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?!