White Teacher – Vivian Paley

(en español)

White Teacher - Paley 2000

The local library had recently added some toys to the children’s section. There was a large number of blocks in a variety of colors, but there were only two dolls: one White and one Black. Most of my students, however, were neither White nor Black. I recall seeing Jonathan, a Vietnamese student, playing with the Black doll one day. He was holding it very gently and carrying it around as any parent would their own baby. I smiled inwardly at the sight as I went to go help another child locate a book on a shelf. A moment later I noticed a commotion between Jonathan and Samuel, a Pakistani student. I went to see what was wrong, and now I saw Jonathan holding the White doll, while Samuel was holding the Black one. Jonathan said that he didn’t like the other doll because it was “brown.”

At first I wasn’t sure how to respond. Vivian Paley discusses how her training and her colleagues had brought her to the point where “I was unable to mention color in the classroom” (2000, p. 9). It was a taboo subject, so when the topic came up among children (as it typically does in a diverse classroom), she did not know how to approach it. In Jonathan’s case, I needed to get to the heart of his concern. As Paley states, “doll corner play at its best contains some of the freest expressions and most thoughtful observations in the kindergarten” (2000, p. 84). I needed myself to remain thoughtful and not react spuriously to Jonathan’s statement, so I asked him to clarify his desires. He told me that he wanted the doll that looked more like him.

Unfortunately, the reality was that neither doll looked like him. The White doll may have been closer in skin tone, but the facial features were far from being representative of Jonathan’s own face. Paley tells us that “The challenge in teaching is to find a way of communicating to each child the idea that his or her special quality is understood, is valued and can be talked about. It is not easy, because we are influenced by the fears and prejudices, apprehensions and expectations, which have become a carefully hidden part of every one of us” (2000, p. xx). How could I value Jonathan’s desire to find a doll he could identify with while not encouraging prejudice against those dolls that did not share his features.

I feel it would have been easier in some ways if Jonathan were White. I think about the term “White privilege,” and the idea that racism is an institutionalized oppression of a minority group by a dominant group. That is familiar territory. Ever since I was a child I have felt that oppression of minorities by a majority group is wrong, and I would speak out against racism when I saw it. For situations of expressions of identity by members of a minority group I instead applied the term “nationalism,” recognizing this as a means to confront the oppression that they face.

My years of teaching in diverse classrooms have helped me to realize, however, that nationalism is not necessarily a positive quality to promote. In this instance the nationalism I was observing was a member of one minority group seeking to express his identity by devaluing another minority group. As with Vivian Paley, I felt that “teaching children with different cultural and language experiences kept pushing me toward the growing edge” (2000, p. 112). I needed to rethink my approach to interracial and intercultural conflict in the classroom. The diversity of my classroom provided an opportunity for me to help the children address some deep-seated biases toward other minority groups.

It is important to help children see that, despite superficial similarities, underneath everyone is unique. As Paley states, “Friendship and love grow out of recognizing and respecting differences” (2000, p. 131). However, perhaps more important is helping children see that, despite superficial differences, underneath everyone is alike. As Paley suggests, “it’s a source of comfort to be able to identify with someone else’s feelings” (2000, p. 124). If I can help Jonathan see that beneath the differences are common interests perhaps he can grow to welcome the diversity in his life. I spoke to him about how some of the children he plays with are brown and that everybody has different skin tones. I pointed out two children he often enjoys playing with, both of whom had darker skin that Jonathan. I drew attention to Michael, an Ethiopian student, and to Samuel, the child with whom he had been in conflict that day. One day in the middle of the following week Jonathan spontaneously came up to me and said, “My Daddy is brown.” His father is also Vietnamese, but has a darker skin tone than Jonathan. This unprovoked statement of fact revealed to me that he was seriously taking to heart the conversation we had in the library that day.

Paley states that “children know they are each different in style and story; they listen eagerly and identify with one another’s separate visions of pleasure and pain, of strength and weakness, of love and loss. In their play, they reveal the intuitive and universal language that binds us all together” (2000, p. 135). As teachers it is our role to become a part of that story, to become a part of that binding. The more we can help children see that, though differences exist, there is something greater that makes us all human, the more we can help them to create a better world in which they can become agents for social justice and change.


Next month I will most likely be discussing The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home by Jonathan Kozol (1990). If there is a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading Page.



Kozol, J. (1990 [1975]). The night is dark and I am far from home: A bold inquiry into the values and goals of America’s schools, revised edition. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Paley, V.G. (2000 [1979]). White teacher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Learning and Not Learning English: Latino Students in American Schools – G. Valdés

Learning and Not Learning English - Valdés 2001(en español)

As I sat on the bus reading Learning and Not Learning English by Guadalupe Valdés (2001), I found myself breaking down in tears about halfway through the book. The story that hit me the hardest was that of the child referred to as Lilian. The struggles she faced pushed her farther and farther away from the classroom. As Valdés puts it, “She entered a new world, and she found a way to survive. Her survival, however, had little to do with doing well in school or with learning English” (2001, p. 75).


Power and Agency

Lilian existed in a society that marginalized her language experience. At her school, “mainstream teachers largely viewed the ESL teachers’ role as making certain that English language learners would be kept both out of the way and very busy” (2001, p. 40). The more her reality was pushed to the side, the more detached she became. It wasn’t just her own school experience that pushed her aside, however. The social pressures existed universally in her town, leading to a jailed father, an out-of-work mother, and a roommate who abandoned them when they most needed help with the rent.

We live in a society which not only maintains this power differential, but actually actively promotes it. As Valdés renumerates, “language is always situated within larger discursive frameworks” (2001, p. 156). The reality is that English is the dominant language in this country, and this country’s imperialist approach to international relations has made English a dominant language in the globe. It is made dominant by virtue of the power associated with those who speak it. While not consciously aware of the power dynamics associated with use of the language, many people in the United States reinforce its power and that of the forces that bring it to the world by refusing to acknowledge that other languages have value as well. Valdés points out that “power is exercised both through coercion and through consent and that, in many cases, people ‘consent’ to preserving the status quo and to maintaining existing power relationships simply by accepting established practices without question” (2001, p. 155).

Power can be exerted in many forms, and the role of schools is to reinforce the power of the state. As Valdés describes, we live “in a political climate that has become increasingly hostile to immigrants” (2001, p. 18). Individual teachers may make efforts to move students toward a more liberating view, but the system of schooling in this country is designed in such a way as to validate the power and dominance of a certain class of people while devaluing others.

This is done at times through a power differential between teachers and students. This differential exists in any classroom, whether the teacher wishes to acknowledge it or not. I have myself felt the influence that my power has had on students, and I recall a very painful interaction with one very shy third grade student in a multilingual classroom. Casey’s native language is Spanish, but he also spoke English fairly fluently, although not as much so as most of his peers. Occasionally they would use Spanish when speaking with each other, but generally they conversed in English with both teacher and peers. Unlike his peers, however, Casey was enrolled in special education services specifically for language arts. He missed the majority of the language arts portion of the day due to being pulled out for these services. By the time I asked Casey to share a story he had written in English, all other students had already shared their stories over the course of a couple of weeks.

While examining the videotape of the lesson after the children had gone home, I wrote in my journal that day:

Casey (9.75) is sitting at his desk, aware that his turn has arrived, but still unwilling to share his story with his peers. As I prepare to introduce Casey’s story he calls out desperately, “Nononono, don’t start! Mr. Daitsman, please. I’m begging you, please.”

I ignore his pleading voice and speak to the class. “Alright, we have one last story.” I turn to Casey and attempt to reassure him with my words even as my physical presence invades his privacy by reaching out for his notebook. “You can stay here if you want, just give it to me.”


But Casey is powerless in this classroom. In elementary school, it is the teacher who wields all the power, and the children must succumb to it. I rely on this power dynamic even as I delude myself into believing that I’m trying to make things easier for him. I change tactics. I have convinced myself that if I can just keep reiterating that Casey has control over the situation that perhaps both he and I would come to believe this. I explain to the class that Casey doesn’t want to act in his story and that he is therefore going to stay in his seat. This seemingly innocuous pronouncement of Casey’s exercising his own power in the classroom glosses over the fact that what I am about to do next completely overrides his autonomy when it comes to his intellectual property.

Casey takes his plea to his classmates, telling them, “It’s too short.”

As he says this, I begin the casting process and tell the class, “There are two characters in the story. The characters are Casey and his friend.” My stating this right on the heels of Casey’s pronouncement of how short his story is turns out to be catastrophic to my goals of trying to build Casey’s confidence, as his classmates begin to make fun of Casey’s story before it has even begun.

I feel myself losing control of the situation. Suddenly everything I know about dramatizing children’s stories, everything I’ve been trying to do with this activity is being undermined with the very last story we share in the first round of dramatizations. Instead of building community, I’m now driving it further apart. Instead of being a champion of inclusiveness, I have opened the door for the ridicule and ostracization of a child with special needs.

I interrupt the growing pandemonium, “Hey, hey, hey, hey!” I catch myself. I’m not sure if Casey realizes that the other children are making fun of him. I feel the need to find a way to make it clear to the class that it’s not okay to make fun of Casey while at the same time still trying to coax Casey into actually wanting to share his story with the class. If I draw attention to the fact that they’re ridiculing him, Casey is going to draw back even further. I solve my dilemma by once again invoking the element of power. Rather than making it about Casey, I make it about myself, “Did I say you all could start talking about the story right now?”

The class quiets down, but Casey remains reluctant and says, “No, I don’t know.” He groans as I take his notebook from him and ask him if he’s come up with a title yet. He tells me that he hasn’t and explains, “I only just came here.” He is referring to the fact that he had spent the past two hours in his special-education class. As I ask the class which table was next in line to be in a story, Casey asks to go to the bathroom. This is the third time he’s asked me since he got back as we were beginning to act out stories today. I know that he hasn’t had a chance to go all morning, but for some reason I still feel like he should be in the room while his story is being acted out.

I tell him, “After we talk about your story, alright?” I pose it as a question, but really it’s a statement. We both know that what I really mean is that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter. I address the class, “Alright, table six, who wants to be in the story?”

Casey mutters, “Nobody.”

I assign roles to the two volunteers and remind them, “It is a short story.”

Casey confirms this, saying, “Very short. Very short.” There is some snickering and Casey says, “Shorter than half.”

I remind the class, “You know what, the first stories we were doing were pretty short too. Because people didn’t have a lot of time to write, so it’s okay to have a short story.”

This explanation isn’t acceptable to Casey and he takes advantage of this opportunity to self-depricate even further, “No it’s not okay. I’m in third grade.”

I wonder if he’s feeling the pressure of being pulled out of the classroom for special education services, but I put that question in the back of my mind and instead ask, “Alright, are we ready?”

Casey puts in one last plea, “No, we’re not.” I ignore him and begin reading the story.

Valdés reveals that “motivation is a crucial factor in language acquisition. Isolation creates a climate in which youngsters have few incentives for learning English” (2001, p. 151). In the example of Casey, he had been driven to despair as he compared his skill to that of his peers. The pressure that I exerted in my position of power as his teacher served to demotivate him further by denying the reality of his own perception of his work. As a student who did not have the same level of English language competency as the majority of his classmates, he had been made to feel that his perception of his language capabilities was not worthy of recognition.

Valdés makes it clear that teachers “must help students to find and create insurgent voices—voices that question the reality that surrounds them” (2001, p. 159). After my eye-opening experience with Casey I modified my approach, and by the end of the quarter he voluntarily published one of his stories in the class’s anthology. If I hadn’t reflected carefully on the moment that day, I could very well have missed the role my own exercise of power was having on Casey’s sense of agency, and his experience could have turned out much like Lilian’s, in which “The village child who first wrote about being happy and about wanting to learn English had turned into an angry and rebellious young adolescent” (2001, p. 83).


Racism and Oppression

As I was writing this blog entry I glanced over at a newspaper and saw two words in the headline that made me stop what I was doing and read the article. Those two words were: Racism over. It seems that the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a law overturning Affirmative Action in Michigan schools. The idea that racism could end simply because a small group of (admittedly very powerful) people declares it so is so outlandish that I find it difficult to comprehend how the justices that voted in the majority opinion could have the gall to make such a declaration. Immediately my thoughts turned to Elisa, another of the case studies Valdés discussed in this book.

Elisa “saw herself as an English speaker who had some limitations but who was learning more every day” (2001, p. 98), however her ESL teacher “felt strongly that allowing students to move forward with weak skills would result in many complaints from the mainstream teachers who had agreed to take on more non-English-background students” (2001, p. 99). Though Elisa performed well on a language competency exam, her teacher held her back. This was the reality Elisa was up against at every stage of her academic path. Arbitrary policies overruled demonstrated competence, and she found herself entering high school in courses that would not allow her to attend college afterward because “no ESL classes or sheltered classes met college entrance requirements” (2001, p. 107).

Is this racism? Is there an oppressive state toward non-English speakers in this country? A few months ago a friend of mine told me “Not having something offered in one’s language is incredibly oppressing. It limits one’s life chances.” But Elisa’s case seems to indicate that the oppression goes deeper than that. The oppression is not just a result of lack of language ability, but rather systemic constraints on those who come from a certain background, regardless of their language growth and competence. As Valdés concludes, “The teaching of English to immigrant students, rather than being a straightforward and unproblematic practice, is a contested site in which there is a struggle about the role and the future of immigrants in our society” (2001, p. 159).

I plan on examining some of these issues further next month when I will most likely discuss Vivian Paley’s White Teacher (2000 [1979]). If there are any books you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.



Paley, V.G. (2000 [1979]). White teacher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope – bell hooks

(en español)

Teaching Community - bell hooks 2003 “No one is born a racist.  Everyone makes a choice.  Many of us made the choice in childhood.”

-bell hooks, 2003, p. 53

Racism is an issue that permeates society, and, as much as teachers may wish to make them so, our classrooms are not immune to the effects of such a society.  In her book Teaching Community, bell hooks tells us that “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination” (2003, p. 36).  It is not enough to create classrooms in which we seek to avoid dominance, but rather we must create spaces in which to actively counteract questions of bias as they situate themselves within our environments.

Every classroom I have worked in has had varying degrees of diversity.  In all my years as a teacher I have never worked in a classroom in which all of the children had similar cultural upbringings.  I recall one primary school classroom in which, in addition to the four other languages spoken in the classroom there was one particular student who had recently emigrated from an eastern African nation and, unlike the other students, didn’t speak any English at the start of the school year.  As I struggled to learn his home language, he struggled to learn English and to cope with the drastic cultural and racial differences that existed between him and his diverse classmates.

These differences led to conflict, at one point even escalating to a physical brawl involving multiple children when another child made fun of his appearance.  hooks reveals that “this is a looks-oriented culture, from grade school on we know how much looks determine whether individuals will be treated justly, respectfully” (2003, p. 113).  Whether a child wears glasses, is a darker shade of brown, or happens to be a boy with long hair, without guidance children will find ways to ridicule and ostracize someone who does not conform to the dominant appearance within the classroom.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the way things have to be.  hooks indicates that “the presence of conflict is not necessarily negative but rather its meaning is determined by how we cope with that conflict” (2003, p. 64).  She suggests that teachers can create an alternative environment by promoting and modeling caring situations.  “The loving classroom is one in which students are taught, both by the presence and practice of the teacher, that critical exchange can take place without diminishing anyone’s spirit, that conflict can be resolved constructively” (2003, p. 135).

In order to be able to resolve those conflicts constructively, children, particularly younger children must feel that they are in a safe place.  They must feel that the classroom is a place where love is greater than anger.  hooks states that “Love can bridge the sense of otherness.  It takes practice to be vigilant, to beam that love out.  It takes work” (2003, p. 162).

This is something that I strive to do in my classroom.  I greet every student in the morning with a hug as they enter the classroom.  When a child is crying, whatever the reason, I make an effort to comfort them, even if the reason they are crying is because they had just gotten in trouble.  I don’t believe in using ‘time-outs’ or exclusion in general.  The only time I will remove a child from the group is when that child is demonstrating a desire to be removed.

I have heard it said by some teachers that the ‘time-out’ serves the purpose of allowing the child to be alone in order to calm down.  But I find that when a child is angry, a hug often serves a calming purpose to a much greater extent than the ‘time-out’ would.  While there are occasionally children who prefer to be alone at times, usually they prefer the hug to the isolation.  Even children with sensitivities to physical contact still tend to prefer the presence of another person to separation, and comforting gestures can take a form as simple as offering a hand to hold or a tissue to dry the tears.  This seems to me to be a very human reaction.  In classrooms where I have been able make this a regular practice, the children take up this mantle of caring, and will themselves go to offer comfort in the form of a hug or a tissue when they see another child in need, even if it is a child with whom they will at other times enter into conflict.

Starting from this place of caring, it then becomes possible to address conflict in differences from an open place.  As hooks says, “Caring educators open the mind, allowing students to embrace a world of knowing that is always subject to change and challenge” (2003, p. 92).  Children come to learn that, despite differences, all of us have commonalities, and that those differences can come to be celebrated.  They also learn to look beyond the physical differences to discover that we have differences in personality that are much more significant and make for a more engaging and interesting environment.  As bell hooks puts it,  “finding out what connects us, revelling [sic] in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community” (2003, p. 197)

I welcome and encourage comments and discussion on this post.  What ways do you bring love into your classrooms or life?  Do you feel that time-outs or hugs are an appropriate way to give children space to calm down, or is there another alternative?  What do you believe is the best way to help children look beyond physical differences and come to appreciate diversity?

If you have a book that you think would interest me and would like to see me discuss in this blog, please feel free to comment with your recommendation.  Based on a suggestion by a reader, next month I will be discussing Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution by Morris, Collett, Marsh, & O’Shaughnessy (1979).


hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York, NY: Routledge.

Morris, D., P. Collett, P. Marsh & M. O’Shaughnessy. (1979). Gestures: their origins and distribution. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day.