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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Racism denial thrives on uninformed beliefs.   Like the one that says the Civil Rights Movement is over, that Civil Rights legislation has solved all the problems of discrimination, and so now because African-Americans have achieved their civil rights, laws like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that outlawed any barriers to voting are no longer necessary.  The Supreme Court ruling of 2013 is a kind of denial of the possibility that racism still exists to such an extent that Black voters become disenfranchised.  Of current civil rights laws, Chief Justice Roberts says, “Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” Consequently, southern states with a history of Black voter Texas Voter ID Lawsdiscriminatory practices would no longer need to have federal approval for any changes in current state voting laws.  No need because we can rest assured southern states will not pass laws that will restrict Black voter rights.  The consequence of this was that the state of Texas immediately announced that the voter I.D. laws that had been blocked by the feds would now go into effect.

The belief that America is no longer racist has had other “unintended” consequences, especially among young, white high school aged teens from the south. Many school districts (in Texas for example) are forced to deal with state and local school boards who pressure districts (some willingly, some unwillingly) to adopt textbooks that are more propaganda than fact. I point to the continuing controversy over Texas’ reluctance to acknowledge its racist past and, instead, adopt a “revisionist” approach to teaching Texas history. There are, of course, in the case of Texas, many reasons for this, not the least of which is that currently Texas is dominated by a pandering republican governor and a republican majority in the state legislature. However insidious as it may seem, the underlying rational seems to be that the state of Texas wants to ensure that its hundreds of thousands of high school students get the “state adopted” version of Texas history (and science for that matter) which doesn’t need to include any inconvenient truths about its racist past. I have no sympathy for Texas constituents (or constituents of any of the other southern, republican states in the south), but I do have sympathy and concern for the students who sit in their classrooms and learn Texas propaganda instead of the truth.

Critical thinking skills do not come easily to students. The ability to differentiate between fact and opinion, while on the surface may seem an easy process, is entirely dependent on the developmental stage of the student. In my thirty years of teaching high school students, I can attest to this. Without instruction and practice in critical thinking in all subject areas, in the developmentally incomplete brain of the high school student, opinions can easily become facts. I have always tried to teach my students that opinions can never substitute for facts, that opinions must be tested and verified, and that it must be those tested and verifiable facts only that inform our decision-making processes, never opinions.

In the news just today, the Huffington Post reported that two white high school students from Mountain View High School in Stafford, VA, about 50 miles south of Washington D.C., were reprimanded by school officials after a photo of the two wearing sleeveless T-shirts with a racial slur emblazoned the backs during spirit week surfaced on the Internet. Obviously, it was “dress up day,” and the girls were in costume. The backs of their shirts read “N16GA WE MADE IT.” The number 16 replaces the letters I and G in the slur, referring apparently to their class of 2016. The phrase on the shirts refers, according to the Huffington Post article, to the lyrics in a Drake song “We Made It.” The story was picked up by more internet news services than I can count and will probably fuel the many fires kept ablaze by politicians ready to proclaim that this is just another example of political correctness gone wrong. Their point, on the one hand, is echoed by many of the students themselves: the phrase is just a part of a song lyric and there is no deliberate intent to offend anybody, so people just need not to take it so seriously. I admit that there is a point where the intended purpose of striving to be “politically correct” is lost because it becomes the “end” and not the “means” for deeper understanding of the origin of why such a word is a slur. To teach the “why” of this is not a political action that a teacher plays out in a classroom; teachers are not “activists” in a political sense. To say that the use of the word nigger in any context is blatantly offensive to many African-Americans is not a matter of opinion; it is fact. The understanding of why it is offensive must be rooted in a factual understanding of the history of the word’s origins and not simply because it is not “politically correct.” How would a teacher explain the difference between the following two photographs of the offending girls in question?

High School Girls II

High School Girls I

The first one was published by the Huffington Post and somebody decided to display the phrase in its entirety. The second, from Opposingviews.com, a site that claims to have a “non-partisan, balanced approach to content” that makes them “a trusted leader in politics, world, and society news for the digital age,” made the decision to redact the “16G” part of the word in question. My curiosity was sparked, so after an informal search of news articles on the internet on this news item, of the eleven I found (though there seemed to be dozens of internet news services that picked up this story), four, including Huffington, opted to post the photo untouched and seven posted a redacted version of the photo.

Make of it what you will, but I find it interesting that there seems to be confusing justifications for making the decision to post the photos untouched or not. The politics of the decision making process I’m certain are complex, even though they probably needn’t be. All that is really required is a discussion of the inconsistencies, and what better place to have these discussions than in the classroom. It’s not up to the teacher to claim why one should or shouldn’t censor the word; it’s up to the students to make up their own minds, but only after they have a grasp of the social and historical facts of why this word is so controversial.

Mountain View High School staff may have missed their opportunity. By the time the students are reprimanded, it may be too late. Any discussion would now, after the fact, be a defensive, save-our-ass kind of response to the criticism. What should have happened is some kind of genuine attempt to help students—in a school that is about 70 percent white—understand all of the complicated ramifications of using this word. I think of how so much better it would have been for some observant teacher to seize the moment when she notices two of her students were sporting these shirts and then for that teacher to start the discussion in the classroom where it belongs.

Finally, can we just accept the fact that racism is still alive and well in America? Can we not pretend that the Civil Rights Movement is over, and that all of the racial problems exposed in the fifties have been solved? Yes, there have been small steps toward ridding our great country of the curse of racism— University of Southern Mississippi has stopped displaying the state flag which has the symbol of the confederacy and Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has recently acknowledged the need to debate the issue and proposed that 2016 may be the time to put the issue of the confederate flag on the state ballot and let the voters decide. This is a start, but there is still so much more to do. Still, for the first time, I sense the debate over the existence of racism in America is beginning anew.

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It might be worthwhile to mention that rarely do school districts get in-services or professional development right. I’m sure I’ve participated in some that were okay, but, as I recall, many were just painful, sometimes even embarrassing. While there is much to dislike about Common Core State Standards (particularly annoying is the constant and shrill battle cry of “college and career readiness!”), the one thing educational think tank organizations seem to finally understand is that any successful professional development related to instructional improvement and student achievement has to be more than “sit-and-get,” “one-shot workshops.”

One of the more visible groups out there dedicated to influencing policy decisions is Education First. They’ve gone to great lengths to make it clear that Professional Learning (that’s the phrase they like to use instead of professional development) is a crucial piece to the successful classroom implementation of CCSS.

An interesting document that might be worth looking at—if for no other reason than to compare the ideal to the real—is their “New Essential Elements to Professional Learning.” One of the pull quotes reads, “The professional learning systems we identify and argue for in this brief move away from a top-down model where teachers work in isolation to a model emphasizing collaboration, coaching and peer accountability.”

What Education First misses is that putting such a model into practice flies directly in the face of the realities that confront far too many school districts: “collaboration” and “coaching” require funding if teachers need to be out of their classrooms; collaboration, coaching, and peer accountability require a culture that fosters a willingness to collaborate, to be coached, and to accept feedback from peers; and, finally, to acknowledge that leadership for implementing these “professional learning systems” must come from the teaching staff and not administration.

The final point here is that improvement of student achievement must be a product of genuine collaboration among all “stake holders,” including students, teachers, aids, and administrators.  Believe me I know that it is much easier to make this point than it is to actually change the culture of the school enough to make this really happen.

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seaside high school

Seaside High School, Seaside, OR

Retiring from teaching was tough for me, mostly because I was conflicted about whether or not I was making the right decision. Even if I did retire for the right reasons, I knew I would have regrets. Regrets, of course, are inevitable, because no matter how self-confident a person is, when it comes to making a really important, life-changing decision, doubt always finds a way of rearing its ugly head. So I felt that the best way to deal with my decision was to examine what it was that I was doing as a teacher that caused me to now experience doubts about my decision.

What was it exactly that would I miss about teaching?

Time for self-examination.

What I came up with was, really, quite simple. I missed the learning. You see, one of the reasons why I even became a teacher in the first place was that I loved learning. I loved attending institutions of learning, being around people who enjoyed learning and wanted to learn. I know it must be possible, but I can’t imagine any teacher in any classroom who does not love learning. So what job could be more perfect than working in a building full of teachers who love learning and students who “came to learn?” Though I know, of course, that not all students come to school to learn, or at least not by the time they come into my classroom. I missed the learning that was going on in my classroom. I missed watching, observing students who were learning, especially those kids who weren’t used to learning or didn’t know what learning was all about, what it looked like, what it felt like, and then watch them recognize they could learn, even to a small degree.

The act of teaching, no matter the subject matter, has two major components: the content itself, what it is that you want to teach, and they manner in which you present that content. By whatever measure you define learning, a student’s ability to learn is just as much affected by attitude as it is by the content.

If learning has purpose, and the teacher’s approach in the classroom shows the value and importance of that learning (that is, everything we do in this classroom has a specific purpose: to experience some kind of positive result in the same way adults experience some kind of positive result from their daily routine), then all students, eventually, will recognize that they have the ability to learn.

The importance of modeling adult behavior is apparent to me as a substitute. Though a substitute, I am still a teacher. Students need to know that the reason I am subbing is that I enjoy helping them further their learning in some way. In return I get to help a variety of students in a variety of subject areas, and I enjoy that. I tell them my expertise is in English, so I may not have enough expertise to help them in math or science, but that I would expect that they could help me understand what it is they’re learning and how the day’s lesson is supposed to help them reinforce that learning.

Regardless of the content, the principles of instruction and the social construct of the classroom are the same: there is something that needs to be learned and a group of students who need to learn it. I subbed for a teacher who teaches an elective course in alternative energy. The lesson plan included a tough reading assignment that involved understanding how energy calculations can help a family make intelligent decisions about how to efficiently heat a family of five’s hot water. I thought the best I could do is get them comfortable with me, prep them for the assignment with a little personal information I already had about solar water heater use, read the assignment to them, and then help them with some possible strategies for understanding the material. They were used to working in teams, so those who were interested enough in participating were going to hash through it in some way, and those that weren’t interested, well, they weren’t interested.

Here’s where the modeling came in: I joined a few of the groups as Devil’s Advocate, helping them help me to…well, them. It wasn’t difficult to model interest and enthusiasm for them; I was really interested in learning something about solar water heating efficiency. For some groups, students fell instantly, automatically into the role of instructor. I didn’t know much, so they shared what they knew about the subject with me. What some students discovered, indirectly, was how much they knew about the subject (or how little), that by “teaching” it to me reinforced what they already knew (teacher maxim: the more you teach a subject the better you know it), and that one of the functions of learning (of all schools in general) is to become confident enough to share that learning with someone else. In time they learn about learning: sharing of learning validates the importance of learning by sharing or collaborating or teaching.

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