It's Not Just About the Test: A Teacher Talks About the Classroom

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Math teacher Jose Vilson, who is Dominican and Haitian, believes teachers should pay more attention to their students' cultural backgrounds

Jose Luis Vilson has been blogging for years about his experiences in the classroom and writing poetry. Now, the 32-year-old math teacher at an Inwood middle school has written a book, "This is Not a Test" (Haymarket Books). Vilson discussed his inspirations, and his hopes for changing education, with Schoolbook. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

What was the inspiration for the book and its title?

It can be looked at from a bunch of different lenses, which is what I wanted. For educators, I thought it was sort of a rallying call to try to get more teacher stories out there about the things that happen in their own classrooms from a personal perspective, looking from the inside and working its way out. It's far too often where educators are limited in terms of getting the chance to speak up about education policy and how it affects their classrooms.

You talk about how you are "pro-whole child rather than anti-testing." What is it you felt teachers weren't hearing enough of during the No Child Left Behind era?

These tests very much, like, you have to drive all the instruction towards that test. A lot of folks were even saying, "Yeah, we could teach to the test," but we're just starting to call it that. Even though they were doing test prep all throughout the year and trying to get kids ready for the test. I'm sure it was even more exacerbated in schools where there is the threat of being shut down every semester or so.

In terms of my teaching, I was felt like, "Oh snap, we can do way better than this. I just don't know how." And that's where my learning came from. How do we get past this culture of it's all about that test at the end of the year, for two- or three-hour tests that we have to take?

You talk about the inner racial turmoil you felt in your mostly white Catholic high school and growing up on the Lower East Side. Is there an element teachers are missing in terms of getting who their kids are?

Absolutely. I think there's a lot of folks who still do believe in this idea of post-racial America, which we've seen in recent weeks hasn't always been true. I think often teachers haven't been respected as to their own personal experience and what they bring into the classroom in order to truly effect change. If your students are a different culture than you are, being colorblind isn't an option anymore. I think our students are becoming more adept at talking about race and class because they have things like the Internet and things that are happening all around them that suggest otherwise.

So instead of working through this colorblind lens where we're saying, "Oh, I don't really think about race and I'm all about my teaching," we should say "I embrace these differences, and I think we can do better as a whole society if I fully understand how I'm coming to this situation that I'm in right now."

Your school, I.S. 52, didn't do well on this year's state tests. Only 11.5 percent of the students were proficient in math, compared to 7.5 percent last year. What do you think of those scores?

It's multifaceted. On the one hand, as an educator I don't want to give too much credence to these tests. But as an urban educator in New York City who is going to be evaluated on these exams, I would really hope to have students who do better, so we don't have to deal with that nonsense anyway.

Where do you stand on the Common Core? I couldn't tell.

Good, I'm glad!

Do you think this stuff can work if the teachers are trained and the kids? Do you think they'll be more prepared for high school and college?

If you ask me, maybe, maybe not. I think that's the problem. We don't have a good sense of what's happening with the Common Core itself. Because of where it came from, a few professors came together, and other individuals came in and developed the Common Core. Instead of trying to find more individuals perhaps, perhaps more teachers and some parents as well. But do I think it's going to make us more college and career ready? Perhaps, perhaps not. I think that has a lot to do with our pedagogy.

You talk about teacher voice. How do you feel about the climate that we are in right now?

 I think that when you have a sense of turmoil happening, there is a good opportunity for people to come together as experts, or as the adults in the room, and actually come together and have a better conversation around what's happening with education.

As you probably read, right, I do have a sense of hope. If I don't hope, I can't do this job as a teacher.