Privilege + Cell Phone = Knowledge

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As a language teacher, one of the skills that I am striving to instill in my students is that of learner initiative, which embodies the intellectual curiosity and drive to seek the answers to questions.

Some background:  I teach at an independent school, where the student body consists of students of comfortable socio-economic privilege.  Additionally, all of them have at least one electronic device – an iPod Touch, or an iPhone or a smartphone.

In spite of the above, I find my students to be quite disinclined in this respect.  In other words, it is far easier for them to ask me how to say this, that or a third in Spanish, than it is for them to show learner initiative and look up the word in question.  Unfortunately, there is much learned helplessness amongst the privileged.

Having contemplated the aforementioned situation for some time, I decided to ask my students the following question:

“How many of you have a smartphone or iPhone with you, right now?” In a class of 15 students – seventh graders to be exact – every hand went up.

Just as I had thought, I said to myself.

Following this unsurprising discovery, I made the following statement:

“As United States citizens, we have virtually unlimited access to information.  And yet, we’re amongst the world’s most ignorant citizenry.”

::Crickets chirping::

I continued:  

“I won’t do the work that you can do on your own.  As beginning language students, it is important for you to develop the initiative to learn independently.  That means seeking out answers when you need them.  When you need to know a word, look it up.  In the palm of your hand, you have an infinite wealth of information.  Use it.”

Privilege + cell phone = knowledge

Teachers Need Education Programs

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About a week ago, several of my tweeps were discussing new teachers, TFA (also known as Teach For America), alternate route to teaching programs, and teacher support and training.  As the discussion progressed, someone tweeted that prospective teachers need to complete teacher education programs in order to become proficient in the classroom.

::Blinking::

My response to this statement?

One doesn’t need to be an education major in order to teach kids successfully.  To the contrary: One needs solid grounding in his/her academic discipline, and relevant psychology courses.  At least those of us desiring to become middle school and/or high school teachers.

I continued by saying that many of THE BEST teachers I know (including yours truly) were not education majors as undergraduates.  I myself was a Spanish major, with a history minor.

In addition to having a solid grounding in one’s academic discipline, and revenant psychology courses, a prospective teacher needs  to learn how to manage the curriculum and the classroom, as well as many opportunities to observe and to be observed, many opportunities to teach, and excellent mentoring.

Five years after earning my Bachelor of Arts degree, which included two years in the classroom at an independent school, I earned teacher certification. I took  the requisite psychology, special education, and classroom management courses. I also took a course on how to teach a foreign language to middle and high school students.

However, I think I really didn’t learn how to connect with kids effectively until I attended a five-day seminar at Landmark College.  It was entitled, ” Teaching a Foreign Language to Students With Learning Disabilities.”  I realized that I really didn’t know and understand until 14 years of being in the classroom. And, I took the requisite education courses.   That seminar at Landmark College was truly transformative; it proved to be a significant professional and personal turning point for me.

I was fortunate to earn my graduate in education degree when UMASS-Amherst had excellent faculty and excellent program and course offerings.  On the other hand, the central problem I see with schools of education in general is that the curriculum provides no solid grounding in culturally responsive pedagogy. Or any pedagogy, for that matter.  Furthermore, there is little training in critical theory, as well as curriculum theory.  There is little-to-no exposure to Vigotksy, Freire, Dewey, or Taylor.

Last, many teachers have no grounding in curriculum: what it is, and how to evaluate it.  After all, what is curriculum? Curriculum is the creation of experiences that promote learning.

Silence When There Should Be Outrage

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Since the verdict in the Michael Dunn case was announced, I have been greatly disturbed by the indelible silence of educators like myself, many of whom teach Black boys like Jordan Davis.  As I struggle with my own anger, pain and grief over the verdict, I am confused, disappointed and saddened by the collective silence of my colleagues – most of whom are White.  To be certain, about eight of my online colleagues have spoken out, and for them, I feel grateful and blessed.  But…what about the 100-some-odd others of them?

Why the lack of response? What explains the need for extended reflection? They’re quick and read to go the full 12 rounds on any other issue – except, it seems, when they’re called out to stand up for kids who don’t look like them.

want to believe that perhaps they are still in shock over the verdict. Or, maybe they’re still trying to process their own thoughts and feelings about the matter. Or, maybe they’re afraid of saying  “the wrong thing.” Or, perhaps, they simply DON’T CARE.

Which amazes me, really.  These are the same teachers who would go to jail to picket against school closings, or the takeover of their local public school by a charter school corporation, or to save their union.   These are the same teachers who tweet way past my bedtime, on all things classroom.

Perhaps they simply DON’T CARE.

I want believe that the last reason isn’t the case.  I want to believe that the murder of a Black  boy in Florida matters to them in the same way that the murders of White children in Newtown did.  Speaking of which, these same, White colleagues posted endless tweets, Facebook updates, and blog entries about the tragedy in Newtown.  To be certain, what occurred in Newtown was a tragedy.  A horrendous, ugly, senseless tragedy.  So is the murder of Jordan Davis.  He, too, was a child, like those in Newtown.

And then, I am reminded of my place of employ: the predominately-White, so-far-to-the-left-that-people-are-hitting-themselves school, where the mantra is changing one’s world and the world around them, and students are encouraged to be strong self-advocates, i.e. student voice in progressive-speak.  All of the aforementioned stands in direct contradiction to what I will encounter on Tuesday morning.  The silence there will be deadening, and all in the name of the hipster social justice they claim to uphold.  I am not looking forward to returning to school on Tuesday; the same deadening silence I am experiencing on my Twitter feed, and on my Facebook timeline, I will have to experience at my place of employ in real time. 

Despite everything, I will need to have something to say to the kids, to my students.   Although I need to have a message for all of my students, I feel obligated to not let my Black and Brown students down, and especially the Black boys.  As a Black teacher, I feel I need to have the right words. Especially for them.

So, we come back around to the colleagues who have had nothing to say.  Unless they are devoid of a heart and feelings and intelligence, they can, in fact, come up with something meaningful to say.  If they can evangelize about teaching, and picket for ed reform, they can do both for Jordan Davis.  After all, they will be looking him in the face on Tuesday morning.

Leaving my humanity at the door

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I leave my humanity at the door of my place of employ upon entering, every day, and sometimes I forget to retrieve it when I leave.  It is an unspoken obligation, a requirement, if you will.  As a person of color (PoC) in a predominately-White work environment, I  feel that I cannot be the person I truly am, and want to be, for a whole host of reasons.  But, the Number One Reason is because I am, in fact, a person of color.  I am Black.

I often have to accommodate in ways that White people never even have to consider, because they suffer no fear of retribution for being who and what they are. They are simply allowed to be fully human.  I wonder what that’s like – to be and feel fully human, and to be allowed to be such – at work, out on the street, at a museum, buying a coffee…the list goes on and on.  To be too loud, too quiet, too sad, too angry, too smart, too dumb, too rich, too poor, too funny, too boring, too well-dressed, too poorly-dressed, too articulate, too inarticulate too rude, too polite –  are never based on their skin color. For me, on the other hand, to be merely human is constantly based on my skin color. Black people, and people of color in general, are rarely viewed on their basis of their humanity alone.  Rather, we are regularly and often viewed on the basis of our pathologies, and not at all as human beings.

I am a proud Black woman. I am also human.  But, in order to feel my full humanity, I sometimes feel as if I need to carry a Human Card.  If I had a Human Card, I could scan it the way I scan my security card.  This would be proof that I truly belong.  It would be my stamp of approval, my validation sticker, my ticket of admittance.

Perhaps, in the next life, I will be allowed to be both Black and Human, and not have to leave either at the door.

Piñatas and Culturally Responsive Teaching

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In a previous blog post, I mentioned the need to purchase piñatas.

I wanted to do something fun and cultural for my students to end the school year.  Several weeks prior, at the beginning of the third trimester, I promised my eighth grades Onesies a small party.  Moreover, several students were not returning for ninth grade: they were going to attend different schools for their high school career.  Therefore it was to be our last time together.

Español: Tradicionales piñatas mexicanas hecha...

Español: Tradicionales piñatas mexicanas hechas en el estado de Tabasco, México. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, the weekend prior to the last day of school, I headed to my local neighborhood iParty store, and purchased two piñatas.  I then visited the supermarket, and bought several bags of candy.  On top of the joy I felt during my shopping excursion, I saved money, too, which is always a very good thing.

Needless to say, fun was had by all.  It also re-confirmed that teaching and learning must include community-building experiences such as these.

Ain’t doin’ it for you no mo’

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There’s nothing I look forward to more than Black History Month. In fact, I look forward to Black History Month with the same anticipation and joy as my own birthday. For the past three years, I have attempted to share that joy with my colleagues. In 2010, I posted a “Black History Fact of the Day”, for 28 consecutive days. In 2011, I posted a “Black History Month Reading List”, which highlighted books by and about Black Americans, citing their achievements in the arts, politics, education, math and science, the military, and sports. In 2012, I created a Multicultural Resource website for the use of the teaching faculty.

A few folks remarked positively about the Black Facts and the reading list. On the other hand, only one teacher has used the Multicultural Resource website. By the way: I invited colleagues to pass along books for the reading list, and to add/share resources for the website. NO JUICE.

So, this year, my colleagues will have to celebrate Black History Month without my help. As a result, it will be far more enjoyable for me.

When Inclusiveness Backfires

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For the past two years, I have boycotted the People of Color Conference (PoCC), sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools (N.A.I.S.).  Historically, the conference began as a place and a space for African American teachers and administrators in independent schools to get nurtured, supported, and re-directed in their work as people of color in independent schools. Over the years, however, the PoCC has moved away from its original intent and mission to become more inclusive.  So much so, that, at least for me, supporting and nurturing African American teachers and administrators is no longer the priority.  In fact, it’s more like one, big, two-day diversity 101 conference, and therefore, in my opinion, should no longer be called the PoCC. It should be called, “The Diversity 101 Conference.”

What has occurred to the PoCC is indicative of what happens when an organization, or, in this case, a conference, attempts to become all things to all people.  Everyone gets served, and then nobody gets served.  It seems that in its attempt to become the proverbial all things to all people, the group that the PoCC was originally created to serve has increasingly received the least benefit over the course of the past ten or so years, despite its efforts to return to its original mission and intent.  Once the African American baby was thrown out with the bath water, it signaled the death of a conference by us and for us.

While generalized diversity 101 conferences are important and necessary for a myriad of reasons, I regret that this fate has befallen the PoCC.  Unlike many of my POC workplace colleagues, I remember the PoCC before its diversity 101 conversion.  Which is perhaps an indication that we as African American teachers and administrators need to continue carving out places and spaces for our own support, uplift and advancement, because, corporate entities like N.A.I.S. aren’t going to do it for us.

Through the lens of progressive education

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Can a foreign language be taught using a progressive education approach? Per the full-day workshop I had the pleasure to attend at The School @ Columbia University on last Thursday, yes, it can.  The workshop focused on grades K-8.

So, what, exactly, is the progressive element? Using an integrated curriculum model.

Some other key dimensions:

*focus on culture

*application of language functions

*teaching of grammar from whole to part

*a detailed unit plan following the principles of backwards design

*summative assessment via project

As I  said to my Dear Mom, the aforementioned approach is a great way to excite and motivate students in the learning of a foreign language.  While the teaching of vocabulary and grammar structures remain an integral component, the teaching of culture assumes a more prominent position in the unit plan.

As I plan the units I will teach next year to my seventh and eighth graders, I will utilize the above structure.  I think it will foster a new level of engagement for them.

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One of the single best books I have purchased on K-8 foreign language teaching is Languages and Children: Making the Match.  My copy is ancient, from 1996.  However, there is a much newer edition available.

Waiting to Exhale

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For the next two weeks, I am on March Vacation.  Like most independent schools, my place of employ follows a traditional prep school calendar.  Thus the reason my place of employ breaks in March for two weeks. Independent boarding schools take three weeks off, essentially closing things down for the month of March. I’ll admit: When I drove away from the campus, I was as happy as a runaway slave.

What are my plans? To rest and relax, enjoy the company of family and friends, and re-charge my intellectual and creative batteries.

But, we earn it – every precious minute of it.  As a colleague said recently, teaching well requires a lot of time, and a lot of mental energy.  So, not any geek from off the street can walk into a classroom and teach.  Yet, many hold and maintain this most ignorant perception of teachers and of the teaching profession.  Furthermore, time is exactly what teachers don’t have.  In addition to teaching, we are encumbered with a plethora of tasks which really have nothing to do with teaching, and, which de-professionalize teachers.  If you or someone you know is a teacher, I don’t have to create a list; you well know about that which I speak.

Many years ago, my cousin, who is a sped. teacher down South, said this when I was a re-entry teacher in my early 30s: “You have to have something left at the end of the day for your family.”  Honestly, I didn’t fully appreciate her words until fairly recently.  But, how, exactly, does a teacher accomplish this when he or she is being de-professionalized at school and then has to contend with the teacher-bashing in the public sphere?  I can tell you, it ain’t easy.  The truth of the matter is, it all sometimes makes me want to cry tears of anger and frustration. It’s simply just too much.

At one time, teaching at an independent school was the jewel of the profession.  However, given today’s economic climate, high tuition rates are justified by teachers at independent schools having to deliver, and that often means doing more with less, and being expected to fulfill the unrealistic expectations of parents, students, administrators and the board of trustees.  It also means having to contend with the ever-increasing degeneration of a bankrupt culture, fraught with disengaged parents, apathetic students, and and an overdose on consumerism.  Thus, public or independent, all teachers are poorer on some level with respect to morale.

This week, MetLife released its Survey of the American Teacher, and the news isn’t good.  There have also been responses to the aforementioned.  But, who is really reading? And, more important, who is really listening? I know that there are many dedicated, committed, hard-working teachers out there, including Yours Truly, who, in spite of it all, still think that getting up every day to teach the children is still worth it. However, given the state of things, how many of us five years from now will feel similarly?  And, will anyone really care?

Got Apathy?

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I was part of the most recent Foreign Language Chat, which takes place on Twitter every Thursday from 8-9 pm, EST.  The topics are generally useful, and the conversation, for the most part, informative.  However, and, as usual, the usual suspects dominated the conversation. Therefore, it was difficult for lesser-knowns like me – LOL – to get in on the conversation.

In any event, my thoughts re: student apathy:  A student’s attitude re: school, learning, and education are bred in the home via the parent’s attitudes with respect to the aforementioned.  This is not to say that teachers aren’t able to to plant the positive proverbial seeds which can and sometimes do counter negative home training.  In fact, many stories told by teachers attest to this.  That said, teachers can do only so much.  The truth of the matter is, many of us teachers do a lot, so much so that by the end the day we are thoroughly exhausted, with nothing left for our family,  friends and loved ones.

I cannot make a student care, I cannot make a student learn, and, I cannot change what is occurring in a student’s life.  As someone told me as a young teacher years ago: “You can’t save them all, and you aren’t going to save them all.”

I  think we need to keep the impact of student apathy in its proper perspective, and, as one participant in Thursday’s chat tweeted, and I am paraphrasing here, “We need to focus on our sphere of influence.”  A very good point.