Author, Activist José Luis Vilson Shares His Thoughts on Public School System
This article is part of Palabras, the Latin Post Latino Author Series.
José Luis Vilson, author of "This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education," is inexplicably charismatic and candid. His career as an applauded math educator for middle school children in Inwood/Washington Heights, New York, fills his daytime hours, but his after-hours obligation, as a blogger, is to shine a light on disparities, discrimination and wayward politics in the public school system.
Each morning, Vilson arrives to work 45 minutes to an hour early in order to prepare himself for the day ahead. He readies himself for conversations that he will have with students and thinks about the wealth of book ideas that has have in his head. From start to finish, "This is Not a Test" took five years, and that's after repeat rejections from publishers. But, that readied him to create more relevant work in the future.
Vilson's book is an account of race, class and education. The autobiographical work tells an uncommon "coming-of-age-through-education" story. But, moreover, it tells the story of a man looking to overcome adversity through the pursuit of education, excellence and career gratification, which can't be achieved until "products" of the school system become better regarded.
He graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in computer science, but he opted to apply to the New York City Teaching Fellows to become a teacher. He was tasked to teach at-risk and struggling children, predominately black and Latino/Hispanic students in New York City. And it was in the urban school setting that the black Latino (Dominican and Haitian) instructor found that he had to balance his newfound responsibility against a growing lack of respect for "the system."
Vilson sympathized, and continues to sympathize, with student's frustrations with poverty and dejection. On a day-to-day basis, he negotiates his roles as teacher, educator and instructor within a school system that doesn't always have the interests of disadvantaged students at heart. And perhaps it's that ability to own culture, race, understanding and experience that lends him the insight to effectively offer wisdom in his classroom, in his book and on his blog, which remains blocked in NYC schools.
Within his book, he communicates small victories and big blunders, and he uses hip-hop and other cultural references to illustrate the work's central themes, which includes connecting to students through academics, but, more importantly, emotion and understanding. Vilson spoke with Latin Post about his narrative work, which touches upon his role as a student, educator, father, husband, advocate for children and activist. It also assesses this nation's failure to meet the needs of a diverse student population and its obsession with test taking. He spoke about his own devotion to students, his commitment to telling stories and the joys and burdens of teaching.
"I wanted to tackle what it meant to be a teacher, and it definitely doesn't hurt to be a very good writer [while doing it]. ... Though, I was always a little bad when came to writing," Vilson said with a laugh. "But, I wanted to prove something; I wanted to engage people and write to command change. So, I wrote about abuses in education. That's a synopsis. And the truth is, I learned about race in education. And, yeah, a lot of people have talked about this ... forefathers in education, but no one has brought attention to it from the perspective of a black Latino educator, coming into this new world of education reform."
In addition to writing about education on his blog, Vilson had "dabbled" in journalism, and he credits that experience for teaching him how to talk to people. In the past, he's written for CNN.com, Education Week, Huffington Post and El Diario/La Prensa NY. And he's a contributor to Edutopia, GOOD and TransformED/Future of Teaching. His book is a deviation from previous forms of writing, however. The book more conversational with "top-heavy dialogue in educational work," and it welcomes anyone with an interest in educators, education, community and personal stories.
"Authors can open to any and everybody, and that's the way that it ought to be. But that doesn't mean that everyone buys into that," Vilson said. "We try to find out what touches readers, and as educators, we try to touch the students in our community, but there's a lot of people hispandering, pandering to Latinos ... distracting the community, and when it comes to hard core issues, they just sugar coat it. They don't do anything formidable; they never do anything to handle the issues.
"For me, it doesn't matter what you're doing. ... It's about your voice. We need more people to find a voice and stick with it. Unfortunately, there's a virus in education. I'm trying to find something that really matters, and be happy about it. Transform those conversations, particularly when it comes to publishing."