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.