An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘social justice

I don’t empower students.

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Last Friday, I met Donaldo Macedo (friend and collaborator of Freire) and listened to him give a talk about racial, ethnic, and class identities; xenophobia, and suffering in the United States. There were many things that struck me in the talk, but these words helped me understand myself and my role as a teacher:

It is dangerous when teachers say they empower others. If I have the power to empower you, I have the power to take away your power….We should give students enough critical tools to empower themselves. Through their own power they can come to voice. Empowerment involves pain and struggle.

Macedo put into words a feeling I have had for awhile. In terms of social justice, I am not responsible for the empowerment of my students. The very notion implies a flow of power that is not consistent with socioeconomic/political realities or social justice. As my science ed teacher says, “I can tell a student information, but I cannot tell them learning”. The same distinction is true of empowerment: I can give the students information, build mentor relationship that extends beyond their year in my classroom, and help them gain critical thinking skills, but I cannot give them power in our society. Learning and empowerment are both student constructions. If I try to take on my student’s process of empowerment,  I will burn out. It is impossible for me to lift children out of poverty, racism, classism, xenophobia, and the many other forms of prejudice and oppression that exist in too many realities. What can I do? I can think about the path my empowerment took and what paths theirs could take as young adults. I can create a classroom community that functions like a caring, student-centered learning lab, where students can experiment with their own power and learn how to “come to voice”. Just like learning, empowerment is a process of self and community-driven deconstruction and reconstruction. I think we need to stop using the term empowerment so lightly. It’s a life-sustaining process.

What do you think? Do you use the word “empower” to describe what you do in the classroom and/or why you do it? Am I being too heavy-handed here?

When is inequality constructive?

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In the Boston Review article Inequality matters: Why globalization doesn’t lift all boats (via thickculture), Nancy Birdsall clarifies the distinction between constructive inequality and deconstructive inequality:

Distinguishing between constructive and destructive inequality is useful. To clarify the distinction: inequality is constructive when it creates positive incentives at the micro level. Such inequality reflects differences in individuals’ responses to equal opportunities and is consistent with efficient allocation of resources in an economy. In contrast, destructive inequality reflects privileges for the already rich and blocks potential for productive contributions of the less rich.

I’m used to thinking about issues of inequality and social justice on the macro-level. Inequality of social, economic, and political opportunity is one of the reasons why I teach and advocate for the rights of children.  What about at the level of my classroom? When does inequality constructive or deconstructive in the context of pedagogies and learning environments? The most pervasive example of inequality teachers and administrators construct is grades. Although many schools try to make grades a reflection of how students are progressing on standards, the reality for many schools, is that grades both reflect and institutionalize tracks and hierarchies. Students with relatively higher grades have access to different pathways and resources than students who have relatively higher grades. There are different reasons why decision-makers at the classroom, school, and district level choose to have grades. In the classroom, I have noticed many teachers believe grades are an incentive structure: students and parents, on the whole, want higher grades rather than lower grades. Many are willing and able to change their behaviors to reflect this incentive.

Are grading I’ve seen examples of constructive or deconstructive inequality? On one hand, they are deconstructive because students are receiving marks on a scale without having access to the same academic and socioeconomic opportunities as their peers. Over time, students who fit into the culture of power and continue to have experiences that are valued by the school get higher grades, while students who do not have these opportunities get lower. The grades of students are compared and opportunities are doled out accordingly. This is deconstructive – the “potential for productive contributions” of struggling students is blocked. On the other hand, I have seen grading practices where the function and reason is feedback. When students are presented with qualitative and quantitative feedback about their performance, and have access to resources to improve, this feedback might alter micro-level incentives for them to engage in the process. This is more constructive  than the case given above because the quality of resources and environments we offer children are not a function of their perceived level in academic hierarchies. Other examples of inequalities we construct are our classroom management schemes. They often feature preferred behaviors paired to positive and negative consequences that change a students’ academic and social reality.

Constructive and deconstructive inequalities exist in learning environments. Teachers have control over some of these inequalities, especially classroom management and community building structures. Administrators have more control over grading, curriculum, and tracking. Students also create their own inequalities via social hierarchies that are based on perceived intelligence, beauty, and other factors. Although teachers do not have complete control over the inequalities that manifest themselves in a classroom space, when it comes to the choices we make, we have to ask: “Am I generating inequality? If so, is this inequality constructive or deconstructive?”.

What are your thoughts? Does this distinction hold or does it rely too heavily on capitalist constructions?

Investigating Social Inequity in the Mathematics Classroom

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I came across this Mission Local article about Taica Hsu, a secondary mathematics teacher in an underserved community, who teaches his students to use math to investigate social inequities.

“Where most see numbers, Hsu sees tools. His students do projects in which they apply mathematical principles to illustrate social inequities, sparking discussions of race, class and sexual orientation.

In his world, trigonometry points to justice. Algebra leads to equality. Math is the vehicle, but consciousness-raising is the end.

On one wall, of his purple-painted classroom, posters proclaim the ills of war and social stratification. On another, algebra students’ projects statistically break down the injustices of homeless, drugs and teen pregnancy.”

Growing up, I hated math. I struggled and went to math summer school. I couldn’t understand why algebra mattered and how I could use calculus in my life. I thought I would take the minimal amount of math classes required by my university and call it quits. In my first year of college, I took my first economics class. My professor let me do a project about NAFTA and social justice issues. I was hooked. I struggled through statistics and econometrics courses. In senior year, I did a year-long thesis about the determinants of civil war battle deaths for countries already engaged in civil war. Now, I use my understanding of math and econometrics to consume research that informs my teaching and helps me understand inequality. (Don’t tell my friends I browse EconLit on Friday nights….). Math is empowering – it provides us with a special lens for understanding our world.

Are your students investigating inequity in your math classroom? If so, how? Stay tuned for lesson plans.

An Educator’s Guide to Opportunity Cost and Rational Choice Theory, or “How I Learned to Continue Worrying but Advocate for TFA Reform (Instead of Total Dissolution)”

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This post is inspired by every blog post, newspaper article, peer reviewed journal, nonprofit organization, website, message board post, speech, coalition, informal conversation, formal debate, radio show, expose, and TV news hour that advocates or opposes an education policy. The issues of opportunity cost and mutual exclusivity are either ignored or misunderstood.

I attempt to answer these questions:

  • How should our understanding opportunity cost influence our decision-making about education policies?
  • How do we define mutual exclusivity in education?
  • How do these issues apply to our debates about TFA?

Opportunity Cost and Cost-Benefit Analysis

The concept of opportunity cost is important to all decision-making processes The opportunity cost of a course of action is the forgone benefit from an alternative action. In order for a benefit to be forgone, the chosen and alternative actions have to be mutually exclusive. This means that one cannot do both actions act the same time. Our lives are made up of choices about mutually exclusive actions, from deciding to go to college instead of working full-time for four years, to choosing between coffee and tea during a quick break. Opportunity cost can be computed in terms of anything – including money, ice cream cones, love, life experience, friendship, and “achievement”. The concept of opportunity cost reflects the scarcity of our resources – especially time and money. When we integrate opportunity cost into our decision-making, we ensure the most efficient use of our scarce resources.

In order to figure out the true value of any decision, a decision-maker does a cost-benefit analysis (often subconsciously). We must account for the “up front benefits” of an action and factor in forgone benefit. The forgone benefit is subtracted from the “up front benefit”. I define “up front benefit” as the difference between the value of an action and its price: the tangible value that a decision-maker receives from their choice. Although this is most often computed in monetary terms, it can be computed in terms of anything: from nutrition to abstract feelings of happiness. To find the true value of any action, subtract forgone benefits from “up front benefits”:

Computing the True Value of an Action

Here is a more complex example:

Maggie can choose between working at a job that pays a $30,000 salary or raising her initial income potential 60% (to $50,000) by attending a 4 year institution. In her case, maximum earnings potential without a college degree is $35,000, and $75,000 with a degree.  The institution costs $10,000 per year to attend (after scholarships and aid).

From these examples, we see:

  • We can maximize the true value of an action by minimizing costs (both “up front” and forgone).
  • Cost-benefit analysis are influenced by time. Time can add value (example: appreciation of the value of antiques, interest from the bank, job promotions) or decrease the value (example: depreciation of a car).
  • It is not easy to calculate cost and value. Maggie might have had non-monetary value or costs. For example, the university might be far from home and prevent her from seeing family. Most of the time, forgone costs is are not monetary. There are also issues of commensurability: how do we weigh the monetary versus the social costs of an action? (My former debate coach asks “Which is larger? A horse head or a furlong?” to help debaters understand this issue.)

Applying Opportunity Cost to Education Policy Debates

During a debate about TFA JR Atwood and I had on his playthink blog, we discussed the opportunity cost argument against TFA:

Educatorblog: The cost of the TFA program is so high that there is a huge opportunity cost. TFA is not cheap to run (I read an article that said that when you calculate finders fees, the recruitment process, salaries, etc – it costs more than $125,000 per year for each placement). I’m tired of the ‘what we’re doing is better than doing nothing’ argument – if we took the money that the government and private donors send to TFA each year and invested it in programs that help veteran teachers adapt to new populations, other recruitment programs (like Oakland Teaching Fellows, New York Teaching Fellows, etc), reforming teacher preparation programs, etc – we could get more bang for our buck. In education, getting more bank for our buck translates into better education experiences for underserved students.

JR Atwood: …..I do not agree, however, that if we were to take the money from TFA and invest it into other teacher prep programs that we — or our children — would necessarily be better off. First, the money spread among various educational initiatives is not zero-sum. Just because TFA gets some money does not mean that, absent their existence, another program would. This is like saying, “Instead of spending all this money on the Iraq war, we should spend it at home.” Sounds good and I agree with the spirit of the argument. But if we stopped funding the war, its current budget would not necessarily be distributed among domestic social service agencies.

Touche, JR. A successful argument about opportunity cost has two components:

A. An explanation of why actions are mutually exclusive.

B. An explanation of how one alternative is better than the other (this is the subject of our debate and my (obligatory edublogger) TFA post).

Showing the negatives of TFA isn’t enough. I have to explain how dedicating resources to TFA forfeits the supreme benefit of other policy solutions.

Mutual Exclusivity in the World of Education Policy

The world of education is not like a child with $5 in a candy store – opportunity costs are not clear. Although the scarcity of resources is a primary factor in decision-making and there are tangible consequences, it is hard to figure out how the adoption of one policy precludes the implementation of other policies. We’ve erected the concept of “achievement” to help us quantify how students experience the consequences of our policies – but there are many other ways to understand costs and values (the list goes from concrete to abstract):

  • Time (could go at the top or bottom of the list)
  • Money
  • Physical safety
  • Achievement
  • Social services (health care, sex education, college and career consulting, etc)
  • Learning
  • Fair distribution of social and economic opportunity
  • Rights promotion
  • Community-building and local support
  • Emotional and mental stability
  • Happiness and fulfillment

None of the items on this list are mutually exclusive. Physical safety goes hand in hand with emotional stability. Students aren’t happy unless they feel like they are apart of a larger community that values their perspective. It takes money and time to achieve all of these goals.  Policies – both nuanced (example: a school’s decision about uniforms) to sweeping (example: No Child Left Behind) – influence each other’s execution, benefits, and costs. For example, clauses about science-based researched reading interventions in NCLB have precluded the adoption of interventions that are not scripted (as of now, the only interventions that are deemed “well-researched” by the government are scripted learning programs). NCLB’s requirements have changed the dynamics of instruction – from time spent on subjects to how students are taught. A nuanced policy can also impact other policies: a teacher’s behavior management style influences physical safety, achievement, learning, and community-building.

JR is right about money – although money and time represent large costs, it is nearly impossible to say that taking funds away from one program will automatically lead to the funding of a better program.  Revolution has a substantial failure rate. Lawmakers and voters might not understand how to spend the money more effectively. Also, there is the issue of private money in education. Private donors can call into the same traps as lawmakers – especially when dealing with the distribution of public goods.

Most of the time, the question of mutual exclusivity is really about how a particular policy disrupts the implementation of policies that are already in action and have proven results. When people think of “failing” schools, they imagine a situation where everything is wrong – the teaching methods, environment, curriculum, etc. In reality, there are things that work  and things that don’t. In troubled schools, the consequences of models that don’t work outweigh the consequences of models that work. Sometimes, it is a wise policy decision to expand or fully-fund working elements instead of trying to create a whole new paradigm (this argument is used for NCLB). Also, it is rare for lawmakers to dismantle programs and more likely that new interventions will exist on top of old ones. There is also political mutual exclusivity: does the presence of TFA stop lawmakers and schools from undertaking better reforms?

Dismantling TFA is not a direct path to the reforms we want to see (better pay, institutional support, better teacher education programs, etc). We need to ask ourselves: how can a reformed TFA help us meet our  education reform goals?

Since before TFA’s inception, at-risk students have been subjected to an endless stream of substitute teachers and emergency certified teachers. Most of the time, these teachers have little experience or preparation. lf these substitutes and emergency certs have less experience with children than the average TFA recruit, is it a sound policy to place TFA teachers with these students? In studies where the uncertified teacher pool had less experience  than TFAers, TFAers outperformed their uncertified counterparts. Many make the argument that TFA increases the propensity of school districts to choose uncertified teachers over certified ones – if this is true, then TFA must be dissolved (we should do studies about how budget cuts and shifts in the availability of ‘cheap teachers’ influences hiring and firing). TFA should meet the same fate if it is a ploy by lobbyists to decrease public spending in education (no matter the true cost).

Can a reformed TFA make the transition from stop-gap measure to adaptable reform model? A reformed TFA could function alongside teacher education, certification, and incentive reforms. In fact, it could even lead reforms (adopting a the best training models, creating a new paradigm for institutional support of teachers, etc). Not all teacher recruitment programs should focus on “elite college students” – what if positive elements of the reformed TFA model spread to other programs? For example, all teacher education/certification programs would benefit from high levels of institutional support for teachers. TFA has the support of the public, private donors, and schools. TFA should harness the political and economic support it already has and change the terms of agreements it has with schools and recruits in unity with broader reform goals.

This may all be a pipe dream. What are your thoughts? Is there mutual exclusivity in this situation: Can TFA coexist with other models of reform? How should we assess mutual exclusivity and determine the opportunity costs of education programs? Does the very presence of TFA eliminate the positive consequences of existing policies or make decision-makers less likely to undertake reforms? Political, economic, and social models for revolution are (always) welcome.

Dr. Strangelove cover

(Image from Wikipedia)

“Don’t tase me, bro!” (AKA – the Obligatory Edublogger TFA Post)

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This post is inspired by a debate I’m having with JR Atwood on playthink:

JR Atwood: TFA does not aim, I don’t think, to create lifelong professional educators. What it does aim to do is help provide the human capital necessary to at least make a significant impact in the teacher shortage epidemic and to expose high-achieving college graduates, who might not otherwise understand just how deep the public education system is fractured, to the students and families — the people! — that make-up the dire statistics that fill newspaper editorials, speeches by politicians, and on blogs like yours and mine calling for drastic education reform.

Educatorblog: I’m tired of at-risk children being life and learning experiments for affluent adults.

Rewind to two years ago. I’m sitting in my politics seminar with 11 of my peers. We’re discussing race, poverty, and education reform. We’ve just spent the past few months reading about all of the problems – the poverty, health problems, low performing schools, and violent and/or economically depressed neighborhoods that many students face. The professor suggests that TFA might be the solution to all of our problems – a bunch of elite college students can solve just about any problem. Even if TFAers don’t remain in the profession, they’ve had a valuable learning experience that will influence their leadership.  My peers nod in agreement – my school was considered to be a ‘TFA feeder’. About 15 – 20% of each class applied and many got into the program. TFA posters adorn the dining hall, dorm cork boards, and just about every other blank space.

I wasn’t nodding. I started to talk about the mixed findings that studies in peer reviewed journals have had about the impact of TFA – Kerr and Berliner (2002), the infamous Darling-Hammond (2005) study, the Mathematica evaluation (2004), and many others. I take a bold position against TFA – I say that it should be torn to shreds and its financial remains fed to other programs. My peers jump on me. To them, TFA is common sense – what could go wrong with putting the best college students in the worst classrooms? My arguments about professionalism, opportunity cost, the importance of teacher preparation, school support, and what we now call the “Bold Approach” to education reform, fall on closed ears. Cynics like me and our education heresy were public enemy number 1 – the opponents of “real change”. After 20 minutes of raised voices and finger pointing my professor changed the topic (to the Thernstroms and the Bell Curve – I would encounter finger pointing and raised voices again that afternoon).

It’s two years later and I’ve changed my position: We need to reform TFA.

The major premise of my proposed reforms is that TFA and weak schools share the same problem: the mismanagement of human capital. When TFAers and traditional teachers aren’t given the professional tools that they need to succeed, too much of their passion and intellect goes to waste. The quality of education opportunities provided to at-risk students should be the most important factor in decision-making. I don’t like the argument that the primary purpose of TFA is to expose elite students to problems in education – there are many cost-effective ways of exposing college students and young professionals to the education sector without putting the learning of students at risk. Example: my college gave me a grant to volunteer full-time at an alternative school inside of a juvenile detention center. It was almost like student teaching. I worked 30 – 40 hour weeks. I spent most of my day in the classroom. After class was over, I took an intern position with the administrative side. Over the course of the summer I gained more responsibilities. The classroom teacher was a highly qualified and caring special education instructor – the students’ learning experiences were not sacrificed for mine. This experience and many others inspired me to become a professional educator in a Title I school.

The reforms:

1. TFAers need better preparation. As any educator will tell you, scaffolds are important to learning. Scaffolds coupled with classroom experiences can jumpstart a TFAers learning process. Master teachers, administrators, and researchers should not only teach TFAers in seminars, but critique their work as student-teachers. Currently, the TFA training program is 5 weeks. I propose that TFAers make the transition from student teacher –> co-teacher –> classroom teacher in a period of 4 – 8 months. Classroom experiences must complement academic coursework about best practices, professional development, and serving the needs of learners (English language learners, at-risk students, students in special education, etc). Students could be student teachers by day and take courses in the evening (many schools of education use this model in accelerated MA+credential programs that last for 12 months). The course and clinical work completed are transferable to a traditional MA+credential program. Since this training period is so short and leads to a complete certification and MA, TFAers could still put in 2 – 5 years of service.

2. TFAers need more support. Many of my friends in TFA say that they do not receive professional support from master teachers or administrators. Even after TFAers are full-fledged teachers, they need a network of master teachers and administrators who can help them troubleshoot and develop their teaching philosophy. As a part of the TFA placement contract, administrators must promise to provide networks that include their best master teachers.

TFA could be a true reform leader – the reforms I suggest for TFA could be used in existing teacher prep  and school district induction programs. Penny for your thoughts?

In case you didn’t get the title reference (or if you did get the reference and enjoy watching the video):

Teaching Blackness: Four Popular Theories (Comic)

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This comic accompanies my post entitled Do Teachers Influence Blackness?

“That Works….” – An EducatorBlog Comic

On Teaching Blackness: Four Popular Theories

Written by TeacherC

14 June 2008 at 12:58 am

Do Teachers Influence Blackness?

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Yes, the teachers in my life influenced the development of my racial identity and my perception of others’ identities. Put another way: all of my teachers have influenced my blackness – from how I see myself as an African American to how I relate with others in and outside of my racial group. Many teachers are not cognizant of the power they have over this domain. When I reflect about the power that teachers had over the development of my racial identity, four teaching approaches come to mind:

1. The colorblind champion.

The most popular approach (especially in the early grades). Uses the speeches of MLK to argue that we live in a colorblind society. Implies that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was wholly successful and that race is a non-issue. Most likely to assign attendance at a “peace assembly” as an extra credit assignment.

Tag line: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”” – MLK, Jr.

The bright side: This point of view is a large step up from the unfettered bigotry of past decades. It may be an appropriate foundation ideology when talking to young children about race. It reaffirms notions of American meritocracy.

The dark side: Colorblind and Laissez Faire racism: In a world devoid of conversation about race and privilege, institutional systems of bias remain entrenched. The colorblind ideology does not hold up in practice – many factors influence how individuals consciously or subconsciously assess race (ex: stereotyping in popular media outlets). The meritocracy might not exist.

2. The touchy-feely introspective empathizer.

Closely related to the colorblind champion (but with an empathetic twist). Found in mediation sessions, peer counseling meetings, diversity trainings, and leadership camps. Believes that all prejudice of all kinds can be countered if everyone would just “walk a mile in another’s shoes”. Tries to root out the language of oppression (ex: “My gay friend” becomes “my friend who self-identifies as being gay”). Avoids using terms like “black” and “African American” all together. Most likely to assign a diverse team building exercise for extra credit.

Tag line: “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” – JFK

The bright side: Awareness and empathy are positive attributes that are necessary for conversations about prejudice and other hot-button issues. People should reflect about the language they use to refer to others.

The dark side: Since this point of view is usually crammed into a few hours or a “diversity day”, it is hard for students to unpack the complexity of prejudice and language. Also, there may be too much of a focus on PC language (rather than deep intellectual discussion, creating classrooms that are safe areas for the discussion of tough issues, etc).

3. The Devil’s advocate.

Usually found on college campuses. Challenges students to “think outside of the box” when it comes to race. Assigns The Bell Curve and other works that promote ideas that are “counter-culture”. Tells students it is okay to be politically incorrect. Tells a narrative about discrimination against and oppression of white and Asian American men at the hands of Affirmative Action, welfare, race/gender-targeted scholarships, and class-action lawsuits. Most likely to assign a defense of The Bell Curve for homework.

Tag line: “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself.  It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”  – Potter Stewart

The bright side: Students hear new points of view about prejudice and can speak freely about the subject. Many white students feel less threatened. It is a rigorous intellectual exercise to compare alternative viewpoints.

The dark side: Most students weren’t taught how to have non-PC conversations about prejudice – racist comments ensue. Many of these classrooms don’t exhibit diversity (gender, race, or otherwise). Minority students feel threatened.

4. The social justice league.

Most often a (white) liberal member of the university faculty. Rejects race realism, the colorblind framework, and the notion that the Civil Rights Movement was successful. Calls for activism and the total (social/political/economic) restructuring of America. Talks about whiteness/white privilege. Most likely to assign readings from White Like Me.

Tag line: “For now, the important element of his theory is that whiteness serves to preserve the position of a ruling white elite who benefit economically from the labor of other white people and people of color.” – Judy Helfand

The bright side: Calls upon students to examine the role of race in the social, economic, and political realities of America. Motivates students to take action. Provides alternative histories.

The dark side: Can be just as divisive as the “Devil’s Advocate”. Perceived by many to be anti-capitalism and anti-meritocracy.

These approaches are from my experiences – How do you handle race in the classroom? What roles do teachers have when it comes diversity promotion (race, gender, sexuality, etc)?

(Inspiration: WSJ’s article entitled Racial Identity’s Gray Area)

Written by TeacherC

13 June 2008 at 7:15 pm

Was I Racist in the 4th Grade?

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I woke up this morning to this:

My ‘Aboriginal ceremonial mask’ that I made in the 4th grade for a social studies assignment. I haven’t noticed it in years. For some reason, it blends in with my varsity letters, Mariners memorabilia, and other pre-college memories hanging on the walls.

I made this submission to Dangerously Irrelevant’s Dismaying Assignment Contest:

In the 4th grade, I had to make an ‘Aboriginal ceremonial mask’ for our Australia unit. It was an exciting project – the masks were fired in a kiln and took about 2 weeks to complete. So – what’s the problem?

We didn’t really study the Aborigines. Our understanding of their culture was based on stereotypes and a few photos from National Geographic.

I’m looking at the mask right now (I noticed it hanging in my room this morning). There are ‘tribal’ engravings. Not to mention a lot of blood (and anger). I’ll probably take the mask down tomorrow. It wasn’t my fault that no one took the time to educate me about the indigenous peoples of Australia, but I try to stay away from racist decor.

Why does this mask matter? It reminds me that cultural sensitivity is learned over time. I can’t expect young students have a culturally sensitive perspective on the first day of class. That being said, assignments and the classroom environment  influence the cultural sensitivity of students. The assignment could have helped students become aware of issues affecting indigenous peoples – from genocide to economic and social oppression. This mask was created in ignorance and students missed out on the opportunity to make bold artistic representations of important social issues.

I hope that I can create a classroom environment that helps young students understand issues of social justice. I wasn’t a racist in the 4th grade because I wasn’t at the stage where I could make informed decisions about race, culture, and society. What would have happened if educators, parents, and other leaders hadn’t exposed me to issues of social justice? This?

Written by TeacherC

10 June 2008 at 12:09 am

Social.Activism.Design.

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DESIGN 21: Social Design Network’s mission is to inspire social activism through design. We connect people who want to explore ways design can positively impact our many worlds, and who want to create change here, now.

Q: What is Social Design?
A: It’s design for the greater good.

We want to use the power of good design for greater purpose.

We believe the real beauty of design lies in its potential to improve life. That potential first manifests itself as a series of decisions that result in a series of consequences. The practice of social design considers these decisions on a greater scale, understanding that each step in the design process is a choice that ripples out into our communities, our world and our lives. These choices are the result of informed ideas, greater awareness, larger conversations and, most importantly, the desire to do good. Social design is design for everyone’s sake

- Website of the nonprofit/UNESCO project Design 21

Design, usually considered in the context of applied arts, engineering, architecture, and other creative endeavors, is used both as a noun and a verb. As a verb, “to design” refers to the process of originating and developing a plan for a product, structure, system, or component. As a noun, “a design” is used for either the final (solution) plan (e.g. proposal, drawing, model, description) or the result of implementing that plan (e.g. object produced, result of the process). More recently, processes (in general) have also been treated as products of design, giving new meaning to the term “process design”.

Designing normally requires a designer to consider the aesthetic, functional, and many other aspects of an object or a process, which usually requires considerable research, thought, modeling, interactive adjustment, and re-design.

- Wikipedia

My goal to create designers – students who are able to draw upon diverse sources of information to create end products and processes that are innovative, functional, and promote the “greater good” (see my post on acts of post modern assemblage in the classroom). Design is a multidisciplinary process – history, science, art, psychology, sociology, communications, technology, and math are all relevant. At the root of all design, whether it be  for engineering, social justice, or fashion, is a profound understanding of the personal narratives of others. As dy/dan says:

Storytelling is the umbrella above design. It’s harder than design and simultaneously accessible to every single person on Earth, young and old, regardless of education or station or toolbox. It’s been around since forever, the setting up of heros and villains (your “characters”), the establishing of a guiding goal (your “narrative”), the careful positioning of challenges between them and their goal (your “obstacles.”)

My point is that, if you know how to tell a precise, articulate, and moving story, if you know how to build intrigue about a character in the first act, how to lull your audience into a happy, contented place in the second act, only to punch them precisely in the gut in the third, you have this fantastic skill which applies absolutely EVERYwhere.

Essay writing. Music composition. Graphic Design. Videography. Salesmanship. Teaching. Especially teaching. Especially these days. This list keeps building in my head during hours when I oughtta be sleeping.

Storytelling is the skill. Everything else is just its instrument.

I had a similar epiphany about human communication when I first started debating in college. I realized that debate was is about three stories. The most important story is the one in the judge’s mind. The secondary story is the one I’m trying to tell (or sell). The least important story is that of the opponent. Winning a debate round is a triumph of design: molding intellectual matter into a compelling narrative that intertwines with personal narratives of others (sometimes design is a violent process that displaces the narratives of others altogether – I’ve been compared to the character Nick Naylor from Thank You for Smoking, but that’s another post altogether).

When I stumbled across the Design 21 page (linked on Wanderlust‘s blog), I realized that I have to view teaching and activism through the lens of design. The most important narrative is that of my students – their goals, triumphs, tribulations, needs, and hormones. There are many other narratives that compete for supremacy in the classroom – teacher, parent, school, district, state, socioeconomic status, gang/violence/negative influence, peer, religion, and the list goes on (forever). Teaching branches into morality because we choose which narratives inhabit our sphere. I hope that I can intertwine the narratives of students with the right combination of secondary narratives so that students grow into thoughtful, functional, and interesting human beings. In order to function in our democratic and capitalist society, students need the skills to create their own narratives and influence the narratives of others.

Check out the Design 21 website. There are design competitions that involve education. What will you design today?

My design to-do list for 6 June 2008:

- A cute bento

- Something for the sake of activism and social justice.

- A Father’s Day gift to mend broken bridges.

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