Struggling: When the Need for Social Justice Never Sleeps

Have you ever found yourself struggling–emotionally, physically, spiritually? By the book, you’ve had the hours of sleep you need. You are happy with yourself and your life. You know what drives you, what your values are, and fight for your beliefs. Your boxes are checked, but you see something, hear something, think something, and there you are: struggling.

I am struggling today.

I haven’t written in a while. I’d blame it on lack of time, but we’re all busy. It is easy to hide behind guest posts and occasional blurbs, but there are words to be said and I’ve sat silent. Behind silence is privilege and cowardice. A colleague and mentor, Bettina Love, often writes: “White silence is violence.” I am beginning to understand the gravity of those words today, especially since I began this post four weeks ago, and here I am, finally posting.

I have so many incomplete posts that will live forever in the purgatory of “unpublished drafts.” Yeah–it is easy to get lost in life; lost in the day-to-day, but despite being busy, I can still find time every Sunday to watch yet another Black man die on The Walking Dead so, in short, let’s talk about our world in and outside the classroom (and everywhere in between). I am not necessarily going to start with Ferguson and end with what is going on today, but I’ll start with my class and we’ll go from there. Please join me in this dialogue.

I was reading an article about the school-to-prison pipeline with my seventh grade ELA students a little while ago. As you’ll see (if you click the link), I added annotations to encourage active reading. Here is a link to the original piece. Previously, my kids and I were knocked around for poor grades on benchmark tests addressing nonfiction texts, so we read, analyzed, and responded to articles discussing this topic, income inequality (there are fewer annotations here because they were instructed to come up with questions and answers of their own), the American dream (or, mostly, lack thereof), and more.

Needless to say, their test scores did not improve much, but the way they read and responded to texts did, so I call that a win. Since then, I have had more students willing to speak out and about “controversial topics,” including race relations, gender issues, income inequality, the disillusionment of the American dream, and more. I have seen and heard them relate “single stories” to their own experiences. I am amazed by these kiddos every day. They are brave and tenacious.

If you’re reading this piece and thinking I underestimate(d) my kids, you’re probably right. This year is my first working in a middle school (and eighth year teaching). For some reason, before I began, I pictured my students as much younger than they actually are. I am surprised often by how little I know and how little I’ve experienced in comparison to them.

This year is also my first time teaching in a rural school district. I assumed these topics–ones of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.–would be difficult to address in my classes. They aren’t easy, of course, but my students are extremely receptive to discussing various ideas, despite where their opinions land on the spectrum of possibility.

Most of these surprises are positive ones. My students are critical thinkers who are eager to learn–that discovery is both inspiring and uplifting to me as an educator. However, despite how great things may be going, there is always something on the horizon that stops me in my tracks–and then I struggle.

Today I learned that three White men, allegedly White supremacists, shot and injured five people in Minneapolis who were participating in a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest. Here is the story. These people were protesting the murder of Jamar Clark. According to NPR, “Police say they shot Jamar Clark in the head because he interfered with paramedics who were treating his girlfriend. Demonstrators say this is yet another case of police using excessive force.”

I was in Minneapolis this past week/end for the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. At the convention, I joined others from the CEE Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education in a protest against Pearson’s unethical, profit-hungry policies that hurt our students, teachers, and the educational system as a whole. While I still believe this protest was a necessary act and raised awareness (that even caught Pearson’s attention, since they took down much of the footage online), little did I know something else–something bigger–was happening on the other side of town.

In other news, I also learned earlier this year about a young woman who was assaulted in her own school, own classroom, and own desk by a school police officer:

In international news, we have seen Paris’s struggle. Not only was the attack on Paris horrific and unbelievable, but I am also ashamed at the media’s coverage thereafter. We have reentered the arena where Syrians and Muslims are terrorists, look a certain, stereotypical way, and are unworthy of our help and refuge. Even more? The media has all but ignored the attacks in Beirut and Kenya, where other brutal attacks occurred around the same time as the ones that hit Paris.

Many, many more social justice issues and events have happened recently, but despite what has happened, how do you talk about these things with middle schoolers (or any students for that matter)? It has been fairly easy to discuss general social justice issues–race, class, gender, religious differences, etc. However, as I enter discussions about specific events, I struggle–and my students struggle.

How do you explain a broken world, but encourage hope and action in your students without merely bursting their dreams before they’re even formed? How do you put a face on injustice–and why am I being forced to do so over and over again? To clarify, I am not arguing against social justice pedagogy, and I am especially not arguing against teaching for social justice. On the contrary, I am struggling today because I’m looking for a light in this world, but we keep entering a further state of darkness.

I’m struggling because I’m angry.

I’m struggling because my students are angry.

I am struggling because the world is angry, and sad, and hurting, and when people stand up for what they believe in, they’re deemed as: whiners, radicals, crazies, extremists, wrong–and some are even shot or murdered for their beliefs. How do I inspire these kids to stand up for their own values if others are being physically and emotionally harmed for demonstrating theirs peacefully?

This post is not a resolution. It is not meant to be a radical rant. It is simply a post from a struggling teacher living in a struggling world. Any suggestions?

JJW

Guest Post: Michelle Falter on Mental Illness & the Stigma of Difference

The Stigma of Difference: Empathy, Understanding, Dignity, and Justice for People with Mental Illness

Every day I wake up, I have a conversation with myself about whether or not to get out of bed. For most people, I would argue this conversation is more to do with needing a few more minutes of sleep. For me, while that might be the case sometimes, this internal conversation is a struggle to cope with life and stress. This feeling of struggle stems from a chemical imbalance that is truly out of my control. And, although I am hesitant to “out” myself as an academic and educator who suffers from mild to moderate depression due to the stigmas still related to this field, I think it is important that I do so. In fact, I think that part of the reason that mental illness is so stigmatized is that people are not brave enough to talk about these issues in public forums. Discussion about depression and other mental illness is considered awkward, uncomfortable, and people mostly just don’t get it. And things that make us uncomfortable are things that we tend to censor or ignore. For me, I consider talking about mental disorders like depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, etc. an issue of social justice.

Although social justice is an often bandied term that means different things to different people, I like to think of social justice as a concept regarding the creation of a society that is based on principles of equality and solidarity. This society not only understands the values of human rights but also recognizes the dignity of every human being. In addition, for me, social justice also carries with it the need for action, when one encounters injustice.

As I watched the news and listened to the details of Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine African American individuals at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, North Carolina, and the voices of people on social media, I felt an instant ache at the events that were unfolding and just how far we have NOT come on issues of race in America. But, I would also argue that we have not come very far on understanding mental illness in the United States, either. Many people were quick to call Dylann Roof mentally ill.

However, to equate mass murder and racist actions to mental illness is not only inaccurate but it also is deeply hurtful to people who deal with mental illness on a daily basis. Of course, some acts of violence can be equated with mental illness, but it is not the majority. I wholeheartedly concur with Arthur Chu in his recent Salon article on equating mass murder sprees to mental illness; he wrote: “mentally ill are far more likely to be the targets of violence than the perpetrators.” And this can be corroborated by a study in 2001 that looked at 34 adolescent mass murderers. Out of that group, slightly less than 1 in 4 of those studied had a documented psychiatric history–meaning that the vast majority did not, and causality of murder to mental illness couldn’t be directly linked in the cases that did.

What is important to think about as an educator is how mental illness is constructed in our society as a stigma, a modern day Scarlet Letter, for those who deal with the effects of mental illness. In fact, approximately 1 in 4 American adults and 1 in 5 American youth suffer from a mental disorder. As a former middle and high school teacher, I think the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death in students age 10-24 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is terrifying and needs to be addressed. Mental illness is widely considered to be the most stigmatized human condition in the world, and when we create these socially constructed stigmas, we push people to the margins of our society. People fear what they don’t know and the stigma of mental illness exacerbates the misconceptions people have about who the person really is. Those who are labeled with a mental illness face oppression.

In 1990, Iris Marion Young, a professor of political science and gender studies, wrote about the five faces of oppression, believing that the presence of even one of these types was adequate to consider a social group oppressed. These five faces include:

  • Exploitation: using people’s labors to produce profit while not compensating them fairly, therefore creating a system that perpetuates class differences.
  • Marginalization: relegating or confining a group of people to a lower social standing or outer limit or edge of society; a process of exclusion.
  • Powerlessness: inhibiting a group of people’s development of one’s capacities, taking away decision making power, and exposing a group of people to disrespectful treatment because of lowered status, determined by the ruling class.
  • Cultural imperialism: taking the culture of the ruling class and establishing it as the norm.
  • Violence: subjecting members of a group to fear of random, unprovoked attacks on their persons or property.

Based on these distinctions, I think we can make a very clear claim that people with mental illnesses are oppressed due to at least three, and maybe all of these faces of oppression. Clearly, as already indicated by the stigma, people with mental illness are marginalized. Those with mental illness can be fired from jobs and denied health services. They are targets of violence in the form of physical and verbal attacks and ridicule. People with mental illness are constructed as not “normal”–instead they are “other-ed” through stereotypes–images of mentally ill as violent, unreliable, or incompetent. As Young argues, “the culturally dominated undergo a paradoxical oppression, in that they are both marked out by stereotypes and at the same time rendered invisible…The stereotypes so permeate the society that they are not noticed as contestable” (p. 59).

As noted, people are uncomfortable talking about mental illness and therefore it is often just not even talked about, rendering it truly invisible, yet everywhere. Two high school students recently tried to talk about depression in their high schools only to be censored by their principal.

In addition, because people’s notions of the mentally ill are so ingrained, often those with mental illness have internalized the stereotypical notions, which in many cases leads to feelings of shame and lowered self-worth. As someone who suffers from depression, sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the pressure to prove I am not “crazy,” unstable, or incompetent. I also think it is very important to note that mental illness is one of very few illnesses that people are encouraged in some ways to hide. Those diagnosed with cancer or diabetes are not discouraged from speaking about their illnesses. Yet, mental illness is often considered a family secret; something not to discuss with respectable company. But, we need to stop considering mental illness a weakness. It is a disorder, a flaw of biology and chemistry, not a flaw of a person’s character or ability.

So what should be done in order to be more socially just educators? First of all, start talking about mental illness. Unpack the stereotypes with other teachers and, of course, students. Discussing facts about mental illness is a good first step of reducing the shame that many youth feel. I personally recommend the Peabody award-winning documentary “Hearts and Minds: Teens and Mental Illness” which demystifies mental illness for teens through the stories of four teenagers.

A second recommendation is simply having empathy, not sympathy for people with mental illness. I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have been told to perk up or just cheer up. Hmm … if only I had thought of that! While friends and family are well-intentioned with statements like this, it can come across as belittling and irreverent. Mental illness is not something that someone can snap out of. Instead, offer your listening services and moral support through daily or weekly check-ins.

Third and finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t advocate the use of literature to talk about mental illness. As a middle and high school English teacher, there are many wonderful books that could open up conversations about people with mental illnesses. I will offer a few of my suggestions, but there are many more great ones.

Depression and Suicide:

  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • Hold Still by Nina LaCour

Anxiety Disorders:

  • I Don’t Want to be Crazy by Samantha Schutz
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Eating Disorders:

  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle

Bipolar Disorder:

  • Crazy by Amy Reed
  • Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught

Thought Disorders (e.g. Schizophrenia) :

  • Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral
  • Cameron and the Girls by Edward Averett

PTSD:

  • The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Self-Harm:

  • Cut by Patricia McCormick
  • Scars by Cheryl Rainfield

Reference

Young I. M. (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Michelle M. Falter is a doctoral candidate in the department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia, and former editor of the Journal of Language and Literacy Education. She has been a secondary English teacher for ten years, having the privilege of teaching in both the United States and abroad in countries such as The Dominican Republic and Germany. Michelle’s scholarship focuses on the role of emotion in the English classroom, and helping educators co-construct knowledge with their students using participatory, critical, and dialogical teaching practices. Michelle can be contacted at mfalter@uga.edu or on twitter @MFalterPhD.

Guest Post: Ginger Lehmann on Technology In Schools

“Technology” is one of the buzzwords suggested as a key to making quality education accessible for all students in America. Being passionate about creating an exciting and challenging learning environment for my students, I’ve tried to embrace the new innovations that have come my way. I recently had the opportunity to attend ISTE 2014 (The International Society for Technology in Education annual conference), and I was excited to find ways that technology can enhance the academic experience for me and my students. The conference was overwhelming. From the enormous Expo hall with over 500 exhibits to the many people walking around wearing Google glass, I was in tech heaven. Surely the tools to break educational barriers could be found here, right? However, at the end of the weekend, I found myself reflecting on what I had seen from a very different perspective.

As I sat down for the opening keynote, I was surprised to find that it would be delivered by the actress, Ashley Judd; however, I was ready to be inspired by new ways to use technology in order to open the doors of education to all students. Well, Ms. Judd did not have any compelling “21st Century” approaches to learning to share. Instead, she spoke at length about her traumatic childhood, one that included sexual abuse and neglect, and how school provided the only consistency for many years. She shared from her heart about the teachers that “saved her life” by paying attention and noticing that she was facing unique challenges inside and outside the classroom. It was a touching speech, but I was still looking for the next great computer program or digital device that would transform my classroom. I missed the point.

I spent the next three days attending sessions during which knowledgeable educators shared tips and tricks for incorporating technology into instruction: how to turn your classroom into a “Makerspace;” 30 new ways to use Google; how digital literacy can close the achievement gap; tech tools for collecting and managing data. It was all very informative and interesting. I took many notes and wrote down countless websites, but something was missing. No matter how hard I tried, I did not feel the excitement I expected to feel; the passion just wasn’t there.

There were two distinct moments when I felt the stirring I was looking for, and they were unexpected. The first was when I saw a group of students presenting to adults about cool ways they are using technology in their classroom. Honestly, I can’t even remember what they were demonstrating, but the excitement in this diverse group of faces is what I remember. I loved seeing kids being part of the discussion. The cool tools and devices were just machines and computer programs until they got into the hands of kids. Then, they became like magic wands opening up whole new worlds of knowledge.

The second experience happened on the last day in the Expo hall. I was visiting random booths when I heard a commotion at the other end of the hall. I followed the sound of drumbeats (yes, drumbeats) and kids cheering, only to find Ron Clark and a group of students from Ron Clark Academy demonstrating a lesson while a large group of teachers watched. Sure, they were using some innovative technology, but that wasn’t what drew the attention and applause of the educators around them. It was the enthusiastic relationship between teacher and students, and it drew me in, too.

As I walked away from that wonderful lesson, I pondered what had been missing from the conference for me, and I realized that it was what I had just witnessed — students, the very thing that must be at the heart of everything we do as educators. Technology is cool, and we should embrace the opportunity to enhance our instructional practice, but if we are not careful to keep our focus on the hearts and minds of kids, those technology tools will become just another distraction from the real needs of our students. I think maybe Ashley Judd’s message was more appropriate than I realized. We — teachers — have to build relationships with our students; we have to know what is really going on with them before any computer program is going to be effective.

 

Ginger Lehmann teaches American Literature and Writers’ Workshop at Clarke Central High School in Athens, Georgia, where she serves on the School Improvement Leadership Team and the Technology Committee. She formerly participated in the Red Clay Writing Project Summer Institute (a local chapter of the National Writing Project), and now serves on the RCWP Leadership Board. Ginger serves as an adviser to the Clarke Central Poetry Club, and teacher for the Red Clay Writing Camp. She is the 2014 recipient of the Walter Allen award for excellence in teaching from the Foundation for Excellence in Education organization in Athens.

Redefining Creativity: Thoughts on Traditional Classrooms

It never fails to surprise me when the same students who tell me how much they hate writing are the ones who scribble poems in the back of the room during “boring” lectures. It never fails to render me speechless when we get to our poetry unit, and the same students who “fail” test after test, essay after essay, turn in beautifully crafted work.

Then, I think back to my high school self: I, too, “hated” reading. I “loathed” writing. I dreaded my boring English lectures. Yet, I kept a yellow three-pronged folder full of creative outlets: poems, stories, letters, doodles — you name it.

Here I am now, more than a decade later, a high school English and Special Education teacher trying to reach my students, wondering why there a disconnect between standards-based learning and creative outlets for our kids.

There is a reason for all the quotation marks, and that reason lies within the traditional approach to teaching, which is grounded in standards-based education. My argument is not that Common Core State Standards do not allow for creative instruction. I believe every teacher holds that right in his or her hands. No, my qualm is with the representation of creativity.

Creative writing — whether through poetry, song writing, or flash fiction — is rarely seen as valuable in Western culture.

I remember my professors in college dubbing English majors (especially us creative writers) the “future unemployed of America.” That didn’t stop me from pursuing my dreams, but creativity does not have to be limited to writing fiction.

Instead, I feel the stigma of not taking creative thought seriously must be removed from the classroom. Moreover, I think creativity should be instilled in our everyday lessons and welcomed from our students.

In order to remove the veil of insuperiority from creative response, teachers must instill creative values in students.

Our lessons should be built upon a foundation of unique inquiry. Acting, freewriting, freestyling and digital literacies should not be foreign to an English Language Arts classroom (or any class, for that matter).

Value is not lost in a lesson about the thematic qualities of To Kill a Mockingbird if we have our students act out lessons learned in the novel just as Jem, Scout and Dill acted out Boo Radley’s life in the Finch’s yard.

Additionally, a poetry slam has just as much value as taking notes on the qualifications of Walt Whitman and his free verse poetry.

If we change how educators view creativity, then students may begin to find their voice through creative means.

How can we expect a student to have full control over their voice and audience in an argumentative essay if we have not allowed them to explore these notions inwardly, through creative and/or multimodal means?

In order to produce quality, scholarly work, students must first test the waters, build their strengths and develop schemas in which to work from.

If we allow students to establish a reservoir of creative outlets, the more difficult tasks set on by Common Core State Standards won’t seem so hard; in fact, maybe these more efferent tasks will become aesthetically pleasing, too, reducing the use of “boring” from the English classroom.

Just a thought.

 

The Benefits of Annotation: Students Interacting with Texts

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!

 

What is in a name?

There is so much in a name. That’s why, when the prompt for my site tag and URL came up, I froze. I knew I wanted a site where I could document what I was teaching and where I could share my classroom reflections. I wanted a site that would store the lessons I found to be successful and analyses of possible reasons why others failed. But, I also wanted this site to encourage others to teach with their students in mind.

So much of teaching now is political. If money did not rule education before, it surely does now. After No Child Left Behind, it seems like, through standardizing education, we have left everyone behind. The people who run educational institutions are policy makers, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill — not necessarily teachers, administrators and each school’s community. I’m not saying that schools were perfect before NCLB, but I don’t think the current state of our educational system is working.

Therefore, I have chosen to fight for my kids. I’m not going to break laws. I’m not going to ignore policies or standards. However, I believe there is a way to make the standards apply to my classes (not the other way around). My kids come first and if I teach with them in mind, I am doing right by them. To me, this is every teacher’s duty — it’s a duty of social justice. Not only do most teachers perform acts of social justice every day, I believe they should be teaching it in their classes.

So. That’s where the site name came from. Teaching Social Justice is meant to inspire me, my students, and (hopefully) others to step up to the activism calling us. Sometimes it just involves a class, sometimes it is an action within one’s self, and sometimes social justice creeps into every aspect of our lives. That’s where I’m at right now. Education has become so political, I guess it’s my turn.

Best,

JJW

JoLLE — My First Conference Experience

The Journal of Language and Literacy Education held their first annual conference last February, which also happened to be the first conference I had ever attended. The theme of the conference was “Activist Literacies.” This year, the conference theme is “Literacy for/and Social Justice: Inspire, Engage, Create, Transform,” and I am presenting. This website is actually a tool I plan to use at the conference, where I will discuss how I combined current events with standards-based historical texts to build a relevant curriculum for my classes. I was especially inspired by JoLLE’s special issue after their first conference, which featured articles on the same theme as the conference, many of which written by those who presented. Check it out!