An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog

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Archive for the ‘Social Activism/Justice’ Category

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?

My classroom management plan on Scribd

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A few months ago I had to submit a classroom management plan for one of my graduate classes. As I’ve switched grades, had new classroom experiences, and read more information, I’ve tweaked my outlook. The first draft of my classroom management plan is on Scribd. I have seen a few educators post their plans and hope to see others do so as well. As I update my plan, I’ll post those drafts.

Elementary Classroom Management Plan

Publish at Scribd or explore others: How-to-Guides & Manu children learning

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.

Sometimes teachers use computers like badly written worksheets

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I’m intrigued by a debate sparked by this post on Dangerously Irrelevant:

Dangerous Debate

I agree with the principal who asks for advice – technology should not be treated as an “add on” to our curriculum. Teachers should weave technology throughout the curriculum and their practices – not only as a way to increase learning, but for networking, tracking professional development, and making life easier in the classroom (it’s possible!).

Schools that give equitable access to 21st century learning experiences value community building (home-school, teacher-student, student-student, neighborhood-school, etc), use informed and child-centered pedagogy, and help teachers connect to a wider professional community. Just having technology in a building does not ensure children learn how to use technology appropriately. Currently, our classrooms are filled with literacy, math, science, and social studies artifacts (textbooks, worksheets, libraries, posters, curriculum guides, art supplies, etc). The mere presence of these artifacts has not ensured equitable access to appropriate learning experiences.

Many professionals misuse technology (there are tons of websites about bad PowerPoint presentations). Teachers are prone to the same error. Sometimes teachers use computers like badly written worksheets. Instead of using technology to provide students with rigorous challenges, many teachers provide cookie cutter, linear experiences, where the emphasis is on product rather than process. In my professional development and classroom management plan, I say:

“students need experiences that build upon understandings they already have while challenging them to form new understandings. Vygotski used the term “Zone of Proximal Development”. Learning requires a delicate mix of challenge, conflict, safety, and familiarity. There is not a single linear progression that fits the learning trajectories of all students.”

I guess the question I would have asked, if I were the principal, is “How do you align technology use with what you believe are the best practices in education and the needs of your intellectual community? How can I create a technology plan that provides the equipment and professional development for teachers to use these technologies appropriately?”

How would you answer these questions?

“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):

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