Changing students' perspectives is not going to be easy. It's going to take more than changing the test questions to include "ethnic-sounding" names. Literature needs to be multi-cultural. As a Jewish person, I feel comfortable saying I would rather, if time is a factor, that more time be spent on African American history and multi-cultural literature than the Holocaust. Less than 2% of the American population is Jewish, yet this heart-wrenching topic comes up again and again from elementary school throughout high school. I understand the emphasis; the theme of genocide is relevant, especially recently, today. But, it is more important for students to recognize themselves in literature and in history for them to be interested in learning anything. Science needs to do more to recognize the work of African American inventors and scientists. Does History curriculum really need to spend so much time in Mesopotamia? Why not go further south and look at the Nubians in Kush, for example? Math? Making math culturally relevant sounds very difficult. But, let's try making it more physical. Incorporate music and dance. Use origami when studying geometry. Refer to ancient Arabs and their use of algebra. Use manipulatives and incorporate more social activities.
A handful or even dozens of teachers who are empathetic to the needs of all of their students is not enough. Change has to permeate throughout the entire building, from the top down and bottom up. State curricula needs to be more representative of the groups of young people who are currently unsuccessful. Until this happens, we will not be able to reach all of our students. It seems that some kids cannot differentiate between adults who care and those who don't; we just get lumped together. They also do not realize that there were hundreds of thousands of white people involved in civil rights, some of whom even died for the cause. These are lesson to be taught, as well, that we are in this together.
Upon hearing of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death, Robert Kennedy broke the news to a large group of African Americans who had gathered to see him speak at a campaign rally. Unscripted, he told them, "We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization - black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love." We are still tasked with this today, and as educators, it is our responsibility to see King's (and Kennedy's) vision realized.
Please visit Part One and Part Two.
The problem is, as I've learned in the last few weeks, is that these students, are not hearing about King and Malcolm, or about Booker T. and W.E.B. duBois from anyone. Middle school students barely finish the Civil War in history class, let alone learn about Plessy v. Ferguson and Jim Crow laws. If their parents do not teach them, they rarely hear it. They are looking in the wrong direction for their heroes. When they look in the mirror, they see sports figures and rap stars, not men who preached from mountain tops. They emulate that which they have little chance of becoming. Girls listen to the words of Nicki Minaj, not Nina Simone, for a sense of self and purpose.
Principal Baruti Kafele visited my school on Friday to speak to both students and to staff. His message to the students was clear: it is time for all students to take responsibility for themselves, to make better choices, to stop acting like clowns, and to find their purpose. A student asked Principal Kafele if he played sports in high school, and I could not have been happier to hear his response. He does not like to promote the fact that he played sports because the likelihood of a young man or woman making it professionally is slim; they have to have "a Plan B, C, D, and E." A lot of my white students want to be video game programmers or Youtube stars (at least 50%, according to a survey we did in class). How likely is this? Not very. Everybody has to have a back-up plan.
Last night I showed my children the cartoon video Our friend, Martin (1998). If you have not seen this or shown your children and/or young students, I highly recommend this time travel story.
One of the first lines is when the protagonist, Miles, says that he doesn't do his school work because he has to practice his pitch, because that's his "only way out." The choice for people of color does not have to be poverty or mind-blowing wealth. There is a middle-ground.
Principal Kafele's message to our staff was more vague. He does not have a magic bullet to improve student behavior. He had no specific cure-alls that will get our students to do their homework. He did not have a list of steps that we can take to close "the attitude gap," as he calls it. Instead, he suggested that we have to look in the mirror. Kids don't raise themselves; our environment has a tremendous influence on who we turn out to be. We, as educators, need to take a look at ourselves and see what we can do to better nurture our students. We can, research shows, effect change in their personality, their character, in their work ethic, and in their attitude. But, the traditional way of teaching is not cutting it. Children want to see themselves; they want to see who and what they will become. Black children need to see black professionals on a regular basis, just as white children need to see, and do see, white professionals. If your school has a low white teacher to black teacher ratio then what and how we teach our students needs to change. Individual teachers may already be exemplars for this, but until an entire staff buys in and creates a school climate where every child knows their history and sees a glimpse of a positive future, then we're going to continue to have disciplinary and academic problems.
"Why focus on minority students? What about everyone else?" We need to recognize that we still live in a white world. White kids, as a whole, will be just fine. Students of color grow up in this white world. The faces on our money, every past president, politicians, advertisements, models, history books, fine arts--it's mostly all white. Politically correct people often say that they don't see race. That's wrong, I say. We need to see and embrace ethnicity. We need to show our black children and Latino children and Asian children and every child that there is a place for them in the middle class, in professional positions that have nothing to do with music and sports. We need to remind them that fifty years ago, black men and women were fighting for their lives for lawmakers to recognize that their skin color is different and beautiful, and that that is the only thing different about them. They need to be reminded that when they don't fulfill their responsibilities and do not perform to their aptitude, then their forefathers died in vain.
Please see Part 1 and Part 3.
Preface: I'm a white woman who grew up in a mostly-white town outside of Seattle, Washington. There were four black students in my graduating class. I went to the University of Washington where half of the students were white, a quarter were Asian, and the other 25% were black, Hispanic, American Indians, and "other." 99% of the people in my college major, though, were white. Most of my friends are white (my oldest and closest are not, however), most of my family is white, and most of my neighbors are white. What does this have to do with what I am about to write? Absolutely nothing.
I taught high school Sociology and History for six years to a mostly white audience of students. Every year, we discussed Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday, as well as throughout the year. I showed his Dream speech and teared up without fail every single time. In Sociology class we discussed Race and Ethnicity and the burdens that different groups bear. We talked about the "Invisible Knapsack" of white privilege, read "Black Like Me," and discussed Thoreau's influence on Ghandi and Gandhi's influence on King, who in turn influenced tens of thousands of blacks and whites to join together to overcome white supremacy in both the north and the south. I taught black history. I didn't wait until February. I loved the stories, the triumphs, the victories. I saw value in showing the sacrifice that black and white families made to let their young men and women join the Freedom Riders knowing they would face abuse and possibly death. The passion for freedom and equity that drove black men and women to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge never failed to inspire me and motivate my students. I tried to light a fire in my students that some things, such as your right to marry who you want, to practice the religion you believe in, to stand up for the weak when you are yourself strong, are worth fighting for, even to the death.
I moved to a different community about four years ago. My new students are not all white. One-third of my students are black, another quarter are Hispanic. Half of my students know poverty like I've never known (including white boys and girls). Many feel persecuted, prejudiced against, and trapped. They are also younger since I now teach in a middle school. I haven't talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. in three years except to my own children. I think, perhaps subconsciously, I haven't believed that I have the right to do so. Before, in my old life, perhaps I thought I was enlightening my students whose white parents didn't talk to them about another people's history and it was something simply interesting to learn about. But now, how dare I think that I can teach black students something about their history? Why do I have this mindset? Why have I feared being a white teacher teaching black history to my black students?
Click here for Part Two and here for Part Three.
This will be my eleventh year teaching. In years past, probably every year since my second year, the face you see on the left would have been my disposition towards going back to work. Absolute reluctance.
In all honesty, one of the reasons I became a teacher was so that I could have summers off with my family and relax a bit. Little did I know that spending the summer with my three children would be 10 times harder than actually working at my job teaching over 100 children. It is so wonderful and so miserable at the same time; I'm sure any parent can empathize. This year I added to that stress by squeezing in a graduate class that involved internship hours at my school, as well as seemingly endless readings and papers. We live ten minutes from the beach and we only went three times. Luckily I have a pool to throw the kids into, but I was only able to get in about five times max. I watched about five hours of television total and read (and this is what I'm most sad about) no novels of any kind. It was short and not summer-ish at all.
Despite this, though, and with the difficulty of refereeing three wee ones who are sick of each other, I still did not ever want to go back to work. I usually dreaded it and I went back kicking and screaming.
This year, it is different. This year, I feel like my children did last week when I took them to my new classroom to start setting up (see below). There was so much anticipation and the excitement was palpable (even though this is not their school and they were not actually starting school). This year will be my first year not teaching Social Studies. Instead I have a course to teach where I am passionate about the subject matter: Literacy and Media Technology. The sky is the limit with this course. I can do whatever I want. I have so many ideas, I do not know where to begin with the planning. I don't want to go to bed because I want to try so many new things this year in addition to the new content.
First, I am changing how I grade. I'm going to try my best to make this course standards-based. I will design projects where students can learn to master digital literacy and technology standards. There will be no tests or quizzes; everything will be project-based.
Second, my students will receive feedback and be given the opportunity to improve their work before receiving a final grade. They can work on a project as long as they want to until they either a) master the skill, or b) give up and move onto something else. I'm hoping it's choice A. Menu boards, or choice assignments, will have to be offered to allow for differentiation of the work, especially since the classes will be heterogeneous and students will move at vastly different paces. Turning these "grades" into numbers for the grade book/report card is another issue I will have to work out, but I am confident I can make it work.
Third, I am still wrestling with the idea of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. For the last three years I have used Class Dojo as a behavior management tool, mostly with success. But, through a small faction on Twitter, I was made aware that research shows that people do inferior work when they are "paid to perform." I don't even remember what chat I was on, but about a dozen people recommended that I read Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes." This book has application in my classroom and in my house (where I've also been using Class Dojo). I'm about a third of the way through and feel that I have "seen the light," but still do not know the method I ought to take instead. Hopefully I can make some more progress with this book before school starts next week. Can Kohn's philosophy coexist with Robert Marzano's emphasis on "celebrating student success"?
Finally, I would like to learn more about gamification. I've done some preliminary research, but was not successful in figuring anything out. I love the idea of giving my students digital badges as they complete each new skill. But, then, does this count as the extrinsic motivation that I'm trying to do away with?
I have one more thing that I am extremely excited for, and that is the 300 hours of internship fieldwork to complete at my school to earn my Principal certification. I designed and will implement a change project, while experiencing all of the highs and lows of being an administrator over the next eight months or so. (More to come on this at a later date.) I love change; I actually love the upheaval this will bring to my life. It's going to be an awesome year!
Podcast: Podcast Kid
Start with this episode: Honesty
When you're in the mood for: Imparting character education on your children in the car when you're super mad at one of them for stealing money out of your purse to replenish her school lunch account since she bought so many chocolate chip cookies. Oh, and the kids enjoy it, too. Great rapport between host dad James and daughter Jenna talking about tough topics (gratitude, embarrassment, depression) while having fun doing so.
On June 26th, I had the privilege of attending the inaugural Tomorrow's Classroom's Today conference at the historic Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia. The conference was created by Evolving Educators and had the best keynotes one could ask for in Jerry Blumengarten, who is best known for having a list for EVERYTHING educational, and Rich Kiker, the #1 Google Apps Educator in the world. Both were exceptionally entertaining men who captured the essence of what this conference was about: How should we best teach our students so they can succeed in a world where their future jobs don't even exist yet? The above world cloud represents my notes from the day and shows that each session was indeed student-centered.
My big takeaways from the day:
I've been listening to random podcasts on my commute to and from work everyday, and I wish I had heard yesterday's earlier, while I was writing this post on school climate and empathy. This American Life's "Back To School" episode was phenomenal. Inspiring. Motivating. Not only can students learn empathy, develop better social skills, and impulse control, but I learned that these skills can help test scores. What?! Test scores?! Now maybe there's an actual point to changing the focus from academic development to also include social and emotional development, at least as far as our education leaders are concerned. Host Ira Glass spoke with How Children Succeed's Paul Tough on the importance of empathy, resiliency, and tenacity. When students live in stressful homes, which exist in most of our poverty-stricken communities, it affects their brain development. The release of extra cortisol (our fight-or-flight hormone) limits the growth of non-cognitive, or non-academic, skills. Children can indeed learn these "soft" or social skills, as long as they are offered relationships within which to foster these skills. Early intervention is key, but it is possible in the pre-adolescent and adolescent years, as well. According to Tough, it is the children with greatest impulse control and emotional intelligence who succeed on standardized testing. Obviously, these are going to be children with excellent cognitive skills, as well, but recent studies show that non-cognitive interventions are having positive results for children, both emotionally and academically.
Have you experienced this first-hand? Have you seen children grow academically, as they receive training to, ultimately, be more empathetic?
Is empathy the answer to society's problems? Or do you think this "emotional intelligence" is a fad only to fade away sooner or later?
I attended the Ceceilyn Miller Institute's School Climate and Anti-Bullying Conference at Stockton University (near Atlantic City, NJ) yesterday. The over-arching theme was to change the culture of our schools so that bullying does not happen. One presenter discussed the dangers of technology. One presenter said that technology is not going away and we, instead, need to focus on adjusting the thermostat on our school climate. The concept of empathy was the overarching theme.
What is empathy?
The notion of "empathy" is a fairly recent phenomenon, dating back to mid-19th century Germany, with their notion of “Einfühlung” (or “feeling into”). The idea developed as a reaction to the then-modern scientific attitude of literally knowing matters of study. Today's understanding of empathy is that it is having the ability to see life from another person's perspective. Studies show that empathy is innate in many animals, but history shows us that it is missing in many humans, and exists in varying degrees among people who do have it. Can we improve the ability to empathize in others?
Can empathy be taught?
Dr. Seuss knew in 1971, when he wrote The Lorax that most societal issues stem from a lack of empathy. If we are to change the world, we need people to see that they are only a mere particle in a world that does not revolve around them. How do we do this? Neuroscience shows that empathy can be learned. It's a misconception, though, that by providing "character education" and teaching empathy to our children that all of society's issues will be solved. It is the lack of empathy, though, that will keep society from solving its problems, wrote Robert Nielsen, a professor of family and consumer sciences at the University of Georgia.
Daniel Goleman, an emotional intelligence guru, writes that we can increase our own levels of empathy through practice. He offers these tips in his book, Social Intelligence:
1. Pay attention. In the age of personal devices, we are actually losing empathy. Put your device away and talk to people. Have meaningful conversations where you actually look at your friend's face. Practice your non-verbal skills - read eye movements, facial expression, and body language more carefully. The more aware we are of our surroundings and interactions, the more we can sense what other people are going through.
2. Communicate meaningfully. Be aware of your own facial expressions and tone of voice.
3. Participate in cognitive empathy. Know that even if you do not agree with someone, that you can listen and understand where they are coming from. Part of this skill is listening without judging. This point is essential for our students. We need to get them to a point where they do not feel the need to argue or fight over every point of contention.
My husband and I usually end up splitting our girls up and reading to them separately at night. We alternate between our five year-old (non-reading) twins and our 8 year old (who has a fourth grade reading level). Tonight my husband read "Dragons Love Tacos" to the little ones and I read "Sideways Stories from Wayside School" to the big girl. The best nights, though, are when we can all pile on the biggest bed (which oddly enough is not ours), and read the same books together.
The very first day I found I was pregnant, nine years ago, we ended up at a Barnes and Noble sitting in a corner of the children's section reading, not parenting books, but children's picture books. We ended up buying "Pig, Pigger, Piggest" and it remains one of our favorites. We LOVE picture books, probably even more so than the girls. When I think about my oldest and her appropriately-aged fondness for chapter books, it makes me more than sad that we are out-growing this tradition. Yesterday, I had to flag her on her newest book from the library ("Drive" by Raina Telgemeier) because of more mature content matter than I think she's ready for (middle school crushes and kissing). I wished that we could just go back to the Knuffle Bunny days. Coincidentally enough, I happened upon Pernille Ripp's post today on her middle school classes' favorite picture books. It turns out, the big kids still love to read engaging stories with interesting illustrations, no matter how old they are intended for. Heck, if my almost 40 year-old self loves them, why wouldn't an 11 year-old, or even a precocious 8 year-old? Pernille recommended a number of books on this site. Some we've already enjoyed and some that are definitely on our "get the library to order for us" list.
"The quality of a question is not judged by its complexity but by the complexity of thinking that it provokes."
- Joseph O'Connor
As a teacher, I get caught up in the rote questions, seeking evidence of comprehension (why were the Ancient Greeks such adept sailors?), or the quantity of students who have had similar experiences (who knows what "The Goonies" is?). Sometimes, I step out of my safety zone and ask students to hypothesize what might have happened, or to justify a previous response. I'm too comfortable. I need to ask better questions. I recently watched a video from the Teaching Channel that made me re-think my own comfort level with questioning. Teacher Thristene Francisco explained in "Higher Order Questions: A Path to Deeper Learning" that if you can get students to question the text you can get THEN get them to better comprehend what they read. This is the first I've seen Bloom's Taxonomy flipped on its head like this, and it is motivating me to see what my students can do.
As a parent, it is important to ask better questions so that you can know who your children are. What do they love? What are they scared of? What are they struggling with? What are they proud of? What do they wish we would do differently (besides make vegetable-free dinners)? We need to eat meals with our children screen-free. We need to turn the radio down and have conversations in the car. We need to use the wait time that we use so regularly in the classroom. We need to let them ask questions of us and answer them as honestly as we reasonably can. We need to let them see our flaws and our strengths, to see what challenges us, and to see what our long-term goals are. They need to see that we are human, just as we need to see that they are capable of being more than carbon copies of ourselves.
As as school leader, it is important to ask better questions to know what direction to go in. It is Springtime, and therefore schools will soon start listing any available administrative positions for next year. If offered a position as an administrator for next year, I would spend as much time as possible asking questions to get to know the school's culture and its individual teachers and staff. What do teachers feel are the strengths and weaknesses of the school? If there is an overwhelming response in any one area, wouldn't it make sense to devote some energy to making sure a certain program continues? Or to collaborating on a solution to something that is deemed a perpetual problem?
As a learner, I find it impossible to not ask questions of myself. As I become more and more of a connected educator, thanks to my growing PLN, I find myself reflecting on a daily basis. What can I do better in the classroom as a teacher? In the lunchroom to foster better relationships with adolescents I do not know? In my school community to support my principal as I complete practicum/internship hours? John Dewey wrote that we do not learn from our experiences, but from reflecting on our experiences. When we reflect with our students, our children, our teachers, and ourselves, the growth that can come out of these better and bigger questions is limitless.
I intend this blog to be a reflection journal of sorts, on topics such as teaching, leadership, pedagogy, and tacos.