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?