Yvonne Divans Hutchinson
Students whose educational, economic, social, political, and cultural futures are most tenuous are helped to become intellectual leaders in the classroom.
from Tenets of Culturally Relevant Teaching, in The Dreamkeepers by Gloria Ladson Billings
Where I Began
I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1943. My education began at home with my mother, who taught me my alphabet, read to me, and eked out of her skimpy, weekly paycheck twenty-five cents to buy me a volume of the little golden books series or one of the small, fat paperback copies of children’s classics.
By the time I entered first grade (there was no kindergarten for black children in the segregated public school system) in Hot Springs, Arkansas where we moved when I was five, I had fallen in love with words and reading. I learned to read officially with the Dick and Jane Primer, the first grade book, a slim volume encased in pink, whose pages displayed cherubic, blond haired, blue eyed children and their parents—the All-American nuclear family, father-mother-son-daughter-dog Spot-cat who lived in the perfect house surrounded by a white picket fence.
Encouraged by my brilliant and passionate African American, teacher, Mrs. K. Walker Code, I quickly mastered the primers for both first and second grades and began reading voraciously everything within my ken. I had my first vicarious thrill reading “real life” stories when my next door neighbor, a newly wed in her late teens, fed my hunger for literature and life by handing me her cast-off copies of the monthly True Confession Magazine over the fence between our front yards. A precocious, but naive seven year old, I did not understand the sexual insinuations of these veiled and rather formulaic stories. As a result, I mistakenly assumed that all a girl had to do to get pregnant was to engage in passionate kissing and heavy breathing (necking). I, in my naivete, vowed never to succumb to such disgraceful behavior.
Despite my early encounter with sex education, I thrived on reading and learning. In addition to fairy tales, novels, poetry, I read the Bible, the newspaper, comic books by the hundreds, all ten volumes of my Spiegel Catalogue edition encyclopedia, parts of the dictionary, the backs of Kellog’s Corn Flakes and Quaker Oat Meal cereal boxes and anything in print that I could get my hands on. I read incessantly, in the bed under the covers at night with a flashlight, out on the porch or the yard, in the car during family trips. To me the written word was sacred, inviolate. Though I have since learned not to believe everything that I read, I still regard the act of reading with the awe I felt as a six- year old. I still love learning with the fervency sparked during my first year of school. This is the legacy handed down from my teachers, beginning with my mother and continuing through the fourth grade with the three African American women who guided my education through the landmines of segregation and discrimination in the South, helping me to realize that literacy is the road to freedom. And from all of the great teachers since, of all hues, who sparked my intellect and touched my spirit, who have passed on the legacy: a love for humanity and lifelong learning. It is this legacy that I hope to share with my students. This, then, is where I begin.
Where I Begin: Establishing a Learning Community
I begin by stimulating my students to think, to respect themselves, and to respect and appreciat others, especially those who may differ from them in some aspect: race, gender, ethnicity, culture, religion, or sexual orientation .* The King/Drew Magnet High School student body is a wonderful melange of a majority Black population (72%) including students from Africa and the Caribbean Islands, a smaller group of Latinos (22%) and a diminutive mix of others, (6%), including students of Native American, Indian, Asian, Mid Eastern, and European descent.
Given this somewhat truncated, little United Nations, I first seek to create a harmonious classroom environment, to establish a learning community whose members will treat one another with dignity and respect. During our study of literature in thematic units, I guide my students to explore values and issues of universal human concern, as well as to gain an aesthetic appreciation of different literary genres. Because positive social interaction is vital to their development as intellectual leaders in the classroom, I invite them to regard literature as a mirror of society, as a reflection of who we are and how we treat one another as human beings. Additionally, understanding others of different backgrounds serves to shape the global outlook that I believe is an important habit of mind of the lifelong learner. Thus, I always begin my class with a wakeup call, a consciousness raising strategy to nudge them into awareness of and appreciation of their similarities and differences, to understand that we are all a part of “the human family, and that we are more alike than we are unalike.”(Maya Angelou, poem, “The Human Family)
We are more alike than we are unalike.
Scenario on the first day of school: Students trudge up the stairs and approach the door of Room 415, some willingly, eagerly, some shyly, reluctantly. By the time the bell rings they have seated themselves in the two sections of desks facing each other across an aisle some four or five feet wide. The seating occurs naturally and is, invariably, divided along racial lines, with blacks sitting on one side of the classroom; non-blacks sitting on the other.
After introducing myself and welcoming them, I urge the students to look around. “What’s wrong with this picture?” After a quick visual survey, they murmur in self-conscious and somewhat embarrassed tones, confirming the initial impression of Osbel, a ninth grader from Belize, who noted, “. . .when I walked into Ms. Hutch’s class, I . . . observed that all the African-American students were sitting on one side, and all the Hispanics were sitting on one side, or in the same area.”
I allow them a few seconds to contemplate their unwitting balkanization. Then I assure them, “You have very nicely divided yourselves according to race. I understand the natural tendency sit with someone who appears to look like you or who happens to be from the same race. This is normal and natural human tendency. But because the world is made up of many diverse cultures and races and at least two or three are represented in this class, I want you to rearrange yourselves in our classroom so that the class is more integrated. “How can we make this happen? I am going to turn my back for about two minutes and two seconds. When I face the class again, I hope to see that you have rectified the problem.”
With good-natured mumbling, giggling, scraping of feet and chairs, they comply with my request. After the noise subsides, I turn around and face my newly “desegregated” class.
That’s better,” I declare. “Now, look again. You see people with different color skin tones, different color eyes, different textures of hair, different body types, shapes, people who may have been born in this country, or in other countries. Yet, if we imagine what happens if we were all to undergo a medical examination and had our fingers pricked to get a blood sample, what color liquid would flow from that puncture? “Red,” they answer promptly.
“So my point is. . .?”
“That we’re all human. We all bleed red blood.”
Yes, I want our classroom to reflect the theme of the poem “The Human Family” by Maya Angelou, whose Big Idea is “We are more alike than we are unalike.” Please keep that in mind as we pursue our learning about literature and about life this year.
Thus, we begin, having established an awareness of our differences and our similarities and the necessity to appreciate diversity. Yanira, a tenth grade Latina, affirms the importance of this lesson. “Ms. Hutchinson . . . immediately began to unite all of her students and my fear of being around others decreased. . . .I appreciate the way we were taught to get along.”
Once the class has recognized the need for appreciating diversity, we discuss the rules of common courtesy and respect in general. I remind students that the golden rule governs our classroom, that the primary tenet is to do (or say) those things that you would want done (or said) to you. They know that being disrespectful invites others to be disrespectful in return. I articulate a litany of situations that might be disrespectful. Alluding to the rappers’ use of the term dissing , we discuss the many ways disrespect makes itself evident: disparage, disregard, dislike, disallow, discourage, dislike, disrespect, disapprove, disengage, disappreciate, disengage, disdain . . . . I reiterate that our classroom will be a safe learning environment where every voice will be heard and every viewpoint given respect and thoughtful consideration. I stress the idea that disagreement must be based on principles, not personality, that they laugh with—and not at—one another.
The lesson about tolerance and respect made an impression on Daniel, an African American tenth grader, who declared in an end of the year reflection, “ The instructor’s humorous discussions. . . made us feel like we were at home and just learning on our own. I actually felt the connection with everyone. . . .The mixture of races. . .made me feel more comfortable around other races. . . .Working together made the class fun.”
*This issue inevitably surfaces in our discussion sometime during the year. I then invite students to reflect on homophobia, inviting them to draw analogies between discrimination against gays and lesbians to discrimination against people of color.