Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Promising Practices Letter

Dr. Emdin,

Your keynote at the Promising Practices conference really resonated with me.  It felt like you were talking to me - when I was a student.  When I was suffering through math and science classes being halfway conscious.  When I was equivocally being told that I would amount to very little.  In the spirit of HipHopEd I wrote a poem which reflects my experience as a teacher dealing with the issues of a dysfunctional system.

Every day across our nation scientists walk into our schools
And, Every Day across our nation science students walk out.
Scientists are inquisitive, curious, intrigued - prying, spying, snooping
Intrusive-ly pushing in - searching, seeking - for meaning.
That spark that lights their way slowly turning into doubt.
Slowly stripped of their desire - scien-tists become science-students.
Being told instead of showed because there is no time.
Memorize don’t internalize because there is - no - time.
No time!
No - time?

Jamila Lyiscott: 3 Ways to Speak English shares her perspective on being "articulate".

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Am I the only one who noticed?

According to Spencer and Dornbusch, adolescents engage with society in ways that will help them construct their identities - “This is who I think I am - what do you think?” (Nakkula and Toshalis, pg. 131).  Mr. Keith (a colleague of mine) has been known to occasionally recite the same sentiment to his students, but in the form of “You are not who you think you are.  You are not even who other people think you are.  You are who you think other people think you are” (Unknown).  I like both of the quotations because I hear students talk all the time about whether their teacher like them - or not, and I cannot help but to chuckle because so many times they have no idea.  Yet, those perceptions can become prophetic as students try to live up to their self made billing, as was the case between Antwon and Ms. Peterson (from chapter 1).  Such behavior on the part of adolescents can be positive or negative which is why we, as teachers, must take care in the interactions that we have with our students.

On a greater scale we must be prepared to combat the messages about race that come from people as well as - or especially from - the media.

To paraphrase Dr. Bogad (again), poor people can fake richness, gay people can fake straightness, non Christians can fake Christianness, but people of color cannot fake whiteness.  Thus for them there is no such thing as blending in.  Which may be why over time as more racial groups were imagined (“Omi and Winant call racial categories “patently absurd reductions of human variation”) the “black” Irish simply became the Irish in American society (Nakkula and Toshalis, pg. 123).  I might also use this to argue that John F. Kennedy was not only the first Catholic President of the United States of America, but also the first black President.

Consider the following quote while reading the story below.

Is it possible that whites work “optimally,” that is, uninterrupted, when [they] don’t have to discuss race and ethnicity and that students of color can only be engaged and most unburdened when race and ethnicity are squarely on the table? … It seems likely that students of color are “stuck” until “race” is discussed, while White students are “stuck” once race is discussed.  (Nakkula and Toshalis, pg. 125)

You are a White man living and working on a Caribbean island where the great majority of the population (including those in power) are Black.  After having lived on the island for long enough that you are acclimated to and comfortable with the culture as well as the locals, you know them and they know you.  One day, you board a bus (local transportation) where you suddenly become very aware that you are the only white person on that bus.  Which would make you feel more at ease?  
  1. No one says anything, and you remain alone with your thoughts.
  2. Someone breaks the tension by asking (in a friendly tone), did you get on the wrong bus?

Now consider that this scenario plays out quite frequently in our classrooms.  What must it be like to be the only minority student in classroom full of white students?

The same idea could be applied to any situation - independent of race - in which one person was the newest member of a group.  If the new member is not made to feel welcomed there may be some discomfort which prevents optimal participation from that new member.  On the other hand, if someone were to point out that the new member was not properly welcomed into the group, the other group members might feel discomfort with the prospect of having to acknowledge that they failed to properly welcome the new member resulting in less than optimal participation.

Could it be that our minority students think that our view of them is the same as what the media portrays of their racial group?  How might that feel?

Here's to breaking the ice.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Chef Gay-Boy RD ... Present

I can only imagine what Mr. C was thinking on the afternoon when young Gabriel decided that it was necessary to jump up onto the window sill and pronounce to the classroom that “I am not gay!”.  Having a name like Gabriel (GAY-briel) made me an easy target for all sorts of gay jokes (the most clever of which was being called Chef Gay-Boy RD - that one incorporated both my first and last name).  The name calling continued throughout high school (mostly by my friends and sometimes by others).  Though I remember being very secure with my own gender identity and not wasting a lot of energy trying to be someone that I was not.  My evidence for this is that by my senior year in high school I was the captain football and wrestling teams while also having an openly gay best friend and frequently being cast in both leading and supporting roles in various school plays (theater being an activity that was considered to be a sort of a haven for the gay kids).  Yet, I do have to concede that I did have moments where I felt the need to defend my sexuality which implies that I was in fact wasting a considerable about of my energy, not on hiding part of myself, but instead insisting that I was not gay.  

“... the scripts they are expected to adopt produces psychological dissonance and the necessity for survival-based accommodations” (Nakkula & Toshalis, pg. 104).

Nakkula and Toshalis argue that in order to optimize learning students must be “fully present” and “intact” (pg. 115).  In other words, students are not wasting precious energy that could be spent learning hiding parts of themselves or otherwise defending themselves from a culture that devalues anyone who does not fit neatly into a predetermined mold of what it means to be a female or a male.  To me this means that we, the educators, have to ensure a safe environment for our students by challenging status quo of what it means to be a female or a male in our society.  Admittedly, I have had a hard time challenging students who would use words like gay to describe something that was lacking in some way as in “those shoes are gay” - as if a pair of shoes could be “gay” - because I found that the following conversations would become combative and seldomly caused the offender to question his or her language.  However, I have learned one simple way to challenge students while requiring them to think about their language and that is to simply ask “what do you mean by that?” (thanks to Dr. Bogad for offering such a simple and effective tool for fighting oppressive language).  

By just asking that one simple question (which works under so many contexts), I have been able to both reduce the instances of oppressive language in my classroom as well as model for my students how they too can use linguistic judo in order to fight back against oppression without having to jump onto the window sill and make any unnecessary proclamations.  In addition, the students learn that they do not have to hide themselves from me or around me.  What follows is getting them to a place where they can feel comfortable and confident enough to see themselves and be themselves fully.

(I find myself singing this song to myself when things start getting tough. I also play it for my students at least once a year while I explain to them that we all have things in our lives that unnecessarily steal our energy and that we have a choice in how we deal with them.)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Group Work Drama

Based on Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development I would argue that adolescents understand each other much better that we understand them, or than they understand us (perhaps that is why there is so much friction between teens and adults).  Thus, I try to use group work as a means for allowing my students to translate my adult-ese (academic chem speak) into something that they might be able to make meaning of.  However, I quickly learned that creating groups could be like walking through a minefield.  With so many differing personalities combined with the interweaving of personal lives and school cliques (most of which I am oblivious to) student groups can quickly deteriorate into a mess of angry teens.

“One should not assume a collaborative relational stance with a partner incapable or unwilling to participate at a similar level” (Nakkula & Toshalis, pg. 90).

One particular instance of that occurred in a group last year that consisted of three girls, Mary, Brittany and Julie.  Both Julie and Brittany were strongly opinionated and at the time inflexible girls and poor Mary was doing her best to keep the piece.  The argument was based upon a disagreement between Julie and Brittany which stemmed from a perceived inequality in work sharing.  Neither of the girls was willing to negotiate with the other and ultimately preferred to do the project on their own.  

“Enhancing students’ self-sufficiency and autonomy without also supporting their capacity to negotiate resources, power, and relational meaning with others can limit student growth” (Nakkula & Toshalis, pg. 95).

Mr. Harrison had a similar issue to deal with between Lorena and Steve.  However, Mr. Harrison was able to deal with Lorena and Steve much more efficiently that I was able to deal with Julie and Brittany.  His approach to solving the conflict is outlined by Nakkula and Toshalis on pages 91 and 92 of their book Understanding Youth Adolescent Development for Educators.  Mr. Harrison had his students answer the following three questions:
  1. “What do you think are the key elements that make this project important?”
  2. “On which of those elements would you find it difficult to compromise?”
  3. “Which elements are negotiable to you?”

It has occurred to me that most teachers can identify at least a few reasons why group work is beneficial to learning (develop interpersonal skills, team working skills, etc.).  I wonder if students could do the same.  Further, I wonder (though not much) whether or not students have developed the skills or confidence to truly resolve conflicts as they come up within their group.  In light of these and what I have learned from reading this book (Understanding Youth), it occurs to me that the three previously quoted questions might be a good place to start any major project - before conflict arises.  

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Validator

“Understanding adolescents as theoreticians and examining risk taking as meaning-making activity helps us see beyond the rhetoric of “at-risk” youth” (Nakkula & Toshalis, pg. 45).  If I was pushed to choose one sentence from this book (and I have already read the book) to summarize the point of the book, it very well could be that one.  The statement made in that sentences forces the reader to step back and reconsider adolescents as both dynamic and intelligent people.  Too often I hear conversations where children are described in a sort of static state in which they are labeled in many ways, most of which are derogatory.  Gabe did/does not turn in homework assignments … he is not accountable …  Allie cannot stop talking in class … she is out of control …  Poor Brittany lives on the south side … she must be poor … It seems that it has become easier to label students and simply treat them according to their labels than it is to engage with the students in meaningful ways.  As opposed to giving up on students or showering them in pity.  

Anyone who takes a moment to step back from the frustration of dealing with over one hundred children on a daily basis (yes, it can be frustrating at times) would see that children are not static.  “Much of what adolescents choose to do, whom they relate to, and how they spend their time is contingent upon the self they are seeking to create, test, and revise” (Nakkula and Toshalis pg. 18).  This could mean that students who are always buzzing around either want to be like me, so they will test me to either redeem their wanting to be like me or decide that they do not want to be like me.  Granted that this is an utterly narcissistic way to view the previous quotation, but I think that it may also help reframe the relationships between those adolescents and the adults in their lives in such a way that it is flattering to the adult.  Changing the lense through which we view our children can help us be more helpful to them as they navigate the trials of adolescence.

“To dismiss such experimentation and the anxieties associated with it as a mere “phase they’ll get through,” “raging hormones,” or simple “rebelliousness” is to devalue the unique opening this developmental era represents” (Nakkula and Toshalis pg. 24).  It is not just the careless name calling attitudes of jaded teachers in the breakroom that can be detrimental to students.  It is the careless and unintentionally clumsy conversations that we have with them that can also be damaging - perhaps even more so when they occur within a space of trust.  I am reminded of a conversation that I had with the son (let’s call him Keith) of a close friend.  Keith at the time was about sixteen or seventeen years old (I have been consistently in his life since he was about nine or ten).  As we were listening to some music that his father had playing (think James Brown, Stevie Wonder … old/new soul and funk) the conversation turned to current trends in music, specifically dubstep.  What happened next was that we (his father and I) politely told him that our choice of music was better than his.  Perhaps this is a mild example.  Yet, it serves to show that we can be careless even with those that we love.  

As I write I am reminded of the discussion we recently had in class about the teaching that is intended and the teaching that is not intended.  In my previous example with Keith, I do not think that there was an intention for teaching.  Rather, it was a moment in which Keith’s dad and myself made it clear that his choice of music was not as valued as ours.  I now wonder how he may have received that tidbit of “knowledge”.  I wonder how many times we minimize our students issues with the demeaning message of “wait until you get to the real world”.  As if their world or their problems are somehow not real.  If nothing else, chapters two and three in of Understanding Youth have been a good reminder to me of what it was like being a teenager trying to figure out who I am, how I fit into the larger world and how much I needed and valued the input / validation of the adults in my life.  Now I am the adult.  Now I am The Validator (in the Arnold Schwarzenegger voice).   

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why is the sky blue?

“The adolescents with whom we work as educators are cowriting our narratives just as we are cowriting theirs” (Nakkula & Toshalis, pg. 7).  That to me is a powerful statement.  It forces me to reflect on myself as a dynamic teacher and a person who changes and changes again from year to year, month to month, week to week, day to day and even from one second to the next as I interact with those people closest to me; namely, my family, my students and my friends.  These three groups of people each challenge me in ways that force me to be critical of myself.  

As an educator, I will potentially spend 180 hours directly engaged with my students.  Just as I am watching them and learning from them, they are watching me and learning from me.  Some are focused more than others on the curricular objectives that I set out to teach them, but surely they are all learning much more than that.  Chapter one of Understanding Youth: Adolescent Behavior for Educators very closely mirrors Frank Smith’s notion of “the classic view of learning and forgetting” as described in chapter one of his book The Book of Learning and Forgetting.  Learning is continuous.

I see a lot of Antwon in myself (as I was as a teen).  I was the student who some teacher would love and others would hate because I didn’t like (and I still don’t) the hypocrisy of the do as I say not as I do attitudes of the adults in my life.  So, when I felt confronted with situations in which a teacher (or any other person) was being unfair I could hardly stop myself from pointing out the perceived injustice.  I can recall one of those occasions happening in my senior physics class.  I was working on my packet when Mr. ___ yelled at me to be quiet.  I responded by stating that I was not talking.  Mr. ___ disagreed and long story short, I was asked to leave the room and not to return without an apology.  A few days of cutting his class later, and under the advice of another teacher I did return with an apology for the misunderstanding.

I think that a lot of educators forget that the majority of what they teach their students is unintentional and unaccounted for.  The only physics knowledge that I have is that which I learned in college (none at all from Mr. ___).  However, Mr. ___ did provide the opportunity for someone else to teach me that there are ways to work within the system in order to accomplish my own goals.  By apologizing for the misunderstanding I was able to return to class while still maintaining that both Mr. ___ and myself were in disagreement over the incident that took place a few days earlier.

“... it is not enough just to give children books and lessons; development requires providing children with the workings of other people’s minds” (Nakkula & Toshalis, pg. 8).  I think that I can safely say that all parents have experienced the agony of child asking, why.  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why? WHY?  Why is the sky blue?  If I told her that the sky is blue because the molecules in the atmosphere scatter more blue light, yada yada, she would ask me why again.  However, when I kneel down next to her and praise her for making such a great observation of the sky and tell her how smart she is and how proud I am of her for thinking of such a fantastic question and how I love her curiosity and then tell her that when a rainbow hits the air in the sky the blue light sticks to it and the other colors pass through it she will usually be happy enough to leave it alone.  Is my four year old daughter really that interested in knowing why the sky is blue or is there something else that she is after?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Standards! We Don't Need No Stinking Standards! - Or Do We?

“It is a fools errand to search for a teacher-proof curriculum” (Ayers, pg. 75)  Is anyone really looking for this?

My father’s method of discipline was to have me and my brothers kneel against the wall.  I know that have long lost track of the many hours that I have spent kneeling flat (knees, hips and shoulders) against the wall - arms held out to the side.  My brothers were smart enough to give in to his demands so that they could get up.  I was much too stubborn to give in so easily.  Even when I knew that I was wrong I refused to give in and so I knelt.  One night in particular I stayed there from 8pm until nearly 2am due to a refusal to do my homework.  I know few people more stubborn than myself (two of them - my wife and daughter - live in my house) - the others are all teachers.  We are a people that do not like being micromanaged.

As I read Ayers, I felt that he was trying too hard to vilify the standards that are meant to guide instruction by depicting those standards and those who write them as somehow “killing learning (pg. 74).  I think that the only people who can really kill learning are the teachers in the classrooms.  Perhaps they too do not like to be told what to do or perhaps they do not like the changes that come along every few years with the advent of newly released standards.  Either way, it has been my experience that the standards are merely a means of keeping a large number of educators across a wide range of schools accountable to teaching the same or similar material.  Thus, making it easier to to identify effective schools and ineffective schools via the use of standardized tests - delving into the issues behind and within those standardized tests is beyond the scope of the this piece.   

Later, Ayers presents the “3 common beliefs about actors that stood in the way of greatness … Great actors find a seed of authenticity to move from caricature to complex, living human beings” (pg. 96).  Isn’t this at the core of every good teacher?  Any standard that I have ever seen, read, used, or otherwise was simply a list of principles that ought to have been taught during the year in a high school science class.  At no point did I come across any dictate about how those principles were to be taught (although that would make my life simpler at times).  The complex task of bringing those principles to life for the students is left to the teacher.

While “curriculum is more than pieces of information …” there are still pieces of information that students must learn in order to make deeper meaning - both shaded and with different meaning - of more complex systems.