José Luis Vilson is a math educator for a middle school in the Inwood / Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. He’s also a committed writer, activist, web designer, and father. His first solo project, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education, was published by Haymarket Books in the Spring of 2014. He is the co-founder and executive director of EduColor, an organization dedicated to race and social justice issues in education. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and a Math for America Master Teacher. He has served as a board member on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality and the president emeritus of the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University. He writes regularly for Edutopia and Progressive Magazine, and has contributed to The New York Times, CNN.com, Education Week, Huffington Post, and El Diario / La Prensa NY. He has also been featured at PBS, Vox, Mashable, Idealist, Chalkbeat NY, TakePart, Mother Jones, Manhattan Times, and the Fusion. He co-authored the book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Public Schools … Now and In The Future.
Here is TVO TeachOntario In Conversation with José Luis Vilson, educator and author
1) Let's begin with the key social activism issue that you have been working to amplify over the years. How would you name it and what started your interest in the ways that race, class and education intersect?
I don’t have one specific thing I’ve been activated on, but “educational justice” is probably the name for it. When I think justice, I’m thinking beyond equality and equity. I’m thinking more about what it would take for our society, institutions, and the people who interact with these elements to get restoration. Our education systems are part of these unkept promises. Our country’s history - and really our world’s history - is rife with stories of the expectation we have around the promise of education and how our institutions continually fail to meet that expectation for any number of reasons. In this country, it means racism and the pernicious idea that we must have inequity in order for others to have greatness. That’s unjust.
2) What are the pedagogies and practices that you feel are most effective in supporting and reaching our underserved students?
For one, any pedagogical practice has to be about a power transfer of sorts. For example, I’m a big fan of walking away and let students have the last word when we have a dialogue in math class. In the back of my mind, I’ll be taking my informal assessments about whether a student gets it. If I find that a student doesn’t get it, I’ll ask questions until I can see a path forward with the student. Then I’ll ask another set of questions that scaffold the work until they get to the point where they can answer the work for themselves. Then, I don’t confirm or deny; I just walk away. At first, kids don’t get why I do it, but they eventually understand that I’m trying not to take the power from them.
3) It seems that we are seeing a cultural shift catalyzed by the Black Lives Matter movement in which justice and equity are prioritized. What advice do you have for educators who see themselves as change agents?
Listening, learning, reflecting, and self-actualizing are important. Active listening is an important skill regardless and because of the spectrum of what we consider political consciousness. There’s a way of doing this work that still shows a measure of love, empathy, and thoughtfulness required to move people towards anti-racism and justice. I’m navigating that complex space daily, too.
Also, I’d suggest that people do a lot of reading and intellectualizing while making themselves vulnerable in this work. If folks can read books and follow people’s work, but not interrogate how they are complicit in the perpetuation of injustice and white supremacy, then that’s not the full work. Agents of change can and should be encouraged to do both.
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