Tag Archives: education

FAILURE AS AN UNDERLYING NARRATIVE by Christa Fisher, 3rd year M.Div. Student

“Your son is at a high risk for failure.” The school principal’s words settled on my chest like a leaden mantle. Unprepared for this phone call, I stammered a confused response. “What? Why? You must be mistaken.” My three-year old son was sitting at the kitchen island coloring, his small fingers gripping a fat red crayon. The principal assured me the call was not an error – she was speaking about my son, about Jacob. A week prior Jacob had participated in a 60-minute early-childhood education readiness assessment and according to the principal, Jacob’s test results warranted the phone call.

In the days following the call I was consumed with the need to understand how Jacob could be at a “high-risk for failure.” After Jacob was born I left my career to stay home and care for him. Needing order and predictability in my life, I created a schedule of activities to fill our days. We attended play groups, visited museums, hiked in the woods, baked cookies, made blanket forts, painted self-portraits, learned the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors, and spent hours upon hours reading. As Jacob became older and craved more time with other children I enrolled him in a highly respected preschool program. His preschool teachers were perplexed by the school district’s assessment. Not only was Jacob doing fine in preschool, they assured me his skills were age appropriate, he came from a safe, loving home, with two devoted parents, who were both college educated. I shared my confusion with a neighbor, a professor of early childhood education. According to her, there was nothing about Jacob which suggested he was at a “high risk for failure.” My husband and I did not enroll Jacob in the specialized program the school district had created for “kids like him.” Instead, we continued to do what we were already doing and hoped this label would not follow him into kindergarten.

After much thought I deduced the school district’s assessment was colored by racism. You see, Jacob is biracial. My husband is black and I am white.

I should not have been surprised by the school district’s assumptions about Jacob. I grew up in a community of people who showcased their racism with pride and am therefore keenly aware of the assumptions we white people make about people of color. As a young mother I worked hard to ensure people had no reason to make such assumptions about our family.  As I focused on maintaining our image, however, I worried my efforts to shield my children from racism were actually depriving them the opportunity to claim their true character. I also worried that my actions were born, at some level, out of my own racism.

My mother-in-law once told me that by marrying her son I was black by association. At the time I didn’t take her seriously. Andre, my soon to be husband, and I were in our early 20’s and living in Berkeley, California. As a biracial couple in the San Francisco Bay Area we were in the norm. Surrounded by the appearance of racial unity I speculated within a generation or two racism would cease to exist. It was easy for me to be so hopeful. I had not yet experienced racism.

When Andre and I moved to Wisconsin I became acutely aware of the differences between the ways people treated us as compared to my previous relationships with white men. When the waitress escorted Andre to one table and me to another, we pitied her for her ignorance. When the mechanic refused to service our vehicle, we moved our business elsewhere. When Andre was defamed at work and offered no recourse, we swallowed our anger and bemoaned small town life. But when our children were born we could no longer simply joke about ignorant behaviors or tolerate inequality at work. Our precious children deserve better than that.

Shortly after Jacob started kindergarten we began receiving notes from his teacher, all assuming parental incompetence. In addition to urging us to read to Jacob for “just 5 minutes each night,” we were also cautioned to limit Jacob’s exposure to television, and to provide him a healthy diet, among other things. Though she did not know us, the teacher assumed our parenting skills were inadequate.

I met with the school principal to discuss the notes, which she quickly dismissed. The teacher was acting out of concern, the principal insisted, and I was over-reacting. In retrospect I should not have expected her to understand – she was the one who informed us Jacob was at a “high risk for failure.” Unprepared to fight this battle, we chose to ignore the teacher’s notes and continue parenting Jacob as we always had.

Andre and I are now more proactive regarding our children’s educations. At the start of the year we meet each of our children’s teachers to tell our story, beginning in the Bay Area where we received our educations and continuing to our present situation in Madison, Wisconsin. By the time we finish, the teachers know us well enough to refrain from applying stereotypical ideologies to our children or making uninformed assumptions about us as parents. Thankfully, both of our children are thriving in school – academically and socially.

Though I am concerned our children will suffer for having a white mother, I recognize that my race can work to their advantage. We are welcomed into places and conversations and afforded greater choices and opportunities due to my whiteness. Teachers and doctors, people who hold critical information, are generally more comfortable communicating with me than with my black husband. I am the primary driver in our family and do not fear racial profiling on the road. As long as our children are with me, I do not worry they will be attacked, physically or verbally.

Yet my whiteness will only benefit our children as long as they are dependent upon and near me. Eventually they will be functionally independent. Then when people look at Jacob with suspicion, whether a police officer, a college professor, or a vigilante citizen, Jacob will have to fend for himself. Under great pressure and amidst intense emotions, Jacob will be responsible for diffusing their anger by demonstrating that he does not warrant fear and is someone worth befriending rather than attacking.

While I still disagree with the school district’s assessment of Jacob, I now recognize a truth in their conclusion. Jacob is at a “high risk for failure” though not for anything he or we have done or failed to do. Jacob will likely experience failure in his life – we all do. Unlike Jacob’s white peers, however, his failure will be inseparable from an underlying narrative of antagonistic racial bias. This insidious evil, which began sabotaging Jacob’s potential before he could even write his entire name, will never just disappear. It is embedded in our institutions and communities, increasing peoples’ risk of failure by limiting their opportunities and choices. Racism, the underlying cause of racial disparities in incarceration, unemployment, poverty, and serious health conditions, justifies racial profiling and minimizes hate crimes. Whether or not Jacob recognizes it, he is in an abusive relationship with racism, from which there is no escape. Unprepared to battle this exhausting, humiliating, and dangerous intruder, we can only hope we are providing him the skills he needs to manage this relationship, so it is unable to consume his life, robbing him his true character and potential and ultimately rendering him a failure.

INVESTING IN EDUCATION TO ELIMINATE HUNGER by Christa Fisher, 2nd year M.Div.

Hunger is the result of an inadequate income.  People with money are able to purchase food while people without money struggle with hunger.  In order to eradicate hunger we must ensure all people have the means to purchase food.  Because education is understood to be the key to leveraging economic status, education is vital to the fight against hunger.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 the median weekly income for adults without high-school diplomas and adults with bachelor’s degrees was $471 and $1066, respectively. [1]  Over the course of one year, the difference in earning potential between an adult without a high-school diploma and one with a four-year degree is nearly $35,000.   This is a significant, life-altering amount of money.

Much like the gap in earning potential, a similar division exists in educational attainment between low–income and affluent students.  The truth is that poverty itself impedes students’ educational success.  Robert Balafanz, in his white paper Overcoming the Poverty Challenge to Enable College and Career Readiness for All sums up the often invisible but severe impact poverty has on educational performance.  “The impacts of food scarcity, housing instability, and insufficient access to medical and dental care are clear. If a student is hungry, without a home, suffering from untreated ailments or in need of glasses, it is difficult for him or her to focus on school work.  Poverty also brings with it an increased exposure to violence and the lived experience that life is capricious which further shapes student behavior directly.”[2]

Many educators and administrators, aware of the burdens inflicted upon low-income students, are working in innovative ways to help students achieve their full potential, such as early intervention reading programs, individualized curriculums, and intensive summer school programs.  Additionally, educators recognize that one-time interventions are insufficient.  As children change and develop so to do the obstacles they face regarding their education.  In the earliest years a child, not having exposure to early-educational opportunities, may have underdeveloped math and reading skills.  As a middle-school youth, the same student may be relied upon to care for his or her younger siblings or elderly relatives, resulting in less time for studies.  During high school the same student may feel pressure to abandon his or her education in order to acquire a job and earn money for his or her family.  Individualized supports must accompany students through the years.

Despite their success, these innovative college-readiness support programs are in jeopardy.  In 2011 many states experienced drastic cuts in educational funding.  Wisconsin, for example, passed a two year $834 million cut in K-12 educational funding[3].  This cut is the equivalent of an average per pupil funding reduction of $555.  Supposing an average class has 25 students, a $555 per student cut would total a $13,875 reduction per classroom.  Additionally, almost 900 young children will lose access to Head Start programs.[4]  Teachers and districts are doing more with much less.  Yet, given past and impending funding cuts, schools will have to continue eliminating vital programing – programs which, for many children, are their only means of escaping the cycle of poverty.

The Feeding of the Five thousand, a story found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, speaks to the Christian responsibility to eradicate hunger.  Having just delivered a lengthy sermon of hope and blessing to a crowd of more than 5,000 people, the disciples ask Jesus to send the people home as the people are hungry and day is ending.  Jesus, responds, “You feed them.”  His response is not a suggestion and it allows for no exceptions.  The disciples, having recognized the hungry, are commanded to address the pain of the people.  After Jesus blessed the small amount of loaves and fishes, the disciples were able to satisfy the appetite of the entire crowd.

Our situation today is not much different.  Our nation is faced with a hunger epidemic with 1 in 6 people experiencing chronic hunger.  The numbers are staggering and often we feel unequipped to tackle the situation.  Yet, like the disciples, we have been called and endowed with the resources necessary to care for our hungry neighbors.  We can eradicate hunger, if only we take Christ’s word and ministry seriously and use our gifts to benefit the poor.  We can contact representatives and ask them to invest in education for all children.  We can contact our school boards and advocate for the programs which serve the needs of low-income students.  We can volunteer in our communities at a local food pantry, after school program, or within a school itself.  We can use our gifts to feed the poor by supporting them in their efforts to end the cycle of poverty.

RESOURCE FOR MORE INFORMATION

Jonathan Kozol speaks to the class and race disparity within the US educational system in his book The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, available through Crown Publishing Group.

To learn more about the impact of poverty on education as well as solutions to this problem, read Robert Balfanz’s Overcoming the Poverty Challenge to Enable College and Career Readiness for All:  The Crucial Role of Student Supports, available online http://new.every1graduates.org/publications/reports/


[1] US Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Education Pays.  January 28, 2013.  http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

[2] Balfanz, Robert.   Overcoming the Poverty Challenge to Enable College and Career Readiness for All:  The Crucial Role of Student Supports. http://new.every1graduates.org/publications/reports/

[3] Hetzner, Amy and Richards, Erin.  Budget Cuts $834 million from schools.  WS Journal, March 1, 2011.

[4] White House.  Impact of March 1st Cuts on Middle Class Families, Jobs, and Economic Security: Wisconsin.  February 24, 2013.   http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/sequester-factsheets/Wisconsin.pdf

KEEP YOUR COURAGE AND JOY an Interview with Dr. Renate Wind

KEEP YOUR COURAGE AND JOY an Interview with Dr. Renate Wind

by Karen Ressel, M.Div. Middler

Dr. Renate Wind read excerpts from her latest biography, Dorothee Soelle-Mystic and Rebel, opening the world of Soelle to the students and faculty of Wartburg Theological Seminary during Wind’s public lecture here September 13. Dr. Wind, Professor of Biblical Theology and Church History at the Evangelische Hochschule Nürnberg, Germany, is an activist and reformer in her own right.  She was, and continues to be, engaged in the peace and justice movements.  “I think we can change the world only with movements from below, from the grassroots; in Germany it is graswurzel,” said Wind

In 1968 she stood with many others in protest of the Vietnam War and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Army.  “We demonstrated against the two super nations.  We opposed the use of military forces used to stop liberation movements here and there.”

Wind always knew she wanted to be a teacher; however, becoming a theologian and a biographer was not as obvious to her.  “I wanted to be a teacher since my first year of school.  As a pastor’s daughter, I was familiar with my church, but also in protest against it, like many pastor’s children are. Even now I have some difficulty with conservative Lutheran theology.”

“When I was eighteen I wanted to study art, or journalism, but then came the theology of liberation from Latin America and a new perspective of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (among other things).  That was new thinking in theology.”  She began as a parish pastor in southwest Germany.  Then she found herself serving as a school pastor for twelve years, and finally she was elected as a professor.

“During the 1970’s there was a great change and a lot of reform, and a will to reform school education to help children of all abilities.  It was a very exciting time.  I worked at one of the new schools that integrated all kinds of pupils together.  I gave a lot of energy to that!  Many of the children came from very difficult circumstances.  All children should have the chance to make the best of it.  Yes, it was very exciting to be there.”

Her desire to educate her students was the motivation for each of the biographies she has undertaken, “I wanted to make a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for my pupils who were 16, 17, and 18 years old.  I wanted to show the young people that there is a way to be a politically active person, a way to be in life and society.”

“I did not make the Bonhoeffer biography to become a famous writer!  I never thought it would be so successful!  I only wanted to make it for my pupils but it brought me to Wartburg, for example, and many other places.”

“All of the biographies have to do with my engagement in the peace activist movement and solidarity of the Latin American liberation movements. …All of my subjects had a great influence on me and my theological thinking.  Each biography is not the biography of saint; it is holistic.  I wanted to have dialogs with human beings that impressed me; that influenced me.”  As she researched, she asked herself, “What is the legacy that is important for us today?”

Wind feels there has been a shift in education over the last twenty years to a more conservative, elitist thinking, but she is not discouraged, “I take courage in my job as a teacher.  I think there will be something going forward in many people, not in all of course, but many.  My students become teachers in schools.  I am always connected with school life.”

“I took part in many movements that were not very successful.  But, the movement of Jesus was also not very successful in the beginning.  I am an old revolutionary student from 1968.  I still hope we can change the world and make it a better place! I think education is one of the main things to do that.”

Dr. Renate Wind is an inspiration and has this advice for those who will come after her, continuing the work toward peace and justice: “Keep your courage.  Keep your joy.  If you have no joy in the movement and what you are doing politically, you will not get through the difficult times.”