Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Teaching as a Career

Image Credit: Pixabay user, Wokandapix

I am a full time sixth grade teacher. I am also a full time PhD student in an education field. I think a lot about how these two do not play as nicely as one might think. I am lucky to be at supportive institutions (my school and university) that work around my schedule as best as possible. Still, it often feels as if I would be much better at the other if I had more time.

The farther I go in my studies the harder it is to remain in the classroom. This is not a problem unique to my position. The longer one spends in the classroom, the more pressure there is to move to administration, to a specialized position, or in my case, the academy. As a recent NPR story illuminated, pay is a major factor for this push, but it is not the only factor. Teachers look beyond the classroom in search of more prestige, greater “impact,” less stress, or maybe just change.

I do not quite understand why we have devised the conception of a K-12 teacher to be so dichotomous. Either you are a full time classroom teacher or you are not. As a administrator in the aforementioned NPR story said, “There’s not a step in the ladder between teacher and administrator.” This basically holds true for other non-teacher positions.

In a sense there are two ways to look at a career in K-12 education. Either you move through what I see as a horizontal view of career development — building one’s craft as a practicing teacher — or you jump to a vertical “career ladder.” On the horizontal axis you move from preservice teacher to that of “mentor” or “master.” At some point on this journey you are forced with a decision, be a teacher lifer or pursue the goal of moving up to that of high level administrator.

Quartz et al. (2008) problematized our understanding of teaching as a career. Through a critical examination of role changing, the authors questioned the benefits of teachers leaving the classroom for other education positions. Although these individuals bring a lot to the new roles (and stay in education), schools are (often) forced to completely replace their expertise and experience in the classroom. While we wouldn’t consider this part of the greater retention issue, it really is. We loose talented classroom teachers to positions that, even assuming their impact, are disconnected from the day to day demands of the classroom. While the differing positions associated with role changing do not always present a straight “step-up” in the profession, there is (in my opinion) much greater prestige associated with being a ‘curriculum coach’ than a teacher. I see this as a jump to the vertical axis in teaching as a career.

This is not to say that all teachers should, want to, or can stay in the classroom. Sometimes they are better suited in administration roles. Sometimes their expertise as a technology specialist or teacher on special assignment benefits many students and teachers. Sometimes their heart lies elsewhere. My basic thought here is that we should think much more about teaching as a career. How might it be possible to allow passionate teachers to both remain in the classroom and assume other roles in education? What if the standard was not to pick one axis? What would a third axis look like? 

Feiman-Nemser (2001) wrote, “if we want schools to produce more powerful learning on the part of the students we have to offer more powerful learning opportunities to teachers” (pp. 103–104). Her purpose was to show how coherent, purposeful, and participatory learning opportunities might revision teaching into a continuum of practice, essentially rethinking what it means to call teaching a career. Having opportunities for teachers to be researchers, mentors, professional development leaders, or even part-time administrators are examples of transformative learning experiences.

I think we should work to make these options available for classroom teachers. This does not mean to add more responsibilities to full time classroom teachers’ plates, but rather rethink what their days, weeks, or years look like. How might it be possible to create positions for amazing classroom teachers to teach a few classes, take on admin responsibilities, and be compensated accordingly? What would it look like if teachers spent part of their weeks writing and researching? What is classroom teachers spent some of their time working in the community? What would it look like if we rethought what a teacher career looked like?

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dialogue Poems

Picture is from my trip to Teotihuacan in 2007

It has been quite some time since I published a "this lesson/project worked great" post. Although these types of entries used to be a central focus of the blog (and do serve a useful purpose),  I moved away from such because I found it more useful to reflect on complex and thornier issues. I no longer regularly pump out quick posts, but rather use my (informal) writing to think through problems that really gnaw at me. I also try to pass along summaries or excerpts from longer pieces I write for other outlets. Thus, this blog has evolved into a place for deeper reflection on readings, ideas, contextual matters, and practice, rather than a space to quickly share my "wins" as a teacher.

However, I want to break that streak by sharing how I recently used dialogue poems as a summative activity for a sixth grade study of Mesoamerica. I was unaware of dialogue poems until a few months ago, but they proved to be a wonderful mode for students to understand multiple viewpoints of a historical event. This is especially powerful as it works against the privileging of dominant voices normally centered in Social Studies curriculums. Through dialogue poems marginalized voices comprise a (more) equal share of historical inquiry. For this particular unit it meant students "heard" the Aztec, Maya, or Incan versions of conquest, not solely the typical European "exploration" narrative.

Dialogue poems challenge students to complicate moments, events, and perspectives by acknowledging multiple ways to analyze history. They also hold us accountable as educators. Does our curriculum include multiple voices and perspectives? Do students have the resources or guidance to complete such a task? Whose stories do we privilege? In a fantastic monogram about dialogue poems Tedick writes, "A dialogue poem offers an excellent opportunity to assess students’ understanding of different perspectives on cultural themes. A dialogue poem reflects a dialogue between two people who represent different perspectives on a particular theme, issue, or topic." As the examples below illustrate, my students represented a Mesoamerican perspective on history that is typically overlooked in narratives about the "New World." Mesoamerican groups are not merely a footnote in the study of World History, they were full of achievements and problems, complexities and contradictions.  Furthermore, those cultures continue to struggle, thrive, and exist today. The structure of the poems, the centering of their voices, stresses the dynamic creation and activity of these people, rather than the passive descriptions often reproduced in textbooks.

Dialogue poems provide a path for integrating the arts into different subject areas. Furthermore, the structure of dialogue poems creates a low-entry and high-ceiling type of assessment. This means that even those who claim they are not "poets" can create meaningful prose, while those who wish to dig deep have the ability to do so.

This connection to the arts was stressed during the unit on Mesoamerican culture. In particular students dug into The Colloquies (1524), which are recorded words of resistance from the tlamatinime (translated from Nahuatl as "wise men"). Speaking about The Colloquies, the blog Tlacatecco shares, "The bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish text dates to about 1564 and was penned by Fray Bernardino de SahagĂșn. The work concerns itself with recording a series of debates between Mexican religious and political authorities and a team of twelve friars sent by the Spanish crown to attempt to destroy the indigenous faith. These verbal battles took place in the early 1520’s, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire." One version of The Colloquies includes Nahuatl text in addition to the English translation. I also shared a trilingual children's book and an animated short movie produced in Nahuatl. Thus, the hope was for students to see that this culture has not been erased. This aided students in moving beyond simplistic depictions of Mesoamerican cultures. I have seen this happen as teachers uncritically push a narrative of blood and human sacrifice, rather than explaining the Aztec emphasis on arts and education.

The dialogue poem lesson/assignment was part of the conclusion to our MesoAmerican unit. I divided it roughly into three stages that I list below. I created it for sixth graders. You are welcome to copy and adjust to fit your needs.

Part 1: Analyzing The Colloquies
Part 2: Dialogue Poem Organizer
Part 3: Final Drafts (examples below)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

How (some) state policies criminalize immigrant and undocumented youth...and what that means for education

In the context of Donald Trump's negative rhetoric on immigration it is easy to lose sight of the local and state policies that impact the lives of immigrant and undocumented youth. With national immigration reform highly unlikely these local policies and contexts prove to be extremely influential to immigrant lives. In short, geography and context matters.

With this in mind, we sought to understand how policy discourse works to problematize immigrant and undocumented people in the context of South Carolina. The problematization creates a specific type of knowledge that allows for restrictive solutions to "fix" the created "problem." Below are some excerpts from a longer blog post published at Youth Circulations that describes the research and details our analysis and implications (Please give it a read). We anticipate an academic article out in the fall.

Our analysisspanning six legislative sessions, reveals how immigrants are criminalized in everyday social life and restricted from accessing public institutions and social services. The focus on enacted and proposed legislation follows Stephen Ball’s (1994: 10) argument that policy research should tend to the “process” of policy production and focus on the “action, words and deeds, what is enacted as well as what is intended.” Our work accordingly demonstrates that local policy makers in restrictive state contexts like South Carolina propose and enact legislation that both constructs immigrants as problems to be dealt with and limits immigrants’ opportunities for thriving and advancing economically, educationally, and socially.

Taken as a whole, a picture emerges where immigrants are desired for their labor, but controlled as human beings. The construction of immigrants as problems allows for this dual reality. Immigrants continue to serve the South Carolina economy while policy solutions seek to constrain their material lives and force them to live in the shadows.

As we argue, educators can be at the forefront of the resistance to the criminalization regime. For example, they can recognize, mitigate, and resist the impacts of repressive policies that enshrine “immigrants are problems” on their students by framing students skills as assets rather than deficits.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

This Class Sucks

She put her head down, let out a sigh, and uttered, “This class sucks.”

I looked at her and knew she meant it.  I was not upset at the student. She had every right to her thoughts and emotions. She was not callous or mean. She was not disrespectful. She was honest.

Image Source: Pixabay.com, User moritz320

But how could this class suck for her? I used all the best “strategies.” I personalized instruction for her. The last few assignments/projects centered around advice she gave me. We had a pretty good relationship. She was one of a handful of students that came in at lunch just to hang. I checked all the boxes on the great practice checklist.

Yet she was not wrong. This class wasn’t working for her.

I racked my brain. I thought about it deep into the night. I wrote down ideas, and then I wrote down more ideas. As someone who writes, tweets, studies, and practices education with this much passion surely every student is always happy, engaged, and challenged in my classroom. But then again I have 130 students. All unique individuals. All from different contexts. All with their own set of likes and dislikes. No matter how hard we try, we will have these moments. Think about it once more, 130 kids

I don’t write this to say I give up on this student. In fact, the opposite is true. She drives me to be better, to work harder, to think differently, to be more humble, to learn from her. I say this to share that teaching is an extremely tough and demanding job. It is complex and trying. As seen above, it is deeply emotional work; it is nuanced intellectual work. Those outside education need to understand this. Those within education need to understand this. None of us are perfect. We can’t beat ourselves up over one comment, or two comments, or three. You get the picture. It is okay to be bummed out and disappointed. It is fine to feel let down. Allow yourself this. Be kind to yourself. 

And then tomorrow, try again. Dust yourself off and continue to work for education justice and equity. Keep doing the work. Do your best for that student, for the next student, and then the student after that. If your class sucks, do your best to be great for that student, every student. They deserve that. Rest assured, we will have these moments. ALL OF US DO.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

We Certainly Do Not Believe...

Although this post may feel removed from things I usually write about, it shows how my thinking is shifting, growing, and evolving. In an effort to seek alternative (and non-dominant, non-colonial) epistemologies I have been reading work about Aztec philosophy. As teachers, we think very little about the epistemologies we both retain from our education, and use (expect our students to use in the classroom). To simplify (for both readers and myself), epistemology is how we come to know things. In closely examining how we come to know things (how we build knowledge), we can more accurately scrutinize the knowledge we have and pass along. What are its implications? Its assumptions? Its biases? Its truths.

This morning I read a beautiful passage from the Colloquies of the Twelve and it personally spoke to me and the political arena (circus) coalescing around us. For example, see the Arizona effort to limit social justice instruction. In the Colloquies Of The Twelve (1524), Nahuatl wise men publicly defended their religion and culture in dramatic resistance to the Spaniards. I read the following excerpt in a translation used by Leon Portilla (1963):

Calm and amiable,
consider, oh Lords,
whatever is best.
We cannot be tranquil,
and yet we certainly do not believe,
we do not accept your teachings as truth,
even thought this may offend you (p. 66)

Mesmerized by both the beauty of these words and their applicability to present political conditions, I was able to find a complete translation of the surviving dialogue. Here is another translation from Klor de Alva (1980)

Ma oc yvian yocuxca
In the meantime, calmly, peacefully,

xicmottilican totecujyoane
consider it, our lords,

in tlein monequj.
whatever is necessary.

Ca amo vel toiollopachiuj,
Indeed, our heart is not able to be full.

auh ca ~a ayamo tontocaquj
And, indeed, absolutely we do not yet agree to it ourselves,

ayamo titonelchiua:*
we do not yet make it true for ourselves.

We ourselves will cause you injury to the heart. 


Friday, December 23, 2016

What Does Teaching "Look" Like?

Last semester I took an advanced seminar in Instruction and Teacher Education. Below is a (slightly modified and shortened) reflection from the first week of class. We read large portions of Lortie’s SchoolTeacher. Leaving aside any criticisms, critiques, or insights from the book, I want to share a few questions I think we should ponder.

Image Source: User martaposemuckel, Pixabay.com

Lortie’s (1975/2002) Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study seeks to answer an almost trivial question — what does it mean to be a public school teacher in the United States? At first glance this is a trite question. We all know what teachers do. One might argue, as Lortie does, that there is not a more visible or witnessed profession in the United States.

Students (and by extension the whole public) learn about teaching mostly from watching the actions of their own classroom teachers. Years and years of classroom experience sketch, rather permanently, an emblematic caricature of the typical classroom educator. Lortie wrote, “teaching is unusual in that those who enter it have had exceptional opportunity to observe member of the occupation at work; unlike most actions today, the activities of teachers are not shielded from youngsters” (Lortie, 2002, p. 65).

The problem with this sketch is that it’s drawn from only one perspective, that of the student. The student sees but the first layer, the ephemeral actions, of the teacher. What lays unseen are the hours of classroom preparation, the late evening continuing education courses, the family phone calls, the administration emails, the professional reading, the sleepless nights trying to figure out how to serve thy students. I could go on and on. What also remains unseen are the deep thoughts, the intellectual challenges, the ethical decisions, the very real work of the heart and the mind.

“What students learn about teaching is intuitive and imitative…This limited vantage point relies heavily on imagination” producing the feeling that ultimately anyone can “do a reasonably accurate portrayal of a classroom teacher’s actions” (Lortie, 2002, p. 62, 63). Thus, the perceived understandings of classroom teaching become normed by the general public. The literal perception of the teacher proves to be the ordering image that future teachers, parents, and policy-makers will never go beyond.

The normed expectations both structure and reinforce the structures of the schoolteacher. A vicious cycle repeats itself, teachers teach the way they were taught. Other people expect teachers to teach the way they were taught. Labaree (2000) uses similar rationale to explain why teaching is a job that “seems easy” (p. 231). Heck, we’ve all seen what its about.

Two and a half questions emerge from this:

  • What does teaching look like? Do we need to change what teaching looks like? 
  • How do we show people what they cannot see? 

While my class post explored some answers to the questions, I am going to leave it here. What do think?

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Labaree, D. F. (2000). On the nature of teaching and teacher education difficult practices that look easy. Journal of teacher education, 51(3), 228–233.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Monday, December 12, 2016

When Schooling Subtracts…

“School subtracts resources from youth in two major ways. First, it dismisses their definition of education which is not only thoroughly grounded in Mexican culture, but also approximates the optimal definition of education advanced by Noddings (1984) and other caring theorists. Second, subtractive schooling schooling encourages subtractively assimilationist policies and practices that are designed to divest Mexican students of their culture and language.” (Valenzuela, 1999, p.20)

Image Source: User meineresterampe, Pixabay.com 

It is easy to use the words education and school interchangeably. For most of my life I did. Now I hesitate to do so. School is an institution. Quite frankly, it speaks to a prescribed and systematized curriculum, type of learning, and socialization process. Leaving aside (for now) the inherent political and sociological contestations of this system, one hopes that if you progress through school you posses a certain type of education. This education according to different folks is supposed to make you a good person, or a good citizen, or a good worker, or now-a-days a good STEMist.

But there are different types of education. Education is not limited to the school. There is the education inherent in one’s community. There is the education inherent in one’s family. There is the education inherent in one’s culture. There is the education inherent in clubs. There is the education inherent in religion. There is education inherent in the medical clinic, the after-school program, the sports team, the museum…

You get the idea.

Schools, though, often claim a monopoly on education. This makes sense. Their whole purpose after all is to educate the child. Schools have a recognizable type of education. Cynically, one could simplify this to the “game of school”. Using academic speak, you could call this the “grammar of schooling”. If you identify, understand, and follow the rules, chances are you get to keep playing. The longer you play, the better you do.

But what if the school’s type of education is in opposition to the other types of education a child receives? 

What if one was forced to choose between the school’s type of education and, say, their communities’ or their families’ or their cultures’? 

These are questions that Angela Valenzuela took up in her classic book Subtractive Schooling. She wrote about a conversation with one student, Frank. Frank was described by teachers as a C-student (let’s leave aside the fact that teachers still designate students this way as if it is an inherent quality), one working way below his potential. In fact, teachers claimed Frank to be a brilliant thinker. Unfortunately, they also characterized him as passive, indifferent, and apathetic. Frank saw things differently. He said that the school prized individualism and competition, a type of “caring” Frank resisted. He saw this traditional notion of school “caring” in opposition to the concerns of others and the community. Frank explained:

“I don’t get with the program because then it’s doing what they [teachers] want for my life. I see Mexicanos who follow the program so they can go to college, get rich, move out of the barrio, and never return to give back to their gente [people]. Is that what this is all about?” (Valenzuela, 1999, p. 94). 

This “out-of the barrio” motif (Valenzuela, 1999, p. 95) is rooted in deficit approaches to communities, peoples, and students. Deficit models basically hold that students need to be fixed. In plain terms, their myriad types of educations are lacking and not worthy of a place at the “official home” of education — school. Deficit models hold potential student strengths as weaknesses. One of the most common manifestations of this is language, although I could just as easily use home-life stereotypes, motivation of students, clothing, etc. Rather than seeing a home language other than English as an asset, or an advantage, schools typically frame it as a problem to be remedied. And thus the child becomes a problem as well. The idea is to make students English proficient as quickly as possible, even if this means damage to a first language. Extreme programs like “English only” and rapid “Americanization,” as well as more implicit ones, force students to make a decision. Do I erase my culture and ways of knowing for their type of education? For so many of us, we didn’t have to make such a decision. On the other hand, it is sad that so many do.

Image Source: User qimono, Pixabay.com

In his must-read book For White Folks… Chris Emdin talks about the structures in schools that “do not lend themselves to giving students a voice or space in which to be valued and respected for their experiences” (p. 66). Similarly, educator Chris Lehmann wrote, “If we want kids to care about their education, we are going to have to encourage their passions. If we want kids to believe in themselves, we will have to help them build on their strengths, not just mitigate their weaknesses”. Yes, this can be very, very hard work. There is not a standard curriculum. There is not a set of “best practices”. There is not a professional development series that achieves instant success. It is more than a cultural day or a lesson plan template. It takes honest reflection. It takes a willingness to change. It takes real vulnerability. It takes humility to say — what I think is right might not be. Our type of education is not the only type. Or gasp — even the best type.

It is even harder for educators who were successful in this system to recognize that it might not be successful for all. I know that is super hard for me to do even though I struggled and resisted at various points in my schooling. It is also something that I find myself grabbling with more and more. Recognizing the types of education that honor, that uplift, that empower all students should be a central focus of teachers and schools. If we are not doing that we need to check ourselves right soon. Without a more thoughtful response schools might continue to subtract from students as they claim the exact opposite.

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