Activist teacher José Vilson to speak at MHC.

Math educator, activist, and author José Luis Vilson remembers his early struggles as a poor, mixed-race boy in a drug-tainted New York City neighbourhood that didn’t expect much from its kids. Today, he uses that knowledge to connect personally and academically with his middle-school students in New York City, and to inspire educational change everywhere.

“I bring to the classroom a perspective that says to the kids, ‘Hey, I’ve been where you are sitting now’ and I can help bridge that gap,” Vilson explained in a video.

The educator, activist, blogger, and author will be at Mount Holyoke College February 16 to speak with students during a brown-bag lunch, book reading, and career talk starting at 12:15 pm in Shattuck Hall 102. Vilson will also read from his latest book at 4:30 pm that day at the Odyssey Bookshop.

"José is a loud and strong voice addressing issues of inequity in our public schools,” said Megan Allen, who teaches in Mount Holyoke’s Programs in Teacher Leadership. “Our pre-service teachers and students will benefit greatly from being around such a powerful advocate for public education, especially at a time when the teacher’s role is rapidly changing.”

Changing education’s future.

Helping even one student develop academically is a difficult task, but Vilson also wants to see change on a much larger scale. In a critically acclaimed book, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education, Vilson writes of wanting to lead students ”on the path to success knowing full well that, systemically, the odds are truly against them.”

This would require changing the system, something Vilson discusses at length in the book. He has also spoken extensively on race, equity, and the need for educators to use their influence in the classroom to address the effects of public policy on education.

“Our educational system is meant to keep certain people docile and uneducated,” he writes. “These simple changes we ask for, like character development, extra accommodations for students who struggle with state tests, and a more supportive school system as a whole for all parties involved, are always regarded as ‘too expensive’ or ‘pending’ some litigation that usually gets drowned out by some other mess. Some of these simple adjustments may have worked in individual schools, but as a system, we’re just not doing well.”

Karen Lewis ’74, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, writes in the book’s forward that Vilson “screams against the vagaries of a kind of school reform that ignores the voices of the adults and children who work in public schools….What José really advocates is a fundamental redistribution of power: from a top-down approach to one in which teachers, collectively and individually, take ownership of their roles in reforming education.”

He also calls for a more diverse teaching body, especially encouraging male teachers of color, who he says represent only about 3 percent of the teaching force. And until racial parity in the classroom is reached, he writes, “we need to keep our focus on having issues of race and gender and identity keep coming to the fore.”

Education affects everyone, he reminds readers: “Oftentimes we forget that the kids we see in front of us are the adults that are going to shape our future.”

Vilson’s visit is cosponsored by Mount Holyoke’s Department of Psychology and Education and by the teacher licensure, Nexus, and Professional and Graduate Education PaGE programs.