Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Rhode Island College’s 17th Annual Promising Practices Conference: Culturally Responsive Curricula in STEM

On November 1, 2014, I attended Rhode Island College’s 17th Annual Promising Practices Conference, which specifically focused on “Culturally Responsive Curricula in STEM.  Over the course of the day, I had the opportunity to attend two informative workshops and to hear from the keynote speaker Dr. Christopher Emdin. 
The first workshop that I attended, entitled Finding the STEM in the Urban Core, was presented by Antoinette Pearson, principal, and Mariamba Kurbally, 2nd grade teacher, from Bethune Elementary/Middle School in Detroit, Michigan.  This school is 100% African American and is located in a very depressed area of the city; however, Ms. Pearson and Ms. Kurbally wanted to make STEM fields available to these students who otherwise would not have that as an option.  This is something Kozol discussed in his reading Amazing Grace, about students from poor areas in cities being denied the same opportunities as children from richer areas.  During the workshop, they demonstrated and talked about the SMART Lab that opened in the school just this past summer.  The lab offers students the chance to explore science and mathematics through hands-on activities.  I have since followed the Bethune SMART Lab Facebook page (  It is so great to see pictures of these sweet kids using technology and hands-on things in their learning. 

The second workshop that I attended, entitled Expanded Learning Opportunities: Students’ Passion Takes the Lead, was presented by Elizabeth Ochs and other teachers and students from Central Falls High School.  During the workshop, I had the opportunity to learn about how Central Falls High School students are able to create opportunities for themselves spend part of their schooling on something that they were interested in.  Elizabeth Ochs, who is in charge of ELLs, clearly cared deeply about her position, and has created a website ( that has more information about it.  Basically, students worked with a mentor who would support them in their learning.  At the end of the experience, no matter how long it took for them to complete the planned opportunity, they would present what they had done and learned to earn credits.  We got to hear from one boy who used his ELL to design a robot that he competed with.  I think its great that students are able to learn through atypical methods, as discussed in the Hill and Johnston's piece In the Future, Diverse Approaches to Schooling.  

The final part of the day was lunch and listening to the keynote speaker, Christopher Emdin.  He was a great speaker who did a great job engaging the audience.  It was clear that he would be a great teacher because of his ability to keep students interested in what he is talking about.  If you get a chance to watch Christopher Emdin speak, even on YouTube, ( he has a lot to offer.  Emdin’s talk reminded me of Robert Lake’s piece, An Indian Father’s Plea.  Emdin, like Lake, talked about how so many students are lost and dismissed as stupid and unwilling to learn, when simply they are just not interested in the material or are being taught in ways that they are not used to and cannot learn because of this.  I thought that Emdin was a perfect speaker to hear to end the day because it summed up both workshops I had seen that day.  The students in Bethune are being provided hands-on opportunities to learn, and students in Central Falls are being provided opportunities to learn through their interests.  I have added Emdin’s book Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Education to my reading list because I want to be able to incorporate his ideas into my future career.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Critical Teaching for Social Change

"Another large topic covered, mostly in the beginning of the reading was based on whether we hold classrooms where students can ask questions and, most of all, feel comfortable enough to ask questions about the curriculum and other issues...allow for a dialogue between peers, where the teacher would act as a facilitator rather than an overpowering presence in the classroom...thought about past classrooms I have been in and whether or not they were like the one mentioned above"-Elisabeth's blog

After reading the article "Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change" by Ira Shor, and Elisabeth's blog post relating to it, I too was left thinking a lot about the different types classrooms I have been in throughout my schooling career and the effectiveness of each type.  From my experience, the least effective classroom is one in which  there was "a one-way transmission of rules and knowledge from teacher to students, stifling their curiosity" (Shor 2).  

The first classroom that comes to mind where I experienced this is my eight grade history class.  Each day, our teacher would close the door to the classroom right as the bell rang and start talking.  She would talk non-stop until the bell signaling the end of class rang.  She always had a PowerPoint presentation or some sort of graphic organizer that we were expected to follow to a tee.  Every single person's notebook looked identical.  There was a right way (her way) to take notes and organize your things, and a wrong way (any way besides hers).  There was no opportunity for discussion or questions during the class.  If a student raised his or her hand, she would give them a look that made anyone instantly reconsider keeping that hand up.  Tests were straight-forward and came directly from her class lectures.  If you could not answer the multiple choice, true/false, and fill-in-the-blank questions on the test, you did not understand the material.  There was no other opportunity to display what you had learned.  I truly felt that classroom was a one-way street.  

On the other side of this was a classroom that "urged a reciprocal relationship between teachers and students where respect for the teacher coexisted with cooperative and student-centered pedagogy" (Shor 2).

My senior year English class perfectly illustrated the amazing success of this type of classroom.  For starters, the teacher, who was also the English Department Head, realized that students were getting lost in the standard English class not because they were bad at English, but rather they were not interested in the material.  With these students in mind, he created four semester-long English classes that had a more specific curriculum--Critical Writing and Rebellion, The Modern Temper, Outside Voices, and Philosophy and Literature.  By taking two of these semester long courses, a student could satisfy his or her fourth year English requirement for graduation.  My senior year was the first year these classes were offered and they all filled up.  The following year, two or three sections of each had to run to give all students that wanted to the opportunity to take the courses.  While I truly loved both my Critical Writing and Rebellion semester and the Modern Temper semester, I would like to discuss the latter.  Each day when we came into class, we arranged the desks into one big circle.  Our teacher then facilitated discussions regarding the current reading(s); however, he took a backseat in these discussions and really let the students lead the direction of the class.  When it came time for the final project, we were given a great deal of freedom, and the results were phenomenal.  Students could work individually or in groups and created their own project.  The only real requirement was that it somehow incorporate the knowledge gained from the class over the course of the semester.  We were required to write a description of what we were going to do for our project and then create a fair rubric which our teacher would use to grade us at the end.  This left the door wide open for students to display their knowledge however they felt most comfortable.  Some made videos, PowerPoints, or gave presentations that dove further into the subject matter of the semester.  I chose to read a book that related closely to the course, discuss it with my teacher, and write about it.  He ended up using the book the following year as one of the main readings of the semester.  It was amazing to see the many different ways students had interpreted and were then able to apply the knowledge they had gained throughout the course of the semester.  

I agree with what Elisabeth said in her blog, "that it is important to have classrooms where the students are not just copying down notes and listening to lecture, but can talk to their peers about problems and solutions being done in class so that they can fully understand why they come to that answer and how to figure it out next time. Students should feel comfortable enough to ask their teachers questions about topics inside and outside the classroom"  

My senior English final project was actually a result of this.  I had a great relationship with my teacher and actually questioned his original final project when he first discussed it with me because I felt that it would really limit the sharing of knowledge and what we had learned.  He listened to my argument against his project plan and for my proposal (which is the one I discussed above).  Everyone loved the project, including him.  He even continued using it in following years.  For the first time in my schooling, I felt like I was able to show what I learned in my own creative way, with no limits of standardized or teacher-made tests.  I just wish that this was "the norm" in schools K-12 because I feel that it would open up the doors of education for so many more students.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Citizenship in Schools: Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome

In Chapter 4, Citizenship in Schools: Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome, of his book Schooling Children with Down Syndrome, Chris Kliewer argues that that there is a great advantage, as opposed to the assumed disadvantage, to the inclusion of children with Down syndrome into regular classrooms.  The typical segregation of students with disabilities, including those with Down syndrome, takes away from the learning environment of all students, which in turn results in a large gap in the school community.  He says, "Educating all children together reconfigures the representation of Down syndrome from being a burden toward citizenship" (95).

At the high school I attended, there was a huge segregation of students with disabilities.  They arrived to school after everyone else.  They then went to their "special" classrooms for the rest of the day.  Not once did I ever have a student with a mental disability in my class, but I have no doubt in my mind that many of these students were just as smart, if not smarter, than me and the rest of my "normal" classmates.  They ate lunch after everyone else, and then they cleaned the cafeteria up.  That was their main job.  Their other job was to bake things and make coffee and sell it to teachers on a little cart.  This reminded me of Anne who is described in the reading whose "committee had decided [without her] that Anne, who has Down syndrome, would become a preschool aide.  Anne did not particularly care for young children and was unhappy with the prospect of spending her life working with them.  While I think that the jobs given to the Special Education students at my school were supposed to be their to help them with social skills and interacting with people, I believe the school fell short with their attempt.  For one thing, they were only allowed to sell to teachers, not students, which gave them no opportunity to interact with their peers and other people their own age.  I think that much more progress could have been made if "children with Down syndrome join their non disabled peers in classrooms" (74).  I remember one specific interaction I had with a girl in my high school who had Down syndrome which I will not soon forget.  I went to the bathroom during class and was washing my hands at the sink when she came in.  I believe she mistook me for someone else she knew at the school (perhaps a peer mentor?) and got very excited to see me.  She greeted me enthusiastically, to which I responded in an equally enthusiastic tone and smiled.  I had no choice but smile, as her ear to ear grin was contagious.  From that day forward, whenever I would see her in the hallway she would always wave to me excitedly and smile her beautiful, genuine smile.  I wish that I could have had more opportunities for such interactions in my schooling; however, they were limited by the segregation of Special Ed. students from "Normal Ed." students.  I would have to agree with Kliewer in that "society itself is hurt when schools act as cultural sorting machines--locations that "justify competitive ethic that marginalizes certain students or groups of students…[that] legitimize discrimination and devaluation on the basis of the dominant society's preferences in matters of ability, gender, ethnicity, and race…and [that] endorse an elaborate process of sorting by perceived ability and behavior" (73).  This particular quote also reminded me of Becoming Something Different: Learning from Esme in that both discuss the repercussions of sorting students by their "perceived ability" whether it be due to mental disabilities, learning disabilities, etc.

Looking back, I wish that the students with disabilities at our high school could have been less segregated, particularly at lunch time.  What better time to feel part of a community and practice social skills than the 25 minutes dedicated to only eating and socializing.  I would have definitely eaten lunch with the girl I met in the bathroom that day, whose name I never got to know.  I could have used that opportunity to get to know her for more than her Down syndrome.  Unfortunately, because we ate lunch at separate times, I never had such an opportunity.

Right now, I work as a dance instructor at a local YMCA; and we have a sweet little girl (let's call her Lucy) in one of our Combo (tap/ballet) classes.  Unlike some dance schools, we do not offer "Adaptive Ballet" for students with Down syndrome, so Lucy takes a regular class like all the other four and five year old girls.  On the first day that I came into the class to teach, she greeted me with the biggest smile.  She kept waving to me throughout the class.  Since I co-teach with another instructor, one of us is always able to spend one-on-one time with Lucy, helping her go across the floor and congratulating her on her efforts, which are just as good, if not better, than some of her peers.  To quote Kliewer again, "all students are welcomed, no voice is silenced, and children come to realize their own self-worth through the unconditional acceptance of one another" (74).  Just last week when I was helping the girls change from ballet to tap shoes, Lucy got distracted in her backpack by a pair of pink knit gloves.  She was SO excited by them and eagerly put one on.  Once she had one on, she struggled to get the other on, so I helped her.  Her face lit up as she told me pink and purple were her favorite colors..  She then complied quickly with directions to get her tap shoes on and proceeded to put them on herself, something that half of the other girls had needed my help to do.  And that is how she went to class.  Pink gloves and all.  All of the other girls in the class accepted Lucy for who she was, not for her disability, as did myself and the other instructors.  All of us unconditionally accepted her, and her us, despite our chromosomal differences.  I love that young kids Lucy's age have no problem looking past those insignificant differences and truly just accept one another always.

This PDF, Inclusion: Educating Students with Down Syndrome With Their Non-Disabled Peers, dives further into the idea of inclusion.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Class Based Education--Literacy with an Attitude

Chapter 2 of Patrick J. Finn's 1999 book Literacy with an Attitude, entitled "A Distinctly Un-American Idea: An Education Appropriate to Their Station" brings to light the disturbing discrepancies between the way students are taught in schools from different socioeconomic statuses.  Although the piece discuss five fifth grade schools (two working class, one middle class, one affluent professional, and one executive elite) I would like to focus on the vast difference between the working class schools and the affluent professional school because I think it clearly portrays the frightening differences.  All of the information noted comes from Finn's portrayal of Jean Anyon's study of five different predominantly white fifth grade classrooms  in northern New Jersey.  It is important to keep in mind when reviewing these findings that all are "subject to the same state requirements" (9).  They used the same books and courses of study for arithmetic, language arts and reading.

The first difference is apparent in the way knowledge was presented to the students.  At the working class school, it was presented "as fragmented facts isolated from wider bodies of meaning and from the lives and experiences of the students" (10).  On the other hand, in the affluent professional school it was "viewed as being open to discovery" and "was used to make sense and thus it had a personal value" (16).  At the working class school, there was a clear right and wrong in everything which left no room for students to be creative.  "For example, one teacher led the students through a series of steps to draw a one-inch grid on their paper without telling them what they were making or what it was for.  When a girl realized what they were making and said she had a faster way to do it, the teacher answered, "No you don't.  You don't even know what I'm making yet.  Do it this way or it's wrong" (10).  I have observed a similar situation occurring in the second grade classroom that I volunteer in.  When the students need to fold a paper into sections for math, the teacher demonstrates exactly how she wants it done.  She tells them to hold the paper so that the long side is on top and to fold the bottom up.  She calls this "hamburger fold".  When one student called it a "hot dog fold" she got frustrated and scolded him, telling him "No, this is hamburger.  Do not argue with me.  Stop talking and just do it."  This was an interesting exchange for me to observe because I had always been taught the same thing that the boy was saying, not the teacher.  I would definitely classify the school I work in as a working class school according to the reading.  In the affluent professional school, "creativity and personal development were important" and students were encouraged "to think for themselves and to make sense of their own experience" (15) and "…work was creative activity carried out independently.  It involved individual thought and expression, expansion and illustration of ideas, and choice of appropriate methods and materials" (16).  To me this seems like such an easy change to make in schools.  Even if it was only applied a few times a day, I think that it could make a big difference.

Another apparent difference between the working class and affluent professional school is how teachers  and people in power treated and spoke to their students.  In the working class school, "Teachers made derogatory remarks regarding the students.  A principal was reported to have said to a new teacher, 'Just do your best.  If they learn to add and subtract, that's a bonus.  If not, don't worry about it.'  A second grade teacher said the children were "getting dumber every year."  Only twice did Anyon hear a teacher say 'please' to a student in an unsarcastic one. She heard "Shut up" frequently." (11). The "Golden Rule" that all children are taught from a young age is "Treat others the way you want to be treated".  With this in mind, it is no wonder that students in working class schools often get the reputation of being rude and disrespectful to teachers.  It is how they have always been treated by teachers.  How can you expect a student to learn and be successful in an environment when he or she is constantly being put down and no one has high expectations for him or her?  In the affluent professional school, on the other hand, "Products of work were highly prized…Teachers rarely gave direct orders unless the children were too noisy….They sometimes negotiated what work was to be done.  For example, children sometimes asked for more time before moving on to the next subject, and the teacher sometimes acquiesced" (17).  When the teachers gave respect, they got respect in return.  The high level of pride in the students work and confidence in their abilities also made the children feel like they were important, successful and that what they did mattered.

A third difference between the working class and affluent professional schools is the dominant theme Anyon noted.  "In the working-class schools the dominant theme was resistance.  Students vandalized school property and resisted the teachers' efforts to teach…There was less resistance to easy work, and so assignments were rarely demanding" (12).  "In the affluent professional school the dominant theme was individualism with a minor theme of humanitarianism" (18).  If there were more opportunity for individualism and creativity in working-class schools, I believe that there would be much less resistance.

I believe that the schools I went to growing up would be classified by Anyon as affluent professional schools; however, the lower level classes in my school, particularly in high school, were run much more like how she describes working class schools.  I was always in higher level classes, where the expectation was that I would work hard and do well; but there was always room for creativity, interpretation, and a mutual respect between teachers and students.  I am not sure how I would have done had those expectations not been there, although I imagine it would have been discouraging and therefore I would not have done as well.  If you get a chance, watch this short video that looks at the effect of socioeconomic status on students.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Learning While Latina--Becoming Something Different

Becoming Something Different: Learning from Esme, by Fairbanks and Crooks, relates to many of the other readings we have done this semester.  I have pulled quotes from this reading and discussed their relation or significance to these other readings.  

In Lisa Delpit's piece, The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children, she says, "Children from middle-class homes tend to do better in school than those from non-middle class homes because the culture of the school is based on the culture of the upper and middle class--of those in power" (Delpit).  The culture of minorities, or simply those who are not part of the upper or middle class, has a tendency to be forgotten or ignored in public schools today.  Also, as brought up in Hunger of Memory, "bilingual schooling" is supposed to work to incorporate other cultures and languages, but it ends up being used simply to assimilate the other cultures to the culture of power: English.  These tendencies is unfortunate because it ends up alienating many students and putting them at a disadvantage from the beginning.  

"These researchers argue that perceptions of Latina/o students as lacking English proficiency, adequate motivation, and parental support, combined with the school's devaluing of cultural practices different from the mainstream, too often position Latina/o students as deficient" (4).

"Language domination leads to 'exclusion and condemnation of one's language' and is accomplished by "an ideological drive which potentially marginalizes or excludes those who either refuse or are unwilling to conform" (4).

"Why can't she remember that?": The importance of storybook reading in multilingual, multicultural classrooms by Terry Meier discusses the importance of keeping students interested in what they are learning.  If you can relate what is being taught to something relevant to the students' interests or lives, they will be much more inclined to participate and eager to learn.  

"[The teacher is] always talking about [chemistry], and I was like I didn't even know that science was going to be in cosmetology.  Learning the formulas to mix dyes and perm solutions made science understandable and relevant to her in a way that her academic courses had not" (16)

Finally, in Oakes piece, Tracking: Why Schools Need to Take Another Route, the issue of tracking and placing students on "tracks" for their schooling careers is discussed.  While some argue the advantages of tracking, there are a plethora of consequences.  Schools often stereotype students into these levels or tracks, which greatly limits what some students are able to learn and achieve by the end of high school. This leaves students feeling hopeless, helpless, and like no one believes in them. 

"Our analysis suggests how school practices largely determine students' school trajectories and potentially limit their educational opportunities.  This study's significance lies in the tensions it reveals between the power of school practices and the quiet ways that students may create space by which they can name their school lives as successful" (2).

"Recent studies of students and their positioning in school illustrates how students come to be identified in particular ways and how they respond to, resist, or reconfigure themselves in response to the positional identities they have acquired A number of studies also illustrate how such positioning shapes school performance" (3).

"Like Brookhaven, Cooper occupied a middle ground in the district, meeting academic goals by focusing on test skills in the regular tracks.  Students in honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes had more opportunities for exploratory or critical learning because students in these tracks were considered both willing and able to take advantage of such instructions" (6-7).

"…removing her from all honors classes, however, illustrated one means by which Esme's academic opportunities were constrained.  The school's actions perpetuated her positioning as struggling in an "all or nothing" way that failed to recognize her academic strengths, a process further compounded by her enrollment in a remedial reading class that even her teacher believed was inappropriate" (13).

"Although these easy classes allowed her to be positioned as successful, they did not provide her with the academic skills she needed in order to complete high school requirements" (19).

"Esme's placement in resource and remedial classes throughout middle and high school not only illustrated this misplacement but also underscored the finding that 'the intersection of race, class, and disability may play a substantial roll in facilitating differential and inequitable access to college preparation'" (20).

Sunday, November 2, 2014

But Some of My Best Friends Are Black...

After watching the video "Between Barack and a Hard Place: Challenging Racism, Privilege and Denial in the Age of Obama 2", I had a lot to think about.  Growing up in a primarily Caucasian community, I could count the number of non-white students in my school on one hand.  As Wise points out in the video, we tend to use the term "friend" too broadly.  He questions whether you can give your alleged "friend's" phone number, address, mother's name, etc.  If you cannot, he argues that the person is an acquaintance, rather than a friend.  This probably explains how 75% of white people say they have many black friends (which is not mathematically possible).  I found this logical way of looking at things very interesting and eye opening.  Another great point Wise discussed is that most people "view racism as an interpersonal phenomenon when it is so much more than that" and think "if I'm cool with people who happen to be from a different group then that means that I don't have any biases".  When he dissects this logic, he asks whether or not there are there any men in this country that are sexist?  And are any of them heterosexual?  By the logic that one is not racist because she has a black friend, any man who is married to a woman, dates a woman, or even is simply attracted to women, cannot be sexist.  Meaning that the only sexist men are homosexual men.  Therefore, this logic is clearly unstable.

Wise also brings up the idea of of differential treatment.  There is an inequality of opportunity and condition for people of color.  Often times in schools students are separated into class levels, that will determine how far they can go in their high school careers based more on stereotypes and "racial profiling" than by their actual intellectual ability.  This is unfair and places an unfair disadvantage on students of color and/or minority.

This article, "I taught my black kids that their elite upbringing would protect them from discrimination.  I was wrong", offers great insight into the ideas of discrimination, racism, and privilege in the world we are living in today, in 2014.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Community Service" Requirements for Graduation are B.S.

"Service learning makes students active participants in service projects that aim to respond to the needs of the community while furthering the academic goals of students" (Kahne and Westheimer 1).

"Proponents of service learning have worked to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, business leaders and community activists.  Edward Kennedy, Bill Clinton, George Bush, William F. Buckley, and Ralph Nader have all gone on record as strong advocates of service learning in American schools.  Yet controversial issues surrounding the means and ends of service learning have been pushed to the background" (Kahne and Westheimer 2). 

"Unfortunately, in many service activities, students view those they serve as clients rather than as a resource" (Kahne and Westheimer 7).

"The experiential and interpersonal components of service learning activities can achieve the first crucial step toward diminishing the sense of 'otherness' that often separates students--particularly privileged students--from those in need.  In so doing, the potential to develop caring relationships is created"(Kahne and Westheimer 8).

It seems to me like having a service learning requirement for graduation for all high school students would be an obvious step to take on a federal level.  I think that there is a serious issue with politics if no action is taken on something that ALL political parties are agreeing on…I mean seriously, that never happens!  What are we waiting for?  This seems like such a simple, yet incredibly beneficial thing to do.

"Students tutor, coach softball, paint playgrounds, and read to the elderly because they are interested in people, or because they want to learn a little about poverty and racism before they head out into the waiting corporate world…We do not volunteer 'to make a statement,' or to use the people we work with to protest something.  We try to see the homeless man, the hungry child, and the dying woman as the people they are, not the means to some political end" (Kahne and Westheimer 10).

"Service learning advocates agree that experiential, active pedagogy is often quite powerful.  While an additional emphasis on charity might lead to service learning activities that raise self-esteem, impel students into new experiences, and demonstrate the value of scholastic abilities in real-world contexts, educators who focus on a transformative vision would want to carry this work one step further.  For them, it is the combination of service and critical analysis, not either by itself, that seems most likely to promote interest in and insight into these complex social issues (Kahne and Westheimer 11). 

Some schools are already implementing community service requirements for graduation or encouraging it because "it will look good on college applications".  Unfortunately, both take a great significance out of the value.  They turn community service/service learning into a numbers game.  An unfair one at that.  As far as reporting said hours, usually only a signature for the number of hours one "volunteered" is the only requirement, something easily forged and/or exaggerated by high school students.  There is no follow up, no period of reflection associated with the requirement.  Students are turning into robots.  Everything now is being taught "for a test".  Even something as simple as service learning is losing any and all value and credibility.