Saturday, November 23, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: Kids are Deep

Over the past two weeks, our students have been studying Typhoon Haiyen - the terrible disaster in the Philippines.  No doubt, the typhoon made its mark on our little world in a way that confirms once again that the time is now to foster advocacy in middle school students.   Given these four opportunities:
  • content information 
  • structured discussions 
  • contemporary connections
  • real-world narratives 
our students initiated a grass-roots fundraiser the old-fashioned way:  Face-to-face soliciting backed by sufficient information to give credence to their cause.  Their goal is to raise $600, and in a few weeks time, they're well on their way.  When knowledge, evidence, connections and stories are in place, there's no telling what will happen.  As teachers, we sort of kicked back and watched the students get after it.  Check out our team's fundraising effort!

After introducing various media events (among other issues) related to the typhoon, Ms. Jorgensen focused on celebrity involvement.  Since perceived relevance is an important factor in student engagement, and since most students are connected in some way to popular culture, there was controversy already.  We formed a "Four Corner Discussion" and brought this statement to the table:  Celebrities are obligated to donate to the Philippines to help the recovery effort after Typhoon Haiyen.  I won't go into detail about how the format works, because these pictures tell a lot of the story about student engagement.  You had to have been there to see the remarkable discussion that unfolded across kids who never talk in class, kids who sometimes participate, and kids who almost always volunteer their ideas.

11-year-olds are deep. 

At the end of the class period, these students could not let go of the discussion.  That was when real learning was happening.  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

What Did You Expect?

This morning I read about the mother who took her son off of the Honor Roll at his school because he earned a "D" and a "C," and in her mind, there was nothing honorable about either of those grades.  The whole situation got me thinking about expectations and the expectations teachers have of students, but specifically, what expectations mean.

I was floored during two different conferences last week.  Both were with parents whose kids are  spoiled rotten.  Kid #1: argues, whines, pouts whenever he doesn't get what he wants.  Kid #2: charming with great interpersonal skills, but she just doesn't think academic learning applies to her.

I really don't want to hate on others but both those parents reported that the reason their kids are like that is because their former school had low expectations for them.   One told us that his son was taken out to lunch or given a pizza party when he'd been on good behavior for like, 3 days.  The dad was like, "Huh?"  Another parent told us that her daughter pretty much ran the school and her teachers. She reported that she was rarely marked tardy even though she was late every single morning, and that whenever she needed a "break," she would go to the office where they'd give her Takis and gum, and then she was allowed to just stay in the office.

Regardless of how much truth there is to these reports, it comes down to this:  Both parents believed the elementary school was at least partly responsible for their child's spoiled rotten behaviors.  And both parents strongly believed that their kids carried those behaviors into middle school because their children would not expect it to be any different.

And why would they? 

To be honest, I'm not shaken by these two students who admittedly require lots of redirections.  My teaching partners and I know that it takes a direct, straight-up approach with an emphasis on academic engagement to help turn these spoiled kids into students.  Just as concerning to me are these parents perceptions and beliefs about teachers, which in turn, affects their relationship with me and educators in general.  Inasmuch as I feel a responsibility for their children as students, I feel an immense responsibility to these parents whose faith in public education has been shattered by how teachers have treated - or mistreated - their children.  Because lets face it, low expectations are what drive teachers to give into students which then perpetuates this behavior pattern that manipulates and controls adults.

And I know this is only one side of the issue.  Trust me, I'm credible.  I've been that teacher.  The one who dished out empty praise, the one who negotiated in the midst of a power struggle, the one who felt icky at the end of the day because manipulative behaviors got the best of me, the one who feared reactive kids, the one who leaned towards the "if you do this, then you'll get that . . ."


Suffice it to say, I grew out of that and grew into my own thanks to the village.

I'm coming to the end here because I'm just done talking and thinking about this for now, but let me just say that the kids and parents I profiled here are black families.  After hearing these parents out and getting a sense of their beliefs and perceptions about teachers and school, I was left with a sleepless night coupled with more impatience than ever with teachers in the system that writes off kids through their willfulness of low expectations.  At least that's my view from the receiving end.

So what's the takeaway?  It's that there's some simple power in expectations.  It takes a strong sense of self coupled with an incredible mentor or two to help a teacher make a conscious point to look for greatness in all kids.  It's not easy.  It's freakin' hard.  Yet everywhere I go, I see kids excelling and at some point, teachers of all kids are going to have to say to themselves - well, of course.

What did you expect?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: Learning about Stereotypes. And Rice.

Today is my dad's 75th birthday and he's partying with the fam in San Diego.  I got this text from my sister and felt her pain . . .

For those who have the "rice culture", you know that if you fuck it up, you're toast.  I'm pretty sure my sister fixed it cause that's one thing about our family, if my dad's in town, you better cook it right cause it's the thing that'll get the aunties, uncles, and cousins talking if it's messed up.  We traded messages back and forth and by the time I talked to my dad, he said "The rice turned out good."  Big hug to my sis!

Speaking of rice - on a different note - we've been studying Asia, and this week, Ms. Jorgensen started lessons on stereotypes about Asians.  One of the lessons included a panel of our former students (now 8th graders) who came to share their stories about stereotypes and to answer questions posed by our 6th graders.  I don't have to go into detail but it was pretty awesome.

One of the 6th graders asked this question, "When you go to a restaurant do you think there's an assumption that you want to order rice?"  Student answered, "Well I do always want rice . . ." 

Another question was, "When you fill out forms I don't always know what to check . . . do you check African-American or Filipino?  I get so confused . . . " One student answered, "I check whatever I feel I am that day . . . "  While another student who is part Filipino and White said, "I check Asian."  One student said something I thought was really good advice, "Just because a person says something that seems offensive or rude to you doesn't mean they're being that way.  It just might be that they don't know . . . "  

Talking to kids about stereotypes and race and how to be non-racist, non-judgemental, and question stereotypes have their heads spinning.  So much that a few have initiated projects and research on their own.  Two students made a poster of a collection of messages that basically followed the theme that stereotypes are harmful and here's why.  Another student found a website about personal stories on life experiences  and shared it with the class while at the same time, she's created posters of the most powerful messages she's learned about stereotypes.  That same girl, who is on-task and nice about 50% of the school day told me that if it weren't for our class, she wouldn't openly share the thoughts she has about stereotypes and race.  Suffice it to say, she's in the skin that seems to solicit stereotyping of her so no wonder she identifies so strongly with these lessons.

How do kids get engaged?  Create and teach lessons on the deep stuff - even if "All Asians eat rice" seems like a mundane stereotype, it's that generalization that gets to the hard issues that then lead to reflective questioning and can prompt deeper inquiry.  And treat them the way you want them to become and believe they will become that person - that'll help with engagement, too.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

It's Official: My kids will NOT take the test

After multiple days and hours of witnessing standardized test taking this year, I've had enough.  Misa and John-Pio spent 4 days taking the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test after being in school for just 4 weeks.  Starting next week, which will be 10 weeks from the beginning of the year, they are scheduled to take the Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Examination (WKCE) test that will last for 4 days.  I'm sure y'all can infer my reasons for opting them out, and my top 5 reasons are in no way exhaustive, but here's the deal . . .

1) As a professional educator, I know first-hand that it takes away from teaching primary academic subjects. 

2) The timing of standardized tests - what sense does it make to spend the majority of first quarter testing students? 

3) Knowing the test items, it's clear to me that a student who is an English Language Learner is clearly  at a disadvantage.  That's only a piece of the equity issue - ask any teacher in my building how a student of color or one with economic pressures rate to the majority and those with economic stability, and they will tell you that the results of the test on a school-wide scale confirm the inequity issue.  

4) The assessment itself sucks.  And we don't even get the results of the test until next year so it's not helpful for student learning or to even guide instruction. 

5) I get enough data from Misa and John-Pio's Friday Folders to know that they're learning and challenged.  

I also know that they're happy and engaged and I know this because they're fired up and curious before school, at school, and after school.  It helps that their teachers are amazing dedicated professionals, too. 

So that's that - enough is enough.  I said no.