Transcription of the episode “Supporting student civic activism: Social studies on steroids”

Jon M: [00:00:00] Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. We have an exciting two part episode, which we’ll start today and continue next week. Our guests are Dr. Alan Singer, a former New York City high school teacher and now  teacher educator at Hofstra University, Dr. Pablo Muriel, a social studies teacher at Alfred B Smith High School in the Bronx and a cooperating teacher adjunct also at Hofstra University, and Dennis Belen-Morales, a Gates Millennium Scholar and recent graduate of Hofstra, where he majored in history, social studies education, and Latino studies. Dennis was Pablo’s student at Alford B Smith, and both Alan and Pablo’s student at Hofstra. Welcome Alan, Pablo, and Dennis.

Jon M: [00:01:03] Alan  and Pablo, you recently collaborated on a book titled “Supporting Civics Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society.” A question for all of you. Why teach civics education?

Alan S: [00:01:20] Pablo, why don’t you start?

Pablo M: [00:01:25] I think, looking at it from where I am, I’m working in the 16th Congressional District, one of the poorest in the nation, in the South Bronx. My students are some of the most immediately that are affected by any policy, changes that happen at any level of our society. They typically get, they feel the effects and there’s no there’s no shield or filter for them. They, they get whatever they get. So when I finally started to teach my students and get into these classrooms, I started to notice that many of them have very, very little knowledge of the basic concepts of government. My students, for example, hadn’t ever been to Washington DC, so there’s nothing realistically that they connect. You know, taking them to Washington D C. Now it’s easier to teach something like our government systems and the buildings and how they’re designed and so on and so forth. When it’s not connected, it’s barely understood. So we thought, and this is one thing that I saw 20 years ago in 2001, when I walked in as a substitute. This is something that I immediately identified, a lack of civics, of literacy within civics and citizenship.

Alan S: [00:02:41] Now, I approach civics from two different directions, one, and I’m a Deweyan and I believe, and I know, that students learn through their experience, not from what they’re told. So one of the things we stress in the book is that the standards for civics education actually promote student activism as active citizens in their communities, their schools, their nation, cause that’s how you make knowledge meaningful to students. So that’s the first thing. 

Second thing. I’m also a citizen. I’ve been an activist since the 1960s. Civil rights, antiwar, social justice issues. And we’re living in a very turbulent time in the United States today, we’re living in the era of COVID. We’re living in through the Black Lives Matter struggles. We’re living in a time of tremendous economic inequality. And we’re living in a time where democracy itself is threatened in the United States by authoritarian movements on the right that have included the president. So I’m looking at what’s going on in America. So I’m looking at what’s going on in the world, the issue of climate change. And I’m saying to myself, well that we need to promote student activism so they see themselves as agents for change to ensure democracy, to ensure social justice, to ensure climate viability. So unless we find ways to get students to develop the habit of mind, where they see themselves as activists, a lot of the things that we value, a lot of the things that we cherish, are a great risk. I’m a father, I’m a grandfather. And I would like to see the world continue for future generations.

Amy H-L: [00:04:38] Dennis, do you have anything to add to that?

Dennis B-M: [00:04:41] Yes. I would like to add that I’m looking at the, I don’t have my own set of students yet. Like I don’t have my own physical classes yet, but Alan and Pablo are both teachers of teachers. So they’re teaching me to become a teacher. And what Alan said was true. And I didn’t write about, you know, students learning through experience and I didn’t quite get that in high school. Like I didn’t really, you know, I was smart enough to get the Gates Millennium scholarship and, and things like that. And how was it? I didn’t really see that opportunity being there, but my experience with civic engagement and looking at it now, looking back and reflecting upon it, I realize that civic engagement is important in the classroom because we, as teachers getting students involved civically, allow each student to manifest their own goals and dreams.

And. It manifested differently. Pablo simply allowed us. He told us to go to a community board meeting, find out what was going on in your community, which we did. And a lot of us in that class, in 2016, became agents of change in our own ways. And we had our own goals. I was like very big on metal detectors and school to prison pipeline, and this idea of entering into a penitentiary and how school should be more of a place to learn. But that’s what I liked, the school building. I like learning. I like reading. But some of my friends looked at it differently. I had a friend named Isaiah Washington. I don’t know. Isaiah Thomas and Isaiah Washington? I don’t know if you remember the Isaiah’s, Pablo, but they both had this big thing about nutrition in school buildings and becoming an agent of change and this idea of what are they feeding students who go to lower income schools, you know? And that’s where, that’s where it manifested. So yes, our experiences, we do learn through our experiences and for me, like it helped me realize what I wanted to do in life and like gave me like a goal and it helped my friends do the same thing. Other people became more like artistic. You know, they wanted to express it through art. I know Pablo has a student who gets into music, you know. Our experiences, you know, it’s just simply getting involved in a simple community board meeting, seeing what’s going on. And that allows us to, like, they both said it allows us to see that our voices do matter. You know, it gives us that ability, that confidence, you know, like I might have came from the poorest congressional district in the country, right. But I did attain the Gates Millennium scholarship. Right. So, and people always looked at me like I was crazy because they said that I wouldn’t be able to get that. Right. The entire, the only person who really believed in me in that school was Pablo. He’s the only one that said, like, you know, one. He told me a year before. He said the only problem, the only stress you’re going to have a year from now is that, you know, you won’t know what university or scholarship, you’re going to accept. And I didn’t believe him. I thought he was crazy. I’m being honest. I thought he was crazy, that I wasn’t going to be able to acquire this. And I learned through my experiences with him and becoming a community organizer that like I do learn better. I did learn my rights better. I did learn everything that I’ve learned because I was more involved hands on. And maybe that’s because I learned, but I think all students learn better like that, in my opinion. 

Amy H-L: [00:07:49] Very Deweyan. Alan and Pablo, what are the essential components of the approach you recommend in the book?

Alan S: [00:07:59] Well, I think the first key is you have to start from where students are and the issues that concern them. You can’t impose issues on them. The second, and in this area, Pablo and I took different paths. One of the things that I did in schools, and I would always form a political action club at the school and the political action club would then engage the kids in the projects. Pablo tends to run the projects through his own classes. Let me give you an example of one of the most successful projects that I was engaged in. I was teaching about Roe v Wade and Supreme Court cases. This is a number of years ago and the Supreme Court had a case coming up with a possible review of Roe v Wade. Four young women in my class came to me and said they wanted to go to the pro-choice rally in Washington. Could I take them? What I said was I couldn’t take them as an individual, but if they raised it with the school political action club, which we called the Forum Club and the Forum Club endorsed the participation, I could take them as the faculty advisor to the club. I then went with these four young women to Washington after they raised it with the club. When we came back, they met with the club and they proposed that the club, for the next rally in October, rent a bus and take large numbers of students. The club endorsed the idea and decided to have an abortion rights reproductive freedom debate. And what they did is we invited a speaker from an anti-abortion group to come one week. And from a pro-choice group to come another week. Students organize the presentation. Hundreds of kids came to the discussions and, based on that, they were able to fundraise and get a bus to go for their own group. And 42 kids went to Washington for that pro-choice rally. 

Other time, the club took on the issue apartheid. And they organized forums at the school on the apartheid issue. They organized to support the anti-apartheid campaign. And then when Nelson Mandela came tto Yankee Stadium in the spring of 1990, again, they organized to get a bus so they could go to see Nelson Mandela speaking at Yankee Stadium because they were anti-apartheid activists. And this group of about 30 students at the time took full credit for his release from prison. They thought they did it. And what the club did, in this case, they had brought in speakers from the ANC to speak at the school, but primarily they coalitioned with our local congressman at the time whose name was Major Owens.

So working through this political action club, the students became involved in these things. One of the most successful components was, they took on the issue of condom availability in schools and in 1991 testifying at the City Council and the Board of Ed and with a parent’s coalition, they actually succeeded in  convincing the Board of Ed to promote condom availability in the high schools. So these kids had a tremendous sense of their success as activists, but we primarily worked it through the political action club. They then ran programs throughout the school to engage other kids. Now, Pablo, you could  talk about how you had somewhat  different approach.

Pablo M: [00:11:46] Okay. So my approach is obviously similar to Alan, but I take a much more, I don’t want to say less organized, I want to say a much more grassroots. The kids I teach, one of the biggest complaints that every teacher has is that a lack of parent participation. So in the school I work in, you know, I have to contact the parents. Obviously I have to get to them, but the parents mostly refer me back to their kids. So I have that going, which is somewhat of a great thing. So anyway, starting off, I think I will go all the way back when I first started working at a University Heights, which is the high school that I mentioned. 

Alan S: [00:12:22] Tell us about the mice!

Pablo M: [00:12:28] Yeah, this was when it all first started. So I went into teach and, uh, you know, I kept in contact with Alan cause I wasn’t sure if I was going to teach for a long time. I really honestly thought it was going to be two or three years. And I said, I’ll try this and then see if it works. And I used to stay in contact with Alan and I’ve remember when I first walked into the classroom and all the kids jumped up on the desk. I see the girls screaming and jumping on my desk and I’m thinking that it was a prank and it was okay. Uh, one of the girls says, no, it’s the, you know, it’s the mice they’re always running around. So it’s either mice or water bugs. So I said, you can’t be serious. So as I’m teaching and, you know, I see a mouse run by, and again, they’re screaming and then they start giving them names like Mickey, you know, the school was in disrepair, the auditorium, they used to call it the shish room because it was, it was, they used to say, you can’t go in there because when it rained and this is true, it would, it would leak in the auditorium. So the structure was really, it just wasn’ sound. Um, there was no library, no resources. 

So I remember calling Alan and saying, how am I supposed to do this? This is almost impossible. And Alan turns around and says, well, what you should do is get them engaged, you know, start, you know, getting them involved in their own lives. So I said, what else do I have to do? Let me do this because I couldn’t do that for too long. So I started telling the kids, as soon as you go home, guys, I’m going to do something. I’m going to, and I brought this into my lesson plan, go on the walk home. I want you to identify things that you see that you may not have seen before. For example, I give them one. So none of you can use this but you can use other things. And I would say there are no garbage cans in front of the school building and therefore garbage accumulates, right. So the kids were just trying to find different things, but they couldn’t use that one. And so eventually they came back and I started telling them, what do we do? And, and then at the same time, it’s a, it’s a US history course and I’m teaching them about the structure of government. So that’s, who’s in charge of this. So now I got them to, first to identify who’s in charge, who are the people in charge of it. So this was a class lesson, but it was so engaging because it was about what they were bringing into class. And so as there, as the analyzing this classroom, how do you talk to these people? My position at that point is, okay. Whom  do you guys want to contact and why? So they are, they’re doing the research and that’s on what do you want to contact them?

Okay. Now everyone’s going to write a letter. Like here’s what we’re going to do. Um, you guys are going to deliver it and whoever can’t deliver it, you’re going to it mail it in. And so most of the class decided to deliver it. Uh, and I remember they delivered it to the assemblyman who then got this other gentleman involved,, another assembly person. And so we got them to come in. Uh, you know, we did a town hall meeting and they spoke to the college and, uh, ultimately we were able to secure several million dollars from the City. and the DOE to fix up the classrooms. And, and so we ended up getting a brand new auditorium. We ended up getting a library. We got a bunch of, uh, even a cafeteria and a bunch of, even labs for science and new classrooms. And the school was there since 1981. And this was 2008. And in 2008, they come to us and say, well, we love what you’ve done with the building. In the last two years, you guys repaired, to me, they’re  nice. And 2009, they came and said, well, now you have to go. You’ve got to find a place to go. And I was shocked and that’s what they said, the community college. Now that the building was fixed because of the student campaign, they wanted the building back and wanted the high school out. Yes. And that became a campus. So I remember calling Alan again and saying, Alan, we fought, we did all this. And now the kids are losing the building. I mean, this is even the teachers are disheartened at this point because the teachers were part of this. Everyone was kind of getting involved in this. And so we decided ,Alan turns around and says, well, let’s turn this into another civic lesson. I said, okay, let’s do this.

And I started to, we started to combine our ideas and, and came up with, well, actually we were invited to,. I was invited to a PEP meeting. But I was so frustrated that I said Hey kids, how would you guys like to see how our PEP meeting works? 

Alan S: [00:16:48] Pablo, what’s a PEP meeting?

Pablo M: [00:16:51] Bloomberg put a Panel for Educational Policy, which was a rubber stamp from 2000–  he started them, I think, in 2008 or nine. And it just, they were a rubber stamp for closing schools and reopening them if you’re opening new schools. And it was more, I believe it was, it was to create space for charter schools, but that’s just my personal belief. Although data kind of supports my theory in that sense. But I  started going to the PEP meetings and questioning them. And then we figured out that the PEP meeting was a lie. It was a straight front. When I would go to the microphone, they wouldn’t be listening. They’d  have a Pepsi bottle up. They’ll just be talking to one, another sort of, kind of being very dismissive of the community , and that was in the Bronx.

So then I said, you know what, I, I’m going to turn this into a lesson. And I started inviting kids. We went to the PEP meeting and the first one was in Brooklyn Tech, which ended up, uh, because the UFT asked, uh, how many people wanna go? I said, I’m going to go. And I said, I’m going to go by myself. And I asked  my kids who were part of participation in government, I said, how would you guys like to see government in action? So I’m going to go into the PEP meeting and we knew what it was, and I’m going to be in Brooklyn Tech. If some of you want to come, that’d be great. You could write it up and I’ll give you some extra credit. You know, I’m thinking three kids are going to show up. I had over 60, 70 kids show up from the Bronx to the PEP meeting. We ended up on channel 11 news, that was Cathie Black was actually being interviewed and she was booed out.Those are my kids.

Jon M: [00:18:18] Just a clarification for people who may not know, listeners who may not know Cathie Black. 

Pablo M: [00:18:26] Cathie Black was the Betsy  De Vos of New York City for Bloomberg. So that’s the best way to put it, I think. She was the person in charge, uh, our commissioner of education, our chancellor. And she was a businesswoman who came from a magazine world or not even, I think it was a, the modeling world or something  along those lines. It was business. She had nothing to do with education, but she was selected for the position by Bloomberg at the time, She only lasted a couple of months, because I didn’t know this, but my kids kept going to PEP meetings because they found it a lot of fun. And then they meet other people, organizations, and they start to get involved. And I thought that was really interesting. They used to come back and bring pictures. And I used to just like email it to Alan, like, because I thought it was funny, you know. I’m thinking this is fun, but it’s, I know it’s a learning experience, but I’m having fun with the fact that the kids are having fun. So the fact that the kids are enjoying themselves, but it’s, it’s a organic learning experience. I think that’s what made the vast difference in these things. So, anyway,

Jon M: [00:19:30] Let me just ask. First, just out of curiosity, which was the college that was trying to get it back? And secondly, were you successful?

Pablo M: [00:19:36] Okay. No, there we go. So it was the Bronx Community College. The high school was inside Bronx Community College. And this was covered by some newspapers. Alan was following it because he was writing for the Huffington Post at the time. So Alam would be like my microphone. Like, Alan, I need you for this because here’s what’s happening down here. No one’s paying attention. And so when they came, I turned, you know, not myself, I can’t say it was myself. It was all of us, Alan, from Alan I’d get ideas. You know, the principal was very open at the time. You know, I need help. Let’s see if we could stay around. So we took them to a civics lesson, which is perfect, and the kids are contacting news reporters and they were contacting the DOE. 

And then the last time they did two PEP meetings. The first one, they did a PEP meeting at our school and they showed up, the PEP. And this is written somewhere in one of the smaller newspapers, the largest hall they had, which is a Memorial Hall, where they do the gatherings. It was filled to capacity to the point where it did not fit one more person. And we’re talking about a school with only at the time, 435 students because it still has only 435 students. And every parent, communities came up and fought. They sort of came out and they pretended, and then they will still be moving forward.

So then they figured the last PEP meeting was held in Staten Island because it was so inconvenient for us to get there. So, so. I, you know, I told the kids, listen, I’m going to go. I’m going to go by train, you know, bus and ferry. I’m going to do the whole thing. If you guys are interested, ask your parents for permission slips. I really can’t even take you guys. I’m only going to take a handful of kids because, you know, and by the way, it’s after school so you don’t have to come. I’m going. Over a hundred, even over 200 people, showed up. Kids on the train. By myself, I took about 75 kids came, yeah, with me, I felt like I was taking like three or four train cars. We took a good portion of the part of that ferry and a bunch of parents brought their kids and teachers took kids. And so when we got to Staten Island, we demanded to know and ithey declined to give us an answer.  Klein at the time was the chancellor and Klein said…, Cathie Black was out, but, Klein replaced her and then when we got there, Klein, who replaced Black after a couple of months, told us that there was nothing that he can do, that the best that could happen was, I’m sorry, no, no. Yeah. Black replaced Klein. I think that’s how it was. Because I remember okay, we were in Staten Island, [inaudible] Klein and then shortly after we kept going to PEP meetings because, but that’s the last one for our school. And he told me us very straight forward. You said that there was nothing we could do. The college doesn’t want to help. And so the best we could do is put you in a school with one other school. But it’s across the street from, he didn’t tell us this. We figured this out on our own. It was across the street from a juvenile detention center, which is still there. The school still there. What separates University Heights right now from Horizons is the two train. It’s on the five train. So that’s it. And then literally across the street. So the whole fight, when we went to fight, it was how dare you, you know, put us there. And their response was, this is all we can do. So we lost that fight. And so, you know, that brings me to Dennis later on, and others.

Alan S: [00:23:03] I think it’s important in this kind of thing. You don’t win every struggle. And I think that that in itself is an important lesson. That you don’t win the struggle is not a reason to stop struggling because you’re going to win some, but you can’t win if you don’t keep pushing. 

Jon M: [00:23:26] So I have a question on a somewhat  different tack, which is that some social studies or history teachers are very open with their students about their political perspectives. Others prefer students not to have any idea of their personal views. What do you see as the arguments? And this is for all three of you, what do you see as the arguments of each of these and as teachers, do you share your political views with your students? 

Alan S: [00:23:54] My view is if we’re having a discussion, if my adding my voice to the discussion, opens it up, then it’s a value. If my adding my voice closes it down, then it defeats the purpose of having the discussion. So I try to be judicious on that. Your kids will ask.

One project I did. I always used to bring a Vietnam vet in to discuss his, these  always were guys,  his experience in Vietnam. And I told the students one day we’re going to have the Vietnam vet come in and discuss what it meant to be engaged in the war, and then the next day we’re going to have an antiwar protester come in who’s going to explain why they were opposed to the war. And you’re going to interview both of them to find out what their experiences were. So the first day we would have the veteran come in and the students were to interview the veteran to find out what the experiences were, what they learned. And then the second day the students would come in because they’re interested in interviewing the antiwar protestor. And they would say, Alan, where’s the speaker today. And I would say, I’m the speaker. And they would interview me and I would share my ideas. But that opened them up to new experiences and thoughts, but on other issues, I wouldn’t say my position.

However, one of the ways I would introduce a broader perspective for them was on my selection of documents. So you can bring, a teacher can bring in a document that introduces them to ideas. You don’t have to say, I agree with that document, but Frederick Douglass on “To What is the Slave is the 4th of July” or any of the documents in that Howard Zinn uses in Voices of the American People. There’s a very good letter by a couple whose son died in 2001  and they say, don’t go to Iraq, not in our name, or you could do the Robert Byrd piece on This Will Go Down in Infamy in history. So you don’t have to say, his is what I believe, but you can introduce students to different perspectives just based on the documents, introduce in class.

Pablo M: [00:26:23] As for me, from the high school level and looking at younger kids and, and where I work, to be very sincere with you, that is one of the least of my issues because my kids aren’t even interested in politics when they come to my room. They want a credit and they’re used to certain social studies, habits and ways, and that’s what they know. And they really don’t know politics at all. So in 20 years I’ve never had been asked, well, what are your political views, Pablo?

I want them to explore. So my thing is I, as long as you’re inquisitive and you’re looking, you know, it doesn’t matter which way you go. So I have one student for example, and he knew my stance [inaudible]. He knew my stance on military and he knew my stance on certain issues and he knew I would fall more on the left side. And he was one of these very, very witty young men who was with me from 10th grade. Well, still he decided to go to the military and then he went to the military. After two, two tours, he came back and very conservative. And I remember having a discussion him, God bless his soul. He was a University Heights student and he passed away of cancer in 2013, 2014. I went to his wake  and he was, uh, he became conservative. He’s very conservative, but he was one of those kids. I was very close to him. I didn’t care what he decided, conservative or left or right. I care that you get civically engaged and change your situation. And so my goal is to get them as civically engaged as possible so that they’re no longer looking to who’s going to solve their problems, or rather I know how to solve my problem. I’ve done this before. Let me go about, you know, making this change that will help me. It will help my family. And so that’s sort of where I stand. But as far as the political views, I don’t see a reason to bring them up unless it’s part of the discussion.

Alan S: [00:28:20] Very important, just to add to that. If kids believe something because I said it, then next year, they’re going to believe whatever the next person says. You don’t have that kind of impact. I don’t, I’m not looking to recruit an army of 16 year olds. I’m looking to get six year olds to begin to think about their world. The one question that kids always used to ask me when we got to the 1960s. It was not about my political position, but they all want to know whether I used drugs. And my answer was always the same. And I would always say there are many things that I’ve done in my life, some of which I’m proud of and some of which I’m not, but none of which I will discuss with you. 

Jon M: [00:29:07] Dennis, do you have thoughts on what Pablo and Alan have been saying? 

Dennis B-M: [00:29:13] I agree with both of them, but I have, like, my perspective is that like, when I put myself in the classroom, like, and I’m going to talk to the students and my goal obviously is to get them politically involved and to understand, to read more, to understand politics, because like, you know, that’s part of that should, and it should be completely embedded in the curriculum, like stated that students should, especially if you’re like, students learn about politics like the last year before they graduate. They learned it in probably like in U.S. Government and economics. For me, I would always keep, like, what I have learned in it is kids are always trying to stir away from, you know, either learning, like in terms of like, they don’t want to, they want to learn more about to try to distract and things like that. My whole thing is that I want to keep the conversation and the dialogue within the students, because my perspective on like, I’ll be a lot older than them by then, by the time teaching. And if I’m like out in, for example, I’m he goes into a classroom with eighth graders and ninth graders, you know, his political stance or my political standpoint, align with them. And about 20 years from now, because you know, we’re not, we’re not in the same generation. I want to keep the conversation between the students, with all my lessons. I want to keep them between students, because my ways that they’re going to be the ones growing up with each other. They’re the ones that are going to need to help one another. They’re going be the one that needs to understand that some people will have different opinions and they need to be able to express themselves without getting mad. Like Pablo said, my goal is to teach in a low income area. So like, like what Pablo  was doing. And I was okay. I really probably won’t have that kind of question asked me like, Oh, who do you, you know, are you going for Bernie?  It’ll be like, Who’s Bernie Sanders, you know? Or who’s like, you’re going to ask me like, Oh, who’s Joe Biden? Right. It’s like those questions are the ones that we’re going to actually have to go into,  and then from there, I’m moving into like, you know, what do these students understand from what we were learning in class? And I want to keep the dialogue, not on me, leave it on them because they are the focus, you know, I’m here to teach them. So that I feel that’s how I feel about that. The conversation should be towards them and whether I believe whether what I believe in, or not doesn’t affect their decisions 10 years from now, but when they decide to finally become politically involved in my whole goal is for them to just understand politics and become involved.

Like make sure when they turn 18, vote, you know, my goal is to be like . Pablo always had, I don’t know if he still does it, well, obviously because of Corona, but he always had a stack of voter registration, like a big stack right on his desk. And whenever a kid turned 18, he  said, You should go vote. You know, like if you want to vote, he’d be like, go grab it when it’s on my desk. You know, my goal is to make sure that they’re politically involved keeping the discussion between them and keep them, you know, so they can understand that they have to respect each other. And it’s basically just usher them into adulthood and usher them into becoming productive members of a growing society. So I need them to understand, I need to work in collab. My opinion has nothing to do with their political standpoints or how involved they become politics. That’s how I feel, though. 

Amy H-L: [00:32:08] Alan and Pablo, have any of your students proposed action projects that you found unethical or offensive? And if so, how did you handle it?

Alan S: [00:32:18] That’s a very good question. I’ve been challenged based on that by faculty members in my schools when I was a high school teacher. When the Forum Club organized the reproductive freedom dialogues with the two speakers and then went to Washington, there were faculty members that accused me of brainwashing the kids, and they said, Well, you took them to Washington for a pro-choice rally, but you wouldn’t have taken them to an anti-abortion rally. And I said, first of all, the Forum Club is the club that brought in the speaker to speak with students about anti-abortion. This was a speaker from a group called Birthright. But not only that, when the original group of students approached me, I said that I couldn’t take them unless it was supported by the club. And then I made arrangements for them to go to Washington. Then I went with them with Queens College. And what I would do if there were students in the club who wanted, for example, and there were students who did not believe in abortion rights, it’s not my responsibility to take them to the rally, but it’s my responsibility to make it possible for them to attend a rally. So I could then either enlist the teacher at the school who was opposed to abortion or I, once again, I could make arrangements with a Queens College group. That was the local college–that they could attend with Queens College. So my responsibility was to make it possible for students to participate. But I did not necessarily have to attend with them

Pablo M: [00:34:03] For me, I don’t think I’ve ever had any proposed. You know, when the kids are goofing off during dialogue, they’ll say something, but even when they do say something, they know. I don’t know. I’ve never, I’ve never encountered that problem in all these years. That’s  interesting, I’ve never had a kid say. I think again, it’s because my kids are not engaged at all. So when they get to me, it’s almost like I’m starting from new. So I don’t think I’ve ever had that situation where kids suggested an inappropriate. . .

Alan S: [00:34:35] I did have another incident. It was a rally against racism in Howard Beach, Queens many years ago, because a mob of white young men attacked two black men whose car had broken down. And one of them ended up running on the highway and getting killed. There was a rally demanding racial justice, and I was attending with the local community group and the club raised whether they could come. And I said to the club, I didn’t think I could bring you, I couldn’t guarantee your safety. So there were club members that were very disappointed, but if I couldn’t guarantee safety, they couldn’t come. However, I said, there is going to be a rally at City Hall and that’ll be during the day, this was an evening rally. It’ll be different circumstances. If people want, in the club, want to organize, I will take you to that rally, but I can’t take you to a rally where I can’t guarantee your safety, as an adult, as your teacher.

Amy H-L: [00:35:38] And you’ve never encountered students who were racist or with whom you.

Pablo M: [00:35:44] Oh, yeah. Yeah. My racism is different from what Alan would experience because the racism that we experience at our school is along the lines of if the school is 99% minority. So it’s all Latinos and African-American. So the the racism that I’m catching as a teacher is amongst the Spanish kids that are just entering because they have a misconception of race in certain groups that I’m getting, you know, from where they come from. They’re very open with their racism and they themselves may be of color or what the majority would consider Black or People of Color, but they don’t believe so. So in Spanish they would say little racist comments, which I in turn, I speak, I’m bilingual,  I correct them immediately. So I made sure, and I turned their racist comments into complete lessons, and so.

I’m going to give you a fine example. You know, I teach, I have, I want to say 12 years, I’ve had, well, 13 years, I’ve had a larger population of the many kids from the Dominican Republic. And so I remember this first happened early two thousands. I want to say 2005, 2006. Like kids said in Spanish, something very racist. And I stopped and I said, Excuse me. And then he said, what are you getting mad about? You’re not Black. And I said, It doesn’t matter. And then I had to start explaining it to him, but then he gave me this whole lesson that he learned  inhis country. And I said, wait, wait a minute. It doesn’t make sense.

So it kind of forced me to go learn about the Dominican Republic. And then I learned about Trujillo and I learned about what he did in the Dominican Republic. And then it just so happens, you know, several years later, Howard Gates, when Howard Gates does this whole thing of Black and in the Caribbean and everything that I learned, I actually now, now it’s easier for me to teach if I ever need to, I can actually show that video, but I had to learn about their culture, their society, what they went through.

And I also had to, you know, understand that they’ve been taught in a way that needs to be untaught. So, you know, first thing I gotta, I got to teach them is stop. Black people are not Haitians. Haitians are in Haiti, which is part of the Island, but Blacks here are Black Americans and those Blacks are not Black Americans. Those are Hondurans–they are Garifunas. So that’s another group that I had to learn about because they faced racism, but in their culture, they tend to sort of blend into others. So what I mean by that is the Black Hondurans you would think are African-American and they will act, and we will take the culture. And then the, the lighter skin ones would be Puerto Rican and they will actually take the culture. And so within the, those cultures, you start seeing the differences. So they faced a lot of discrimination in the, in the Honduran world, as the Garifunas. And so I had to learn about that culture and learn about their history in order to teach those particular students, because you got to start from where they’re from and their reality, and then teach certain things that you must reteach.

Jon M: [00:38:50] I’m actually, when you were just talking about, especially in terms, say of relationships between Dominicans and Haitians where obviously the two countries, you know, have a very complex history and also where issues of color  have very strongly played a role in that. Um, do you find, and  that that’s just one example, obviously there are examples from literally every single country in the world. What’s been your experience Pablo, in terms of breakthroughs of somebody say who’s a dark skinned Dominican who doesn’t see him or herself as black, but also makes racist comments about Haitians. Okay. What have you found in terms of your ability to help people change how they think? 

Pablo M: [00:39:40] That’s interesting. I have one on Facebook and he and I talk all the time. Uh, he’s a Black, Dominican, was like that. And interesting enough, and I’m not saying anyone has to do this. It’s just really just, and he married an African-American female and has babies. So he’s consistent now, Afro-Dominican, and he still has a very thick accent because he got here when he was maybe 12 or 13. And now he’s like, he’s 30, 31 and he’s married with two kids. And so. I’ve seen it in the, in those respects. I’ve also seen in schools where the teachers themselves intervene and it forced the little breakups. I’ve seen a lot of success in those schools. The schools where no one intervened and it’s almost like left to, you know, because obviously he said Spanish kids and, you know, they’re leaving their country, homeland, which, you know, hey, you’re used to like beaches and palm trees. Now you’re coming to snow and like this craziness, so you can’t even imagine what they’re going through. So unfortunately when these kids get here and sometimes we just go kind of like gravitate towards one another, and which is great, but teachers need to step up. And one of the problems we’re having, we don’t have enough bilingual teachers. We just don’t. And the bilingual teachers are stuck in classrooms that are completely removed from every other classroom and they sometimes get stuck on those lines. So there needs to be what I’ve seen completely integrated schools in both race, class, gender, and language.

I’ve seen that, a lot of breakthroughs, a lot, but also you will get some kids that have problems with their parents. You know, that have of course conflict at home because it goes completely against what the family is, the dinner conversations. So that’s where the sort of sometimes the pushback comes. 

Alan S: [00:41:34] The way I tried to address it was by creating a sense of classroom community and saying, we are people who are exploring our world and acting on it together. And so in this community, there were two rules. And I said, the rules are based on the teachings of Professor Franklin. And they would say, well, who’s Professor Franklin. I said, don’t, you know, Professor Aretha Franklin. And these are the two rules, RESPECT, find out what it means to me. And think. Think before you act. And in our community, if we respect each other and we think before we act, we can do wonderful things together. 

Pablo M: [00:42:21] And by the way, let me just add this because I have to piggyback on what Alan said. The reason that I have never dealt with overt racism in the classroom or any of those things is because I would just say the respect part.

That’s those, that’s the thing that I do in my classes from the day that I walk in. Um, you know, I give them my three rules. I only have three rules. I do not believe in setting so many rules that the kid is running around, trying to figure out how to break them rather than learning what you’re trying to teach.

So rules to me are, you know, I live on a concept of the trust system. Like I literally, I’ve always lived my life on that system. And so I brought that into the classroom. And so I tell the kids from day one. First, I’m going to respect you, but respect is reciprocal. I expect you to be respectful to me. That’s number one. Number two, when someone is speaking, they must respect one another. And so you’ll see me sit down and listen to them cause they have to teach in the classroom at the moment. So you disrespect, them  goes back to disrespecting me cause that’s the teacher of the classroom. And then rule number three is I will never say no to go to the bathroom, just one person at a time and that’s it. And don’t take too long. I added that 15 years ago, just, I remember adding it one year just to try it. And it became my norm forever. I still do it to this day and I’m talking ninth through 12th grade, South Bronx, and I’ve never had an issue that the kids really take respect to heart.

Amy H-L: [00:43:47] And we’ll break here and continue next week with strategies for integrating project based learning with the Regents and tips for new teachers. Thank you listeners. If you like this episode, please consider subscribing and giving us a rating or view. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles. Subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs with a focus on ethics for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till¬† part two, next week.¬†

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