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.