This Is Not a Test

The interview with the José Vilson

this-is-not-a-test-cover-3bEduShyster: Your new book, This is Not a Test, has as its subtitle *a new narrative on race, class and education.* I inhaled the book over the course of a weekend, but I couldn’t figure out what the new narrative was. And then it finally dawned on me that you, José Luis Vilson, are the new narrative.

José Vilson: That would be it. There’s a lack of nuance in all facets of what we talk about when we talk about education. So I took a different approach. I tried to address education through narrative and stories, which I think is way more powerful than just coming out and saying *I don’t like this crap.*

ES: At the heart of the book is your critique of an approach to education that overemphasizes standardized testing and what that means, particularly for children of color who had a different, unjust kind of education long before the current brand of reform came down. But let’s just say that people who are expecting a standard take on standardized testing are in for something of a surprise.

josesmileprofileJV: It needed to be said, and I think it needed to be said in a particular way. I tried to find a way to tell this story that wouldn’t end up turning everybody off, but also didn’t sound like anybody else. Sonia Sanchez is one of the people who is always in my ear when I’m writing, saying: *New words. We need new words and new ways of saying things. There’s already been a Martin, there’s already been a Malcolm. We need new voices. Their time was their time and our time is our time.* 

ES: Speaking of new words, you used one I’d never heard before: tenebrous.

JV: I love dictionaries and I’d been saving that word. I thought, you know, if I ever write a book, I’m going to use the word *tenebrous.* And when it came up I was like *yes*!

ES: You’re not going to tell us what it means, are you.

JV: Nope. Folks will just have to buy the book.

life and timesES: This Is Not a Test is full of surprises—not just about your personal story—but the way the narrative unfolds. You manage to make even a grim systemic analysis feel uplifting.

JV: That’s pretty much how I roll. The way I look at it, there’s really no choice. Educators need, NEED to have some kind of hope because otherwise we’re powerless. Once we start to feel less hopeful, that fire we start out with gets extinguished. I do have pessimism and skepticism as drivers but I always have optimism right next to me because I’m always hoping things will get better. Our kids are our driving force. If you don’t have the kids you teach in mind, then why be hopeful? If you’re teaching as a career, than optimism is the way to go.

ES: One of your main points is that we can’t just be angry and rail against what’s wrong with the state of public education and the misguided effort to reform it. We have to be thinking about what our vision of reform is.

book-launch-285-4102JV: It’s critical. We can’t have an anti-everything movement. We can’t just be about deconstructing a house—we have to build a better one. And our house has to be more inclusive of those on the margins—that’s always my thing. In my heart of hearts, I believe that there are a good number of us who believe in that vision. But unfortunately, I also see that there is a certain set of us who either don’t think we need a plan, or don’t want a plan or think the good old days were good enough. I have news for those people. The good old days weren’t that good for a lot of us and they aren’t going to be good for any of us going forward if we don’t put forward some kind of positive vision. 

ES: Because your story doesn’t go in a straight line it ends up in some unpredictable places. Your rejection by Teach for America, for example, which opens part II of the book,  ends up not being a particularly important part of your narrative.

JV: Good. Can you imagine if it was?

ES: The other story I’m still thinking about is how you got to college with a clear destination in mind—computer science—and quickly discovered that it wasn’t for you. You’re also somewhat skeptical of today’s STEM mania. Is there a connection between the two?

josevilsonJV: I wish I’d had better classes before I went into computer science. I felt very unprepared. I knew how to type but that was about it. Everybody was way ahead of me when it came to learning code. In some ways I want a little more emphasis on computing skills, especially for kids who have that set of interests, because it opens doors. At the same time, do we really want to drive our people towards whatever the economy dictates currently? Is that our mission, to create better workers? Or do we want to create better people? That’s really what I’m starting to think about now: how do we help our students become more creative and more thoughtful? 

ES: You did ultimately graduate with a BS though.

JV: Yes, and some say it was BS.

ES: You talk really candidly about the issue of diversity among teachers in your chapter *It’s Not About a Salary.* I want to share a passage because I’m still thinking about it.

I like that so many white people care about the plight of Black and Latino students that they’re open to working in the neighborhoods they’re in. Many of my white teachers were excellent. I get that there needs to be a diversity of experience; our students have to survive in the same world as everyone else. A small part of me also thinks: Who better to teach urban youth the tools needed to survive in a predominantly white country than…white people?

JV: It’s important for us to consider that our world is a lot more diverse than the schools we currently have. But my point was that there’s a difference between diversity and true educational justice. If all we do is try to hire more teachers of color, the percentages increase but we still have the same power structure and we haven’t changed the conditions. Whereas if we actually focus on trying to create better schools, which should be our goal, and bring in more voices of students and parents, and make people feel more involved in the educational experience, I think we’d see a whole lot more people of color come into the fold. The reality today is that almost as quickly as you try to bring in people of color, they leave because the working conditions are so poor. As long as our schools have poor working conditions than you are likely to lose the very talent that you seek. Often time this leaves the people who, for better or worse, may not be passionate about the job or they’re only there for a few years before moving onto a profession that’s less stressful. 

ES: You’re also the writer of a very popular blog, The José Vilson, which is famous (infamous?) for being blocked by the New York City Department of Education. What’s up with that? 

joseJV: I’ll be honest. I did curse quite a lot when I first started edu-blogging. Maybe one curse word a week. And considering that I was blogging four times a week, that didn’t seem so bad. So then I aimed at one curse word a year, and I cleaned up everything I’d already written, and a lot of people thought it was better without all the cursing. But it still stays blocked because the NYDOE classifies the blog as something they call *social networking.* There was a whole group of us—the more opinionated bloggers—who were blocked. I am pretty proud to say that I was the first edu-blogger to be blocked. But central office staff, principals and administrators can read it, and according to Chalkbeat, they do, so I guess you can say that I’ve arrived. 

ES: For those who like their wisdom distilled into bite-sized 140 character portions, you’re also quite a presence on Twitter. Here’s a challenge for you. Can you boil down the central argument of your book into a single Tweet?

JV: *It’s not about the salary; it’s all about reality.*

José Vilson is a teacher, a father, a poet and now the author of a brand new book, This Is Not a Test, available through Haymarket Books. Follow him on Twitter at @thejlv.

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One Comment

  1. I wonder what Jose Vilson thinks about E.D. Hirsch’s thesis that the achievement gap is largely a knowledge gap, and that the best thing we can do for lower-SES kids is to give them a content-rich curriculum –as opposed to the skills-oriented curriculum most elementary schools offer now.

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