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Debating Amiri Baraka in the Urban Classroom

01/15/2014 10:20 am ET | Updated Mar 17, 2014
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The first day of school is devoted to "Orientation," where class procedures and expectations are set, and the team effort of building a classroom learning culture starts once again. One of our first lessons built on PBS's The United States of Poetry. Our inner city high school students began with a close textual analysis of the late Amiri Baraka's "The X Is Black (Spike Lie)," discussing the lyrics: "Ex human, ex slaves, unknown, incorrect, crossed out, multiplying the wealth of others.'"

The lesson was always a great success and sent the message that we were a real college prep class. Consistent with the give and take of a university seminar, I listed my complaints against some of Baraka's politics, and asked who should decide whether students have a right to read him.

The students were always unanimous. My teens welcomed the clash of ideas and they were open to all perspectives, but they resisted the notion that distant authority figures, or even their own teacher, would claim a monopoly in determining what they should study.

Lessons like this taught me the No. 1 principle of teaching -- listen to students and they will teach you how to teach them. The key to closing the achievement gap, I learned, was respecting the minds and dignity of poor children of color. Offer urban youth the opportunity for a profound exploration of concepts and emotions, as we do more affluent students, and, together, inner city teachers and students will produce excellence. Authentic lessons, relevant to our students lives, taught with real rigor, as opposed to bubble-in test prep, are crucial.

I was once cautiously optimistic that Common Core could be a corrective to the soul-killing basic skills instruction prompted by NCLB and subsequent top-down reforms. Surely Common Core would recommend close textual analyses of the poetry of Amiri Baraka and/or other iconoclasts. It would open the eyes of students and teachers to the benefits of deep reading of literary innovators. In the best case scenario, Common Core would motivate educators and students to seek out challenging and timely literature and borrow from sources ranging from PBS and NPR to The Grio or the Encyclopedia of African-American History to complement its recommended curricula. Common Core and contemporary culture, I hoped, would become teammates.

But, then we learned about Common Core testing. Once assessments are turned into high-stakes tests they are no longer a tool for encouraging divergent thinking. They must ask questions with one "right" answer. As Claire Needell Hollander explained in the New York Times, questions and answers must be neutral. The quest for topics and genres that would appeal to any single class is subordinated to the search for materials that won't put any demographic group in an advantage or disadvantage. Once high stakes standardized tests are involved, Common Core's architects must focus on the "bloodless task" of avoiding political risks.

To test makers, students' unique interests become irrelevant. As Hollander explains, they must then select texts that are "created to be 'agnostic' with regard to student interest... they are texts that no student would choose to read on her own." Test makers, as opposed to individual teachers seeking to touch their own students' hearts, do not care whether "students should read Shakespeare, Salinger or a Ford owner's manual." Neither do the test makers necessarily understand that for teachers, "Emotion is our lever. The teen mind is our stone."

But, the week after the passing of Amiri Baraka, I don't want to get bogged down in a dispute over Common Core, or any other single example of the top-down micromanaging of teachers and students. Regardless of the motives of the original Common Core designers, who wanted classrooms with more intellectual rigor, it has deteriorated into another teach-to-the-test product of market-driven reformers.

To borrow from Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, the original proponents of Common Core standards may have wanted all students to become masters of their own intellectual universe, but then corporate reformers demanded that their standardize testing regime must come with it. After stakes were attached to assessments, Common Core became another cog in the corporate reform drive to train students to become Walmart greeters, multiplying the wealth of others.

The next school improvement effort must treat students as more than an unknown, crossed out, incorrect. If the next generation of reformers want to improve the educational opportunities of poor children of color, they must come into our classrooms as partners and listen to the real experts on urban education.

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