Thursday, June 30, 2016

When our Hearts Fall upon Deaf Ears; A Call to Switch Up our Strategy

photo: PAROS
Went to Harrisburg again yesterday.  Again meaning, I again put on my same red T-shirt and again went on the bus full of chatty kids and sleepy elders and eloquent preachers, to again pack the steps of the grand rotunda full with our cries for Full Funding for Public Education because, again, the State Assembly is voting on a budget.
I am not a policy wonk, much to the dismay of my ever-so-wishful father.  I am more of a feeler, breather, decipherer of a fuller humanistic/political context.  

So, while I can’t rattle off the numbers for pension holding givebacks, I can tell you that the purpose of the Pennsylvania State House is to hold onto the power of having power.  And the purpose of our ritual visits is to try to evoke pity from those men in suits who are comfortable enough to never have to look our kids in the eye.
That’s what I felt stuffed onto that marble stairway, shouting “400 million! 400 million!” as student after student of color got on the mic to detail the deplorable conditions of their schools and the sub-standard quality of their hands-off educations.
As our voices echoed up into the ornate dome, in the halls of state power, white men in suits bustled about about with self-importance, tanned smiles and unnatural comb-overs, all shaking hands and congratulating each other on a swifter budget process than last year.  But not listening.  

And no amount of a collared preacher pointing down at the babies, detailing these kids’ survival through the traumas of poverty, with incarcerated parents and food scarcity and crumbling schools, will change those men’s fiscal maneuvers.  Those appeals, meant to somehow soften the hardened heart of some Alleghany County Republican off wheeling deals to cut corporate taxes and take home a little pork for his home district, those appeals won’t be listened to or cared about.
photo: Carolyn Kaster
Returning back to Philly, I don’t question the intent, commitment or love of our gathering.  I question our strategy:
What is the place of going to Harrisburg to tell these stories of neglect and disrepair?
Should our target really be in the hearts of those who have been the cause of our neglect?  Or should the target be, not their hearts, but their soft, insulated, safe lifestyles?  Disruption of their business as usual.  

How do we force those who would prefer, instead, to relax on their sectional sofas to pay attention to the suffering taking place down the interstate from their own decisions. How do we force their hand, their vote, their giving up of something?
Yesterday, each and every young person who got on the mic on that marble stairway said, “At my school, there is not clean drinking water.”
And that is it.  That is everything.
We have failed.
When children say to us that they don’t have water to drink, then, bottom line, we have failed as a society. And I refer to something bigger than just the failure of our so-called leaders to pass a budget.  We have actually failed as humans.  And we need to, each one of us, myself included, recognize this failure sooner rather than later, so that we can be led by something greater than electoral strategy or partisan pettiness, and actually do something about it.
We need to listen.  Really listen to these young people’s testimony of their lived realities.  And then zero in on how our stomachs feel.  The pounding of the blood in our ears.  The dryness in our throats and the uneasy itch over our palms.  This is the feeling that we have a responsibility to one another that we, as a collective body, have neglected to fulfill.  That feeling tells us that we have a deeper embodied knowledge of how neighbors treat neighbors.  
And we need to act from that knowledge instead of allowing for the political charade we call the State Assembly of Pennsylvania, where white men are paid to scurry by, not listening to 8 year-old boys deliver the clear, searing words that spell out these politicians’ criminal neglect.
To quote cultural critic Hoyt Fuller, back in 1971: “The facts of Negro life accuse white people.  In order to look at Negro life unflinchingly, the white viewer [legislator] either must relegate it to the realm of the subhuman, thereby justifying an attitude of indifference, or else the white viewer [legislator] must confront the imputation of guilt against him.  And no man who considers himself humane wishes to admit complicity in crimes against the human spirit.”
So I suppose that is why most of those white men in suits don’t come into the rotunda while we’re there.  Are, in fact, nowhere to be found.  Refuse to take in the words that spell their own moral void, deep complicity, and profound guilt.   

The facts of these young people’s lives and schooling should accuse white people.  And from that accusation, each and every one of us/them needs to decide, in the words of the Dream Defenders and the Movement for Black Lives: Which side of history are you on?  Either move toward the responsibility of meeting our collective needs, of repairing historical harm of decades of disinvestment and structural racism, or get the f**k out the way and sink yourself and your lineage further into spiritual depravity.  

There are actual leaders prepared to do the work that needs to be done.    
State Congressman, enough is enough.  It’s time to cough up the keys to the castle – on this, specifically, vis-à-vis the appropriations committee – and deliver what is rightly owed to these Black and Brown children living in Philadelphia.

And for the rest of us, we need to be moved by our deeper understanding that a more humane, people-oriented society is possible, is on its way, and we need to put our individual and collective energies into the hard work, along whatever front we are oriented, toward that transformation.  
That is what this moment asks of us. It is urgent and necessary to step into a shifted strategy.  Anything less is a continued failure of our shared humanity.

Fuller, Hoyt.  “Towards a Black Aesthetic.”  S.O.S. – Calling All Black People: A Black
Arts Movement Reader. Ed. John Bracey, Sonia Sanchez, James Smethurst.
University of Massachusetts Press. 2014. 179-84. Print.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Talking During Class: Student-Centered Discussions

Today some of my colleagues and I were discussing how to cultivate students who can engage in classroom discussions that are interesting, purposeful and function to actually unearth something.  I wanted to offer up some of the practices I use in my classroom that facilitate that type of student discussion. 

In the beginning of the year, I first set the expectation around discussion in our classroom: it is a vehicle to generate, build upon, and push their own and their classmates’ ideas.  It’s not just a time to skate on by while a couple precocious students give their thoughts to the teacher.  It’s one of the methods of discovery in our classroom.

Before beginning a discussion, I always direct them to the Discussion Sentence Starters posted on the classroom wall.  I encourage them to use these to help them share their own thoughts, as well as to continue off of someone else’s.  This forces them to listen as much as speak, since the expectation is that they will connect their ideas to something someone else has already contributed. 

In the beginning of some school years, I’ve even given participation credit for using a “discussion sentence starter” in class, thus incentivizing their use.  (Shout out to the amazing Melissa Koh, a San Francisco-based ELA educator and teacher coach, who got me excited about scaffolding these social/soft skills for students.)

Sometimes, though, even while my intention around classroom discussion is to open up the space for more student voice and exchange, I still retain the (false) sense that I have to “run things,” because, as the teacher, I am the ultimate curator of all learning within the classroom.  However, even if my intentions are to facilitate an open class discussion, having me as the hub to their conversational spokes actually limits what they say.  Or, perhaps, limits how they communicate.  And more importantly, limits their ability to direct a conversation down the paths of inquiry and discovery that most meet their needs in that moment.

So, last week, I attempted a Socratic Seminar-style discussion.  We had finally finished our novel, Kindred by Octavia Butler, and there was a lot to talk about. We got into one huge circle (of 33, no less!).  I went through the overview of the protocols:

As much as possible, I was not going to speak at all.  They needed to figure out how to keep the discussion going.  They got 2 grades for the discussion: 1 based on their individual contributions, and 1 based on how well they, as a whole, functioned.  Three people talking to each other while the rest of us kick back and passively watch does NOT make for a high quality discussion.  

I asked them how to get more people involved (“We could ask someone a question.”), and how to make it flow well (“We could say, ‘Adding on to what so-and-so said,’ to keep things going.”) 

And we were off! 

We went around the circle first with a general “go around” question about the book that everyone could/must answer.  That way, the initial friction of moving from silence into voice had already been overcome.  Then, I posted a series of different questions they could use to prompt themselves on the discussion.  

At first they raised their hands and waited for me to call on them.  I just sat silently, with my pen and clipboard ready to trace their discussion on my diagram, and waited.  They sort of looked around at each other, their eyes questioning what should happen, until someone took leadership and began talking.  They would later have to keep reminding each other, “She’s not going to call on you.  You can just talk.”  And eventually they stopped looking at me for my reaction and started communicating with each other. 

Sure, there were a couple undoubtedly dumb moments (and I say this with lots of love in my heart) where they wandered down discussion threads that felt like a rabbit hole of wasted time, but then someone would inevitably come in to redirect the class toward something new – one redirection even caused classroom-wide laughter, a release valve as everyone was thankful that they could move on from the subject at hand. 

The method forced them to take on leadership for the good of the community, forced them to take risks and say something that mattered, that questioned, that analyzed, that theorized.

One moment that stood out the most was when a girl read us something from the readers guide in the back of the novel.  (It wasn’t assigned, but she just needed to continue to read more words in the book even after the story was completed, she loved it so much.) She said, “I’m sorry if I wasn’t supposed to, but here’s what I found out.  It was about the trauma of the story and how it all connects at the end.  I wrote it down. Octavia Butler said that she ‘didn’t let Dana come back all the way whole.  Dana couldn’t keep her arm because the Antebellum South doesn’t leave us fully whole.'  You can’t come back from that experience fully whole.”

And the entire room shifted.  It was palpable.  I'll admit that I got chills.  Classmates looked at each other – not to me – and said, “Whoa.  That gives me a whole new interpretation of this entire story.”  The format had given permission for the conversation to deviate and meander, to scavenge and offer up, to question and nourish one another.  And they were in control.

It was beautiful at times and awkward at other times, but as a whole, it felt like one of the most authentically “student-centered” discussions in my class this year.

I absolutely recommend others use this strategy.  You can see the thread of discussion plotted out below.  All 3 classes had about a 50% participation rate.  We’re going to aim for 75% next time! 

Shout out to my Teacher Action Group colleague, Jaimie Stevenson, who showed me how she used the Socratic Seminar discussion method in her middle school classroom!

Here is another great resource for doing student-led discussions: Detroit Future Schools Guide to Humanizing School   A few of us in TAG-Philly are going to do some peer-led Professional Development on it.  Comment below with your email (or get in touch directly, if you know me) if you're interested. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

In Joyful Solidarity with the Fight For 15

Have you heard about the Fight For 15?  

It is a campaign of low-wage workers who are fighting for $15/hour and the right to form a union. In their own words, they are "fast food cashiers and cooks, retail employees, child care workers, adjunct professors, home care providers, and airport workers who work for corporations that generate tremendous profits, but don’t pay employees enough to cover basic needs like food, health care, rent, and transportation."

What started as a small spark of a couple hundred workers in NYC in 2012 has grown into a massive movement of people throughout the country and around the world claiming their right to earn a decent living, instead of settling for poverty wages. 

From my vantage as a teacher in the Philadelphia public schools, the Fight for 15 campaigners are not just fierce workers organizing for a better employment situation; rather, they are whole people -- the families of my students, the residents of my school community, the former graduates of my classroom.  And I am going to show up this Wednesday, April 15, to join with thousands of Philadelphians and march in support of the Fight For 15.   

You should be there too.

If you've ever taught a student who didn't have secure housing, enough food to eat, or regular health care because their family didn't have the money -- you should be there.

If you've ever had to wake up a groggy student in class who was up late working a low paying service job to help out with the bills in their family -- you should be there.

If you've ever had a student tell you they didn't do their homework or couldn't participate in an afterschool club because they have to take care of their younger siblings while their parents are out at their 2nd or 3rd jobs just to scrape by -- you should be there.

And more broadly:

If you've ever benefitted by having union protection and/or a collectively bargained contract -- you should be there.

If you've ever done the math and realize that a family just cannot survive on $7.25/hour -- you should be there. 

If you've joined in the recent protests and movement work directed toward racial justice, demanding that Black Lives Matter -- you should be there.

I am humbled and inspired by the courageousness of this action -- not simply to strike on Wednesday -- but to insist that we, as workers, as a city, as a whole society, can join in collective action to push back against a deeply inequitable economic system and instead build toward a changed future that prioritizes people over profit.  

Things will kick off at the McDonald's on Broad and Arch at 3pm, and will then march through the city toward 30th Street Station.  The Caucus of Working Educators will have an educator solidarity meet-up spot at 4pm at the SE corner of 30th and Market. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Students Blogging -- Work from our 9th grade Poetry Unit

Over the past decade of teaching, I've recognized that the best work my students create happens when there is an "authentic audience" to showcase what they've learned:   Speech contests.  PenPal exchanges.  Staged performances.  Guest judges.

And thanks to the internet, we can now add: Online Publishing.

Last week, the students in my 9th grade class culminated our month-long poetry unit by creating blogs -- wholly written, designed, and revised by each one of them.

I used to use glogster webpages, but they became slightly clunky, and, dare I say, a little corny.  I figured that 21st century literacy ABSOLUTELY has a place in this generation's English classroom, so we used the blogger platform.

As is often the case when students get to tackle something that feels "real" to them, where they have autonomy in the design choices and get to "scale up" according to their own skills and aspirations, they rise to the challenge with excitement.

One girl, who has been slumping along this year, exclaimed, "This is the best project we've done all year!"  Another, whose first language is not English and has been having a challenging time in my class, ran up to me, smiling, saying, "I didn't realize I loved writing poetry!"

For a week, students were buzzing with activity - helping each other revise their words, design their layouts, and help each other widen their social networks to get more pageviews.

I, too, had fun this past week, helping facilitate their work, focus, and growth.

And I urge any teachers out there to use blogger (or another blogging host) to ramp up your projects.
Getting students to push their work onto the world stage definitely ups the stakes and calls for a heightened level of attention, care and pride.

Here are a few examples:

Unrealistic [Stanza]rds

Annarylis Belladona 

The Genuine Synopsis of Life


Writing in Imagination


Love, War, and Poetry

Poetic Effect

Wintry Skies

Poems by Some Guy

3rd World


A Deeper Ground


Poetry by Hoai


The Love of the Poet

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Why Educators Must March on MLK Day / Why We Must Continue the Work on Tuesday

On the Martin Luther King Jr Holiday this year, I am going to be out in the streets of Philadelphia with thousands of other folks, raising the issues of economics, education, and police oversight – indeed, continuing the work of the Civil Rights movement.

I will march as white woman who is working to dismantle racism and white supremacy in my life, my community, and my work.

I will march as a friend, community member, and comrade to many people of color who are at the frontlines of the current moment, leading the struggle for human dignity, survival and community-determination that has lately been manifest in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

And I will march as an educator, who works with students of color in the public schools of our city, and sees the “fierce urgency of now” alive in my students’ demands to receive the type of quality education that they deserve.

Tomorrow I will be out in solidarity with my students -- many of whom are unjustly profiled and mistreated by the police in our city; have parents who work 2 or 3 jobs, but barely make enough to cover all of their family’s expense; and are robbed of realizing their fullest potential or actualizing their life dreams, because our so-called leaders have criminally left their schools underfunded and deprioritized.

I want to urge all of my fellow Philadelphia educators to be out tomorrow at the MLK Day of Action Resistance and Empowerment.  To join in what is expected to be the largest demonstration for MLK Day in Philly’s history. 

And then, on Tuesday, I want to urge all of us to dig in and do the collective work it’s going to take to make the march’s vision, unity and demands real. 

Let’s start in our classrooms.

We need to fill the gaps in our own knowledge (about race, the prison industrial complex, unions, community organizing, the work of ‘average people’ in the Civil Rights movement, etc.), so that we can be the teachers our students deserve.   So that they can learn their community’s histories and have their own stories at the center of their curriculum.  So that we can provide actual responses to the questions burning in their hearts about why the world is so unjust, why they are feeling so afraid, what we can actually do to change these oppressive systems that feel so crushing all around them.   

We need to not be afraid of breaking down injustice in our classrooms, of confronting the realities of white supremacy and institutionalized racism that yet pervades our society.  It is our responsibility to provide that language and lens to our students so that they can speak and theorize about their own lived experiences in a way that is connected to larger concepts and history.

And, speaking to my majority white colleagues, I want to urge all of us to do some important internal work to confront racism: to investigate our own lives, to look at the blindspots we have because of our white privilege, to push our own thinking about race and racism, to interrogate our unquestioned takes on the world, and to acknowledge those moments where we let our stereotypes propel us instead of working to truly understand our students.  And then, let’s talk about this more together.  Let’s push each other to deeper levels in our practice.   Let’s become the educators our students truly deserve. 

And, then, let’s move beyond our classrooms.

We all know that our responsibilities as educators don’t end when the 3:04pm bell sounds.  Similarly, our work for justice has to extend beyond the school doors. 

It’s time for us to join in the movement work that is taking shape in our city.

To see true racial, economic and educational justice, we’re going to have to fight against corporate dollars, entrenched politics, and closed minds.  This means that we’re going to need to join each other more than ever.  We need to recognize that our power comes from the strength of the web of relations we are building across this city, and put in the work to build those connections.  Workers, parents, students, people of faith, community members, and educators must continue to build toward the unity felt at tomorrow’s MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment.

Another world is possible and necessary.  I am inspired by the movement that is growing throughout this city, this country. 

Fellow educators, I am excited to do this work with you. 

Here are some links:

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Putting Race at the Center: Opening up a Classroom to be a Community

It's the 2nd week of school, and I wanted to quickly give an update of an early-in-the-year culture building activity I did yesterday in my 9th grade English classes.

Like so many 9th grade classrooms across the world, the theme for this year of study is identity.

Our summer reading books are The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.  Our study will primarily push us to unpack the levels of oppression (i.e. how the characters and ourselves face oppression at the structural, interpersonal, and personal levels) as we explore how characters operate as youth of color in a white supremacist society.

Given all that is happening in our world -- like an ebola epidemic spreading throughout many African countries, a US war being unleashed (again?) against "radical Islam," the trauma and aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent uprising in Ferguson, the mass deportations and forced separations of millions of immigrant families, the continuing starvation of the public school system in Philadelphia, etc. -- I realized that we wouldn't be able to move forward in our study without putting race and racism at the center.  And we wouldn't be able to do that in a deep or meaningful way unless we established some groundrules.

Thanks to a colleague, I checked out this curriculum about teaching about critical race theory through sharing stories, created by the good folks at Columbia University.

I decided to do something wild:  I unabashedly took an entire class period just to establish classroom culture.  (Was that the sound of shrieks coming from the Accountability Data and Common Core Objective Creation Machine, as I made decisions as an educator to do something in my classroom that wasn't quantifiable?!  Gasp!)

And tonight, after talking to parents about it at Back to School Night, I feel really good about it.

Here's what we did.

1) We discussed the big topics that Part Time Indian brought up.
2) Then, I used that to launch into our overview of Essential Questions.
3) And said, "In this class we will talk about race and racism."
4) I got out of the way and just showed images from this summer -- Ferguson, Immigrant Justice organizing, people working against Islamaphobia.

5) Then I talked to them about the idea of a "comfort zone" and a "learning edge."  A lot of times students are asked to talk about "race" in their classrooms, but really, they are just regurgitating something superficial about Rosa Parks (not even all the bad-ass-ness about Rosa Parks!), and so they end up turning off, or getting bored, or saying "this again?!"  That's the "comfort zone."  And that's no good.  Conversely, sometimes we allow things to go to a place where people aren't being respectful, don't actually know what they're saying, or are attacking each other.  This is just a place of "panic" where we shut down or fall into a coping mechanism.  Instead, the sweet spot is our Learning Edge, where we are pushing ourselves to examine something new or from a new angle.  That's what I aim to have us do.
6) Then, I gave each of them an index card.
7) They all wrote anonymously.  Then, I picked them up and exchanged them with someone else's.
8) We went around, one at a time, and read off our class community's primary concerns and primary goals for discussing race and racism in a way that is the most meaningful to us.
9) They listened for themes and overlaps, as well as surprises, and we made a list together.
10) Then, I had them all respond to a blogpost thread with their reflections on the day and one community agreement they wanted to suggest to our class to make it an environment where we could openly and honestly communicate with each other about race and racism.

My thoughts:
This was the 6th day my classes met.  And the way they spoke to each other, shared openly, and really listened to one another was beyond what I've ever seen happen in the first week in my other 9 years of teaching.  They were mature. They were serious. They were deeply concerned with offending each other, and motivated to let each other know that racist comments or thinking were not going to be ok in their classroom.

They also were requesting to learn about origins of racism, about how we can work together to change systems, and how we can push past the "black/white" construction where most of the conversation in our country resides in order to make room for our multi-racial, -ethnic, and -lingual classroom community.

In their online responses, I was moved by how much they wanted to connect with each other, and how much they wanted to use that connecting to push them all forward.  I was impressed with the amount of investment they already showed in creating "their community" with each other.  And I was happy to see that the summary of their suggestions for class agreements was pretty close to what I would have wanted them to say.

For anyone teaching in a highly diverse classroom environment, I would encourage you to try this out.  For anyone who has had conversations on race go badly in your class, I would do some preventative work now to build a culture of learners committed to pushing past ignorance and biases.  For anyone who wants to put time into culture building and restorative practices, I would suggest this as one of the themes for your circles.

We'll see how the rest of the year goes.
I'll let you know.