Saturday, January 7, 2017

The More Things Stay the Same

I've been gone for almost 3 years- That seems like a long time. But it's not. Not when it comes to the business of educating kids in the United States. Things I'm shocked to still see:

  • Debates about how to address the diversity in our classrooms.
  • Endless articles on what works best in educating "urban" students. Newsflash- this has been researched extensively from Dewey(1933) until now. We already know what works. I believe we choose not to do it for population of students that are deemed not worthy.
  • Sit- and- take professional development is still a thing. Seriously? I researched this as part of my dissertation. It does not work. Teachers are learners and experts. Why are we still spending millions of dollars bringing people from outside our profession into our schools to lecture us about what to do with our own students?
  • Testing is still big business with no end in site. Read Diane Ravitch's many publications about this. I am really afraid for our children at this point. Testing is not the only valid measure of student progress and learning, yet we still have large corporations making billions of dollars selling these materials to school districts across the country with promises of guaranteed success.
  • Public v charter school debates, as if there is one answer to our complex educational issues in this country. Listen, I've worked in both settings. Amazing public schools exist. Amazing charter schools exist. The problems arises when corporations and organizations with no real interest or background in education are allowed to treat our students like chattel for the sake of a profit. A toxic school is a toxic school and this is usually a direct result of leadership, funding and curriculum decisions that do not center children. Period. 
Rant over.

Nitty Gritty & Nuts & Bolts – On Looking Culture Issues Directly in the Eye

So in my last post, I reflected on the experience & challenges of teaching in another culture which I had never done in my entire teaching career. I decided to try to capture some Nuts  & bolts types of things that helped me get over the hurdle for those of you who may need some actionable strategies that you can apply right away.

Here are a few things I found and/or learned>

Name it-  I was different than  my student in the Middle East. This may seem simple but failing to do this caused my lots of problems early on. Stop saying “I don’t see color” if your students have different backgrounds and ethnicities than you do. It’s not only insulting but it’s a disservice to both them and you to ignore this simple fact.

Learn the language, even the local slang or dialect. This helps in 2 primary ways. First, it helps in building community when you can share moments that are not always about the “curriculum”.  It allows you to laugh and identify with your students. Second, it reinforces that their language, slang, dialect etc., is not wrong, just different than the King’s English and that’s okay. The minute I showed authentic interest in what my Emirati girls were saying and how they related to each other, my classroom management issues began to fade away. It’s that important.

Read. Read. Read.  Even when I worked in schools on the southside where students looked and sounded like me, books like Marva Collins Way, Nothing’s Impossible and Other People’s Children were like my bible.  Recently, I’ve added The DreamKeepers, For White Folks That Teach in the Hood and revisited classics like The Miseducation of the Negro.

Make sure your classroom libraries are stocked with books that reflect characters that look like all of your students. There should be a healthy mix of backgrounds represented in the stories you share. This will make all the difference in reaching your reluctant readers and improving your classroom community overall. Students want and NEED to see themselves reflected in your classroom literature. Short on funds? I regularly trolled library sales, salvation army & stalked retiring teachers for access to their books.  I prominently featured books on UAE culture and famous figures to keep my girls interested in reading & writing.

Seek out guest speakers and field trip experiences where students can see themselves reflected in a wide variety of career opportunities.  I cannot scream this one enough from the rooftop. My girls’ group on the south side included regular field trips to local, black-owned business and guest speakers from every field. I still remember my students’ sense of awe when they realized there were Black women engineers, scientists and FBI agents. They could not fathom it previously since they had never actually MET anyone in these fields that looked like them.

Utilize people in your school that can help. Teachers tend to isolate themselves which is a grave mistake. In Abu Dhabi, I would have lost my mind had it not been for other teachers who were able to help me navigate complex cultural issues and just listen to me vent & scream. 

Well, that’s all for now. I’m adding to this list as the “aha” moments continue to appear.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Culture- Yes It Matters In A Classroom

I grew up in a Black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. After graduating, I returned to the same neighborhood to teach. I did this for 15 years; I’ve experienced some of the best and worst times of my professional life simultaneously. 

I had brilliant students, students with behavioral problems, students that had already encountered law enforcement on several occasions; students that sometimes yelled and cursed at me as well as their classmates out of sheer pain & frustration often.  I never thought about cultural responsiveness or competency though. I didn’t have to. I was them. They were me. Period.

 I understood why some of my Black girls were so “loud” and had an “attitude”.  Why they often moved their heads when they talked, gestured frantically when they were trying to make a point and appeared confrontational to outsiders. It was one way, oftentimes the ONLY way they were heard.

I understood why “being disrespected” was such an affront to a Black Boy. I understood why seemingly frivolous things like Jordans and designer clothes carried so much weight. I understood why so many were attracted to a lifestyle that often leads to nothing but prison or worse.

My success as a teacher was part of what defined me and continues to do so. I never had to think about how much cultural competence was naturally a part of who I was.  We discussed rap lyrics regularly in class, wrote songs about books we were reading and wrote argumentative essays about how to combat the various issues plaguing our neighborhoods.  We produced short films and podcasts to express our ideas and share them with the world.

When I became a literacy coach, I stocked every single classroom including my own with books that featured Black Boys & Girls as main characters. I will never forget my students’ response to great novels such as Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. The Skin I’m In and Monster.  There were tears, fights and celebrations around us. Our history, our culture, our present state of being as Black people was central to our learning community.

I was an excellent teacher & facilitator and then the epiphany.  Fast forward 15 years after teaching in predominantly Black neighborhoods, I embarked on a new journey & took a teaching job in the Middle East. It was an exciting opportunity to teach in another country, be involved in educational reform and simply to grow and push myself.

This should’ve been a piece of cake right? Considering all of my years as a teacher, instructional coach and curriculum developer & I was pretty confident I could do this literally with my eyes closed.  What happened was far from my expectations.

I found myself struggling for the first time since I was a new teacher with basic things like classroom management and instructional techniques. It would have been quite easy to blame my early difficulties on the fact that my new class of 7th grade girls were all second language learners. In fact, I was pretty comfortable with blaming my stress on not being prepared to teach English to my Arabic Students.
However, if I am being honest, this was not the issue. I’m not sure when it hit me.

All I remember clearly was struggling one day to get through a short story about Muhammad Ali and “Bam”. The light bulb moment.  My girls were thrilled to talk and write endlessly  about their knowledge of Arabic Culture and traditions. What they knew about Muhammad Ali and his accomplishments drove our unit.  They even brought in cultural artifacts from home, created books and posters and were delighted to present to the class- something that had never happened before.

How could I have missed this?  I was struggling because I had not put their experiences, their culture, at the center of our community.  I supposed it had come so naturally in the past that being intentional about it never crossed my mind. Never. This one fact, had eluded me and colored my teaching experience in such a way that I now found teaching, something I once loved, extremely taxing. It was a chore and a painful one some days.

It occurred to me that this is how it must feel to be for example, A white, suburban-educated teacher attempting to teach in a community that is completely unfamiliar to you.  I remember running across so many young teachers like this in my early years. They spent days crying, screaming and many of them failed to make it to the end of the year.  I wonder, what a difference it would make if they had been coached or mentored by someone who helped them to see the value of cultural relevance in the classroom.  It’s easy enough to overlook this. I did it as an experienced educator. I can’t imagine how they felt in retrospect.

Going forward, I’m happy to see chats in #Educolor and #HipHopEd where people as taking on this issues. Hashtags and discussions aren’t enough though. What can we do? What will you do? What will I do to take this beyond discussion?


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

"Happy" Birthday. On Driving While Black. 2016

The other night, my husband announced he was running to the pharmacy to grab some allergy medicine. It was late so I dozed off apparently. I remember waking out of my sleep suddenly, heart-racing and wondering why he wasn’t back yet. I was literally in a panic. My 1st thought? What if he got stopped by the police? What if he’s been locked up, injured or worse? 

The tragic thing about this is that my husband & I are beyond law-abiding citizens. He actually spent 15 years as a Cook County Sheriff back in Chicago. Why is the 1st thought in my head upon waking up is fear of those sworn to protect us?  Maybe I’m spending too much time following all the protests and news reports following the recent murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  Or maybe, just maybe, I am all too aware that despite our world travels and ridiculous numbers of degrees, we are not truly safe.  For many, are skin color makes us a threat, less than human.

We got pulled over a few weeks ago too. I remember tensing up as the police officer pulled up behind us. I kept my phone close, ready to hit record if things went south. My husband, with all of his law enforcement experience, spoke calmly to the officer, repeatedly saying things like, “I’m reaching for my wallet now”. I’m going into the glove compartment to get a copy of the registration”. Constantly explaining. Constantly trying to keep the police officer calm, for fear of escalation of a minor situation. For fear of becoming another hashtag.

Today is Sandra Bland’s birthday. She died “mysteriously” in a police holding cell after being pulled over a year ago. I’m livid that in 2016 blind compliance is expected of me, and those that look like me in order to survive some police encounters.  And guess what? That won’t even save me if I run across the wrong officer. 

Today is Sandra Bland’s birthday. I’m sorry Sandra, that you had to die. That you had to become another hashtag. That countless others came before and after you. 

Today is Sandra Bland’s birthday. America 2016.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Housing At Last

So moving here to the UAE means constant moving and living out of a suitcase for months.  You have to pack up your home and be ready at a moment's notice. For many, including myself, this meant living with family members, at hotels or a combination of both even before you leave your home country. Once you arrive you are sent to live in a hotel in Abu Dhabi since this is where everyone's journey begins.

My group was placed at the Ibis:

It was just okay for me.  The biggest issue was the super small rooms and the distance from everything. This meant that people who were from a whole different countrry had to spend loads of cabfare whenever they wanted to get out and eat, shop or just do basic things.  I was actually glad when I received my placement in Al Ain since it meant I got moved to the Hilton, which was much more comfortable.

It had a great pool area, great food and great service.  But for me hotel living gets old after awhile. I needed to feel settled and was anxious about housing.  I was advised to head down to ADEC and inquire about my housing options early, especially since my school is a bit outside of town. I had the greatest housing counselor I could've asked for. I practically stalked him into a placement.  I was extremely nice about it but I inquired several times a week.  I think he basically got sick of me and just handed me a key.  I still owe him a gift because I ended up just where I wanted to be; The Hili Complex.

Here's a picture of it:

Some people don't like the massive size of it and I've heard it compared to a housing project. Those people have clearly never spent time in a real housing project.  I'm from Chicago and spent many summers in housing projects where most of my family lived including my since passed on, favorite auntie Sharon and my grandmother, "madear". Those were some of the happiest days of my life but there is no comparison here. People's perceptions are their own, rightfully. I am thrilled with my new home!

First off, it's HUGE.  My husband and I have an extremely spacious 2-bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment, a full kitchen and a living room that's large enough to function as a dining room too.  It's super-clean and relatively quiet so far.  Some people complain about the children playing on the playground but I love the sound of children laughing so it doesn't bother me a bit. Maintenance issues have been handled with lightning speed. There's a ton of other teachers and foreign expatriates living here and we're literally about 3 minutes (walking)  from a new mall being built, a grocery store and a ton of shops which I have yet to explore since I got sick a few days after moving here (that's another blog post; yes, I got pneumonia).   We're also in walking distance of the Rotana Hotel which has a fabulous gym, swimming pool as well as a sauna, jacuzzi and other amentities for club members.  Pics and video of the new place coming soon.

In the meanwhile,  here are some things you need to know about the housing process if you are considering coming here:

  • You will be frustrated at times. This is inevitable. You are in a new country and they do things differently here.  I darned near had a public meltdown trying to get my electricity turned on without my Emirates ID and I am NOT the type to meltdown.  If you do not look like this at least once during this process you're either very lucky or have the patience of a saint:
  • There is a deposit you must pay to get your utilities turned on. I hear they vary, but mine was 1000 dirhams just for the electricity.
  • You will have 5 days from the time you get your key (or your furniture allowance), whichever comes later to vacate the hotel; I jokingly called this the eviction notice because it sorta feels that way at the time. This is not a lot of time considering you have to check the new place for maintenance issues, take care of utilities and get basic furnishing and comforts of home.

  • Move-in condition means something different here; it simply means the place is vacant. More than likely you will have to pay to have it cleaned thoroughly and possibly painted depending on where you are placed (all within 5 days).
  • Start scouting out furniture and appliances early!  Yes, the hotel makes you feel like you're on vacation, but you will go into stress overdrive once you get your keys if you are not prepared.   Have some furniture picked out and start picking up little things for your place while you are the hotel.  That way, when you get your keys, you just need to make some phone calls and arrange some deliveries while you're working on utilities and everything else involved with getting settled.
  • Check out Dubizzle the various Swap-and-Shop groups and used furniture stores if you don't want to spend your entire furniture allowance.  We bought an entire bedroom set, as well as a gently used washer and a huge wardrobe using a combination of these sites and word of mouth. We decided to buy the rest of the appliances new and found great deals at Lulu's on refrigerators and ovens.  Carrefoure has many household items that don't break the bank as well. 
  • Remember, everything doesn't have to be perfect when you move-in initially. Get your utilities on, make sure you have the basics and get out of the hotel. If you absolutely cannot get out within the 5 days, kindly ask for an extension. Be succinct, explain why and give an estimate of when you can get out reasonably. I asked for an extension but only asked for 2-3 more days. I sent this to EMT support as well as popped by ADEC offices just to plead my case. Extension granted. No problem.