The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 47 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
Listen to this episode:
Welcome to the 2016 Cult of Pedagogy Summer Book Study. Every summer, I choose a different education-related book for us to read together. Last summer we read Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. It was a fantastic book and I think it really had an impact on how teachers presented their material. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you check out Episode 21, where I interviewed one of the authors, Peter Brown.
For 2016, I’ve chosen a book that is about as different from Make it Stick as you could imagine. This time we’re not focusing on learning and memory, but on how we work with one specific subsection of students. The book is called Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools and it’s written by Monique Morris.
In the sea of education books on how we can leverage technology, redesign our classrooms and improve our instruction, Pushout was something completely different. It caught my attention right away, because every year I was in the classroom, I taught black girls. Some were very successful, others were not. And I never really considered whether there might be something unique in the way those girls experienced school, something I might have been able to adjust in the way I approached them, that would have helped a whole lot more of them truly thrive in school and in life.
That’s what Monique Morris studied. Over the course of four years, she interviewed black girls about their experiences in schools. What she learned is that most schools have policies in place that marginalize these girls, and most teachers haven’t been trained in the cultural competencies that would enable us to help these girls truly thrive.
In the book, Morris starts by showing us exactly how the pushout happens, how zero-tolerance policies and cultural misunderstandings between black girls and their teachers can result in punishments that far outmatch the original offense. She examines how the dominant culture in our schools–the way we define a “good” student as one who is quiet and compliant–leaves no room for the assertive outspokenness these girls tend to bring with them. Faced with this outspokenness, this “attitude,” we respond in ways that only make the girls feel disrespected and misunderstood, setting off a vicious cycle that usually ends in suspension or expulsion. When we suspend a child, we hurt her academically. We make it less likely that she will succeed in school.
And when she doesn’t, other environments are waiting for her with open arms: abusive relationships, sex trafficking, and incarceration. Morris shows us the path that starts with a black girl not meeting the expectations at school and ends with her in damaging and dangerous situations. It’s a disturbing and heartbreaking path, but then she leads us back again and teaches us how to blaze a new trail, how to learn new ways of responding to the unique qualities our young black girls bring with them to school, how to nurture them and lead them through their education with love.
When I read this book, I thought back to some of the girls I’d taught, the ones who did not thrive. If I’d had Pushout back then, I know I would have done better by them. And I want you to do better by the black girls in your future. I think this is such an important book and I really hope that lots of educators will be reading it this summer. To get a copy, come over to cultofpedagogy.com, click Podcast on the menu, then go to episode 47. That will take you straight to the blog post associated with this episode, where you’ll find links to the book. Once you’ve read it, share your thoughts in a comment after the post. I’m inviting Dr. Morris to join us in the comments section to dialogue with people who share their own reflections and questions.
Before I play the interview, I’d like to say thank you to those who have left a review for this podcast on iTunes. These reviews make such a difference in terms of bringing new listeners to the show, so if you’ve never left a review, I would love it if you’d head over to iTunes and do that. If you already have, thank you.
Now here’s my interview with Monique Morris.
GONZALEZ: Hi, Monique.
GONZALEZ: Thank you so much for coming on.
MORRIS: Thank you for having me.
GONZALEZ: This is Dr. Monique Morris, she is the author of Pushout: the Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. This is going to be our summer reading book on Cult of Pedagogy this summer, which is going to be hopefully having a lot of teachers reading this book and thinking about how they can apply what’s in the book to the classrooms in the fall.
MORRIS: That’s really great.
GONZALEZ: Can you just give me a quick bio of yourself in terms of what you’re doing professionally, where you are and then we’ll start talking about the book.
MORRIS: Of course. I am the co-founder and president of an organization called The National Black Women’s Justice Institute and we do work primarily to interrupt school-to-confinement pathways, but also to reduce the barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated women and to increase the capacity of organizations that are working on anti-sexual assault and anti-violence in African-American communities. That is my primary investment of time. I also left my post at the University of San Francisco and Saint Mary’s College of California to pursue that work, also to work with my own pilot education re-entry program here in Alameda County, that is developing a specific engagement strategy with girls who are returning to community after a condition of confinement and who have experienced school pushout. That’s what I’m doing now.
GONZALEZ: You’re still very much hands-on with the girls that you refer to in the book. Not necessarily the specific girls, but with the populations that you refer to in the book.
MORRIS: Yes, with the population, and doing that in partnership. There is one thing that you’ll hear from me over again, that I think readers will pick up from the book, is that I really believe in this concept of partnership in co-construction. The work that I am doing is definitely in partnership with other organizations. We are building up collaboratives and I’m seeking to do that and develop a national network that can really support this work long-term.
The Origins of the Book
GONZALEZ: Wonderful. You mentioned the school-to-confinement pipeline. In the last couple of years there’s been a whole lot of attention given to the school-to-prison pipeline. A lot of attention on police violence against African-American males and just a lot of attention on young black boys and young adult males. In your book, you focus exclusively on the experience of black girls. Talk about what prompted that and why.
MORRIS: I was inspired to engage girls and to center this discussion on girls for a couple of reasons. One is that for several years, really for more than a decade, I have noticed that while the population of girls in many detention facilities was increasing, people were not really seeing them. Their invisibility was remaining stagnant. That was always problematic to me, from someone who is entering the conversation from that vantage point. But also, when I started to look at the data around school discipline and as the conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline was beginning to really emerge, there were always these little pieces of data that would come out that no one would fully explore. We found out that black girls were actually in many jurisdictions experiencing school discipline at rates that were higher that males of other racial groups. That was problematic.
You could see the heightened degree of contact with school discipline among black males, but after them, it was black females, then it would go back to other males, before it got to other girls. When we were looking at the data and we were realizing who is the fastest growing population experiencing the suspensions, the expulsions, the corporal punishment, it was black girls. Also, when we looked at the data for other projects, that were examining what was happening along the discipline continuum, the black girls emerge as the only group of girls who were disproportionately overrepresented in all discipline categories, for which data are collected by the US Department of Education. We knew that the disparities were there, the anecdotes were there, the discussions with teachers would reveal that they were there. There was still no way in which we were coming to understand why this was happening. Or what was producing this trend.
Then, as we started to do a closer examination around some of the other stories that were emerging in the public sphere around populations that were impacted by school-to-confinement pathways, there were always these little stories come out every once a while about a six-year old girl who was placed in handcuffs or a seven-year old girl who was arrested on campus or a sixteen-year old girl who was thrown to the ground or arrested on campus. Then people would kind of move on, as if that was normal, or acceptable, or that’s a shame, now moving on. It felt to me that there was a way in which we were neglecting this conversation that was rendering not just invisible the experiences of black girls who were disproportionately impacted by this condition, or by these sets of conditions; we were being irresponsibly silent on these issues in a way that I just wanted to engage. That’s what inspired writing Pushout.
GONZALEZ: There is the one with the girl with the cell phone and her desk getting flipped back by a school security officer, that was one of many. It seems like those were all blanketed under this overall attention being given to the school security officers and the policing of kids. It sounds like what you’re wanting to do is to be a little more surgical about it, and say let’s just look at the experience of black girls, and see if there are some defining characteristics of these experiences that can help us to improve those connections.
MORRIS: Absolutely. And understand that, while those cases involving law enforcement are egregious and inspire us to want to take a closer look at the system, those don’t happen every day. That’s not really how it plays out every day in the lives of girls, black girls in particular. What I also wanted to do is to challenge us to think outside of the typical linear framework that we use to understand this phenomenon – which is why I don’t use the term “school-to-prison pipeline.” I think it’s very linear when we are talking about girls – that we have to acknowledge that there are multiple pathways to confinement, and that there are multiple forms of confinement beyond prison.
The School-to-Confinement Pathway
GONZALEZ: Let’s talk about that, because you definitely spend time early in the book defining this term, this school-to-confinement pathway. Talk about your choice of word ‘confinement.’ You say that there are many different types.
MORRIS: Yes. I intentionally use this framework around school-to-confinement pathways to do two things – one is to acknowledge that for girls we’re not talking necessarily about prison. While I understand that that is a term that really incites in our consciousness the urgency associated with this issue that doesn’t allow us to examine the full scope of criminalization that occurs, if we only focus on prison, which is a symptom of the criminalization, not the totality of that experience. The kinds of confinement that we find our girls in are residential placements, we see them in detention facilities, we see them on probation, on house arrest with GPS. When we talk only about prison, we tend to talk primarily about males, because that’s who’s in prison. But when we talk about confinement, we open the door for us to really examine the full continuum, of the criminal and juvenile legal system in a way that it’s interacting with the lives of our girls and other children along the gender continuum when they are experiencing school pushout.
And then I talk about pathways, because I really think it’s important to think beyond the scope of a pipeline. We’ve got to move outside of understanding this issue as just something that happens when there is contact on school campus between law enforcement and a child. We’ve got to also think about the ways in which we render children vulnerable to contact with the criminal and juvenile legal system if we don’t engage them in school and if we intentionally turn them away from school. That is the core piece there that I spend a lot of time exploring. Other things that we do see every day, the types of decisions that are made that push girls away, that turn them very literally away from school, send them home from school, that make them unsafe in school, that make it appear that school is not a place for them. These are the kinds of things that I want us all to really interrogate, as educators, as parents, as concerned community members and as students. I think that’s also something young people should need to be involved in more intentionally. That’s what school-to-confinement pathway is really about.
GONZALEZ: Let’s talk a little bit about these ways that girls are pushed out of school. A lot of this comes from what schools refer to as Zero Tolerance Policies. How have these policies now been sort of twisted, perverted to where girls end up being separated from opportunities to get an education.
MORRIS: I understand the desire to keep our children safe in schools. Obviously, as a parent, I’m concerned. As an educator, that’s what I want to see for all of us along the education continuum. As a student, I wanted to feel safe. Safety is always at the forefront of people’s minds. But my argument is that safety has to be co-constructed, not implemented. It has to be something that you develop in consort with the population that is affected by it. That’s what Zero Tolerance prevents us from doing. Zero Tolerance policies, while intended initially to keep communities safe, it really turned into a way for us to justify harsh hyper-punitive reactions to normal adolescent behavior. There are cases, as I was referring to before, where you have girls, primarily black girls who are having a tantrum at six years old in the classroom, and instead of responding to that child with empathy, we respond with handcuffs. Or if there is a child who, as recently as a few months ago, takes candy from her teacher’s desk, she’s placed in handcuffs and situated under the stairs. No empathy. No really thinking about what’s happening.
Or even in the case of some of the more egregious situations that have emerged in the public domain, where girls are actually physically lifted and thrown around or physical force is used against them, there’s no way in which zero tolerance policy is providing an opportunity for us as adults, caring adults, to read the behaviors of these girls as symptoms of trauma. Rather, what we see is problematic student, problematic behavior, “Get that kid out.” It doesn’t leave a lot of discretionary decision-making among the educators to respond to the situation. Rather, what it does is just remove the situation from our view, and we assume that it’s taken care of, when we know really in fact it’s not taken care of at all.
GONZALEZ: Let’s take any one of these situations – the girl is then removed from class. Then, what are the repercussions from that point forward for her?
MORRIS: What we have to understand, and what I argue, I hope in a compelling way, is that education is a critical protective factor against contact with the criminal and juvenile legal system, when we’re talking about girls.
GONZALEZ: You do. You do make a very compelling case.
MORRIS: Girls need education to stay away from and out of the criminal legal system. When we turn girls away from school, what we’re essentially doing is handing them to the streets. We are telling them that their only way to advance is to participate in underground economies that will increase their likelihood of being criminalized, or coming into contact with the criminal and juvenile legal system. That’s something that we don’t usually talk about is just this role of education, at least we don’t talk about it domestically. We’re very comfortable talking about the impact and role of education in the life of girls globally but we often step over the girls in our own community. Talk about the girls who need education globally because we have assigned, a sort of “read” to whether or not girls are taking full advantage of the opportunities that they have available to them. There is this way in which we cast this girls domestically as not responding, not understanding that they have a great thing, that they have access to education.
We talk about the importance of education globally, without recognizing that girls want education here as well. Even those girls who present the greatest risk and who have engaged in behaviors that have landed them in correctional facilities. They also say that they want to have an education and they understand the value of education. They just don’t know how to get there, because they have not had the type of learning environments that have provided for them at least an opportunity for them to fully express and be engaged as critical thinkers and as learners. These are girls who have extreme histories of victimization and trauma. These are girls who have experienced multiple suspensions and expulsions, many of them from since kindergarten or first grade, so they have a very problematic relationship with educational institutions that they believe have caused them harm. The really only saving grace in their lives are the teachers that they have developed strong relationships with, who they cling on to and believe can be their ticket out. If we don’t emphasize those kinds of relationships and instead move toward just pushing the girls out and not wanting to deal with them, then we really are throwing them away.
GONZALEZ: You know, I’m imagining teachers in certain communities and schools, I think it’s interesting that you draw this comparison between girls in the U.S. and girls globally, because I do see that exact same thing. It’s almost the assumption that in the U.S., any girl should know better. She should know how to act in school. There’s this assigning of this sort of, “She’s deliberately trying to make trouble for herself.”
MORRIS: That’s exactly why I spend so much time in the book talking about the multiple oppressions that black girls experience from the moment they play patty cake. These are things that most people may not understand, that there is a deep seated historical trauma among many girls that goes undiscussed nationally. When we talk about the behaviors or we present this sort of very limited understanding of black feminine expressions or we read these expressions as hostile, or violent or aggressive, or combative or defiant, when these are just expressions of their own critical thinking and engagement strategies that they have used successfully to circumvent poverty and to challenge the multiple racial, gender and socioeconomic oppressions that they are dealing with in their communities that are often rendered secondary to the oppressions experienced by their male counterparts. We sort of set up a trap for these girls, and I just wanted to really peel back a little bit and help us understand some of these behaviors and how we might begin to adequately respond to understanding what girls need. And working with girls to help them articulate what they need. I believe our girls, regardless of racial or ethnic groups, people know what they want, they just often don’t feel engaged enough to share that, or they don’t trust the adults in their lives enough to share it in a meaningful way. When teachers break through that barrier, it’s lifesaving.
GONZALEZ: How do they break through this barrier? I’m imagining some of the girls that I’ve worked with and some of the teachers that I’ve worked with. And I spent three years working in a greater DC area, there was that perfect blend right there. Teachers who have grown up in suburban Maryland, middle class, white people, and then they have these girls who have this, what you’ve been talking about, sort of aggression you describe a lot as the infamous “black girl attitude.” A lot of these teachers only interpret it in one way. One of the things that I loved that you wrote about in the book – I’m going to read it: “Over the years, I’ve come to see how the expressive nature of black girls has been both a blessing and a curse. Educational policies and practices that politicize dress or hair that undermine or forego learning in favor of hyper-punitive disciplinary actions or then implicitly grant black girls permission to fail, all penalize characteristics and modes of being that could instead be built on and shaped into healthy tools for success.” The way I read that, and there are like three or four places that I saw that same idea of this attitude and this tendency to speak up for yourself and not cower and not just be a good little girl and keep your hands folded, these could be assets that we could help them develop them into assets, instead of punishing them. Let’s talk about that attitude. How should teachers respond to this?
MORRIS: It’s interesting, because in the same way that we see that playing out, this way in which we negatively respond to a perceived attitude of black girls, we also know that black girls are less likely than their white counterparts to participate in sports, and they are less likely than their white counterparts to engage in a leadership position on campus. My argument is really that girls are leading. The girls that I engage and who I interviewed and engage in the focus group for this book even, they are leaders. They were leading something.
There was one girl that I talked to, she had been suspended and she talked to us what she does when she’s suspended and she said “Well, we just meet up for a fight. Because the fight is going to happen either way.” I said, “Well, talk to me about that process.” And she said “Well, it takes all day to organize a fight. You have to get on the phone, you have to call, to organize where you’re going to meet, you have to dress, you got to find the things you are going to wear,” and she’s laying us this entire strategy for a fight. I stopped her at the end and I said, “OK, you don’t see your own organizing skills? You don’t see this?” She just kind of looked at me like, “Well, no-one’s talked to me about that.” She’s like, “I know how to do these things, but this is how I am going to exercise it. I’m going to lead this fight. And we’re going to win.” No one had intervened to show her how those very same skills could have been applied to the development of an amazing project. She could have been engaged in social justice activities, she had a very strong gender and race analysis once we started talking, that with some cultivation, she could have been channeling her energy in a different way were someone to see that in her, rather than defiance, and remove her from the school.
I argue that there are opportunities for us if we take the time and really engage with empathy. I keep using this term, because Stanford University just produced this study about how differential educator attitudes really do have an impact on student success. And that the educators that engage with empathy, which is sort of our old school way of understanding, responding to children in need and understanding that children possess this capacity to grow and learn and respond, produces more positive outcome than punitive response. To some of us it’s like “duh.” At the same time, our structures of learning, and our institutions have so emphasized a removal of a child from school that we don’t think about that any more. We say, “If I had time, maybe,” or, “I’m just so fed up, I don’t have the energy for this,” and I get that teachers are dealing with a lot. But I also think that what needs to happen is for there to be a much more rigorous engagement of our own biases, both implicit and explicit. I talk a lot about implicit bias. But there is also explicit bias. Some of the ways in which we say, “I’m done. That kid is bad. I’m out of here.” And the way that we do place a unique demand on educators to respond.
I think there also has to be an equal investment in preparing educators to be those first responders as they are. What also needs to happen in our structures of developing professional development opportunities or especially with educators that are working with populations that do tend to exhibit greater symptoms of trauma and victimization, is to have some discussions and training on implicit bias, to develop some decision making tools that can help teachers better understand how to lead and respond to behaviors. Also to also talk then about developing curriculum that critically engage some of these populations, because sometimes it’s not just about how you’re reading behaviors, but kids are checking out if they don’t feel themselves represented in the material. Or if they feel that this is not connected to their career or life objectives.
It’s really about centering education in a way that can help them understand who they will ultimately be and we say we want to do that, but we in the last several years place such an emphasis on one measure of student performance, testing, and not provided them with the kind of investment and engagement that allows for the level of critical thinking to be explored, and for their real voice to be developed as co-constructors of safety and of knowledge and scholarship in their communities and in their classroom communities in particular. What we get instead are investments from these kids, and I’ve seen this among the girls, in constructing social environments in the school that can help them articulate and exercise power. It becomes a power struggle dynamic that can really lead to negative repercussions, and I just really believe that if educators are really focused from day one on helping their students and working with the students to co-construct what they need in the classroom to be present, and how they are going to work together around systems of accountability, that when you work with kids to develop those agreements, they are more likely to be accountable to them. Then if we establish them ahead of time, have them on the wall and say, “These are my rules, this is what you’ll follow.”
Co-Constructing with Students
GONZALEZ: From the beginning, that would just look like, “Let’s talk about what kind of environment we want to have in this room, what are our expectations for each other, how should we response when somebody goes outside of those expectations.” You use the word co-construct a lot.
MORRIS: I say, “What do you need to be present?” I ask these questions even among the grade students that I’ve worked with. We ask these questions all the time in the pile of educational program that we’re running. It’s just – what do you need to be present today? What do you need from me? This is what I need from you. So, there’s some kind of agreement around, “OK, can we do this today? Let’s do it today.” It’s also a recognition that, particularly when you have children who are experiencing trauma, and developing – that’s the buzzword nowadays: trauma informed care, trauma informed classrooms – is to really think about what we need to do to facilitate healing, and how we engage with each other to produce the environment that allows for that type of consciousness to rule, rather than a punitive consequence-driven environment. It’s a shift in our consciousness and in our approach, a shift in how we develop expectations. But the programs that I have seen most effective and engaging and sustaining, the kind of student accountability that we need in order to move forward with lessons, are those that have been co-constructed with the individuals that we are trying to keep safe.
GONZALEZ: How did those end up looking different, if you can just give me an example of a rule that a teacher would make herself versus how would a standard be co-constructed with students? How would it look different to deal with the same problem?
MORRIS: A couple of examples. With an older group of girls, there are some agreements that one might make and a teacher might say, “Everybody speak with respect and maybe one at a time.” That’s how we might place it. I saw a program where girls were essentially saying the same thing, but it was slightly different. What they said was, “Don’t yuck my yum.” It was kind of funny, and I loved this example because, number one, I just like how it was phrased – “Yuck my yum.” The idea there was – if I think something is good, don’t hate on it. Don’t belittle my ideas. Don’t disregard what I’m feeling and what I’m experiencing. It’s yummy to me. I think that this is something that’s worth exploration. Don’t come and step all over it. It was a way in which they kept referring back to it in the classroom just saying, “Don’t forget don’t yuck the yum!” Everybody would laugh and it would be fine and it was partly because it was in their language that it was seen as something acceptable, but it was also a nuanced take on how we begin to define these values like, “Be respectful in the classroom.”
It moves away from us trying to enforce respectability politics, which are more about aligning with norms associated with behaviors. It gets us more into ways to engage with individuals in a way that they feel supported and cared for. And their ideas supported and cared for. That felt like a different kind of exchange to me. That’s an example for older kids. Then there’s another educational program where the teachers in the classroom worked with the students at the very beginning to talk about the development of a village structure. In this village, which was the classroom, they had different players. The kids wanted a king and a queen. They wanted to have rulers, they wanted to have healers, they wanted to have fake leaders, like they just talked about the community and what aspects of that community they had. Someone wasn’t feeling well, the healers would respond and take them to nurse’s office. Or if they wanted to engage in conversation about someone talking out of turn, the people who helped keep peace would say, “Come on, let’s be respectful.” And there was a student buddy system and a student level of accountability, because they believed in the village structure and they had this conversation that was set up for them in a cultural context that they could understand, they were more likely to be responsive.
Also because they felt proud of the role they held in the classroom. So they were engaged together with the teacher in saying, “OK, here’s what I need.” And the teacher has the assistance, because she had a built in community in the classroom to help maintain the accountability among the students. I just think, when we take it away from being a super punishment-driven approach, that we start to expand the scope of how young people begin to take on and interpret and reinterpret what accountability means. That’s what I mean when I say “co-construct”. Work together. Don’t come in and implement. Work with. Be participatory. Engage the voice. Because that is also really about how we develop and build the capacity for empowerment. And recognize too that sometimes students will come up with things that we don’t necessarily like. They will come up with ideas that we don’t agree with, we don’t like. So, we got to establish according to what you’re comfortable as a leader of a classroom, or as the leader of the school where you’re going to draw the line. But be very clear about that at the very beginning, so that there are no surprises. So the yum is not yucked.
GONZALEZ: Right. This whole idea of, “Don’t yuck my yum,” as you said earlier, about this whole attitude problem and how so many of those incidents stem from the girl feeling that she has been told she’s inferior in some way. To have the kids bring that out as a specific sort of infraction, it really articulates this problem of, “Don’t belittle my ideas,” “Don’t tell me that the things that I’m saying are worth less than the things that you’re saying.” I don’t know that the teachers would have ever been able to narrow it down to something that specific. It would just been more, “Just don’t say something mean to somebody that don’t talk out of turn,” or something. The teachers really learning about what the students need.
MORRIS: Yes. We talked about this professional development and most teachers start moaning when you start talking about professional development. It’s really interesting when I engage with teachers, they say, “This is the kind of stuff we actually need. We actually need some greater supports around decision-making in my classroom to be less biased.” Actually need to better understand how to respond to girls who experience trauma. We need to engage teachers in this conversation about what type of professional development they need to be their best selves and best educators. This really is about developing a kind of language, the kind of awareness that can help us all respond to the implicit biases that we’re all living with, but also begin to help us understand how to critically engage in conversations together with parents, together with students, together with the concerned adults who may service proxies for parents where the parents are not well enough to engage or are otherwise unavailable, to really support the learning of that child. That’s one of the reasons why I spend so much time in the appendices, talking about restorative approaches, and really thinking about how we can reframe the paradigm of accountability and engage the girls’ own critique of restorative practices in their own questions about what that means for them in the process.
GONZALEZ: I’m definitely planning on asking you about that. About the restorative justice, about the PBIS, but I want to, for a moment, make sure to talk about the dress codes, because that comes up so many times and I’m just predicting, we haven’t started the book study with my own audience yet, but I can just imagine, as I was reading some of your descriptions of the outfits that some of these girls may come to school with – super low cut shirts, really high shorts, and I can see a lot of teachers sort of bristling at the idea that they should not, that they might interpret it that they should not respond to that in a punitive way. Just talk a little about your feelings about handling dress codes for girls.
MORRIS: I think in many places the enforcement of dress code policies is sexist, and really only about enforcing respectability politics. I say that having had lengthy conversations both with educators and with girls. Black girls in particular, that’s the focus of this book, are triggered by the differential enforcement of dress code policies in a particular way in which these policies have negatively impacted them, and turned them away from school. The narratives that I include and center in the discussion are girls who have shown up in short shorts on a hot day and have watched their white counterparts and Asian counterparts be able to go to school in those very same shorts that they are turned away and sent home for wearing.
There is a particular way in which black female bodies have been policed historically that triggers black girls, when they are told, “You have to go home and change. You cannot wear a tank top, you cannot wear shorts, because your body is more provocative than her body.” We don’t say those words, but when we turn the girl away and we dress code her, and say that that is what is happening, we are doing two things – number one, we’re telling her that how she represents and how her body presents is what is important for how she can learn and also we’re telling her that somehow her body is unacceptable in these clothes while this other girl’s body is just fine in these clothes. At the very least, dress code policies need to be revised, particularly those policies that specifically point out that students cannot arrive in school wearing dreadlocks or braids or afros, which is just blatantly discriminatory against black girls and individuals of African descent who have historically and culturally worn these hairstyles and this is how our hair grows naturally, which is ludicrous. At the very least those policies need to be revised and that language removed.
There is also, again, this question of subjective enforcement and differential enforcement of existing dress codes that turn black girls away from school more so than their white and Asian counterparts. It’s interesting, because even when I talk about black girls – we don’t say this explicitly upfront – but the girls that I include in the book are cis and transgender black girls, black Latina girls, there is this range of girls and ethnicity and experience around gender identity and manifestation that also plays a role in how the dress codes are implemented. Girls who are transitioning and they tend to be coded especially if the adults in the school would like to have them remain presenting as male while they’re transitioning, there are lots of questions about the way in which there needs to be this revision. What I argue is that, again, the dress codes – I don’t personally appreciate them, but to the extent that they exist – I think what has to happen is that the adults need to co-construct with the students some agreeable descriptions and responses. Never do I think a girl should be sent home for coming to school in a shirt that shows her midriff, for example.
I think, instead of penalizing and punishing girls, we should be engaging in conversations with the entire student body about engaging in appropriate behavior and reducing sexism in schools and sexual assault practices in schools. That’s something I spent a little bit of time talking about as well. It’s just never should we punish a girl for being the victim of sexual assault or unwanted touches. A woman and a girl has right to her body. I also think that schools really should stick to develop decision-making tools about how to enforce these policies and I think that these tools need to be developed in partnership with young women, who are in the process of exploring themselves, and they should together determine what might happen. I have seen some schools where they keep a box of extra clothes, where they just say, “That’s not okay for today, put this on.” And that’s fine, I just never feel that it should be used as a grounds to turn a girl away from school. Many girls, if you think about it, the girls who are showing up sometimes, who are at highest risk and who are wearing clothing that might be viewed as provocative, that I as a mother view as provocative, or that I as an educator would view as provocative, sometimes these girls, they engagement in wearing of these clothing is reflective of some internalized behaviors or some externalizing factors associated with their trauma and victimization.
It’s also an important opportunity for us to talk about to how to lead peer-led processes that allow girls to construct discussions and narratives about their own identities and some of the issues that they are facing when they are presenting in certain ways in schools. It is an opportunity for us to think about how to revisit the policy, how to engage in a discussion about a policy with young people and also providing young people with alternative spaces to understand time and place for appropriate dress. We tend to think about schools as a place where we are modeling workplace behaviors, or we want them to look professional, to look a certain way, which we know prepares them to be ready to enter the workforce later on in life. What I have seen is that there are many schools, particularly those that are in low poverty areas, high achieving schools, where there’s not a discussion about what the children wear, but they do offer opportunities to be like occupational field- trip days, or have guest speakers where they say, “This is how I need you to present,” or “This is how you would do this if you are going out for a job,” so that young people understand time and place as opposed to a regulation of their entire bodies and laying the groundwork for their bodies to be policed differentially.
A Different Path: How We Can Do Better
GONZALEZ: Let’s switch to the alternatives now. Instead of doing what we’re doing now in schools, you reference in particular two different – not behavioral management, PBIS is sort of behavioral management system, restorative justice is not, it’s more of a response to conflict – but I know that once a teacher has read through this book, they are going to say, “OK, I got it, but now what do we do instead?” Talk a little bit about those two sorts of recommendations that you have sent us on.
MORRIS: I started this discussion by acknowledging that there are some conversations that need to be held out in community as well as in schools. Before I even go into the PBIS and restorative practice, I would just encourage educators and readers of the book to spend a little time on that chapter where I pick through some of the causes, some of the things that I think need to take place, like “the talk” that needs to happen with girls, or the ways in which parents need to engage…
GONZALEZ: These are like the scripts that you have, basically. Those are wonderful.
MORRIS: Exactly. Then I talk a bit about how we might envision a new structure to engage the learning of black girls, and to facilitate that, and that includes the development of healing informed responses to problematic student behavior, which is where the PBIS and restorative approach comes in, along with some discussions about co-constructing discipline and dress codes and some of those pieces. There is also the healing-informed classrooms and schools. The intention there is to really talk about how there can be emotional counseling available, and that teachers and educators can be a greater part of that process in the lives of girls. But also that schools need to allow for girls to have recess and breaks – there are some schools that don’t have that for children. That’s a critical part of their own learning. That’s all part of a whole facilitating, healing-informed classrooms and schools. There are other examples, I’m just giving a few. Then there is responsive and de-biased learning, which is where we start to talk about how to control for the implicit biases and the development of culturally competent curriculum and the importance of that alongside these other elements as we start to develop responses.
And lastly the college and career pathways, which is really about making sure that there are internships available, or guest speakers they can talk about the relationship between education and their career life objectives. But the PBIS and restorative approaches – I spend time talking about that in appendix, primarily because those are the two leading alternatives that we engage when we are talking about alternatives, particularly to school discipline. Each one has been evaluated and where there is program fidelity, they are effective in curbing the rate of suspensions and the usage of other forms of exclusionary discipline in response to negative student behavior. The PBIS discussion to me is a behavioral modification effort and I think that it has its limitations in the sense that it addresses the student, but it doesn’t address the structures around the student. And so, while we spend a lot of time again talking about behavioral modification, or we spend a lot of time critiquing the child, in many ways that can trigger a child whose behaviors are often misread and it doesn’t address the implicit bias embedded in how we are trying to modify their actions.
GONZALEZ: Let me see if I’m understanding what you just said. If the implicit bias was different in other words, the teachers interpreted a student’s behavior differently, we would probably have fewer cases of disciplinary problems to begin with, because they wouldn’t be coded that way in the teachers.
MORRIS: Yes. And when we seek to modify the behavior, how we are engaging to modify their behavior could trigger them to rebel, if it is feeling like an oppressive reaction to their identity.
GONZALEZ: Let’s go to an example of that, because I get what you’re saying, but I’m afraid somebody listening is going to be like, “What are they saying now?” Let’s take a behavior…
MORRIS: Let’s take a dress code example. A girl has been told multiple times to not show up in a school wearing a hat. Hats are not allowed on school grounds, you must remove your hat. She shows up and she has a test that day and she’s still wearing her hat. She refuses to take the hat off. Instantly she might be seen as defiant and she’s not taking the hat off. Part of her behavioral modification might be for her to say, “Please, allow me to respond in a way that shows my hat.” Because when you talk to her, you might discover that her hair is only partially braided. With black girls, sometime it can take days, up to two days, depending on the style of the hair. If she started braiding on a weekday, which is not advisable, but she might start on Monday and on Tuesday it’s only half done. So, she wears a hat at the top, braids at the back, that’s the only way that it looks presentable, because at the top, no-one is going to see that. You’re not going to get that hat off of her head.
GONZALEZ: She rather be kicked out of school then to take that hat off.
MORRIS: It’s embarrassing and she would not take it off. She’s got her hair partially braided, she says, “I’m not doing it.” The PBIS response around behavioral modification might be to emphasize how she can differently engage and how she might respectfully speak to teachers, how she might not be so combative in her reaction to educators telling her to remove her hat, as opposed to really then sitting with her and understanding that the request for her to remove the hat is actually culturally incompetent. The structure is culturally incompetent, because what it is not acknowledging is that for black girls, the two day process to braid her hair is actually less important – it was more important that she arrived at school for the test. It was more important that she was there in school to learn, than whether or not she had a hat hiding the fact that the top of her hair was not done. We placed such an emphasis on the presentation that we’re in some places losing sight what’s most important here, how is she learning. Is she there, is she engaged. That’s what matters.
I say that having gone to rigorous high schools, where that’s what mattered. We can wear hats, we can wear short shorts, we can wear tank tops, and the question was – did you do the reading and what do you think. It was about the engagement not whether we all looked the part. It’s not about looking the part, that’s not what this educational equity effort is about. It’s about can we engage in the learning and what do you need to be present today. What she needed to be present that day was to be able to wear her hat. She needed the hat. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, what’s the big deal?” and the dismissal of the “big deal” is the piece that is culturally incompetent. Because, that hat’s not coming off.
GONZALEZ: Because I’m thinking like a certain teacher now is thinking if that’s part of our dress code, what does that tell to the other students if I let her to wear the hat? But you’re saying that the hat rule probably shouldn’t have been on the table to begin with.
MORRIS: That’s exactly what I’m saying.
GONZALEZ: If it was co-constructed with the students, the girls would have explained the braiding situation, and they would say, “Look, if you’re in the middle of braiding, we’re going to need to cover a part of our head.”
MORRIS: Exactly. Or if it’s black history month as it was a case a few months ago in North Carolina, a group of girls were threatened with suspension for coming to school wearing geles, which is an African head-wrap. They thought they were arriving at school to celebrate their African heritage and they were threatened with suspension, because it was a violation of the dress code to have anything covering your head. Culturally incompetent. They are going to wear geles, I wear geles. Black girls wrap their heads. They wear scarves. It’s part of their culture. Not understanding that demonstrates the degree to which many of our educational system institutions are not equipped to engage them, and it becomes combative. Because it triggers a historical trauma among black girls that has historically said to them, “Your education is not important.” You have to think about the fact that in many state codes it was illegal for black people to go to school, illegal for black girls to read and learn. That in many of these jurisdictions and these districts that we’re talking about, this is not a far-off thing, not far-off history.
When you get told, “You cannot come to school if you present as a black girl,” or if you present in a way that is consistent with your cultural practices, because that’s what’s most important, not whether or not you’re here to learn. Or whether you want to bring your whole self to the learning which we all know is most effective to actually attaining information. We got to, again, shift our priorities in such a way, that allow for us to really be responsive to the growing diversity of our communities, and not lose sight of the populations that may been born here, may have been born for generations, but still engage in cultural practices that celebrate who they are ethnically.
GONZALEZ: It is interesting – I am thinking, while you were talking, about Muslim girls wearing a hijab. How I’m thinking, more and more schools and educators are getting the education they need to see that as perfectly legitimate. It’s again this global-domestic issue. There are cultural differences right here in our country, with home-grown people that need to get to know and understand at the same exact level.
MORRIS: Exactly. And the extent to which there has constantly been this discussion about a black consciousness, that is perceived as more radical, when the hairs are worn natural, or wearing geles and African head-wraps, that is not widely celebrated and we need to engage in conversations about as well. More African-American girls are embracing their natural hair texture these days and more are rejecting some of the European standards that have required girls to alter the texture of their hair, when they’re re-embracing who they are naturally. They prefer to wear their hair in the natural hairstyle. It comes with some other things. It comes with a greater use of head-scarves. It comes with a greater use of some of the natural components that are viewed as beautiful, and totally appropriate in the classroom. Again, co-constructing these policies allows for that kind of exchange that will reduce the disciplinary actions that are taken when girls need to arrive in such a way.
GONZALEZ: This is the advice we give teachers. For me it’s the number one rule of teaching, is know your students. Get to know them. So many things fall under that blanket. You are talking about it too. You take your time to get to know why is that hat so important to you.
MORRIS: That’s the piece around the restorative practice that I include in the book and the discussions with the restorative approaches professional that I quote pretty extensively in the book, where she’s talking about really when we engage in restorative practices are we elevate the commitment to know our students? That’s when they respond. Call them by name. Know her name. Know how to pronounce her name. Know that this is something that is important to her. Many African and African-American communities still have naming ceremonies, where we talk about the name we are giving. There is great care, even if it’s made up, there is great care given to this name. Saying that appropriately matters. When we think about how that plays out, how girls may be triggered by actions like only calling her out if something negative happens versus making a big noise if she does something great. A lot of girls, particularly African-American girls don’t receive that kind of recognition all the time in schools. So, when it happens, sometimes they are not sure how to receive it, or they have to learn how to receive it, if they are in an environment where they are not the majority of students.
These kinds of principles are really about, and I say this in the book, it’s really about leading with love. It’s really about understanding that these are children, they are not little women, they are children. They are developing, just like your child is developing. They are not different. There is this way in which we, sort of, cast children who are most at risk of getting in contact with the criminal and juvenile legal system as being different kinds of kids. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe they are different. I believe that their experiences have been different and that has shaped their reactions to many things. Again, leading with empathy, leading with love, co-constructing environments, understanding how to control our own implicit biases and really working actively to engage in practices that elevate and center their well-being is critical.
GONZALEZ: That feels like a perfect spot to end. We didn’t touch on the sex-trafficking or anything, but I feel like we covered a whole lot of other most important things. I’m going to be asking my readers also to talk about their own responses to the book in comments. I’ll let you know, if you want to participate in that conversation online, we can do that too. I’m just excited to get this into the hands of lots and lots of teachers and hopefully impact the lives of some girls who don’t even know you have a book about this yet.
MORRIS: I know. I appreciate that, I really do. I included in the epilogue one request from a girl who just asked me to tell the truth. When I think about her, I think about all the other girls whose stories are not usually included in conversations about this topic. When we are talking about education, I may have said it in the book, it may have been edited out, for many of these girls, this was the first time anyone have asked them about their educational journeys.
GONZALEZ: It wasn’t edited out. It’s in there.
MORRIS: Just the simple fact that no-one was really asking them about their education, although they were asking them about their family life, their addiction issues, their sexual exploitation. No-one said, “What’s going on with your school? Tell me your school story.” It’s incredible to me. I appreciate that you are advancing this conversation with educators. I would definitely look to be online with them.
GONZALEZ: That would be great. Thank you so much Monique.
MORRIS: All right. Thank you.
GONZALEZ: For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, go to cultofpedagogy.com/pod and click on Episode 47. Thanks for listening, and have a great day. ♦