Saturday, July 19, 2014

"This Is Not A Test" by Jose Vilson: I Recommend

"Teachers must develop a tough exterior--not just to withstand our students' temperaments, but also to support each other as we navigate the political and economic whims of those who set the policies that affect us most. . . we have to strengthen our voices, speak from our experiences and those of our students, assume and defend our autonomy, and kick butt at every turn."
                                                                                                    --Jose Vilson

Haymarket Books
In the Afterward of Jose Vilson's book, This Is Not a Test, Pedro Noguera clearly explains why every educator should read this book when he writes, ". .  this book will be a reminder of what can be achieved when educators act with the courage of their convictions to speak out and write about what is occurring in our schools today." Not only does the story tell the story of Jose's educational path, but the story also provides inspiration, direction, and context for today's educators.

I have been following Jose's work for a few years now. I look to him for inspiration, challenge, and growth as an educator. I saw him speak at the Save Our Students March in Washington, at Educon 2.7 and on YouTube as he gave his TedTalk.  I subscribe to his blog, read his tweets and even tweet him if I have a question I feel he'll be able to help me with. Jose is an education thought leader and sought after educator whose work inspires educators and learners all over the globe. Today as I read his book, I was challenged, inspired, and informed.

I really enjoyed learning about Jose's boyhood experiences through his wonderful choice of words and storytelling ability. The start of the book reminded me of Fletcher's Fig Pudding and Milton Meltzer's Starting from Home because like Fletcher and Meltzer, Vilson gives us an inside look at his childhood. In fact, when reading this section I found myself wanting to read these pages to my students, students who would be very interested in Vilson's experiences. I also found myself comparing my childhood experiences to his. Even though Vilson started school the same year I started teaching, I found similarities with our vivid memories of early school life, dedicated teachers, the impact of Jesuit traditions and teaching, and the effect parents' cultures and the neighborhood had on our lives. Dissimilar and so important for a teacher like me to read about and understand were Vilson's experiences growing up as a Dominican-Haitian male in New York City. His words brought me into his world in ways that will positively affect my teaching and learning in the days to come.

Vilson's book not only tells his story, but the book also inspires educators with many, many points to ponder and words to follow. Jose is a classroom educator who clearly understands the challenges and strengths classroom teaching present. I gained lots of inspiration from his insights and experience-- inspiration illustrated in these quotes:

"Education should be the set of actions and processes by which educators, students, and parents work together to help future citizens succeed and contribute to general society."

". . .our most disaffected students don't see themselves in the curriculum. . ."

"Teachers need to support the language that students bring to school, provide them input from an additional code, and give them the opportunities to use the new code in a nonthreatening, real communicative context." --Lisa Delpit, Other People's Children

"Teachers who related to their students on a cultural level can teach their students in important ways."

"In the end what I found was this: When I took off my mask and invested myself in a group of kids, the homeroom became a home. For all of us."

"The disconnect between the problem and the solution persists." -

"We also have to believe in ourselves as powerful change agents or else we perpetuate the same power structures we say we're against."

"The education blogging world needs someone who can ask the hard questions about inequity, race, and class."

"My vision for my students should last far beyond my own existence as their teacher."

Vilson illustrates what it means to teach with honesty when he writes the following words, "Yes, I've had things stolen. Yes, I've gotten upset, furious, enraged in front of my students. Yes, I still have to work within the dimensions given to me. Yes, I've learned to work with other adults I don't agree with. Yes, some of my kids didn't do well academically. Yes, I still want to teach."

"How do we as educators recognize each person's humanity?"

"But we cannot allow the most vulnerable kids to freeze themselves to the point where they don't share their pain."

". . .establish a direct and strong rapport in their first few months in class. . ."

"Courageous are those who can stand in the conversation with a spirit of collaboration and understanding. It's important for us to critique, but just as important to find solutions."

"When we teach, we don't just teach them the subjects; we implicitly teach them customs, rituals, and character traits that they either emulate or admire in their own right."

"I don't have a choice in how people perceive me before I speak or act, but I do have a choice in how I react and how I identify and share my own experiences."

The book also offers us details about today's schools. Vilson decries the lack of Black/Latino teachers, and notes that "It is clearly important for my students to see an authority figure who looks like them, understands what they're going through, challenges them, and provides a model for how to act."

He also speaks up against structures in school and outside of school that don't include teacher voice in the critical work and decisions teachers make every day. He further speaks of the expectations for teachers to ". . .obey, obey, obey."  Vilson states, "Our jobs discourage vocalizing dissent, both through individual administrators' intimidation tactics and through formal Internet policies. The hours teachers spend in class and on paperwork also leave little energy for advocacy or political action."

Jose defines teacher voice as "the collective and individual expression of meaningful professional opinion based on classroom experience and expertise." He tells the story of the development of his own voice, a story that will inspire every educator to think about his or her voice and professional responsibilities. With regard to voice, Vilson lends praise to his rap hero, Rakim. In speaking of Rakim, Vilson writes, "He had this supreme confidence in his performance even while remaining humble in his interviews. Through his lyrics, he inspired hundreds of writers--not just rappers--to consider the inner workings of every line, not just the ends." Vilson outlines three main elements of teacher voice: "balance between emotion and reason; expert confidence; and a specific audience in mind."

I cannot capture Vilson's wonderful prose, thought provoking and challenging words, and powerful storytelling ability in this post. This is only a small snapshot of his book, This is Not a Test, a book I highly recommend every educator read.

Thank you for sharing your story, words, inspiration, and dream with us, Jose. Your work impacts my work in dynamic ways. I appreciate.