Category Archives: Contexts of Learning

Learning in literature.

El niño que no puede leer bien.

Desde el empiezo del año,
he estado trabajando en la lectura con un niño del quinto grado.
——–Yo había pedido para trabajar con un estudiante de habla hispana aprendiendo inglés.

Caminé en su salón de clase por primera vez.
——–Me dio una mirada nerviosa, con sonrisita.
Tenía dos libros de capítulos inglés en su escritorio.
——–The Lightning Thief por Rick Riordan y
——–The Book of Pirates por Howard Pyle.

Nos conocimos, y le pregunté si leyera sus libros conmigo.
Abrió su libro de piratas.
——–Dijo que sus libros favoritos tienen historias de piratas.
Pero cuando empezó a leer, las palabras eran muy difíciles.
——–Él no podía leer más de dos o tres palabras en el primer pagina.

Cuando le evalué en la lectura, estaba a un nivel pre-kinder.
——–Sin embargo, él podía entender las historias cuando leí a él.

La próxima semana, traje algunos libros en español.
Cuando empecé con La Oruga Hambrienta por Eric Carle, me dijo,
——–—Mi papa lee esto a mi hermanita cada noche, pero
——–¡nunca lo ha leído a mí!
Le gustó la historia.
Nos reímos mucho.

Entonces, leímos Leo, el Retoño Tardío por Robert Kraus.
——–Olvidé que es la historia era de un tigre que no podía leer.
Cuando se lo leí, parecía más frágil.
——–Hablábamos solo en español.
Leo, el tigre, era él.
Él es Leo.

Antes del fin, Leo lee.
——–—¡Leo puede leer!
Nos reímos de nuevo.

——–—¡Le veo en dos semanas!


The boy that can’t read well.

Since the start of this year,
I have been working on reading with a fifth grader.
——–I had requested to work with a Spanish-speaking ELL student.

I walked into his classroom for the first time.
——–He gave me a nervous smile.
He had two English chapter books on his desk.
——–The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan and
——–The Book of Pirates by Howard Pyle.

We met, and I asked him if he would read his books with me.
He opened his book about pirates.
——–He said that his favorite books have stories about pirates.
But when he started, the words were much too difficult.
——–He could not read more than two or three words on the first page.

When I evaluated him in reading, he was at a pre-kindergarten level.
——–However, he could understand the stories when I read to him.

The next week, I brought some books in Spanish.
When I started La Oruga Hambrienta (The Hungry Caterpillar) by Eric Carle, he told me,
——–“My father reads this to my little sister every night, but
——–——–he has never read it to me!”
He really liked the story.
We laughed a lot.

Then, we read Leo, el Retoño Tardío (Leo, the Late Bloomer) by Robert Kraus.
——–I forgot that this is a story about a tiger that cannot read.
When I read this to him, he seemed more fragile.
——–We talked only in Spanish.
Leo was him.
He is Leo.

Before the end, Leo reads.
——–“¡Leo puede leer!”
—————-(Leo can read!)
We were laughing again.

——–“¡Le veo en dos semanas!”
—————-(See you in two weeks!)


Learning in listening.

Since my first formal observation, I have been actively working to navigate/negotiate my position of authority with my students—establishing my authority in the classroom was one of my goals established during our debrief. I have found my small reading groups to be a great space for exploring/experimenting with this practice (there are two groups I am consistently planning/facilitating, one in English and one in Spanish). While this is definitely still one of my greatest challenges, I feel like I am making strong improvements in balancing my natural desire to be fun/goofy with the kids vs. setting/modeling clear expectations for engaged learning and behavior.

Even still, this has been an extra challenge with a few students.

A couple of weeks ago, I made it a point to play with these particular students at recess, show them that I genuinely care about and want to listen to them. Over the few following days, this seemed to make a world of difference. Nothing else significant had changed in our routines or interactions, yet these students (who previously were the hardest for me to engage) demonstrated a level of respect for me in small group that I had not experienced before. I was blown away! I don’t necessarily expect this change to be permanent, but I do feel like I am developing strategies to help me sustain this mutual respect with my students.

Authoritative discipline is not the only way to demand respect, and it is not the way that I want to demand respect from my students. When I do, the response from my students does not feel authentic, and I feel worn down and discomforted with my practice. I am finding that when I really take the time to listen to my students, and demonstrate that I am deeply listening, they tend to listen to me in response, within class and without. I am also finding that I tend to do the same with my own teachers too. When I feel like I am truly listened to by my teacher, I am more motivated to listen to them in return. In so many ways, what motivates our behavior as adults may not be all that different than what motivates our kids behavior in the classroom….

Learning in question.

One of my first grade students got an iPhone for Christmas. Another student sitting at the same table does not always eat every meal each day. How can we expect to be able to teach our kids without a knowledge of the (seemingly simple) barriers to their learning and deep engagement? How can we deeply engage with(in) these contexts in order to facilitate bridges for these/all students? How do we provide equitable access despite these circumstances?

A section of the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border at Imperial Beach, California.

El niño que no comió esta mañana.

La semana pasada, un niño me dijo,
—Me duele el estómago.
A él, dije,
—Hay tres razones posibles:
——–Uno, estás enfermo y necesitas ir a la enfermera ahora.
——–Dos, tienes hambre y necesitas comer algo.
——–Tres, estás nervioso o preocupado por algo.
—————-¿Que piensas?
Me dijo,
—Creo que tengo hambre. No comí nada esta mañana.
——–¿Puedo ir a la enfermera? Ella siempre tiene comida en su oficina.

La maestra dice que los niños necesitan desechar lo que no comen en el almuerzo.
Le dijo al niño que puede poner sus restos en su mochila
——–(cuando la maestra no está mirando).

The boy that did not eat this morning.

Last week, a boy told me,
“My stomach hurts.”
I said to him,
“There are three possible reasons:
——–One, you are sick and need to go to the nurse right away.
——–Two, you are hungry and need to eat something.
——–Three, you are nervous or worried about something.
—————-What do you think?”
He told me,
“I think that I am hungry. I did not eat anything this morning.
——–Can I go to the nurse? She always has food in her office.”

The teacher says the kids need to throw away what they don’t eat at lunch.
I tell the boy that he can put his leftovers in his backpack
——–(when the teacher is not looking).

Learning in snapshots.

Often, it is in simple moments and single interactions/exchanges with my students that I confront and confirm (to myself) the importance of the sacred work of public education (and my commitment to it). To explore my core commitments to this critical and challenging project, I am currently writing a collection of (hi)stories from my classroom and student teaching experience. The following is a bilingual story from the section titled, Cuentas de los niños morenos (Stories from/of the brown kids). I am not sure what lessons will emerge from these snapshots, but I do know that collecting them all into a common space forces me to look at and reflect on my classroom and students with a more nuanced vision. Some of the stories (continue to) weigh at my heart, and writing them seems to refresh my spirit a bit.

Little Girl With Yellow Dress
by Patssi Valdez, 1995

La niña que me rompe el corazón.
En mi clase, hay una niña.
Una niña amable y tranquila, que me rompe el corazón.
Ella es de México.
Vino aquí con su mamá, cuando tenía cuatro años.
Una noche,  ella se durmió en México.
Cuando se despertó, no estaba en México más.
——–Cuando se durmió en México, estaba con su hermano y su hermana.
——–Cuando se despertó en los Estados Unidos, sus hermanos no estaban con ella.
Una vez, la vi en el recreo, su pie en la pared del ladrillo.
Ella estaba llorando en secreto.
Le pregunte,
——–—¿Qué pasa?
Ella me dijo,
——–—Extraño a mis hermanos. Deseo que vinieran acá más pronto.
Ella ha estado esperando con paciencia por dos años.

The girl that breaks my heart.
In my class, there is a girl.
A nice and quiet girl, who breaks my heart.
She is from Mexico.
She came here with her mom, when she was four years old.
One night, she fell asleep in Mexico.
When she woke up, she was not in Mexico anymore.
——–When she went to sleep in Mexico, she was with her bother and her sister.
——–When she woke up in the United States, her brother and sister were not with her.
One time, I saw her at recess, standing on the brick wall.
She was crying in secret.
I asked her,
——–“What’s going on?”
She told me,
——–“I miss my brother and sister. I wish they would come here sooner.”
She has been waiting with patience for two years.

Learning in struggle.

This past week, I had my first formal observation. It did not go so well….

I had spent hours planning an original science and math lesson about organic and non-organic produce for our first graders. We collected data from a blind taste taste to see if we preferred an organic or non-organic Fuji apple, and the next day we organized our data into picture graphs to help us make comparisons of our data and draw evidence-based conclusions.

My observation was on a Wednesday afternoon. However, I had not been in class for that entire week. Although we were still at school, we were participating in a GLAD training, so the kids had been with a substitute teacher all week. Then I pop in briefly for one lesson. The kids were really excited to see their teacher and myself back in the classroom. So excited that when it came time to create our picture graphs, many of them felt it was much more fun to dance and play around than actually pay attention and engage in the activity I had planned. I didn’t know what to do. I had led lessons before, and the strategies I had previously used to maintain focus and engagement had really worked. This time, they failed, quite miserably.

This experience taught me three things in particular:

  1. The context of an evaluation can be a very important factor in assessing one’s performance. When I evaluate my students, I need to give them the respect they deserve by taking this into account.
  2. Man, do I have a lot to learn about managing 24 kids, all at the same time. It is a lot easier to sit to the side with a notepad and theorize about my practice than it is to actually jump in and practice it.
  3. I am not a natural disciplinarian, nor do I feel a desire to learn skills/strategies of authoritative discipline. This part of our practice is going to be a major struggle for me.

Although this observation did not go as well as I had hoped, it was a really valuable learning opportunity. Hopefully it will become a marker of “strong improvement” in the future :]

Learning in dreams.

El sueño en mi pared
por Jane Medina

Tengo un sueño en mi pared.
Lo dibujé durante el segundo grado.
La maestra nos dijo:
_____—Niñas y niños, dibujen sus sueños,
_____dibujen los sueños que sólo ustedes pueden ver.
Casi todos los niños dibujaron
_____salones llenos de billetes,
_____o casas bonitas con flores y chimeneas,
_____o juguetes o dulces o Disneylandia.
Pero yo dibujé un sueño
_____de un salón de clase lleno de niños
_____y una maestra morena bonita
_____muy parecida a mí.

Tengo un sueño en mi pared.
Lo pegué con cinta adhesiva.
Las puntas de la cinta están despegándose ahora.

The Dream on My Wall
by Jane Medina

I have a dream on my wall.
I drew it in the second grade.
The teacher said,
_____“Draw your dreams, boys and girls.
_____Draw the dreams that only you can see.”
Most kids drew
_____rooms full of dollar bills,
_____or pretty houses with flowers and chimneys,
_____or toys or candy or Disneyland.
But I drew a dream
_____of a class full of kids
_____and a pretty brown teacher
_____who looked just like me.

I have a dream on my wall.
I stuck it there with yellow tape.
Now the tape is curling at the ends.

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell

What are the implications of an education system where the majority of educators and administrators—those who (theoretically) hold positions of authority and power over students—are White? As a child, I had very few teachers of color. How did this subconsciously impact my own perspectives and prejudices? What possibilities and potentials can arise when children experience and become accustomed to a diverse spectrum of individuals holding positions of power and authority?

What does it mean for me to be another White Man in a position of authority? How can I use this power to play with the power dynamics that have allowed me my own power and privilege in this country, community, classroom? How do I use this power responsibly, and what am I accountable to do with it?

Learning in play.

Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.
—O. Fred Donaldson
Contemporary American martial arts master

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.
—Diane Ackerman
Contemporary American author

Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.
—Abraham Maslow
American psychologist, 1908–1970

As a young learner, I loved being in the Classroom. I found so much joy in learning, and knew that this was the site of exploration and discovery (or perhaps more importantly a place/space of validation and encouragement from my educators). Now that I am a teacher-in-training, my love for classroom spaces persists. Yet my favorite time of the school day has become Recess.

Every morning, I go out to Recess with the primary classes in my student teaching placement. There are so many benefits of this daily practice. The opportunity to go outside, run around, get some exercise; the ability to observe my students in  more unstructured social situations/settings; the act of directly modeling for my students a transition from “class time” to “play time” and back again; the critical moments of intervening in conflict, facilitating conversation/reconciliation, inviting a lonely child to play too. I am still processing and exploring what advantages and opportunities can come from participating in Recess. At this point, I believe the most valuable product of this practice has been the effect that play has had on my relationships with my students. Spending even just fifteen minutes a day playing with the kids—smiling and laughing, creating new games together, simply being goofy—has opened up and (radically) transformed many of our student-teacher dialogues and dynamics, both in the classroom and without. Our play seems to have cultivated a sense of mutual respect, confidence, comfort/safety, and (most importantly) trust.

Play is the heart of a (or at least my) Pedagogy of Belonging. I strongly believe that all teachers can benefit from going/coming out to Recess. Not as a monitor on “Recess Duty,” but as a co-participant in the creative and collective play that goes on. I am eager to experience the continuing transformation and transgression this practice permits/provides.

Learning in poetry.

Equity / Justice Mission.
Where is the action?

Why Anti-Bias?
Out of integration, a
new bias is born.

Empathy is key
to building community
and transforming it.

Respond quickly to
discomfort. That moment makes
all the difference.

Poems are hidden
beneath / between / before us,
waiting to be found.

To Mr. Hermit,
hiding amongst books and desks:
Come out! See the world!

Oh distant student,
How do I show you I care?
I just keep smiling.

I won’t forget you,
my people in the margins.
In you, our hope grows.

Is Delinquency
a symptom of a need for
a Classroom that cares?

My project is to
inspire the Creators
within everyone.

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 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?”