Racial Literacy Roundtable: Radical Listening with Youth ☆

What does it mean to truly listen to students? How can we create spaces where students feel listened to? How can listening lead to culturally responsive pedagogy?

These questions and more were discussed by participants in the February 27th Racial Literacy Roundtable at Teachers College. Teacher educator and literacy coach Noah Asher Golden led the evening’s discussion, titled “Radical Listening with Youth.”

Golden, who earned both an M.A. in Philosophy and Education and an Ed.M. in Teaching of English from Teachers College, explained that he deliberately chose “listening with youth,” rather than “listening to youth” in order to emphasize the reciprocity of the listening process.

Golden was introduced by Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, assistant professor of English Education at Teachers College and coordinator and founder of the Racial Literacy Roundtable. She explained that 2014 marks the fifth year that Teachers College has hosted the roundtable events. According to Sealey-Ruiz, the idea for the roundtable grew out of a diversity class that she taught one summer semester. She wanted to extend the conversation after the course was over, and the Racial Literacy Roundtable was born.

At February’s roundtable, Golden explained that his focus would be his experience as a white educator of young men of color. “I want to talk about how listening has transformed what I do as an educator,” he said.

Golden began with a story of an encounter he had with police while teaching at a second-chance high school in the South Bronx. He was bundled up on a cold winter’s day, ready to bike home, when a student named Rafael called out to him. Rafael, a dark-skinned young man from Honduras, had stopped Golden in order to pay the fee for a special graduation ceremony dinner. As soon as the student placed the money in his teacher’s hand, two undercover detectives jumped out of an SUV, assuming they’d intercepted a drug deal. The officers shouted at Golden and his student, demanding to know how much money had been exchanged.

Golden pulled down his facemask and neck warmer to speak with the officers. Immediately, the whole encounter changed. Golden explained that he was a teacher at the high school, and the police left without checking his ID or verifying his story with the school safety officer. Apparently his white skin and standard spoken English had been enough to convince the police that he was no longer a suspicious character.

According to Golden, what happened after he revealed his face to the officers highlighted the unfair treatment his students undergo on a daily basis. In the presence of racism, “our role as educators is to create sites of resistance,” said Golden. “[To do so], it’s essential to begin with listening.”

This kind of listening involves “seeing differences beyond phenotype,” explained Golden. It goes beyond prejudices and preconceived notions. “It’s listening to hear how the other person understands the world, not how the other person fits into my perspective,” Golden said.

Golden explained why this kind of listening is essential. “Through listening, I can do culturally responsive pedagogy, even if it’s not a culture that corresponds to my own ethnicity.”

Melvin Mogoli, a former student of Golden’s, spoke about the influence the teacher had on him.

“It was kind of transforming,” Mogoli said. “He gave me a story about someone just like me.”

That story was Native Son, the 1940 novel by African-American Richard Wright. The book so influenced Mogoli that his current facebook profile picture is a photo of himself on the subway, reading the book.

Native Son was part of the curriculum Golden created for a course called Violence, Literature, and Media. Throughout the course, students explored causes and consequences of violence through books such as Native Son and Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. The course asked students to critically evaluate the definition of violence. Would an accidental vehicle death be considered violence? How about a knock-out in a boxing match?

Golden said the “litmus test” of his effectiveness as educator was if students were dismissed at the end of class but stayed in their seats to continue the discussion.

“Education is not transmission of knowledge; it’s building knowledge,” Golden explained.

In his Core English class, Golden’s students read opposing articles about the use of the “n-word.” When Pace University held a conference on the topic, Golden brought his students.  The students encountered the authors and thinkers whose work they’d been analyzing. “They were able to say, ‘I used your poem in my essay!’” Golden said.

In another one of Golden’s classes, students discussed Pierre Bourdieu’s work on forms of capital. According to Bourdieu, people possess various kinds of cultural, social, and symbolic capital, and these forms of capital are valued differently in different environments. Students used this sociological lens to examine Langston Hughes’ short story “Father and Son,” from the collection The Ways of White Folks. Golden’s students analyzed what forms of capital were accessible to characters in the book, and then performed an ethnographic survey in a familiar place. For example, one student spent time in the police precinct where his mother worked. Another spent time at the gym. Golden then asked his students to determine which forms of capital were valued in these social spaces.

In academic spaces, possessing specific kinds of capital is critical. “Schools reproduce privilege by valuing certain forms of cultural capital,” Golden explained. Culturally responsive pedagogy involves looking at how racial and ethnic inequalities are reinforced through gaps in access to these forms of capital.

Participants in the Racial Literacy Roundtable discussion cited the importance of the event. John MacElveen is a Teachers College graduate who earned a Master of Arts in Teaching of Secondary English. He is in his third year teaching ninth graders in New York City.

“Demands on teachers are such that it’s hard to step out of your own practice and have these conversations,” he said. At the same time, he said, it’s important to discuss the important issues facing educators and students.

“It’s restorative,” he said. “It’s energizing.”