TeachLab with Justin Reich

José Luis Vilson

Episode Summary

José Luis Vilson joins Justin Reich to discuss how to connect with your students, what it means to be a teacher of color, and the mission of EduColor, a movement and organization that Vilson co-founded to elevate the voices of public school advocates of color on educational equity and justice.

Episode Notes

José Luis Vilson joins Justin Reich to discuss how to connect with your students, what it means to be a teacher of color, and the mission of EduColor, a movement and organization that Vilson co-founded to elevate the voices of public school advocates of color on educational equity and justice.


About Our Guest: Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a full-time math teacher, writer, speaker, and activist in New York City, NY. He is the author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education. He has spoken about education, math, and race for a number of organizations and publications, including the New York Times, The Guardian, TED, El Diario / La Prensa and The Atlantic. He's a National Board Certified teacher, a Math for America Master Teacher, and the executive director of EduColor, an organization dedicated to race and social justice issues in education.


Additional Resources for Teachers and other Listeners

This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education - Read Jose Vilson’s book published in 2014

https://thejosevilson.com/ - Learn more about Vilson’s work 

https://www.educolor.org/ - Learn more about EDUCOLOR 

No conversation about education without teacher voice | TED-Ed - Check out José Vilson’s presentation for TED-Ed





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Produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley

Edited by Kate Ellis

Recorded and Mixed by Garrett Beazley

Filmed by Daymian Meija


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Episode Transcription

Justin Reich: From the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich. In our first set of episodes, we're focusing on what educators can do to create classrooms where all students feel welcome and where underserved students can thrive.

Jose Vilson: Because it always comes up, "but white teachers this, white teachers that." I'm like, "Yeah, but white teachers can learn from us. White teachers can learn how to build those relationships because we've already gone through it and as adults we now have the language to be able to translate in the best ways possible why our pedagogies work as they work when they do work."

Justin Reich: That's Jose Luis Vilson. Vilson is a middle school math teacher in New York City and the founder of EduColor, an organization devoted to advancing equity and social justice in schools. I interviewed Vilson at the start of the school year. In our last episode, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum talked about how important it is for every single student to feel visible and valued in the classroom. Today, Vilson takes us inside his classroom where he tries to do just that. For instance, Vilson makes a point of learning each student's name within the first week of school.

Jose Vilson: You would be surprised at how many kids think that teachers shouldn't know their names by now. When I call role people are like, "well that's that student." I'm like, "Yes, I know the students already. I know your name so you don't have to." Then they sit back like, "this person knows my name already?" Naming things is a really critical element to all this. Secondly, doing my walk around, not necessarily standing at the board, actually walking around and teaching from the back, teach from the side, trying to whisper into students and say, I like how you did this. Have you considered this? Then I guess the way that I scaffold questions, that doesn't show up on a lesson plan.

Jose Vilson: At this point, I feel there are some things that aren't going to show up and they make me agile. It's also about me building that academic rapport with the students. If I look at a student's work and I'm like, well, I like what you did there, have you considered this? Or, yes, that's great. I may affirm them a little bit and then I'll ask them to share in front of class. You could build that academic relationship by doing those things. Not to mention the other types of things too, like having the understanding of where they come from and then being able to pick up by those social cues and say, okay, I'm going to reply to you in a way that you didn't expect from a teacher to do, but very much what you would expect from somebody from your neighborhood to do. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it's like, you're old Mr. Vilson. I'm like, [crosstalk 00:02:41] or I'll make it uncool and then they'll stop using it.

Justin Reich: It was pretty cool in the '90s, I promise you. One description that I like there in the first couple of weeks is I envision you saying, okay, I've got 47 minutes or 52 minutes or however many minutes your period is, and I'm going to make sure that in that 47 minutes during this first week that I'm looking over the shoulder of each one of the kids in this classroom. That I'm trying to make one personal connection per period for each kid. When I've got some of those kids who seem they're less drawn right away. Those are the kids who I'm going to find, catch them in the act of doing something right. Grab one of those things. That's a really special piece of thinking. Maybe something they wouldn't have recognized as a special piece of thinking and be like, well we're going to highlight this in front of everyone. We're going to pause class for a little bit so that we can all celebrate what this student has done. Then that starts to build that academic rapport.

Justin Reich: You said something about scaffolding questions and that peaked my interest. As you're thinking about the ways that you talk to kids, that you ask questions, what are some of the specific strategies that you turn to build rapport, to get them thinking mathematically, to get them thinking of themselves as mathematicians.

Jose Vilson: The whole point of me asking questions and this is backwards thinking, but try to follow me here, is I'm trying to get it to the point where I seed as much power as possible. I'm trying to let go of it. If my questions at any moment are doing the step by step thing, then that means that that's at a lower rung for me as far as I'm concerned, versus if I can ask some elevating questions, I'm getting where I want to be. Then those higher order questions come from a place of saying, okay, so I have a feeling you've mastered this and I'm going to see if you actually did. That's my three tiers as I'm putting in my mind. Then in the middle of class, I'll say, okay, I know I'm supposed to model this for you, but before I do that, does anyone notice anything?

Jose Vilson: Okay. They'll notice something. How could we build on this? It's a slow build. Then even as I'm modeling, I'm thinking aloud for them about what questions I might ask about what's in front of me. Then there's a point where I'm pretty confident that they don't know that thing that they're supposed to know. For instance, if it's a unit on, and I'm looking at it on the board right now, so don't mind my eyes.

Justin Reich: Yeah. Tell us what you did today.

Jose Vilson: If I'm doing a lesson on reducing fractions, for example, and I know they haven't used the words relatively prime, for instance, that's when I may interject with a direct teaching and actually sum up the thoughts that people had conjured as we had a discussion.

Jose Vilson: That happens after maybe five or six minutes. Then I may go back in and say, okay, let me do that process again. Then they'll pick up on the questions and then that's when they start responding in the way that they ought to. Then I leave them be. That's where the questions come from more than anything. It's hard to give you the set of questions that I'm always going through, because not just...

Justin Reich: That was great. You got three tiers of questions there. There's ones that are guiding people step-by-step. They're ones that are surfacing people's opinions and seeing what they're noticing. The third where you're seeing, can I ask them the question that gets them to put it all together maybe in a way that we haven't gotten there. The question, as I think of that triad, the question that you just described, what do people notice we're seeing here? Is this one of those second tier questions that, okay, I'm going to let you tell me what you're noticing, what you're observing. There's probably some cases where you're, hey, I think you all have figured out something here and I can give you the mathematicians name for it. Or there may be some things like today where it's, you know what, I'm pretty sure you all don't get relatively prime.

Justin Reich: Instead of having us try to derive that from first principles, let me give you that. That's why I'm here to share some of that. You got as close as we could get in the time we had to relatively prime. Some people might say, well Mr. Vilson, why not just tell them from the beginning of the lesson what relativity the prime is? You're saying, no, no, no, because we're not just here to... Because part of a meaningful relationship and ultimately a more efficient classroom is when those kids feel they have a voice, where they feel they have a chance to explore the mysteries of math, not as... And part of it of course is as received from above, but part of it is, no we can discover this. What's great about that question, what do you notice is we all have intuitions. Anyone can see some things and start putting patterns together and start building that mathematical noticing.

Justin Reich: Are there other questions or other moves that you were using today as you reflect back on your day that you think, you know what, these are the things I wasn't doing five or six years ago or ten years ago when I started, but they've become more central to my practice now as I've grown into your teaching.

Jose Vilson: Well, it's interesting you mentioned that. We recently got introduced to some co-teaching, guess, frameworks if you will. I'm doing that with a newer teacher. We were struggling in the beginning as to what our routine was going to be. Then I finally said, you know what, all right, so I think it's best for me to take the lead because you're relatively new, but you're going to deliver whatever lesson it is. In turn I'm also going to be that person that assists the kids wherever there, I see any gaps. There was a point where we were subtracting and adding a digit, I guess a decimal numbers. The students would generally focus on the newer teacher and they were looking directly at him. Then I'm telling the new teacher, on the lesson plan, to go ahead and ask the students step by step how you actually subtract or add those numbers.

Jose Vilson: Then as he's asking, on the right side of the board, I'm actually writing down the steps that they actually saying out loud. In that way we were able to co-teach. Then once they finished that problem, when I moved away, they noticed that there was a list of five steps for them to do. For the kids who knew what they were doing, then they didn't have to worry as much about that. The kids who were lost as to how their approach was, they had a list right there on the right hand side. We were both on the board, it so happened that as I'm on the board, they're not paying attention to me because, yes, I'm big, but I can be quiet while the teacher who's supposed to be teaching at the moment does what he's supposed to be doing. I found that to be a pretty powerful instructional move.

Jose Vilson: Then once we start the classwork, then I can whip around and say, hey, did you notice what we just wrote over there? Let's take that step by step. What does that look like versus the kids who already got it. Then they don't have to worry as much. I found that pretty powerful today.

Justin Reich: Yeah. Yeah. That's cool. Co-teaching is something that's new for you this year?

Jose Vilson: It is new. In previous times the co-teacher was usually hanging out in the back. I'll be frank, whatever, because I'm the math teacher. I'm supposed to know the math and the teacher who's in the back is usually a teacher who's labeled the special ed teacher. Then they go around and they help kids who are labeled, et cetera, et cetera. This year I was, no. You have to do something better because A, we're both professionals. Then B, we can affect more kids if more adults are interacting with every single child instead of trying to find the labels for the kids, whoever. Because those labels, for me, have often meant nothing except everybody has a special need. Some people get papers for it, some people don't. That's helped me out tremendously as far as my mindset when I'm walking around the classroom.

Justin Reich: Yep. Is being attentive to how... Yeah, all of us on any given day have different learning requirements, have different... You come in today hungry, you come into to the day mad. Those are deficits too. Figuring out what each kids needs to thrive that day is one of the great challenges of teaching. As teachers who are coming in that don't bring the same neighborhood familiarity, that don't bring the same cultural competence that you bring. What things do you, would, if you get the chance to do you or would you ask them to work on? For people who are coming into a new neighborhood trying to relate to students but not having the same set of resources that you have being from a few miles away, being from the same borough, what advice do you give to them?

Jose Vilson: The easy thing is to say, go to the corner store and hang out. Take a whiff of what it feels to be that child. The second easiest thing is to actually ask the kids, go ahead and ask them. Sometimes they're not going to do it in the very polite and kind ways that I guess there's that nomenclature, well, you have to have that accountable talk. Sometimes accountable talk in the hood means we're going to make sure you're telling the truth about our experiences. It's not always going to come out as nice as you want, but at least it's honest. I think for me too, what I found real nice is being able to sit there and listen, not just to the people who you consider, at the teacher or the principal, but also the custodians, the guidance counselors, the school staff, the professionals, the lunch folks, whoever it is that you feel you have access to.

Jose Vilson: Those dialogues can be really powerful, I thought. For me, I'm fortunate because I did grow up in the same neighborhoods. For me it was very much, okay, so you're from this background, great. I have a similar background. Let's talk about what that looks like. What do you eat? Where do you hang out? Then low and behold, they start revealing. They become super honest very quickly. Somebody who's coming from a different background though, I think there's something to be said for being your most authentic self. Not trying to take too much of whatever the culture is. I come in with my own set of cultures and whatever I can learn from you, that'd be great, but then whoever you feel I could step back, that'd be fine too.

Jose Vilson: I guess people call that intellectual humility, but I guess I'm also calling it cultural humility. Understanding that maybe you're, just because you're coming from a culture that perhaps is more successful, more affluent, whatever have you, does not mean that your culture is better. It's just different. There's different nuances that are at play. What I find with the culture of my school, for instance, that they're very happy with the culture that they have. Super, super proud of their culture and it's important to respect that and help folks along as much as you can.

Justin Reich: You have made not only teaching your career, but advocacy for teachers, your career. I think just this past week you were speaking to the Congressional Black Caucus, you're the co-founder of EduColor. What got you into teacher advocacy and what sustains you in that work?

Jose Vilson: Gosh, I mean there's any number of different branches that can go into with that.

Jose Vilson: I think when it comes to my advocacy work, I think it's an extension of any number of things that I saw, whether it be the influx of activism that happened in the sixties and seventies as per the Young Lords and being around I guess the new Eureka and that element was so present in the lower East side and then growing up, especially, I would say in college, finding finally some texts and experiences that mirrored mine and finally getting and accumulating any number of languages that speak to my experience in this country, really allowed me to become an activist. Actually activism was probably the lens by which I started teaching because when I was an education chair, which at the time was really like the president of the Latino organization on campus at Syracuse University, I was doing any number of teachings and workshops, so I was already priming for teaching even though I didn't even know I was going to be a teacher really until a little later on.

Jose Vilson: I think there's something to be said for having a teacher who already has a sociopolitical mindset around how the work ought to go. Akin to what you see with Geneva Gay's work, Gloria Ladson Billings, folks like that who say that it's not enough to be culturally competent and academically have high expectations, but its good for us to have a socio political orientation around assuring that children have high expectations and that they are, I guess, well rounded in the academics that they have. All of it is interconnected in that way. For me, coming into this profession, I found myself wanting to be a teacher. I wanted to do it more than the couple of years that I was mandated to do so. Asked for my contract with the NYC teaching fellows and then EduColor really came about because I started for, I guess I would call it luck, but a lot of it is really hard work.

Jose Vilson: Through the blogging that I did and being one of the few education bloggers at the time who was intersecting politics, race and education, Everybody started saying, okay, this is a voice that we can try to help. When I got into all these rooms, I noticed that some of these issues weren't really coming to the floor when it came to race, especially from a perspective of person of color, especially from a black man such as myself, EduColor came through that. There wasn't this... I want to say it's diverged from, I think it's because it came from knowing that there's a left, quote unquote, and there's a right in this country, but then there's any number of different lanes where people are, yeah, but you need to start talking about this race issue. Even before it became hot. Even before Black Lives Matter became this thing. [crosstalk 00:16:53]

Justin Reich: In fact before Black Lives Matter or certainly in, if you were looking at education, blogging, education online discourse 10 or 15 years ago, people who brought political perspectives into discussions of math, into discussions of history teaching, into discussion of and say, wait, whoa. I want to follow these people because I want to hear about better math teaching. What does politics have to do with this? What does race have to do with this? It's more common now and it's certainly the still the case hat people will push back on wanting to hear about the intersection between a rigorous academic instruction and social justice instructional change. Yeah, hard work to do 10 or 15 years ago. What is EduColor? What do you feel EduColor is working towards now? What are the conversations that you're hoping to be having with other educators online? Or what are the conversations you're hoping to be fostering?

Jose Vilson: Well for me, I really feel like, and you mentioned this too, is it's not that EduColor is the first to do it. Any number of people we consider ourselves a transcendent organization where we're trying to learn from the histories of people who have been teaching since the very first time that somebody taught somebody else how to read in spite of laws not allowing the enslaved to actually read. That's how deep we're thinking about this work. What it looks like in the 21st century. For me, I feel we're trying to get to a point where we have a concrete solidified organization that will actually be a home to that movement.

Jose Vilson: The EduColor movement, thankfully, has done the work. It's been out there in a really positive way and there's any number of organizations now that aspire to that EduColor type of work. I'm glad to have coined that term specifically for that work. Then there's the actual organization where it's, well, we probably need to solidify this because if there is a history written about it, we ought to be included in the work that we actually did in the 21st century and find ways to encapsulate that for generations forthcoming.

Justin Reich: In your view, what should those generations forthcoming be talking about? What are the conversations that teachers aren't having enough of now? What are the ways that you're hoping to push people's thinking?

Jose Vilson: Wow. There's any number of things.

Jose Vilson: I think it has to, it starts with what does it look like for an educator of color to come into a space that is often resistant to that person's being in that system? I don't think it's any one person. I think it's any number of systemic issues and every time that we make lists about why teachers leave, for example, we have to look at some of these other lists, why is it that teachers of color are leaving or why is it that teachers of color are staying? Any number of these little matrices that we're not analyzing and not publicizing, well, we need to start really looking at, because I don't think that's going to be a problem that we solve in the next 10 years even, until we really get a good discussion going on around it. Then a set of policies that allow for that conversation to happen.

Jose Vilson: For example, there's been conversations about why teachers of color leave even though they're coming in at the fastest rates that's ever been recorded. I guess what I would say is education reform in the last 10 to 12 years has made it difficult for teachers of color to stay because we're often in the spaces that get shut down, taken over, or charterized if you will, privatized, if you will. There's any number of things that happen to schools that are serving children of color, especially black children in a way that does not happen to schools that predominantly serve white children in this country. Not to say that it's a perfect thing, it's not 100%, but it is more likely that that happens. Those are systemic issues that we do need to find a way to resolve, especially as the students of color are now the majority in the student population for public schools. Whereas that's not happening with the staff of color.

Justin Reich: You described particular reasons why teachers of color leave and particular reasons why teachers of color stay. One of the things you described is that if teachers of color are predominantly serving the most vulnerable students, then they're going to be working in schools that are going to be most likely to be targeted by the system, that are to be closed, and those things. What are the other special burdens or special opportunities or special joys that teachers of color have in working in their schools and working in their classrooms? That perhaps white teachers wouldn't be as conscious of as they're making these lists?

Jose Vilson: There's two things because there's obviously any number of joys that I get, even when I'm going through a day like today where it's I just finished class.

Jose Vilson: Of course I'm thinking about all the kids and all the things that are going on today. I would say the first thing is that if you pick up on what Lisa Delpit had talked about in other people's children, you'll notice that the person who is of color in that book and when she first starts the book is, trying to build relationships with students. Now that relationships are in vouge, it feels weird because it's a practice that I feel so many communities have already been talking about for decades, if not centuries, that we want to learn from people we trust. That's a special joy for us because so many of us actually grew up in neighborhoods like the ones that we serve. If not, we are already learning in the spaces that we serve. Some of the teachers who are in this building have actually learned at this school, they're graduates of the school and then they went to the high schools that the kids may be going to and aspire to.

Jose Vilson: Same thing with the colleges. Those are special joys to be contributing to the legacy of educational experiences for our kids. I think secondly, there's something to be said for even knowing that you have found a way to contribute back to the communities from which you came. Being able to say, hey, I believe I can do it. I believe you can do it. Then having somebody who not only believes it, is an example of it. That mirror effect is so critical. Those are two big things. They're not and again, because it always comes up, but white teachers this, white teachers that, I'm like, yeah, but white teachers can learn from us. White teachers can learn how to build those relationships because we've already gone through it and as adults we now have the language to be able to translate in the best ways possible. Why our pedagogies work as they work one when they do work.

Justin Reich: One thing that I'm taking away from this conversation is, or what I feel I'm hearing in your descriptions is how much value you place on everyone in that school building. That you're looking around and being, every single person here is a resource. I'm a resource, my fellow teachers are resources, the paraprofessionals, the special ed teachers, my students, my students who would be shown by tests to be the strongest mathematical students. The students who wouldn't be shown by tests to be the strongest mathematical students. Each person in this building is a resource that we can be pulling on to create a school community, which is both academically rich and vibrant but also nurturing to us as people and as a community. That seems like something really powerful to take away from our conversation.

Jose Vilson: Absolutely. Absolutely. Every single body, regardless of how much value we believe as a society places on them, they all end up being an integral part of what a community looks like.

Justin Reich: That's beautiful. Well, Jose Vilson, thanks so much for spending some time talking with us at the end of a long and hard day. It's a real privilege to get to hear some of these nuggets right from your classroom and I wish you the best of luck in the year ahead.

Jose Vilson: Appreciate it sir. Talk to you soon.

Justin Reich: That was Jose Vilson, a middle school math teacher in New York City and the executive director of EduColor, an organization dedicated to race and social justice issues in education. Vilson is also the author of This is Not a Test, a new narrative on race, class, and the future of education.

Justin Reich: I'm Justin Reich.

Justin Reich: You've been listening to TeachLab from the teaching systems lab at MIT. You can find more resources from Jose Vilson at our website, teachlabpodcast.com, that's teachlabpodcast.com. You can find even more resources at teachlabpodcast.com, you can enroll in our upcoming free online course on edX becoming a more equitable educator. You'll find links to our YouTube channel for the teaching systems lab where you'll find the full video interview from this episode and even more video content from our online courses. All of our work is licensed under creative commons and we encourage you to use it and share it.

Next week, Ilana Horn, professor of math education at Vanderbilt University and an expert on teachers and math learning. Lonnie is a big advocate for asset framing, thinking about the strengths that our students bring to the classroom every day.

This episode was produced by Amiee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley. It was edited by Kate Ellis, recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley and filmed by Daymian Meija.