I wrote this reflection recently as part of a "Diversity and Social Justice" class at University of San Francisco, describing what makes me feel a sense of community as an educator.
What makes you feel a sense of community?
“How long run you?” the elderly East Indian gentleman asked, pointing to me and looking back at his wife, as if to confirm his choice of words to approach a stranger. In my simplest, beginning English I told him I would run about five miles tonight, and a total of forty to fifty miles this week to train for a marathon. “You run for event?” He tried to understand why I had circled the park so many times as they took their evening stroll.
“Yes, I paid money to run 26.2 miles in honor of my 50th birthday in October. My family will be watching.”
Then his wife clarified the word, “maraton,” with a sharp “t” sound.
“Ah,” said the gentleman through his three front jagged teeth. “Mara-ton. Best wishes you success.” And I ran my remaining three laps knowing that today, I matter in this hectic and complicated world.
This is spirit of community that I wish to instill in my students as an educator, that we ALL matter, and there are many different perspectives on success. The elderly Indian grandfather practiced his English on me at the park, and the word “success” had more meaning because I knew he had to consciously think of what he was saying to me. It was beautiful, and life-confirming to me that we are all part of at least one community; I am part of three. As an educator, I embrace the Palo Alto High School (Paly) community and all of the rich culture I find there. Along with an already diverse community, it is sprinkled with a mix of Stanford University alumni, as well as East Palo Alto families who opted to send their students to Palo Alto schools from age five or six. This is where my heart is.
A good educator finds ways to make connections with her students, both in and out of the classroom. I find much satisfaction from the service-learning program I have created at Paly, and I spend much of my time finding ways to help students find their connection to community. This requires some level of trust with the students, and effort on my part to attend some of the activities that are going on so students of various ethnic backgrounds will want to get involved. In her research, Gloria Ladson-Billings (The Dreamkeepers, 1994) articulates this connection when working with racially diverse student populations:
“Because many African American students live in and attend schools in communities that their teachers neither live in nor choose to frequent after school hours means that few have the opportunity to interact with their teachers outside the classroom. Teachers who practice culturally relevant methods work to find ways to facilitate this out-of-school (or at least out-of-the-classroom) interaction” (p. 63).
She further describes a teacher who invites her students to Sunday School. Though I wouldn’t quite go that far, I do feel that community service is a spiritually rewarding experience. My own involvement in these activities, including in our underserved Peninsula neighborhoods such as East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park, I am building relationships and connections with our students to create valuable service-learning experiences that carry over into the classroom.
Underrepresented minority students who are involved in service-learning gain many intangible educational advantages such as: leadership qualities, communication techniques, and organizational awareness. These community service experiences with an educational component are a great equalizer to students of color, as the learning is more process-driven and based on their individual interests and talents. In her scholarly essay, Lisa Delpit (Other People's Children, 1995) supports the value of providing many tools that help students develop their own voices:
…those who are most skillful at educating black and poor children do not allow themselves to be placed in "skills" or "process" boxes. They understand the need for both approaches, the need to help students establish their own voices, and to coach those voices to produce notes that will be heard clearly in the larger society. (p. 46)
It is this view of holistic learning that I wish to promote as an educator, continually growing my service-learning program to benefit ALL Paly students and to expand their definition of success. Whether a student has family resources to hire private tutors and college advisors, or a student emigrates to this country with very little financial assistance and has to learn English in the ninth grade, all deserve a chance to find their special talents and interests that will help each to express a unique voice. They should feel that as their teacher I am involved in the community service activities that I promote for them to make connections in and around Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, and they can trust me and know that they truly matter in this world of ours.