Monday, November 22, 2010

Lead Teach #1 is over!

I finished my first four-day lead teach, in which I take over all of the classes without any help from my compatriots. It was rough! Anyone who has ever compared teaching to a three-ring circus wasn't wrong. I felt like a clown juggling on a unicycle more than once. Phew! Fail better, fail better...

One day a friend and I started coming up with our favorite metaphors for what it feels like when you're in the middle of a class and you know it's going straight down the toilet. I like to think of it as being on a ship that is sinking in the middle of the North Atlantic. There are not enough lifeboats. You know the ship is sinking, but you have to just keep on playing that violin like there's nothing wrong.

Not too long ago I came across this Slate contest to build the 21st century classroom. The contest is now over (check out the results), but it also led me to this website that collects students' photographs of their own schools.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Did the good guys lose the culture wars?

OK, I've been meaning to write this post for over a month now, but it has been brewing and stewing, and tonight's whuppin' at the hands of the Tea Party has me sleepless and over the edge.

The Great Backlash
In the last few years, I've been thinking a lot about the Republican echo chamber and the way that it has strategically pushed an agenda that--sometimes implicitly, sometimes overtly--exploits the latent racism of many white voters and convinces them to vote against their own economic self-interest. This is basically what Barack Obama was getting at in his historic speech "A More Perfect Union" (a.k.a. the "race speech"), in which he defended earlier remarks that these voters "cling to guns or religion" because, basically, their lives are incredibly tough economically. This is a rehearsal of an earlier argument in Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas?" (and surely also creditable to countless other people) about how people cope with the cognitive dissonance produced by a society in which you are taught your whole life that anyone can do or become anything, only to learn that you actually can only do those things if you are lucky, that there is a really big pie that's big enough for everyone, only someone else has taken your piece because of affirmative action.

Seeing how so many Americans have reacted to the Obama presidency has me even more convinced that we are in serious trouble if we let so much unreconstructed racism go unchecked. The fact that so many people--millions of people--can believe (falsely) that the president is a Muslim AND also believe that this is a bad thing; that hundreds of thousands of Tea Partiers parade around with signs that unabashedly proclaim that they will "take back America" (from whom? for whom?) has me really, really worried. So, to make a long story short, I have become increasingly troubled and convinced that we are living in an era that will become known by historians as the Great Backlash.

What does this have to do with teaching?
Lots. But the one topic that has been weighing heavily on my mind of late is the question I started with, and when I say "culture wars" I should probably be more specific and call it "the canon wars." Here is my capsule version of the canon wars: what people read matters because it affects their attitudes, which affects politics. If people only read texts about how great white people are and how evil non-white people are, then that is what they will think. Conversely, if people read a wide variety of viewpoints and are taught to examine how works of literature fit into a society that oppresses women, people of color, and the poor, then they will become more ethical human beings.* Yes, that is a base summary. But that's basically what it was about. What I've been discovering in numerous conversations with current and former high school English teachers, university professors, English graduate students, and college English majors, is that we are definitely, absolutely NOT ON THE SAME PAGE about how things turned out.

In postsecondary English departments, everyone pretty much agrees on two points:
1. That the old canon is over. We now more or less have a much bigger, more inclusive canon. This means, for people writing literary criticism, that you can almost** never assume that anyone has read what you are writing about, whether that's Longfellow or Gwendolyn Brooks.

2. That canons in general are bad. Any kind of list of books that people can be expected to have read in order to be considered learned, educated, sophisticated, or whatever, whether that list includes or doesn't include Wright, Dickens, Cisneros, Faulkner, DuBois, Anaya, Shakespeare, Morrison, Hawthorne, etc, etc is designed to separate people into the in- and the out-crowd, better and worse, elite and common. Now, it must be said that this second point undercuts the first while also undercutting the existence of university English departments, whose job historically has been almost solely to decide what should and shouldn't be in the canon.

These are the two points that most university professors and graduate students more or less agree "won" the war, whether they like it or not, unless they are over 70 and/or named Harold Bloom. But here's the problem: many, if not all, college English majors may get point #1, but more than likely won't be taught point #2 well enough to understand it. Case in point: one of the major reasons I went to graduate school for English was that I wanted to become yet more expert in literature--I wanted to feel like I had "read everything." In other words, I wanted to master the canon, and to change it to include more African American authors. Only later did I find out that this goal didn't make sense given the arguments that were being made both about what canons are for and about whether or not arguing about canons actually changes anything. So that's why you find me writing this blog as someone trying to become a secondary English teacher.

But, on to my second point. Many, if not all, high school English departments are still very much working on getting to consensus on point #1, or may have sort of compromised on that point and want to put it behind them. I know people personally who still routinely have to justify book selections to departments that want to see more Dickens and less bell hooks.*** Meanwhile, many, if not all, university professors and graduate students have moved on from these arguments, which raged throughout the 1980s and 1990s, because they are believed to be passe.

So, to sum up: most of the people (high school English teachers) who teach most of the people (everyone who attends some high school but does not become a college English major in spite of the numerous and well-known advantages) most of what they learn about literature and culture never really came around to either of the two views. And is it a coincidence that we are living in the era of the Great Backlash? And is anyone talking about this problem anymore? In my training so far, it seems more or less settled that one wants to teach "the classics" in some form to all high school English students. This is what I must learn more about. So, to be continued...

*For a brilliant argument on why this was never going to work in the first place, see here.
**I say almost because there are still plenty of books that are more or less required, and most of them are still by dead white men. Did you notice how I could just say "Longfellow" but I had to give Brooks's first and last name? Surprise!
***Let's leave aside the question about whether or not a high school English student will glean anything from either of these authors.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Getting Good at Getting Better

I first jotted down some notes for this post about ten days ago...or maybe two weeks? Time gets warped in this's dense. It moves fast, but feels slow.

I had a teacher in high school who loved to quote Samuel Beckett, "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." At the time, I thought that this statement was defeatist and pessimistic, a perversion of "try try again" that was, to me, representative of his personality. But after my first few attempts teaching in front of my mentor, it was ringing in my ears. 

First time: I was about five minutes in to teaching students on my own, with my mentor and co-res sitting in the back of the room. Then, unexpectedly, she stopped me and told me to try a think-pair-share. Flustered, I did as told and tried to throw in a T-P-S. Pretty soon she was standing next to me at the front of the room, and we were taking turns speaking to the class and having them work in their groups while she whispered tweaks in my ear. I felt chagrined; in my head, I knew that I should take this "real time coaching," as they call it, in stride and keep on keepin on, but in my gut, I felt a vague, nagging feeling of disappointment and anxiety for the rest of the day. I wrote down the phrase that is this title's post to remind myself that getting better is something that one has to be good at. I have to be willing to take advice and adjustments as ways for me to improve, and not as criticism. It is hard, though.

Now, two weeks later, I feel good about how things are going. I have a lot of energy, though I have been getting less and less sleep, and I feel like I'm getting better at anticipating what my mentor wants me to do. But this feeling of success means that new hurdles are just around the...what? Bend? You don't have hurdles around corners, right? The point is, there are constantly new pieces to master. Champion teachers aren't made overnight, after all!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

First day of school!

Today was the first day of school with students. Phew! It was fun and I definitely observed a lot of stuff--particularly around two dozen "Do It Agains" for the Lemov followers. That's when the teacher gives directions, then if the students don't follow the directions EXACTLY, she stops them and makes them do it again, from the beginning. They definitely got better at following directions after a few of these. The kids are terrific. The tough thing is, even though I spent all day observing and taking notes, by the end of the day I had a hard time remembering anything that had happened. Observation fatigue--and it was only the first day!

My mentor is great; she's been teaching for a long time but is also always trying new things. And my co-resident (there are two of us with each mentor) is also great. I know I'm going to learn a ton from both of them.

Since the start of the school year is a time for new goals, I am setting a goal for myself: I will post at least once a week. I'd like to keep more frequent track of my thoughts as they progress over the year. We'll see how that goes--I already spent most of the evening working, though I did spend some QT with the dog and the SO. My brain is fried, and my feet hurt! Time for bed.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

National Youth Literacy Day

826 National is a venerable organization founded by Dave Eggers that promotes a love of writing and storytelling among urban youth. They hold evening writing workshops, host school field trips, have daily after-school tutoring, and send tutors into schools. I volunteered for my local 826 for three years, and it is an amazing place that helps hundreds of kids every year--all for FREE. They are funded by private donations and their creative storefronts--a pirate store in San Francisco, a spy store in Chicago, a superhero store in Brooklyn. So they have decided to declare 8/26 "National Literacy Day" and to invite text donations of $8.26. You can text the word "WRITE" to 20222 and a donation of $8.26 will be added to your mobile phone bill.

Through working with them I have met so many kids who struggle with literacy, and they are doing incredible work to combat underdeveloped literacy. If anyone out there is reading, please consider supporting them. You can learn more about all the local organizations and Literacy Day through the national site.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

white kids can't (don't) SLANT

A guest blogger at eduwonk wonders whether KIPP methods would work in "integrated" schools, by which he means schools with white students. The comments quickly spiral into a back-and-forth between one who says KIPP teaches students to "act white" and several who say that they're teaching kids "good behavior" and, more importantly (to them), who can argue with the results? Of course it's more complicated than this. But the point I would make is that middle-class kids don't SLANT. I've taught a bunch of them. They may mostly sit up and mostly listen, but they don't do what SLANT look like in the videos. And they can still learn! What the poster's question shows is that KIPP is not teaching its students "how to do school" in the way that kids with more social capital already do. And that may not be teaching them to "act white," but it is teaching them that they are different and they need to be treated differently--more strictly and less flexibly-- than their more advantaged counterparts.

And that is why the way these schools discipline students is problematic. Not because of "political correctness" or even respecting students' home cultures-- which I fully believe in--but because their own rationale is very obviously falsified by remarks like this. Which only leaves the "efficiency" rationale, and we should always be worried when something seems like a good idea because--and only because--it's efficient.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Separate but Equal

It has been awhile since I've posted anything. Standard apology.

The summer term has ended so I get a little break. Woo! Time to process a lot of what I've learned so far. I think that my top two are (1) really and truly caring for all students (you'd be surprised at how controversial this is) and (2) lots of instructional strategies.

The third is about gender and education. The last fifteen years or so have seen a boom in the field of research known as the "boy crisis." Basically there are dozens of scholarly and mainstream titles purporting that "our boys" or "our sons" need "saving" because they are "failing" or "being failed" by the educational system. For urban children, this has the more dire implication that schools play a role in sending more African American males to prison than to college. It is true that many teachers display numerous gender biases; male students, and African American male students especially, are often labeled "behavior problems" and are overdiagnosed with ADHD and emotional disturbances.

But the boy crisis language is problematic, and I see the problem as twofold. The first is relatively straightforward: girls have problems too. And not just teen pregnancy, either: lots of challenges experienced by girls in school are actually THE SAME as those experienced by boys. For example, Pedro Noguera, author of The Trouble with Black Boys, cites a survey in which students at a magnet school in New England were asked to respond to the statement, "My Teachers Support Me and Care About My Success in Their Class.” Noguera highlights the number of black males who either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statment: 80%. But 42% of Black females disagreed, and 27% strongly disagreed, making for a total of 72% of African American females disagreeing with the statement. Compared to the literature about boys and "urban" boys especially, the literature about urban girls seems pretty slim, at least to a beginner.

When it comes to the "achivement gap," girls outperform boys on reading tests, but girls and boys are equal in mathematics. But the difference on the NAEP between boys and girls of any race or ethnicity is less than half the difference between white and Asian students and black and Latino students. So is this really the problem we want to be focused on? A lot of this goes hand-in-hand with the nice white lady factor: if all teachers are white ladies, then all students are black boys, right?

So that's problem number one. Problem number two: a lot of education research and policy has a frankly retrograde view when it comes to what sex and gender are. Hence the subtitles of many of these books: "saving our sons" is especially popular. A lot of this research, and the policy that comes as a result--schools like Urban Prep in Chicago, for example--doesn't seem to want to discuss at great length what counts as being a boy or a man.

This is not to say that these conversations don't happen at all. But there is a lot of work going on around single-sex education that I consider truly dangerous and potentially damaging. Take, for example, this Washington Post article about single-sex ed in a Washington, D.C. school. (NCLB legalized single-sex publicly funded education in 2006.) The article starts out narrating two classes of first grade students: "rambunctious," "spunky" boys and "quiet," "tidy" girls. The article goes on to tell us that the school's principal knows a lot about the "research" that says that "boys and girls learn differently." But the teachers of the two classes have never taught single-sex classes before, and so what do they know about how boys learn and how girls learn? Only stereotypes. Moreover, the research that shows that boys' and girls' brains are biologically different--especially before puberty--is at best tenuous, at worst totally bogus. It is extremely difficult for researchers to separate social factors in these studies. So are single sex schools just perpetuating gender differences, and stereotypical ones at that?

It is telling, at least to me, that the title of the article is--seeming unironically--"separate but equal." It seems that people just don't know enough yet about any of these things--how boys learn, how girls learn, how they learn to be boys and girls--to start experimenting with actual children. I thought that we already knew that separate was always unequal.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Teaching like a Champion

**Sorry this is such a long post. I am really processing this topic.**

Every day we have a 60-90 minute session called "Teacher Moves." In these sessions, we learn some techniques that are practiced by excellent teachers. So far, we have been focusing on classroom management.

Most of our teacher moves come from Doug Lemov, who did a lot of work with Uncommon Schools, a network of charter schools in New York and New Jersey that works with low-income students and has achieved impressive gains in test scores. Lemov has just published a book of these strategies, titled "Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College."

Some of these methods have really resonated with me, and others have given me pause. For example, one of the biggest components of the culture in Uncommon Schools is something called SLANT, which was first implemented in KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program, another national network of charter schools). Slant is designed to "maximize students' ability to pay attention." It stands for:

Sit up.
Ask and answer questions.
Nod your head.
Track the speaker. [This means follow the person speaking with your eyes.]

Sounds good, right? In the videos that accompany the book, we see teachers constantly reminding kids to "show me SLANT" or to "track." And here's where I get uncomfortable. Because in some of these videos, the classrooms start to look like a barracks. The desks are in perfect rows, the students sit perfectly straight on command, they all turn (in unison!) and look at the student who is speaking on command. This bothers me. I am a complete believer in establishing classroom routines. But I'm not so sure that they need to be classroom regimens.

I was talking to one of my friends before I began this year about my desire to be a teacher. He told me that he was really interested in it, but that he didn't want to be part of the system that keeps the working and lower classes in place. This is something that I take very seriously. In one of our classes recently, we staged a debate. One side argued: "American schools have improved social equity." The other side argued: "American schools have served to reproduce inequality." It was a tie--the history supports both sides.

When we think that we are teaching low-income students "how to do school," then, I think we need to be very careful about how we acculturate them to school. Yes, we want to be efficient; yes, we want to maximize instructional time so that we can "close the achievement gap." But when we implement these strict regimens, are we perpetuating differences between these students and middle class students who are not taught the same way? I'm really not sure.

We've read a couple of perspectives on disciplining children here that are instructive. Annette Lareau writes in "Unequal Childhoods" (2003) that children from low-income families tend to be disciplined with commands and occasionally also corporal punishment. Children from middle-class families, on the other hand, tend to be raised with "scientific motherhood" styles in which children are often allowed (too much) to negotiate punishments, and obedience is deemphasized. At the same time, children from working and lower-class backgrounds tend to have more unstructured time and therefore develop their creative faculties better than students from middle-class backgrounds, whose lives are so structured that they often feel at a loss when they are asked to be spontaneous. At the same time, however, Lareau's research suggests that the discipline structures of lower-class families can cause children to lag in their language development, which translates into deficiencies in cognitive development. For this reason organizations like the Harlem Children's Zone hold a class called "Baby College" in which they try to teach expectant mothers to use "scientific motherhood" techniques.

Given these backgrounds, Lisa Delpit's book "Other People's Children" (1996) makes the case that children from working and lower-class backgrounds understand power in terms of direct commands rather than circuitous requests that are secretly also commands--"Please sit down," and not "Would you mind sitting down?" According to Delpit, lower-class children might not understand the latter as a command (even though it is one); when the student views sitting down as a choice and chooses not to sit down, he is labeled a behavior problem. Delpit argues that (white) middle-class teachers need to understand that, like it or not, they are the authority figures in the room, and they need to be explicit and consistent when exercising that authority. In other words, you think you're being the nice white lady, but you're actually just betraying your students' trust by being inconsistent.

Both Lareau and Delpit's arguments suggest that the students at "reform"-minded schools--and, indeed, probably all students--do benefit from clear directions and expectations that are consistently enforced. But nowhere does it say that these expectations need to be militaristic. And when I'm trying to teach my students to be critical thinkers and good democratic citizens, the top-down thing starts to freak me out. And I'd like to think that I'm not being naive here--idealistic, yes, but not naive. I believe that you can "create the perception of order at all times" without turning your students into good little robots.

So here's where Lemov can be slightly more comforting. He places a lot of emphasis on positive framing--giving students positive instruction and interacting more with students who are on task and behaving according to expectations rather than the ones who are not. He also has a section called "Warm/Strict" in which he makes a compelling case that these two features of good teachers are not contradictory: "When you are clear, consistent, firm, and unrelenting and at the same time positive, enthusiastic, caring, and thoughtful, you start to send the message to students that having high expectations is part of caring for and respecting someone" (213). This is something I can get behind. One other idea that someone told me is to have students contribute when creating classroom expectations.

In "The Trouble with Black Boys" (2008) Pedro Noguera asked students to list "characteristics of a school where you would be excited to learn." Noguera provides a more compelling rationale for many of the teacher moves than maximizing time on task. The students from his survey said that "teachers should be firm and not allow students to get away with preventing other students from learning" (p. 65). When put this way, I can see the behavior management policies as demonstrating care for all students. Caring for all students and ensuring that they learn is certainly a higher priority for me than inculcating "good" behavior--or obedience--for its own sake. It is reassuring to know that students want to see the teacher be in control of the classroom.

Even though I recognize that students don’t always know what is best for them, I think we as teachers are much more vulnerable to erring on the side of caution, of believing that we have to make our students take their medicine. If our strategies and actions as teachers are motivated by what the students tell us will help them learn, then those strategies feel more authentically motivated than if they are in response to abstract ideas of "respect" or "time on task."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

time to think

Even though the long weekend was incredibly relaxing, I went right back to feeling overwhelmed yesterday. The two new posts below are ones I started awhile ago but I felt like I needed to clear my plate.

I wish I had more time to think, write, and process. I have a lot more to say about both the Baggs piece and the Nice White Lady. But maybe there will be more time later...

Nice White Lady

We had a guest speaker today.* He was enthusiastic, charming, and inspiring, and the best part was that he is still incredibly passionate about the cause of education even after some 50 years as an nationally known activist and educator.

He told us about this skit, which is hilarious (I can't embed, but I encourage you to watch).

He brought up this skit because we asked him about how new teachers can maintain their idealism. He made a very important point--that there is a difference between naivete and idealism, and he encouraged us to deliberately articulate our ideals and strive to maintain our integrity with regard to them.

I had more to say on this subject but I don't have time! I'm just going to put this post out there so I can remember to think about it.

Updated 11/17/12: It was Bill Ayers.

on thought and language

Today in my education research class we watched Amanda Baggs's video piece "In My Language." If anyone is reading, definitely watch the video for your own reactions before you read mine:

Baggs is a woman who has been diagnosed with low-functioning autism. What I find so fascinating about this video is the process of gauging my initial reactions to it and having them completely confirmed and deconstructed by the second half of the video, the half that is in my language. As I watched the video, my instant reaction was that it resembled a contemporary video art installation. This reaction very obviously arises from my own personal experiences and biases, but even when I tried to describe her actions to myself in what I thought of as more neutral language--for example, she is feeling household items (not she "likes" to)--even those descriptions ascribed intentionality and purpose from my language to actions that she herself describes (in my language) as "having no purpose" or as "reacting to her environment."

Our research prof asked us this question: How do I enable myself to be open to other ways of knowing? As someone who considers myself a progressive, I think that I am often complacent, even in my diligence, to do exactly this. What the Baggs video shows me is how difficult it is to know in ways other than your ways. I was not able to "describe" or even *perceive* Baggs's actions outside my own language. This is an instructive lesson when we're thinking so much about being "culturally responsive teachers," about which more later.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Frowny face, or, turnarounds by the numbers

Today in my special education class we talked about particular needs of high school students with disabilities, and we looked at some numbers for students in high schools that we will be working in.

The numbers were pretty disheartening. At the school where I will be tutoring this summer (and where I have a 50-50 chance of being placed for the school year), the reported truancy rate is 53%. The mobility rate, which measures how often students move in and out of the district, is almost 40%. It's pretty hard to teach students when you don't know who is going to show up from one day to the next, or from one year to the next. In addition to that, more than 75% of students entering 9th grade at this school are reading at 6th grade level or lower. Only a handful are reading at grade level. About 15% are reading at 2nd grade or lower (including not at all).

So I was wrong to worry about seeing 150 students a day. On a really good day, I may see 90 or 100 of them.

Our job is to close the achievement gap, and at this school, that means preparing these kids to take the ACT. So these are pretty scary numbers. It's not that I wasn't aware of these problems before--far from it--but somehow they seem much more stark to me today. As our teacher said, "often you have a year or less to do as much as you can for these students" before they change schools or leave school altogether.

Our teacher had passed out "response cards" with a variety of responses (multiple choice, true false), including a smiley face and a frowny face. When she asked us how we felt after this review of the numbers, there was a clear majority of frowny faces. But one woman in my class showed her happy face. She said that she feels inspired to help these students and that she has hope and a drive for them to improve. And she's right--the numbers should not depress me, even though they do. They also make me feel the intense urgency of these students' need. So thanks, friend, for reminding me to hope and know that we can do better--that's why I'm here.

ADDENDUM: I learned today that the 53% truancy rate is actually a reduction from more than 60%, one year after getting turned around. Who knew that 53% would be an encouraging number?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What exactly am I doing? Nuts and bolts

Here's my schedule:

now-Aug 3: course work, as well as introduction to a core of teaching strategies, from 8am-4:30pm, M-F. We are taking 18 credit hours (5 classes) in 7 weeks.

Aug 3-Sep 1: coursework switches to Fridays only

Sep 1-June: begin working with mentor teacher in an actual classroom Monday-Thursday, classes continue on Friday

June: receive MAT, state certificate to teach, job, happiness

drinking the kool-aid: thoughts on this blog's title and my opening days

I've decided to start a blog to keep a record of my experiences and reactions to my time in this program. I really feel like I've been thrown in the deep end with course work--just tons and tons of reading and assignments--so I haven't had much time to sit down and reflect, but I did have some reactions to our orientation days that I wanted to get down.

During the two days of our orientation, we had a lot of different members of the organization's leadership speak to us. Several of them repeatedly made remarks that made my ears prick up, and one especially stood out: "there are those that would wish to see us fail." I will have more to say at a later date on school turnarounds, I'm sure, but my initial impression was to feel depressed at how embattled they seem to feel.

After all, even though many people think that turnarounds are not a good model for school reform, can there possibly be people who care about education who WANT those school turnarounds to "fail," that is, to fail to serve their students? I doubt that this is the case. But the feeling of embattledness, the position that educators are not united in wanting students to succeed, permeates and poisons the education reform debate. This was evident in Steve Brill's caustic New York Times article about Race to the Top, and in many comment threads you read on the education blogs. Anyway, when the US Education Secretary, the President, the city government, and the heads of the district are all on your side (not to mention lots of private $$), then you probably don't have to worry too much about your naysayers.

We had an amazing panel of parents from a network school speak to us about their experiences. I think it was hard for a lot of us to be uncynical about how these parents were selected--they all had very positive things to say and they seemed to be some of the most active parents in the school. To be sure, some of them professed initial skepticism about the turnaround. But even though they weren't given any input before the school's "turnaround" (closure) was announced, they all agreed that now there is a lot of community input about goings on at the school. What they had to say about the changes that they've seen in their students and in the school community was truly moving and inspiring.

Over the next months and year I want to enter into this process with a pragmatic and open mind. I have some (informed) prejudices, but I want to be prepared to see what works and what doesn't, to feel like we all want students who have been underserved to succeed. If that is our mission, then no one will want us to fail.