Review: This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education

Chris McNutt
December 17, 2018
This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education by José Luis Vilson heralds a personal, provocative story of doing what’s best for children.

This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education by José Luis Vilson heralds a personal, provocative story of doing what’s best for children. Vilson presents a narrative of his school experience and how that has impacted his teaching, allowing a deep viewpoint into his perspective and helping us reflect on our practice. We dissect the education system — seeing it for all its successes and faults — and find concrete examples of what a difference a great teacher makes, the importance of diverse viewpoints in schools, and what next steps need to be taken.

I find it refreshing that Vilson incorporates a broad range of stories to emphasize his viewpoint. This isn’t a prescriptive list of things one must do at school, but a collection of ideas to contemplate. For example, Vilson writes,

Individually, the way teachers remember their years in school is often indicative of how they view ‘good’ education, even if it didn’t really work for everyone. It always starts off the same: ‘When I was a student, teachers used to ______, and we’d learn because _____, and that’s why I do it that way.’…:

Teacher A: ‘When I was a student, my teacher used to draw lettuce next to the most important points of her notes and that worked because I could identify with lettuce and it would get us all hungry so we’d want to work harder for that lettuce!

What did she just say?

Teacher B: ‘I’m with you! I had one teacher who put on a clown face whenever we discussed books like Of Mice and Men and Flowers for Algernon. I really understood the book then, and the rest of the class enjoyed it too!'

José, if you just smirk, it’ll all go away.

Teacher C: ‘Well, my original language is French, and based on what my teacher said, he speaks the best French and there really is no other French that makes sense to me. And when I learned it, I knew it was the best because people would tell me how great it is, so there I go.’

Oh hell no.

A dangerous practice that many teachers engage in is groupthink — believing that their experiences reflect good teaching and therefore, all students benefit. Vilson leads us through a series of dialogues and stories, demonstrating a serious problem: if teachers were all well-supported, well-behaving, and stellar academic students, is their teaching style reflective of only serving students who behave this way? I’d argue that for most, this is the case, and Vilson’s persuasive (and often humorous) account helps to build reflective moments.

And of course, it is often difficult to reflect on teaching. One must be open to acknowledging that what they’re doing isn’t necessarily benefiting their classroom (even if it worked well for them in school.) As Vilson reflects on his own experience, he notes,

Most students take on a passive-aggressive route to defy their teachers, which really works to teachers’ advantage because it doesn’t require them to consider what in their pedagogy might have incited such a reaction.

In order to truly connect with our students, we have to understand them — their culture. Much of this work is a call to action: get to know your students and promote discourse, dialogue, and action that empowers diverse students to achieve (and hopefully educate the next generation.) Vilson explains,

Do I still teach math ‘property’? It depends on the context and audience, largely. Classrooms require teachers to get to know their students before trying to teach them anything else, and this is no less true where the students are hardest to teach. In no way do I suggest buying a Lil Wayne record and incorporating his slang into the classroom, but our students have a culture that’s both authentic and unique to them…As educators, what we could say is, ‘My teacher taught this way and it worked for me and a few of my friends, so that’s why I’m teaching this way.’ We could also take it a step further and say, ‘I’m open to other, possibly more effective ways of teaching the material based on real research and improving my pedagogy to most children possible.’ We can own up to the idea that the people attending those meetings usually were the ‘good’ kids in their elementary-school classes.

If we’re going to ensure that underrepresented students are emboldened in our classrooms, it only makes sense that we must meet them halfway. We can’t teach solely to a fraction of the class (the ones that likely go without complaint in the teacher workroom) and expect that by pure happenstance, everyone turns around and becomes a compliant, quiet, and academically sound achiever.

Vilson offers his important, and often unheard, perspective as a diverse educator,

Children of color have had a different, unjust education, even before this current education reform — public, private, or otherwise — and this is how many of our children choose to respond…I did well academically, but I was still antisocial and a misfit; even my teachers probably found this brown know-it-all-who-probably-just-needed-some-guidance a bit obnoxious. I knew of hip-hop the way we know of expensive clothes behind pristine glass windows. When I sneaked in listening sessions of hip-hop radio station Hot 97 in my bedroom, I felt it in my bones — not because I ever dealt drugs or shot a man with a .38 pistol, but because I lived in a neighborhood where I saw and heard it all myself far too often. I felt the underlying anger of these young men…

Vilson makes many notes of the experiences he had in school, how that affected his upbringing, and how it relates to his teaching experience. This is considerable given how, sadly, rare teachers of color are (18%), let alone male teachers of color (2%) (UNCF, 2016.) Vilson reminiscences,

When we discussed poetry or contemporary music in class, kids would say things like, ‘José, can you rap some Ma$e for us?’ Boys will always rib each other, but prompting the Black kid to rap didn’t sit well with me. Even if I did have the 1997–1999 Bad Boy Records catalogue memorized, I didn’t see myself as anyone’s urban jukebox. In everyone else’s eyes it looked innocent, as with many microaggressions, I left it alone.

Microaggressions — those little, ostensibly innocent actions that highlight a person’s privilege or lack thereof — are a concept I wish I’d had at my disposal back then. We are taught to think of racism as looking like pointy white hoods, but microaggressions are much more common and complex.

Vilson highlights how many teachers embraced him for who was was — especially his choir teacher who literally and figuratively recognized and gave him a voice (and conversely, how racist educators, either through outright changing grades or simply ignoring those disengaged in the class, did so much harm.) These small actions add up rapidly, and we are reminded through these narratives how much we can make a difference. We cannot give up on our students, and even the little things matter.

And it helps to embolden our profession. Here’s an extensive quote by Vilson that states these concepts perfectly:

Because more than 80 percent of the nation’s teachers are women, our society also views teaching as ‘women’s work’ — a category that often leads to demeaning and obtuse ways of dismissing teachers’ contributions. This dynamic compounds the already existing problem of society talking down to educators in our schools. Too many people don’t see the need to pay teachers well or to ensure they have proper working conditions because they see us as caretakers, not professionals. Where male-dominated professions like computer science or medicine get respect, the teaching profession still has to combat patriarchy.

…out of the fifty or so teachers I’ve had in my lifetime, only two or three of them were men of Black or Latino descent. For someone who was born and raised in New York City, that’s staggering.

You’re allowed to wonder why that’s so important. After all, teachers of all races, backgrounds, sexes, and ages have proven effective educators of urban youth.

I love that so many white people care about the plight of Black and Latino students that they’re open to working in the neighborhoods they’re in. Many of my white teachers were excellent. I get that there needs to be a diversity of experiences; our students have to survive in the same world as everyone else. A small part of me also thinks: Who better to teach urban youth the tools needed to survive in the predominately white country than…white people?

But I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t disturbed by the lack of representation of Black or Latino males as teachers.

This lack of representation is thoroughly explained. Pointedly, it makes sense that if teachers are failing to connect with students who come from a different background than themselves, those students are less inclined to focus on education in their future. In addition, historical factors such as desegregation leading to African American educators being pushed out of the system are at fault. We must do a better job at promoting diverse voices and hiring people of color in the education system. As Vilson explains, it isn’t that there aren’t great educators from any background, but it matters that children see their culture — their experience — in an adult. He states,

The Black/Latino male students respond more readily to me.

The girls in my class are more willing to share their experiences with me and often look to me as a role model or father figure.

The people in my class may act like they hate me temporarily after I’ve scolded them about something, but they know I have their best interests at heart.

They ask me about what it was like when I was growing up, because they know my experiences mirror theirs.

Some of them have considered becoming teachers because of me.

Many teachers of color have seen firsthand what might happen if their children don’t get a good teacher.

…We don’t take ‘Yo, what up, teacher?’ or ‘Hey, miss!’ to be a sign of illiteracy, but a sign that they want to connect with us as human beings. Our importance as teachers of color stems from this dire need for kids of all races and backgrounds to see people of color as multidimensional and intelligent people, different in culture but the same in capability and humanity.

This work is worthwhile as it’s unique — not enough is written on the issue of diversity in education, especially not from the perspective of someone actively engaged in this issue. We recommend This Is Not a Test for all educators to employ new perspectives, ideas, and ultimately grow as better people.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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