Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gender Lenses

Today I introduced the idea of lenses - gender lenses in particular -  as a way to analyze media and other texts. I was inspired by some articles in Rethinking Popular Culture and Media (thanks Dr. Bogad!) and broke my students into (mixed-gender) groups and told them a phrase, either "act like a lady" or "man up."

This was their launch into a word splash about what society says it means to be a girl/lady/woman/female or boy/guy/man/male. Some got right to work listing off common stereotypes while others had a more difficult time. I couldn't tell if it was just a few of my male students being their usual goofy selves or if the question really did make them uncomfortable, but these boys did have a much harder time being serious and naming these societal norms.

I definitely have some more observations to do. But for now, here they are, telling it like it is...

I'm really excited to see how this section of the unit is going to progress and I hope to document as much of it as I can here!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Who Do You See?

Of all our course readings so far, this "Citizenship in School: Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome" by Christopher Kliewer has been the most challenging for me. My brain was firing back, "Yes, but..." the whole time. My brain had a hard time making sense of the logistics of this ideal. How would this work in my classroom? Reading this seems to have made me aware of the detriment of those systems which have been "cultural sorting machines" that "justify a competitive ethic that marginalizes certain students or groups of students... [that] legitimize discrimination and devaluation on the basis of the dominant society's preferences in matters of ability, gender, ethnicity, and race...and [that] endorse an elaborate process of sorting by perceived ability and behavior" (73).

As we mentioned before, it is very hard to find a teacher who enters the field with an openly racist, sexist, homophobic, or anti-social justice attitude. I think the same goes for attitudes toward students with disabilities. I am very careful to use people-first language and have the same conversations with my students who say "That's so retarded" that I do with "That's so gay."

However, I also have a long way to go toward the inclusive, participatory, democratic classroom that Shayne is described as having.

This year I have more students with special education needs than I ever have before. My school very much aspires to a full inclusion model. Granted, these are considered "mild/moderate" needs and nowhere near as "severe" as some situations described in the article, but as a beginning teacher, my lack of experience with these students makes me feel very inadequate.

But as I am writing this I am seeing, too, the way that my brain has been trained to think about students with disabilities. Classifications and categories. Putting students in such boxes makes things "easier." Having separate classrooms makes things "easier." I found an article from the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition that elaborates on this idea, explaining the two models of disability: the medical model and the social model. While the first model asserts that "disability results from an individual person's physical or mental limitations"  the second argues, "that disability stems from the failure of society to adjust to meet the needs and aspirations of a disabled minority." They compare the social model to the "doctrine of those concerned with racial equality that 'racism is a problem of whites from which blacks suffer.'" They also provide an example, "If a wheelchair user cannot use a bus, the bus must be redesigned." Sounds like something Johnson would say.

All of this leads me to the John Lubbock quote: "What we see depends mainly on what we look for." If we as teachers look only for kids doing exactly what is instructed and has been said is typically accepted as "proficient" we might miss out on the opportunity to see (Gardener's) multiple intelligences. Rather than "entreprenuerial individualism" (72), we need "a set of values based on respect, humility, and creative listening" (73). The story of Shayne's creative listening to Isaac affirms the necessity of an asset-based lens. Her classroom started from the viewpoint of valuing something very different, which was a "distinct shift away from mere school tolerance of diversity defined by resignation and benevolence," instead "recogniz[ing] diversity as the norm" (79).

Throughout this school year I have said several times how unprepared I feel to work with the special education students in my class. However, I need to recognize that "We have our basic core in common" (88) - yes, our "common core" - and it is not a matter of being unprepared to work with them, but rather unprepared to see them.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Passing notes, passing ideas. That's Power.

Remember the long ago (or not so long ago for Tina and I...) days of practicum? The first time you referred to yourself as Mr. or Ms.? The worries about filling the time or not filling enough. What if they don't talk? What if they're confused? Or bored? Or tired? Or the computer explodes?

Okay, well maybe not the last one, but all of those feelings of uncertainty ran through
me as I planned and prepped for facilitating class this week. I was brought back to my memories of spending waaay too much time finding waaay to many resources that I wasn't going to get the opportunity to use. Yup, as an undergrad I definitely spent weeks planning my micro-teaching lesson that lasted 30 minutes.

Though the task was a bit easier now that I have almost a year and a half of teaching under my belt, I have to make a connection to the English language learners that we read about this week. As Collier explained, students "do not automatically develop the academic language skills needed to compete" (225). I certainly did not automatically develop the pedagogy skills needed to compete. Being a good student doesn't mean I am automatically a good teacher. Just like being a good speaker of a second language doesn't mean that person is automatically a good writer in that language (as Ken pointed out in his blog and our discussion). There are explicit theories, skills, and codes of power that need to be taught in order to be most successful. It was important that I had a professor who respected and affirmed and helped clarify the ideas I brought to the table (well, GoogleDoc). Because even though I teach everyday, the experience of leading a group of seven adults is different from leading a group of 20 eleven-year-olds.

You were awesome as students in the foreign language lecture, working so diligently at the task. You showed empathy for your own students and realized how you might make adjustments for ESL students (or otherwise), ranging from prompting prior knowledge, to slowing down, to providing a list of key words and definitions. The note passing was a better experience for some than others, which, again, put us in the shoes of our students when we ask them to do lots of verbal processing. If I were to teach this again, I might put the quotes on large poster papers, increase the time with each pass, and maybe have fewer passes. This way we could get out of our seats or get deeper. As Tina mentioned, I loved that the connections to other authors went beyond the author that I had listed in the prompt. It's cool to see the conversation among ourselves grow. I think my favorite part was sharing the spoken word poems ("Duality Duel" by Daniel Beaty and "I Can't Read" by Lamont Carey) and crafting our six word memoirs. You all provided me with a richer understanding of how similar/different the two poets' pieces are and Melissa's question, "Where does Rodriguez fit?" really made us think. The six word memoirs then allowed us to show off our creativity and the learning that we were taking away.

My Six Word Reflection:  Passing notes, passing ideas. That's power.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Safe Spaces: Making Schools and Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth"

Growing up, one of my uncles had a "friend." I knew that they lived together and I didn't really think too much about it.

Then I learned that my uncle's friend got sick and passed away. That was that.

Then my uncle got sick. And passed away. That was that.

As a sixth grader, I didn't ask questions. I didn't even know what questions to ask.

Now I know that my uncle was gay and had died from AIDs.

I don't know much of the story of my uncle's experience and I certainly wonder about how "erased," "invisible," and "kept outside" of the curriculum (and society itself) he felt.

As a college student, I was finally exposed to LGBT issues. In the first weeks of my Western Lit seminar, we learned about Whitman - but in the "exploration-of-the-poet's-not-so-oblique-references-to romantic-relationships-between-men" sense (86). Then, I participated in the Emerging Leaders program where we learned about our own privileges (including my own heterosexuality). A short time after, I became a Resident Assistant and learned about "Words that Hurt." In this training session, we brainstormed all the words we know that have hurt us or have hurt others, consider why they might be hurtful, discussed intent vs. impact (which is similar to Patrick's story on 97-99), and prepared ourselves to create safe spaces for all of our residents. As a second-year RA, a friend and I hosted a Tunnel of Oppression event where we created a tunnel exhibit in one of the common areas with various sections exposing various injustices that people experience everyday - including biases against sexual orientation and gender identity. My hall council created quilts in memory of those who have died because of AIDs. In our practicum class, Dr. Cook and Dr. Johnson used Andrea Gibson's spoken word poetry (I think Swingset is one of my favorites - and is a good representation of what she speaks for) as a mentor text for our own poetry.

 I think all of this has prepared me to be an ally for LGBT youth in my classroom and beyond. I feel comfortable addressing students' use of "That's so gay" in a way that educates, rather than silences or shuns (and have had to do so many times - and I might even ratchet it up with a lesson like this one from GLSEN on the famous phrase "I was just kidding"). I came into teaching knowing that "LGBT students need advocacy and protection, not neutrality" (84). Vaccaro, August, and Kennedy's problem with saying nothing is the same as Armstrong and Wildman's problem with colorblindness - all it does is perpetuate the SCWAAMP status quo.

Instead, I'd like to take Megan Boler's affirmative action approach (90), starting first with visibility and normalization (94). As I plan for the Language Arts elective that I am teaching 2nd-4th quarters (I'm calling it Media Busters), my goal is to "teach students to critically examine all texts for bias, whether in the form of LGBT exclusion or negative stereotypes" where I can "encourage students to talk back to the curriculum, to look for assumptions, and . . . to examine what they see and hear (and what they don't see and hear)" (94). If I encounter problems with this, I know that Shor will back me up on the importance of this curricular choice.

I agree with Vaccaro, August, and Kennedy's assertion that "words are sticks and stones. And those sticks and stones can either build bridges or break bones" (95). In his spoken word poem, "To This Day," Shane Koyczan explains how much worse words hurt than literal broken bones. Not only as a lover of language and teacher of English, but as a human who cares about the world and its people, it pains me to see the way that words are used (consciously or unconsciously) as verbal assaults. Or how silence spreads our biased phobias.

As my favorite vlogbrothers explain, Human Sexuality is Complicated, and I am not aiming to have discussions about anatomy and reproductive processes or religious beliefs. I just want my students to have the eyes to recognize injustice, ears to hear injustice, mouths to ask the difficult questions (including the ones I never knew to ask about my uncle), and hands to create safe spaces for all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Weather Update!

Hey everyone! I guess I'm feeling like a cool dusk. The bright light of a day at school is waning and I'm ready to squeeze the last bit of fun and play in before I have to head inside for the night. I definitely enjoyed sunny skies earlier when my students were researching and writing their own magazine articles. A student who struggles to stay focused and is typically resistant to writing has spent two class periods with his bum glued to the chair working furiously to publish his masterpiece. I'm excited to use up the last of the sunlight here in class, but I know that the waning light will lead me soon inside to my kitchen table to upload data for my SLOs. Not that I don't want to see my students grow, the process is just so tedious... Luckily, tomorrow's forecast is another sunny day of kids exploring and writing and creating!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Confronting the Crisis, Engaging in Conversation

It was going to be a great weekend with my best friend. NYC. Half-way between February and April break. Big city lights to distract us from kindergarten sight words and middle school drama.

Well, our Central Park crawl was cut short when I received a phone call that Dr. Cook had passed away.

It was so sudden that I couldn't even cry. My friend just hugged me and held my hand.

When I arrived back in Providence, I met up with more friends so that none of us would have to be alone.

There were plenty of text messages exchanged between the time we all found out and the time we got together, but nothing was as comforting as just sitting across from each other, reminiscing and sharing stories.

Sitting in my classroom alone that Monday morning is when the tears sprung free. I hadn't yet been alone - really alone, no traffic or loud music to distract me - and in the place where she inspired me to be. When the other teachers found me sniffly and puffy-eyed, they told me to go home. And I easily could have. But writing with my students was the only thing that would help to heal.

About two months later, my memere suddenly passed away. I had been feeling defeated by the pressures of first-year teaching and was overwhelmed by news about cancer in my family. I hadn't ever felt so low before.

Again, it was the kindness of my people that got me through. My best friends, my close family, my mentors, and some fellow teachers offered hugs and shared their ears. Things that they could only do in real life. In front of my eyes. Reaching out their gentle hands.

Around this time, someone reminded me that the sadness I was feeling - while it stunk, was a totally normal, healthy human experience. Someone shared Tara Brach's Buddhist meditations. Someone shared this video, too:

Here, Louis C.K. explains his ideas about the danger of cell phones in everyone's hands, especially kids. He says that they are toxic. They prevent people from looking at one another and building empathy. He argues that we would rather text and drive, taking the risk of killing someone and ruining our own life because we don't want to be alone and feel that first bit of sadness that comes with being alone.

His video has more than 8.5 million views for a reason.

Like Sherry Turkle says, "we have confused conversation with connection...When people are alone, even for a few moments, they fidget and reach for a device...In our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves....We need to remember - in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts - to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another."

Those text messages were not enough. Any social media posting was not enough. I know I am guilty of fidgeting for my phone when I get that empty feeling in my gut while I am stuck sitting in traffic. I know I go for a quick check of my email when I am feeling uncomfortable in a situation. In writing letters of gratitude with my students that Monday after Dr. Cook's passing I wanted to engage my students in another way of connecting and having conversation about difficult things (because as we know from Michael Wesch's "Anti-Teaching" article that engaging the students in the learning is more important than the teaching itself). My students' reflections helped me know that they needed this opportunity, too.  

I agree that, often, "education has become a relatively meaningless game of grades rather than an important and meaningful exploration of the world in which we live and co-create" (Wesch 5). And the pervasive social media technologies can further this meaninglessness through surface communication (as Turkle argues) or, if we are purposeful, we can make sense of our interconnection and create a better future for ourselves (as Michael Wesch has been with his digital ethnographies). But, again, this can only happen with a critical eye and a stance toward teaching that "produces the types of questions that create lifelong learners rather than savvy test-takers" (Wesch 5).

There is lots at stake. As some see it, we teachers have an audience 5 days a week, 180 days a year. We need to do the best we can to confront the crisis of significance, not fly from the conversation.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

6th Graders Respond to Finn!

After yesterday's reading of the chapter "Moving Still" from The Circuit and my kids' discussion about social class, today, I gave my students a brief summary of Finn's argument in Literacy with Attitude and this quote to chew on...

"And so I ask, 'Those who are smartest and work hardest go furthest?' Who's kidding whom? When students begin school in such different systems, the odds are set for them. President Kennedy once said that he hoped a person's chance to become president was not determined on the day he was baptized (referring to the fact that some said a Catholic would never become president). I'd like to hope that a child's expectations are not determined on the day she or he enters kindergarten, but it would be foolish to entertain such a hope unless there are some drastic changes made" (25).

I asked them, "What is Finn saying?" and "How does it relate to our reading and discussions?" This is what they came up with...


This definitely got our class off to a good start!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Literacy with an Attitude: Doing To or Doing With?

Finn's retelling of his first teaching job at Carol Jason Banks Upper Grade Center in the excerpts from Literacy with an Attitude haunts me. I wrote "Holey moley" in the margin where he described the explicit sorting of students according to reading scores, with 8-1s as the highest, 8-15s as the lowest, and extra space in those lower level classes for the "troublesome students" who needed to be dumped from the higher level groupings. He describes how he was charged with the 4 lowest classes because he had exhibited so much success: his students were always quiet and always working (p. 3).

He acknowledges, however, that this was a success in handling students - what he and Shor both consider "doing to instead of doing with" (p. 5). Control was always at the forefront of his planning, leading to a domesticating rather than an empowering education.

Finn goes on to retell the story of Jean Anyon's study of five elementary schools from very different social classes. Though the findings were not surprising, I was appreciated how thoroughly the differences were laid out. Of course, her findings were generalized in this article, but several rang true in even just my brief experience as a teacher in what I would consider middle class and affluent professional schools. For example, the middle class school I worked at required passes at all times in the hallway and knowledge was seen as "a matter of gaining information and understanding from socially approved sources" (p. 13). Specifically, several of my students balked when we tried to create our own meaning of situations and begged to just be told the "right" answer so that the class could move on. This year, in the "affluent professional school, passes are no where to be found (except as an anxiety-reducing strategy for a special education student) and there is an emphasis on discovery, rather than memory of facts in science (p. 18).

From all of this, as well as the detailed description of Freire's process, my question is, where does my classroom fit into this spectrum of domesticating and empowering education? How much do I "do to" rather than "do with?"

Right now, I feel like my answer is closer to the "doing to" rather than "doing with" side...

Hearing the stories of Peterson's, Bigelow's, and Christiansen's classrooms was inspiring, but also overwhelming. Taking elementary school students to a protest rally and setting up a shadow day at a neighboring high school are experiences that I would love to design with my students. But as Finn's grad students recognize, this type of teaching is scary for so many reasons. It is controversial. It doesn't fit the traditional view of the curriculum. It might cause trouble (p. 178-179). And, another concern of my own, how does this work with special education students? This is my first time working with such a large population of students with IEPs and it's challenging enough to facilitate dialogic conversations with the majority of my students, so how can I scaffold for the IEP students' needs as well? My special education teacher is amazing, but also swamped by the emergency situations that keep popping up on team. I love that Bigelow and Christiansen work together. And I think that is a contributing factor to their success.

I guess it comes back to Finn's idea that "Teachers are supposed to teach, not blame children for what they don't know how to do. But when the make-believe school model is in effect and resistance is the dominant theme, don't expect this to be easy. Get ready for the 'enormous struggle'" (p. 175). This is hard to do when you feel alone in this attempt at something new. Sometimes I feel like I just want the kids to "figure it out" and "just be respectful" or "just make good decisions" because I was "nice enough" to allow them freedom and choice in their work. However, this usually ends in sour disappointment and frustration. So I immediately revert back to more traditional methods of teacher directed learning.

How do we balance these two? As a beginning teacher, with still so many questions, I get stuck on this all the time. I guess that's why I'm here...


While I poked around online to follow some threads from the article, I found this link to a Rethinking Schools article by Linda Christiansen for a series of lessons on "The Danger of a Single Story." She uses Chimamanda Adichie's TED Talk to discuss the Trayvon Martin case and help her students go beyond the single story of their own high school experience.

I also looked into the Study Circles mentioned on p. 168. Their website include information about how to organize dialoague, recruit participants, and work for for change.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Social Justice Radio!

Woah! Pumped up this morning because I listened to spoken word on my way in to school. And not just any spoken word - social justice spoken word! I mean, most spoken word does have some sort of critical/political spin, but was broadcasting the full 2 hour 2014 National Poetry Slam. I heard it on 89.3FM, but I just did a quick search and found that you can listen to it from their website...

I tuned in halfway through a poem on rethinking riots by El Siete, heard Lindsay Stone's one about the oppression trans women face, and one by Jarred Paul on the disgusting privilege that it is to be a white poet able to speak about apartheid issues without worry about "the prison state that is our country." I had goosebumps.

The themes are perfect for our class, but also so powerful to hear as a thoughtful human who cares about justice in the world.

Listen up!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ira Shor for Sure

Though, as Melissa said, reading Ira Shor's Empowering Education: Teaching for Social Change is somewhat of a "Yeah, of course. This is what good teachers today do" experience, it was awesome to have so much of what I hope for my classroom in one spot.

I hadn't necessarily known it before, but his ideas, culled from other monumental thinkers like Piaget, Dewey, and Freire, make up my quite a bit of my philosophy of teaching. I absolutely start from the belief that education is always political. Every decision we make - from the way we arrange our rooms, to the texts we choose to read (or not read), and the language we use to describe the humans we teach (children, kids, students, scholars, etc.) - matters and has meaning.

We (teachers, students, administrators, parents) aren't always conscious of the meaning of  those decisions. We don't always know how our actions are impacting others. Just one example is our conversation from last week about curriculum that might trigger strong emotional reactions from students. And, sometimes, we don't even realize that there are decisions that could be made. Thinking back, as a kid, I had a one-track view of education - do what the teacher says, get the best grades possible, get the job I want, and live a comfortable life. I wanted to be a nice person, but I don't think I had a conception that "education is more than facts and skills. It is a socializing experience that helps make the people who make society" (p. 15). I didn't think of school as a way to "develop people as citizens who think critically and act democratically" (p. 15). I was never pushed to question. I was totally comfortable with the status quo. It favored me.

So, now as a teacher, I am committed to doing the best I can to facilitate this participatory and problem posing experience that I never had for my own students. I guess I stole the words right from Shor when I wrote my own objective for my immigration unit: "to connect student  individuality to larger historical and social issues; to encourage students to examine how their experience relates to academic knowledge, to power, and to inequality in society" (p. 17).

The question I have now is how well am I doing at this stuff? Yes, administrators have and will continue to evaluate me. I receive feedback from them and I genuinely do respect their opinions. However, what would Shor or Piaget or Dewey or Freire say if they walked into my classroom? How would they rate me on the agenda of values for empowering pedagogy (p. 17). The evaluation rubric from RIDE, though elaborate, makes every attempt it can to seem neutral. But from Shor, we know it is not...

Gah. What do we do with this?!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Building Blocks to Inequality

What sticks out to me from the Rethinking Schools website is all of the ways that you can be a social justice educator...

I was originally inspired by the resources I found for a book called, The Line Between Us by Bob Bigelow. In it, he shares context, lessons, and other support materials to teach high schoolers about the border and Mexican immigration. The materials are helpful, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to say about them.

Then, I happened to see an article called "Why We Banned Legos," by Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin, discussing issues of power, ownership, and equity in an elementary-aged after school program. When looking for resources and ideas, I usually quickly dismiss anything tagged "elementary" out of some irrational, arbitrary bias. But for some reason, I kept reading. And I am glad I did.

In the article, the authors describe their students' love for Legos, their creation of Legotown, and the resulting political struggles. The authors explain, "Other children were eager to join the project, but as the city grew - and space and raw materials became more precious - the builders began excluding other children." The problems that we see in the "grown-up world" of classist capitalism emerged in Legotown and the after school classroom.

So when Legotown was destroyed by other students who used the classroom, the teachers took the opportunity - not to rebuild the structure - but to rebuild the students' thinking about the injustice and oppression quickly emerging.

The authors cite examples of the students' opinions of how Legotown should be and explain how "the children denied their power, framing it as benign and neutral, not something actively sought and maintained." They then launched into further (year-long) exploration of power, privilege, rules, and ownership by designing simulations and visiting a farmer's market that pushed the students' thinking.

Finally, when the Legos were reintroduced to the classroom, the students generated their own new principles for building: "collectivity is a good thing...personal expression matters...shared power is a valued goal...[and] moderation and equal access to resources are things to strive for." These led to concrete, socially-just rules for play.

I was really impressed with the outline of events that took place in this classroom from what is usually just dismissed as "child's play." As the authors concluded, "Children absorb political, social, and economic worldviews from an early age. These worldviews show up in their play, which is the terrain that young children use to make meaning about their world and test and solidify their understandings." Like the authors, I agree that we as teachers have a responsibility to pay attention to this play (and other social interactions) and use it as a guide for what we teach. Using Legos is so powerful because that's where the kids are (as Vygotsky would say, it's their zone of proximal development). When the students can learn about inequality in a world that is immediate and that they are entrenched in themselves, I think the lesson is much more likely to make an impact on their thinking and actions.

All this talk about Legos also reminded me of these two videos: Lego & Gender - Part 1 and  Part 2 discussing Lego's stereotypical attempt to market to girls and their essential "kicking out" of girls from the Lego clubhouse. Makes me go humm...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Two For One: Colorblindness vs. Color Insight / The System vs. Revolution

*Originally, I had planned to integrate my reading of Armstorng/Wildman and the Ferguson Syllabus, but as I started writing, the two ideas went in separate directions. I guess it's two posts for the price of one...hope that's okay!*

Are we just giving away more umbrellas or are we trying to stop the rain?

I am so grateful Dr. Bogad turned our attention to this question during our discussion of Johnson's Power, Privilege, and Difference. This analogy has been so helpful for me in framing my reading and thinking about the social and cultural issues surrounding our classrooms and our worlds. As I read "Colorblindness is the New Racism," I was immediately reminded of umbrellas and rain when the authors said, "exclusion from some specific opportunity . . . becomes the focus of antidiscrimination language, without an explicit examination of how or why the beneficiaries of privilege obtained their position" (p. 64). For me, it seems like the authors are saying that it is not enough to merely notice that others don't have umbrellas to protect themselves. The authors continued, "Failure to examine the privileged status diverts attention from noticing and analyzing the advantages conferred by white privilege and renders any ensuing discussion of racial discrimination incomplete" (p. 64). I think the authors want the conversation to turn to how umbrella owners got those rain shields in the first place.

Of course, noticing others' lack of an umbrella (deficit thinking) is much easier than acknowledging where others' umbrellas came from. And hiding the process of umbrella procurement (as Delpit would agree) "obscures the operation of privilege, thus aiding in its perpetuation" (p. 64).

Working in a virtually all-white school, it is easy to shelter away from the issues of race that are more prominent in other more culturally diverse environments. It is easy to be colorblind. Colorblind is the norm. However, I agree with Armstrong and Wildman that "identifying and understanding whiteness should be an essential component of education in the United States" (p. 65). As I mentioned before, I am beginning a unit on analyzing informational and literary texts, centering on the topic of immigration. The stated objectives are for students to be able to read multiple sources on a topic, identify a central theme that is conveyed through both, and write a short informational text in response. But I don't think this is enough.

The readings this week helped clarify my underlying objective. What I really want is for students to be able to explain how their personal experience impacts their opinions about immigration. I want students to begin developing an awareness of their position on the "power line" (p. 71). I want students to recognize that their position can work to both limit and broaden their view of the world.

I really loved that the authors included activities for color insight, but I need to be able to adapt these for my much younger audience. And I have so many questions...Is this a developmentally appropriate goal for sixth graders? Am I forcing my perspective on my students? How do parents feel about this?

Ultimately, I know that this conversation needs to happen because as we were working through our pre-reading discussion, debating whether it is easy to fit in to American culture a student said, "Yes, it is. We have a plain culture." And other students are basing their opinion of immigration to America on brief vacations they took to Central and South America. I saw how easy it was for students to notice others' deficits, and I want them to recognize where those beliefs are coming from. It seems like color insight is part of this goal.

Before reading the Ferguson syllabus, I started with PBS's Timeline of Events in Ferguson. I feel like I didn't follow the news as closely as I should have in August, so the Newshour blog had a decent collection of videos, pictures, and social media postings to fill in my gaps. As I was reading, though, I kept wondering why so many people continued to protest for so long despite the actual police brutality and threat of military force. I like to think of myself as strong and a fighter for what's right, but I know a big part of me is rooted in a fear of authority and consequences. I can't say that I would be found night after night in this crowd.

Demonstrators protest by holding their hands up while gathered on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, late on Aug. 16. A crowd of some 200 demonstrators defied a curfew that came into effect early on Aug. 17. Photo Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

Despite my uneasiness, I began to explore the syllabus and was immediately drawn to "Stealing a Bag of Potato Chips and Other Crimes of Resistance" by Victor Rios. It addressed my question exactly. And I was reminded of Herbert Kohl's  article "I Won't Learn from You". In both, the authors discuss the idea of resistance as an identity, as a path to agency and dignity. This is always a difficult concept for me to understand. As a person who often takes comfort in structure and adhering to rules and guidelines, willfully disobeying is rarely an option that enters my consciousness. I have the privilege(?) of successfully(?) creating an identity that fits within the dominant structures of society.

So as I returned to writing and including the above picture in my post, I noticed that the man in the center's shirt says, "The system has no future for the youth. The revolution does." I really like that shirt as a reminder of the systemic issues that need addressing. I have question marks in my previous paragraph because I don't know that it's a privilege or a success to fit in to the dominant structures of society. What else could revolution offer to everyone? 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Am I Silencing the Dialogue?

"The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children" -Lisa Delpit

Though I can't remember when I first read "The Silenced Dialogue," I do remember feeling defensive at Delpit's criticism of the process teaching movement...and it's parallel to the alienation and miscommunication experienced by students/teachers of different cultures. I hadn't imagined how my goal to minimize the appearance of my power and create what I thought was a more equal space in my classroom might have a negative affect on some of the students in my classroom. The problem is that I do have power that must be acknowledged, not just softened away.

The argument that really brought this to light for me was her example of the way a teacher might "veil" her commands in the form of questions: "Would you like to sit down now?" (p. 36). I was very guilty of this type of interaction as a practicum and student teacher and still guilty of this now. Of course, I am not actually offering an option to the student in a case like this. I do expect that the student will respond to a question like this by immediately sitting down. And as Delpit proposes, "my indirectness and soft-spokenness...[were] an attempt to reduce the implication of overt power in order to establish a more egalitarian and non authoritarian classroom atmosphere" (p. 36). But I am realizing how ineffective this type of command is - not just for students of color, but students of all types, including those with Asperger's who have difficulty understanding social cues.

My defensive reaction and focus on the instructional methods on my first reading a few years ago is much more complex now after completing my degree and a full year of teaching. Also, the recent explosion of "no excuses" charter schools is another launch point of discussion. I think some could read Delpit and attempt to use her work to argue for these regimented systems that value highly structured routine and rigid behavior expectations. They might say that they are providing the student with the "rules" (p. 25) of the culture of power by making the expectations so clear. Or they would tout their "belief that all students can learn" that they set a "standard of achievement [usually college for all] and push the students to reach that standard" (p. 35-36).

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any sources that shared Delpit's own words about these schools, but I and others, including some teacher researchers at the University of Colorado can imagine that her emphasis on listening to the voices of the marginalized would not actually fit with the stiff philosophy of these schools.  As she says, the teacher is not the only expert in the room. Blind adoption of direct instruction is not the way to go. Rather, we must actually hear with eyes and ears, hearts and minds if we want to make education better for all.

*For some reason, my links are working within my text, so here is a blog that tracks much of  the history of the "no excuses" movement:

Also, here is a link to a study by teacher researchers at the University of Colorado who discuss the tensions of teaching in schools serving predominantly poor children of color with a history of low educational achievement:

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Privilege, Power, and Difference" the Classroom

Before coming to Rhode Island College as an undergrad, I considered myself a tolerant person. I went to a diverse high school, had friends from different backgrounds, and had a sense that I was "lucky" in terms of my life circumstances - a middle class white teenager with two college graduate parents, a home my parents owned, a part-time job at a pizza shop, a reliable car, and a savings account. Looking around the city and experiencing various life occasions with my friends (birthday parties, proms, graduations, etc.), I knew not all was equal and I did what I thought I could to help (gave rides, spotted money, etc.). However, with other people I didn't know so well, I often assumed that some of their less-than-ideal circumstances were the result of choices they had made, rather than thinking about the systemic injustices (and my relationship to them) that may have led to those situations. 

My college experience definitely changed the way I think. I have grown so much from my time in the Emerging Leaders program (with Tina!), reading Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" during Writing Center tutor training, participating in diversity workshops as a Resident Assistant, and of course from applying critical lenses to the readings in my education/English classes. Johnson's ideas in "Privilege, Power, and Difference" are not necessarily new to me, but his writing is a really powerful reminder of how our thinking influences our actions. Now, I have the language to name that "lucky" feeling that I had as a high schooler. I recognize that some of my fortunes are connected to others' misfortunes. I have a better view of the way in which societal structures sort out differences.  

So, although I don't work in an urban school where differences in power and privilege between teachers and students are often most pronounced, I am still responsible for recognizing and taking action against the inequalities that exist. After all, there are certainly privileges and power naturally associated with the role of teacher. As we mentioned during our first class, teaching is always political. Teachers can decide the texts that are read and those that are skipped. Teachers can say whose voices are heard and whose are silenced. Teachers model what it means to be an "educated" person. They play a role in shaping the minds of young people. 

Regardless of the community in which I teach, my goal is similar to Johnson's: "the purpose is to change how we think so that we can change how we act, and by changing how we participate in the world, become part of the complex dynamic through which the world itself will change" (viii). I became a teacher because I think education is important. In my classes, I hope to develop critical thinkers who can do something about privilege, power, and difference, and make the world a better place. 

The texts for my first unit revolve around the topic of immigration and migrant workers with The Circuit, so I am definitely curious to see how privilege, power, and difference will emerge in our discussions...

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Movin' on Up

Hey everyone! I’ve had this blog for while now...I charted my adventures from practicum, student teaching, and my first year as a 7th grade ELA teacher in Coventry. Next up is my journey as a 6th ELA teacher in Jamestown and a 1st year grad student in the ASTL program at RIC. I’m really excited to be teaching at a small school and learning with a small cohort along the way. It is so easy to get caught up in the negativity of standardized testing, new curriculum, state mandates, and administrative expectations, so I knew being a student again was what I needed to do to stay positive and become the best teacher I can be. I know, it does sound a little crazy to add more responsibilities to my plate to stay sane, but having a community to explore with and support my growth is worth it.

When I am not planning lessons or reading student writing, you can find me or cold, rain or snow. Some days it is my thinking time, some days it is my social time, some days it is my get dressed up like a crazy person time.

I don’t always feel great with my feet pounding the pavement, but I always feel so much better after than I did before. The endorphins get me every time. Running also makes me notice. I love to collect the odd items on the street that have been trashed or left behind - like a pine cone arrow and a bow made from a stick.

The other thing that always makes me feel better after a tough day is a Soul Pancake binge. As the name suggests, they make videos that warm you from the inside, like a good, fluffy pancake. Here are a few of my favorites!

Happy reading...and watching!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Sound of Poetry

Every morning at the RIWP Summer Institute, we write. We arrive, greet one another, grab a snack, set a time to return to the table, and settle into a new or favorite spot with our handmade journal and pen. Sometimes we get a prompt, but recently there has been no direction. This is liberating, but as someone who has always been good at following rules, this can cause major writer’s block. My best writing is usually what I HAVE to write - because it’s something itching to get out and be processed or when an audience needs something from me. This is why reflective writing and analytical writing are my strengths.

Poems and stories, not so much.

I shared this tendency of mine with a friend in the SI and he reminded me that I should use this class as an opportunity to push myself and do things I wouldn’t normally do, including writing in genres that I’m not as comfortable with.

So yesterday, when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to explore, I sought some inspiration in poetry. I figured I could find a quick poem and write a brief response. But the friend’s voice popped into my head and told me I should try to write some poetry myself. Which scared me. I’m not a poet. My metaphors are all cliche. I want to be authentic, not seem like I’m trying too hard. Which sent me back to student mode. I was good at school because I was able to imitate the writing of others. I could see the structure and adapt it to my needs. I used mentor texts before I knew what a mentor text was...and before Kelly Gallagher wrote a book about it. Despite my self-induced panic, I realized what I had to do.

I scrolled through my Twitter feed and found the link to The Writer’s Almanac, a website that publishes a poem and some literary facts every day, and found “The Sound of Sunlight” by Todd Davis. His poem’s lines were short and I liked the idea of defining something (the sound of sunlight) by something other than itself (the sound of a wren singing or a coyote hiding, etc. - considering sunlight doesn’t actually make a sound). I read through the poem a few times, and basically played madlibs. I retained the structure and the parts of speech, but replaced the nouns and verbs to hack Todd’s idea into my own. We only had thirty minutes, so this is what I drafted:

The Sound of Poetry

On the far side
of the classroom
are scratching
over one
like feet
to chase
a ball.

A reluctant student
a sigh
while another
mid sentence
before flipping
to a clean sheet.

As we descend
into our thoughts
we look
and witness
the shadow
of a moment
the moment

Behind us
in the courtyard
where we gaze
each snowstorm
the fall
of the flakes
the sound
of poetry
and allows us
to write
in a flood
of inspiration.

Regardless of the quality of the poem I created, I am really glad I pushed myself to do this. It’s so easy to stay comfortable and do what you’re good at, but I was reminded of how my students feel when they are assigned a task that is challenging or seems like more than they want do. By imitating the structure of the poem, I paid way closer attention to how it was constructed and have a much better appreciation for the author’s work. I made more meaning from the poem by the time I finished writing than I would have if I had just glanced over it once and answered a few of my teacher’s questions about it. I was reminded of the importance of just putting an idea into another person’s head. As a teacher, you never know how a gentle word or two might inspire a student (or colleague). Also, I am really grateful for the feedback I received from the group, reminding me that I wasn’t just “stealing.” I wrote a poem that only I could write.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

March Madness

March Madness is not just a catchy alliterative name for the NCAA basketball championship season. It’s a real thing  that teachers (everywhere?) are experiencing. This eight week stretch from February vacation til can’t-get-here-soon-enough April vacation has been trying for everyone, and as a new teacher, all of these ups and downs are especially arduous.

Last year, as a student teacher, I left my high school placement and started my middle school placement halfway through this stretch. I was feeling confident after a successful run at the high school and looking forward to the new connections I’d make with my 8th graders. When I arrived at the middle school I barely knew the students and wasn’t always privy to all of details of the issues the team faced. The “madness” I experienced was learning 100 new names, planning a fun six word  memoir lesson, and finishing up my work sample.

This year, it’s not so pretty. It’s been over 100 days with my darlings - and over 100 days of them with each other. Do I need a break to catch my breath and renew my spirit? Yes. But I think they need it more.

The incidents of bullying in the classroom, in the hallway, in the cafeteria, and online have shocked me. I don’t want to believe that my students are involved in this vortex of name-calling, threats, and physical violence. It is disheartening to hear the stories of events at home and not knowing the best way to proceed other than informing the other professionals at school and making a plan. I worry so much about the choices the students make when they think no one is looking or that no one cares. I worry so much about the circumstances the students are involved in where they have no power or opportunity to change the situation.

We at schools do the best that we can with the resources that we have, but, undoubtedly, things - and people - fall through the cracks. When I spend so much time working so closely on a behavior plan with one student, I spend less time ensuring that the needs of the other students are met. How do I balance this in order to be the teacher that each of my students’ needs?

Well, one of the perks of teaching in a middle school, is that there is a team of teachers consistently interacting with the students and also consistently meeting to discuss those students. I am lucky to have common planning time every other day. Also, once a week, that time is strictly devoted to RTI where we identify the students in need of further intervention, create a plan to address those needs, design a way to collect data, and then analyze that data together to determine adjustments.  Now, we are starting to see some of those benefits of that hard work for those selected students - which feels very rewarding.

And these little successes are what I will be trying to keep in mind over these next nine days. It’s way too easy to get overwhelmed by March Madness and drown in all of the work that hasn’t been done. I will remind myself that I am also only one person. My job is not to fix students - it’s to create opportunities for them to learn and become better versions of themselves. Even if the situation at home is less than ideal, if I create a safe environment in my classroom with clear expectations and positive interactions, then I am  doing what’s best for all kids.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dear Dr. Cook

Dr. Cook -

What do you mean? I don’t believe it. This can’t be right.

Confusion. Disbelief. Emptiness.

These thoughts and feelings rushed through me when I was told about your sudden and tragic passing.

As the numbness sank in my heart, my fear of not showing gratitude toward the people I love rose up.

Does she know that I go back to my Practicum notebook to read her inspirational one-liners? Does she know that I gained amazing friends from my student teaching experience? Does she know her kind words on my own writing now inspire kind words on my students’ writing...especially when I am at the bottom of a towering stack of papers?

I knew I needed to honor what I learned from you and not waste another moment keeping my feelings of gratitude to myself. So, I “assumed the power to do what I know” (a favorite quote you shared with us) and decided that my students and I would write letters to the people we appreciate in our lives.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether I should tell the students about what prompted this activity. I worried about the tears that might fall as I stood in front of them and shared my memory of you, but another favorite professor reminded me that I could make this a teachable moment. By sharing this mournful experience, I was showing them a real way to handle grief. I explained that writing through pain may not be everyone’s go-to method and that’s okay. What was important was trying out the process and using writing as a way to connect with other people. In true Writing Project style, we began with brainstorming and drafting, and worked our way from sharing just a few words on the first day all the way to entire letters by the end of the week.

Then, on Friday, since I wasn’t grading the students’ letters (many of them requested privacy since they were writing about such personal topics), I had the students write letters of reflection to me. From the total silence during writing time (which is usually a rarity) to the requests for more time to share with the whole class, I had the sense that most of the students enjoyed the process. However, I wanted to see for myself what they were taking away from the experience. As I read through these letters to me, I noticed a few patterns.

Some students recognized the process and the difference that audience makes:
-“To be honest, writing a letter to someone directly makes writing so much easier.”
-“I think it was hard to think of things to write but I realized it comes from the heart.”

Some students recognized the power of writing for their own lives:
-“I especially loved the purpose of this. They really help you to become more appreciative.”
-“Writing that letter to my best friend was a really healthy process for me.”
-“In a way I felt relieved.”

Some students underestimated their future potential:
-“I do not plan to write any more letters because I am not that nice of a person.”

But most importantly, so many students were thinking about the other person’s reaction:
-“We got to make other people smile and we got to express ourselves.”
-“My friends always joke that I don’t have a heart or that I’m soul-less. And well that’s because sad things or happy things don’t really affect me. I like how it was to show someone you appreciate them. I hope that my recipient will be happy and excited to read my letter.”
-“The way my mom reacted was giving me a nice big hug and it almost seemed like she got a little teary eyed.”
-“I liked it because people don’t always know how you feel about them and it cheers them up when you remind them.”
-“To me the thing I enjoyed the most while writing it was the thought of the person receiving it being happy.”

Honestly, my main objective was for my students to feel better about something in their own life, but they clearly exceeded those expectations with the empathy they showed for others. This empathy - the ability to recognize the emotions of another person - was your hallmark. You listened and validated. You comforted and encouraged. You were a caretaker of the human spirit.

A friend and I reminisced about how we would wait to talk to you after class, even if we didn’t have anything significant to say, just to feel heard and have you  say our names.

For this you will be truly missed.

Thank you for the life you breathed into me and my students.