Category Archives: Equity

Teaching Flint, MI, Teaching Social Justice: Curriculum Materials to Use With Students

flint-water-top-compressed

Contaminated Water in Flint, MI 

I have amazing colleagues. Yesterday, during a quick chat at the copier, Ariel Maloney and I discussed ideas that would blend current events, nonfiction reading, and discussion. Given, too, that Mrs. Maloney walks the talk EVERY DAY about teaching for social justice, it made sense that she would use the current injustices of what’s been happening in Flint, MI to do that work.

I asked her if she’d type up all her materials so I could push them out on her behalf in the hope that more of us could build on her work to make our students aware of what is happening right here in the United States (because I talked about it with my students this week, too, and they were agog that clean water wasn’t a given everywhere in the country). Believe me, they want to know. If you dig a little deeper, too, these discussions open an important level of discussion about race, access, class…yup, this issue lets you go there (and, I argue, as educators, we should go there).

I tend to think it’s all of our responsibility to teach what matters. The materials below offer a road map for how we can do that work.

Case Study-Flint, MI Flint MI Case Study Mrs. Maloney’s contact information is on her materials in case you want to contact her, ask her question or give her props for her excellent work.

Image of Flint water from: https://cdn4.dogonews.com/images/78b27af9-041f-4a8d-817f-cc668f9ae2eb/flint-water-top-compressed.jpg

 

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Filed under Curriculum Resources, Equity

All the Things We Never Tell Them

With the start of a new semester, I have a new group of students and I’m teaching seniors for the first time in what feels like a decade, but is probably closer to five years. I’m struck by a few things that I’ve been turning around in my mind since meeting them:

  • Students who write amazing poetry, for whom I scrawl a question on the top of their paper: Have you ever considered submitting your writing to the Lit Mag? Can I hold on to this as a student exemplar? They respond: “No one’s ever told me I should do that” or “You think my work is that good?” [full disclosure, our literary magazine is only a couple of years old, but I think you know what I mean when I’m asking if they’ve ever thought of sharing their work with a broader audience]
  • Students who are from all different African countries, who look at me with disbelief when I insist that yes, there are authors from Ethiopia (in this particular case), and she only believes me when I pull out a few books from different Ethiopian authors
  • Students who have bought into the belief that they need to attend a four-year college, yet their skills are so low that they are going to have to take developmental classes in college, which will count for nothing, and thereby increase the odds that they will not complete any sort of degree, yet they assume the fault for this is all their own (maybe I was only half-kidding when I said they should ask for a return on their investment of education given these probabilities)
  • Students who are nice, congenial kids, who I’m sure that, in our tracked classes, have been the ones who dutifully complete their assignments without question, who were most likely never recommended to take an upper level class, where I suspect they would have done just fine

I am trying to be hopeful and trying to work as hard as I can in our time that remains, but I find myself with so many more questions than answers, and so much anger about a system that has simply set these kids up for what? When we gather every day, and they are hopeful, and they are reading, and they are owning their part of everything (for not completing all of their work, or not understanding something, or not writing something down when I’m sure that, in my haste to get to the next thing I’ve probably not explained it as best as I could), I silently panic that we are going to run out of time. Seriously, it’s like we are at the mile 2 of a 26.2 marathon that they have to run tomorrow. 

Thus, my lessons are all about practical knowledge: learning how to read for understanding with dense texts, how to structure an argument, awareness of audience, how to write a business letter, a thank you note, a resume, and envelope, even and sprinkling that with literature of various types. They are not all going to a two- or four-year college; it’s best that I make sure all have skills that they will need.

With about three months remaining, I’m going to throw everything I have at this situation in hopes of at least giving them a chance to make their way in the world. I won’t tell them that I can work miracles, because I cannot, but I will tell them, as I told them yesterday, if they give me a good faith effort, they will be better when they finish than when they started.

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Filed under Equity, Literacy, Student Interactions

Guest Blogging for MA Literacy

Photo: MA Literacy

I’m doing a few guest posts about why we need diverse books for the wonderful Mass Literacy, the foundation that named me one of five literacy champions last year.

Read my first post, Why We Need Diverse Books, here. Stay tuned for future posts about books for middle school and high school readers. Also, feel free to check the previous post where I’m tallying my progress towards reading 100 Diverse Books in 2015. Still time for you to join me!

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Filed under Equity, Literacy, Reading Lives

Poems About Ferguson

In preparation for a poetry unit that looks at the role of the poet in society, I went searching for some poems about Ferguson, MO. The Google Doc I created is a work in progress, but it’s a start. Here it is in case you’re looking for resources.

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Teachers of Color, White Suburbs: Teaching in a PW Secondary School

When I began teaching, I only wanted to teach in urban schools. My Ed.M. affirmed that commitment: as part of an Urban Teaching cohort, I completed my student teaching in the city and remained there for much of the last 10 years.

Then, I left for my sabbatical in the suburbs (I’ve written about it in various capacities in this space, so I encourage you to do a search for the tags “sabbatical in the suburbs” if you’re curious) and have returned to an urban school, but it’s actually more “urban-lite” than those earlier urban experiences.

I have interacted with some young teachers of color recently who are debating applying for positions in the suburbs at predominantly white (PW) secondary schools. I strive for honesty and objectivity. Then, I realized it’s probably easier (for me, in this case) to work out that advice in a blog post and refer them to it when I can’t seem to get the words quite right.

Why Teaching in the Suburbs is Beneficial:

  • You will never know your disciplinary content more than when you’re there; for lack of a better phrase, people know their s#$t. Seriously. They were probably English majors, or History majors at some fine institutions, they were “splendidly educated” (to quote Morrison), and they generally know how to communicate that knowledge to kids and colleagues; but don’t get starstruck. They are human just like you.
  • Your colleagues have probably been teaching for a while: thus, you can probably ask them anything, and for anything, and they’ll have some ideas about how to do it (or how not to do it), and, if they’re really awesome colleagues (like mine were), they’ll open some magical filing cabinet, or crack open a binder and give you a copy of something that’s useful, or not, but it’s something and when you’re scrambling for resources, something is everything
  • You get to be the teacher of color that, if you’re comfortable with it, can begin to help folks address their misunderstandings and stereotypes. They’ve offered you the job for some reason, and it’s usually more than a need to increase diversity: they’re usually not going to just roll the dice and pick a potential teacher that doesn’t have the teaching chops. Suburban schools just don’t make decisions like that; they’d rather leave the position open than hire someone that won’t be a good match for the school. That means you should speak up in meetings, you can offer insight, you can carve out a space for yourself within the school community if you want to. But don’t feel like you have to; there’s a difference.
  • You will understand aspects of excellent instruction and you can begin to/continue honing your practice. You’ll see a continuum of teaching excellence there (and you should see a range). Watch the teachers who kids rave about, the teachers whom your colleagues respect, and start tinkering with your own practice. Have conversations about what you see, ask questions, find answers…intellectualism often flourishes here.

And What’s Not So Great:

  • You’re probably going to be, if not the only (like I was), then at least one of a handful of people of color. That means that people will ask you stupid questions, both unintentionally (from students) and intentionally from faculty and staff. You have a choice about how you can respond: my reaction was usually to raise awareness with kids (because you might be the only Native American, Korean American, African American, etc. they might ever know that’s not on television or in the media), but not to preach. With adults, I tend to pick my battles: I feel like if schools are going to bring you out there, they shouldn’t expect you to be teaching everyone about YOUR PARTICULAR EXPERIENCE, which is your experience, and probably nothing like anyone else’s experience. But, you’re most likely going to have to do this. It’s going to be hard and exhausting and some days you’ll wonder if we all live in the same world, but it’s going to happen. Just know that.
  • You will regularly need to confirm and reaffirm your expertise, both for your students, for your colleagues and for yourself. I’m not saying teaching in the suburbs is like teaching in a country club or anything, but, if you’re used to teaching in an urban school, it’s a HUGE jump from that environment into a suburban one. The ways of delivering instruction are different, classroom management is different, expectations are different. And again, I’m not saying that teaching in the city is deficient, because it’s not; rather, it’s just…different. The difference is so dramatic, however, that if you don’t give yourself permission to get accustomed to it, you’ll think that you’re a fraud, that you’re never going to “get it,” and that you want to leave. Don’t. Leave, that is. And don’t stereotype threat yourself, because I think that can happen in teaching the same way it can happen with a standardized test (if you want to know more about stereotype threat, check out the brilliant Claude Steele’s work). Just keep swimming until you get some ideas about the lay of the land. Figure out who you can trust, look for allies, do more listening than speaking on occasion, also.
  • Kids of color are going to seek you out. You’re there for the kids, for all kids, yes, but, in all likelihood, the kids of color are also part of a small population, have sat in classes where teachers and peers have said crazy things and those kids have had to either correct, defend or be silenced, and they’re looking for understanding. They’re going to assume you can provide it for them. You will feel that you have to provide it. This feeling is both a good and bad aspect, because that also means you’ll be asked (either directly or indirectly) to advise clubs, go to meetings, speak up for them. I tended to do those things because kids need adults to be brave, even when I wasn’t feeling so brave. It’s amazing how fired up I can get when I remember that the kids need an advocate.
  • You will have to create your community. You might have other people of color that you can collaborate and commiserate with, but they might be in all different parts of the building. They’re probably either feeling like you’re going to feel, have felt that way, or have figured out how to make a life in this space (and, let’s be real: you should think of it as making a life, not surviving–at least after the first year). Invite them to hang out at lunch, or for coffee, or for some intentional time. Then, just bug out. You likely have a million other tasks on your to-do list, but add this one and you will reduce your sense of isolation.
  • You will be exhausted. Teaching is exhausting anyway, but the additional exhaustion you’re going to face from either deciding to speak up or say nothing can be overwhelming. If you teach texts that deal with race (i.e. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, say), you’re going to have days when you come home, don’t want to talk to anyone, find some outlet for your feelings, and process your rage, your feelings of hopelessness, your decision to teach there. You have to decide if you can handle it. Personally, that piece was the one I didn’t think about, but the exhaustion was more potent and played more into my decision to leave than I anticipated. Now, mind you, I still feel exhausted (see the post about race I wrote earlier), but I’m not doing the work alone. That matters.
  • You also have the right to say no: that this experience isn’t for you, regardless how much money that particular district has and is willing to throw at you. Your emotional health is invaluable, and no one is going to blame you if you choose you. Sure, some people will throw shade about you giving up such a great opportunity, but what’s great for them is not necessarily great for you; remember that great schools and kids exist everywhere. You just need to find the place that is best for you, or best at that moment, or however you choose to define it (because those places and terms aren’t necessarily fixed).

Verdict: I do not regret my sabbatical one bit. For me, the positives were invaluable and while I did have to address those deltas, my teaching practice is much stronger for it. I realized how effective of a teacher I can be–and the teacher I strive to be every single day–after that time in the ‘burbs. But I have no desire to go back. I think that being the only Black woman on faculty was too difficult for me to deal with; I had that experience when I went to college and that was hard enough. I’ve no desire to relive that time. Rather, I’ve taken the good lessons from teaching in the ‘burbs and found a school that’s more diverse, that has excellent colleagues in their own right and provides me with the peace of mind that I need to keep teaching.

That was my choice, though, and my move to and from came after I’d been teaching for a while. I’m not fresh out of graduate school and itching for a job. I offer these reflections after some time spent in both contexts, in hopes that they begin to generate more ideas about what to consider when making what was, for me, a difficult decision.

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Everybody Deserves a Party: Holiday Break

One of the pleasures of teaching in my current city is that I have students of parents who are visiting academics at the local university. I had one such student this semester. Since his dad’s fellowship ended this week, today was our last day with this student, who was headed back to Georgia.

The students organized a party, down to a homemade chocolate multi-layer cake and other homemade joys, and we said farewell to a young man who quickly established himself as one who was honest, quirky, insightful and a part of our classroom community.

When the cake was unveiled, he was overcome by emotion. We all waited for him to take a moment and then he said “No one has ever had a party for me.”

Such a simple explanation for his joy.

Doesn’t every child deserve a party? It’s those little jolts that occur during classroom interactions that I’m reminded of the things that matter: kids need their teachers to have parties for them.

I try to have parties frequently: when a student that caused me to pull out my nearly non-existent hair because I was running out of ways to explain to her how to connect analysis to quotes rather than summarize them turned in a paper in which she was ANALYZING the quote, was DOING the thing I worried we’d run out of time before she mastered, I had a party for her. I called her over, read her the paragraph, explained WHY I was pleased and told her that we’d turned the corner. She had a smile as wide as [insert apt simile here]. And it came at a moment when we were both down on each other: I was sucking as a teacher and she was worried she was doomed as a writer. Then…there it was.

Yeah, have a party.

I’ve had other smaller parties throughout the year: when silent kids speak up and have said something profound that sets us all back on our heels; when others make some comment or connection that drags us from the literary time period we inhabit into the present; when typically self-absorbed young people open up a classroom to create real community, one in which everyone matters, one in which when a young man cries, we don’t bat an eyelash but hug him even harder because we want him to take our love with him…yeah, I have a party for them.

I hope to have many more parties for my students–small and large–but we will party down in as many ways as I can find and they can create to celebrate learning when it happens.

The pleasures and necessities of joyful learning…happy holidays.

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Teaching Up

One of the last writing assignments I ask students to do is called The Last Word Is Yours (not my original assignment; I have taken it from some brilliant teacher somewhere who offered it up). In it, students are encouraged to evaluate the year, subjects they liked, ones that they didn’t think worked so well, and provide some overall advice about the class for future years. They tend to be honest, thoughtful and quite helpful.

About three years ago, one of my students told me–nicely, I have to note–that I should teach honors classes because he felt like that would be the group of students that would fit me best. I didn’t think much of it. I’ve always taught kids who struggle. I have never had a desire to teach kids who were on or above level; honestly, the challenge for me is to get the kids who are below up and past grade level. I’ve tended, also, to be relatively successful in those endeavors.

My niche was/is(?) kids who struggle.

Then, this year, through some over-enrollment problem (maybe?), I ended up with three sections of honors sophomore English.

Three. That’s teaching the same class back-to-back-to-back, which means that the first time is shaky, the second time the lesson is usually entirely revamped, and the third time, I teach it like I intended to teach it. I thought I’d initially be bored with the same thing, but it’s amazing how reflection helps to immediately change what didn’t work into what works better. (Side note: I should do a separate post about the power of reflection. It’s perhaps the most useful habit I’ve ever cultivated that I can directly tie to improved practice)

So maybe that student from the past is laughing now that I’m teaching honors, but I‘ve also gotten a much better understanding of what it means to teach for equity. Because in honors classes, the expectations are simply…higher. Read 30 pages and be prepared to discuss character motivations, motifs, themes, whatever. They do it. Write a 2-3 page response about something that interested you about this article, making intertextual connections that demonstrates your understanding of the essential questions. Done. Attend this event because, as a literary citizen of the world (what I call them), that’s what smart people do. Done.

This is similar to my realization that kids in the suburbs write more papers than ones in the city. Honors kids have entirely different expectations for what they’re expected to do. As we all know, though, kids rise (or fall) to our level of expectation. What would happen if we simply (ha, simply is such an understatement, but go with it) expected kids in the track below honors to do the same thing? Sure, we’d have to work like hell to make that happen–I mean, we’d have to counter years of low expectations and bad habits, but it’s been done before by numerous excellent educators–but what’s stopping us?

My immediate future goal is to create an intentional community in which the students in the track below honors spend a year with me and leave prepared to be successful in an honors class the following year. This means that I’m going to have to think about all the “stuff” that goes into creating an environment in which an honors student is successful, but geez–I spend my time immersed in data. Isn’t this another chance to look at the data in a way that actually privileges kids who need it most? I’m moving beyond deficits.  I already have some hunches, so I’ll spend the next few months creating this space and then, hopefully, the next school year making it happen.

Working Title of this endeavor: Project Lab Classroom 2013. I told a former colleague that this might just be the hardest thing I will have ever done in my life, but it could be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can live with that.

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Filed under Equity, Lab Classroom