The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children

The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children is a book by Gloria Ladson-Billings that I read for my “Issues in Equity” graduate class.  I read the second edition which was published in 2009.  It was originally published in 1994.

I haven’t been this fired up about a book in a long time.  I haven’t highlighted and written in a printed edition of a book (that wasn’t a workbook) this much….ever.  This book has forced me to reassess who I want to be as a teacher and where I want to teach.  You’d think that would be a good thing.  It’s not.  This book is biased.  Derogatory.  Insulting.  Inappropriate.  Unethical.  Unprofessional.

As I mentioned above, it was originally published in 1994.  The “study” or “research” was conducted in the late 80s to early 90s.  Specifically, the classroom observations occurred between September 1989 and June 1991.  Many of the statements, thoughts, and ideas may have been eye-opening and helpful in 1995.  And I could have accepted it as an old book with older ideas.  BUT, Ladson-Billings thought the information in the book could be applied to a new generation of teachers, therefore, a second edition was published in 2009.

However, she did not update the language, thoughts, and ideas, instead simply adding a preface to the new edition that states, “…I have to count on readers to minimize the effects of time and see some of the timeless qualities of those eight teachers…I have to challenge teachers to look at the eight Original Dreamkeepers as models they can and should emulate even in the midst of an environment of teaching to the test,” (p.xiii).  In other words…read the study as it was published in 1994 and just ignore the parts that don’t apply and take to heart the ones that do.

I could hardly see through her biased study, biased language, and insults to Caucasian teachers in the suburbs to find the “timeless qualities”.  I did eventually find some, buried a few chapters in.  But I would never have gotten to those chapters if I wasn’t reading this for a class.

Her “study” was far from objective.  She even states that objectivity wasn’t even a priority!   Her methodology was inherently biased towards the “discovery” of her theory of “cultural relevant teaching”.  I thought her sample size was too small and not very diverse.  I also thought she became too close to her subjects of observation and that meeting with all the subjects as a collective group to discuss each others’ teaching techniques was inappropriate for a professional researcher (this was not a blind study).  Lastly, the use of her personal childhood experiences to further justify and reinforce her descriptions of her theory were irrelevant as times had changed.

I still don’t fully understand what Ladson-Billings means by “cultural relevant teaching”.  She was very vague on the the definition and continually tries to state what is good cultural relevant teaching and what is not (“assimilationist”).  The best explanation I have is “acknowledge the race and culture of the students in your classroom and use that knowledge in your teaching”.  I’m not quite sure how I’m to do that without being criticized as stereotyping, biased, racist, or being unfair.

Ladson-Billings used the politically correct term “African American” often, occasionally using the term “black” to describe teachers with dark skin.  But teachers with light skin?  Always were referred to as “white”.  Never Caucasian.  Never “European American”.  I felt her choice of words was deliberately derogatory.

After reading this book I have never felt so insulted to be a middle-class, white, female teacher.  I have never felt so attacked for desiring to teach in a suburban school district.  And it is not because I want to avoid “endur[ing] a teaching assignment in an inner-city school until [I] can find a position in a more affluent district with few children of color,” (p.58).

Returning to my comment about never highlighting or writing so much in a book before…here are just a few samples of text that angered me.

“If one puts aside the obvious objections to separate schools that they are inequitable, undemocratic, regressive, and illegal and considers the possible merits, the current calls for separate schools may be understandable,” (p.4).  I interpret this to mean that there should be schools for only African Americans, but not for all Caucasians.  If you want a school exclusive for one race, you must be willing to accept that another school can be exclusive to a race that isn’t yours.  And I don’t believe in the widespread acceptance of an all-white school.

“My own experiences with white teachers, both preservice and veteran, indicate that many are uncomfortable acknowledging any student differences and particularly racial differences.  Thus some teachers make such statements as ‘I don’t really see color, I just see children’ or ‘I don’t care if they’re red, green, or polka dot, I just treat them all like children’.  However, these attempts at color-blindness mask a ‘dysconscious racism,’ an ‘uncritcal habit of mind that justifies inequity and exploitation by accepting the existing order of things as given.  This is not to suggest that these teachers are racist in the conventional sense.  They do not consciously deprive or punish African American children on the basis of their race, but at the same time they are not unconscious of the way in which some children are privileged and others are disadvantaged in the classroom,” (p.34-5).

So…by not caring which specific race someone is I’m being racist?  But then if I draw too much unwanted attention to race I can be accused of stereotyping or being racist.  I feel like I’m in a catch-22 or a lose-lose situation in Ladson-Billings point of view.

“How can teachers who see African American students as mere descendents of slaves be expected to inspire them to educational, economic, and social levels that may even exceed their own?  The usual antidote for the persistent view of African American children is for the viewer to pretend that he or she does not see the color that once forced their ancestors into slavery,” (p. 36).  Forced their ancestors into slavery?  First of all, many Africans were sold by their tribes into slavery.  Secondly, Caucasians aren’t the only ones who enslaved people.  Many African settlements enslaved their own people or others from Southeast Asia.  Lastly, just because I acknowledge that Caucasians and African Americans began at different social levels in this country does not mean for one moment I see African Americans as “mere descendents of slaves”.

The Dreamkeepers wasn’t all negative.  Ladson-Billings brought up a good suggestion of having students come to her classroom (on their own will, not assigned) for lunch, to interact with students “outside of the classroom”.  Of course her examples of the teachers in her study who brought students to their houses or personally transported them in their personal vehicles to Sunday School are HIGHLY inappropriate.

There is timeless knowledge within the book.

  • Acknowledge the race and culture of your students and try to weave it into your teachings (connect to students)
  • Be passionate about your subject matter, your students, and teaching
  • Foster a sense of community
  • All students will learn…if you give them the motivation


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