An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘activism

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.

Educating the Blogger-Activist

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Want a classroom full of blogger-activists? On Bloggers Unite!, you search for (or create) an activism cause, advertise your blogging event, and then blog about your event on the specified date. Other members of the Bloggers Unite! community can choose to join you in blogging about your cause. Many of us are already using social justice topics to help our students access content – this site adds a blogging and activism dimension that will excite your students.

There are over 70 events in the database – from Earth Day to International Literacy Day. You can create a cause specific to your school or community and get parents, other classrooms, businesses, and other members of your community to join your students in blogging about the cause. If you have activism or charity related events running in your classroom (walk-a-thons/races, penny drives, food drives, etc), use this tool to build community support.

Maybe you’ll inspire a Marx for the 2.0 generation.

(I found Bloggers Unite! on Nisha Chittal’s post called 25 ways to use your blog and social media to create change)

Written by TeacherC

29 March 2009 at 5:06 pm

It’s all GOOD

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If you haven’t, you must check out GOOD. In their own words:

“GOOD is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward.
Since 2006 we’ve been making a magazine, videos, and events for people who give a damn.
This website is an ongoing exploration of what GOOD is and what it can be.”

GOOD presents information about politics, economics, the environment, and many other topics in amazing ways.

Three things about GOOD that are great:

1. The GOOD sheets. You may have seen a print version of these floating around your local Starbucks. GOOD finds visually stimulating ways to present a large volume of information about a timely topic. For example, this GOOD sheet is about the first 100 days of American presidencies:

There are many other topics available. These visualizations are great discussion starters about content and current events. I also like to show students how they can present information in many different ways.

2. The blog. The GOOD blogs also feature stunning visualizations about timely issues. This visualization about water use blew my mind:

3. The “pay what you want” print magazine. You can pay what you want to subscribe to the print version of the magazine and what you choose to pay will go directly to a nonprofit. Get a subscription for your class – cut out important articles, use them for silent reading or student research, etc.

Peruse the website. You’ll also find video shows, an activism event listing, and community features. It’s all GOOD.

Written by TeacherC

19 March 2009 at 1:34 pm


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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.


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.