At the beginning of the pandemic, teachers received hundreds of emails with online resources. We were overwhelmed with PDs, free online platforms, tips, and more. We soon realized it was more challenging than any of us thought it would be.
Distance teaching is not ideal for many students, and is frustrating for many teachers. Some teachers (like me) are finding it hard to engage their students, and it is difficult to gauge how much students are involved and doing some school work. Nevertheless, some creative projects are happening - teachers are adaptive and resilient. When I saw this collaborative poem by students on one of the 7th grade teams at my school, I was impressed by what I read. The teachers, Heather Sullivan-Flynn and Patrick Hunter, gave me permission to publish it here.
I asked the teachers about their process in guiding students during this unit. The teachers explained that students read Kwame Alexander's crowd-sourced poem "Social Distance" so they could see how it worked. Previously, they had responded to a prompt for individual poems where they had to look in nature or their homes for something that stood out or seemed like it didn't belong, hence the theme "belonging" for their final poem. The teachers created a slide show of images to show belonging, such as multicolored, clasped hands, and a photo of the team of 130 students. Then, the students were asked to write 1-2 lines about belonging. They were encouraged to use poetic language, such as metaphors, to express their feelings of belonging. The final result, after some editing by the teachers, is this awesome collaborative poem! Read below:
Belonging: a collaborative poem written by Team Midnight students
a feeling of togetherness,
being a part in this world,
where you talk and feel heard
but it doesn't matter because we are all the same
A herd of mustangs
a mob of black, tan, brown, white
galloping in a sense of togetherness
A collection of ocean rocks
refusing the ocean’s force
never have to hide
secrets kept frozen under goosebumps
and stale smiles.
Knowing this is the place for you
like knowing the answer on a test
we are worthy of kindness
it is working together
that makes us feel like we belong
A warmth like bat’s wings
wrap around to feel comfort and peace-
Belonging feels like connecting, heart to heart
We all should be treated equally
even though we may disperse,
we won’t cascade apart
our hands are locked
holding you up, and keeping you safe
we are in this together
Hands, reaching out to hold one another,
the colors of fluffy pillows,
and deep warm browns-
Like the stalks of a new plant-
Like birds chirping in the summer-
as the dandelions sway
holding each other’s hands to create one family.
Separate we are just people,
but together we are a family-
we come together and our community grows
searching warm gazes
your heart beats with the knowledge
that you are loved-
that you belong here:
a loving community where you can be you
As humans we want to be in the circle
to stay in the circle
to live in the circle
being human and having fun-
we are all in this together
we will all have each other's back
and we will each be there for someone
You're not alone-
we are all here in this circle
It’s a good feeling to know that you fit in
to feel that you belong.
Everyone in our community belongs-
no matter our differences we get along
Everyone has different backgrounds,
but everyone has feelings.
Though sometimes things are rough
and looking very tough
the strength and love of a community
holds us together-
you can be different but still belong
where one becomes many
and many make a difference
It feels like sunlit gold
Like a sweet smelling flower
Always together with bees
Together is always better
Similarities are only found with differences
Peace is a miracle,
working together is another
But finding a place to belong
is full of mixed emotions
I belong when the people around me accept who I am
Belonging feels like a piece of an image fitting with the other pieces
another piece to a greater puzzle
that soft, warm, delicate feeling
of knowing you are loved.
We are all together drifting through the current
all wanting to get to the same place
all doing it together
and though we don’t know
We will all drift past each other
not even noticing that
we all were once in the same boat
rowing in unison
to the beat of the waves.
It’s easy to think of belonging
when you already have help
Everyone plays a role in society to help everyone belong
everyone is different
and deserves to be included
Belonging isn’t always easy
Belonging is warmth
Belonging is comfort and relief
but most importantly
Belonging is safe
Together we all stand, included-
you are meant to be here-
To know belonging is to know there is a place for you
like a petal on a flower, you belong-
You are meant
Heather Sullivan-Flynn has been teaching middle school English for 22 years, the last 18 of them at Amherst Regional Middle School. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family where she writes fiction and drinks tea.
Patrick Hunter teaches English and Social Studies at Amherst Middle School.
Dr.Keisha Green is Assistant Professor in the College of Education at UMass, Amherst, whose scholarly work revolves around English Education, critical literacy, critical pedagogy, and youth literacies. In Dr.Green's class, African-American Literacies and Education, students are asked to write a "dialectical rewrite" of an issue that "keeps them up at night."
Emma Canales, one of Dr.Green's students, decided to write about To Kill a Mockingbird. She explained her rationale for writing about this book: "I teach 8th grade ELA in [a local city with schools that have a high population of African-American and Latino students]. My students are predominantly of color and I realized after taking Dr. Green's class that education is vastly out of touch with the lives of these students. I was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and happened across the scene that I examined in my writing. It was really disheartening to hear my students agree that Calpurnia shouldn't be code switching and that if she "knows how to talk right then she needs to talk right" implying that Black English is "wrong." The rich and historical heritage of Black English is being ripped away from our students and I realized that the curriculum needs to be recentered around them."
Below, I share her dialectical rewrite with you. I'm interested to hear thoughts from people who also teach TKM, or have taught it in the past!
My urban English Language Arts class is currently delving into the high school classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is my third year teaching the novel and my first year realizing that, as a white teacher in a predominantly Latinx and Black classroom environment, I need to recenter the curriculum around my students and what is relevant to their lives and away from has always been a white supremacist agenda. Harper Lee was a white Southern woman, and although she certainly did encounter brutal racism and violence, she did so from the safety of her own whiteness, and was merely a spectator. To Kill a Mockingbird is often used as either a launching pad in the classroom to discuss race and equity, in most likely a watered down context so that it can be discussed “safely”, because many teachers and school administrators fear such heavily charged discourses.
Educators need to step away from their safety net, which may be their pre-designed curriculum or the curriculum that they’ve been following unwaveringly for years, and ask themselves: who are they centering? What books are they reading and discussing in the classroom? Who wrote the books and under what circumstances? Finally, if teachers cannot deviate away from what books they are being required to teach, they need to examine their practice to ensure that their methods are not only inclusive of Black and Brown students, but that these students are able to participate fully and in a way where their voice is valued.
Why is there such a reluctance to include literature written by authors that students can actually identify with which demonstrates topics and ideas that students can passionately discuss? H. Samy Alim and John Baugh (2007) phrase it perfectly when they state, in Talkin Black Talk: Language, Education, and Social Change, “...the American public education system [is out] of touch with both contemporary reality and the historical reality of Black Americans” (p. 19). The majority of teachers are white and it would make sense that the public education system is “out of touch” because white teachers are designing and creating curriculum centered around the white experience. This is their comfort zone and their default approach. There needs to be a push, and it may prove to be difficult and feel uncomfortable, for teachers to get in touch with what can be relevant in the lives of students that may not look like them.
For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is written from the perspective of Scout, a white child. It is easy to teach from this character’s perspective, but in doing that the teacher is once again furthering and valuing the white perspective. More attention and character examination must be paid to the Black characters in the novel, but this must be done carefully. A teacher may choose to focus on the character of Calpurnia, but if this focus is done around the fact that she has literally lived to serve the white Finch family, then once again this furthers the notion that the Black experience is only worth mentioning when it is tied to white lives. An educator should try recentering this character around key questions such as: even though Calpurnia is “employed” by the Finch family, given the historical context, did she have much of a choice? What were Calpurnia’s options in the 1930’s in Alabama? These questions could be discussed in a larger lesson around the political, cultural, and economic context of the South in the era of the Great Depression and what impact these factors would have had on Calpurnia.
There is a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird that shows the slow and insidious creep of oppression working its way into the curriculum and mind of the youth in urban schools in particular. In this scene, Calpurnia takes the Finch kids to her church which serves the African American population of their town. When they arrive, Scout and Jem observe Calpurnia speaking differently to “her people” (code switching) than how she speaks to the children at home. Near the end of this scene the following exchange takes place:
“Why yes sir, Mister Jem.” Calpurnia timidly put her fingers to her mouth. “They were the only books I had. Your grandaddy said Mr. Blackstone wrote fine English—”
“That’s why you don’t talk like the rest of ‘em,” said Jem.
“The rest of who?”
“Rest of the colored folks. Cal, but you talked like they did in church…”
That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me. The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one, to say nothing of her having command of two languages.
“Cal,” I asked, “why do you talk n-talk to the—to your folks when you know it’s not right?”
“Well, in the first place I’m black—”
“That doesn’t mean you hafta talk that way when you know better,” said Jem.
Calpurnia tilted her hat and scratched her head, then pressed her hat down carefully over her ears. “It’s right hard to say,” she said. “Suppose you and Scout talked colored-folks’ talk at home it’d be out of place, wouldn’t it? Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church, and with my neighbors? They’d think I was puttin‘ on airs to beat Moses.”
“But Cal, you know better,” I said.
“It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike—in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin‘ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin‘ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.”
This scene has so much to unpack for educators. It has the potential to be a great discussion topic and learning experience for all. It also has the potential to further the implications that speakers of Black Speech are unable to speak Standard English and instead have to speak in a way that, as Scout put it, is “not right.” Calpurnia doesn’t correct Scout, but instead perpetuates this oppressive narrative by agreeing that she has to speak their language despite its apparent incorrectness. Remember, Calpurnia is a Black character being written by a white woman. Of course she doesn’t correct Scout...the author is showing that Scout is correct in her thinking that the English Calpurnia speaks is incorrect.
While Harper Lee does use the word “language” multiple times to describe Calpurnia speaking Black English, she also includes the n-word to describe it, thus delegitimizing it. Harper Lee also has Calpurnia admiring the “fine English” of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which suggests that she appreciates Standard English more than she does her own English and that she only speaks Black English because nobody in her Black community wants to ‘learn” how to speak correctly...in other words, she chooses to only speak Black English to stoop to their assumed lower level of intelligence.
I can’t imagine how students reading this scene in an urban classroom feel. By the time my students arrive in my 8th grade classroom, I can guarantee they’ve already felt the unrelenting oppression of educators trying to force Standard English upon them because public education has deemed that Standard English is correct and what students of colors speak isn’t. To make things worse, we open up a book that has been a classroom staple for decades, only to have a white author try to speak as Calpurnia, a Black character, and read that Black English is the language spoken by those who don’t want to learn how to speak “right.”
While I was checking for understanding around this scene, an African-American student raised their hand and told me that Scout and Jem were surprised because they thought that Calpurnia was “smarter than that.” I asked what the student meant and they responded with something along the lines of, if Calpurnia were smarter she would speak “properly” all of the time and not just when she chooses, and that she is “fake” for switching how she talks depending on who she is talking to. My student’s response also shows that code switching or having, as Harper Lee put it, a “command of two languages” isn’t valued as an extremely useful ability, or even acknowledged as a necessity in the lives of many students. An educator that doesn’t have a goal of recentering curriculum around Black students may very easily accept the scene at face value and lead a discussion around the improperness of Calpurnia’s speech. This projects the message to the Black students in the room that the way they speak is wrong. The way their family speaks is wrong. When everything about you is made out to be wrong and harshly criticized, then what is the use of participating in class? In speaking up? Black students begin to internalize this racism, lose faith in the educational system, and eventually lose confidence in themselves (Baker-Bell, 2019).
It is our responsibility as educators to inform ourselves in ways that classroom cultures and curriculum continue to oppress Black students and their voices while furthering white supremacist agendas. It is then our responsibility to put the hard work in by taking a critical look at our curriculum and our methodologies and pushing through the discomfort of discovering our missteps. We need to correct these missteps. We need to sit with the discomfort and push back against the oppression that we are being asked to replicate. We need to reframe curriculum, reframe novels, and reframe discussions to make space for Black voices to be heard and valued, not squashed and dismissed for being “improper” and thus invalid.
April Baker-Bell (2019): Dismantling anti-black linguistic racism in English
language arts classrooms: Toward an anti-racist black language pedagogy, Theory Into Practice,
Alim, H. S., & Baugh, J. (2007). Talkin black talk: Language, education, and social change. New York: Teachers College Press.
Emma Canales has always called Massachusetts her home and obtained her Bachelor's of Arts degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is attending UMASS for her Master's of Education as well. She is an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts and loves hanging out with and listening to her lively middle school students' thoughts about the world.
For this blog post, I would like to welcome a friend and colleague, Sara Barber-Just. Since my first interactions with her I could see why her students love her so much. Then, my son and one of my daughters were lucky enough to have her as a teacher, and I really understood. Sara does not only practice what she preaches. Love for teaching and for her students infuse everything she does. In my daughter's words, "she radiates this extremely positive energy to everyone around her." My daughter had her for an A period English class - the time when many high school students are still half asleep. She managed to engage the class, all the while projecting understanding for their sleepiness.
I recently read something Sara wrote about teaching during COVID-19, and it resonated with me more than many posts I have read about this profession right now. I think I liked it so much because I feel the same as her. Love is at the center of what we do, which is why so many teachers are devastated right now. All the teachers I know are doing their best to push through, to contact all of their families, to engage their students. Yet, we end up feeling frustrated because we can't reach our kids in the same way. In her post, Sara describes one way she has been successful with her students during "distance learning." Her bio can be read right after the post. Thank you for your words, Sara!
I breathe books and language, but I became a high school teacher because I wanted to live in a world where relationships were just as important as curriculum or ideas—sometimes more. Validating, loving and listening to my students always seemed to open them to new ideas, sometimes to even set them free.
So Distance Learning has been hard for me. I have tried my best. I started meeting with students online the week we closed, not to jump start “education,” but to throw out a lifeline to those who wanted it, saying “I’m still here!” “I care about you.” I’ve tried to make the course content I’m offering during closure really interesting—from reading books about sexual identity or depression and recovery, to combatting white nationalism/hate with education and love. And also offering up ways to talk and think about life during coronavirus/quarantine—everything from the chaos and grief it causes to the creativity it fosters.
I have sent letters, YouTube videos, and surveys to students, and when that didn’t work, personal emails to ask how they are. When I’m all business, the silence grows. They may comply and turn in some work but it feels forced and sad. They report feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork.
The miracle has been that when I lead with love and kindness rather than with grades or credit, the conversations flow. I sent out 30 personal emails to all my MIA students yesterday. It took time, but not even half the time of a regular work week. And I heard back from so many today. About their work landscaping or working at supermarkets or doing scholarship applications. Their tears about lost graduation and cancelled sports seasons. Their challenging family situations. Their virtual guitar lessons and puppies they’re adopting.
I’ve sat in this uncomfortable chair by my foldout card table in my bedroom trying to replicate school however I can. It’s so imperfect. But it’s what I can do. Virtual school is not like real school. I can’t hand out tissues and snacks and write comments on papers in my hot pink pen. I can’t make eye contact or tell jokes the way I did before. But every chance I get, to “teach” the only way I think matters—with compassion, flexibility, and kindness, I do. It took me a while to realize I can’t do this old thing I used to do one way the same—not at all. But I can remember why I started doing it. And hold on to that with all my might.
Bio: Sara Barber-Just is the English Department Head and school newspaper advisor at Amherst Regional High School, where she has been teaching for 22 years. She created the nation’s first LGBTQ Literature class in a public high school in 2002; she still teaches that course, as well as Journalistic Writing and Tenth Grade Literature, Writing, and Public Speaking. She and her wife live in Leverett, MA with their twin sons, rising ninth graders.
Michelle Gonzalez Torruella's death was the first death from COVID-19 that hit very close to home for me. She passed a few days ago after being in the hospital, sedated and on a respirator for a few weeks, and then finally breathing on her own, until things took a bad turn again. I still can’t even believe this happened, yet I know so many other people are experiencing loss of this magnitude and more all over the world. Today, I can finally stop crying for a bit, breathe, and sit down to write a small tribute to her.
Michelle was the kind of person who, if you hadn’t seen her for years, you would give each other a huge hug and seamlessly pick up where you left off all those years ago. She was my adopted prima; we called each other cousins in the absence of another word that would explain the relationship between her, her sister Lisa, and me. Maybe now, people would call it “sister friends”, but it was deeper even than that.
When we met as 7 or 8 year olds, it was as if we always knew each other, like primas would. We got close during our teenage years. They spent time at my house in the summer and I spent time with them in Queens. I distinctly remember the two of them doing my hair, fascinated by its straightness like I was by the curls on their heads. We became even closer in our twenties as the 3 of us navigated living in or close to the city, new jobs, careers, fiances, weddings, babies, and first houses.
I remember in particular when I got back from living in France and was living with my titi in NY. They came over, so we could joyfully reunite over wine and loaves of bread (we could eat loaves of bread without issues back then). We listened to merengue and danced together, drank, ate and laughed until our bellies hurt. Michelle had a laugh like no one else - huge, belly laugh, loud, and made you want to laugh with her. I remember us swaying to los Hermanos Rosario’s “Morena Ven” - it was a hot and sticky day but we had such a great time together.
Michelle was a teacher - she taught English in an “inner city” school, and I was so proud of her.I never saw her teach but I could imagine her bringing her passion and pride to her students. I could also imagine how they probably related to her, happy to see a brown face in front of them, teaching them and touching their lives.
Michelle was truly special. She was one of those people who so rarely was in a bad mood; she was optimistic, glass half full. I don’t ever remember seeing her angry for a long time - even through tears she would find something to laugh hysterically at. She was confident, generous with her love and with compliments for you. She was quick with a hug or any kind of affection. She always wanted to make herself better by educating herself and reading more.
For years we had been saying, Michelle, Lisa, and I, that we would meet in Connecticut - right between where we each lived - for a girl’s weekend, or even night. Every year, we brought it up again, but one of us was always too busy. Last year I thought we would be able to do it, but Michelle was such a devoted mom that she wanted to be there to get her younger daughter through the last months of high school celebrations. The last time I brought it up, in the fall, I was thinking we could do something for our 50th birthdays (mine in November, hers in December), in the spring. Now spring is here, and we won’t ever be able to do it. Our lives took us away from one another, and now I regret that I never just got in my car and drove to Jersey to go see her.
Lisa - you and I have to make a promise to get together more, laugh, and remember Michelle in her dorkiness, beauty, compassion, and loving soul. If anything happens to either one of us, I won’t forgive myself for it.
Michelle was an amazing mother, friend, sister, wife, daughter, comadre, cousin - all of it. She really was a model to live by. I hope that in the coming months, Jasmine and Taty find solace in their beautiful photos and memories of their mami. I hope the whole family finds peace somehow. Lisa, I know you lost your best friend. You texted me that you were “broken”. I, and all those who love and adore you, will help put you back together, and hold you so you don’t fall apart. Count on us.
What is a teacher
Without her students?
The start of class
Each day a new chance to start over
What is a teacher
Without the daily
Ins and outs
Without the warm-ups and cool-downs
And the rhythm
Of the class
The 4 walls decorated
With the colorful work
Of her students
And posters of rainbow children
Across the world
Hand in hand
What is a teacher
Without the comments
Interrupting her every sentence
“Can I go to the bathroom/drink water/get an apple/call home/take a lap in the hallway?”
“Do you have a snack/pencil/eraser/tissues/a Band-aid/a fork/a cup/an elastic?”
The amazing questions and curiosity
The resilience and vulnerability
Reining them back in
The funny thoughts and stories
She can’t help but laugh at
What is a teacher
Without the interactions with her colleagues
In the hallways
In the staff lounge
By the mailboxes
Waiting for the bathroom to be vacant
Keying in our cards by the side door
Sneaking in a few minutes after the 7:30 bell
Avoiding human contact until necessary
What is a teacher
Without her community
Her students, colleagues, families, support workers
Without the solidarity
Pushing and holding each other
But still supporting each other
Still admiring the each other's work and talents
And loving the strength of our school
What is a teacher?
March 26, 2020
It has definitely been one of the strangest weeks I've ever lived through. I'm sure many of you are feeling the same. In a week where information was moving faster than I could keep up, I went from thinking that some time in the near future school MIGHT close to watching a video of our superintendent announce a minimum 2-week school closure, with teachers providing online work for students.
With the serious contagious nature of COVID-19, I have been reading a lot about "social distancing", a term I already hate, though I understand its necessity. Meanwhile, I can't stop thinking about all the people who must still go to work. Yesterday as I went to several supermarkets where the lines were unlike anything I've seen even at the holidays, I thought about all the custodians and cleaners who are working hard to disinfect every surface anyone has ever touched, in schools, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and other stores. And about the school administrators, who have been keeping us informed over the last 2 weeks, and who have grappled with many hard questions and issues when contemplating closing schools. I think about people like my sister, who works as a patient coordinator in a pediatrician's office located in a hospital in a small local city; and my friend who is a pediatric nurse working hard in NYC (and was named chief officer of managing the public health crisis in her clinic!) My niece, who works as a server at a popular local restaurant (where the owner had the sense to take bar stools out to put distance between her customers knowing they would probably not stop going to the restaurant), her only current income. My friend's daughter, who works in an ER near an urban area. Personally, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to all of these people. You are all brave and strong!
I have thought about ways I can help others, too, since I have the relative luxury of staying home and getting paid (teaching through online platforms) and being with my family. It's small, but if you live near me and you are home-bound, I can bring you groceries. If you have to work and don't have childcare, I have 2 great babysitters! If you need someone to help your kid with homework, we have 2 teachers here. These are the little things we can do to help each other through these scary times and through the "social distancing".
If you are home with family, take advantage of the time with them (I plan to). In case anyone cried "boredom" I already made a long list of things we can all do around the house! Stay safe and hang in there, folks.
This week in my social studies class, we learned about Ruby Bridges and bravery in honor of Black History Month. After watching the movie "Ruby Bridges", students brainstormed a time they or someone else was brave, and then they wrote paragraphs. Here is their work!
I was brave when I came to America. I came on September 5th.I went to talk to my family and friends to say good bye.My family was happy and supported me.I feel happy and sorry that I felt angry.
I was brave when I came to America in 2016,
What happened to me I have to see so many new people in America. What helped you I'm thinking about how I will be in a good school. My family and aunt helped me.
I was brave When I first went to study in the US. This happened on 8/28/2019. I couldn’t speak English and I didn’t have friends. My family, and my teacher, my friends helped me by giving support. I felt good, funny.
I felt brave when I agreed to come here. That happened on July 3,2019.
I accepted to come here and the next day I left here. To think that here I would have a future and know a language more helped. I feel good about being here.
During a mass celebration on Sunday, I did a pantomime in front of a lot of people. I remember that it was in 2015 in Puerto Rico during a mass. I had to do a pantomime in the Church in front of 1,000 people. I was worried to be embarrassed In front of my congregation. After doing my pantomime I felt proud, calm, relaxed and happy.
By "Bad Bunny"
Being a teacher is not getting easier. In fact, fewer young people are choosing teaching as a career, and I see stories all the time of teachers leaving the profession, burned out and exhausted. I recognize that I myself do not want to be teaching 7th and 8th graders when I am 65, However, I am definitely in it for a while more. At times, it's good to think about the little things that motivate us to stay in teaching. And, sometimes it's the little things we do for students that helps them feel loved, safe, and secure enough to learn in school. This became clear for me one day in a class of long terms ELLs (they have been ELL students for most of their school careers). They are probably my hardest students to motivate, and so I have created curriculum that is almost all project-based and is hopefully culturally relevant and relatable.
One day, one of the students in this class wasn't feeling well. A student I had heard a lot about last year, but had not taught until now, she was purportedly trying hard to keep her grades high and stay out of the drama she used to be involved in. So, I offered her a cup of tea, hoping it would get her mind off of how she felt and get her to do some work. (I have an electric kettle in my room, and a collection of mugs, like any teacher!) Once other students got wind of what was happening, they of course also wanted tea. So, I served the class of 7 tea, but told them they had to rinse their mugs after. They were thrilled. Some of them left half of their cups full; I don't know if they even liked tea. The following class (I see them every other day), you can guess what happened. They all asked for tea again. So, I made it again. For the next few classes, I prepared the mugs in advance, got some sugar, put the teabags out and filled the kettle. As long as they had tea, they would at least make an effort with their work, and considering this was a class with pretty low motivation, that was something, Now sometimes one or two of them still ask for tea, which is good, because I was worried I'd be serving them tea until the end of June.
On another day, I brought the same class hot chocolate. I was about to have them do some writing they probably would not be excited about, so on my daily agenda I wrote: "hot chocolate and writing." They more or less did their work, but the funny part came a few weeks later. Another teacher stopped me in the hallway one day and said, "Ms.Lopez, I have to know - what is it about your hot chocolate? The kids just LOVE it. Roberto is obsessed with it and told me I should get the same kind.. Do you make it with milk or what?" I laughed and told him that it was literally Swiss Miss chocolate packets, made with hot water from my electric kettle.
In a different class, I have an English learner from Central America who is very shy about speaking English and is sometimes grumpy about doing her work. She puts up a (small) fuss sometimes until I either cajole her or threaten to call her mom, and then she grudgingly does her work. For Valentine's Day, she brought me chocolate and a beautiful card. That grumpy student made my day with her words: "Thank you for believing in our possibilities, for your infinite patience." So, remember - all the little things you do every day matter!
I'm teaching my social studies class about the Tainos of the Caribbean and the European conquest of the Americas. This year, I have changed a few things about how I’m doing it. For one, after reading the New York Times articles, 1619, I will be introducing slavery right away, at the same time as the arrival of the Europeans. Also, the new trend is to refer to slaves as “enslaved people”, so I will take the opportunity to explain this language to my students.
This year as the students delved into readings (written by me) and videos about the Taino people, one student questioned the existence of fossils as proof of how people lived before. He claimed that there were people who went around the world, planting fossils all over so others could find them. He said they have to made up, because after all, where in the bible does it mention fossils? I knew that I had to respond carefully.
“Well,” I said, showing him with my hands, “the bible is one thing, and science is another.” I knew I couldn’t tell him that the bible wasn’t real, but I also knew that I had to convince him that science is.
I’ve had this student in class since the beginning of last year, 2018, so I know him pretty well. Later that class, he made another comment which I did not address at the time. He wondered out loud what would have happened to the Tainos if Columbus had not mistakenly run into the Caribbean islands. He followed that with, “Ewww, we would have been tanned, ugly.” I had heard comments like these before from him - a sad commentary about a kid whose people are a mix of Taino, Spanish, and West African people. At the time I was too busy with other students and it was nearing the end of class so I just said something like, “don’t say things like that.” However, I know I will have to address it.
Today, he brought me oatmeal cookies and was better-behaved than any other day all year. Coincidence? Maybe.
How do you address statements like this from your students? I have thoughts about how to continue integrating social justice awareness in my curriculum, but I would love to hear from readers! Please comment below!
I'm happy to host a guest blogger this week, Mary Hamel from my graduate class at UMass (Research in Teaching/Critical Pedagogy, Dr.Keisha Green). Thanks for guest blogging, Mary!
Despite all we know about how powerful an impact a critical approach to teaching can have on our young people, teachers today are struggling, perhaps more than ever, to reconcile socially just teaching practices with the demands of more traditional, assessment-geared schooling practices. The constant uphill battle of school reform has many educators burning out, leaving the profession, or succumbing to the pressures of status quo teaching. However, critical teachers are out there. They are working to promote social justice in classrooms and empowering their students to participate actively in their own education. They are decolonizing their curriculums and engaging their communities in discussions on school reform. They are pushing back on unfair and biased policies that widen opportunity gaps and inequities across multiple diversities. For the sake of all our students, the need for strong mentorship of a new generation of critical multiculturalist teachers is essential to keeping the ball rolling towards progress.
Theories behind critical pedagogy have existed in academia since at least the 1960’s. Brazilian philosopher and educator, Paulo Freire, is most often credited with introducing theories of power, oppression, and praxis into education with his famous 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This seminal text has often served as the foundation for conceptual frameworks used by educator-scholars like Christine Sleeter, Sonia Nieto, and Django Paris as they work to evolve and redefine the goals of multiculturalism. Thanks to these educators, the meaning of the word “multiculturalism” in the classroom has shifted away from the practice of offering students exposure to shallow, culture-essentializing practices and instead asserts that education does not exist within a vacuum, but reflects the social, political, and economic factors that are salient within our institutions
Today many progressive colleges and universities are throwing much needed energy into adapting their teacher preparation programs to give teachers the skills and understandings they need to become not just multiculturalist, but critical multiculturalist educators in the field. Coursework focused on critical issues in education, such as language acquisition, trauma-informed teaching practices, social justice, opportunity gaps, anti-racist curriculums, and cultural proficiency are increasingly required in tandem with traditional content methods courses. Requiring dual practicum experiences in urban and suburban settings is becoming more and more the norm for pre-licensure candidates.
But here’s the rub: Though the theory and conceptual frameworks for a critical reformation of the institution of schooling has been laid for some time, it is easy to feel as though little headway is being made in actual praxis (actions taking place in classrooms).
While more and more teacher preparation programs are shifting to reflect the goals of critical pedagogy in our classrooms, a critical multiculturalist mentor teacher is a bit of a four leaf clover: damn near impossible to find, and withered dry all too soon. The absence of critical pedagogues actively teaching in the field and willing and able to mentor student teachers presents a massive stumbling block for higher ed. institutions wanting to grow a critical mass of teachers who are prepared to undertake the real work (praxis) of addressing educational inequities in America. In their absence of critical mentors, too many student teachers are being socialized right back into the trap of status-quo teaching.
Teaching practice most often begins through apprenticeship. New teachers are immersed in a veteran teacher’s classroom and learn by observing and imitating their mentor’s instructional practices, attitudes, management style, and expectations. In this way, new teachers are generally socialized into the profession of teaching. They learn the norms of teaching through the teachers and school climate surrounding them as they navigate their practicum experiences. Teachers reflecting on their humble beginnings very often identify their practicum experience as the most memorable and influential part of how they learned to teach. Without a strong mentor to help bridge critical theory with praxis, student teachers are unlikely to carry newly learned critical pedagogy into their future careers.
Compounding this problem is another dilemma in education; an extreme lack of teacher diversity. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that between 2015 and 2016, 88% of elementary teachers in the workforce identify as women, and 80% of all teachers (elementary and secondary combined) identify as White. This presents a significant challenge to critical teacher preparation programming because student teachers are not shaped solely in university classrooms. Like all humans, they are socialized into their own cultures. This strong socialization creates the lens through which we see the world. The hyper-dominance of White female teachers in America makes it highly likely that, despite receiving critical coursework in their preparation programs, most of our teachers will enter the field already highly socialized into White cultural norms. These norms dominate our media, classrooms, curriculums, and ideologies. They show up in things like deficit model instruction. We see it in zero-tolerance discipline policies, colonialist textbooks, community politics, hiring practices, the demographics of school administrations, etc.
Without opportunities to recognize and challenge these socialized norms in ourselves, we lose the opportunity to comprehend the underlying context of what we encounter. Simply requiring a student teacher to complete a practicum in an urbanized district is not enough to develop a critical teacher. In fact, it is quite possible that it does the opposite by further entrenching ideas, attitudes, and ideologies shaped through socialization. This is because the lens through which she is examining her experience has not been examined. It is assumed to be objective, free from implicit bias, but scholars and theorists alike from multiple fields are adamant that this cannot be true. This is problematic for the critical pedagogue, as a critical lens requires constant recognizing and questioning of one’s own socialization.
So, where does this leave current educators who are steadfastly pushing that ball of social justice progress uphill? Targeted in a call to arms, I suppose. A call to reach out to nearby teacher education programs and agree to mentor a student teacher. Provide a new generation of educators an opportunity to change their own lens through a meaningful apprenticeship with a critical teacher. Yes, it is a lot of work, but so is pushing that ball alone!