In this Washington Post open letter to President Obama, the wife of a Georgia public schoolteacher describes the state of emergency students and teachers are currently facing. It is beautifully composed and deserves a read.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death surprised many, but hit hard with me. Although his (or any celebrity’s) life is not worth more than any other one, Hoffman’s craft brought joy and entertainment to millions of people over the course of his short time on earth. What is most devastating to me, though, is how he died. According to the New York Times, he was found dead from an apparent drug overdose, needle still stuck in his arm, with a bag of alleged heroin close by. How could one of the nation’s most talented men, well-respected in his industry, succumb to such a drug?
According to the CDC, “Drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in 2010. Among people 25 to 64 years old, drug overdose caused more deaths than motor vehicle traffic crashes.” While my immediate reaction to that fact is astonishment, I am reminded of the problems within my own circle — problems that always lead back to drugs. Where does the initial need or want of drugs come from? Why do some people look to drugs for comfort while others don’t? How can people come from similar backgrounds but have such different choices when it comes to substance abuse?
I remember hearing about family and family friends who went to jail, lost their children, overdosed — you name it — because of their drug use. These stories frightened me; I didn’t need D.A.R.E., these real-life, close-to-home stories were enough to send me running. Yet, I know so many people who grew up with the same stories, the same “bad influences,” and went the opposite way. I teach students who I see making similar decisions and I try my best to do what I can, offer any intervention through news articles, stories, poems, anything that will grab their attention, but sometimes my efforts seem meaningless — why?
On a slightly-related note: I have been reading about the school-to-prison pipeline. One of the coolest things I’ve encountered regarding it is The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, which outlines the “-isms” involved in “the drug war.” Although it doesn’t matter what race, gender, class or sexuality you are for drugs to become an issue, there seems to be a disjointed relationship between marginalized youths and drug use. All of this to say: I don’t know about “THE drug war,” but there is a war going on — it’s affecting prominent peoples, like Hoffman, and most importantly, it’s affecting our youth. The only thing I know to do is write, read, and think about it — this is step one.
One of the hardest things I struggle with as a teacher is preparing students for standardized tests — it is both a pedagogical and a moral struggle. On one hand, I disagree with standardization; how can humans be standardized? On the other, I understand a form of accountability is needed in schools. There is an entire blog entry I could write on standardized tests, but this one is about how to help students improve their reading skills, which, in turn, will help them receive higher scores on said tests.
Based on the data I have collected from my own classes, the hardest standard for students to master involves textual analysis:
ELACC11-12RL1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
I believe this standard is so difficult because it requires abstract thought. Not only do students have to read and understand a text, they must also be able to critique it, make justifications based on its content and analyze underlying meanings. It is not enough to merely read texts and answer questions, students need to read actively and interact with texts as they read.
In order to encourage interactive reading, my collaborators and I facilitate textual annotation. Even as I read for my graduate courses, I understand the text better if I keep running notes on its content — including writing on the pages themselves. If it helps me, surely it will help my students. Of course, just telling students to annotate does nothing. When I first started doing this, I merely received texts back covered in highlighter marks. Instead, I like to begin with prompts for annotations inserted into the texts we provide.
For instance, we read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream speech. This was one of the first texts we annotated this year, so I tried to guide their annotations by providing them within the text (click to get a MS Word attachment): MLKDreamSpeech+Annotation. As you can see, the questions call students to think critically about the text as they read, as well as respond to it as they read. It is my opinion that this action allows them to understand the text on a more critical level, as well as recall significant events from the text more readily than had they read it only.
As far as what we did with the text, we used it (as well as The Declaration of Independence) as the groundwork for our social justice unit (more lessons from that unit to come). Instead of reading the text as a class, we watched it:
I found the process of listening, watching, and annotating this text helped students create a strong foundation for the unit, allowing them to grasp the difficult standard more easily on their own, once annotations were no longer provided.
…food for thought!
Faced with mounting evidence that get-tough policies in schools are leading to arrest records, low academic achievement and high dropout rates that especially affect minority students, cities and school districts around the country are rethinking their approach to minor offenses.
After reading the above quote in Lizette Alvarez’s New York Times article, Seeing the Toll, Schools Revise Zero Tolerance, something awakened inside me: I am not alone. With educational reform dedicated to its strict aims, it seems like everyone is on the zero tolerance train. Alas, right on the front webpage of The New York Times, I see that others, too, are baffled by this idea.
I have often wondered: if we want students to change their “bad habits,” why kick them out, possibly even for their first (and only — after all this is zero tolerance we’re talking about) offense? How can someone change if they are merely kicked to the curb without any support? Instead, I like the ideas expressed in Alvarez’s article: “Rather than push children out of school, districts like Broward are now doing the opposite: choosing to keep lawbreaking students in school, away from trouble on the streets, and offering them counseling and other assistance aimed at changing behavior.” There’s an idea: let’s help these kids, instead of throw them back on the very streets that enabled the behavior that got them in trouble in the first place.
The more we do for these kids — and these, especially — the better our educational system will be. Who knows — maybe we can start closing some prisons in order to open more schools, instead of the other way around.
Where do I begin?
When my collaborator and I began planning this semester, we were not sure what we wanted to teach about per se, but we knew we had to discuss Trayvon Martin. We could not ignore him — his murder was plastered all over the internet, his name came up in most conversations; his iconic, hoodied picture was immortalized on our students’ T-shirts — Trayvon’s story had to be discussed, if for nothing else but to understand tragedies that happen not only in the literature we read, but also in the world around us.
Fast forward to Zimmerman’s verdict and the chaos that followed (more on lesson plans later):
We watched this video as a class. I remember the portion of his speech that stood out most to me:
You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Whether you agree or disagree with our president’s political agenda, there is incredible honesty in these words. They cracked open my heart and touched me in a way I thought impossible — in a way that allowed me to see the situation of a person whom I cannot relate to on a literal scale no matter how hard I try because of the privilege I was born with — a privilege of fitting naturally into the normative societal scale of acceptance because of the color of my skin.
I began to understand this concept more after reading Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. What struck me most is that, before I began to consciously think of these ideas, I never thought about them. Sure, the sentiment is simple, but no matter how obvious it is to me now, I still never consciously paid attention to my situation in life before I was told to, so, I guess that is why I am sharing my revelations with you now.
So, back to George Zimmerman: Zimmerman is Charged with Aggravated Assault. No matter how hard we try to close the wounds that have been opened by the Trayvon Martin trial, they becomes continuously reopened. After the most recent news broke on Zimmerman, I began seeing this picture circulating the internet:
While my initial reaction is to roll my eyes, as this meme is making light of a heavy situation, there is truth here. According to Malco (2013), “race matters in this country are the paralysis of the American people.” In other words: when issues regarding race come up, we either 1. talk ourselves in circles, going nowhere or 2. ignore matters of race altogether. Sure, this is a silly meme which is not meant to be taken seriously, but the sentiment here is very serious, and something which should not be silenced further.
So, to answer my original question: what do we do with George Zimmerman? My answer is: I don’t know, but we cannot ignore him — to do so would be like slapping Trayvon in the face. However, we also cannot give into the media’s ploys to make money off of his demise.
Before developing unit plans, I like to get to know my students. Because class sizes are so incredibly large (I have classes ranging from a modest 22 to a hulking 36 students), it is impossible to hold individual conferences without chaos ensuing between the other 35 students, so I get to know my students through their work.
There are a few ways to do this — journals, essays, projects, classroom discussions — I like to do a little bit of everything in order to see which mode fits my students best. Now that I am a collaborative teacher, I have to make sure these activities work for both myself and my team teacher.
One of the assignments we came up with was an introductory narrative essay. There have been three prompts over the last two years: “What three songs are your most favorite and why?” “What three songs define your personality best and why?” and “What are the three most important things to you and why?”
These questions purposely set up a five-paragraph essay in order to test students’ initial writing ability, as well as whether they, without prompted, follow a structured five-paragraph style or create their own unique structure. From a teacher’s point-of-view, this assignment works because it gives initial writing data as well as a peek into the lives of students.
From this one essay assignment, I can create a standards-based writing unit that begins where my students are in their writing. I can also create topics that pique my students’ interests, as those topics are pulled from their own essays. And, finally, I can begin to chip away at the wall students initially put up when they walk into my class, and get to know who they are, however complicated they may be.
Why should I get to know my students before I teach them? Well, while I have standards I’m forced to follow, I do not believe my students can be standardized — no one can. However, by getting to know my students, I can better create lessons that teach to their individual needs. To me, that’s teaching social justice and doing justice by my kids.
Another way to learn about my students is through compiling a “Personal Legend Project.” Originally developed by a colleague, Dana Richardson, to accompany The Alchemist, this project allows students to look at themselves and their futures, as well as learn about different ways to use technology to present information. Here is a link to the project assignment and rubric: Personal Legend Project.
About 18 months ago, when my position at Athens Community Career Academy dissolved due to funding (which prompted my change from English teacher to Special Education collaborative teacher), I assigned this project to all my classes. I presented mine first, to give them an idea of what they could do, but I told them to run with it:
Many things have changed since then, but my personal legend has not. As you can see from my example, these are meant to be personal, but students could share as much (or as little) information they wanted. Here are some student samples:
**For some of my classes, I also had them do a brief culture study and relate it to them as well, as you can see in Chris’s project. Here is Ivey’s culture study (which derives from her own heritage):
These are only a few examples of the hundreds I’ve received over the years, but you get the idea — not only does this project allow students to research their own goals and interests, but it also give me, the teacher, an idea of what is going on in their heads and what makes them unique in their own right.
So, when lesson planning, I encourage you to look at your students as individuals — which I’m sure you already do — and teach them that way. In a world haunted by standardization, test scores and scholastic funding, it is easy to forget we are teaching humans, not statistics, but when we attach a face, life details and personal legends to those names, we begin to teach social justice and with a critical lens.