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Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 30 August 2011

Dyan Watson is smarter than most of us, and she has three prestigious degrees to prove it. Watson earned her bachelor's degree in history, followed by a master's degree in education, both from Willamette University. Then, she scored a doctorate in education –from Harvard. Yet Watson didn't get her start in life at a privileged private school. She graduated from Jefferson High, a public school in what was then a low-income neighborhood of Portland, Ore.  The Skanner News Video

Today, Dr. Watson is an assistant professor at Lewis and Clark School of Education and counseling, where she is social studies coordinator for students training to be middle and high school teachers. Watson still lives in the Humboldt neighborhood with her two small children, and hopes to send them to her neighborhood schools. Her research specialty is how teachers talk – or avoid talking about— race. She dropped into the Skanner News office last week and spoke about her work.

HS: We see that Black and Latino students, particularly boys, are dropping out of school at far higher rates. Most of their teachers are White. Can White teachers really be effective with kids of color?

DW: Yes. I believe any teacher who is willing to do the work of exploring race and how it effects teaching can reach all students. That means understanding how one's own race interacts with other races. That means being willing to get to know the neighborhoods and the cultures from which the students come. It also means being a teacher who knows what he or she is doing pedagogically as well as content-wise.

HS: Pedagog… Wow! I can't even say it. What does that mean?

DW: (Laughs) Yes, I'm used to talking to teachers. Simply put, teachers have to know both the content, the subject matter they want to teach, and also how their students will understand that content. The content part is important, because often teachers are misassigned. Their degree is in history, for example, but they are teaching language arts.

Pedagogy is about understanding how to teach that content in a way that reaches your students. So if you are going to teach 10th graders, you have to understand 10th graders developmentally. And you have to understand the misconceptions students have in your content area.

HS: Misconceptions?

DW: Every discipline has its misconceptions, both generally and developmentally. So in math, the word 'of' is often equivalent to multiply, but that's not how people use 'of' in daily life. How do you get 6th graders to understand this? I'm a historian, and one misconception in history is that Blacks and Whites in this country have always been at odds with each other. In fact, before slavery became so deeply embedded in our society, both Blacks and Whites were in indentured servitude together and they formed alliances. But Whites in power saw and understood how dangerous it would be for them to allow this interracial coalition so they put a stop to that. So as a history teacher, you need to understand this misconception and how to teach it in a way that makes sense to the different age groups that you have.

HS: Do you think teachers misread what's going on with African American boys?

DW: Behavior is often misread. If you see a behavior, misread it, then you may interpret it as indicating an intellectual level, or an attitude. Behavior can become a marker of intelligence that is not true, not accurate. Saggy pants, for example, can be read as not liking school, or as the parents don't care. And I'm not just talking about White teachers. I'm talking about teachers.

I've been a teacher for a long time and I've worked with parents for a long time. I've never met a parent who didn't want the best for his or her child. If we started from that premise we'd do a lot better as a profession.

HS: Do parents need to be more involved?

DW: First I think we need to critically examine what it means to be involved. For the White middle classes, being involved means showing up at school, calling teachers, and helping with homework. But for a lot of people of color, and for poor people in general, it means going to work every day, keeping a home and food for the family and paying taxes that pay the teachers' salaries. And it means teaching them things that they're not going to learn in school.

Parents feel, 'I am involved. I'm doing the best I can. I'm working two shifts.'

These families see teachers as the experts and think 'When I drop my kid off at school, then that's your domain. I'm entrusting my child to you.' At the same time, I do think parents and guardians need to be more involved in ways that the school values or we're never going to make progress as a people. Essentially, there needs to be compromise and more effort on both the school's and parents' parts.

HS: What do you think about homework?

DW: I think it is given too much and it usually isn't helpful. Not that there shouldn't be homework, but it shouldn't be so difficult that a parent can't help and should be meaningful and add to a student's learning. One time my nephew brought home social studies homework that even I couldn't do. I have a teaching degree in social studies and I still couldn't help, so imagine someone with even less experience trying to navigate this.

"Teachers should be asking, 'What's the purpose of this and how is it helping? If parents are going to be involved then it should allow them to use their expertise. For example, having a child interview a parent. So for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, you could give a reading and have them answer questions at home, but how much better to have them interview a parent or a neighbor who lived through the experience of 9/11.

HS: What else do teachers need to understand about students?

DW: It comes back to that cultural piece of looking at the home cultures that students come from and the home language they speak. I mean Black English as well as languages like Spanish and Vietnamese. Black English has its own grammar and rules. You have to recognize that they are speaking and writing correctly in their own language. Teachers need to understand that, because if you don't understand that then it is hard to help your student become bilingual and codeswitch appropriately.

If you simply tell students: 'that's wrong' or "you can't speak like that' then, as one scholar put it: you're insulting my mom, my grandma, my family. And then you wonder why students are defiant by the time they get to high school.

HS: If a teacher has a diverse class then wouldn't it be difficult to learn about every culture and language?

DW: I'm not asking teachers to learn it all. What I'm asking teachers to understand is the role that culture plays in learning and teaching, because if you understand the principle, you can apply it to every single student. At the same time if you have a predominantly Black American class as you do at Jefferson, and they speak Black English, I do believe it is your responsibility to learn the vocabulary and structure of their home language.

HS: Your research focuses on how teachers talk about race. Can you tell us a little about that.

DW: My research is on how teachers semantically encode race, or in other words, talk about race without using race words – for example, when you say 'urban' instead of talking about Black or Latino. It matters because it allows teachers to say things they normally wouldn't say if they actually used the words Black or Latino.

Most of us, especially teachers are not going to reveal our racial views. In fact, a lot of teachers who talk like that – don't actually know what their racial views are, because they talk about 'urban', 'inner-city', and 'at-risk'. I interviewed teachers for a study and they kept saying things like, 'urban kids' don't care about school. Or 'urban parents' aren't concerned with their kids' education. When I asked them what urban meant, they said Black and Latino. So if you substitute Latino and Black for urban, you can see what their beliefs are about Blacks and Latinos.

I was labeled an 'at-risk' kid. I had a 4.0 GPA. I graduated from high school and went on to Willamette University. But I was an 'at-risk' kid. What they meant was that I was poor and Black. And then the question that needs to be asked is so what? What does it mean to be poor and black in the USA in regard to education and what supports is she going to need? That's talking honestly about race and how it interacts with schooling.

Of course, there are times when it is not relevant to talk about race. A colleague of mine studies, when is it racist to talk about race, and when is it racist not to talk about race? And I really like thinking and talking about her work, as it's really close to mine.

HS: Can you offer an example where race mattered?

One local school district a few years ago was taking a look into who was being disciplined. At first, it seemed as if it was mostly boys. No surprise there, since boys are generally disciplined more. So they concluded that it was boys coming from broken homes, etc. But when they actually broke it down by race, it was clear that Latino kids were being suspended and expelled at a far higher rate than White kids –for similar infractions. So if you just say boys from broken homes, you miss what's really going on. In that case, it would be wrong not to talk about race. And it needs to be named for what it is. In this case, teachers and administration were treating Latino boys unfairly. Period. Until they acknowledged that, they were semantically encoding race and would have never gotten to the real problem, which was them, not Latinos.

It would serve us well as a nation to be more honest in our language. You can't work on anything that's hidden by code words.

HS: What else can teachers do to help students?

DW: I think schools could do a better job of reaching out to families and quit waiting for families to reach out to them. A lot of parents who may not have had success when they were students may be afraid to walk through those doors. Teachers can send home newsletters about what they are doing in classes. These should be in the language parents speak. Elementary teachers do this often. It would be great if secondary folks did this too.

They can start making phone calls home, before children act up in class or there is a problem. So if a student who may have had problems with previous teachers does one little thing that's good, then the teacher should be on the phone that day. You will get the parent on your side. And you might even get the kid on your side. The kid will think, 'She doesn't think I'm a jerk like all my other teachers.'

HS: How are you enjoying your new job at Lewis and Clark?

DW: I am pleased to be there. I love teaching teachers and this is a great place to do that work. What's cool about Lewis and Clark is our emphasis and dedication to helping the fight for social justice.

HS: You got your start at Jefferson High School. What did it do for you?

DW: I love Jeff. It saddens my heart to see the performing arts program gone. That was part of my ticket to travel and go to all the good schools I went to. I was in the music program and I played sax and clarinet, and through that I was able to travel to California, Austria, Germany and France. And while I was at Jeff, the Jefferson dancers went to Russia. The performing arts help students think differently, use their brains in a different way, and learn how to organize and manage their time. It was a really great program.

On top of that I had some great teachers: Barbara Ward was a great counselor and Michelle Stemler was one of the best teachers when it comes to providing instruction for students at different levels of proficiency. And of course Bill Bigelow and Linda Christensen, who have been mentors and family friends. I work with them on Rethinking Schools. (a nonprofit organization and journal dedicated to improving public education)

HS: How do you feel about Jefferson's future?

DW: I love the idea of the middle college. I think it's great that students can take college courses and potentially get a free ride to state schools. I hope that this brings back some middle-class students – not because there is anything innately good about being middle class, but because middle class schools tend to have more resources and teachers who are better prepared and want to be there.

Read Dr. Watson's latest research paper in the fall 2011 edition of Rethinking Schools

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