Saturday, November 30, 2013

Building Communities With Inclusion

This week's reading, "Citizenship in School: Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome", by Christopher Kliewer, was inspiring and relevatory as teaching special needs' students is something with which I have had low exposure. I am in awe of the several teachers mentioned in this chapter who have seemingly become masters in altering social places so that classrooms are communities embracing the idea that diversity is normal and that "school citizenship requires that students not be categorized and separated based on presumed defect".
Kliewer examines several special needs' students who have flourished in well designed inclusion classrooms. Isaac Johnson, a student with Down Syndrome, gained acceptance  in the classroom community while interpretating and thus, showing meaning of literacy, through his teacher's design of a Where the Wild Things Are dance interpretation lesson. This wise teacher realized that "community acceptance requires opportunity for individual participation in the group, but opportunity cannot exist outside of community acceptance."
This "community connectedness" was what was lacking in John Mcgough's early learning experience in one California city where his mentally retarded label severly limited his access to a rigorous classroom. However, when his family moved to a more progressive community, which accepted and challenged him, he became productive and creative. In fact, "John's dramatic shift in persona is an example of 'altered social place' from a location of hopelessness to one filled with possibility." This happened, in part because of the recognition from community partners of John's "inherent value to the community" and in doing so fostered the opportunities needed "in establishing and confirming that value."
Much of the theoretical basis of the pedagological focus of inclusion as shared community values is found via Howard Gardner's work in "patterns of learning" which mirror democratic values. Along with the traditional school values of honing logic and linguistic skills, Gardner includes five other areas of multiple intelligences: spatial, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal - all of great cultural value but which are often ignored in schools. Kliewer cites these intelligences as areas which should be recognized and fostered in a truly inclusive classroom. Teachers of students with low cognitive functioning can, as attested by Isaac's and John's teachers, bridge understanding and build community by focusing on any/all of these multiple intelligences.
While I found this piece to be inspiring, I also wondered how building an inclusive communtiy of learners would work in secondary literacy classrooms with multiple special needs students and no aids. For instance, many city secondary schools have students with cognitive needs, second language needs, and emotional needs. Although I have never taught a child with Down Syndrome, I have taught many classes with second language learners with IEP and 501 plans. With limited staff, the IEP students are usually pulled/tutored after my class and while I would love to incorporate more classes focusing on kinesthetic or musical learning, preparation for rigorous state tests, and a curriculum focused on developing literacy via traditional reading strategies, which must be followed with fidelity, makes those lessons more difficult to squeeze in.
So, as usual, the culprit is a one-size fits all curriculum and schedule, designed to get students to pass their state tests, which makes the types of lessons/classes higlighted in this text, more difficult to initiate with my students.





Monday, November 18, 2013

Media and Ideology: Breaking Through The Matrix?

In the '90's dystopian cult classic, "The Matrix," Morpheus tells the trapped Neo he can understand reality but "if you take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." Reading Chapter 5 of "Media and Ideology" by David Croteau is a bit like contemplating taking the red pill. Although a dense, academic treatment of the examination of messages and media content, it is also a fascinating reminder to continually assess, as Morpheus advises Neo, "What is real? How do you define real?"

Ideology, Croteau says, must be understood contextually; however, ideology in media concerns the "underlying images of society" which influence social and cultural issues. He says we must, like Neo, determine "which aspects of whose 'reality' do we define as the most real" and in doing so take into account the most visible, most common, and most powerful that tells us about ourselves and society. Croteau points to the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who claims that in liberal democracies power is retained not through physical force but through culture wherein the ruling elite "seek to have their world view accepted by all members of society as the universal way of thinking." This includes media, schools, religion, and business. Correct cultural beliefs become ingrained as "common sense" and thus, create permanency, a type of matrix in and of itself.

Media controls our daily existence. Rarely is there a moment when some strand of media isn't imposed upon our thoughts. So, it's legitimate to say that the media is our matrix: it subtly and not so subtly invades and trains our thinking, from the limited pool of news events to which we are exposed by television main stream news channels, to the incessant ads which permeate in and around us daily, continuously. Croteau says the news media "reaffirms the basic social order and the values and assumptions it is based upon." For instance, political pundits on news channels are chosen from folks who have been "insiders" and debates are also framed around "permanent" political thoughts. Those who are not "invited to the table" are ignored by the press. As an example, I noticed that during the last presidential election, Ron Paul, who amassed a loyal following of young libertarians, was usually ignored during debates, or viewed as a person with views too radical to be taken seriously. Consequently, he had very little air time. Also, blatant bias towards business is highlighted by the reminder that though all newspapers and news stations have investor sections, segments, or whole shows, labor is ignored or mentioned only as a by-product to how laborers add to or diminish profitability.

Croteau also examines film genre and how formulaic plots and heroic archetypes have either emphasized the dominant social order or propped American's ego and pride in times of need, such as movies which have "re-written" the role of America's military might in the Vietnam War.

But, the topic that truly affects us all is advertisement and consumerism, the ubiquitous branding of America. We are bombarded with ads every minute of every day. It is what drives our society  - selling just about everything and anything to consumers. It is the American dream and what we think makes us happy and loved. That's what sells and what is marketed to all of us. And, in doing so, the American "brand" is also sold to overseas markets, creating a two-dimensional view of America and inviting other cultures to buy into this limited view for themselves.

Teaching students to understand media propaganda, and how to decipher what is real and what is marketed so that we think it is "common place" and thus, inevitable, is an important part of our jobs. But, many of us are oblivious to this ideology, this power structure, and so reminding ourselves how brainwashed we as a society are, via articles such as this, is an important first step to swallowing the red pill.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thoughts on Facilitating "Language and Power"

This quote succinctly says what I had hoped to elicit as a potential answer to the essential question of the relationship of language and power, after facilitating our class discussion of "Aria", by Richard Rodriguez, and "Teaching Multilingual Children", by Virginia Collier. However, my plan did not work out as I had hoped.

Facilitating adult discussions is difficult, but I would have been more successful had I planned better. First, while inviting Rosa and Genesis to the conversation as expert English language learners added human realia, their presence also made it difficult to focus the discussion primarily on the text. This was due to my rushing through of the text discussion to accommodate Genesis' schedule and thus, combining the synthesis activity with the interview section, which should have been based solely on the text. Nonetheless, I believe what both ladies shared from their days as English language learners was valuable to the discussion and I know they enjoyed the experience as well.

Collier's advice on teaching language learners is important and valid. A student's first language needs to be valued by the teacher and thought of as an integral resource for the child as they acquire a second language. Bilingual education isn't always possible, but it is preferable, as Rosa noted when sharing how she continued to learn her academic content in Spanish while learning English. Rodriguez shared the heartache of relinquishing his private language, Spanish, yet acknowledges that this loss was necessary in order to fully gain access and acceptance into the majority culture of his time.

Our students will need to be globally competent and that means to be fluent in English and at least one other global language. English is the dominant language of economic power today, but that might change. Our students' economic power will most likely hinge on their ability to work with global citizens and to understand global perspectives. This comes with language learning. So, we need to stop viewing bilingual education as a hindrance, but rather as a necessity for all children.

Language does exert hidden power: in our testing policies and the language bias inherent therein and in how we often view bilingual education as an economic hindrance instead of as an economic, social and cultural asset, and this extends from the classroom into the greater culture - locally, nationally, and internationally.

Hence, the inclusion of this Patricia Ryan tedtalk, "Don't Insist On English"

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Safe Spaces for LGBT Youth

Safe Spaces, Making Schools an Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth, by Vaccaro, August and Kennedy, and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network website ( focused this week's thoughts on ways to actively integrate issues of gender identity into curriculum and schools so that all students feel welcomed and safe in their learning environments. In fact, Safe Spaces expects educators to do more than that; they say we need to create our schools as places "in which difference is not only tolerated but expected, explored, and embraced." I agree.

The article notes LGBT students need strong advocates and that educators can adopt that role through "transformative curricula and transformative communication." The former will aid in helping all students appreciate differences in their peers and in their world, although some educators either have fear or do not feel prepared to address gender-identity issues in their classrooms. In fact, some states mandate that health curriculum exclude exploration of these topics. The authors say that unchallenged assumptions can devolve into fostering bigotry, so sensitive, but explicit inclusion of LGBT topics into lessons can ameliorate those possibilities. However, while this is a first step, the authors say that educators need to go one step further: to teach students to be critical as they examine texts and curriculum to ascertain bias "in the form of LGBT exclusion or negative stereotypes." Communication, verbal and non-verbal, must also be addressed when assessing if our classrooms are safe for all as "many, perhaps most teachers pretend to not hear anti-gay comments.

The Providence schools in which I've taught have been at the forefront of LGBT advocacy and I have found that most of our students have been accepting of their LGBT peers. I have not taught, but have known of several transgender students who were openly accepted by their peers. My school has had an active Gay-Straight Alliance club and our librarian/media specialist actively orders LGBT-themed novels and non-fiction texts and has used several of those books in his student book club. Our school has many openly gay staff members and perhaps that fact helps our LGBT students feel included and safe. Last year, I mentored a gay student whose research-advocacy senior project focused on gay rights in the Dominican Republic; when he presented his project he said he felt proud and safe. Finally, when I teach authors who are gay or lesbian I include that fact  when previewing their lives during the pre-reading portion of a lesson.

Safe Places has several "Reflection Points":
1. What messages did you receive about the LGBT community when you were in school? Which messages were explicit, which were implied?
     The LGBT community was not openly addressed when I was in school but the implied message was that an LGBT orientation was wrong. I remember a handsome student in my school who was a gifted ballet dancer. He hid his training and talents from most students for fear of being labeled gay and I remember that I knew that was wrong. I urged him to showcase his talents, but he refused and I felt sad for him and for my judgmental peers.

2. As an educator, can you identify opportunities to incorporate LGBT voices into your curriculum?
     Yes, if I know of an author's sexual orientation, I include that in pre-reading autobiographical information, such as with W.H. Auden, Langston Hughes, and Adrienne Rich. This year, I plan on introducing poems by Dr. Luzma Umpierre, a lesbian latina bilingual poet who explores sexual identities along with racial and social issues, by including a few pieces from "The Margarita Poems."

3. Do the teachers in your local school receive training on how to confront homophobic or transphobic comments?
     No, we do not receive training on this important issue, but I think we need it. I agree with the authors of Safe Places that many teachers may be too dismissive of comments such as "that's gay." I have not seen that in my school where most teachers are proactive in addressing these types of comments, but we can all benefit from specific training on this topic. For the past several years, however, our senior advocacy teachers have incorporated LGBT issues into their curriculum and have hosted presentations on LGBT themes. Last year, presenters held a vibrant discussion with students on bias and hurtful speech.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Digital Kids and "Real" Communication

Our students have lived their lives within a digital world; to posit what an internet-less world would be like would be akin to us wondering what a world without a television would have been like. Yet, some schools still ban technological tools, such as a smartphone, while others may be embracing all things techie-smart to excess and in doing so, exacerbating a by-product of immersion in all things digital: the tendency to interact with things instead of communicating well with people face-to-face.

Two writings this week examine this issue: one which extolls the integration of technology as a way to create "a learning environment more conducive to producing the types of questions that create lifelong learners rather than savvy test-takers" and another that bemoans a technological world that has "sacrificed conversation for mere connection." Michael Wech states in "Anti-teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance" that students can no longer find significance in a traditional text-based education. His university students don't read many of their assignments because they do not find them relevant to their lives. Wech's answer is to revise his notion of teaching to focus on student inquiry and investigation. To facilitate this, he creates a classroom space he manages as opposed to "teaching" via extending information. His classroom becomes a lab in which students use their own technology in order to complete their task: to figure out how the world works. They become experts of one part of the world and "work together to help design a two-hour simulation of the last 500 years of history." The end result is an edited recorded version of their findings, their final "test."

More and more teachers embrace inquiry-based learning with students using technology as a natural aid in our globally connected society. However, Sherry Turkle worries that technology is creating a society that is "alone together". In "The Flight From Conversation" she states what most witness daily - that people are losing their ability and even desire to converse with people face-to-face as they superficially connect to others via technology. She calls this the "Goldilocks effect" because technology is used as a crutch to keep people "not too close, not too far, just right." She says people need to learn how to converse face-to-face because we, as a society, are confusing conversation with connection and that "we think constant connection will make us feel less lonely." To embrace real connections with people she suggests people create "device-free zones".

Young people need to have a balance with technologically-aided learning and face-to-face conversations of merit and value. One doesn't have to refute the other. Ramsey Musallem, a chemistry teacher, expands curiosity via technology and multimedia and agrees with Wech that teachers need to cultivate curiosity and inquiry as opposed to being mere disseminators of knowledge. In this short presentation he says great teaching comes from three "rules": Curiosity Comes first, Embrace the Mess of Trial and Error, and Practice Reflection:

Musallem says sparking curiosity in students trumps all. Jordan Shapiro agrees in "We Need More EdTech, but Less Technology in the Classroom".  He blends technology and conversation in his university classroom by emailing technologically-based lessons to his students so that they learn via technology away from each other, but while in the classroom, lessons are focused on conversing via Socratic Seminars, discussion and debate.

Finally, there is the camp that believes learning without technology is best. Surprisingly, this can be found with parents who make their living via technology. In fact, the chief technology officer of Ebay, along with many other leaders and employees of Silicon Valley industries, send their children to technology-free schools so that they will develop their curiosities and creativity the old fashioned way: through hands-on tasks combined with human interaction. This is documented in "A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute".  Interestingly, this private Waldorf school, which doesn't emphasize standardized testing, is educating tomorrow's creative thinkers as part of the affluent professional school caste related in Patrick J. Finn's Literacy with an Attitude. 

All these models have one thing in common: each emphasizes inquiry-based learning and the cultivation of curiosity with students. Technology, when used well, should be an aid in students' development of learning to ask questions and in finding potential answers. With that end in mind, teachers can do what we do best - create dynamic learning environments that encourages curiosity and meaningful conversations and debate made with each other, face-to-face.





Sunday, October 20, 2013

Literacy with an Attitude

Sadly, on many days at work I feel like this cartoon teacher. I truly do want my students to be independent learners, and innovative, creative, and critical thinkers, yet a host of issues makes it difficult to match my desire to how my classroom lessons role out. Patrick J. Finn has given me some answers to questions of school management and policy - and how an institutionalized cast system in education has been fostered in America in Literacy with an Attitude, Educating Working-Class Children in Their Own Self-Interest.

Finn says our schools educate working class and lower middle class students towards functional literacy that will prepare them for subservient jobs, while upper middle class and wealthy students are afforded an education that will empower them to be creative individuals and eventual leaders of society.  To combat this, teachers of working class students should engage in teaching that will empower students toward questioning the status quo and their place in society. 

According to Finn, who relates the research of Jean Anyon, working class students tend to be in heavily controlled classrooms with lessons focused on procedure, copying notes, reading from text books, and following rules without understanding them. The student's reaction is to resist. Anyon says these students are being primed for "mechanical and routine" labor. Middle class students receive an education similar to working class students; creativity is not a factor in either. However, middle class students have more exposure to "conceptual" ideas. These students are taught that hard work will benefit them. They are groomed for white collar low-level type jobs that do not call for creativity or critical analysis. Children of affluent professionals, upper middle-class students, attend schools that foster creativity via inquiry learning, independent learning and negotiation. These students are groomed to honor individualism and "humanitarianism" in their march towards gaining creative careers with "social power and high salaries." Finally, children of elite executives attend schools of academic rigor that gave them great freedom that is countered by an insistence on self-discipline. Students do not question the status quo because they are the beneficiaries of the system for which they are groomed: the eventual leaders of all aspects of society.

Finn suggests the only way to change this well ingrained educational cast system is to explicitly guide working class/middle class students to become advocates of change. This happens in classrooms focused on dialogue, realistic negotiations, investigations into power relations, and focusing on the relationship between real-world societal truths and the students' lives. One teacher, Robert Peterson, bases his classes on the work of Brazilian educator and social activist Paolo Friere. His classes "models social responsibility" where-in students learn not of "rugged individuals" but "groups of people who through collective efforts changed the system and became better off as a group."  Finn lays out a blueprint for change, which comes via seven steps: Curriculum and methods are grounded in the lives of students, Curriculum and methods are critical, they are designed to enable students to ask critical questions, Curriculum and methods are activist, Curriculum and methods are rigorous, Curriculum and methods are participatory and experiential, Curriculum and classroom procedures are hopeful, kind and visionary, and Powerful literacy and student discourse are taught explicitly.

Although Finn focuses on class struggle and not race, much of what he expounds upon mirrors previous authors read. In fact, he takes the foundations of Ira Shor's work, Empowering Education, which does not focus specifically on class, but that does note that "participatory education...can offer students a critical education of high quality, an experience of democratic learning, and positive feelings toward intellectual life" and expands these ideas by offering specific models of classrooms and teachers that focus on advocacy education. Also, Delpit says that in order for children of color to breach the culture of power fortification, children must be explicitly taught the skills and codes inherent in that milieu. This is true for white working class children as well.

This brings me to my current musings. The nation and Rhode Island in particular, have embraced the Common Core Standards and 21st Century Skills. But, is this only in theory, or more cynically, is our Commissioner of Education paying lip service to these brands? Both Common Core and 21st Century Skills-focused education are best achieved via Finn's seven steps, including inquiry-based learning, and activist-based, critical dialogue infused teaching and learning. The stated goals mirror the type of schools upper middle class and elite students now attend. Yet, our standardized-testing based curricula fits best with working class and lower middle class type schooling. There is a disconnect between the two.

Unfortunately, I, as a Providence-based teacher, have been forced into teaching a curriculum and format of the latter type of schools. Finn says that teachers cannot use the excuse of 'it's not in the curriculum' because he, with his wealth of experience, claims that "no principal or chair or supervisor ever asked me whether what I was teaching on a particular day was in the curriculum. Furthermore, curricula always have broad objectives such as 'learning to participate in a democracy." Clearly, he has not visited Providence, where we are obligated to follow a "Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum" and where administrative leaders often visit classes to ascertain if teachers are following the curriculum with fidelity.

Also, my school is controlled tightly - and for safety reasons it must be. It hasn't always been, but this year has seen a dramatic rise in students' involvement in unsafe and unlawful conduct. To combat this, students cannot leave the classrooms the first or last fifteen minutes of a class, and only bathrooms on one floor are open for their use. There are not enough available staff to monitor all bathrooms which have been used frequently as meeting places for drug deals and even for sex for hire acts. In fact, this year, the Providence police have been called to the school about ten times for gang related fights, thefts, and community-related infractions.

But, perhaps more importantly, my high school, which most closely resembles a working class model, is populated by immigrants or children of new immigrants who are not even working class students - most are welfare students who are not functionally literate in their first language or in English. They need to be taught basic skills explicitly, a la Delpit, before they can take the next steps: ownership of their own learning via lessons which might help them to develop implicit motivation.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Empowering Education

Seth Godin demands we Stop Stealing Dreams

Empowering Education, by Ira Shor, reviewed the foundation of my teacher education training many years ago. I revisited the philosophies of Piaget, Dewey, and Friere, amongst others, and was reminded of what most education students learn in their 101 classes: successful learning happens best in active, creative classrooms, that education and curriculum are political choices, education is a socialization process in which compliance has been emphasized, and that testing - especially standardized exams - are also political choices. What schools ought to be are places of empowerment for students, where student-centered classrooms create "change agents and social critics." To do so, "participatory pedagogy, designed from cooperative exercises, critical thought, student experience, and negotiating authority in class, can help students feel they are in sufficient command of the learning process to perform at their peak."

I started this blog with a TED talk by Seth Godin, an entrepreneur who restated much of this article via 21st century methods; he sums up what public schools were originally designed for - not to create scholars or even thinkers, but to educate compliant factory workers. He sets the tone for where schools ought to be today. Another forward thinking educator, curriculum specialist Heidi Hayes Jacobs, takes the well recognized ideas of Piaget, Dewey and Friere and asks us "What year are you preparing your students for?" She suggests most schools today are preparing students for 1982, not 2014 and this not only ties into Empowering Education but gives shape to how schools can actually put into action what Shor espouses. She reminds educators that our students need media, digital and global literacy skills and that schools should not be reformed, a term that relates to tweaking the status quo, but rather that we need new forms of schools that engage students with upgraded skills, dynamic curricula, and project-based assessments that are in step with an ever changing global society.

Heidi Hayes Jacobs' vision is not to reform schools but create new forms of schools

Unfortunately, many of our schools, while embracing 21st century skills in theory, discourage teachers from taking the lead in giving students what they need to excel in the world into which they will graduate. Our Rhode Island schools, helmed by Debra Gist, are driven by 20th century assessments via multiple choice standardized tests, curriculum choices that prepare students to perform well on these high-stakes tests, and a need for compliance by teachers to accept this mediocrity in order to earn the moniker of "highly effective."

What our students truly need - and what Shor argues - is an opportunity to be educated in creative ways. The type of classrooms that Shor, Godin and Hayes Jacobs envision are places where lessons are project based and inquiry driven wherein students ask questions and investigate answers via interdisciplinary research. These lessons have global connections, and are perhaps even connected to other globally-based classrooms wherein cooperative - not competitive learning - takes place. They are not classrooms driven by textbooks and teacher lectures, but rather by investigations designed to solve problems or to create something new.

Here is one such educator that shows how this can be accomplished, David Thormburg in his video The Evolving Classroom:

Let's hope our schools can catch up to 2014 - before it's too late.