Cristina, Education Ph.D. Candidate, CA
Cristina is a doctoral candidate in the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on how students learn what it means to be American in an era of growing national diversity. She was interviewed by her friend, Erin.
Tell me about a kid in your life who you care about and what you want for them for their adult lives.
It's hard for me to pick just one! The first one who comes to mind is my good friend's daughter, Lilia, who I consider to be my niece. She's still a toddler. And the other kid I would choose i s a girl named Raquel, who I know from my research work in schools. Do I have to choose just one? I wonder about whether I would want different things for them.
Tell me about both!
Okay, so Lilia, as you know, is just a little thing. I want so many things for her that she hasn’t even experienced yet. The biggest things are that I want her to show kindness - because kindness and compassion makes the world better - and I want her to be curious, and courageous, and to explore all the many things this world has to offer. I want her to challenge herself and to enjoy the merits of hard work. And I want her to love herself as she is, even with her imperfections.
I love her very much. She’s so young I feel like you can shape more of her experience because she’s still little. Versus the situation with Raquel, who I want many things for too, but honestly it’s more aspirational and hope for her because I don’t play as big of a role in her life - and because she’s older and has different experiences.
Raquel is the daughter of immigrants from Honduras. She was born in the U.S. but had gone back to Honduras a few times. She is very sassy and fun. And, I think struggling with the weight of the perceptions of others of her. For instance, I watched as the 8th grade teacher, when the kids put up signs with their fingers in the class photo I took, was really concerned they were gang signs. I was like “I don’t think they are gang signs – I’ve talked with these kids and know them”… but her perception was that they might be and she addressed the whole class to ask about it. Raquel and some of the other kids - all minority students - were horrified and like “they’re not gang signs!” They were horrified someone would think they were part of gangs.
That's the kind of thing I'm talking about - it goes with perceptions of immigrants or children in that community, but is really off base. Raquel is really bright and we connected well. She wanted to know about college, and she wanted to do right by people and to do well in school, but she was struggling with how to do that and how to be.
You said you might want something different for them?
I want many of the same things for them. The things I want for Raquel are in addition to the things I want for Lilia. For instance, I want her to be equipped to handle the way other people will see her and to break down those negative images other people might have of her so that she can love herself for who she is. But her struggle is likely to be much greater for her than for Lilia.
Because of how she’s perceived by society. She comes from a poor background and a rough neighborhood and people will assume that she’s not able to be college graduate. I don’t even necessarily know that she wants that for herself, but she will struggle more with people’s low expectations of her than Lilia will. So, I want the same things for them, but I want Raquel to have voices in her life that tell her that she can do this and she can do what she wants to do because other voices in the world will be much more under-cutting for her. I know Lilia will already have that and I wish it for Raquel too.
What do you think the role is of school in getting them what you want for them?
I feel like schools currently have a very narrow view of what it means to be successful and I see the kind of damage that can do to kids and the kind of pressure it puts on students. And I see then the feelings of failure for kids who feel like they can’t meet those standards, or don’t want to meet those expectations or fit in that model of going to college, graduating and becoming a professional. I do think school has a very narrow view of that.
At present, in my life and work right now, the things I’m working the most to change about schools is how they teach people to be inclusive and in shaping the ideas of what it means to be a community. I believe those lessons carry outside of the classroom into the world – students carry it into how they interact with other people, how they view difference and accept others and themselves. That’s a big piece of what I’m personally trying to tackle in my own work.
Can you say more about that?
I want to see less fear of difference. Specifically, in our country, there’s still a lot of fear around linguistic differences from English, and around racial differences. We still have a very narrow view of what it means to be American - and, how that plays out in schools is significant because it means many people are left out of that model. They feel they’re left out of schools and that schools aren’t meant to serve them anyway.
What I’d like to see more of is viewing diversity as an asset, and for our schooling system to do things to cultivate collaboration instead of competition and fear. Up here (in Northern California) the need for this has been particularly noticeable. Learning about difference is one of the ways we can address the fear because a lot of fear is not knowing or not understanding or not having exposure to difference. I think that where communities are more homogenous there’s an even greater need to teach kids about people of different backgrounds and to cultivate an attitude of inclusion and acceptance. I don’t want to see what I’m seeing now where the answer is to put up walls, to be suspicious, to feel threatened by people talking in another language in public because they think they’re talking about them. Seriously? Why do people think they’re talking about them?
So what’s school’s role for Lilia and Raquel in getting them to their future idealized lives?
I want them to feel proud of who they are and I feel schools can play a huge role in helping them to cultivate that pride by showing them aspects of themselves and their identity reflected in their learning. Apart form the belonging piece, in terms of what I said about being curious, courageous, and creative – these are not often cultivated enough in schools because of all the constraints around testing and the ways we measure success and just the way schools are set up. Honestly testing has just f’d everything up. How we measure success and how schools are doesn’t allow enough for creativity and making mistakes. We learn from “failures” – things not going well! It's through these experiences we can help students build resilience and to learn to try again. What happens now is you get positioned - you’re a good student, middle student, or bad student - and then that's it, they way kids get positioned has long-term outcomes.
Do you feel school is going to play the role it should in their lives? The role you think it should play – will it do that for them?
I think the chances of it playing that role are higher for Lilia than they are for Raquel. For me, now really seeing differences between schools I realize how much it matters what school they’re at. Lilia is in a more privileged position in that she has parents who know a lot about education and will consciously pick schools. Clara (her mother and my friend) and I have very similar views about what we want and we’ve talked about how she doesn’t want the crazy testing regime either. I think they’ll be more mindful about picking a school that’s more whole child focused. And whereas I don’t think Raquel will have that privilege. I don’t think she’ll have as much of a choice for where she goes to school. I know she won’t. She’s in high school. She gets what she gets. With Lilia I feel like there’s so much that could happen because she’s so young. Raquel is nearing the end of her K-12 experience and her perspectives and what she views as education and success have probably already been planted and have been reinforced in many public schools in the country around testing.