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Monday, October 19, 2015

Race and Gender - Gender and Race

So let me get this straight:

     Girls can't be who they are because of girls, boys, adults and society

     Boys can't be who they are because of boys, girls, adults and society

     Adolescents can't be who they are because of stages and development and schema, boys, girls,            adults, and society

     Anyone who has race can't be who they are because of others like and unlike them and stages and        development and schema, and boys and girls, and society

     There is really no such thing as race, but we live in a world that is racial, in fact "a fundamental          organizing principle, a way of knowing and interpreting the social world."(121)

Is it any wonder that Nakkula and Toshalis describe the identities of the young people we work with as "performances" (121)?

We often discuss race and gender issues in my classroom, especially in the early part of the year and here is a link to a website my students and I discussed recently:  Understanding Race

Whenever possible, we try to distinguish the language of race from culture in my classroom, as culture is generally associated with pride and family, and race is usually associated with racism.  One of my students suggested today that we all check the "other" box when filling out demographic info, and write in "human" in the space provided.  I thought this was an excellent suggestion, and was even happier when it led to a spirited classroom discussion.  My favorite part was one student who steadfastly refused to consider that racism played a role in his life (white male) and while we never came to consensus as to why it might, neither did he eject or shut down from the conversation.  I can't wait until tomorrow.

How can anyone be expected to demonstrate "authentic" when what is expected of them is in such conflict with anything individual and personal?

I think that probably the most important task of adolescence and the one that causes the most stress to the individual is discovering who they are authentically, and allowing that to drive decisions and be seen by others.  I would contend that when young people pretend to be like others, act like the crowd, and it is not authentic to their true selves, that it causes massive internal conflict, which is apparent to others and the source for insecurity and beacons ridicule.  This in turn, rather than influencing the adolescent toward more individual pursuits, causes them to refine their attempts to fit in, with a shut down period in between.

It is only when adolescents make honest attempts to share their authentic selves regardless of the reinforcement they get from peers, that they are seen as individual, and respected.  This causes a conundrum for teens, the fear to be original leading to more adaptive behavior, which in turn leads to reinforcement of adaptive rather than individual behavior.  Whether assimilating to gender, race, or other social stimulus, young adolescents trend toward and desire inclusion, when in fact, it is the authentic individual that will attract true friends and commandeer respect among them.

One area in which chapters 6 & 7 fail to give enough room for is the manifestations of gender and racial pressure, which often show themselves in sex, and drug and alcohol use.

When young people experience frustration with gender and race roles, they often turn to risky behaviors in an attempt to fit in.  Adolescent boys as well as girls feel enormous pressure to engage in sexual relationships because of the stories and encouragement they feel from peers, often even more so than because of curiosity or raging hormones.  Girls and boys both feel pressure from their peer groups to experiment with drugs and alcohol, and as much as we may want to separate this from gender and race study, they are intertwined.

We hear about Antwon listening to rap, and wearing counter culture clothing, but not of hanging out with his crew smoking weed?  We discuss Lorena building muscle and flipping off classmates who question it, but not cries of "dyke"?  Predators (socially, sexually, and racially) know about the incredible pressure sex-alcohol-drugs have on teens, especially those in conflict, and we as educators need to be realistic in our outlook as well, have open conversations, and build strong foundations within our young people in order for them to have the necessary tools to face these daily challenges with more than just hope.  Building those skills is complex, and requires a strong sense of self, but also a flexible and open approach that is geared toward the individual.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Possibility Development

In attempting to connect Nakkula and Toshalis chapters 4 and 5 to my practice, I find myself continually circling back to one idea, that "problems are not rooted in the students, but rather in larger systematic issues."

To begin with, I don't think we can look at the conditions in which we teach, as "problems" but rather circumstances filled with opportunity.  If we think about our students through an asset based lens rather than a deficit model, we can begin to think about what is possible rather than what is wrong. That being said, there are some inequalities facing the most economically challenged students in our schools, many of whom I work with.  While thinking about this post, I came upon the following article, which ran in the Providence Journal today:

Parents' Talk is the Key to Learning

In it, Dana Suskind, proposes that the single most determining factor in the ability of our students to learn is formed before they ever step foot into a classroom.  It is the number of words they hear spoken to them in their first three years of life.  Her research has shown that children growing up in poverty may hear as many as "30 million less words spoken to them by age three than their affluent peers."

This is an astounding number to me, and as this number bounced around inside me for a while, I began to consider not just the quantity, but the quality of the words my students hear over the 17+ years before they arrive in my classroom.  I was surrounded by words as a child, and I in turn have surrounded my own children.  I wasn't, and we are, by no means affluent, but that never got in the way of household literacy.  In considering my recent assignments for ELA class, and for my program in general, I must honestly think about the fact that I am literally drowning my students in words.

What seems like a pedestrian 300 word response to a chapter in The Outsiders that we have read, in reality is an assignment that contains thousands of words, many of which, I suspect, my students have never encountered before.

In talking to them, over many years, I realize that many come from single parent households, many have an elderly caretaker during the afternoon and evening hours while parents work second shift, and most do not even have a single book in their homes.  Now here I am tossing them into the deepest of oceans, without a lifejacket, instruction manual, or even a floaty.  No wonder the blank page sitting in front of them seems so daunting.

Nonetheless, I can't go back and read to them as infants.  So what to do?

The Possibility Development Model, allows us to immerse my students in rich conversations, connected lessons, and with peers who are co-creating models simultaneously. Vygotsky and Sullivan tell us that together they can begin to imagine possibilities, and that if I listen and reach, we can together build skill sets that can make those possibilities a reality.  There is a great book by Daniel Coyle, which details the possibility of the right conditions creating possibilities that far exceed the typical, and it is in these foundations that I can find inspiration to be optimistic.

I think that is why it is so important for me to build a community within my program, even at the expense of academic curriculum in the early going.  Rather than spend the beginning of the year assessing and defining my students by their struggles, I choose to assess their connectedness to each other, and to themselves.  I feel like the students I see are so seasoned as to the way our schools have failed to recognize them, that to continue on that path would be pointless.  So we read the outsiders, and talk and talk.  We prioritize the trust we can build in each other through the "second classroom" and we build belief in ourselves, and the space we create together.  Some days (like last Friday)  we push everything aside, and cook together (homemade chips and salsa).  Other days we fight about the expectations of how to treat each other and co-exist with the general school population.  Soon we will be our own family, and we can start catching up on those 30 million words.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Fractured Landscape of Adolescent Education

Elementary schools are largely set up to be warm, welcoming places for young students.  Primary colors, hopeful books, and consistent teachers make up an academic world, where 6-year olds learn what to expect, when to expect it, and how they should participate.

Imagine the shock to the system, when you start to have different teachers, in different classrooms, for each subject.  Rotating schedules, bells, and constant variety rule, where once consistency was the major theme.  

Are our middle and high schools set up purposefully in response to changing adolescent needs?

Does the variety serve a need for excitement and experimentation as the young develop?

Are we helping our students figure out WHO THEY ARE?
As Nakkula and Toshails recommend as the pivotal task of adolescence?

I am not sure our schools are purposefully doing this.  It may be a by-product of some administrators and many teachers who devote their careers to building young people up, but to me it feels less the primary goal than creating conformity in the most efficient way possible.

Our education system is often driven by economics, and linear solutions, rather than sound individual student based practices.  I hear the question "how many students can we fit in a classroom?" much more often than "how can we inspire our students to crave knowledge?"  I still see more rows and desks, than tables and learning centers.  School boards and unions discuss test scores, salary and benefits much more contentiously than the citizens who graduate from their programs.

As Erikson takes us through the adolescent attempts to fit or MISfit, we can see how our model would allow students to sample various classroom settings, interact with adults who have very different styles, and experience a range of course offerings, hopefully connecting in one or more areas, and discovering elements of their identity.  The unfortunate reality, is that far too often, the school day is something to "get through" and many students are lucky to connect with one or two teachers in middle and high school, whose "co-authoring" resonates valuably.

In place of these connections, we have standards, and test scores, and limitations (for a variety of reasons), and lose sight of the fact that we are in the critical position of growing humans.  I found myself, throughout the reading of the text this week, reminiscing over my teaching practice, and core beliefs over my career.  I found this snapshot of the essential questions driving my first semester work from two years ago, and if I still had the same phone from 10 years ago, I think I would be able to pull up a similar whiteboard:

I have always been interested in learning about my students, and helping them develop through their adolescence.  I was fortunate enough to have a couple of teachers, mentors, and coaches in high school who were there to help me question and figure out the path I was on, and the path I wanted to be on, and how to get there.  I hope to be that person for my students as well.  This is often, though, in conflict with the academic tasks I have been given as a teacher, and I have had to creatively restructure my practice to accommodate my requirements with my beliefs.  Thankfully literature lends itself perfectly to this task, and young adult literature specifically offers the chance to explore risky themes, and deep questions in safe environment.

I believe deeply in the transcendent possibilities of literature, and that a young person who is searching, and maybe not able to trust other humans with risky questions, can find connections and the collective mind/flow experience detailed in the Nakkula and Toshails text.  

Risk is discussed in depth in chapters 2 and 3, and we adequately cover the normalcy of teenage risk taking during this period.  What I think needs to be taken further, is the role peer pressure plays in the types of risk that is being taken.  There is powerful motivation found within the need to fit in, and when coupled with the natural desire to test the limits of adult parameters, can often lead to what was referred to as spontaneous or intuitive risk taking.

Check out this video on Peer Pressure and Risk:

I am reminded of my own efforts in tanking exams so as not to stand out academically, which probably began in 6th or 7th grade, and my first experience with power drinking in the 9th grade, and it is clear to me that peer pressure was more of an influence in those cases than risk taking on its own. Marcia touches on this in the Erikson extension, but I believe it is an even bigger factor than what is stated, and much more complicated to intervene in.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Sacred Place

When I was in middle school, I had a stock lecture on "A Sacred Place" and when Ayers mentions it on pg. 102, it took me back to that almost word for word. That being said....

Heady stuff this week!

For a comic book (I know, I know, a graphic novel), there was not much comedy to be found in the 2nd half of Ayers Journey.  He asks us to consider what it takes to be a GREAT teacher.  Not a competent teacher, or a decent teacher, or even a professional teacher.  Ayers uses the qualifier GOOD for schools, and gives us amazing examples of the community schools that made their world the way they wanted/needed it to be.  Clearly the word GOOD was not enough for what is expected of teachers, Ayers again and again demands that we push to be GREAT.

Of course this makes perfect sense.  I never set out to be adequate anything.  I never dreamed that when I grew up, I could be a serviceable cog.  If we don't aspire to greatness, how can we inspire our students to do so?  If we survive day-to-day, then no matter what words we put on the board, or literature we introduce, or magic rabbits we try to pull out of the hat, we send the message that manageable is the expectation and the norm, and our students are learning that lesson over and over each time we project it.  I think the competitive opportunities I experienced as a young person formed me in a way to push to be excellent, and that to accept mediocrity was to accept losing.  But there were many other influences as well.

There were two films, whose images I could not shake while reading the 2nd half of the Ayers, and whose influence in my decision to become a teacher are deeply intertwined.  In 1989, Robin Williams played Mr. Keating, a counterculture teacher in the stodgiest of schools for boys.  From ripping pages out of schoolbooks, to marching in the courtyard, to giving the boys sneak peaks at the hidden imagery found in the best poems, Keating does everything he can to inspire their young minds.  I believe in the transcendent possibility of film (and literature, and art, and music...), and the way this teacher builds relationships, and cares so obviously about his students resonated with me.  

Mr. Holland's Opus took a different route, but to the same destination.  In this film, Richard Dreyfuss' character goes into teaching reluctantly, after a lack of success as a professional musician.  Mr. Holland struggles for years, and the movie comes very close to losing the viewer because there is just no movement toward resolution of his rote classroom practices.  Thankfully, help comes.  In the form of other teachers who Holland builds relationships with, and thankfully with the students, the first of which is an unfortunate girl who he is tutoring in the clarinet, and despite no natural ability and no discernible aptitude, she will not give up.  In a monumental scene, he decides to throw the instruction out the window and learn about her.  Armed with this new information, he tries a non-traditional approach to the music lesson, and he reaches her - scaffolding as high art - and she gets it.  As begrudgingly as his teaching career began, Mr Holland figures out that it is about the people, and his students' lives become his master symphony.  

When I think of great teaching, these are two of the references (of many) that I draw on. Although I often fall short of greatness, as we all do, I think the concept of desiring to be great, and striving for improvement continue to benefit my classroom, my students, and myself. 

Understanding Youth took me in a completely different direction.  I could not read through the introduction and first chapter without flashing back to so many moments I have had with my students over the last 15 years.  How many Antwon's have I known?  How many have I helped? How many have I pushed further into their own negative convictions about the way teaching and learning happens.  How many throwaway comments have found sensitive ears?  Thanks Dr. Horwitz for making me feel crappy and guilty and awful. (kidding) I guess what I take away most from the first chapter of Nakkula and Toshails, is that we are intertwined within the lives of young people for a set amount of time, but the effects of what happens in that time do not end when our time together is up, it becomes part of both of us, and affects us, and molds us, and shifts us, and we should be more mindful of how we choose to spend it together.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Jose LaLuz has such a sad, sad face

"School failure fit Jose and followed him like a shadow." -pg. 6

Ayers captures in this image and quote, a face I have seen far too often in my lifelong relationship with education.  If I go back far enough, I am sure there were many, many moments when this look of despair appeared on my own mug.  It starts with excitement, an attempt to connect and respond with a force that could move the world, and with just a comment, or the failed recognition of the moment, is exhausted like the wind billowing out of the sails, only to be replaced by the emotion of giving up.  This feeling, if fueled, can manifest in the permanent wearing of this mask, and the longer it continues, the more permanent it becomes.

Luckily, we are uplifted in the next slide, and we see Jose with a different face, one of concentration, full engagement, and excitement, why he almost looks happy.  Our hero Bill sees this, but for so many Jose's, educators never do; and while Jose triumphantly fulfills the leadership role that might just re-engage him with school, for too many of our students, this opportunity never comes.

I am lucky enough to be working in a program where the focus and size require me to get to know each student deeply as an individual.  My first month of school is spent probing their successes and stumbles, and finding the reinforcements that draw them out of the protective shells they have built to buffer them from an education system that is not working for them.  I often mark the breakthroughs by the arguments that we encourage, because they allow the students unfiltered moments, and often times room for growth.

This is in stark contrast to Quinn, who we are introduced to on pg. 14.  The "weirdos with the clipboards" observe him in his classroom without enough background knowledge, compassion, competence, or empathy, and discuss him, making judgements that have no bearing.  In a tell-tale slide, one of them is incapable of cutting an apple with the plastic knife supplied by the school and while ignored, Quinn makes a peanut-butter mess.  Left to his own devices, Bill would most likely have sliced the apple, engaged Quinn, and rolled right along.  Ayers challenges us to "see each other generously and whole, rather than bit by behavioral bit" and this section speaks to the mistrust, and autocratic system, which tries to apply black and white rules and assessments to people who come in all shades.

The building bridges section felt a little disconnected and jumpy to me, as I read it straight through. It was only when I finished and re-skimmed it, that the metaphor of a twisting road, with many stops along the way, occurred to me. As Ayers describes to us the importance of finding ways to reach from the content to our students, and from our students to the content, he is interrupted by memories of skillful teachers who made those connections.  The more I consider the chapter, the more I connect with the idea that we are constantly assembling what we know with what we are learning, and sorting and shifting the entire time.  You listen to a story, and think of one similar, then it continues, and you make other connections.  I often read now with google open, and by the end of the session I have multiple tabs open to more deeply connect with the content.  I think Ayers is trying to get us to this conclusion when he asks us to "speak with the possibility of being heard, and listen with the possibility of being changed" which is a useful way of considering the way we learn constantly from those around us, and a positive connection to the Smith article from last week.

One final link, thank you for expanding my vocabulary Dr. Horwitz:   Mushfake it til you make it

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

SOMETHING is being learned, WHETHER WE WANT IT OR NOT, ALL the time.

   While reading the Smith article for this week, I found it eerie, how deeply it resonated with me, and more specifically, how tangibly it brought me right back to a situation I was involved in a few years ago.
     Smith speaks concretely about what students are learning, and how it can be very contrasting to what is the intended lesson, and while I was at the middle school, there was a conscious push to revise the manner in which we dealt with discipline and student behavioral expectations.  In theory, the changes made sense, when a student was misbehaving or acting out, the classroom teacher would call for support, and a behavior specialist would remove the student for redirection and re-engagement.  The student would then be returned to class, when the specialist deemed they were "ready to learn."  The intended message of this style of intervention, was that by supporting our students more, and listening to them, rather than punishing them or dictating to them, we would better serve the needs of the individual, and, in-turn, the whole.  In practice, this turned out to be a disaster. There were not enough supports (staff and training) to execute this system as thoroughly as it needed to be, and students quickly LEARNED, that there were no consequences for their behavior.  The change started slowly, but as a snowball turns into an avalanche, it progressed quickly from there.  Initially students started to roam the halls, talk back to faculty, and disrupt class somewhat more frequently, but as the message got out that there were no actual consequences for their behavior, the escalation began, and before the end of the year, students - middle school kids - were lighting fires in the bathroom, jumping out second story windows, threatening teachers with violence, and destroying school property in shocking degrees.

   The school maintained a 0% out of school suspension rate that year, and our in-school suspension room was shut down due to lack of staffing.  These students (about 10% of the 7-8th grade, and 5% of the 6th grade) were in-class, in front of the teachers they had threatened, every day.  We learned many things as a school community that year, some students learned they could do whatever they wanted, and could disrupt teaching constantly with impunity, students who wanted to achieve learned that their needs would be pushed off to accommodate a few troublemakers, borderline students learned it was easier to follow their peers who were disruptive and not get picked on, than to listen to their teachers and be subject to relentless bullying.  Teachers learned not to call for support, because it was unlikely to come, better to just try and ignore as much as you can, then quietly give up...a little each day.  We learned to shut our doors and keep our heads down and our mouths shut rather than make waves and risk being labeled "inefficient."  These lessons were effortless, and have never been forgotten.  Many teachers left that year and since, and while things have never been quite that difficult in the following years, the students and faculty bear scars to this day from the "lessons" we learned that year.
     On a more uplifting note, I have been thinking about all the things I know how to do, in relationship to our class discussion last week.  I have also been thinking about what my children can do, and what my students can do, and the universal thread through all of those things, is the excitement and growth that accompanies all of the learning involved.  I learned to read, because my parents read to me, my children read because I read to them, not once in a while, but as a norm.  I went to a varsity soccer game this week, and I watched as our boy's team showed a deft ability to keep spacing, and exhibit tremendous "touch " with the ball, and it was obvious that this was not something coach had taught them in practice, but something that was their norm.
     I memorized my times tables in fourth grade, and I can recite my Hail Mary in French because we chanted those things every day, but I resist math at every turn, and can't speak or understand French at all.  That type of learning was isolated and stagnant, and I struggle now to watch my daughter (who is in 7th grade) carry a 5 pound math text to and from school every day, and grind through 40 or 50 homework problems every night.  Is this "broccoli", and she should partake of it because it is good for her, or is this type of "official learning" stifling her creativity and desire to learn?  I found it interesting that Smith used the word "archetypal" to describe the official process of learning, because it immediately connected with a presentation from Sir Ken Robinson which deems our system of education as "outdated and detrimental."
     I aspire to guide the students I teach to a process of authentic learning, and have intentional elements of prioritizing the second classroom in my practice, but I worry about the space between the material, when much of the learning takes place, and desperately want to ensure that the lessons that last from my time with them are valuable and worthwhile.