Monthly Archives: April 2012

Teaching is sacred.

“Spiritual Play” by Zerihun Seyoum, 2003


Teaching is a power struggle.

During my internship in rural India last winter, I was introduced to the concept of Natural Learning. Natural Learning is an ideology developed by Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, emphasizing the importance of the education found in engaging with the natural world rather than within the walls of a structured classroom, as well as balancing the teacher-student power dynamic through mutual respect and non-violence. It is reminiscent of a Montessori or Waldorf approach to teaching and learning, allowing the kids to explore at their own pace and giving students control and choice over their learning. I think this approach would be challenging to fully integrate into a current public school atmosphere, and I also think many children need more guidance and direction than such an approach would promote. However, I believe it addresses the teacher-student power dynamic in a really valuable way. Why do teachers need to have complete control? There are ways to provide choice and control for children, while still guiding and directing their learning. From my classroom observations, it seems that when students are given control and choice, they become more engaged and interested, even if they have chosen to do the same thing the teacher would have directed them to do.

On-going self-analysis and critical self-examination of our own positions of privilege and power are essential if we are going to be teachers for social justice. I believe that if through this reflective process we reveal cloaked positions of privilege, we are then accountable and responsible to use the power that comes with that position for good purposes. To do this effectively, we must deeply study the sources and exchanges of our privileges. If we can understand our powers as teachers and social beings, we can then figure out how to use these powers in the work of cultivating social justice and equity. Self-reflection must go beyond “Who am I in relation to these diverse children?” towards “How can I use my own privilege to equitably support each of these children?”

Teaching is cultural work.

One day I was leading a group of four kindergarten students in a word-hunting activity; we walked around the school looking for words starting with certain letters, and they would write them down in a list to show the class. One of the ELL students was struggling to find his words; another student that was with us motioned at me to lean down, and she whispered in my ear, “We should just be patient with him, he will take more time because he is Mexican.” This was such an important teaching moment, but I was at a loss for words and unfortunately said nothing. She made this statement from a position of total innocence and compassion, yet the idea she was expressing—that her peer was at a disadvantage due to his racial, ethnic, cultural identity and membership—could become damaging and harmful. Has the term “Mexican” become a restricted code for the context of immigration and struggles of learning a new language? What factors, in and out of school, have socialized this young student to believe the status of “Mexican” innately makes someone less intelligent or capable? What should I have said in response to this innocent expression of status culture?

Especially in the context of diverse classrooms, teachers have immense power and potential to shape the way their children view and understand racial, ethnic, and cultural differences. We need to make sure that we talk about culture not just as something “out there,” but also as something “in here”; in our classrooms, our families, our communities, our selves. Localizing our curriculum to allow students to explore their own immediate worlds, contexts, and communities is essential. It allows students to better understand themselves, their peers, discuss differences. It also provides a lens through which to view the culture that is “out there”; when we understand the complexity of the culture of the “home” and “self,” the culture of the “other” becomes more real and authentic. And the site for critical and creative study and fieldwork is right in our classroom’s backyard! This can also display the diversity of cultures within our own classrooms, and give value to individual students’ cultures and backgrounds. I find myself drawn to activities such as collecting and presenting cultural artifacts, or allowing students to fill the roles of researcher, interviewer, and explorer in their own homes and communities. These ideas of bringing deep engagement with the world into the classroom make me incredibly excited to teach!

Teaching is a public health practice.

His acknowledgments last until about 4:40. Although this portion of his speech does not explicitly relate to the convictions and ideas he throws at us and around us, I believe the intimate (inter)personal details he shares carry really meaningful (hi)stories, and bring a crucial level of humanity to the work he urges us to do.

Teaching is imaginative.

“The 30-Day Fax Picture” by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1994

Teaching is inter-connected.

If a structure of teaching and learning is alien to the structure of what we propose to teach, the outcome will inevitably be a corruption of that content.

—Joseph Schwab, 1978

Teaching is political.

Federal-level reforms have repeatedly failed to promote equality and/or equity in the American system of public education; No Child Left Behind is no exception. While this law set up federal mandates for state standards and tests, the vast majority of American public schools still fail to meet the adequate yearly progress standards. As teachers, we must be well versed in the political policies and processes that affect our schools, classrooms, careers, and, most importantly, our students; we must also be active in efforts for education reform (or revolution). Should we advocate for a localization of responsibility, providing more power and flexibility to develop school- and classroom-level decisions and analyses accustomed to particular contexts? At what levels should powers be allocated? Rather than solely focus on student achievement and progress, should we develop teacher- and principal-evaluation systems, or rewards for outstanding teaching to motivate high-quality performance? This would be considered school-level analysis and reform; student achievement could then be better situated within the context of their school and classroom leadership.

Schools are dependent on federal, state, and local resources; they are also dependent on local political processes for making resource-allocation decisions. These local politics are incredibly vulnerable to local stratification; one’s ability to seek board positions, voice opinions, or mobilize action may be limited by their social status in the community. Therefore, resource-allocation decisions are more likely to disadvantage the poor and underprivileged, as these populations may have less representation during the decision-making processes. Furthermore, there is potential for great bias in the allocation of district discretionary funds, which are often granted to local schools through annual proposal processes. School boards may be less inclined to accept proposals from poorer schools in their districts due to the fact that they are already given extra federal support through Title 1 funds; this negates the purpose of Title 1, which is to provide additional support to “high-needs” schools beyond what they would receive otherwise. Due to the various pathways for unequal spending within school districts, any analysis at the district-level or greater runs the risk of cloaking the localized and particularized contexts of the spending-achievement relationship; would micro-scale school-level analysis be a more promising and comprehensive way to collect accurate, relevant, and critical data on resource distributions and local attributes?

Like any complex system, the American public education system is dynamic, non-linear, adaptive, and evolving. Therefore, individual schools and classrooms must be examined as whole, interconnected complex systems in order to understand the networks of factors and structures that facilitate and hinder student achievement. This approach to evaluation requires deep micro-scale, school-level investigation alongside broader scales of performance measures. In order to radically contextualize student learning, evaluation systems would have to go well beyond the walls of the classroom, incorporating family and community influences in student learning.

Teaching is playing with perceptions.

“Swans Reflecting Elephants” by Salvador Dalí, 1937

Teaching is self-building.

Individual identity takes form in the contexts of relationships and dialogue; our concern must be to create the kinds of contexts that nurture—for all children—the sense of worthiness and agency.

—Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination

Teaching is bridge-building.

English language learners are often not given the time to sufficiently master a language (which generally takes 5 to 7 years), and subsequently continue to struggle to keep up with their native English speaking peers in English-only instructional environments. These students are likely to be labeled as low- or under-achieving, and poor performance is frequently equated with intelligence rather than effort. ELL programs place students in tracks that systematically perpetuate these labels and stereotypes among isolated ethnic and racial populations. Through my work volunteering with ELL students in primary-level classrooms, I have become increasingly aware of the connections between students’ reading levels and parent involvement in reading outside of school. In particular, the Spanish-speaking ELL students I work with, who are primarily second-generation immigrants, seem to have far less support from parents with reading than their non-ELL peers. Parent involvement is a major indicator of student success, especially in elementary school. How do the school and social-class contexts for these underprivileged ELL students impact their parents’ involvement in reading? How can teachers facilitate and encourage parent involvement?

In one of the classrooms I work in, I frequently collect and go through the students’ reading journals. Each entry is divided into 3 sections: (1) the students write a few sentences about what they read and things they found interesting; (2) the students have a blank space to draw something from or related to what they read; and (3) parents write a note to the teacher regarding the conversation they had with their child about the book. It is this third section that I have found most interesting, as these written responses by parents are a reflection of their engagement in reading with their child, as well as their level of involvement and communication with the teacher. Some parents write extensive notes, often praising their child for noted progress and even thanking the teacher for her role in their growth and development. Usually, these are from (upper-)middle-class parents. On the other hand, other parents write very little, and exhibit limited engagement in reading with their child. These notes usually come from lower-class parents. Furthermore, about ten of the ELL students have parents that can only speak Spanish. The teacher does not know Spanish, so she has no way to know what these parents have written to her. I have been able to roughly translate some of these notes, and the vast majority of them are very basic explanations about the books (which have been sent home with Spanish translated versions) rather than detailed accounts of their conversations with their children. None of these entries include notes to the teacher.

There seems to be a dominant (and false) ideology among many Spanish-speaking parents that they cannot help their child with reading, and that reading in their native language will inhibit their child’s ability to learn English. What factors and forces have created this illusion of inability, which seems to become a self-fulfilling prophecy? How is this shaped and reproduced by the exclusion (via language barriers) of entire disadvantaged communities in parent-teacher and family-school relationships? The push for rapid English acquisition can lead to discrimination and stigmatization, which exacerbates the negative impacts of cultural dissonance and perceived lack of acceptance. Can parents suffer from stereotype threat and labeling in the same way students can? How is parent involvement influenced by socially constructed perceptions of (in)ability to provide adequate support? Furthermore, lower-class families tend to have weaker parent-networks, as these relationships are often formed through costly out-of-school activities. Parent-networks provide social capital for families and students, encourage bonds between teachers and parents, and facilitate collective support in response to school issues. What gains could be made if social capital was cultivated for the underprivileged ELL students and their families? What can teachers to do build bridges between families, students, schools, educators, parents (…) to empower young diverse learners to succeed?