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.