Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome

In Citizenship in School:  Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome, Christopher Klewier argues that mainstreaming children with Down syndrome is a win-win situation, benefiting both typical and special education students.   I could not agree more.  

Klewier points out that children by nature want to contribute to society, and exclusion policies that segregate "special needs" students do not take into account individual circumstances and needs.  Klewier supports his view with a variety of case studies and research, including that of Soviet psychologist Lev Semonvich Vygotsky.  He writes, " Vygotsy found that the culture of segregation surrounding people with disabilities actually teaches underdevelopment of thinking through the isolation of children from socially valued opportunities."  Time and time again, when children with Down syndrome are mainstreamed into regular classes, their academic and social performances are enhanced.  To illustrate this point, Klewier uses the case study of Christine Durovich, a young woman with Down syndrome who had been segregated from mainstream schooling until she was fourteen years old.  Even Christine's IEP suggested that she "acted out" and lacked communication, adaptive, and cognitive skills.  "In the general curriculum of the regular high school, however, these images of defect were dramatically transformed (Harris, 1994)."  After enrolling in a journalism class in her sophomore year, Christine herself wrote in an article for the school paper in which she poignantly stated, "I have down syndrome, but I am not handicapped."

Klewier argues that there is often a well-intended "presumption" among policy makers that all students with Down syndrome have the same needs.  "School citizenship requires that students not be categorized and separated based on presumed defect."  He points to the fact that three students with Down syndrome who happen to be in the same room together are NOT all alike, just as "mainstreamed" students are not all alike.  Furthermore, the banishment of people with special needs from classrooms deprives "typical" students the benefits of interacting with people with disabilities.  As Klewier aptly writes, "To eliminate a single person through any form of banishment, no matter how benevolent the logic, reduces the web and makes the community a less democratic and less rich place."

My two sons were fortunate to attend an integrated preschool program in our town called the Early Learning Center.   Both Kevin and Sean were "typical" students in classrooms with fifty-percent ratios of typical-to-special-needs students.   The ELC promotes a sense of respect among all able-bodied and disabled students, and the relationships my kids formed with their friends were mutually beneficial.  Kevin and Sean learned a deep sense of compassion and understanding at the young ages of three and four that some of their fourth and fifth grade peers lack.  They also benefited tremendously from the experience of being exposed to students with Aspergers syndrome, Autism, and Down syndrome who occasionally had loud outbursts or anxious behavior.   As a room mother, I too learned some skills in dealing with students who had a myriad of needs from sensory disorders to behavioral issues.   That experience has helped my in my second round of teaching; it provided me with a  sense of understanding that can only be acquired through exposure.  I am 100 percent in agreement that students with Down syndrome should mainstreamed into regular classrooms if they so choose. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Media and Ideology by David R. Croteau

David R. Croteau unravels common stereotypes that are portrayed by dominant ideology in many means of media in Media and Ideology.  He examines different forms of media including the news, action-adventure films, Vietnam films, television, rap music, and the advertising industry.  As a journalism major, I found the article to be completely in-line with much of what I had learned at UMass Amherst under the tutelage of renowned communications professor and documentary writer Sut Jhally.  Jhally taught a course on the objectification of women through the use of the media, and back then, we examined ads, TV shows, and music videos.   I remember a poignant video of Rod Stewart thrusting his microphone between the legs of a gorgeous female model, completely paling in comparison to this year's MTV Music Video Awards as self-proclaimed feminist proceeded to "twerk" using a foam finger pointed seductively at herself and at Robin Thicke.  The point is, that even in our more media-savy culture in 2013, we are still often subjected to the same images and ideas of the culturally dominate white, straight, male "machine" that runs our American society. I would argue that we have made some major societal strides since Croteau's article was written that I believe even he, more than a decade since its publication, would acknowledge.

In Media and Ideology, Croteau finds connections between media and the real world.  He writes, "Research on the ideology of the media has included a debate between those who argue that media promote worldview of the powerful- the 'dominant ideology'-and those who argue that mass media texts include more contradictory messages, both expressing the "dominant ideology" and at least partially challenging world views."  I am a member of the latter camp.   I believe that since this publication in the early 2000's, in which Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on her original sitcom, Ellen, and films such as The Last Temptation of Christ challenged puritanical views of a wholesome Jesus, we have seen more media diversity in even the past five years on mainstream TV.  Back then, I remember crying during that airport scene when Ellen came out.   I was so proud of our society and how far it had come; I had, after all, recently graduated from UMass and studied the perversion of the media during all four years.  Shortly after that scene, Ellen was abruptly cancelled, leaving me with a sense of sadness and loss.   Since that dark age in the world of sitcoms, we have had some greater representations of our diverse society on television including programs like Ellen, Anderson Cooper 360, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Will and Grace, Glee, Modern Family, Orange is the New Black, and Sean Saves the World, in all of which gay people are portrayed as regular people.‎

Croteau writes that in our culture of  the "dominant ideology,"   "... the fear is that the media images normalize specific social relations, making certain ways of behaving seeming unexceptional.  If media texts can normalize behaviors, they can also set limits on the range of acceptable use." The limits have been in place since the inception of the media, and in my opinion, very much remain in place.   In spite of the aforementioned programs, we remain in the midst of a "civil rights movement" for gay people. Advertising tells us that we should aspire to purchase more things, portraying the "norm" as middle upper class.  Our "buying power" provides our happiness and freedom. We are still fighting against a dominant "business" worldview.  Women's magazines and many movies depict images of women with thin bodies and beautiful makeup and clothes.  In many sitcoms today, the overweight, middle-aged white male has a beautiful, thin wife. Women are still objectified in every aspect of the media, but finally, some magazines have begun to depict plus-sized models.  Finally, some newscasters are more than 30 years old and 120 pounds. 

Race and foreigners are still taking a back seat in media portrayal. Ads depicting white families traveling to foreign places instill the "mystique" of foreigners and the power of white people.  While minorities are more represented through advertising than they were back when I took Sut Jhally's courses, as a society, we are far from fair in our portrayal of all Americans.  We have come a long way since the late 1990's and early 2000's since this book was written, there are many gaps that need to be filled.  Action, adventure, and war movies still tend to portray the "white" male hero.  Rap music was newer at the publication of Croteau's book; we now have a myriad of black musicians who are mainstream in every genre of music.   Croteau writes that while rap still continues to objectify women and black culture, it is also perceived differently among black people and white people.  In a certain sense, the music itself is divisive and reflective of our split society.

The media is a powerful tool in shaping ideas of people and images of "normalcy."   While popular culture has come a long way in debunking stereotypes of women, minorities, and gay people, we still live in a society that discriminates against race, gender, and sexual orientation.  I am confident that the media outlets are taking strides to uncover old stereotypes, and I'm hopeful that ten years from now, my own children will be exposed to an even more level playing field for all people.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Breaking Down Language Barriers in the Classroom

Tragic.  That is all I could think as I read Richard Rodriguez' portrayal of his dual personas in the heart wrenching tale of his "assimilation" into the English-speaking identity in Aria.  His retrospectively appreciative depiction of the loss of his "private" Spanish-speaking family culture is a striking reminder of the importance of educating all teachers of English Language Learners to work in concert with the rules, customs, and cultures of students' native languages.  In Teaching Multilingual Children, Virginia Collier illustrates seven strategies for teaching non-native speakers in a way that does not squelch their original languages or cultures.   Had the nuns at Rodriguez' school employed some of Collier's strategies, his tale of the disintegration of his native Spanish in his home life may have instead been a story of celebration of a multi-cultural Spanish-speaking American family.  In looking around for resources for educators, I came across a site for English as a Second Language teachers by Oxford Seminars that contains free lesson plans and resources that shed a light on teaching students of other cultures.  For me, it is imperative to understand and appreciate the cultural perspectives of my students in teaching them Spanish.  Collier's guidelines for teaching English Language Learners may be applied directly to Rodriguez' tale of growing up in with dual public and private identities.

1. Be aware that children use first language acquisition strategies for learning a second language.

Collier defines "caregiver speech" as the language that parents use when communicating at home with their children.  Unfortunately, the day that the nuns paid a visit at home to young Ricardo Rodriguez's family was the turning point in which Spanish became "inferior."  The message implied by the nuns to "practice" English was receive by Rodriguez' parents as "Use English at home."  Rodriguez' parents disowned their "private" selves along with the familiar, comforting, and safe caregiver speech patterns to which their children were accustomed.  Rodriguez writes, "Those gringo sounds they uttered startled me.  Pushed me away.  In that moment of trivial misunderstanding and profound insight, I felt my throat twisted by unsound grief."  Essentially, the nuns, while well-intentioned, dismantled an integral piece of second language acquisition: they stunted the native language. 

2. Do not think of yourself as a remedial teacher expected to correct so-called "deficiencies" of your students.

Knowing one language is not a deficiency to learning another language.  The social stigmatization of home dialects is no different than a cultural genocide.  By diminishing one's language, teachers can inflict true harm on their students as was the case with Richard Rodriguez.  Language is a vague and incredibly seductive mishmash of speaking, listening, reading, and writing, all of which vary from region to region, even here in the United States.  By implying that one way of speaking is "right" (in Rodriguez' case, English) and one is "wrong" (Spanish), the home dialect becomes "socially stigmatized."   Rodriguez describes the increasing silence in his family as his parents became isolated from their own children in trying to promote the publicly necessary English language.  Rodriguez' father, who in his native language was effusive, became no more than a shell of a person in the "English-speaking" household in the eyes of his children.

3.  Don't teach a second language in any way that challenges or seeks to eliminate the first language.

Naturally, any good parent would want to do what is best for his or her children.  Tragically, the nuns approached Rodriguez' family with the probing question, "Do your children speak only Spanish at home, Mrs. Rodriguez?"  They did not ask the family to practice English in conjunction with Spanish, perhaps only while doing homework.  They did not encourage finding similarities and differences between the two languages.  They sought to eliminate the troublesome Spanish.

4.  Teach the standard form of English and students' home language together with an appreciation of dialect differences to create an environment of language recognition in the classroom.

How might Rodriguez' view of his first 6 months in public school have been different if he had not been asked to stand up and speak his "public language: so soon and with so little support.   It is a terrifying scenario for a first grader.  The nuns may have asked him to reflect here and there on differences and similarities between Spanish and English. They may have asked him, "How do you say "apple" in Spanish, Richard?  What kinds of fruit do you and your family eat?" I have learned a myriad of new words since teaching Spanish to Latin American students.  My Castilian Spanish has diversified through speaking with my Mexican and Dominican colleagues and translating for my administrators.   It is not limiting or wrong; it is educational.

5.  Do not forbid young students from code-switching in the classroom.  Understand the function that code-switching serves.

Much to the chagrin of my department chair, I am a strong proponent of code-switching in my Spanish classroom for a variety of the reasons shown in Collier's code-switching pattern charts.  My department chair is a language purist but I am a believer in frequent and authentic, albeit imperfect, communication.  We debate about the this and have agreed to disagree.  I feel as though tolerating no less than perfection stifles both the desire and ability to communicate. In Spanish 1, I encourage the use of "Spanglish" with the ultimate goal of a comfortable and natural simplified Spanish by the end of the year.  Collier eloquently states, "Whenever speakers of two languages come in contact with each other, three natural processes occur:  code-switching, language influence, and word borrowing."  Code-switching was not an option for Rodriguez in his "public" role as a student.

6. Provide a literacy development curriculum that is specifically designed for English language learner.

According to Collier, "Any academic home language development that benefits a child's cognitive development, whether oral or written, will transfer to the second language.  It turns out that the first language transfer is swift, even when the writing systems are not the same."  Sadly, for Rodriguez, academic home language was squelched at a very young age.  Language acquisition, to me, is like a series of mathematical patterns in one's mind.  As a learner of a second language, I agree that the transfer of one's ideas is enhanced by being academically proficient in one's first language.  Upon becoming bilingual, higher level thoughts swiftly transfer into the non-native language even if speaking patterns are different.   It is devastating for me to imagine having learned Spanish without having my full English-speaking skill set and identity.  Being raised in a bilingual household is a very precious gift if the native language is used and developed.  Code-changing is normal and appropriate. ESL teachers need to recognize that they will need to work differently with their non-native students to convey concepts.   Language acquisition is a lengthy process.

7.  Provide a balanced and integrated approach to the four language skills:  listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Using a balanced approach to the four language acquisition skills has in my experience been the best way to learn and teach language.  I was taught Spanish in an unbalanced way for most of my high school years.  I essentially read, wrote, and listened to the language.  My classrooms were teacher-centered, and I memorized verb conjugations.  I learned to decipher written questions by isolating parts of speech, particularly verbs, and answering using the same language in a different order.  The was nothing genuine or authentic about my communication, and my speaking skills were limited.  I received the Academic Excellence Award for Spanish but felt like a sham; as isolated from Spanish as Richard Rodriguez was from English at the beginning of first grade.   It was my "formal language."   I point to my college experience of translating poetry and literature and listening to my professors speak Spanish as the beginning of my formative years of learning the language.  I had a grammatical background and some rudimentary skills, but I was heavily dependent on my dictionary.  Studying abroad was my bridge, and my informal interactions with Spaniards at home and in shops, bars, restaurants, and the university forced me to branch out.   My listening skills were vastly improved by watching dubbed versions of Bay Watch, The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire, and Family Matters with my host family.  My learning was a true culmination of these four skills, and once it began to "click," my English processing seamless transferred over to Spanish.   If I had had that experience in high school, I would not have suffered through semesters of college and later, graduate school.    Had Richard Rodriguez had that experience with English at an early age; had he been paired with classmates and been able to exchange language informally while maintaining his ethnic identity, perhaps Aria would be a less tragic portrayal of becoming American.

Monday, November 4, 2013

It's Okay to be Gay! (Or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or straight...)

Both The Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network ( and Safe Spaces: Making Schools an Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth focus on the need of educators to create curricula that harness the history of homosexual, bisexual, and transgender people and help to debunk the stigma that is associated with being gay.   In Safe Spaces, Annemarie Vaccaro, Gerri August, and Megan S. Kennedy argue that meaningful curriculum entails validating the experiences of LGBT youth by not marginalizing them through skirting tough topics, but rather, "interrupting heteronormative beliefs and attitudes".  Both GLSEN and Safe Spaces show how LBGT youth need to be reflected in curriculum and teaching though "mirrors," or images of people just like them, and "windows," an outside glimpse into their world and a way for others to look in.

According to the authors, "Most educators don't set out to marginalize LGBT youth. They simply follow paths of least resistance."   All too often, the norm that is presented is a typical heterosexual model of love and affection through literature, projects, and history.  What frequently leads to suicide among LGBT youth is a strong feeling of isolation from societal norms.  The authors suggest that by "normalizing" LGBT literary and historical figures and having regular conversations about "atypical" families, marginalized students may begin to feel more reflected in the mirror of their school's culture.  For me, it was poignant to see that a Spanish teacher's correction on a lesbian student's reference to her girlfriend, or "novia" to boyfriend, or "novio" shattered that student's sense of safety and identity in that class.   It is so easy to inadvertently inflect harm on our impressionable students, particularly those who are already marginalized and often, bullied.  After reading this article and perusing the GLSEN website, I will make it a priority to be even more proactive in incorporating prominent LBGT Hispanic figures into my curriculum in relevant, not "tacked on" ways.  

One of the sample lessons provided on GLSEN is a literary and historical analysis of the Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo, a proud bisexual woman.   I plan to seek out more poetry and stories to use, and I will also be sure to incorporate less traditional families in assessments.   For example, "Paula went to the mall with her mothers."   Sometimes, the smallest sentence can spark productive conversation.  I also love the idea of using an exercise like this to point out the normalcy of having gay relatives and friends, as the authors suggest.   Megan Boler suggest that "to make up for years of invisibility, classrooms should over-represent the experiences of those who have been excluded or erased from history."  I get the sense that there are many more in-the-closet homosexual, bisexual, and transgender students in our school than those who are out.  For all of the strides that Norton has made in the right direction by fostering professional development for faculty, a Gay Straight Alliance, and Anti-Bullying policies and posters and signs, in my opinion, we still have a ways to go.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Am I Not Riveting? Capturing Students' Attention to Make Learning Meaningful

Michael Wesch's "Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance" and Sherry Turkle's "The Flight from Conversation" point to the increasingly difficult challenge of engaging students in light of depersonalized classrooms and constant technology at our fingertips. 

Wesch talks about the physical layout of the typical classroom or university lecture hall and how it tends to prevent fluid conversation.  He says that the lack of conversation and meaningful questions among students leads to "What do we need to know for the test?" mentality. He shows how students have become accustomed to wanting to fulfill graduation requirements, to simply memorize and regurgitate information, and subsequently, pass a course with as little vested interest as possible.  Teachers are equally culpable of fostering a lack of meaningful learning by simply teaching to the test.   He calls this concept "anti-teaching," and he encourages educators to model inquisitiveness among our students.  Questioning, he argues, is key to effective learning, and as educators, it is incumbent upon us inspire students to ask good questions.

How do we inspire our students?  In order to answer that question, Wesch says that we must reexamine the age-old statement, "some students are just not cut out for school."  Wesch says to remove the word "school" from the above adage and replace it with the word "learning."  He argues that EVERYONE is capable of learning, so therefore, educators must find ways of connecting to every student, or learner.  In his own classroom, Wesch uses the modem of "Spaceship Earth" to provide a classroom community and create a sense of urgency to learning.  Welsh says, "When students recognize their own importance in helping to shape the future of this increasingly global, interconnected society, the significance problem fades away."  He says that social media is a tool for learning, but not enough of a REASON to learn.

Sherry Turkle focuses on social media's role in creating a new norm of being "alone-together."  Turkle argues that in this age of posting "what's on our minds" on venues like Facebook and Twitter, we are presenting ourselves exactly as we want to be presented while still keeping our "friends" at bay.  We have little chance for self-reflection that comes through genuine face-to-face interactions with people.  Young members of society are even losing interpersonal skills, often choosing to look to media for advice and comfort.   Texting and "interpersonal" screen time are not a viable substitute for human interaction, argues Turkle.  Another side effect of constantly available technology is the inability to be alone.  "When people are alone, even for a few minutes, they fidget and reach for a device," says Turkle.

 I literally found myself nodding in agreement throughout Turkle's entire article, it resonated so clearly with me.  It brought me back to a time in my own family's pre-iPod era, when my sons Kevin and Sean were about 5 and 6.  After a little league game one day, our family went out for ice cream at the local Dairy Queen.  A group of high school kids sat at a booth across from us in dead silence as they stared down at their phones.  I remember fighting the urge to walk over to the table and start up a conversation because it seemed so lonely over there.  Even when conversation sparked up from time to time, I noticed the kids made little eye contact with each other. I felt like I was watching a group of aliens.

Now that both of my boys have iPods and my husband and I have a Droid and a Drood (my fake Droid), my own family is falling into the same pattern of the family Turkle describes who "sit together, texting and reading emails."  My husband reads the news on his phone, Kevin and Sean play video games on their iPods, and I am constantly on Twitter.  It is, in a word, DEPRESSING.  We all get sick of it and vow to turn off our devices, but often, we drift back to them without even realizing it.   Our family has changed, and we are more "alone together" than ever.  Honestly, I don't like it, and fortunately, I don't think it's too late to change that. 

Even in school, I feel as though I can model communication without devices.   My students can now text freely in passing between classes, so it is less important to tweet and text 24/7 from class.  There is a time and a place for texting and tweeting, and most of the time (but not always), it is not in the classroom. There are exceptions to every rule.

In September of this year, Clive Thompson argued that the Internet does not in fact "dumb us down" but actually makes us smarter.  In his book, Smarter Than You Think, he says that the Internet provides a platform for students to learn, share, and retain information for longer.  In effect, having a legitimate "platform" such as a blog or a post makes students feel as though they are writing for a greater purpose; that they have an audience of many as opposed to just a teacher. They also have more material to write about within a click of a finger.   As a self proclaimed "computer geek," Thompson uses video games to connect with his own children.  Admittedly, I have Words With Friends going with my own sons all the time!  I also watch my boys communicate with their friends on headsets in my living room as they create virtual worlds and fight virtual enemies on Xbox 360.   I will admit, it's pretty creative, and not entirely antisocial. 

And even Thompson is quick to admit that there that technology has its downfalls, particularly in distracting us.  "What I concluded was that technology can allow you to teach kids in remarkable new ways, but you should never use it to replace something you are already doing perfectly well with pencils, paper, and chalk," says Thompson, and I absolutely agree.  As with all things, we need to find a balance.  In my opinion, the balance of technology and interpersonal relationships needs to be fostered both in and out of the classroom.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Checking in to say hello and fill you in on daytime television

Well, it has been 11 days since my knee surgery and I am finally up and about (a little) and feeling human again!!!  Thank you, Dr. Bogad, for posting the notes!  I'm planning on being back in class next Wednesday night, now that I am of sound mind and shaky body!!!  Anyway, I have been thinking of all of you while spending so much time as a couch potato.  I have watched the ENTIRE Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" and have loved it!   Brittany was right; it highlights a lot of societal assumptions and stereotypes in the setting of a women's federal prison.  I also saw the following interesting segment on the Today Show about home visits, or "Teacher House Calls", (except I can't seem to insert the video at the moment) and immediately thought of Mary's school.  It's hard to tell, but take a look because it appears to me as though they're mistaken; Rhode Island is not highlighted as one of the few states where teachers are conducting home visits.  I noticed that Massachusetts is highlighted.   I have changed my opinion; I'm all for them!  
I can't wait to start this week's reading now that I'm done with the heavy duty pain medication, and stay tuned... I may even be co-facilitating our next class with Brittany.  Thanks for all of your well wishes!  I decided to dedicate my new ACL to Tom Brady, since we share the same doctor.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change

In "Empowering Education:  Critical Thinking for Social Change," Ira Shor argues that students are empowered in the classroom when provided with opportunities to participate, argue, question, and negotiate information.  Traditional teacher-centric classrooms exclude many students from learning and by their nature, diminish the neutrality of a classroom setting, according to Shor.  Citing several educational theorists, Shor writes, "The contents included and excluded in a curriculum are political choices while the unequal outcomes of education are not neutral either."  Shor argues that teachers should keep their student population in mind when designing and administering a curriculum and encourage open discussion throughout the learning process.

Unlike the previous authors, Shor provides a how-to for teaching from the students' point of view.  Shor challenges the leader to look at the point of view from which any content is delivered:  does the curriculum reflect only one point of view?  Is it "balanced and multicultural" or is it "traditionally male-oriented and Eurocentric?"  Other questions posed by Shor are: "How much open discussion is there in class?... Is there mutual dialogue between teacher and students or one-way transfer of information from teachers to students? ... Do students feel free to disagree with the teacher? ...  Do students respond to each other's remarks?"   In other words, are our students being heard?  Do we take into account our own biases, or in the words of Delpit and Johnson, our own cultural capital versus that of some of our students, when presenting information to our students?

Shor reminds educators that action, or participation, is essential to gaining and maintaining knowledge.  Sadly, classroom discipline and learning erode when students feel excluded; when their own cultures and interests are cast aside by teachers.  How many times have we looked out at a sea of bored faces because our own students have "checked out"?  How can we engage students and encourage them to own the information with which we are presenting them?

Shor's how-to guide as modeled by the article shows how a democratic classroom looks and functions.  Shor begins by asking his college-level literature students to write their reasons for taking the class, their expectations, and their ideas as to how it should be run.  In one instance, he encouraged rich discussion around the idea of mandatory class attendance without offering up his own opinion.  He listened to students' arguments and posed a series of follow-up questions without ever overtly stating, "You must attend class."   After a rich debate, students accepted Shor's proposal for required attendance but built in guidelines for absences and tardiness.   Throughout the semester, students argued their points and occasionally stopped dialogue and discussion that bored them.  They engaged in after-class suggestions and complaints, and the author re-evaluated his own delivery of instruction.   This democratic give-and-take of information, according to Shor, is what helps to shape a lively, inclusive, non-neutral classroom.  It is much easier said than done.

To me, teaching is a fluid process in which we are constantly gauging students' level of interest and as needed, making changes.   It's almost instinctive when you're a teacher to want to stand in the front of the class, to run the show.  I used to think of myself as a sort of magician with a bag of tricks that I would pull out when introducing different grammatical concepts.   Now, after having taken several graduate courses and having some years behind me, I look to the students to guide me in curriculum choices; their voices are what shapes my teaching.  There are times, however, when I need to step back and take Shor's advice:  empower the students; listen to the students; let the students speak and internalize and process and agree and disagree.  More and more, I need to stop and check for their understanding.   It is always a work in process, but in an open and democratic classroom environment, the teacher benefits as much as the students.  As Shor points out, disciplinary issues tend to dissipate when every student feels engaged and valued.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Standing Up for Tocarra, a defense of transgender students in society

In her article, "Standing Up for Tocarra," Tina Owen paints a poignant picture of a transgender student, Tocarra, who was a prominent member of the Alliance School of Milwaukee, a small school created by a group of teachers, including the author, where it was "OK to be black, white, gay, straight, gothic, Buddhist, Christian, or just plain unique."

Owen, a high school teacher, founded Alliance with her colleagues after years of working in the public school system and witnessing bulling, particularly toward LBGTQ (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and questioning) students.   The subject of her article, Tocarra, followed Owen from the public school district to the Alliance School in the first year of its inception in 2005.  Owen describes Tocarra as a beautiful, bold, flamboyant, but classy girl whose vivacious spirit touched everyone around her.  Back in the public school when Tocarra was going through her transformation, she was harassed and ridiculed by some classmates.  But at Alliance, whose population was diverse but whose mission was that of acceptance, Tocarra was revered.  Owen describes Tocarra's desire to be adored, and just how adored she was by the community at Alliance.  Owen also describes the horrific moment of learning about Tocarra's untimely death from a heart attack at 18-years-old.

This story in and of itself would be somewhat inspirational; a message that students, when provided the right nurturing and healthy environment, can feel free to learn without the societal pressures of "fitting the mold;" being white, middle class, male, and straight.   In spite of Tocarra's loving and supportive family, Tocarra was still harassed in the public school, after all.  But this is the story of what happened after Tocarra's death and what really made me question humanity as a whole.

Tocarra died in 2005, and because most of her family lived in Chicago, the funeral took place there.  After a crisis intervention team descended on the Alliance school for grief counseling, it was determined that a bus would be chartered for students and faculty alike to attend Tocarra's funeral about two hours away.  At the funeral, Tocarra's teachers and dearest friends, including another transgender female, Jade, were horrified to find Tocarra lying in the casket in a man's suit and tie, looking like someone they had never met.  Even worse and to the horror of everyone at the mass, the preacher "was a traditional, homophobic, Baptist minister who preached a sermon that condemned Tocarra to an eternity in hell rather than raising her up for her family and friends."  He did not know Tocarra personally, and he referred to her in her "boy name" the whole time.

The take-away message from this article, the message that I will relay to my own students should the occasion arise, is that the author, Tina Owen, raised her hand in the middle of this mass and asked to speak on behalf of Tocarra.  At the family's nodding approval, Owen got up and relayed the story of the spirited, kind, and classy young women she knew who was a star in her school.  This one act of bravery prompted other friends and family to stand up for Tocarra, to the point where the minister advised everyone to continue to share their memories at the convocation afterwards.  I was personally struck by the spirit of Tocarra, the bravery of her teacher, Tina Owen to stand up for what was right, and her strength to tell Tocarra's story in this article.

We have one trans-gendered male who graduated from Norton High School last year, and who, like Tocarra, had the love and support of his family, closest friends, and faculty.   He, like Tocarra, was brave and open about his identity.   He stood up at a professional development day in front of the entire town of teachers and administrators, flanked by his LBGTQ friends, and explained just how hard his transition from a girl to a boy was.  Ironically, on that professional day last year, I was publicly praised by the students and also by the coordinator, Dr. Richard Grenell of Harvard University, for creating safe and open classroom environment.  That shout-out was a shock to me, because I had only ever had two of the six students on the stage in class.  It would have been easy to forget about that accolade, but in reading about Tocarra, it strikes me again as to just how important it is for people to feel and BE accepted for who they are.  This message of kindness and openness cannot ever be forgotten, and I am certain that Tocarra, had she been listening, and certainly her family, appreciated the actions of one woman, Tina Owen, to stand up on her behalf.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

School bus in the city: A reaction to "Colorblindness is the New Racism" by Margalynne J. Armstrong and Stephanie M. Wildman

After reading Margalynne J. Armstrong and Stephanie M. Wildman's article "'Colorblindness is the New Racism': Raising Awareness About Privilege Using Color Insight," I found myself reassessing a trip to the city of Boston that I took with my Norton High School seniors this past Thursday night. 

In their article, Armstrong and Wildman argue that white people's "color blindness" with respect to racial differences is as detrimental to people of color as overt racism has been throughout the history of American society. Armstrong and Wildman point to specific examples of the "knapsack of benefits" that white people carry with them every day; the privileged position of remaining above the power line that enables white Americans to never truly reflect on all of the benefits that being white provide in society at large.  According to Armstrong and Wildman, "In this so-called colorblind and post-racial world, educators in the classroom setting often to fail to name and examine whiteness. ... Identifying and understanding whiteness should be an essential component of education in the United States."  "Color insight," according to the authors, is the antidote to color blindness.  The authors say that this four-tiered process includes the following steps:  "(1) considering context for any discussion about race; (2) examining systems of privilege; (3)unmasking perspectivelessness and white normativeness; and (4) combating stereotyping and looking for the 'me' in each individual."

In this age of President Barack Obama, of popular mainstream television shows like Ellen and Modern Family, power couples like Jay Z and Beyonce, of affirmative action and equal rights, how in the world can institutional deep-seated prejudices still exist?  According to the Armstrong and Wildman, society's "colorblindness" enables the cultural privilege of whites to pervade society; America is a white man's world and everyone else who isn't white is by virtue of their skin color, less important.  I wholeheartedly agree that white people are rarely forced to examine the privilege that being white affords us.  I know that racism exists, and the unspoken "norms" of white people exclude those who are not in so many daily situations.

The Senior Cruise

I'm now going to relay the story of my senior cruise this past week.   I'm the senior class advisor, and in keeping with Norton High School tradition, the senior class takes an evening dinner and dancing cruise of Boston Harbor as part of our year-long class spirit builders.  I had my chaperones, my emergency lists, and my busses ready to go this past Thursday night; a perfect evening for a cruise.  We loaded up three busses of 108 predominately white kids, and our white bus drivers left the high school at 5pm for the city of Boston, white chaperones on each bus.  The other 80 members of the class who opted not to attend may have either been busy, lacked interest, or simply could not afford the $25 price tag.

By all accounts it was a picture perfect evening; gorgeous weather, spectacular views, amazingly well-behaved students, low-flying planes gracefully landing at Logan Airport... so why is this a story?  It really isn't, but for the fact that I felt perplexed by the bus ride.

My friend Robin, the art teacher, and I chaperoned Bus #16.   We were the first bus to be loaded up, and about 30 of the 40 people on board were girls.  The football team was running late because they had practiced, so just before leaving, some hot and sweaty players got on and filled up the front rows.  I sat up front with Robin and the team.

I've known most of the kids in this class for four years, and I've taught the majority of them for two to three years.  They're more like friends than students, particularly now that I will never teach them again.   I speak candidly with all of my students, and I tweet with many of them too, so they are pretty at ease around me.

One boy, Dan, told Robin and me that he wanted to become a state trooper.  Robin responded, "How does it make you feel to know that less qualified people will probably get selected over you due to their gender or race?"  She told us that she herself had taken the state police test many years ago and was invited to join the class even though she had scored less than other white male applicants.  This led to a conversation about Affirmative Action, and I found myself in an awkward position of both wanting to defend it but also feeling that it is unfair to white men who scored better than my friend, Robin.  How would Armstrong and Wildman have responded to this situation?  Would they have delved into the roots of Affirmative Action and the racial inequity that didn't just go away now that we have a black President?   What would they have advised me to do?

A football player, Mike, yelled out at one point, "Dude, look at those brothers at the intersection.  They probably stole that car."   I instantly flung around and pointed out that his remarks were offensive to me.  He retracted his racial comment and turned it into a class comment, but the entire conversation made me feel uneasy.  I don't know how to impart upon my students the right message if I can't find the right words to use do describe all of the inequity in this world.  It makes me feel sad, frustrated, and even angry with myself.

Another bus ride story: as one would expect in a city on a Thursday night at rush hour, we hit traffic.  When we got of in Chinatown, we were in a standstill for about 15 minutes.  There was a volleyball game between Asian men taking place, and the windows of the bus were down.  The kids were roaring laughing.   I heard comments like, "Dude, that guy is 99-years-old," and "OMG, this is SO funny!"  When one guy spiked the ball, the bus went wild.  The guys playing volleyball waved and one of them bowed.   I was left feeling a little uneasy about all of that, but I don't know why.  Would the kids' reactions have been different if it had been a group of white 20-year-olds playing volleyball on a college campus?

It's hard to imagine how people would react if they really were color insightful versus color blind.   How do I as a white teacher send the right message to my students all the time?   I am going to begin by encouraging my students, as Armstrong and Wildman suggest, to participate in a little reflection as to who they are and where they fall in respect to the power line.  I happened to notice in today's paper that poet Martha Collins will be appearing at Wheaton College on Thursday night from 5:00-6:30p.m.  She speaks directly to white privilege in American society, and she writes about a lynching her father once witnessed as a boy.  I am going to try to attend if I am able, and I am going to encourage my students to attend as well.  Sometimes it is hard in a monoculture to relate to the world at large, but I feel as though I can try as best as I am able to bring the world to them.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom

In Lisa Delpit's article, "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children," Delpit shows how the prevailing white "culture of power" negatively influences the poorest students of color in classrooms across America. She argues that while white people tiptoe around racial injustice by calling for equality and level playing fields in classroom, the reality remains that the most typical classrooms and teaching styles are geared for middle to upper class white students.  Even the most liberal, well-meaning white teachers may inadvertently cause more damage than good by refusing to exert power as teachers for fear of seeming racist, thereby denying black students of societal "rules" for success in the real world, a world which is also governed by predominately white people. 

In a society where most textbooks and prevailing research are written by white people; where most governmental structures and work environments are run by white people, is it possible for disadvantaged students of color to receive fair and culturally relevant educations?

According to Delprit, the answer to the above question is usually no.   What tends to happen is that there is a sense of growing frustration among students of color who do not feel heard in the classroom.  Since most American teaching styles and textbooks are geared toward the white middle class American experience, students of color often and correctly feel confused, misunderstood, or frustrated by their educational experiences, and in particular, in their interactions with white teachers.  Delpit cites a well-educated black principal who found that white professors in her university "only want to go on research they've read that white people have written."   If the prevalent research IS written by white educators, how, in fact can we gain a sense of what black students feel?  Furthermore, we as white people, as the dominant race, need to acknowledge that society is geared around us; that most "school" language and vocabulary, most workplaces, most governmental structures, are unevenly skewed in our favor; we ARE privileged, but does that make us better?

How do the languages of different cultures translate into the classroom experience?

Every culture has its own language and way of communicating, through our gestures, our social norms, by what we say and we don't say.  Sometimes, our nonverbal communication plays as important a role in communicating as our spoken words do.  For this reason, Delprit states, "when implicit codes are attempted across cultures, communication frequently breaks down."  Throughout her article, Delprit cites a myriad of examples of cultural confusions, and in every single case, the loser of the power struggle is the person of color.  From the frustrated black student who feels ignored to the Native Alaskan Indian student whose grammatically incorrect paper makes her appear less smart or even less literate, people of color are often misjudged as being incapable, when in fact, they are excluded from learning and not privy to white middle and upper class ways.  That communication divide; white "proper" or "formal" English, the "Distar" model of teacher-centered teaching, the sense so many students of color have of "being cheated" by their teachers... all of the above tie into the fact that in this society, white teachers are not reaching their students of color in meaningful ways.  Are our students of color or our non-native English students less important to the society at large?

Are white people willing to relinquish their power in American society?

According to Delprit, the answer to the above question is usually no.  While many white people claim to want to level the playing field, according to Delpit, "To provide schooling for everyone's children that reflects liberal middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it."   It is scary to let go of power, but is that power really a good thing?   Could we somehow value all of the different cultures in this melting pot without, in effect, creating a cultural genocide?  Is it even possible to overcome the underlying racist tenets of this society?

What, if anything, can be done to overcome the imbalance in many American schools?

While one may argue that Lisa Delpit either exaggerates or distorts the perception that most people of color have in classrooms of white teachers, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with every point of her article.  I felt deeply dismayed by some of her stories and simultaneously refreshed by her honesty.  I did not perceive her stance to be racist and I thoroughly agree that white people must acknowledge their power, however uncomfortable that may seem.  I would hope that Delpit would agree with me that social class plays an equally important role in schools like my own where the population is predominately white.  Perhaps her most poignant point was in describing the challenges of her own student, a Native American aspiring teacher, whose writing was immediately dismissed by her white colleagues.  The other professors' assumptions were based solely on the student's writing technique, but not on the content of her paper.   On paper, the white colleagues could not see how this woman had been cheated by the system as a whole; how she was expressing things in her own cultural idioms but had never been taught proper "Western" writing techniques, had been dismissed time after time by teachers when she had sought their extra help in learning "proper" English.   Delpit took the time to understand this woman's challenges and to teach her proper grammar and writing techniques.  More importantly, she taught her to use her own experiences and struggles when educating others.

Delpit suggests that teachers must use their power to set high expectations in the classroom, but to also understand the families, the social circumstances, in the cultures from which our kids come.  I know that I was often addressed as being both deaf and dumb when I was studying Spanish abroad, and I know that it is a frustrating, maddening, disheartening experience.  I like that I teach a second language; that all of my students begin on a level playing field.  I find it often more exciting that many of my students of color through the years have had some Spanish in their background, and often, are in positions of power in leading activities my classroom.   I try to value what each and every one of my students brings to the table, and I try also to learn as much from them than they do from me.   I acknowledge that I am white aloud to my students all the time, and I point out that I am racially different from native speakers of Spanish.  I try to encourage everybody, particularly white students, to come out of their cultural comfort zones on a daily basis, but I know that I am privileged by my whiteness.  If anything, I find myself fighting against my own privilege with myself all the time. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Privilege, Power, and Difference

In the first three chapters of Privilege, Power, and Difference  by Allan G. Johnson, Johnson argues that gender, race, and sexual orientation are the primary factors in determining stereotypes and perceptions of people in American society.  He further argues that while social class impacts one's feeling of self worth in society, it does not supersede the innate characteristics with which we are all born, such as our sex, our skin color, and our sexual preferences. While on one hand I found myself agreeing with most of which Johnson wrote, on the other, I could not help but think of exceptions to his theory that race, gender, and sexual orientation outweigh both social class and individual circumstances in determining one's so-called "place" in American society.
Johnson immediately discredits the old stereotype that "human nature" is why all of us, regardless of our skin color, sexual orientation, and gender can't see eye to eye.   I absolutely agree that our perceptions of people are learned behavior, or as Johnson puts it, "We are prisoners to something, but it is closer to our own making than we realize."  In other words, our social perceptions are learned behavior. 

(Here I relayed a childhood story about Smurfs on Ice...)
Johnson says that people "ignore the trouble by trying to get rid of the language that names it."  I was emboldened by his words to relay the above story using the "n" and the "sp" words, but I have NEVER EVER used them in real life, nor would I.  I hate them.   My father learned quickly as soon as my sisters and I were old enough to understand racism that he must NEVER utter those words.   I can't tell you how many family fights, often violent, we've had through the years about his "racist" tendencies.  I can't tell you how many times Smurfs on Ices has come up.   In short and to my dad's credit, that may be the only time I ever heard him utter those words.  But it made a huge impression on me, and I feel like I've carried that burden around my whole life.  I go out of my way to try to judge people based on their actions and to not base my assumptions of anyone on first impressions.  I do make assumptions, but I really do not make them based on race, gender, class, or sexuality; rather, actions.  Again, to credit my father who I am not trying to bash in any way because his is an incredible man, his actions were based on his life experiences and out of an instinct to "protect" his family.  He is a very kind and, believe it or not, not even racist man.  He has friends of all kinds, and he would give the shirt off his back to ANYONE.  Sounds strange, right?  This is why racism is so complicated. 
Having lived in a couple of situations in which I was a minority, I can in some ways understand the anger that stems among many people toward the privileged white majority.  In my sophomore year at UMass Amherst, I lived on the ALANA floor which was the African, Latino, Asian, Native American group against racism which organized many campus-wide awareness events and protests against racism.  I don't know how I ended up there; I didn't request it.  My roommate and I were the only two white people.  It was an eye-opening experience because I literally had never been in a minority situation in my life and quickly learned how it felt to be excluded.  The conversation often stopped when I walked by in the corridor.  My study break was boycotted.  I got crisp hellos but no follow-up as I walked down the hall. This went on for months, but of course, gradually, people warmed up to me.  I ended up dating a guy down the hall when brought me further into the group, and ironically, a whole world of cultures.  It was one of the most difficult, challenging, eye-opening, and rewarding experiences of my life.  And I was still in America, on a predominately white campus, just two hours from my home town.  
I went abroad to Seville, Spain, and there, I experienced a similar type of disdain.  This time, racism was real.  Americans abroad like me stuck out in a monoculture, and we were not all liked.  In fact, we were often perceived as imperialists.  I looked different as it was, and when I opened my mouth to speak, I felt like a fool.   Again, this got better as the year went on.  Within several months, I made friends, and eventually, I had a boyfriend.   I loved and simultaneously hated going to his very small pueblo where not a soul spoke English and I was the only white American.  I stood out like a sore thumb, but I was the center of awe and interest at the same time.  People spoke to me like I was deaf and dumb, and I often didn't feel intelligent.  I beat myself up but also got stronger, and I learned, learned, learned about the world outside of the States.
So when Johnson states that "Whites can choose whether to be conscious of the racial identity or to ignore it and regard themselves simply as human beings," I agree.  When he writes, "Whites don't have to deal with an endless and exhausting stream of attention to their race," I agree.  I concur also with his perspective on gender and sexual preference in that men don't have to deal with taunting about their sexual attractiveness (or lack of sex appeal, which I have heard from my male friends), and that heterosexuals will never be accused of "flaunting" their sexuality as some homosexuals are.  I understand Johnson's stance on racial, gender, and sexual discrimination, but I think that his argument that social class is secondary to these factors is untrue.
Social class, in my opinion, takes into account one's individual circumstance and is equally important in determining who in this society is oppressed by the predominant social culture in which they live.  If you are a "scared white boy in a black neighborhood" as referenced in the song "Father of Mine" by Everclear; if you were my father growing up in Providence, if you were living as a minority as a Catholic in a wealthy neighborhood in  Newton, Massachusetts, l believe that you also are in some way going to carry the burden of being discriminated against.  Yes, when taken outside of your subculture, you may still be "white" and therefore "privileged", but there are facets of this society that never leave their subcultures.  If you are a minority in your subculture, regardless of your skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or social class, then you are a minority.  The "outsider" generally gets the digs, as evident in any elementary school classroom.  I believe that in order to FULLY understand the society in which we live, we need to put as much thought into people's individual circumstances in order to form more thorough opinions about their individual character.  I also believe that understanding the roots of people's anger will help to make our American society more tolerant of each other.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

My first day as a blogger!

This has been an exciting year for me...I became a regular on Twitter this past summer, and now, I am typing (do we even say that anymore?) my first official blog!  

My name is Amy Mahoney, and I am a Spanish teacher at Norton High School in Norton, MA.  I am currently beginning my eighth year of teaching, but technically, I started this job 14 years ago.  I had a seven-year stint as a stay-at-home mom in the middle of what I call "Round One" and "Round Two" of teaching.  Now that I'm getting in the swing of being back in the classroom, I am returning to graduate school and am currently in my first Rhode Island College Education class.

I think that my passion is linguistics; I have a fun time making up words from the fake Yiddish I never learned.  Obviously, I love Spanish.  I certainly have an accent as it is my second language, and I am far from perfect when communicating, but I am always working to improve and speak it as much as possible.   I'm a talker, so I hear!   My husband is the exact opposite of me, thank God.

I look forward to learning, sharing more about myself, and blogging!