MiT Classroom Bias essay

2. Please upload a second two page essay in which you: offer and support a thesis about the statement below, and include how your background, behaviors and experiences have prepared you to work with these issues in the classroom.

“It is virtually impossible to be raised in the culture of the United States without being taught racial, ethnic, gender and socioeconomic class biases, yet teachers today must be prepared to work with children from many backgrounds. They must also be prepared to demonstrate a commitment to the highest ideals of U.S. society and of public education.”

I claim that issues of bias (i.e. prejudice) in teachers and students must be understood in the context of group-level power relationships (i.e. privilege/oppression), and that the task of a teacher in this context is to be an agent of the democratic project (discussed in my Personal Essay). In practice, this involves strategies for managing inter-group tensions in the classroom and developing a culture of critical curiosity. I’m going to describe some of my experiences in different cultural and social settings, and show how they have prepared me to work for democracy as a teacher.

I grew up in an East-Coast suburb populated by large, prefabricated houses and a sprawling golf course. My school district was mostly white and comparatively affluent. I remember that the neighboring school district was regularly discussed by my peers for its mythical violence and its large African-American population.

One of this essay’s claims is that there is a relationship between one’s origin and one’s trajectory. The complex circumstance into which each of us is born (ethnicity, socioeconomic status, family situation, gender, etc.) exerts a powerful influence on the life which follows. Everyone is born in medias res: just as Romeo and Juliet were limited by the circumstance of their families’ feud, so are our agencies limited (not determined) by backgrounds none of us created. Example: when I was eighteen I spent the summer living in my truck at the beach, and then the autumn in a Canadian squat without heat or hot water. This was my choice. I did not, however, choose the context within which I made this choice: an adolescence rocked by depression and my father’s homophobia.

My purpose in these considerations of agency and determination is to illustrate the inadequacy of the myth of self-sufficient and -determined individualism. “Being taught racial, ethnic, gender and socioeconomic biases” only makes sense in a schema where groups are real. This is the deeper claim that I’m making: groups are as real as individual persons, and as such have real power-relations between one another (i.e. privilege/oppression). As defined by bell hooks, “Being oppressed means the absence of choices” (her italics), and it seems to me that this–the myriad disparities in agency which pervade our society–is at the heart of this essay’s prompt. The problem for teachers is not diversity, or even bias per se. The problem is, how can teachers act as agents of democracy within institutions of power such as public schools?

After returning from Canada, I enrolled in Americorps NCCC, a public-service program. My team’s first assignment was tutoring and extracurricular programming at a Boys & Girls Club in inner-city Denver. The stark contrast between the community in which I’d grown up and the new location of my work–poor and primarily African-American–was one of my first glimpses of structural violence: not the purposive racism of Jim Crow, but the epiphenomenal racism of social institutions at work. This and other Americorps projects showed me how my own background was historically and socially situated, rather than “normal.”

Denver’s normalized oppression contrasted against the spectacular catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. My team worked under FEMA to assist on a cruise ship housing “clients” who’d been displaced by the storm. After graduating Americorps, I volunteered in New Orleans’ 9th Ward with Common Ground Relief, headquartered in an abandoned school amid debris and rotting houses. Locals described to me how, as children, they’d wondered why their homes were built below water-level. Months after the storm, poor neighborhoods remained devastated, whereas affluent districts like the French Quarter had rebounded quickly. Nearly a decade has passed, yet parts of the city are still rebuilding. From my experience with Katrina relief, I gained a better understanding of how extraordinary situations manifest unequal power-relations which are otherwise invisible.

After graduating from TESC I joined Peace Corps Philippines. My guiding concern as an HIV educator and as a classroom teacher was the empowerment of students through self-directed learning. The colleges, hospitals, and police bureaucracies I worked within did not always prioritize student autonomy. For example, as an HIV educator I was constantly negotiating the tension between Filipino Catholic values and safer-sex education. Similarly, my suggestion to begin a seminar on Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” in my philosophy class led to a fruitful discussion with students and faculty about the difference between understanding a text vs. accepting it. Both of these are examples of negotiating inter-group tensions to promote critical thinking. This kind of negotiation serves to empower students to think critically and thus act as effective democratic citizens.

In conclusion, I suggest that my work in Americorps, New Orleans, Peace Corps, and at Seattle Central has (incompletely) prepared me to work with students from a diversity of backgrounds, and to (hopefully) connect that work in the classroom with higher democratic values. As an educator, I strive to foster critical, collaborative thinking as a mechanism of student empowerment and democratic citizenship. Such thinking is necessary for seeing and addressing the privilege and oppression which partly underlies social diversity, and which threatens the foundations of democratic society (since a society with unevenly-distributed power can be democratic in name only). As a democratic citizen “committed to the highest ideals of US society,” it is my responsibility to notice power imbalances on both the micro- and macro-level. As an educator, it is my responsibility to encourage a culture of critical inquiry within my classroom: to imbue students not with my opinions but with my methods, so that they may make their own assessments of the society in which they live. As I said in my Personal Statement, citizens with the capacity to think critically are essential to contemporary American democracy. The ability to perceive social systems, which requires abstraction, is one example of such thinking.

In other words, the problem of classroom bias is a function of the larger problem of privilege and oppression. My strategy for meeting both is to encourage student empowerment via collaborative, critical thinking. My experiences–of observing different instances of oppression, and of negotiating power relations in the classroom–have prepared me to manage these issues and to advocate for democracy as a teacher.

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