December 12, 2021

Jose Luis Vilson: What Gets Taught

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Speaker, author, teacher, and grad student Jose Luis Vilson looks at the question of why even mostly-white schools need to be paying attention right now.

Whenever I do a keynote presentation or workshop, I’m often asked: “How does this apply to me when I teach in a school with all-white staff and an almost all-white student body?”

The moment we’re in right now is why. Say less about the Rittenhouses, the Carlsons, and the Trumps of the world and more about the society that has created pathways for permission towards white nationalism, murder, and fascism.

The current pandemic has taught us several lessons. Among them is that our solutions must be contextual, historical, borderless, and structurally compassionate. To bring this to the school level, it’s cool when a student has that one teacher who believes in them as a student and as a person, develops culturally-responsive and engaging lessons, and wants to stay in the profession for more than a couple of years, but if it’s only one teacher out of seven or eight that the student has, we need the goal to be higher. Every one of us may have a right to close our doors so we can focus on our own lessons, but, at some point, we must see how our teaching and the teaching across the hall or on another floor (or school) have a relationship to one another. Unfortunately, some students might not see any teachers in their lives who meet these criteria, but this makes the imperative that much more urgent.

This is to say, we have plenty of evidence that all of our classrooms are interconnected. We can’t pretend that individual choice can trump collective failure … or success.

If this moment hasn’t taught us anything else, it’s that we need a serious reimagination about what education is. Let’s say schooling is the set of formal processes by which we try to manage mass instruction for a given populace whereas education is the set of lessons, values, and understandings one acquires from society. To give a common example, plenty of people who society has labeled well-educated never graduated high school. Policymakers and pundits have flooded the narrative about education reform as one of failure, but, time and again, we see instances where the onus for that failure has been set at the feet of students and communities who simply want an education or, at least, their right to schooling.

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