, the limits of tolerance and subverted my assumption that rational discourse offers the hope for positive change. His work is bold, also, in terms of his decision to submit "my name is jay" in its form — given that the distance between the academy and teachers/graduate students is not entirely unlike the distance between the language of the police and that of Reggie Jordan.
Moses: i do believe i represent myself today
I remember completing an assignment in one of my classes in graduate school and one of my fellow classmates asked to take a look at my work. She said, "It's good, but basic and elementary." I thought that was funny. In the essay, I used poetic and figurative language in collaboration with supposed "academic" language in my analysis of the topic. What perhaps was seen as elementary, in my eyes was a direct emotional connection to the work. All people are different types of learners. Different forces that dictate our actions and thoughts guide us all.
The powerful thing about teaching eighth-graders during the day while completing a teacher education graduate degree at night is that there is a direct connection between both classrooms. The empathy that I must contain to be a successful teacher for my eighth-graders is grounded in the experience of being a student in graduate school. As an active learner, my desire is to intake new information and digest it through interpretation. I constantly question and ask myself: What does it mean for me? What are the implications for people who look like me? What does this theory look like in practice? How can I use this? What is the point? Likewise, instead of completing assignments to complete them, I take time with my work, using the same strategies of integrating the arts into my work as I did in high school.
for i too, am jay.
a blue jay
flying across time and space
i do believe i represent myself today
because even now, im just a soul who intentions are good…
grew up in the hood though not of it
teachers told me I made them have gray hairs
in cali we have bloods crips and grizzly bears
masta teacha? masta teacha? Where art thou?
at night I hear sounds
cops, sirens, glass
does obama mean freedom at last?
still we last in line for college
but first for prisons and jails.
wondering when will the storm stop, right now the forecast predicts hail
bells need to ring faster
fist fights, shining bright lights
mr. teacha- i've had mo betta days and betta nights
is it you? black but the same as them boys in blue that be shinning in my pops rear view mirror lights?
mr. teacha- I don't got no more american dreams at night
mr. teacha- [creative] knowledge [be] my own classroom preecha
I choose to do this because I know that the contents of my heart can be spit out and refocused into an academic context and can be recognized and accepted. If not, then the work still exists for me. After all, it is my learning. My goal is to share my found, my learned, and my sometimes awkward sense of creative knowledge with my students. As my father always says, "If not, why not?"
Implications for Teacher Education & Overrepresentation
Our story began with Christine Sleeter, Len Barton, and the many other educational thinkers who have made possible the intellectual labor we, the authors, performed in the context of teacher education. Efforts to address the problem of overrepresentation come from many frames of meaning. Some attempt to better define learning disability, tame teachers' subjectivities in "noticing" them, or develop new systems of identification to better serve seemingly altruistic aims of special education. We, however, conceptualize the most hopeful solutions to the problem of overrepresentation as those enabling teachers to develop insight into the sociocultural production of disability, which can serve as a locus to interrupt the narrow frame of general education that devalue the many ways that children know and learn.
We demonstrate through our interactions as teacher educator and graduate student/teacher, however, that the meaning of such learning turns through the shapes of our own experiences and identities. From a perspective of the student, to emerge from teacher education attuned to one's role in overrepresentation as emancipated, repressed, or anything in between has much to do with the contexts in which "teaching" is offered. Moses's work offers the expressive potential of teacher education through the arts and through self-knowing. Baglieri's reflection on the meaning of the assignment raises questions as to the tone that problem solving in special education might take, as well as to the impact of an imposed tone on students of teaching.
Further research related to this work may include explorations of the potential for the arts and self-expression in teacher education. Admittedly, however, we have created this work to honor the meanings of our experience and in homage to the work of students and teacher educators who regularly experience transformative moments that pass too quickly to write down, or are too sublime and intimate to turn into stories written for others. We do not propose our experience as an archetypal one, nor do we offer it as indicative of a generalizable framework. Rather, the value of our work is in its complexity — emerging from the uniqueness of our identities, experiences, and what has been made possible in our particular shared space. Christine Sleeter began a dialogue that pushed the boundaries of the discourse on learning disability. Let us also push the boundaries of discourses on roles, identities, and purposes surrounding teacher education. And, let us ask: If not, why not?
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