Sunday, September 29, 2013

Rethinking Schools: TPA, Conformity, and Corporations - or the Why and How of the Sucking Out of Creativity and Craft From Education

As I was perusing the various issues of Rethinking Schools to find a piece that resonated with me and my classes, I was faced with a problem. I realized that while the articles offered compelling ideas for lessons with powerful social-justice and environmental themes, I could not use these ideas in my day-to-day job as a teacher in Providence. While other teachers throughout the country are offering up wonderful lessons such as "Paradise Lost: Introducing students to climate change through story", "The Danger of a Single Story: Writing essays about our lives", or "Writing for Justice: Persuasion from the Inside Out", I am required to follow a "Viable and Guaranteed Curriculum" that has been scripted by others and which must be followed with fidelity. Indeed, most of what I saw in the issues seemed foreign to the reality that is education in Providence today. The exception is in the current edition which focuses on the pros and cons of "edTPA (Teacher Performance Assessment), the test for credential candidates now being piloted in teacher education programs around the country." Although pre-teaching certification isn't something I, a veteran teacher, needs to worry about, it is directly correlated with the state of public education in Providence, and concerns how the standardization and corporatization of teacher education should be a worry for all practicing teachers who someday will be vacating their seats at the education table.

The three featured articles offer differing opinions on TPA. Linda Darling-Hammond and Maria E. Hyler argue the merits of the controversial measure in "The Role of Performance Assessment in Developing Teaching as a Profession". Stating that TPA follows the model of The National Board, the authors note that TPA is a positive step in formulating professional standards which, in part, "asks candidates to plan a unit of instruction, adapt the plans for English learners and students with disabilities, and track three to five days of instruction. Candidates discuss how and why the plans are revised as teaching unfolds, submit a continuous video clip of a teaching segment, and collect and analyze evidence of student learning. Candidates also describe and show how they develop students' language proficiency and academic language in the discipline." All this sounds positive, but others disagree.

Barbara Madeloni and Julie Gorlewski argue that "Teacher education (like K–12) is under attack by those seeking to exploit the public good and privatize education" in their article "Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question: Why we need critical teacher education, not standardization." They see TPA as an affront to our profession and that first and foremost "we need our schools of education to ask pre-service teachers to wrestle with identity and race, to explore the historical/cultural contexts of school, and to frame teaching as the political work that it is." They claim that the TPA package, as now owned and marketed by Pearson Education Inc. with its' calibrated score for a teaching candidate's portfolio, doesn't take into account the nuances of the teaching craft, nor does it "address the most pressing concerns of critical multicultural educators: making schools sites for social justice and advocating for education as liberation."

The final article, "What's a Nice Test Like You Doing in a Place Like This? The edTPA and corporate education 'reform' ", by Wayne Au, highlights problems with TPA which mirrors the current state of affairs in Providence. Au states he and his colleagues at The University of Washington struggle with the same things public education teachers struggle with today: teaching to the 'test', and that "instead of focusing on good teaching, our conversations are quickly turning to how to prepare our students for the edTPA." He points out the obvious issues of corporate intervention in public education since Pearson Education administers TPA, but really hammers his argument home with this observation: "Perhaps the edTPA does become the new national bar exam for teachers. Between Pearson's involvement and the evidence of my own teacher education program, as well as other programs around the country, I'm fearful that the high-stakes, standardized nature of the edTPA is already ruining teacher education, perhaps killing the patient while trying to save it."

If TPA, as administered by Pearson, becomes the certification route for new teachers, who will want to become a teacher? New teachers will soon realize the standardization process of a teaching cert is just the first step in learning what education is today: the new money-making darling for corporations where education is all about numbers, data, and standardization, and that a teacher's career is at the mercy of how their students score on corporate-packaged tests. Within the course of my career in Providence, I have seen all control taken from me so that my role is little more than a deliverer of the set curriculum others have deemed necessary for my students. My first years of teaching were hard, but they were creative and fulfilling. Amongst others, I created a unit on "Hearing My Voice" based on Spike Lee films for one ELA class and one on the immigrant experience with ELLS called "From Rhode Island: Memories of Me and My Land Merging With New Rhode Island Roots". I worked with actors from Trinity and professors at Brown to create "From the Page to the Stage" lessons in reading, performing, and interpreting Shakespearean plays. In essence, I wrote and delivered many units integrating reading, research, writing, viewing, and performance. Students wrote what was meaningful to them as a conduit for navigating English as a second language and read stories that were relevant to their lives. I was able to teach the writings of Malcolm X and Isabelle Allende amongst others. And the students seemed to enjoy their learning. Today, I enter each school year knowing I will once again be required to teach the same novels, the same writing assignments and the same scripts the district requires and always with the end in mind: the "test" - NECAP, end of curriculum unit tests, ACCESS (for language learners) and soon - the PARC, which, in turn, shows the Rhode Island Department of Education that I am an "effective" teacher. To that end staff meetings are organized around data chats, not student engagement or creative curriculum ideas.

Teaching today, at least in Providence, is a dry, stressful career. And as a member of a school labeled "intervention" - due to the fact our English language learners and exited English language learners, the majority of our students, have not been able to score well on NECAP, a test that all students who have been in the country for more than one year must take - it is a career that is now overseen by a corporate partner: Floridian-based Cambium. Our professional development has been devised by Cambium and it is driven by conformity. For instance, there are 10 "non-negotiables" we must follow with each month focused on one of the non-negotiables. Even classroom board configurations must all look alike. So, what does my creative, fulfilling career entail today? If it's the third week of a quarter, I must have finished three clusters of a unit from "Edge", the book of choice for all secondary language learners in Providence, before jumping into an assessment-based written assignment chosen by a Providence Central Administration team - of a novel - chosen by a Providence Central Administration team.

Education today is turning into a scripted game. And, while we all want our students to have the tools to become successful college candidates, it seems as though we have forgotten that students' needs do not come in a uniformed package. They are people, not cogs. So, unfortunately, the victors are not the students. They are the corporations who have something to gain from our students and tax payers: money and lots of it. So, future educators take note: TPA is just the first step of being molded into what others have deemed is necessary for students. Your voice, your creativity, your ideas about what and how to teach what you know your students need, are not truly valued. In fact, your place at the table has already been sold and it seems this time around Pearson had the winning bid.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Color Insight Usurping Colorblindness: But, Will it Work?

Johnson defined privilege and power in Privilege, Power, and Difference and Delpit applied what the "culture of power" means in the classroom by asking teachers to recognize different learning styles and expectations. In "Colorblindness is the New Racism", Armstrong and Wildman posit that "colorblindness" needs to be assaulted via "color insight".  They theorize that "society purports to prize colorblindness and that reality makes it hard to 'see race' in public discussion." In essence, white Americans deny racism via not recognizing being racial and society has encouraged colorblindness through the mantra of 'we are all equal; color, race, gender should not matter'.Their solution is to encourage the recognition of privilege via drawing attention to the privileges people of power attain.

They begin by noting that white people have an "everyday option to not think of herself in racial terms at all" because this is the societal norm in America. They say whites can claim they do not discriminate if they do not think about race. However, if they do not think about the privileges of their positions of power, discrimination ensues. Whites who are "colorblind" assume this is the attitude that equates to being non-racist; however, if whites are colorblind, Armstrong and Wildman assert, they are also blind to their own privileges within our society. To combat this, the authors insist "it would be more helpful to notice the everyday presence of racial privilege and to think about how to combat it." Their solution is to promote "color insight", to "observe, discuss, an analyze the operation of race and privilege in contemporary society." Exercises to do so include observing, in a 24-hour period, the racial composition of your environment: races and jobs, interactions etc. Another is to  place one's self above or below a "power line chart" and a third is to see the "me" in others such as sharing stories about maternal grandmothers.

While these exercises are laudable, and will help students understand the culture of power and privilege, it will not change most people's long-term understanding of the culture of power. Why? Because all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, experience discrimination and the ego will always point to negative individual experiences as a starting point. I am privileged as a white woman in America; however, I also have been discriminated against in other areas. When flying, for instance, I am usually pulled for an extra security check. I have assumed I am chosen because I fly alone, without children, and I fly often and widely. Also, as an undergraduate, I was denied a place at a certain university while a friend, a new immigrant from S.Africa, whose high school grades and SAT scores were lower than mine, was accepted. No, she was not black, but rather her father used his religious affiliations/contacts to "pull strings." So, every sub culture has its own plusses and minuses in a society that, while pluralistic, is not egalitarian.

Furthermore, some of what Armstrong and Wildman writes is bogged down by hyperbole. For instance, they note that "inequality in opportunity and caliber of education remains rampant...white students are generally afforded the best educational opportunities in the United States, while these benefits elude many students of color." The caliber of education - teacher preparation and pedagogy, curriculum, et al - in Providence is not the problem; the caliber of understanding the culture of education and academic expectations by many families and students is. Per student funding in Providence is over $16,000. All high schools now offer a full load of AP courses. Many schools, mine included, have smartboards and full access to technology. All students are afforded a free breakfast and lunch. After-school and Saturday tutoring is now the norm, and all students in the city have new, updated textbooks. But, the education in Providence is different from that of a suburban or rural school district because the needs of the majority of our students are different. Providence, as is the norm in most urban areas, educates many immigrant students - students who arrive here to live with relatives in order to learn English and have more opportunities. Many of my students do not move here with their parents but rather are sent here so that they can eventually attend college in this country. The result of a high immigrant population, many of whom arrive with low literacy skills in their first language, is that more resources must be used to remediate, resulting in classes with students who are not on grade level in English. Exacerbating this fact is the disconnect between the expectations of the students' families concerning what the role of a student entails vs. the expectations of the schools and society. As Delpit pointed out, when students are not taught the culture of academic readiness, the culture of power, they will have more difficulty in reaching circles of power. Our immigrant students want to succeed academically but many resist the solutions to do so: completing homework, for example. Perhaps this is because their parents/guardians are not recipients of a culture of academics. However, this is not because of white racism in this country. In fact, I will boldly state that the level of education in Providence is different because in many respects we are educating other countries' children - and that is what makes it difficult for native born students to receive an education equal to that of their suburban counterparts- of any race.

So, I agree with the basic premise of Armstrong and Wildman; their advocacy of racial awareness will benefit people in their self-awareness of societal privilege or lack there-of. However, privilege and discrimination comes in many guises. People of all races, of both genders, of any sexual orientation - will always look at their own individual lives - and how they have been or haven't been a recipient of privilege due to numerous factors - as a benchmark.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Educating Other People's Children

In The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children, Lisa Delpit argues that educators must be aware of the culture of power that exists in classrooms. Speaking from her role as a black educator who also has conducted field work in Alaska and Papua, New Guinea, Delpit insists that educators who belong to the "culture of power" club who work with minorities and those students who have not been raised in the same cultural mindset as their instructor,  must teach their students through explicit, skills-oriented, lessons. Doing so will give the students the tools to navigate towards the culture of power that exists in mainstream American schools. She identifies five tenants of this culture: 1) Issues of power are enacted in classrooms; 2) There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a 'culture of power'; 3) The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power; 4) If those who are not already a participant in the cultural of power are told explicitly the rules of that culture, gaining power is easier; and 5)Those with power are frequently least aware of its existence while those with less power are often more aware of its existence.

Delpit suggests that many white educators who claim to be liberal are actually doing much harm to their minority students because of their ignorance of the expectations and rearing style of the parents of their students. For instance, understanding basic codes of verbal and non-verbal communication is key. A white teacher may relay a command as a question, "Is this where you put a comma?" while a black parent or teacher will give a directive, "Put the comma between words in a list."  However, her basic premise is that direct, skills taught literacy that produces a meaningful product trumps process, the literacy approach embraced by middle-class instructors who may assume all students arrive to school with the keys to understand the "implicit codes" of their "white" classroom culture that will unlock meaning. So, liberal-minded teachers, fearful of acting against "liberal principles" and perhaps, even "liberal principals", actually block their minority students from success.

Several ideas of import include:

"We do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs."

When teachers and students do not have the same set of beliefs, student success is only gained through an understanding of each other's cultures and belief systems. Therefore, parents of minority children must have a say in how their child is educated, including the methodology. Parents of my second language learners ask that I am firm and direct with their children, and I am.  I explicitly teach grammar, writing skills, and phonemics. But, while students are working towards mastery of those skills, I also employ process to create a product that is meaningful to the student. 

"Schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home."

Students whose families live outside of the "culture of power" either do not have or emphasize the content or learning tools inherent in families who are part of that power system. In order for students to gain access to a level playing field, teachers must explicitly provide the content that will allow those students to perform well and compete. I see this with my AP Literature students, most of whom are children of immigrants or are immigrants themselves. While my students easily acquire the explicitly taught tier 3, content vocabulary such as literary terms, they lack the academic vocabulary, which is acquired through years of reading at, or above, grade level books. Therefore, I also begin each class with an academic, tier 2 high-frequency or multiple meaning word such as  "mastication".  I also expect students to peruse "culture of power" magazines such as Vanity Fair, Harpers, or The New Yorker for examples of interesting words, powerful prose or thought-provoking poems.

"Somehow, to exhibit one's personal power as expert source is viewed as disempowering one's students."

This statement exemplifies how schools seem to be organized today. As part of my school's transformation plan, teachers are told that the first classroom non-negotiable is having "A student-centered classroom." Teachers organize learning, students learn through discovery with the material and interaction with each other. I have found that with my advanced-level ELA students, this philosophy works well. It does work because students have become investigator-learners after acquiring the skills that allow them to own that role. However, my second-language learners with low English communication skills must be taught explicitly and directly. Group work, if not kept at a minimum, becomes chaotic and disorganized. Although I follow the "I do, we do together, you do together, you do alone" model, all becomes unraveled at the third phase if the first two are not modeled well and in several stages. In fact, often I must redirect the class back to the "I do" or "we do together" phase during any given lesson. Hence, many administrators who make whole-complex decisions and who do not fully understand second language acquisition or other learning styles in their building would be wise to read Delpit's advice.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Privilege, Power and Difference: If Harvard Business School Can Address the Issue, Shouldn't Our Public Schools?

What? Not a red-head? Maybe I'm not that privileged after all..or am I just in denial?

Red-head aside, I am a privileged person, belonging to a privileged group in the United States, according to Allan Johnson, author of Privilege, Power and Difference. As a white, middle class, Anglo-Saxon Protestant living in the northeast part of the United States, I have always known this to be true even if, or especially because, I have never questioned my place or safety in our society. Johnson states that "we all like to feel that way: accepted, valued, supported, appreciated, respected, belonging" and for the most part, that is how my life has been spent and, as a teacher, how I hope to respond to my multi-lingual, multi-cultural students. What I, and few of my colleagues have not truly acknowledged, however, is what Johnson identifies as the "trouble we're in," that our privilege is gained at the expense of others. If we can't face that truth, can we implement positive change in our schools?

In the first three chapters of his book, Johnson lays down his foundation. First, he notes he is also part of the privileged class: white, male and heterosexual. However, he states that people who are privileged must own that reality and make the problem of an unfair social structure their problem. This, he admits, is daunting as first people in power must name the issues before they can be addressed: they must utter words such as privilege, racism, sexism, and patriarchy, among others, and that in doing so it must be attempted without "defensive sensitivity" to the language.

So, how does this translate in education and in society? Harvard Business School (HBS), long a bastion for the children of those who already hold power, namely white business people with connections, has, for the past two years, given itself a "gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success" . In order to do so, the institution looked first at finding and retaining women faculty members, a third of whom left their prestigious roles in one time span (2006-2007) alone. While just a start, what HBS has attempted fits into Johnson's claim that those who hold power must recognize that truth and more importantly, lay claim to their responsibility for rectifying the problem.

Johnson continues, in Chapter 3, to state that being different is not a problem, that "if we feel afraid, it isn't what we don't know that frightens us, it's what we think we do know." Society has taught us that we need to be afraid of strangers or the unknown, when, in reality, we are a curious species with an innate desire to reach out to that which is strange or different in order to learn about our world. Using a "Diversity Wheel", in which inner categories are fixed such as age, race, and gender, and outer ones are malleable, such as our income or geographic location, Johnson shows how "shifting only a few parts of the diversity wheel would be enough to change their lives dramatically." So, the heart of the problem isn't that people differ from one another but that the world is "organized in ways that encourage people to use difference to include or exclude, reward or punish" or to "value or devalue". In the United States, being white is what has been valued; furthermore, the "dominant racial group in this country has had the cultural authority to define the boundaries around "white" as it chooses." For instance, at one point in our history Italians and Irish were not considered white enough by those in power. These cultural groups are now part of the recognized "white" power structure, a label other ethnic groups see as the route to not being oppressed, and in doing so, sometimes oppress others. Let me explain.

Johnson points out that "you don't actually have to be white or male or heterosexual to receive the privilege attached to those categories. All you have to do is convince people you belong the appropriate category." I see this at my school where the quest of being considered "white enough" or rather, not black, translates into racism between a people who share the island of Hispaniola, the Dominicans and Haitians. My school is dominated by Dominican immigrants, many of whom deride their Haitian and African immigrant counterparts as well as native born African Americans. In fact, though 90 percent of Dominicans are descended from African slaves, most are in denial of this truth and firmly declare that they are Spanish, that they identify more with the culture of their language, than with their ancestors. This is a result of a complicated history, well documented by Professor Henry Luis Gates in his PBS special Haiti & the Dominican Republic: An Island DividedIn essence, many Dominicans consider their motherland Spain, not Africa, a self-identity fostered by the island's past, long-standing dictator Trujillo and by a social reality that not being black has translated into a better economic life, and thus a better social standing. As Johnson points out "we usually don't look downward in the social hierarchy but to people we identify as being on the same level as or higher level than our own."

Today, the results of this desire to not be black can be seen and felt within the walls of my one urban school. However, unlike Harvard Business School, this power structure (primarily of racism) has not been overtly acknowledged, has not been named, has not been rectified, perhaps because to do so, the greater issue of privilege, power and difference, of a power structure designed around "whiteness" is a step few of us have the courage to take. After all, to address racism between black and brown students we first have to address the root of it all, that "whites as a social category oppress people of color as a social a social fact." If we can't or won't address this in our schools, will it be addressed at all? Harvard is trying to address gender equity; we should address our privilege and power issues, too.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Introducing Me

I am once again entering the land of higher education; in essence, "Sociocultural Theory, Education Policy, and Pedagogy" (STEPP) is another learning step in my professional career as a teacher; hence, the name of this blog as an appropriate title for course assignments.

This year marks the start of my 16th year teaching English Language Learners and students in English Language Arts classes in Providence. Currently, I am the ELL Lead Teacher at Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex and teach English Language Development and World Literature to ELLS as well as AP Literature and Composition to seniors. I decided to pursue an M.Ed in order to further my knowledge in teaching and learning, develop leadership skills, and to assist  in the process of obtaining National Certification.

When not teaching and learning, I can be found at the ice rink where I figure skate and still take classes to perfect my spins, jumps, and edges. This is what often keeps me sane and healthy - a meditative, yet active way to flow through any "thin ice" issues which may have arisen during the work day.