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High Schools, Race, and America's Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community

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In High Schools, Race, and America's Future, Lawrence Blum offers a lively account of a rigorous high school course on race and racism.

Set in a racially, ethnically, and economically diverse high school, the book chronicles students engagement with one another, with a rich and challenging academic curriculum, and with questions that relate powerfully to their daily lives. Blum, an acclaimed moral philosopher whose work focuses on issues of race, reflects with candor, insight, and humor on the challenges and surprises encountered in teaching the unexpected turns in conversation, the refreshing directness of students questions, the aha moments and the awkward ones, and the paradoxes of his own role as a white college professor teaching in a multiracial high school classroom.

High Schools, Race, and America's Future provides an invaluable resource for those who want to teach students to think deeply and talk productively about race.

272 pages, Paperback

First published July 20, 2012

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Lawrence A. Blum

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Displaying 1 - 3 of 3 reviews
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658 reviews17 followers
May 3, 2013
I was lucky enough to hear the author of this book on the radio one morning when I was still in a bit of a fog, but with it enough to think, "That sounds interesting," and remember the author's name.

This was a great book, and why it was so difficult to find, I don't know. I couldn't find it on regular book store sites, and finally found it on a used book site, even though it is less than a year old. Through my job, I have access to books at libraries in 10 counties, including many academic libraries. None of them had this book, not even the college where half of their students are education majors. Why???? Maybe because it is relatively new. I hope it shows up on university library shelves soon. Given the curiosity people showed in the book as I carried it around with me to various appointments, I think it would get circulated. Anyone with any desire to teach in an urban school or a diverse school should read it. If copies become more available, I would love to have it be a book group pick for our city's high school faculty book group.

I did not realize when I picked up this book that it is set in Cambridge, Mass's public high school. Having lived in the slightly poorer and slightly less erudite neighboring city of Somerville for several years, I was familiar with the school. I knew that the school's demographics were similar to my current city's high school in Upstate New York, including similar mediocre scores on the Great Schools.com web site. I learned early on that the school, CRLS, faced similar issues to our school, including the fact that although the school is majority non-white, the advanced classes are majority white.

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. The book is really a case study of one professor's efforts (and related research) to teach a racially mixed class on racism. The book provides information on a specific group of kids' reactions to one specific course. Much of the book discusses the practical and pedagogical aspects of teaching the course. However, don't let this critique scare you away from the book. I found it fascinating and easy to follow, and I have absolutely no background as an educator. I am, though, an involved parent of kids in very diverse schools, and am interested in how to turn the challenges of this diversity into benefits.

Too often (all the time??) schools ignore the issues of race because they are filled with minefields. I think it is actually much more difficult to broach the topic in diverse schools than in schools of all one race. I have seen the negative effects of pretending these issues don't exist, though, and I totally admire Blum's ability to address it head on. If my kids' schools did this rather than trying to brush the issues under the rug, I think there would be fewer problems in the long run, as well as students who are more ready to become global citizens. As Blum states in the book, "Both race and religion are enormously sensitive areas, yet without teaching about them, students are deprived of vital understandings and opportunities for mutual enlightenment."

The wonderful thing about the course is that it wasn't some touchy-feely diversity seminar (although elements of that naturally came up during the class.) Instead it was a rigorous academic class. (The syllabus, which is included, impressed me for a high school course.) Making the class a hard core academic class gave the students and the professor a little bit of distance to allow them to look at the subject objectively without becoming immediately emotional. If only more adults could be exposed to a class like this!

I was very much enjoying this book when our high school made national news for a misguided assignment asking students to write a paper from the point of view of a Nazi. (http://bit.ly/112hgo1). If only the teacher, parents and press had had some sort of professional development from Prof. Blum prior to this incident, the whole thing might have been avoided. Right there, starting on page 101 of the book, he provides guidance on this sort of assignment. He says that writing from the opposite point of view on a topic that most reasonable people agree on is not a good idea in class because it can devolve into students of that background (in this case, Jewish) starting to believe that the views might be true or that lots of people think that way. However, he also states that "I wanted my high school students to experience the power in the ability to take a heinous idea, examine it dispassionately, and be able to state clearly and convincingly what is wrong with it. These skills are a particularly good example of the higher-order critical thinking that educators agree is essential to citizenship." If the assignment in question at my kid's high school had only been tweaked a tiny bit, it may not have led to the suspension of a teacher considered one of the best and most engaged in the school.

Blum's syllabus indicates that the bulk of the class focused on slavery, although the discussions highlighted in the book don't make it seem that way. I would like to know more about how the syllabus was developed, especially in light of the fact that there were lots of kids in the class not descended from slaves. There are many other racial issues in the US, but it could be that the framework created in the class around the slavery issue provided students with the tools to better evaluate other racial issues.

Through much of this book I found myself thinking, "Yes, that's so true, but I've never been able to articulate it." And the things that Blum articulates are backed up with both statistics/hard facts and anecdote, which is a great combination. Two of the concepts that especially stand out for me are the idea of Asians as the "model minority," and the common current meme that if we just have high expectations of poor kids, they will achieve. The model minority stereotype poses the danger of ignoring very huge problems that some Asians have. For instance, our school district has many Burmese refugees. These kids came here with nothing and many of them arrive in the US having had very sporadic, if any, formal schooling in refugee camps. By thinking, "Oh, they are Asian. They will pull themselves up by their bootstraps." we are not giving them what they need in their disorienting and poverty-filled lives.

As for the expectations chapter, I think Blum is right when he implies that "expectations" is just a platitude that doesn't solve any problems. Yes, we need to believe that kids can do the work, but we also need to provide the services they need to be successful. As Blum very clearly points out, the tools that students need to meet those high expectations vary greatly.

I was wrapping up this book when the Boston Marathon bombing happened. The alleged bombers attended the very high school where this book's story takes place. Who knows why the bombers did what they did, but I couldn't help wondering if things would have been different if everyone in that school - teachers, students and support staff - had been able to participate in a course like this.

Finally, I learned that for several years I worked just across the parking lot from the university where Prof. Blum teaches (when not teaching high school). If only I had known! I bet his classes are thought-provoking, and I would have loved to have taken one.
November 14, 2016
Good for teachers who are interested in teaching race and racism course. He provided all the materials he used in the course and this is his fourth time in teaching this course to high school students. I enjoyed it.
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