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.  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Portals to the Future / Portals to the Past -- Site Specific Dance Project @ Bodine High School

This past spring, the 70+ students in my drama classes at Bodine High School dove deep into ideas of labyrinths / portals / past-present-future in order to create totally original site-specific dance pieces in our school's amazing courtyard.

Then, we led about 200+ other classmates through the labyrinthine field of 12+ performance pieces, truly creating the give-and-take of audience/site/performer that makes live dance so incredible.

Joining me in my classroom were the AMAZING dancers from Bare Teeth Performance Crew, to help craft the students' exploration of themes, bodywork, and the ensemble process of creating original work.

If you don't have all day, I would definitely advise you to check out the work from minutes 10:32-15:20, as these groups worked in a truly committed way and it shows!

Also, the students in Ms. Fitzpatrick's Art Classes created all of the painted labyrinth ground murals, as well as all the costumes.

All of this was made possible by the INCREDIBLE FOLKS at the Picasso Arts Grant!

I apologize on posting this so far after the fact.  I got lost in a portal called summer.
Hope you enjoy it!!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Is this The Hunger Games? – a response to Neoliberal Wind-Up-Toy Reform in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

This month, the School District greeted us with its latest glossy initiative for school transformation – The School Redesign Initiative.  On the surface, it sounds well-enough-intentioned: have teams of educators and community partners apply to take over and redesign a school.  Oh yeah, and do it under the same budget restrictions that are devastating teaching and learning in our District.  You know, that Doomsday/Empty Shell budget that’s turning far too many of our schools into unstable, dysfunctional places where kids by and large are not having their social, emotional or academic needs fully met.

I haven’t read all of the very fine print, but I’ve understood enough to see this for what it is:

A distraction, at best.
And, at worst, a shift-the-blame game that gives the hatchet over to its employees.

Now, if you’ve ever met me, worked with me, or had a conversation with me about my teaching practice, you know that I am constantly trying to innovate and redesign my curriculum, my classroom community cultivation, and my personal energy/spirit/approach to the massive job that is teaching young people and helping them develop into their most actualized selves.  

And you would know that in every single school I’ve worked in (and I’ve worked in quite a few, I promise you), I’ve never been shy about providing suggestions and working with colleagues around internal school improvement.

So, why would I not see this as an opportunity to get in on some school transformation action?

Well, to give a little context, let’s just look at 2 examples from recent Philly history. 

1)   The Rise and Fall of Community-Student-Educator-led School Transformation at West Philadelphia HS.  It’s been written about here and here, among other places.  If you’re not familiar, you just need to know that a serious, principled, community-centered process for transforming the curriculum and culture at a neighborhood high school was essentially destroyed by the School District and its reform policies. 
2)   Teacher leaders in Philadelphia put together a proposal to incubate teacher-led school transformation in Philly public schools, in order to support groups of educators and community members in identifying and putting in action school-centered innovations (sound familiar?).  They presented it to officials from the School District, City Council, and, gasp, even Philadelphia School Partnership, but were not given support on the idea. 
I could write about school teams who were under attack for closure and quickly put together school redesign plans, just to be closed.  I could remind us of schools on closure lists where school staff put together redesign plans and were spared from the chopping block, only to endure massive staff cuts and find themselves unable to put their plans into place. 

So, even with only a cursory look back at the last decade in the SDP, it is not an overstatement to say that the District bringing this initiative to the table now, when the majority of public education stakeholders is focused on finding a taxation solution to our unsustainable annual budget crisis, is something to be highly skeptical, if not suspicious of.  The Caucus of Working Educators does a great job spelling out some of the specific questions that arise from the skeleton of this plan here.

What I’m stuck on is the neoliberal feel of this initiative, and other plans like it.  It smacks of the very kind of individualistic, everyone-for-themselves, get-at-the-spoils-before-someone-else-does mindset that plagues so much of what the corporate reform project offers up to those of us who want to innovate how we do teaching and learning in our schools.  Because it is framed around scarcity (only a few winners!) at a time of great crisis (thousands more staffing layoffs? shortened school year? not opening schools on time?), I think that it preys upon people’s anxiety about the future of our schools, city and public education.  In doing so, it heightens an attitude of cut-throatedness that runs completely counter to the actual collaborative spirit that educators need in order to teach well, let alone to work with parents and community members as partners in redirecting our focus back toward equity and democracy in our schools. 

In many ways, the logic of this type of reform is not dissimilar from other wings of schools-as-business reform strategies -- like evaluating teachers primarily through test scores (why help Ms. Stewart next door when our kids’ test outcomes are now in competition with each other?), shuttering and/or turning “failing” schools over to outside charters (we have to show our school is better than XYZ Elementary down the block, so they take their school, not ours), and eliminating tenure (if I throw Mr. Matthews under the bus to please my principal, then he’ll get removed instead of me!). 

It feels like the Hunger Games of education.
May the odds be ever in my favor.  Not yours. 

But that doesn’t work.
Not in a classroom, where we require the input and insight from all of our colleagues to make sure we’re meeting our students’ full needs.
Not in a District, where we must stand together to show that we can’t withstand any more cuts.
And not in a city, where we are going to have to put our collective energy into wrestling back control over our schools and forcing our so-called leaders to deliver the resources our schools and our children need and deserve.  Or vote them out. 

So, if this is the Hunger Games, then I am heartened by one of the final moments in the second book/film, Catching Fire.

Katniss, the protagonist, is in the middle of the battlefield, feeling massively under attack, scared, and confused about her allegiances, strategy, and vision. 

She sees another contender, Finnick, and is about to shoot him.  He looks at her and says, “Katniss! Remember who the real enemy is.” 

And she looks at him, startled back into seeing the big picture, and fires her arrow up into the dome, into the Capitol’s wiring, blowing up the Power Structure itself. 

It’s well time that we, in Philadelphia, remember who the real enemy is, so we don’t allow ourselves to succumb to accepting this unconscionable funding picture, and then fight like dogs over the crumbs.  We need to see the bigger picture for what it is – a political house of cards being built over deals and extortion, sabotaging the city of Philadelphia, our School District, and me, as a working educator, from meeting our shared responsibility for teaching our young in safe, stable, supportive, and, if I may go so far as to say, joyful schools.

If we want to move forward on real transformation of our schools, that's the real target we need to aim our collective arrow at.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

When we give our students "real things" to do.

Our students are impressive.

Yes, that's right.  Our Philadelphia Public School students are incredibly impressive.  And talented.  And engaged.  And inspiring.

When we allow them the space to show what they really are capable of doing.

This month, my drama students at the Bodine High School for International Affairs were pushed to prove their maturity, talent, and artistic commitment, by working with professional NYC-based filmmaker, M. Asli Dukan to capture their monologue performances on camera.

 From the minute they entered the auditorium, these sophomore, junior, and senior students experienced an actual shoot -- going through the process of blocking their pieces for the camera, supporting each other to fully embody their characters, quieting-on-the-set, and rising to the challenge of pushing through their nerves and performing to the best of their abilities.

These are the types of experiences our students need more of -- as they serve as moments for young people to find their voice, feel proud of what they are able to accomplish, and develop the substantive self-esteem that keeps all teenagers on a path toward making healthy decisions to advance themselves.

These are the very reasons that the arts should never be cut from our schools.

I hope you enjoy my students' work.

Sydney - Dramatic piece about a formerly-enslaved woman whose babies were stolen from her.

Thalia - Dramatic piece about a woman who lost family members in the September 11th plane crashes. 

Ameerah -- Comedic piece about a young woman breaking up with her basketball playing boyfriend. 

Shakirah -- Dramatic piece spoken by the Joker from Batman: The Dark Knight. 

Santi -- Dramatic piece from the mother's perspective in the movie Precious. 

Freddy -- Dramatic piece from Of Mice and Men. 

Brianne -- Comedic piece about inter-galactic space travel and imperialism. 

Ana -- Comedic piece about a woman considering giving up chocolate. 

Nadirah -- Comedic/dramatic piece about a young woman breaking up with her partner. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Keynote Address for the Philadelphia Writing Project

Last month, I was given the incredible opportunity to give the Keynote Address and Lunchtime Seminar at the Philadelphia Writing Project's Annual Celebration of Writing and Literacy. I was able to speak to over a hundred of my peers and colleagues about reframing our role as teachers and committing ourselves to the types of collective action that our students, schools and sprits demand.

Below is the visual presentation from my talk on how teachers must work to defend and transform public education.

The thesis of my talk was that in this current moment in public education, where our schools & profession AND our students & communities are under attack by a corporate, neoliberal privatization agenda, we as teachers must rethink how we construct our classroom practices, model participatory citizenship in our jobs and in our lives, and engage in building up the network for teacher collective action to defend and transform public education.

I argued that we need to get very clear about the kind of world we want to live in, and therefore, become focused on the kind of world we are teaching toward.  And then we need to all play to our strengths, push forward the areas of work that most suit our talents, and make sure we are constantly networked alongside other teachers with a shared transformational vision.

Nothing short of this type of strategic and emergent collective action will be able to build the focused power we need to stop the assault on our students, schools and city.

Further, we undoubtedly must move beyond the "No!" of oppositional politics, and reclaim, reinvigorate and reorient our schools toward becoming sites where students practice the skills and strategies they'll need to solve the problems of the world they're inheriting.  To do this, teachers will have to engage in a deliberate personal and professional transformation of our own self-concept of what it means to be a teacher.

This work is already happening, and, in Philadelphia, the Teacher Action Group (TAG) is a major hub.

In this moment plagued by structural collapse, I am inspired, strengthened, and motivated to continue improving as a teacher and as an agent of change because of the collective action we're carving out as networked teachers within TAG.

I hope that others will join up and collectively move our city forward.