As a member of this Online Book Club, you are expected to post to the book blog at least once per week between now and July 11 -- that's six weeks. You should finish your book before then, and you will meet during the Institute in your groups to extend the discussion and plan how to present the book to the others in the Institute.

Search This Blog

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Thoughts on Chapter 3

At the risk of making myself vulnerable, I must admit that I really struggled with some of the ideas in Chapter 3. Though I agree whole-heartedly that students need to learn to participate actively in democracy and that school is the one of the best places to teach these skills, I don’t know how much is too much to introduce to seventh graders. The authors worked mostly with high school and college students, and with that age group, social justice seems like an excellent fit. However, with seventh graders it’s difficult to know where to start or how far to go.

For example, this year, the social studies teacher on my team had our seventh graders do a project where they analyzed the decisions made by politicians, city officials, and regulators regarding the Flint water crisis. I was not involved in the planning or implementation of this lesson, yet I thought this sounded like a great plan to get students involved in an important local issue. Unfortunately, when I spoke to my advisory students about the project, most of them seemed overwhelmed, and they didn’t seem to know what to do with the information once they found it. It made me wonder if the teacher didn’t provide enough scaffolding (though he was a veteran teacher) or if it was just too much for them.

My own attempt to get students to write persuasive essays on topics that were important to them produced a lot of essays about cell phone use and dress codes. And I had to wonder if these issues were actually important to my students, or if they were just what they were used to writing about, since cell phone use in school and dress codes are frequent topics for on-demand essay prompts. One thing I wish I had done was help them find real audiences for their writing. On page 61 Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen write, “work should not be a ‘show-and-tell’ delivery but a genuine exchange with an expected outcome stated to the audience.” A real audience would have really taken things up a notch.

Here’s a question: Have any of you “done civics” with middle school students? Could you give an example of a project that went well?

Thoughts on Chapter 2

Last year I took Reading Apprenticeship training and the following statement came up so often that I finally made it into a poster: Confusion is the perfect starting place for learning. This seems similar to how the authors describe vulnerable learning. They say, “Teachers who foster vulnerable learning create classrooms where not knowing is the norm.” However, the big thing that Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen add to this mix is emotion. Which I suppose is why they call it vulnerable learning instead of just inquiry. I love their idea of “concocting a strange and marvelous brew that blends student questions, required course content, and local concerns, often with global impact.” But as amazing as it sounds, it also sounds incredibly challenging.

My first thought when I read the section about vulnerability was the need for a feeling of safety in the classroom. And I’m glad the authors acknowledged that it takes a few months of trust building to get to the right place for this type of learning. In fact, they say, that “this kind of teaching requires extensive modeling, norming (and re-norming) with students, and ‘perpetual scaffolding.’” I know this is true, because even without the emotional aspect, getting middle school students to open up share their ideas with each other can be difficult.

A book I read last year that had a huge influence on my teaching was Reading for Understanding: How Reading Apprenticeship Improves Disciplinary Learning in Secondary and College Classrooms by Ruth Schoenbach, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy. It explains how to teach reading using inquiry and social supports, and it provides a wealth of strategies to build community and get students talking and reading together. If you’re new to teaching, or not new, like me, but you need new ideas, this book is an excellent tool for putting Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen’s ideas into practice.

Furthermore, I was very moved by the author’s idea of taking on a “maker mindset.” They write, “Taking on a maker mindset yourself transforms routine responsibilities like writing lesson plans into opportunities for play and creativity…” I have never thought to frame our work that way. I suppose it is what I do, but I don’t generally think of it as “play.” Often times, in fact, it feels like drudgery. Maybe if I go into it thinking of myself as a maker, I can find more pleasure in it.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Chapter 1

This chapter helped me put some terminology to much of what I already think about and care for as a first-year writing instructor (and add to my reading list - Geneva Gay, Django Paris & H. Samy Alim, and Allan Johnson, for sure!). My teaching philosophy and practice is already deeply grounded in methods of teaching to my students' respective lifeworlds. Much of my interest in the "culturally proactive approach" stems from my experience teaching adult English Language Learners prior to coming to my current position, and all that I learned from my students as I helped equip them with language (they taught me far more than I taught them, to be sure).

I am especially looking forward to spending time reading about "wobbling." I enjoy these moments of grappling with uncertainties in my classroom - even when I am the one who is doing the wobbling.  These are moments of discovery and knowledge-making. My Comp. I & II courses are structured to foster the difficult conversations about privilege, oppression, and power structures, so I am excited to see how the rest of this book might supplement what is already happening in my classrooms.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Chapter 1 - What it means to be a culturally proactive teacher

To begin, I must point out how thrilled I was discover the yoga metaphor throughout this book.  In hindsight I should have realized when I read the title.  However, I was more focused on the subtitle of "A Culturally Proactive Approach..." and the PWF reference was overlooked.  So as an amateur yogi and amateur teacher, PWF has been speaking to me on many levels.  Friday marked the last day of my first year as a teacher.  While it was a great first year, after reading PWF, I am feeling convicted and excited to implement some of these ideas next school year.  

There is a ton going on throughout PWF.  The authors share many quotes from outside sources, examples of real teachers PWFing, and some theoretical concepts.  So, my approach has been to highlight some ideas and concepts that stick out to me and try to relate them to something I've done or seen in the past, or plan for a possible future implementation.  In chapter 1, two concepts that are key for me from this chapter are transparency/challenging the traditional teacher/student hierarchy, and examining privilege/positionality.  

First, Transparency and challenging the traditional teacher/student hierarchy jumped out at me because I have always had a natural instinct towards this idea but it has often been suppressed, directly or indirectly, by other veteran teachers.  The authors suggest here that students should not look to a classroom teacher as the knower of all information.  Typically, the teacher is just doling out information for students to accept unchallenged.  Students and teachers should be learners together.  Additionally, teachers, as the authors modeled with their own college students, should be transparent and explain WHY a particular lesson is being taught.  We no longer live in a world where students will sit down, shut up, and absorb any information a teacher forces them to write down.  And we shouldn't!  

While I believe there is a fine line here, as in everything, a teacher should still manage her or his classroom, but also should be transparent and willing to admit their own lack of knowledge.  If modeling is key, then teachers should also be modeling how to be a student and a constant pursuer of new knowledge.  Too often, I have been told by veteran teachers things like, "this is just busy work but they don't need to know that," or "don't tell the students that this isn't worth any things," and, "I'm just going to give them points if its complete, I don't care if the answers are right."  What a waste of EVERYBODY'S time?  I'm not interested in having my time wasted, so why would I do that to my students?  A classroom should be a productive learning environment for all, not just a place to keep students in a seat, quiet, and busy.  

Second, and most importantly, this chapter discusses examining privilege and positionality from the teacher perspective and implementing these types of discussions in the classroom.  This is critical to being a culturally proactive teacher and it is probably the most difficult step for teachers.  It is important to know how your privilege affects your teaching and how you can work to use your positionality to help and not hurt others.  I work in a Title I school where the majority of teachers fit the stereotypical mold of white, female, and middle class and our student population is roughly 2/3 black students and 2/3 hispanic students.  Thankfully, we do have some diversity in teachers but certainly not enough. So, we have a big responsibility to check our privilege but many are hesitant or unwilling.  There is also a responsibility to have courageous conversations about race and privilege with our students but I rarely if ever have witnessed that.  The lack of culturally proactive teaching creates a rift between students and teachers and worsens the lack of transparency and pits students against teachers in a battle for power.  

As an observer in an ELA classroom, I witnessed an amazing opportunity to be culturally proactive go to waste, and it truly made me feel devastated and helpless.  Students were doing a Holocaust unit in ELA and they were just not into it.  It was going on for weeks with little investment on the students parts.  Until one day, the students read a short dialogue about purple people.

MO: Purple people are always thieves.
JO: Why do you say that? 

MO:  Well someone told me he heard that a purple person was nearby when Mr. Smith lost his wallet. It's a purple person's fault that Mr. Smith has no money.
JO: Maybe he dropped it or left it somewhere.

MO: Come on. It had to be one of the purple people. That's how purple people are. 
JO: I don't see how you can say that. 

MO: I've heard that purple people always seem to have money.  So one of them probably stole the wallet. 
JO: Have you ever actually met or spoken to a purple person?
MO: No, but I hate them anyway! That's why I won't be friends with them. 

After reading this dialogue, for the first time in weeks, students began to have conversations around the room and were interested in the topic.  Most importantly, they could identify with the topic and wanted to participate.  Unfortunately, their eagerness was stifled quickly because the classroom is not inviting to student dialogue and when one student, out of turn, mentioned the words black and white, the teacher response was, "We aren't talking about black and white or anybody in this room, we are talking about purple people." And the class was quiet again, and the students went back to "learning." I was devastated by opportunity lost and student engagement stifled.  I was helpless because I was an unwelcome observer in the classroom and had no control over the situation.  

But, I learned.  I learned that students WANT culturally proactive teachers who are transparent and have courageous conversations.  And I learned that I want to be that teacher.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Thoughts on Chapter 1

This chapter reminds me of ideas we explored during my teacher training at DePaul University. Yet at the time I didn't realize how challenging culturally proactive teaching would be in the real world. I hate to admit that in eight years of teaching I haven't come close to being the revolutionary, culturally responsive teacher I planned to be in those days.

I appreciate the authors' acknowledgment of the "wobble," because I feel that wobble a lot. Unfortunately, I don't always push through that wobble to achieve "flow." Too often I back off when certain things get too difficult (and cultural issues can be very difficult). This book is reminding me of my original ideals and plans, and I feel that it's putting me back on track.

The chapter reminded me of one my favorite teaching books from back in my early days, Teaching Stories by Judy Logan (1997). In it the author quotes another teacher, Emily Style, who says, "students should be able to see themselves mirrored in the content of the curriculum, in terms of gender, ethnicity, race and class. At the same time students should also be able to look through the windows of curriculum into stories of people who are 'other' to them." One idea from our book that fits into this idea very well is the praise poem assignment on page 26. I love the idea of kids writing poems that give praise to their identities and having an opportunity to challenge misconceptions about their identities.  I'll be teaching 7th-grade social studies next year, and it seems an appropriate setting for this type of activity. I can see having these poems all over my room. However, I'm sure it would take a lot of trust building work to get some kids to open up.