Monday, October 26, 2015

Reflection on "Safe Spaces: Making Schools and Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth

"Safe Spaces" by Annemarie Vaccaro, Gerri August and Megan S. Kennedy explores how the LGBT  community is portrayed (or not portrayed) in schools. The authors cite numerous examples of teachers who have tried to incorporate tolerance toward LGBT people, but also the resistance they face for doing so.

One excerpt I found particularly interesting was about history curriculum (I'm sure that isn't surprising).
History classrooms are no different, even though the themes of oppression and the struggle for civil rights are routinely examined. In these discussions, students learn of the exciting campaigns for human dignity and constitutional protections waged by African Americans, women and people with disabilities. These history lessons promote democratic ideals: they celebrate freedom and reinforce our commitment to justice. But they can also mislead. First, such history lessons often relegate the civil rights struggle to the past, as if all underrepresented groups have attained equal rights...such history lessons typically overlook one campaign for dignity in constitutional protections; that of the LGBT community. The bus boycott of Montgomery, yes; resistance at Stonewall, no.

I thought this was so pertinent because I am definitely guilty of this. I had to look up the Stonewall riots when I read this. This reading came at a perfect time, because I am teaching the 20's right now in my US II class. I had the students read "Let America Be America Again" by Langston Hughes, which is one of my favorite poems (and also would've fit in well with Dan's lesson a few weeks ago). It's about how the American Dream doesn't apply to everyone, but it also leaves out a few marginalized groups - women and gay people. I asked the students about who was left out. Most students came up with Asian immigrants. With some prodding, a few said women and one student in the back shouted out "homosexuals!" Some kids giggled and their eyes widened, but I didn't see any grimaces or dirty looks. We had a short discussion about it, but most students were not very vocal.

I also thought that the idea of the negative or dismissal of a teachable moment is just as profound for students as a positive one. The example the authors gave was one in which a student was explaining his family to another student. The student got in trouble because the teacher didn't think it was appropriate for him to talk about such a sensitive issue in school.

In my previous school, the environment was very intolerant of gay students. Without getting into too much detail in such a public forum, a student's rights were violated and he was physically punished at home because administration believed he was gay. It happened again with the same student a few weeks later. To my knowledge, the student never took any action, but this type of behavior sets a precedent for all other students. The school's adjustment counselor at the time was gay and took it upon herself to be a positive advocate for this student. As did his History and English teachers. However, in an environment like that, three staff members are not enough to overpower bigotry like that. This is the complete opposite of what Safe Spaces is talking about.

I would like to think that in such a progressive state of Massachusetts, situations like the one above would not happen. I'm just happy that student had a few staff members who stood by him when administration did not. I think that the tools and suggestions given by August, Vaccaro and Kennedy would greatly improve the culture in schools so that hopefully, the above example would be avoided.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Reflection on Boyd's "Are Today's Youth Digital Natives?"

This selection is one chapter from a book titled It's Complicated by Danah Boyd. In Chapter 7: "Are Today's Youths Digital Natives?" Boyd discusses a wide range of topics from the validity of Wikipedia and Google, to Myspace to the inequality in digital literacy.

In the first few paragraphs of the chapter, Boyd says something that I was just talking about in my team meeting this week and it really stood out.
It is dangerous to assume that youth are automatically informed. It is also naive to assume that so-called digital immigrants can offer valuable critical perspective. Neither teens nore adults are monolithic, and there is no magical relation between skills and age. Whether in school, or in informational settings, youth need opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge to engage with contemporary technology effectively and meaningfully. Becoming literate in a networked age requires hard work, regardless of age.

This resonated with me because my eighth grade students were given Chromebooks to take home this year. They were not given paper agendas from the school because the administration expected students to be able to write their homework on their devices. This is a lofty goal. I love the initiative to allow students to work with technology so much and that the school is moving to be more "green," however, it is not without its bugs. Many students use Google Keep or Google Calendars to write down their homework. But those are the students who already had an organized system for homework tracking on paper. For those students who aren't well organized on paper or have physical copies of assignments, doing everything online is too abstract. I know how to use Google Drive and am able to organize everything into folders, but that is because I have the skills already established . Many teachers are struggling with how to work with those students to give them time to learn about the resources available to them.

Another comparison that I really loved was Boyd's analysis of the idea of native and immigrant. The first thing I thought of when I read this was students from Mexico or Puerto Rico taking Spanish in school. Spanish-speaking students in a Spanish class are often assumed to have an easier time with the content because they already know the language, However, they know conversational Spanish in their native country, which could be very different from what they are taught. These students speak Spanish with their friends and family, but do not have to diagram sentences, conjugate verbs or write full paragraphs. 
The same can be said for teens and technology today. They've grown up with technology all around them, but use it primarily for searching for information on Google or Wikipedia, or for social networking. They have know way of inherently knowing how to properly cite a source, or format an essay or use Google Drive. These skills need to be taught just like a language would be.

The final thing that stood out to me was the following quote:
As more youth gained access through schools and public institutions, and as a result of the decline in costs of technology, scholars increasingly raised concern about the unevenness of skills, literacy and "socially meaningful" access.

I thought this was interesting inconjunction in the experience I'd had in the last 3 years. For two of those years, my students from working class families struggled to finish homework and projects at school because they didn't have access to a computer or the internet at home. One family in particular comes to mind. There were four children all in the same grade, so they had the same homework assignments but only one computer at home. Often, three siblings would not have their work done because the fourth was "hogging the computer."
I compare that experience with that of the students I have now. Everyone was given a chrome book to take home that was to be used just for school work. Many students asked about watching Netflix or playing games on it. When they were told not to, the general tone was "okay, I'll just watch it on my iPad/laptop/phone."

Doesn't it make more sense to give access to the students who need it, as opposed to the students who already have the resources they need? Boyd also talks about a study by Eszter Hargittai that explores the levels of literacy based on the amount of access students have. The students who had access to technology at home had a much better understanding and willingness to use technology than those with access only at school, the local library or at the Boys and Girls Club.

As an aside - The text book I was given for my 11th grade World History course was written in 1998. I have already planned to have the students "fact-check" the text book to find inaccuracies and figure out biases, like Boyd discussed here.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Reflection on Finn's "Literacy With an Attitude"

Finn discusses the reasons for the inequity in Literacy with an Attitude" in an interesting way. He first starts by explaining the social implications for allowing certain populations access to literature, such as keeping poorer people from reading. He also claims that this wasn't an aim of the US, but it has become that status quo.

One of the first things that stood out to me was the use of Jean Anyon's study, Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work. I was intrigued by the use of the question "can you make knowledge?" and how the answers differed between schools.

In the working class school: "When Anyon asked these fifth grade students, 'what do you think of when I say the word knowledge?' Not a single child used the word think. When asked if they thought they could make knowledge, only one of them said yes."

"When children in the middle class school were asked what knowledge is, seventeen of twenty used words like learn, remember, facts, study, smartness, intelligent, know, school, study and brains. When asked if they could make knowledge, nine said no and eleven said yes. When asked how, they said they'd look it up or listen and do what they're told or they'd go to the library."

"The children in the affluent professional school had the least trouble answering the question, 'what is knowledge?" Many of them used the word think and several alluded to personal activity having to do with ideas. ('Figuring stuff out.' 'You think up ideas and then you find out things wrong with those ideas.') When asked 'can you make knowledge?' sixteen said yes; only four said no.

"When asked, 'can you make knowledge?' half the children in the executive elite schools said yes, half said no. Compared with affluent professional school children, these children took a more passive view toward the creation of knowledge. For many of them, knowledge comes from tradition. It's 'out there' and you are expected to learn it."

I thought this question and the answers it produced were an eye-opening reflection on how we teach students in each of these schools. Students in working-class areas were basically just made to regurgitate information on a worksheet instead of being challenged academically the way that their more elite counterparts were.

I may be misguided here, but I think it's important to acknowledge that students in working class schools may have more issues going on at home than those in elite schools. For example, an eighth grade student in my old school was kicked out of her house on a Tuesday night. On Wednesday, the student's English teacher told her that she needed to take an oral quiz. The student didn't even respond - not a word. The teacher was, as expected, very frustrated when this student barely acknowledged her presence when she tried to get the student to take the quiz. The teacher didn't find out until later what the situation was at home, so what should she have done? Would the same thing have happened in an elite school? I think its unrealistic for us to say that we can make the kids forget or ignore what's happening outside of school walls - so what do we do about this? How does this contribute to students perceptions of school work? Might students in working class schools buy into their own education more if they thought that working on a debate or science experiment or measuring the classroom was more important than a worksheet? (Peterson would likely say yes.)

I also want to point out a huge strength that my former school had in this regard; it really pushed students from the working class to succeed in engaging ways like the projects and assignments discussed in the affluent and elite schools. Students participated in "Mad Science Days" in which they conducted experiments in front of their peers, competed in writing and History Day competitions and had a full semester long debate class. While the focus of the school was definitely on scores and data, I truly believe that our academic mission was being fulfilled. We touted a rigorous, inquiry based curriculum with a focus on math and science and a strong foundation in the humanities. Our graduates have gone on to wonderful schools and are succeeding there (we haven't had a class graduate from college yet, but will this year). I wonder if some of the things like what I mentioned above were implemented in other schools if it would make a difference.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Reflection on "The Gathering Resistance to Standardized Tests"

You can access the article I am responding to here. I chose this editorial because I have pretty strong opinions about standardized tests as a history teacher and as a former employee of a school that placed most of its value (on teachers, students and the school as a whole) on test scores and data. I also wanted to read this article because I am presenting on standardized testing later this semester, and thought it would be a good starting point for research.

The editors at Rethinking Schools put together a piece about the dangers of standardized testing and the need for reform of this system. They list many schools across the country in which teachers, unions, parents and students have all opted out of high-stakes testing. 

I thought the following passage was particularly interesting: The United States has a long history of using intelligence tests to support white supremacy and class stratification. Standardized tests first entered the public schools in the 1920s, pushed by eugenicists whose pseudoscience promoted the “natural superiority” of wealthy, white, U.S.-born males. High-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a “mental ability” gap and now an “achievement” gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.

Though I knew that these standardized tests favored white, middle and upper-middle class students, I didn't know about their origin. I think it's very interesting that despite having supposedly come so far from the beliefs mentioned above, we still use the same system to assess our students. I have much more to say on this topic, but I'll save it for December 2!

This article really interested me because I worked in an environment that was very much driven by test scores. Students took practice MCAS/PARCC tests twice per year per subject, all students took PSATs (even 7th graders) and our final exams were practice PARCC tests. Teachers would be given bonuses based on how well their students did on our mock exams and the real thing. AP teachers would be given a huge bonus for every student who got a 4 or 5 on the end of year exam.

The editorial also talked a lot about students and districts opting out of state tests. I see both sides to that debate - one the one hand, I don't agree that the PARCC is a fair assessment of student knowledge. During the spring of 2015, some of our students took PARCC and our older students took MCAS, as it was still part of their requirement to graduate. Our 9th grade students were told to take the PARCC, though it wasn't a requirement for them. A few of our very high achieving students opted out and our admins were (understandably) unhappy. In talking to a few of them, their responses were the same - "what's the point? I'm just going to fail. It doesn't even count for anything so why should I bother?" If the test was more meaningful, would they have had the same reaction?

I also understand where policymakers are coming from in that if 50% of students in the country don't take the test, how can the test be evaluated and improved for the next crop of students? 

I recently watched the documentary Race to Nowhere on Netflix. It's all about the standardized testing system in this country. I highly recommend it! It also somewhat embodies the beginning portion of this editorial in Arne Duncan's comment about the opposition to the common core coming from "white suburban moms."