weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down

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Okay, the truth is that Weebles actually do fall down, but the thing that Weebles do that other playthings don’t–the quality that is the essence of their Weeble-ness–is that they pop right back up again into their original pose. I bet you can see why a tagline like “Weebles wobble, then they fall down, but then they get back up again” didn’t make the cut.

I bet you can also guess there’s a metaphor at work here. You can take a look at this Morning Pages prompt for more details on what our community of writers is addressing today, but for now, it’s enough to know that we’re pose/wobble/flow-ing in relation to the pose of “Teacher as Writer,” that is of committing yourself to being a teacher who writes and a writer who teaches. (See this previous post for details on the pose/wobble/flow model and how it can support your growth as a teacher.)

When I think today about how and where I’m wobbling as a writer, it’s in the justdo-ing it part, in simply “engaging regularly in the practice of writing” (Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 2015, p. 76). I rarely suffer from writer’s blog, but there are so many demands on my time that writing on a daily basis often gets pushed to wayside. I’m talking about a certain kind of writing here because don’t get me wrong, I’m writing all day long (and doing so right now, in fact). But the kind of writing that dominates my day tends to fall into Scardamalia & Bereiter’s (1987)  “knowledge-telling” genre rather than the “knowledge-transforming” genre that feeds my soul. Writing grant proposals, lesson plans, letters of recommendation, and teaching observations does not feed my soul. Even though I acknowledge its necessity, duty-based, knowledge-telling writing plagues me because it tends to crowd the generative, knowledge-transforming writing right off the day’s agenda.

Herein, I wobble.

In Pose, Wobble, Flow, Antero and I cover strategies for dealing with wobble in more detail, but there are always challenges (did I mention the time thing already?), so this is a really good example of why it’s important to go back to the pose: I am a writer who teaches. I am a teacher who writes. So as a note to self, here’s what I know I can do to wobble toward flow:

  • I know I can set up writing as a non-negotiable “meeting” in my calendar.
  • I know that coffee is a must, as is a quiet place or a place where I can be quiet in myself in a crowded place like a coffee shop.
  • I know it helps to have a writing partner who holds me accountable.
  • I know that just 25 mins. of knowledge-transforming writing a day, five days a week,  quickly adds up to a couple of hours on even the busiest week. If I can knock out 1,500 words in 2 hours and write 43 weeks of the year (yes, that’s over 2 months off), I get to right at 65,000 words, and that’s a book, my friends! Yeah, yeah, I know that amount of time doesn’t take revision into account, but you get my drift here.

And yet…I wobble.

There. I said it.Coming clean with my students about wobbling is sometimes a risk because I run into the do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do syndrome, yet I hope it helps to know they’re not alone. (Psst! You’re not alone!) Remind me to be a good Weeble and check in this time next week to see if I stayed true to my Teacher as Writer pose.

In the meantime, let’s all of us let the throwaway tagline be our mantra:

Weebles wobble, then they fall down, but then they get back up again.

 

  • Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1987). The psychology of written composition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • IMAGE CREDIT: Community Blogs

 

 

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see me see them

In this TED talk, the musician Amanda Palmer tells the story of her first job out of college, being a living statue (an 8-foot bride to be precise) and the profound experience it gave her with human connection. Since she couldn’t speak as a statue, her first task was to make eye contact and really see the person before her so that person could likewise see her.

As a teacher and literacy scholar, part of my life’s work hasn’t been so different from Palmer’s. Though I can’t add 8-ft.-bride to my CV (though that would be amazing, I’m not gonna lie), I’ve tried to use my writing as a way of establishing connections with readers so that they can move beyond the common abstraction of public schools as a failure or a “disaster.” By rendering moments of teaching and learning, I’ve tried to help readers understand in a profound way the hard and beautiful moments of teaching and learning.

I believe it’s more urgent than ever to help the general public see those up-close moments. Right now, for instance, the only sounds in my classroom this morning are the rush of air through the vents, the light but steady tapping of my students’ fingers on laptop keys, and the occasional brushing of pages as they thumb back through Why School? to see what Mike Rose has to say.

I love this hush, this sound of becoming.

In that liminal space between student and classroom teacher, these preservice teachers have the inside corner on what it means to teach and learn. They’re intent. They’re the future. And at this moment, I’m just honored to share the room.

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letter to the next president

Dear President Trump,

You’ve been understandably distracted by other issues since inauguration day, but I’m hoping you’ll soon move education to the top of the list since it’s relevant to every single citizen. (Plus, I notice that it’s been removed from the “issues” section of the White House website.) All of us have had experiences in our own schooling that inform our views about education today, but that was then and this is now. What’s the connection between those things? How do those experiences shape our hopes and expectations for the teachers and students who are busily typing away in the classroom I’m occupying right now?

Based on the Betsy Devos hearing last week, providing families with choices is at the center of your agenda. This seems like a no-brainer. Presumably, parents and caregivers want the best education for their children that is possible.  As a parent myself, I wanted my own children to have caring teachers, high expectations, rigorous curriculum, lots of enrichment opportunities, and connections to them as whole people, not just test scores on a page that would be used to judge their worth and their schools. I wanted them to have choices that opened up their lives now and in their futures. It mattered to me that they learn not only to be smarter, but to be kinder and more inquisitive. I wanted them to know that their voices were important in the world.

When I look around at my students right now, that hasn’t changed. I want the same things for them, and I suspect they would agree that they should have ACCESS to those opportunities.

What’s worrisome to me, however, is how “access” is getting defined in the discussions I heard last week. Equity and access are important to help students thrive, but vouchers–taking money AWAY from public education to siphon toward private and parochial schools and charters that often have profit margins uppermost in their missions–aren’t the answer. Diverting funds from public schools, who actually are not “flush with cash” as you described them in your inaugural speech, isn’t the answer either. Not holding charters, private, and parochial schools to the same standards or entrance requirements (this is especially true when it comes to students with special needs) isn’t equitable and isn’t providing choice. It’s just providing the illusion of it.

Public schools are the one public institution all of us share as a nation. I urge you to provide more support for them and for students and their teachers so that they will have equal access to the resources they need (books, technology, free and healthy breakfasts, challenging curriculum, fair assessments, and robust professional development for starters). These things cost money, but they also enable positive life chances for all of our future citizens and will keep America great (not just great again). The grand experiment that is our democracy depends on it.

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touchstone moments

 

In CO301D today, we’re thinking back to our touchstones–that is, those moments in our schooling that have stuck with us as writers/readers/thinkers/human beings. This video, “Some Study That I Used to Know,” makes it clear that touchstone moments for students and teachers don’t always intersect. But when they do, what are those moments like, and what conditions have to be in place to made them possible?

Although my memory has grown faultier with age, my memories of school remain fresh, way way back (like kindergarten back). I admit that these memories aren’t always positive, but many have been or I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today, trying to support my students in becoming teachers themselves.

I’ve written about several of those moments here and here, for instance, so I’ll just touch on a few here. (See what I did there? Touch on my touchstones?) I think especially about my Senior English teacher, Mr. Ford, whose class started with writing every day. I loved that silent, hallowed space where I could be alone with my thoughts and get them down on paper. I think about Mr. Hougardy, my middle school science teacher, who trusted me to walk down to the library by myself so that I could find more research on lichens for my science fair project. I think about presenting that at the state science fair and what it felt like to earn a ribbon for my thinking. I’ve never looked at lichens the same way, especially since even then in 7th grade, I started thinking about carbon emissions caused by our local energy plant and how those were affecting not just lichens, but our environment and what would happen as a result. (Mr. Hougardy was right about climate change.) I think about Dr. Flanagan’s class where I learned how to plan a unit and was surprised by the latest research on why grammar doesn’t make a positive difference in student writing. (Also still true.)

So what were the common denominators that led to those touchstones? Clearly, teachers who trusted me as a learner to be curious and thoughtful and surprised, who helped me persistent in pressing through questions I didn’t understand and to explore those on paper and through research–my own and other experts’.

I think about how they valued every students’ ideas, even the ones who didn’t speak up often, like Marlon Gabriel, the cowboy who wrote a beautiful poem about a spider’s web that still makes me look closely every time I see one. Those teachers encouraged us to share our writing and our ideas with our peers and with others outside the classroom. They took us seriously as writers, scientists, and future teachers.

And they made me want to do that for others. So here I am.

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takin’ it to the streets (aka bringing detail about education to the public sphere)

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IMAGE CREDIT: The Public Sphere, New Media and Politics

I’m so fortunate to be teaching another writing course this semester! As I said in so many words at this same time last year, the two acts of writing and supporting fellow writers–be they students or colleagues–have animated my work since I started this gig way back in 1987. (Am I old, or am I resilient? Draw your own conclusions.)

Having met my latest class on Tuesday, I’m eager to begin writing with them during Thursday’s class. In anticipation of our work together in CO301D: Teaching Writing in the Disciplines–a course that aims to deepen personal knowledge of the field of education in order to share that knowledge in the public sphere–we just started reading Mike’s Rose’s profound little book, Why School: Reclaiming Education for All of Us (2009/2014). In the Introduction, Rose makes the following claim:

The challenge in [writing about education] is how to bring the cognitive detail and intimacy into public view, how to render it, and how to apply it to broader social and political issues. The public sphere is where the detail belongs, for collecting it is a testament to who we are, a tribute to our intelligence as a people (p. 21).

In that same vein, the following excerpt from my CO301D syllabus describes what our work together will entail this semester. Speaking now directly to my students: 

I’ve designed this course to help you, as future English Language Arts teachers, develop expertise in current issues in the field of education (especially literacy education) that will inform your writing for public and practitioner audiences. That means you’ll read and analyze multiple texts written in print and multimodal genres (because that’s what writing looks like these days), you’ll construct and refine your own theories about education (because we all already have them, whether we’ve articulated them or not), and then you’ll write (A LOT) to make better sense of what you, your classmates, and other experts know so that you can communicate your views via public writing.

“But isn’t all writing public?” you may be wondering. Technically, perhaps, but in school, writing tends to move along a one-lane street connecting the student and the teacher only. This class aims to move the vehicle of your thought onto a multi-lane information super highway with lots of on-ramps and off-ramps so that others can traffic with your ideas, and you can traffic with others’. On that freeway, we’ll consider the following questions, among others:

  • If anyone can Google any information, “Why school?” as Mike Rose puts it. Assuming that there is a point (otherwise, you’re wasting a whole lot of money on tuition), what is it that every educated person in a democracy, including students and teachers, should be able to know and do as a result of her/his schooling? What role do you as a future teacher, as well as schools in general, have to play in expanding access to equity for all students? What does it mean to be ambitious on behalf of youth?
  • For that matter, why write? How do other educators communicate what they think in regard to the above questions? For whom do they write? How do they craft their messages, and for what purposes, so that their ideas can be heard? Where do educators’ voices fit in today’s political debates about education? How can they shape public conversation and educational policy instead of being pawns in it?
  • Which brings us to you. Why should you as a soon-to-be-teacher engage in public writing about literacy and education? Who needs to hear what you have to say and why? Since everyone has been to school, what can you tell them that they don’t already (think they) know about education today? How will you communicate your ideas for colleagues and others outside of the field of education, including students, colleagues, parents, and the general public?
  • And when you do write, what will that writing look like in our digital, multimodal age?

Driving down this information super highway is likely to be daunting indeed, but the good news is that we’re all on the bus together. I hope our road trip will be safe, but boisterous. I know our conversation will be unpredictable, but interesting. Let’s make it our goal to have some good stories to tell when we reach our destination.

Now buckle up and let’s go! To do so, choose one or more of the italicized questions above and respond in the comments section below. In other words, write in public. Right now. On purpose. Because I know you have something to say.

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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.

 

 

 

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/]