The Goal Is Fluency

By Christie Nold

While working toward equity in schools, educators are often asked to see equity as a metaphoric lens — one that will give us a new and valuable cultural perspective and point of view. It is not uncommon, for example, to be asked to review our curriculum with an “equity lens” or use an “equity lens” to examine our bookshelves for literature that more appropriately reflects the lived experiences of our students. For me, a white woman with 34 years of conditioning into whiteness, this metaphor has been useful. For one, it helps me to understand how I have been conditioned to whiteness — and clarifies the work I need to do to serve my students better. But I also see that the use of an equity lens is only a starting point. Rather than simply applying a lens over my conditioned way of viewing the world, I believe I must aspire to an entirely new way of being — that is, to develop the kind of perspective and skills that comes through fluency.

While living and teaching in Ukraine a few years back, my language teacher, Volodya, shared the story of two villages. In one village, everything appeared yellow. In the second, everything appeared blue. Although villagers from the village of yellow always hoped to see blue, despite their best efforts, and even after multiple years in the village of blue, they were only capable of seeing hues of green. 

This story has made me think more deeply about the “equity lens” metaphor. I am struck by the realization that adding a new lens to my pre-existing way of thinking has the overall effect of simply tinting my way of seeing the world. While this new “tint” might move me closer to equitable ways of being, it’s not enough for the level of change our society, and my classroom, requires. It enables an intellectual understanding of the issues related to equity and justice in society and schools, but it can keep us at an emotional distance. It is for this reason that, instead of just “adding a lens,” I think more about shifting my worldview and perspective entirely. I’m trying to develop a much deeper cultural fluency.

The work of achieving any kind of fluency requires dedicated study and immersion into something new. The obvious example is learning a new language. Before we achieve fluency, we study the grammar and vocabulary. We learn how to write and read simple sentences. Many even learn how to speak with a proper accent and intonation. But fluency requires us to take all this knowledge to the next level. This is why the most successful way to really learn a  language is through immersion — to live and study and work among people who speak the language and who embody the culture connected to the language.

A telling mark of language fluency is its impact on one’s subconscious — that is, when we dream in the new language. Fluency means that the language is now part of us.

As I aspire toward equitable systems, I know that I must go deeper. So it is the rigorous work of aspiring toward fluency that my sixth-grade students and I engage with daily. Supported by the Courageous Conversations About Race protocol (see framework below), we regularly dive into exploration of social identity, including consideration for how our identities shape the way we view the world and the way the world views us.

Yes, we read, analyze, and discuss texts by authors with different social identities. But we also explore the relationship between ourselves as readers and the text we’re analyzing. We do not simply add a literary lens. Rather, we aim to go deeper, to achieve greater understanding of the work and of how our own cultural perspectives shape the way we see and respond to the work. It is through this deeper understanding of ourselves that we can begin to engage authentically with others — and by engaging with others we can better understand and address events in our world today.

In the last few months, hate has been crowding the headlines with disturbing frequency. We have witnessed as parents have been separated from their children at the border, high school students have openly taunted indigenous elders, and Kiah Morris, a representative in the Vermont house, was forced to resign as a result of ongoing racial harassment and threats to herself and her family. In these moments, in our class, we tug at our burgeoning fluency by reading, examining images, and elevating the voices of those most impacted by the events. Rather than taking a “both sides” approach to these events — and thus placing humanity up for debate —  the students center justice through critical analysis. Ultimately, students in my classroom understand that there are not “two sides” when bigotry is involved.

In our conversations, we learn the names of the social justice activists who came before us, and honor those who lead the efforts today. In particular, we use the voices of Angie Thomas, Jewell Parker-Rhodes, Jason Reynolds, Aisha Saeed, David Barclay Moore, and so many other remarkable authors to frame our discussions — turning to literature when we struggle to make sense of national news. As a white educator, I lean on the work of authors of color to bring much needed perspective to my classroom.

With my students, my goal is to see AND make sense of the world around us. Through examining excellent literature, through the conversations and the explorations of the experiences of others, through attentive listening and consideration of the forces that shape our views — we deepen our understanding of the cultural beauty and complexity of the world as well as our understanding of the work that needs to be done in the name of equity and justice. We deepen our language and skills and competencies so that we can learn from each other and  work well across differences.

By striving for fluency, we aim to understand ourselves better — how we see the world and how the world sees us — and thus achieve a higher, more just, understanding of the world so that we can become a force for positive change.

Christie Nold teaches sixth grade at a Vermont public school on Abenaki land. Together with her students, she loves learning about the intersection of identities and experience. Christie also co-facilitates courses for educators. You can catch her on Twitter at @ChristieNold.

Helpful Reading

Here’s a sampling of the excellent books my students engage with:

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker-Rhodes

Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds

Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed

The Stars Beneath Our Feet, by David Barclay Moore

 

 The Four Agreements of Courageous Conversations

 1.     Stay engaged: Staying engaged means “remaining morally, emotionally, intellectually, and socially involved in the dialogue” (p.59)

2.     Experience discomfort: This norm acknowledges that discomfort is inevitable, especially, in dialogue about race, and that participants make a commitment to bring issues into the open. It is not talking about these issues that create divisiveness. The divisiveness already exists in the society and in our schools. It is through dialogue, even when uncomfortable, the healing and change begin. 

3.     Speak your truth: This means being open about thoughts and feelings and not just saying what you think others want to hear.

4.     Expect and accept nonclosure: This agreement asks participants to “hang out in uncertainty” and not rush to quick solutions, especially in relation to racial understanding, which requires ongoing dialogue (pp.58-65).

Adapted from Glenn E. Singleton & Curtis Linton, Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. 2006. pp.58-65. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.