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!