Literary Canon–Boom!

Several years ago, I worked in a school where some folks debated whether it was appropriate to use Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in an honors English class.  I won’t go into the details of who said what, because it doesn’t really matter, but I will say that my pedagogical practice has come a long way since then, and these days, I wonder, what was the issue with somebody wanting to do this?  Was their professional judgement, knowledge, expertise being questioned?  Did the work itself not seem “rigorous” enough?  [I have feelings about the world “rigor” and how it’s used to shame folks into feeling that their classes aren’t challenging enough, but more on that at another time.]

This semester, I’ve taught not one, but TWO YA novels in my AP English classes–and I’m confident every single student will tell you they loved them–and got what they needed to progress toward mastery of skills for the course.


Back in the day, when I was a little less sure of what I was doing, and more dependent on others for validation, I believed that canon snobbery was a legitimate thing.  I was teaching with people who had experience teaching and learning to teach in England, at Oxford no less, so I awarded them status and assumed they were better than me.  Someone I once worked with told me, “I’ve decided to become a grammar snob,” as a point of pride–and I blindly accepted that.  In that environment, thoughts like “What do I know?” invaded my psyche almost daily.  In other words, I believed in my own inferiority, both as an educator and navigator of the language arts landscape.

These days, one MAEd, one MFA certificate and many years of experience later, I now know that my strength as a teacher lies in my ability to listen to my students, read their reactions, learn beside them. THIS (not some experience in the birthplace of the English language) is what makes me fully qualified to make decisions about what my students can, should, and will want to read in class.  I don’t need someone else to make those decisions for me.

Though the district would love to make me, I’ve rejected their canned curriculum–enforced by curriculum “experts” in the effort to “bring everyone in line”.  To some people’s chagrin, I continue to do what I’m gonna do with a strong bias for reading and learning from works students themselves create.  I spend hours each summer writing and tweaking my syllabi until they reflect what I want–a class that meets the standards and/or content requirements of the course, while still staying true to who I am, who my students are, and the world that we inhabit.  My administration (thankfully) has supported my desire to teach the class as I see fit.

The AP English Language and Composition standards are as follows:

  • Revise a work to make it suitable for a different audience.
  • Demonstrate understanding and control of Standard Written English as well as stylistic maturity.
  • Converse and write reflectively about personal processes of composition.
  • Gain control over various reading and writing processes, with careful attention to inquiry(research), rhetorical analysis and synthesis of sources, drafting, revising/rereading, editing, and review.
  • Demonstrate understanding of the conventions of citing primary and secondary sources.
  • Evaluate and incorporate sources into researched arguments.
  • Create and sustain original arguments based on information synthesized from readings, research, and/or personal observation and experience.
  • Respond to different writing tasks according to their unique rhetorical and composition demands, and translate that rhetorical assessment into a plan for writing.
  • Write for a variety of purposes.
  • Use effective rhetorical strategies and techniques when composing.
  • Analyze images and other multimodal texts for rhetorical features.
  • Analyze and interpret samples of purposeful writing, identifying and explaining an author’s use of rhetorical strategies.

Nobody is trying to dictate how I go about making sure students meet these standards–and I have the education and experience to make sure they can/do.  We read a variety of works, and as long as students are progressing toward skills mastery, developing reading and writing identities, I believe the end justifies the means.  But, I am fully aware that this is not the case everywhere AP English is taught.  It is not uncommon in urban ed, for a first-year educators to be teaching AP English–even if they hold no advanced degrees in (or passion for) the content area.  What do we do, then?


In my class, AP Lang students have read numerous essays, poems, and songs, and also the following novels: Motorcycle Diaries, Native Son, (choice novels), The Things They Carried, The Poet X + Electric Arches

AP Lit students have read a few essays, numerous short stories, lots of poems, and the following novels/plays: The Bluest Eye, Macbeth, Siddhartha, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Long Way Down, Poems from an anthology, A Raisin in the Sun, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Hamlet (if we have time) and Ragtime.

I have blended canonical works with those I know students will find interesting, and others they might find challenging, but will learn a lot from being exposed to because this is what my actual reading/writing life looks like.  This is not the only way to design the course, but it is one way, and I’m pleased with how it has turned out.  Wouldn’t it be great if all teachers felt empowered to bring their authentic reading and writing lives into the classroom?

The College Board shies away from dictating that certain texts are used in the courses, but there are certain texts that show up again and again on the test.  I’m a pretty intelligent lady (I’ve worked hard to become so) and I know how to figure out the way passing tests works.  In looking at the works most commonly referenced on the AP exam, I know my students are at a statistical disadvantage.  The likelihood that they will be familiar with a work that shows up on the test is slim.  I know that the only way around this is to help my students learn skills that are transferable to a variety of contexts and situations.  I know that students in predominantly white suburban environments–which the test is still designed to cater to–spend years preparing for the test, knowingly or unknowingly from an early age.  They get introduced to texts and vocabulary that might appear on the test gradually, from as early as 6th grade.

My students do not.  They cannot count on any kind of consistency (with regard to instruction) from one year to the next, and it is highly unlikely that they will encounter a text they have already read on the rhetorical analysis, poetry, or short story free-response portions of an AP English Lang or Lit test.  So, I prepare them the best I can be having them practice skills with texts that will not bore them to death, in the hopes that the skills will be transferable to whatever excerpt they encounter on the test.  Though I do not believe all learning boils down to how well it can be measured by a test, I am a realist, and I know the students and I will be judged by the outcome of the AP exam.  Furthermore, some students rely on the economic advantage that comes from entering college as a sophomore due to advanced credits from college classes taken while in high school.  The stakes are fairly high. I want to give them this advantage.

I don’t think anyone will argue that the AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition tests have historically been heavily biased in favor of those who have exposure to texts from the “Western” (European–White) canon.

So where does that leave us?

I know a few teachers of color who refuse to teach AP classes, because it is their belief that the College Board perpetuates a status quo that marginalizes and excludes students of color and their lived experiences.  It is also their belief that the AP test and AP classes create a divide in school systems between those students who are considered “gifted and talented” and those who are not.  This carries with it shades of elitism and classism that do not sit well with the educator truly motivated to fight educational inequity.

On the other side is the argument that the more AP classes a student takes, the more prepared they will be for college.  Then, the statistics and charts get drudged up about how they are more likely to succeed in post-secondary education if they take AP classes while in high school.  So, what’s an urban ed high school AP English teacher to do?

While I’m compelled to believe these statistics, I am also one who does not believe or trust that The College Board will ever design a test that reflects the strengths and lived experiences of my students.  While I work in pieces from the “traditional” or “Western” canon, I also bring in culturally relevant and FUN pieces as much as possible–even if that means moving the more “established” pieces to the side.


This is where the YA comes in.

Without a doubt, my students have loved Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo more than any other text we have read.  Every single time I ask them, they are very vocal and expressive with their praise.

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Reading these texts has allowed my students to access exemplary storytelling, hightened and meticulously crafted authorial style/voice, and socially conscious messages that elevate our students to a higher humanity.

Surely, such works are worthy of in-depth academic study.  Though they have deliberately been written for younger audiences, aren’t they still for everyone?

This begs the question, “What makes a text canonical?”  Typically, it is the acceptance and study of a work by the academic (read “post-secondary”) community.  Though I’m sure they have a lot to offer to the conversation, they are not the ones teaching the texts to high school kids.  So, I have felt for a while now that it might be time for secondary and post-secondary folks to come together to re-imagine, and re-invent the literary canon.  While we are doing this, why not include the texts that transform our students and make them fall in love with reading again as this student from my class did?

Screen Shot 2018-04-13 at 8.39.07 PM

Jason was not alone.  I legit got “boos” when I told them we were going to do something OTHER than reading in class today.  In my environment, a passion for reading is what we all strive to achieve–and help students want to develop.

It is what we ALL want.  The students wish they had it.  I want it for them.  This book (along with several others classified as “YA”) made it happen.


If stories written in poetic verse make reading seem less intimidating for my students, so much the better–we’ll study elements of poetry, and hip hop lyrics.

If authors of color write stories that help my students feel validated in who they are by representing the lives they live, so much the better–we’ll learn about what it means to be a young person from a marginalized community today, and center those stories.

The AP English test may never have lyrics from Cardi B. on it for FRQ 1, an essay about Chance the Rapper from They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (not technically YA, but full of pop-culture references still the same) as FRQ 2, or list Electric Arches as one of the options for FRQ 3.  But, in teaching these works, I know that my kids are getting a taste of what real writers do: write for an audience that can relate to their work.  In my case, this is the Black, Brown, and Indigenous children.  I know that the writers who created these works are every bit as talented as those who created works considered worthy of inclusion in the canon–perhaps more so because they have a pulse on what it means to be alive today and trying to navigate this complicated world, not the one of generations long gone. #TeachLivingWriters

 

 

Anaïs Nín says, “We write to taste life twice.”

In the end, what are we doing in Language Arts class if we are not encouraging students to examine and “taste” life?

I believe the skills my students practice will transfer to whatever performance task they encounter on an AP test, and if they don’t, they will have gained a valuable experience in reading a text they can relate to and learning that, as my student Oscar A. told me [after reading Long Way Down] “There really is a book out there for everyone.”

Sometimes that book is a classic from the fossilized canon.  Sometimes, that book is classified as YA, and it hits at just the right time in a young person’s life–but means so much more to them because the characters, and setting, are those they can relate to.  Adolescence is a time rife with uncertainty and feeling misunderstood–like one’s life is not one’s own.  So, why not make that time a little gentler–“grease the tracks”, so to speak?  There is room for both old texts that preserve voices from our history, and those that bring the lived reality of various cultures and traditions to the forefront. So let us transform.  We can do this, and it will be good for us–and the students we serve.

andrea-reiman-287012-unsplash.jpg

 

Continuing to teach the canon of books we are supposed to read and teach shows loyalty to the idea that certain stories are embedded in our collective consciousness and must be continued forward.  But, what about loyalty  to the stories created today and the kids living/creating them? It is past time we re-imagine the texts that are considered “literary canon”.  I’ve even got a Google doc with my master plan for envisioning just that. If it is fear of losing “rigor” that is holding us back, I am confident I can come up with a list of prospective titles that would rival The Grapes of Wrath for the title of “Mastery of the Craft” (Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones comes to mind).

If it is academics leading the charge, I respectfully propose we let them try to teach the students we teach and make the case for their choice of text with your average high school student.  It would be a healthy exercise.

PS.

IMG_20180412_173649.jpg

Those of us teaching and reading works with students in k-12 classrooms, and cultivating collections which students will read have the most power to impact what will be considered “canonical” in the future.  But, those who should hold the ultimate power are (or should be) our children–our students.  Let us listen to them, take heed of what they like and what they need, and adjust our practices (and the content of our courses) accordingly.

 

 

On Vulnerability (and Snapchat)

When Snapchat first came out, I had an account.  Generally, when deciding whether to put myself out there on social media, I look for an app that gives me a level of connection, without the threat of exposing myself too much to any of the more negative aspects of social media I have encountered.  Snapchat seemed cool at first, then I heard stories about privacy invasion, I couldn’t figure out all the tools for manipulating photos and videos (or why anyone would want to), and I didn’t understand how to chat with people when the messages seemed to just disappear.  Add to that the fact that it had filters that lightened people’s skin tones to make them more “beautiful”, and I was out [even though other apps do this too].  The whole love affair lasted about 3 months, ended abruptly, and I moved on and never looked back–until today.


This Spring, AP Lang students are reading The Poet X and Electric Arches, while working on a dope ethnography project that encompasses rhetorical analysis, argument, and synthesis reading and writing.  If you know me at all, you know that these are the books I have been waiting for my whole life, and not just because they have girls that look similar to me on the cover.  With both texts, from the very first page, I knew that they were books my students and I needed to experience in the classroom.

Screen Shot 2018-02-10 at 11.37.55 AM

There are so many reasons why, and I will dedicate an entire blog post to it when we finish the unit.  For now, here’s an overview:

  • Rhetorical analysis – Reading and writing informational pieces about identity (cultural, social, gender, community)
  • Argument – Writing poetry and essays about identity, oppression, language, power, and resistance
  • Synthesis – Multi-genre projects and student created podcasts/videos about the evolution of their identities

More on that soon…


I’ve noticed that when adults decide to adopt a social media platform, it’s not long before the kids abandon it for somewhere else–where they can feel free and unwatched.

My view of the social media evolutionary timeline so far:

Myspace —>Facebook—>Instagram—>Snapchat—>Twitter

As such, though I’ve dabbled in them all, I go where I feel most comfortable and can best rationalize the time spent scrolling as productive.  These days it’s Twitter, because Facebook and Instagram became toxic for me for reasons I won’t go into here. But I digress.  Usually, when students ask me to add them on Snapchat, my answer has historically been, “No, baby.  I don’t Snap.”  I respect their need to have their space.  My daughter, like every other teenager I know, uses Snapchat all day every day.  I don’t have a need to get on there and “befriend” her so I can get into her business.  That is not how I parent.  As an educator, it has been interesting to see this new generation of digital natives use the various platforms for a variety of purposes.  I do believe that if you work with teenagers, you have to at least know HOW to be in their space and in their world, even if you don’t choose to go there on a regular basis.

Enter the Book Snaps annotation experience.

The lesson for students was to make some Book Snaps of The Poet X.

The lesson for ME was in vulnerability, and sharing power.

The students taught me how to use Snapchat today….and it was soooo uncomfortable.  I am not exaggerating in any way when I say that at several points today, I felt helpless.

Since most of my readers are educators, let me break this down for you in a relatable way.


Step one: Download the App

I downloaded the app and installed it, but then couldn’t get it to sync with my Bitmoji account.  I encountered a weird anti-robot verification screen that kept asking me to identify things like stop lights and cars in photos.  One of my students noticed my distress and said, “Miss–are you a robot?”  I said, “No”.  He said, “Then you shouldn’t have any problem.”

This snarky comment is exactly the type of thing I  know I have said to students many times when they are fumbling around with some tech 2.0 tool or trying to circumvent the school’s very arbitrary Internet firewalls.  It’s not helpful.

Script we tell students: “This app/website/tech tool is so easy to use.  Anybody can do it.”

My lesson: Sometimes navigating technology isn’t as smooth as it seems, and individual experiences with the same technology can and do vary.  Have patience, and persistence.  Don’t be a smart ass when somebody is struggling.


Step two: Learn how to use the App

I literally had to be taught the most basic parts of Snapchat, things like taking a picture, making stickers [which I found out they do of us ALL the time without us knowing.  It’s okay, they do it to each other too], and adding/changing the colors of text.  I learned that there is a character limit to what you can type in a text box, and that if you use too many images, it looks like you just found out how to use stickers–which makes you look desperate and uncool.

I can tell you what went down, but it’s a crazy and wonderful thing to admit what I FELT while all this was happening.  I felt bad that I had to keep asking for help with various features.  I felt like I was the opposite of smart, because some parts of navigating the app weren’t intuitive (at least not to me).  I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know even one quarter the amount of what they do about how to use this app.  Shouts to Imaan, Sammy D, Cristal, and Irving for helping their teach out, being loving and patient with me, and taking me under their wings.

Script we tell students: “I already told you the instructions, you just need to follow them.”

My Lesson: Have patience when people ask questions, need to be shown the same thing multiple times, or take a little while to master a skill or understanding.  Sometimes instructions aren’t enough, and some people learn best by being shown, or given an example.  Be understanding when people act like they want to give up, or get discouraged by seeing people around them mastering skills really quickly.


Step three: Mastering Snapchat

The activity incorporated several Lang Arts skills and content pieces:

  • Students had to read and annotate a poem and incorporate academic language in their annotations.
  • Students had to call on their familiarity with style features, like diction, imagery, detail, language (figurative language), and syntax.
  • Students had to recall the characters, themes, symbols, motifs, setting, and plot from the text.
  • Students had to make connections between the text and images/emojis/bitmojis/GIFs that would communicate their reactions and experiences.

and…

  • Students had to know how to use Snapchat, Padlet, and Schoology–proficiently.

With surprisingly little fuss, students made the Booksnaps, uploaded them to the Padlet that was in Schoology, and were ready to play Kahoot to practice vocab (our culminating activity) in less than an hour.  A few people throughout the day came to me asking for validation that their work was good.  This is normal.  It was refreshing to say, “We’re all learning together here and I’m sure whatever you’re doing is better than the mess I’m making over here.”

But…not so normal for me.  I’m pretty independent, have worked hard to develop mastery in my content, and I’m not usually one for seeking approval or validation from folks.

So, this activity was a little confidence shake up for me!  A few kids who aren’t on Snapchat were also struggling a bit. Even so, as digital natives, they grasped it pretty quickly, and when I saw how THEIR Book Snaps looked, I felt like MINE was pretty basic…I still feel like it is.

Script we tell students: “Be confident!  That’s really all you need to get you through.” “To get an A, you need to be doing above grade-level work, consistently.”

My Lesson: Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, until somebody shows you.  Then you have to deal with all the feelings of self-doubt that show up when comparing your work to others, and it takes a bravery to push through.  Students naturally compare their work to that of their peers, and that of mentor texts we place in front of them.  It’s tough to feel like your best just isn’t as good as THE best.  It’s not easy to accept that usually, excellence and mastery in anything comes with practice–which just takes time.  If someone comes to me wanting validation for their best work, they deserve to be reassured that their best is exactly what I’m hoping for, and to be reminded that the road to mastery is often long, hard, full of potholes, and rarely straight uphill.

 

Also, check out this Twitter Moment for a more serious meditation on the importance of flipping the script from time to time and occupying that space where one sees and feels how much our students can really teach US (if we let them).

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 4.17.26 PM.png

 

 

Invisibility

Last week I was so tired.

         Danny Ray Thomas

It was that tiredness that you can feel in your bones.

       Samuel DeBose

It was a weariness that comes from living each day in a constant state of motion, both mental and physical.

Akai Gurley

So this week, I decided to be still.

Keith Lamont Scott

And in that stillness, some truth came through.

Laquan McDonald

A truth that I have a hard time thinking, let alone writing

Walter Scott

because it’s in the pieces of news I see every day,

Freddie Gray

that we all see every single day.

Sandra Bland

The news informs us that another Black mother and father

Terence Crutcher

are mourning

Michael Brown

the death

Eric Garner

of their son.

Philando Castille

The news informs us that another Black man or Black boy or Black trans woman or Black adopted child

has been murdered in cold blood

…with the whole world watching.

If we let it, the news even tells us how to feel about each situation,

by omitting a name

Stephon Clark

streaming only certain parts of a video clip

Tamir Rice

ensuring we see the repetition of

Trayvon Martin

only

Alton Sterling

certain

Devonte Hart

images.

Emmett Till

People shake their heads in pity.

Addie Mae Collins

There seems to be a lot of generally expressed sorrow about each situation.

Denise McNair

Until next week, when another death makes the news.

Carole Robertson

And we roll back the pages of our memories and remember

Cynthia Wesley

that none of this is new.

Medgar Evers


Some days it is unbearable to wake up to a world where people state openly that #blacklivesmatter yet the facts, videos, statistics, etc. etc. etc. show society at large is not doing enough to break the patterns of thought and behavior that keep the cycle going.

  • There is a problem with white rage in our society.
  • There is a denial of and refusal to face documented historical facts in our society.
  • There is a failure to confront an ugly truth–that our society values some lives more than others and routinely, systematically robs people of color of their humanity, while lying about it.
  • There is a physical, and emotional price all people from historically marginalized or oppressed groups pay for regularly watching or hearing about people like us being murdered in cold blood.

It is a tax collected without our consent.

I try to counter it in every way imaginable, but awareness of all of the ways carrying this burden could be the end of me is always there, buried in the recesses of my mind.

Though the world I grew up in (with its conspicuous lack of representation) would have us believe we are invisible, clearly, both in life, and especially in death–we are not.

So I ask again, do our lives really matter (to you)?  If so, what is the next level of what you are going to do?  Do what you’ve always done, or only what is easy, and what has always happened will continue to occur.  How many more video clips or retweeted news articles will it take?  Though I appreciate the awareness and immediacy viral videos lend to the cause, I’m beginning to wonder if people aren’t getting desensitized or worse yet, developing a fascination for “clickbait”, feasting on the footage of horrific acts contributing to the creation of an increasingly less humane society.

Still, looking away is hardly the answer…We should know by now that avoidance of dealing with pain, discomfort, or sorrow is one of the surest ways to guarantee more of it.

We are none of us as separate from one another as we have been lead to believe.  Separation is an illusion, and one day, the effect of all the pain and trauma this nation has impressed upon the bodies and collective memories of people of color will come for us all.  Maybe it already has.

As difficult as it may be to consider this, my truth is that the only way to heal is to move forward.  The only way forward is together–though painful that may be. My hope, and my constant prayer is that we can somehow find a way forward, together.

tertia-van-rensburg-37121-unsplash.jpg

 

 

 

The Marathon (not the sprint)

“Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.”–R&J 2.3. 100-101

I’m an Aries, the leader of the zodiac, and I have heard that we generally like to sprint across the finish line.  That being said, I don’t think anyone will disagree that the academic school year is most definitely a marathon, not a sprint.  I have found that it makes sense to see the nine months of the school year as a relay race between months each with a distinct personality, or vibe. In light of this, endurance is the baton passed between each leg of the race.  Every month first semester has a mirror (or twin month) second semester to which the baton gets passed.  It takes strategy, determination, and strength, to see the race through to the finish line and beyond.


August (September) // January (February)

“Who is this lady?”

In August and September, I’m usually just trying to get to know students, unless I’ve taught them before and we have an established relationship.  The beginning of the year in my classroom is definitely the honeymoon phase. I’ve heard it said that in relationships, this lasts about three months.  In the classroom, I think I can safely say it lasts about three weeks.  As the glow of summer/or winter break wears off, and people get resistant to the controlled environment in most schools, things can very easily start to crumble if practices aren’t grounded in patience and love.

I see these first few weeks of both semesters as being built upon a foundation of strong relationships, fun and uplifting classroom culture, and (because I work with kids) establishing necessary routines.  I used to work with a woman who was also my neighbor.  We taught together and lived by one another.  We would hang out, soak up the summer sun, or brunch it up over winter break, and then go back to school and talk about the difference between our summer selves and our school selves.  Such is the vast difference between one’s life when school is in session, and the way we all feel when it isn’t.  Sometimes, I reach the end of September or February and barely recognize myself, so much have I changed from the lazy days of summer, or winter.  I always have to give myself time to adjust my thinking, and my habits, and to be mindful of the fact that the students must be encouraged to do this too.  The need for patience, understanding, flexibility, and always–more love, is key.

October // March

“What can I do to get my grade up?”

October and March, for me, are the hardest months.  There is usually a non stop series of testing that goes on in March, and in the Fall, “October count” [the week where every child counts–quite literally] is an awkward middle month.  It is usually in October and March where everybody starts to get very antsy for the breaks that we know are coming, and we also begin to feel the pressure of the end of semester approaching.  In October, we know Thanksgiving is around the corner, but it’s not quite within reach.

In March, the month we are in as I write this, Spring Break is coming, the birds have started to sing, the days get a little longer, the sun burns a little hotter–tempers flare. People have generally lost all patience for dealing with the small irritations that have continuously plagued them over the previous 7 months.  Inevitably, and predictably, fight season arrives.  Our current grading system contributes to students and teachers feeling huge amounts of stress, and anxiety, as the end of the semester looms.  People get a little short with one another and grapple with what it means to reach the finish line at the end of the race. Tapping into inner strength and endurance is really the only way to make it through.

November // April

“All we do is eat.  Literally and figuratively.”

November is so short, with Thanksgiving break at its end.  Holiday parties (and random cakes appearing in the staff lounge) all begin the week before Thanksgiving break, and they really don’t stop until we leave for Winter break.  We all comfort eat to break up some of the monotony, tension, and grading drama around the end of the semester, but everything has to be eaten (and graded) in moderation, which can be challenging.  “Pace yourself” is the motto I live by in November.

In a way, April is the very same.  The parties and celebrations in education are some of the things I enjoy the most.  I absolutely love celebrating students, getting ready for graduation, awards ceremonies to recognize all that my students have fought so hard to achieve.  As a bonus, prom is always a major highlight of my year, because we definitely know how to do it in Montbello.  Celebrations are food for the individual and collective soul.  But again, I always caution students, “everything in moderation”, because towards the end of the year it is so easy to do too much, stumble, and fall.

December // May (June)

“Are we there yet?”

December disappears into just two weeks of instruction (prepping for exams), and one week of finals. All of a sudden, the semester is over, and we’re done.  To contrast, May feels completely, unbearably, terribly long–unless you teach Seniors who check out (or complete all work necessary before graduation) in the second week in May.  I hate saying goodbye to my Seniors.  It breaks my heart every time.  So, it is bittersweet to come to the end of a school year, even though everybody wants the end so badly they can taste it, in the months that are the final lengths of the race.

A friend of mine yesterday gave me some incredible words of wisdom that seem perfectly applicable to the month of May.  He said that the last month of the year is really the first month of the coming school year–and I agree.  I always end the year a bit tired, but also inspired with so many ideas for new books to teach, new and better ways to explore the content I am responsible for teaching.  We turn in year-long maps for the year ahead, and we’re off!

I love June, and the start of summer, when I am free to indulge in the things I love most: travel, reading, napping, gardening, cooking (and eating) are just a few.  As I see it, setting goals for the future is a hopeful, and good thing.


Passing the baton

from the old year

to the new

is an act of courage

and faith.

 

Crossing the finish line,

we pause for a breath–take a beat,

to honor how far we’ve come

and just how far

(with passion, and fire beneath our feet)

           we

can

          go. 


billy-lee-473319-unsplash

Photo by billy lee on Unsplash

Building a New Table

So often, folks talk about “pulling up a chair at the table”, or letting marginalized folks, “have a seat at the table.”

I have decided I am done with this.

First of all, I know nothing in this life is free.  Nobody “lets” me have anything without some sort of agreement or agenda.  It has become pretty evident that even IF I, a Black woman, “get” a seat at the table, it’s going to come with all kinds of conditions:

  1. My name tag needs to be a name folks are familiar with and don’t have to work to learn to pronounce correctly.  My identity needs to be clearly delineated.  I can’t be intersectional or cosmopolitan because that’s weird, and threatening.
  2. My voice can’t be loud, because that will be mistaken for anger, and if it actually is righteous and justifiable  anger on behalf of my students, people ain’t trying to hear that.  Tears will be perceived as weakness.
  3. My ideas can’t be too radical, or too revolutionary, because if they are, I’ll be met with a host of reasons why the “moderate” or “majority” will be put off by said ideas and that will impede progress.
  4. My speech needs to sound as neutral as possible, so as not to reflect an upbringing anywhere other than middle America, or attendance at schools anywhere other than suburbia.  If I do slip into speech folks don’t recognize, my ideas will be dismissed.  I will be silenced, talked over, othered, ignored.
  5. I need to let whomever wants to co-opt my intellectual capital and/or ideas, re-word them (sometimes directly after I’ve said them) then present them as their own, without making a fuss, because, “We’re all on the same team–fighting for the kids.”
  6. I can’t bring up “uncomfortable” topics, or advocate for the fair and equal educational experience of the students I represent, because those in power will never go for any proposed actions that target one or two specific groups. This would be seen as favoritism, and what we do for one, we must do for all–unless that one is the group that has historically held power–they can have any and everything.

I do not accept these conditions.


This week I was at #SXSWEdu and had the opportunity to hear from and work with some phenomenal educators representing groups I am honored and blessed to affiliate with.

20180306_115606.jpg

José Vilson, the founder of #Educolor is not playing with folks.  He is ready to make change and I am 100% behind the changes he proposes:

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 8.50.01 PM.png

  1. Mandatory school trips (as we call them out West, “field trips”) – My students typically get 1 or 2 field trips per year.  My children (that I gave birth to), going to school in suburbia, get roughly 3 per semester.  Part of raising citizens to be participatory is helping them see and explore the world around them.  It is oppressive to keep students in schools engineered by prison architects doing practice test after practice test so they can prove their ability to pass tests created by those who do not know them or have any awareness of the richness of their cultures, their languages, their neighborhoods, their upbringings.  Set my children free.
  2. Mandatory recess, or advisory program – Mandatory play.  They do this in Sweden. It works really well for them.  Their children are happy.  Part of being a child should include being happy, right?  Many children in urban schools–read Black and brown children–get NO recess.  You read that correctly, recess has been taken away.  Think about that for a minute. I have an advisory period that I teach, but it was dropped on us one year in this way:  We were told quite literally, “You have one less hour to prep.  Your pay has been reduced because we no longer have the grant money.  You now have advisory.  You will teach one more class for less pay.”  Understandably, people were a bit shaken and this made them less, not more excited to mentor students in advisory.  Though it should come naturally to want to mentor and help students, for some, it doesn’t.  Humans are incentive driven animals, so reducing pay and adding a section does not sit well with most people.  With time, the formula gets messy, looks like a free-for-all, and admin gets upset.  We are still–three years later–working through this.
  3. Review of teacher evaluation systems – I really can’t with how much this is needed, other than say that teacher evaluation systems are like every other evaluation system I’ve ever encountered; extremely subjective and as such, suspect.  In my environment, students tell the truth, so I think student perception surveys should carry the most weight.  But, I know of other environments where teachers of color teach mostly white children who take the opportunity of an anonymous survey to light UP their teachers of color, questioning their credibility as experts in their field, etc.  To quote one of my close friends who has dealt with this, “They understand power, privilege, and what it means to organize, perfectly.”  So, evaluation systems definitely need review, and I don’t have all the answers there, but José might…
  4. Educators as ambassadors – Need I say more?  How many educators have had the experience of being present in a room where your future and fate are being decided without your input by people who are not on the front lines, in front of students every day?
  5. Culturally Responsive (or Sustaining) and Anti-Racist Pedagogy Training – This is crucial.  The work IS happening.
  6. Better Professional Development – How many districts create positions for people to develop PD and then mandate teachers take the PD to justify these folks having their positions?  No shade to the people with good intentions just trying to develop teachers and give back, but how many districts have folks who are actually looking into research based PD and adult education?  How many educators have experienced watching someone read from a Powerpoint (for six to eight hours), then being told to fill out a graphic organizer/note-catcher/exit ticket?  How many folks have had the experience of PD mirroring everything we have expressly been told NOT to do with students?  Why is the bar so low for folks getting paid so much more than your average teacher in the classroom?  Why aren’t classroom teachers asked more often (and paid) to give PD? Why, if these folks are such experts, have they not been retained in the classroom when there is such a desperate and obvious teacher shortage?  I will stop there, but clearly– I have questions.
  7. Sample testing – This could be a book.  In fact, it is: This is Not a Test (shameless plug for my homie).  We have to remember how much fun we used to be allowed to have in school, and how much less we have now, because it has become all about proving we are learning what we are told has importance, which is oppressive, and the antithesis of what ACTUAL curiosity and love of learning looks like.
  8. Teachers get to own their own work – How amazing would it be if folks actually got recognized for the work they do every day, for the investment they make in our society’s children and future?  José asked, “How many of you have attended a conference and then not been recognized for your efforts to develop yourself?” *cough* Believe it or not, lesson plans do get harvested and repurposed without any kind of credit or remuneration given to teachers.  Believe it or not, every single day teachers are cajoled, persuaded, or mandated to give their intellectual capital away “for the greater good”.  If someone wants credit, or (God forbid) money, in return, that person is often deemed selfish and blacklisted with the quickness.

Um, in case you didn’t catch that, José Vilson for NYC Chancellor.  That is all.


Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 8.53.18 PM.png

I also had the privilege of sitting down with Micia Mosely from Black Teacher Project. Lissen.  If you don’t know Micia, please fix that.  She is so inspiring, so passionate, so unapologetically in favor of Black teachers, which is rare, and I appreciate it. It didn’t take us long to discover that we are both fans of Stephen Chang from the National Equity Project who is the homie for real and I love him.

We met and talked a bit about what these proposed steps look like in action:

What Can You Do To Sustain Your Black Teachers?
1. Don’t tokenize your Black staff
2. Be aware of the invisible tax on teachers of color, and if you unknowingly encourage it
3. Create culturally responsive professional development
4. District Self Care Workshops
5. Do your own racial justice work (reflection and action)
6. Listen, understand and support your Black Teachers especially when they are challenged
7. Use your power and position to shift mindsets and practices of non-Black educators
8. Lift up the expertise of Black Teachers in professional development and encourage them to present at conferences
9. Unpack the implicit bias in hiring and promotional practices
10. Clear a path forward in navigating the system (clarity, testing, support- financial and otherwise)
11. Talk about race and racism with and about adults (event if there are no Black people present)

She assured me she is committed to coming to Denver for a workshop which I cannot wait for.  Check out more from the Black teacher sustainability session at #SXSWedu in this blog post from the Imaginarium.  There is a video!!

We look forward to her Black teachers sustainability workshop.  The need is great–trust me.


So how does all of this circle back to building a new table?

To begin, I am no longer willing to settle for a seat at a table that was not made for me, one where I have felt for so long that I have to push and shove and contort myself in order to belong.

Instead, I choose to work with those who are restructuring our world to make a new table for those of us who have always been here, but as mere “guests” or “hosted” on the fringes.

At our new table:

  1. There are people who know how to pronounce my name because they’ve heard it before and/or they know how to ask me what I would like to be called.
  2. My loud voice gets met with a bunch of “Amen”s, “Testify” “YAS, hermana”s, and “I know that’s right” because we know what call and response is about, and we know how important it is to support one another rather than compete.
  3. My radical and revolutionary ideas are seen as an homage to the ancestors who have a radical and revolutionary tradition, and as such, my ideas are honored, pondered, considered, and amplified–with respect for the tradition which they uphold.
  4. My speech should include whatever dialects, languages, and cultures I call my own.  Spanglish is not only permitted, but encouraged.  My Portunhol is cool because whomever does not understand me takes the opportunity to ask and learn so that they can expand.  Difference or unfamiliarity with communication and expression is not a threat, but instead is respected and appreciated for what it is–a chance to learn and grow.
  5. My community gives credit where credit is due, because although we are all parts of the same whole, we realize the body can’t move without the legs.  A leg cannot walk without the foot, and the foot doesn’t function without the toes.  It is an act of humility, honor, deference, and respect, to name the people who have inspired you.  Citationality matters.
  6. I can advocate for whomever I feel needs advocating for, because empowering those whom the world would overlook is a cultural tradition, norm, and expectation.

At our table, if you are not fighting for anyone’s life to be better, if you are not expanding your own consciousness by taking risks, being brave, advancing the cause of those society would overlook, what are you doing?

We are building a new table.  It is my honor and privilege to link arms with other folks doing the work.

Who’s with me?

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 9.02.48 PM.png

Me, w/ The JLV and Rafranz Davis, It is true. We are blessed.  #Educolor is Familia.

 

Building Bridges

Last week, I was invited to Anastasis academy to workshop one of my favorite topics in education, Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy.  I’ll have to admit that at first, I was a bit hesitant to go, because of biases I hold about private schools and the types of families who place their kids there.  Even so, when my colleague, who also happens to be a phenomenal educator, and Twitter friend Michelle Baldwin invited me to their conference #Sigma18 to speak and be heard, I took the opportunity–and I’m so glad that I did.  The experience transformed me and had me wrestling with a lot of my own biases which is important work to do. I was reminded that we get nowhere on either side of a divide, by clinging to assumptions or stereotypes we may hold about the “other”.   I have zero regrets about life handing me this reminder.  I needed it.

IMG_db1odv

 

First of all, the truffle mac and cheese for lunch on day one…need I say more?  I’m pretty easy to please.  Feed me well, make me laugh a little bit.  I’m happy.  The #5Sigma18 planning committee knew this.  I commend them for it.

After lunch, we had the opportunity to learn from Barbara Bray who is just everything good.  Her smile, passion for learning, and knowledge are contagious.  By day two of the conference, I knew we would have to work together at some point, because we are most definitely kindred spirits.  She is just the type with whom one can sit and talk about anything, and nothing, for hours.  She has had the richest life as the daughter of court sketch artist Rosalie Ritz and as a resident of Oakland, CA, the game of fighting for equity in education is nothing new to her.  I believe in learning from our elders, and she is a person who in just a short time, taught me so much.  If you don’t know about Barbara, please fix that.  We can all learn something from her brilliance.

I gave my first workshop on day one to a group of people who were not familiar with the works of Bell Hooks, Paulo Freire, Django Paris, or Linda Christensen.  It was really refreshing and fun for me to talk about and read passages from books I consider to be cornerstones of my professional practice.  These works have also been, and continue to be the keys to ongoing development of my consciousness as one who educates for liberation and the dismantling of oppressive systems. Watching people get excited about works that mean so much to me was a joy I didn’t expect, but will never forget.  The thinking below is just a tiny portion of all the good dialogue that went on during workshop one.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

What can I say about day two? The first thing that comes to mind is that it began with a donut wall.  That’s right, a wall of donuts–that you could eat from.  Creativity, imagination, sustainability.  Three words that for me characterized day two.

IMG_-cn7bwb

 

 

After giving my Ignite Denver 28 speech, I got to hear from Nicholas Provenzano.  He kept me laughing for almost a solid hour.  The whole time, all I could think was, if he’s that funny in class, I don’t know why anyone would ever want to have another teacher.  He impressed me with his conversation about “Makerspaces” and kids doing interpretive dances to show mastery of Language Arts concepts.  He also impressed the audience with the reminder of how important “failure” is along the road to learning.  In a nutshell, I felt inspired to help my students remember why anybody learns–for the sake of curiosity–and to always find ways to bring it back to that.

After the morning, I did another CSP workshop, and then participated in a panel about the evolution of empathy.  But, the true highlight for me was learning about Paul Clifton’s work with his ELA students on The Voice of Montbello podcast.  These kids are in middle school, folks….He brought two 7th graders with him to the conference and they were fantastic!

I don’t know about you, but middle school was hard enough. I definitely would not have had the confidence to write scripts for a podcast and deliver them, let alone interview Denver’s Chief of Police about topics like deportation and DACA–in my second language.  Mr. Clifton is doing incredible, culturally sustaining, and affirming work AND amplifying student voices.  His classroom is a “Makerspace” where students develop language skills in English by creating something for the real world that produces actual social change and boosts awareness through students using their voices to speak truth to power.  Let me be very clear: this is what ALL 21st Century education should look like.

Check the video here

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 9.21.02 PM


Whenever I go into another educational ecosystem that is not my own, I try to navigate that space between speaking my truth and listening and learning to that of those who’ve invited me to come co-create, learn, and explore.  My experience at Anastasis left me rich with ideas to take back to my school, and had me feeling so buoyed up with hope that the courageous and progressive educational moves they are making will catch fire in other places.

At the same time, I felt very sad that due to the way our system is structured, in our state, there are still only pockets of greatness serving specific communities.  As a whole, our school systems remain static, and unmoving in our policies and practices when it comes to the imaginative thinking it will take to produce widespread change.  It might be hard to believe, but McGlone Academy, where Mr. Clifton teaches, and my school are 2 minutes away from one another–yet just as I had no idea about the great work he and his students are doing, he also had no idea about me, or my work.

Isn’t that strange? 

To take it one step further, parents and students at Anastasis do not have real first-hand knowledge of what is going on in Montbello, across town. 

I had no first-hand knowledge of what was happening at Anastasis until I was invited there to be a part of the conference.

How can we consistently provide equitable high-quality education for students that is culturally relevant, academically challenging, and applicable to real-world scenarios if we don’t even know what is going on from one end of the city to the other?

How can we expect our students to take on the responsibility of repairing the mess we’ve made, and creating a better world, if they go to school in silos with people who look, think, and act just like them, oblivious to the kids on the other side of town who are getting a mis-education?

In order to really produce widespread systemic change, charter and private schools in white-dominated neighborhoods are going to have to invite people of color into their spaces as Michelle invited me into hers–and help us to feel at home once we get there–which they did.  Doing this will make some people very uncomfortable.  During my panels and workshops I did bring up conversations about privilege and white supremacy, and some people did get uncomfortable.  But, I ask how serious are you about change if you only want it when it’s easy and feels comfortable for you?  Overall, the folks at Anastasis showed me they were willing to get into the weeds with me by not censoring or policing me, my workshop content, or interactions with their staff.  Most people responded favorable to the call to expand thinking/ consciousness.

Still, there were some who were not ready for the shift in thinking.  In order for us to see widespread change, we may not need everybody to wake up at the same time, but we need more people from these communities to go to the schools that are stigmatized and marginalized, or written off as lost causes, to seek healing through forming relationships, listening, and learning about the good work going on within those walls.  Seeing some of the disfunction–the lack of resources, to name one, will make them uncomfortable–as it should.  Nobody should be comfortable with or accept some of the things I’ve seen going on in urban education.

Our school system is racially and economically segregated more severely now than ever before.  This will not change by ignoring or remaining oblivious to the problem.  We will never be strong if we remain divided and isolated in our cultural, ethnic, and thought silos.  Nothing is stopping folks from traveling to the other side of town to listen, ask questions, seek solutions.

The alternative, if we can’t learn to make the divide between our parallel worlds more porous, is that lots of people of color who are now saying, “Thank you for your service–we got it from here,” will start doing more than just talking.

20171201_120849

 

 

#IgniteDenver 28

Wow.  What a night.  I was privileged to be given a mic to speak this evening at Ignite Denver 28 about my favorite topic–education.  If you missed it, I’m sure it will be posted later, but here is the full text for those who might like to read it as well.

IMG_20180222_230705.jpg

Problem: Too many kids are disengaged/not enjoying school.  We know we love them, and we want them to be happy, be curious, enjoy learning, so how can we reimagine the current system to reflect these values?

Slide 1 – If there is one thing most people can agree upon, it’s that your first day of school is emotional. We leave home for school excited, curious, sometimes scared, but ready to take on the world.

Slide 2 – Elementary school teachers are some of the bravest souls out there.  They love, nurture, clean up bodily fluids–they are superheroes.

Slide 3 – We learn so many things in these early years–everything from basic rules of social interaction (the playground can be a ruthless place) to how to show (and feel) appreciation.  I am always so in awe of the cards, presents, and consistent displays of affection that my friends who are elementary school teachers receive.

Slide 4 – Because I’m a high school teacher, and somehow, in the years between elementary school and graduation, things gradually shift.  The endless cycle of testing begins in 4th grade.  By 7th grade, dynamics of gender, race, and socioeconomic status come into play–students begin to learn that everyone in this society is not equal.   

Slide 5 – By 9th grade, a social hierarchy forms. Students have already decided whether they can play (and win) the school game and whether they even want to.  It takes some digging to discover this, but in some school systems, as many as 2/3rds of an incoming Freshman class do not make it to graduation.  So what are we doing about this?  How can we show our students that we DO love and value them?  How do we fix this to keep from losing them?

Cause: Information is more available now than ever.  Teachers are not the gatekeepers of knowledge–yet we still behave as though we have (or should have) all the answers.

Slide 6 – In my day (the 80s and 90s), there were basically two ways of getting information – adults, or books. I got information because I was curious, for school, and because I loved to read (as the daughter of a librarian and avid book collector).  I spent hours combing through the World Book Encyclopedia (for fun) and going to the library, because these were the entertainment options–watch one of about 24 channels on TV (with commercials) if you had cable, play outside, listen to music, talk to someone on the phone, or read a book. That’s pretty much it.

Slide 7 – When I was growing up, the “social” part of social media was calling your friends on the party line.  The “media” part was looking at a magazine. There was no internet. There was no Netflix. There was no phone with fancy apps or games on which to spend hours, or eventually days.

Slide 8 – Let that sink in for a little bit.  We don’t spend our free time the way we used to, so it follows that we also do not learn the way we used to.  My students access information at the touch of a button (or swipe).  In less than a second, they can know basic information about pretty much anything they want.

Slide 9 – Kids think that high school is going to be like High School Musical.  In a lot of places, like Berkley, and maybe Boulder, parents, school administrators, and community members work hard to make sure their child has an idyllic high school experience that approximates and is perhaps even better than this one.

Slide 10 – But in other places, school looks nothing like the ideal depicted in movies.  Students fill their time trying to prove themselves by passing endless standardized tests with the bar for achievement always held just slightly out of reach.  In Chicago, The Bronx–Montbello, expectation is at opposition with reality.  Overtesting, disenfranchisement, the rise of charter schools, and institutional racism create situations where too many of our students internalize the message that school is not for them. Or worse yet, that it is something being done to them.  Something over which they have no choice, and no control.

Solution: When teachers become students and students become teachers, everyone gets free. Empowered students know the classroom is a space for exploration–for stoking the fires of curiosity.  The teacher should not be the “sage on the stage”, or even worse, “judge, jury, and executioner”.

Slide 11 – This was my classroom a few years ago.  I spent a lot of time trying to recreate the educational environment that I had because it was all I knew–it felt familiar, comfortable, safe.  When our school got rid of “individuals” (as the desks are called that separate individuals from one another), I’m not proud to admit it, but I actually cried.  If felt like my autonomy, my sense of control, my safety was being tampered with.  I felt adrift without that sense of control that comes from having students sit neatly in rows, following directions, and only asking questions in a controlled fashion.

Slide 12 – However, now my classroom looks a lot more like this.  Changing the physical space in my classroom forced me to give up power dynamics that emphasized me having control.  It allowed for much more creativity and flexibility with lessons and collaborations.  It set me, and all of us, free.

Slide 13 –  Daniel Pink says in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us motivation increases when people feel a sense of autonomy, can see mastery as attainable, and understand the authentic purpose for their learning.  So what does that look like in my classroom?

Slide 14 – These are my actual students.  We did a poetry reading workshop entirely driven by them. They chose their groups, read 16 poems, identified a category which they would compete for, went through rounds of elimination with deep discussion at the end of which one poem was determined the “winning” poem.  They pushed each other’s thinking, provided evidence to back up their assertions, and HAD FUN DOING IT.  What was I doing, meanwhile?  Well, I provided the anthology, picked the poems (from the concurrent enrollment syllabus), listened to, added thought provoking questions, re-directed the conversations (when needed) and LIVE TWEETED the entire event for which the students received instantaneous and real-time feedback on their comments from an audience of actual people.  I also designed a skill-building activity that had them pulling quotes and evaluating the impact of literary devices on the overall message.

Slide 15 – That might seem controversial.  “She was on Twitter during class?” “What?” I can hear it now.  “Where was the direct instruction?” “I’m not sure that’s legal.” “I could get fired for doing that.” To these thoughts you might be having, I will say that my practice of education is the practice of liberation.  My practice of education is to liberate us ALL.  I was not the center of the learning that was going on during this lesson.  I have no desire to be the “sage on the stage” and my students certainly do not want me to be “judge, jury, and executioner.”

Conclusion: Educating to liberate means I don’t have to create situations or an environment where people are dependent on me for knowledge.  Rather, we co-create in an endlessly reciprocal chain of exploration, reimagining and reinventing our world–together.

Education liberates.  

The truly liberated know how to share power.  

Sharing power is an act of love.

Slide 16 – Educating to liberate means my students are in control of their learning.  They are responsible for execution and outcomes.  They know I am there to support them, but I am just one of many resources they can use on their path to gaining skills and knowledge that will actually be useful to them in life.

Slide 17 – My job is to be of service to my students.  They do not exist merely to prove to me, or anyone else, on a test, that they are worthy of money spent on them, or that they have learned to regurgitate information in a way deemed “proficient” by a school board or department of education. My single mission is to use my spark to ignite their fire.

Slide 18 – These are my students, and graduates of my school, DCIS at Montbello. Despite the fact that the system was designed for them to fail, they have gone on to excel in life, and in their post-secondary educations. Our students are not objects. They are people, and they are deserving of every effort we can make to reimagine this system so that it reflects the desire for knowledge, exploration, shared power, and reciprocal liberation.  Teachers too are not machines. We are civil servants, but we are also professionals, people, deserving of the respect, and freedom to reimagine our system in new ways so that we can best serve our students–so that we can all get free.

Slide 19 – Education liberates.  The truly liberated know how to share power.  Sharing power is an act of love.

Slide 20 – Love is a verb.  Education is liberation. I educate for liberation, that is my act of love.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.