Monthly Archives: April 2016

figuring out what to do when you don’t (aka teaching on any given day)

Today’s Morning Pages prompt in #CO301D comes to you courtesy of Sarah and Ana. The proposition that all teachers in all content areas be literacy teachers is a tough and long-standing challenge that’s still relevant.

Despite being enormously unpopular, the Common Core standards are still the rule of the land in many states, at least for the time being. The recently passed ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) can change that–and probably will since states are required to have academic standards to receive federal funding, but they don’t have to be the Common Core. Right now, though, the ELA standards don’t just pertain to English teachers and elementary teachers, but to teachers in all subjects, who are charged to teach literacy in disciplinarily appropriate ways.

What’s glossed at best, however, is how to actually enact content-area literacy standards  with students whose first language isn’t English or with students who have special needs. There’s a total of 5 or so pages (only FIVE!) that covers both of those student populations in the ancillary materials to the Common Core, and these pages are pretty vague. Plus, who reads ancillary materials? This despite the fact that the number of diverse students in our classes is growing exponentially and that, by law, many students with disabilities are mainstreamed into classrooms.

Closer to home in the CSU English Ed. program, I’m also aware that we don’t spend sufficient time addressing how to teach ELA effectively to these student groups, and we work with ELA teachers! Through about 2005, a standalone class existed in the teacher licensure program that was required for all teachers called something like “Teaching Special Populations,” but when the state required that degree plans have no more than 120 credits, that class went away.  The curriculum was supposed to be folded into other courses, but those courses had different focuses, so ensuring the coverage of this content has been at best uneven. In my own classes, I devote some time to teaching ELLs and less on working with students with disabilities in the context of the course, but I’m painfully aware that it’s not enough. After they get jobs, our students say so.

The same was true many years ago in my own teacher preparation. When I became a teacher, what I learned at HKHS (Hard Knocks High School, aka my job) was that I had to seek out the specialists on staff in my school to support me in learning how to accommodate those learners’ needs so I could support them. I had to read all I could about methods to use. I had to help the students themselves know that they were the best experts on their own learning, so I needed for them to teach me about what they needed, to the extent that this was possible. I needed to inquire into their backgrounds and their skills, talk with their prior and current teachers and counselors, and their parents if I could. Because students were in high school, I interacted with the latter group more frequently. At the time, Oklahoma was way ahead of the game than Colorado so most special education students, except those with severe needs, were mainstreamed into the classroom. Though my student population was also more diverse, including a much higher percentage of African American and Native American students, I worked less with ELLs because immigration patterns were just beginning to shift at the time I left the classroom.

For the last eight years of my high school teaching, I was very, very fortunate to work adjacent to a special education teacher, and my case load was assigned to her. This meant that students’ classtime was very fluid in that they could shuttle between rooms as their needs demanded. On most days, especially when I taught in a block schedule, I also structured my class to include small-group work or a workshop format (e.g., whole-class instruction followed by individual work time). These configurations gave me regular opportunities to circulate through the classroom to interact with students more directly than I would have if whole-class instruction was the norm.

The school schedule also had built-in advisory time that bumped up next to the lunch hour called “overtime,” which sounds super inviting, right? Um…. I re-named it “Overtime Club” because then it was a club! That sounds fun, right? Um… Actually, it worked mostly because I required it for students who needed extra support and built in an incentive that added small-change points to their grade just for showing up. During this time, they worked on homework or conferenced with me so that I could give them more individualized attention. This was especially important with writing.

In terms of my literature curriculum, I taught thematically, which meant that I was able to integrate more multicultural literature than was common at our school. Toward the end of my teaching, I experimented with embedding vocab. exploration into students’ reading journals. That is, when we were reading whole-class texts, the vocabulary “instruction” was tied directly to the literature. I didn’t give tests. Rather, students’ vocab lists were short (6-8 words) and were a combo of self-selected words and words I’d chosen that were key to understanding the text. The latter were words I thought many students would find challenging and/or that were tied to major concepts in the work.

In sum, I learned how to use my resources, including a phenomenal special ed. staff, who were especially good at teaching their students to advocate for themselves as learners. I learned to learn from my students and strived to create assignments that emphasized student expression (like memoir units, reader response journals, and creative writing tasks) that would emphasize students’ assets instead of positioning them as “lesser-thans.” I tried to become a better listener and to build in opportunities for listening through the classroom structures I employed. I got better at designing instruction and implementing strategies that supported students’ needs and that I hope, especially with adaptation of our mostly canonical literature curriculum, also broadened their view of the world.

I should be clear that these approaches weren’t magic bullets. Peter Smagorinsky and I have written several publications about my attempts to incorporate multimodal approaches to learning over the course of a year in one of my regular-track British Literature classes. Read almost any of them, and you’ll find that some students still got off-task. I missed interactions between students that weren’t always positive. I didn’t connect with every student, and they didn’t always connect to the content or the entire enterprise of reading, writing, and learning about language and the often non-traditional ways I tried to teach it. Sometimes, I simply didn’t know what to do–how to modify an instructional task or provide basic-level instruction for some students while pushing forward with others who needed to move at a faster pace. I undoubtedly left some students behind. There are always cracks. I always wished I could do more. (Still do.)

At CSU, the “Teaching Special Populations” class may have gone away, but guess what? The students haven’t. So the advice I want to give to beginning teachers is this: try something, anything that will give you the sensation of moving forward. Reflect on how it went. Sometimes, formalize that process through teacher inquiry. Listen to your students. Locate resources (conferences, journals, books on teaching, blogs) and people (colleagues both in your school and in professional organizations like NWP and NCTE) who want to get better at meeting students’ needs and will support you in doing that, too.

And, as we’ve been discussing all semester in CO301D, know that you’re going to fail. A lot. But let it be forward.

 

 

 

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dealing with professional whiplash

Today’s Morning Pages prompt comes to you courtesy of Beth and Krissa. They’ve thrown down the gauntlet in challenging us to consider whether or not we’re willing to take risks as teachers in the classroom, even knowing that our most earnest efforts could result in our falling flat on our faces–in other words, to fail in public and be proud of it.

My immediate reaction to their prompt is super articulate: “Whoa.” These are such important questions for all teachers to consider and re-visit throughout their careers. I’m glad that my students are taking them to heart already. (Sidebar: This is a not so subtle invitation to read their blogs.) I’m not kidding when I say that I experience these questions as a teacher to this very day, despite being in the teaching business for almost 3 decades.

I think that if you really care about your teaching and your students, you owe it to yourself and to them to keep growing as a teacher. Growth requires risk. It requires falling. It requires you to put your most vulnerable self out there, even though you know that by doing so, you’re critiquing the teacher-as-expert image that is perpetuated in our profession.

And, look, let’s be honest. Some students (and parents and colleagues) just aren’t okay with that. It hurts when you get thoughtless or mean-spirited feedback, and that, I fear, is the modus operandi in our culture overall these days when the seemingly effortless capacity to comment is achieved at the click of a button.

Damaging feedback is enough to give you professional whiplash: the pain from the injury is very real, but since doctors don’t prescribe those white cervical collars much any more, it’s invisible to others. From personal experience with physical whiplash, I know that your body carries the pain, it requires physical therapy, and movement is essential to restoring flexibility. Movement is incredibly non-intuitive, though. All you want to do is protect yourself from more pain, so your tendency is to lock up and resolve to never move your neck again. You contemplate getting some of those sunglasses that cyclists wear with the tiny mirrors attached to the frame so you can see what’s coming and never get caught from behind again.

To extend the analogy to teaching (and I’m addressing myself here, too, by the way), professional whiplash sucks. You stuck your neck out, and you got rear-ended. As was the case for me a couple of years ago, a batch of bad course evaluations can cause you to temporarily lose your nerve for teaching. You want to strap on the cervical collar to ensure self-protection by playing it safe in the classroom. Stick to the textbook. Teach “objectively” (as if). Abandon innovation so nobody gets hurt.

We’ve been talking in CO301D a lot this semester about positioning ourselves as allies to our students, but who are our allies as teachers? Who will, gently, help us limber up our teaching muscles and regain the flexibility to fail forward so that we can continue to deepen our practice?

My best allies have been my teaching colleagues (I’m SO lucky in this regard), my colleague-friends in the professional organizations I belong to like National Writing Project, supportive students (I’ve learned to find the smiling students in my classroom), and sometimes even the books I’m reading. I’ve always loved Vera John-Steiner’s concept of books as “distant teachers.” I annotate the heck out of the books I read, and the following questions by researcher-storyteller Brene Brown have helped to restore my nerve to a large extent. They’re relevant in teaching and any other context your care about. I’ve had them on my desk ever since I read one of her books, either The Gifts of Imperfection or Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

The note is faded, but the questions make it well-worth the eye strain to make them out:

  • Are you showing up?
  • Are you taking risks?
  • Are you letting yourself by seen?
  • Are you engaged?
  • Are you paying attention?
  • Are you listening?

As a teacher, failing is inevitable, but these questions remind me that we have agency around how we frame failing and in determining what direction we decide to fall.

 

 

walking the line of privilege

In Morning Pages today, we’re watching a YouTube video of the Privilege Walk exercise, a best practice used to help reveal the realities and effects of systemic inequality, then responding to it from 2 perspectives as a person in the video and then as a teacher. In the next section, I’m taking on the perspective of the African-American woman who’s still at the back of the room when the Privilege Walk ends. (I recognize that my capacity to do that is limited as a white woman, but I’ll do my best not to essentialize.)

This was rough. I know what the exercise was intended to do–to make the realities of the inequitable power structure in our society visibly evident. It some ways it did exactly that for me because it helped make sense of how I feel on an almost daily basis and to understand why it seems like I have to work so much harder to get the basic privileges that many other people I know and see just take for granted. There’s a phrase that’s been circulating called “you can’t be what you don’t see.” No shit. #OscarsSoWhite

But at the same time, it sucked in another way to be at the starting line. Every single person could look back at me and feel sympathetic, but it also made me think, What the hell am I supposed to do? Is this it for me? No hope no matter how hard I work? In the debriefing after the exercise, someone said something to the effect of, “Yeah, I see now that that’s just the way it is in society. It makes me feel bad, but I can see now that no matter how someone less privileged works, they can’t ever make it to the front of the room.” I know he meant well, but I thought, “Thanks for putting that out there, dude, just in case everyone in the room needed help reaching the same defeatist conclusion.”

The bottom line is that it hurt to be back there. It reinforced the stereotypes in broad daylight for everyone to see. In other words, at the end of the day, I felt exposed and vulnerable. The exercise did exactly the opposite, for me at least, of what it was supposed to do.

——

Switching gears to a teacher’s perspective, my thinking has shifted about this exercise, which I initially thought would be unquestionably powerful to use with students. A couple of years ago, I even saw it in action while observing another CSU professor’s class. Writing the above reflection, however, has further reinforced for me the problematic nature of considering any practice “best.” Two recent circumstances provoked the tension I was already feeling before writing this entry. One I heard by word of mouth and the other one actually happened in my class last semester:

CIRCUMSTANCE #1: For the past several years, I’ve had the good fortune of being constantly learning alongside Jenny Putnam,  fantastic, brilliant, thoughtful teacher at Fossil Ridge HS (who’s also the co-director of the CSU Writing Project). She used the Privilege Walk in her class last year for the best of reasons: to help her mostly white, mostly affluent students who struggle with the idea of privilege to be able to visualize it. That’s the purpose of the exercise, right? But at the end of it, there was only one student (a female student of color) who was standing at the back of the room. The student  was obviously distressed, so Jenny was, too. What did it feel like to be back there for everyone to see? Did that mean she had no way of moving forward? Jenny debriefed with her after class, and the girl said she was okay, but Jenny remains troubled by this incident because her instructional intentions and the impact on at least one learner in her class didn’t coincide. All teachers have been there.

CIRCUMSTANCE #2: Last semester in my graduate class on teaching and learning in the digital age, the topic of privilege came up on a regular basis as we discussed the principles of equity and access woven through the Connected Learning framework. Right at the end of class, one male student, pointed out that we were tossing the word “privilege” around on a regular basis, but what did it actually mean? For that matter, what did we actually mean when we used it? A couple of the female students in the class responded immediately. They weren’t disrespectful about it, but they were passionate. They pointed out that their definitions of privilege and inequity were rooted in their own lived experiences as women in our society. The gist was, that when you don’t have privilege, you know it. But when you enjoy privilege, as white men do by default, you often don’t. The first student’s response was that regardless of what we assume based on a person’s appearance, we don’t know their life experiences. We can make assumptions that they are privileged, but we could be dead wrong.

The mood of the class shifted as quickly as the weather does during tornado season in Oklahoma where I grew up. Daylight went dark, clouds churned, the air became heavy and unsettled. And…predictably, right at that moment, time was up for class, so I said something lame like, “The issues of privilege, race, gender, and class are profoundly difficult to discuss because they’re so complex. We’ll continue the conversation next time.” Pretty brilliant wrap-up, right? Or not.

I can’t recall what happened in the subsequent class exactly, but it obviously wasn’t groundbreaking enough to be memorable. What were memorable, however, were the follow-up conversations I had with the student who had raised the issue of privilege initially. Without revealing any confidential details of those conversations, I can share what he also revealed publicly on the blog he maintained for the course. A few years ago, he suffered a closed brain injury as a result of an accident that was completely debilitating. His recovery has been remarkable, hard-earned, and ongoing. He toppled from his road bike–and his position of privilege–in an instant. But today, you couldn’t tell it by looking at him.

Tying the reflection I wrote at the start of this entry and the circumstances I’ve related above is profoundly difficult because my lame comment at the end of my graduate class is nevertheless true: the prospect of understanding privilege is so complex. Bringing up the corequisite issues of race, class, gender, age, ability, and so on, can unintentionally marginalize students further. It can instantly charge the atmosphere, then suck the air right out of the room. The moment before I launch into these conversations in my classroom,  I take a mental deep breath, shore up my courage and think, “Man, am I gonna mess this up.” But I do so in the knowledge that it would be even more messed up not to try.

The only solution I know as a teacher is to be continually vigilant, intentional, and reflective in my practice. The classroom is such an unpredictable place, and the lived experiences of students aren’t readily apparent. What I can do is try my best to anticipate what could go wrong then own up to it when it does (and it just will sometimes). I can enlist my students as allies for my own learning and try to teach more thoughtfully and from a stronger position of empathy as a result. And I can remember the words of Audre Lorde:

When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.

 

 

 

 

 

the vulnerable art of reading

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Today’s Morning Pages prompt is brought to you by Ana and Holly. They’ve asked us to think about the role of reading, not only in the ELA classroom, but also in our personal lives.

I’m always a little amazed when I hear my students–most of whom are studying to be English teachers–say they HATE to read. (You can literally hear the sense of loathing dripping from their voices.) Being the weirdo kid who always had 4 little Scholastic book order paperbacks stacked neatly on the corner of my desk, I don’t get it…when it comes to reading for pleasure, that is. When I was 9, I was so panicked that reading material wouldn’t be readily available, these were my insurance books. I’d race through my story problems and reading worksheets every day so that I could get to the real stories–the books I’d chosen for myself to read. Even now, anxiety sets in the moment I finish a book if another one isn’t readily available. (Just thinking about it right now is making my palms sweat. In this case, I consider it a lovely problem.)

So it was a surprise to me as a reader to feel an aversion to reading setting in almost the minute I signed on to be an English major. This was promptly followed by an existential crisis. What was happening to me? What was I doing with my life? How could I teach students to read if I was losing the lifelong love myself? Was this some terrible, irreversible allergic reaction?

Right now, I’m reading the powerful little book called The Vulnerable Teacher by Ken Macrorie, which is sadly out-of-print. According to Macrorie, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my allergic reaction as a student. He refers to any assigned book as a “little prison” and is horrified to recognize that an English professor, he had become an unwitting warden.

Happily, my allergy to reading disappeared when I graduated from college, but it was only latent, returning with every subsequent degree I pursued. Even when the book was one I would have willingly devoured if I’d picked it up on my own, it turned into a bread-and-water ration once I was assigned to read it.

What’s this all about?  What makes assigned reading a grudging task? What can we as English teachers (and future prison wardens) do to avoid prompting an existential crisis and slamming the jailhouse door on what can otherwise be one of the most enriching pleasures all of us share, or we wouldn’t have gotten ourselves into this business in the first place?

Morning Pages time is up right now, and even though I have more thoughts and some solutions that have been successful more or less in my own classroom, I’ll stop here to hear what my students have to say. After the discussion, I’ll make a list of their ideas in the comments section below this post.

(cyber)bully for you

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For today’s Morning Pages prompt, my CO301D students are thinking about the dark side of technology (remember that Darth Vader image in my post below?), cyberbullying to be exact. When I put the prompt on our class website, I did a quick search for statistics. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 1 in 4 students has been a victim of cyberbullying, and 1 in 9 has been a cyberbully. Wow.

Given this trend, Emma and Angela have asked to think about this today:

What can be done about cyber bullying? How can we create an environment where students feel like being themselves, like being vulnerable and open, yet safe? How do we create a classroom where peers support one another and stand up to the bullies, stand up for the bullied?
 That’s a tough set of questions, but what interests me most is the idea of “being vulnerable and open, yet safe.” I’ve been thinking about vulnerable teaching and learning on and off this blog for a while now and on the page, too. It’s a concept that Antero and I introduced in Pose, Wobble, Flow . Basically, vulnerability is the controlling emotion in wobble. Since writing the book, I’ve started burrowing farther down into the concept and writing about it (offline). In fact, in my office over the weekend, I found a sticky note where I’d recorded some working terminology. The note read “punitive vulnerability” vs. “generative vulnerability.”
I won’t go into too much depth about those ideas now because I think the terms probably convey the distinctions on their own. (Also, because I actually just did start going into depth, and the post was getting so ridiculously long  and exploratory, I decided that these ideas clearly aren’t ready for prime time.) Until today, however, I’d been thinking about vulnerability in the broader sense of face-to-face interactions between teachers and students in the classroom, not in the context of cyber-bullying.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, writing publicly is almost effortless now. The willingness to put your thoughts in the full view of others requires risk, yet also permits the existence of a forum where conversation can extend and sharpen thinking and establish emotional connection. The vulnerability you exercise as a writer online can be generative; it can lead to an expansion of self and community. In these cases, your learning is connected–driven by your unfolding interests, networked openly with an audience of hopefully supportive peers, organized around the shared purpose that has been established through a receptivity to the ideas you have produced, which can even lead to academic growth and emotional efficacy.
The blind date says yes.
But what if the answer is no? Or, hell no? Or hell no and now I’m going to mess you up, psychologically and even physically?
If and when the response goes all Lord of the Flies, the learning is decidedly (dis)connected. The network can openly jeer at you for following your interests and mock you for producing such pathetic ideas and putting them out there. It can co-opt your purpose toward damaging ends that shut down even the possibility for academic and emotional growth.
I’m a fan of permeable walls for learning, but we all have to remember that either response is possible. We can’t control Facebook, but we can do everything that is in our power within our brick-and-mortar classrooms and the virtual extensions of them to help kids learn to speak up for themselves and others, to learn resilience, to create not just a safe space that is entirely free from risk, but one where they can exercise their vulnerability so that it is generative.
There’s much more to say on all of this, but in the meantime, I found these resources on the Cyberbullying Research Center website, both for teachers and for students themselves. If you want to go the Emma Pillsbury route, you could display the downloadable pdfs in your classroom. Better yet, you could use them to open a conversation about what is/could happen out there and how they might respond.
[IMAGE CREDIT: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/559501953676940659/]

B.T.E. / A.T.E: the impact of technology on learning

Today’s Morning Pages prompt on the hot button issue of technology in education comes to you today, courtesy of Hailey and Kaely. Since I had the advantage of previewing this prompt on Tuesday, I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’ve been teaching for almost 30 years now (since the turn of the century!–love saying that), so I have the advantage of living in both the B.T.E. and A.T.E. (Before/After Tech Eras)  and seeing the impact on educational contexts firsthand.

I’m not a fan of binaries, but I do think that there’s a spectrum of reactions to technology not only in learning and teaching in classrooms but in our everyday lives as teachers as well. It looks something like this:

 

darth-vader                                                    emoji

<———————————————————————————————–>

 

I can slide anywhere along that spectrum on a regular basis, sometimes hourly!

Today, A.T.E., I’m near the smiley emoji end because I can see firsthand, right at this very moment while my students are also writing entries for their own blogs, how the affordances of technology allow us to push out our thinking about these very important questions at the click of the “Publish Post” button. Blogging about stuff that matters to us as teachers this semester has allowed us to eavesdrop on one another’s thinking so that we can share our thoughts and respond to them perhaps more reflectively than we might have in the passing moment of class discussion. Then if we want, we can even let others listen in, just by inserting a hyperlink or tweeting out a post.

In the B.T.E., my students just exchanged papers.  And that was good, too, because it happened face-to-face. Plus, god help me if I still am enamored with the immediacy of honest-to-goodness handwriting, of being able to identify someone by the way they etch their name onto a page. Only occasionally, however, did my students’ writing make its way out beyond my classroom. They did write letters to powers-that-be, created picture book adaptations of Beowulf for their 5th-grade writing buddies, and published their work in xeroxed low-tech class anthologies, but all of it required more physical effort and time.

Both B.T.E. and A.T.E. my students have used their writing to connect to others, but what I think has changed is the relationship of that act to time. One would think that in the A.T.E., the time problem would have been solved because of the ease of publishing and networking, but alas, we just spend our time in different ways. At the first light of the A.T.E., e-mail was going to solve the time problem. It’s so fast! We can connect with each other RIGHT NOW! You’ve got mail! Happy face emoji! [because those weren’t around yet]

Now that the day has dawned, however, almost everyone I know pulls on their Darth Vader mask every time they check e-mail or text messages or Facebook or Instagram or or or. Which is approximately 1,000 times a day. (Collectively, acc. to the 2015 Deloitte’s Global Mobile Consumer Survey, Americans check their phones 8,000,000 times a day.) It’s so fast. We are expected to connect to one another right now. Great, I’ve got mail. Darth Vader face emoji.

So this semester in CO301D, I’m trying to bridge the eras, using the affordances of technology to create a digital badging system that requires students to use both digital and analog devices (in this case, a human counts as “analog”) to connect with each other, some experts, and me. Each badge represents a particular professional role or disposition that is central to being an informed and innovative educator. All students are required to complete the Teacher as Writer badge, and we did that one together to get the hang of it. They can then choose from 1 or 2 additional badges, depending on the grade they want to earn in the class. These badges are as follows:

On a whim, I’ve added one completely optional bonus badge: Teacher as Human Being. Again, I’m trying to bridge B.T.E. and A.T.E. with this badge to remind students that, yes, you do have permission to be a person, even while you’re earning a college degree. My hope is that when they become teachers, they will remember the same. The bar is particularly high for this badge. It includes some pretty complex activities like taking 10 deep breaths, flinging out your arms and spinning in a circle, and reading a page of something you love that has nothing to do with earning your degree. 

Hopefully, it won’t slide students into the Darth Vader zone.

Possibly, it might drive them to think, “Welp. Just as I thought, my professor is completely crazy.”

Probably, they will be right.

 

 

DARTH VADER IMAGE CREDIT: http://bgr.com/2015/11/19/darth-vader-daily-life-photos/