Monthly Archives: November 2012

Teaching is Advocating.

In our literacy course, I have been working with a first grade student who is an English Language Learner. She speaks primarily Spanish at home, and this is only her second year in an English-only environment. Before meeting her, I was told that she is a very struggling reader. In fact, literacy was becoming such a challenge for her that her teacher has been considering referring her for Special Education services, which would only be appropriate if she has a learning disability. I was eager to work with this student and see what I could uncover about her literacy development and abilities.

Our first meeting was a couple of weeks ago. As she started to read her “just right” books, which were short simple-predictable texts, I realized she was not paying any attention to the print. All of her interpretations and meaning were drawn directly from the images. My efforts to engage her with the print were unsuccessful. Then we read the book Siete Ratones Ciegos (Seven Blind Mice) by Ed Young, which is a pretty complex story for a first grader to follow. She was super excited to read a book with me in Spanish, and was really engaged from the start. As we read, I asked her at various points to retell the story, discuss/analyze particular events, predict what would happen next. Her responses blew me away. Not only could she completely understand the story and retell it with total accuracy, but she made thoughtful, detailed predictions, mostly in Spanish. By the end, she identified the main points of the story and retold her favorite parts. Then we read Sneetches by Dr. Suess, an even more complex text, this time in English. Again, she could comprehend the entire story, analyze what I had read in connection to pictures, and make detailed (and shockingly accurate) predictions about the story. She has never read Sneetches, or any other story by Dr. Suess. This one thirty-minute interaction completely destabilized the assumption/suspicion that her literacy struggles are due to a learning disability.

During our second meeting, we created our own I See book. It started with “My name is ___ and I see many things. / Mi nombre es ___ y yo veo muchas cosas.” Each following page repeated “I see ___. / Yo veo ___.” in English and Spanish, followed by the name of an animal that matches a picture for her to draw. For example, one page said “I see a cat. / Yo veo un gato.” By the end, she was reading both the English and Spanish accurately. Her confidence was heartwarming—when we returned to her classroom, the first thing she did was run up to her teacher to read the story we created together (again with near total accuracy). She can read! ¡Ella puede leer!

This experience has led me to realize how important our role as Advocates can be. Without someone to talk with this student in her native language and to discover her incredible ability to comprehend very complex texts, it would be very easy to assume that she has a learning disability. Without someone to tell her how cool it is that she can speak and read and write in two languages—to validate her bilingualism, her culture, her native language—it would be easy for her to view herself negatively in relation to her peers. As an Advocate for our students, we must ensure a growth mindset, both in the perceptions others (colleagues, parents, peers…) hold/carry of our students, and in the perceptions our students hold/carry of themselves.


Teaching is a Poem.

A Walk in the Park II by Wosene Worke Kosrof, 2004

Teaching is Poetry.

Poems hide…
What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them…
Maybe if we reinvent whatever our lives give us we find poems.

—Naomi Shihab Nye, in A Valentine for Ernest Mann

Teaching is Poetic.

Last week, I witnessed a middle school Veteran’s Day Assembly. One of the guest speakers was a young man who had just returned home (only days before) from Air Force service in Afghanistan. He talked about the importance of travel, the value of trying new/challenging things, the danger of making “bad choices” that distance us from our goals, and how in order to reach our goals we must actively work towards them (basically, mom+dad are not going to take care of you forever, jobs will not show up at your doorstep, relationships do not take care of themselves). His speech covered a lot of essential themes that are relevant to this age group. Yet, despite all of these big ideas, one (seemingly minor, easily forgettable) detail really stuck out to me. As he described his educational history, he explained how we do not need to be good at everything to succeed. At first I was drawn to this idea—I have witnessed so much pressure for Students to be good, to be the best, to get all As, to excel in every subject. Why must every student be so competitive, self-critical, infinitely ambitious in every content area? How often do all Students get time to feel like they get it, understand, are successful? Then he used the example of a poem he wrote in 5th grade, titled (with pseudonym) My Name is Adam Brown and I Like to Kick Rocks. I thought this was a fantastic concept for a poem, and hoped he was going to read it aloud to everyone! However, much to my disappointment, the purpose of this example was to show that he “sucks at poetry,” hates poetry, is “not good at poetry.” Apparently his 5th grade teacher agreed that his poetry writing was not up to Standard, was not good enough. His message was that despite being “bad at poetry,” he is still successful. And still thinks he is not a Poet.

This story was very troubling to me. I believe everyone has a Poet inside of them—sometimes hiding, always there. It is sad to me that this man has been conditioned to believe he cannot write poetry. It is even more sad that his Teacher was not able to recognize the poetic beauty and potential of his “simple” concept of kicking a rock down the road. What a rad image and story! Yet instead of capitalizing on the potential poetic creativity and confidence this story could unleash, this Teacher chose to build the (traumatic) foundation for a hatred of poetry. Rather than unleashing the Poet within, this Teacher chased the Poet into hiding, far deeper inside. This mindset becomes a psycho-social virus; now, as he speaks to hundreds of middle school students, he is validated/transmitting this same mindset to (many) others. What a dangerous virus/parasite of the soul.

Recently I have become inspired by the poem A Valentine for Ernest Mann by Naomi Shihab Nye. This poem is very accessible. For those that already love poetry, this asks Poets to recognize the poetic potential of everyday life as it passes us by, as we walk through it, in the places we least expect it to flourish. For those that do not yet love poetry, this provides exposure to a poem that can be grasped, understood, applied. It opens up a conversation about what counts as poetry (everything/anything!), and offers a model of creativity+beauty in unexpected places. Could poetry like this help a Teacher shape the conditions of possibility to re-direct/explode Students’ poetic lenses, to re-enchant their perceptions of everyday life? To be active and critical investigators/observers/surveyors/purveyors of the world(s) around them?

Over the past month, I have felt more and more drawn to the adolescent age groups. I strongly believe I want to teach middle-level humanities. My goal is to unleash the Creator within all of my Students. If I am successful, every Student will know they are a creative Writer, a critical Reader, and (perhaps most importantly) a Poet.

Teaching is Re-Shaping Spaces.

Horror vacui (Fear of Empty Spaces) by Carlos Estévez, 2004

Teaching is Improvisation.

Last week, I spent the day in the middle school language arts classroom of one of my favorite childhood teachers. His philosophy and pedagogy are so incredibly well-designed and adapted to this challenging and fascinating (and so often misunderstood) adolescent age group. I was eager to return to his classroom and learn from his practice.

During the last class period of the day, I witnessed an incredible act of improvisation, of a teacher acting quickly on his feet. As an entry point to reading the poem Guilt by Jed Chambers, he asked the students to remember a time when they felt pressured to do something that didn’t “jibe” with their moral code, and respond in their journal (which he does not read) to prompts regarding how they felt, what they did, and what they wish they had done. He then asked students, who were willing, to share their story and self-analysis. Students brought up a wide range of experiences, from drug/alcohol related situations with friends to coaches directing them to hurt players on another team. It became obvious to me how safe these students feel within this learning space and community.
Then one of the students in the front row told a story about an experience he had with racism. He was a White boy, and he spoke about a basketball game, when a boy on the other team was making negative derogatory racist statements about a Black boy on his team. A few of the kids in the back of the class started to laugh. Their teacher immediately stopped the conversation, interrupted the story. “I’m sorry, did I miss something funny?” The whole class was silent, those that laughed looked terrified as they had been called out by a man they respected and admired. He immediately said, “I am not angry, I’m not saying this from a position of anger. I’m just wondering if I missed something funny. Our friend here is telling his story very articulately and elegantly, and he has not used any inappropriate words. So I’m just wondering if I am missing something?” The students all shook their heads, “No.” His tone immediately shifted to a calm and assuring stance. “Ahh, okay. So we are laughing because we are uncomfortable. And that is okay! That is a normal reaction. We as humans often laugh when we feel uncomfortable, and racism can sometimes be an uncomfortable topic for us to talk about. Alright, let’s get back to the story.” Every student was now serious and engaged as they listened to the boy in the front row tell the rest of his story, and they could all participate in a respectful, critical, academic, analytic approach to this incident of racism.
What an incredible act of improvisation! I have no idea how I would have responded in this situation, yet seeing this veteran teacher respond immediately with such grace gave me a valuable story to add to my toolbox. He was able to address discomfort, validate everyone’s feelings/reactions, and re-direct every student back to a serious conversation. No one was punished, everyone was enabled/empowered to participate. All in less than a minute! I am terrified and thrilled for teaching and management moments like this to come up in my own eventual classroom. Witnessing these fleeting moments has provided some of the most valuable lessons to me as a teacher in training.