Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Cultural tension/prejudice: Why aren't these conversations happening more often?

The conversation began in class today. The hurt feelings were expressed, and finally, we got to see what happens "when people stop being polite and starting getting real". Too bad, it happened in the last 5-10 minutes of class, because at once, the whole class woke up. It felt like today was when class actually began.With new people in the conversation came the new perspectives I wanted, and I plan on discussing as many perspectives of this issues as I possibly can.

I shared my perspective on what may cause these deeply held racial beliefs that underlie racial tension and prejudice and my suggestion to help alleviate this.

After listening to my classmate discuss this and his perspectives, I realized that I am missing an important piece of the equation: In order for the healing of wounds from heavy life baggage, one has to want to change and be ready to change.

The conversation will continue next Wednesday, so I'm interested to hear more about this idea and others. Stay tuned, folks. However, that's not what this post is solely about. After class, I had an hours long conversation with some classmates on this topic and about how teachers approach "hate speech" in their classrooms, especially concerning homophobic hate speech. It was a great conversation, and I left it feeling better knowing that there are other colleagues of mine that are on the same wavelength when it comes to these issues. The only question I had left was why aren't these conversation happening more often? 

I'm taking a diversity class, and these issues of specific beliefs and values regarding different races and sexuality are just now being discussed in earnest after three weeks. I can only imagine, then, how often this comes up in a school. To get a take from the inside, I called up a friend teaching in a racially diverse system and asked her how often these conversations happen with students or with other teachers. Her response? "Never. No one's touching [these issues] with a pole."

 The more we are aware of the cultural values and biases we hold, the more we can do ensure that our students are being treated as fairly as possible. With that said, there has to be darn good reasons to leave some of our students exposed to alienation over something that's really not their fault, and I'd like to hear them.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Racial prejudice/tension between teachers: Two cents from my "life baggage"

           This weekend, a professor had us discussing readings on a forum with our cohort-mates. Because this is a class on diversity in the middle school, we discuss many hot-button topics. In the context of one such discussion, a comment was made concerning the media's attention to school violence and violence in society in general. Without getting into too many details, the comment has struck up hurt feelings around a sweeping statement on the history of white people in America.

          After speaking with a two white colleagues and friends in this class this morning, I was a bit shocked and saddened to see how deeply the remark cut them. It cut them deeply enough to make them feel alienated from the rest of the class, as other remarks along the same vein were made in the online discussion. The whole cohort concept relies on the fact that we will feel like a "team" of new teachers, a support system meant to make everyone better. If any one is left feeling alienated, I don't believe the cohort, as individuals and as a whole, can be successful, so I'm look forward to a civil and honest discussion soon, so everyone can come to a new understanding, and possibly acceptance, of the other side, in the interests of personal growth and growth as new teachers. However, as this is still fresh, I want to discuss this now, as I don't think this phenomena of deeply set racial tension and even prejudice among teachers is uncommon, especially in schools where the racial balance tips largely in favor of one group over others. First, let me say that I can only speculate on the underlying causes of this tension and prejudice between teachers. I have no hard facts or evidence. Only personal experiences to inform me here.

     With that disclaimer out of the way, I think teachers bring "life baggage" into the school and classroom. This doesn't necessarily mean that teachers are automatically prejudiced against some students and teachers or that when it does happen, it is malicious. It simply means that their experiences in life sum up into their values, thoughts, words, and actions. A major part of most "life baggage" is cultural experiences, including race. Thinking back on my experiences with race issues, I probably have a relatively rosier experience than most other people of my race.  I went to school with a diverse set of kids, and keep the company of a diverse set of people. Diverse races, religions, values, et cetera. On the occasions that I did experience racial prejudice and tension, I could isolate the experiences. It didn't make the experience less hurtful when living through it, but it did make continuing to live past it easier knowing that the experience of prejudice and tension was largely an isolated one.

          No sweeping generalization of one group of people could come from my experiences, because I could thinking of several counterexamples to the bad experiences. From this I learned that a person's genealogy does not necessarily reflect within the person standing in front me. While my "life baggage" has a diverse set of experiences and views, others don't, especially when they come from places (both literal and figurative) and families that carry a heavy historical burden. For example, slavery is an issue that burns to the core of some black people here in America. The recorded mistreatment of black people (by various groups of people, including other black people) through time has carried over into this generation. For some people, it is easier to put historical baggage where it belongs. For others, they continue to deal with it, especially when their own circumstances and experiences recall those that happened in past times. Mind you, this doesn't just occur with members of a "wronged" race/ethnicity. I know of white friends who were shocked and horrified to discover that some of their ancestors were slave owners. Some of these friends feel the need to "make up" for what their ancestors did, just like some ancestors of slaves feel it is their place to make the ancestors of the slave owners "pay" for what they (the ancestors) did.

           Part of the racial tension/prejudice in schools comes from these types of attitudes on history. Some people are trying to make amends for history, while others are trying to exact revenge. However, the people who revenge "should" be exacted upon are long dead and gone, as are the people who "should" get amends. The other thing is that our generation was not involved in historical events, and as a result, making amends/exacting revenge is not our place anyway. It is okay for a person's history to make up a part of life baggage; in fact, I encourage this practice, as it makes us all more aware people of what's going on in the world. It also helps us to become more open to diversity. However,  historical events shouldn't make up the bulk of it. This is especially important for teachers, as our students get to see some of our life baggage. If most of your baggage consists of racial mistrust and fear, your students see it and take it into themselves. In largely homogeneous schools, the students are not exposed to diverse experiences. They vicariously experience a bit of what their teachers did.

          While I won't dare to presume to know what either the commenter or my other colleagues have going on their heads, I will say that I think what I've discussed comes into play in the larger phenomena going on here. This is not to be taken as an excuse or justification for racial prejudice. This is a posting that aims at understanding what lies beneath racial prejudice, so that we can begin healing the wounds caused by the baggage some of us carry. I'm interested in hearing other perspectives of this issue. While it is not talked about often, racial tension/prejudice between teachers is important enough to merit serious, civil, and honest conversations. The more we as teachers are aware and active of what we bring, baggage-wise, into the classroom, the better we serve all our students, but especially those without access to diverse viewpoints.

'A' for Effort?

Just got wind of an LA Times story: Los Angeles Unified School District is putting a ceiling on the percentage that homework can count towards a grade. Teachers can no longer count homework as no more than 10% of a student's grade. 

Due to time constraints (the siren song of grad work beckons), I won't get into this debate now (though I'm curious to hear where other teachers stand on this policy). However, I do want to pull something out of article that popped out and deserves a quick note:

"Critics — mostly teachers — worry that the policy will encourage students to slack off assigned work and even reward those who already disregard assignments. And they say it could penalize hardworking students who receive higher marks for effort."

If you read a paragraph prior, you will clearly understand that some students not doing their homework aren't ignoring it for the heck of it. They have other more pressing things to do, like, supporting their families by working at night. If I had to choose between making money for my family and doing a coloring sheet or 50 practice problems when I understood well after, say, 10 problems, I'm choosing the money too. Or if I'm having to go to school all day and then go home to cramped and loud apartment, I'm not really caring about the Ms. So-and-So's paragraph asking me to regurgitate the notes from today. 

Don't get me wrong; I'm not anti-homework. In fact, I very much like it when it is relevant, reasonable, and most importantly, purposeful. Nothing irked me more in school than having to do again, something that we already did or something that really didn't help me to understand the concept. Indeed, engagement and practice with material being taught is essential for understanding. Endless amounts of irrelevant, unreasonable, redundant, and just plain dumb homework is not. 

Because my homework is meaningful and is meant for practice and engagement, I don't mind counting it for around 5-10% of the grade. A professor of mine likened the grading percentage makeups to sports: homework is the practice, quizzes are the scrimmage, and tests are game days. If you can understand this, you know why homework is worth so little. Off practice days will hurt a bit, but the grading on it allows room to make mistakes and grow from them. With that said, I'm not going to give As for effort on homework. Sure, if your homework consists of coloring sheets, what else is there to grade other than how pretty the picture is? However, if you are like me and  are actually putting thought and effort into creating homework assignments, then heck no! I'm not taking an "effort grade" for homework. That's what that other 5% is for (if you subscribe to this): participation. 

Would you give this a good effort grade? He did it after all....

We, as teachers, don't want our time wasted Why waste our students' time? It's only more work on us anyway. Give it when it counts. (Just realized I gave my input on homework after saying not now. Procrastination and wordiness at its finest!)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Schools and Illegal Immigrants: Since when is declining enrollment a good thing?

"____________ of Stone Mountain is glad the new law is encouraging illegal immigrants to pull their children out of DeKalb’s cash-strapped school system.

'I don’t see a downside to that because — especially here in DeKalb County — we are talking now about having to close schools and go in different directions to try to give the children the best education,' said _____, a member of the Dustin Inman Society, which advocates enforcement of U.S. immigration and employment laws.
'Smaller class sizes are certainly going to be a benefit in an environment like we have here in DeKalb County.'"
- AJC, June 18, 2011 [Note: I retracted the name, because...well, you'll figure out why.]
          Last week, the AJC published an article on the potential effects of a potential decline in student enrollment due to the coming enforcement of an anti-illegal immigrant law here in Georgia. Illegal immigration is a hot-button issue here in Georgia, so I'm used to reading articles on it and reading/hearing nonsensical commentary. However, every once in a while, you read something so stupid, you must comment on it BECAUSE YOU MAY BLOW IF YOU DON'T RESPOND!!! See what this person has made me do? I'm yelling on a computer. 
Because there is so much wrong with the statement I pulled out, I'm going to go line-by-line with this. 
- "'I don’t see a downside to [illegal immigrants pulling their children out of school] because — especially here in DeKalb County — we are talking now about having to close schools and go in different directions to try to give the children the best education,'"

           Declining enrollment won't keep schools open. In fact, just the opposite will happen. Want proof? 11Alive reports that, "The DeKalb County School Board close eight underpopulated schools in order to save money, and redraw school district lines to accommodate other shifts in population over the years that have filled other schools beyond their capacity." Underpopulated schools waste money, and district lines will get redrawn to save money. This would happen with or without the children of illegal immigrants in the equation. To account for the other side of the coin (i.e. the relief of overpopulated schools), consider this: even with the overpopulated schools, they are still closing schools because they still have too much space. Seems to me like the children of illegal immigrants have a small effect, if any, on the space/school closure issue in DeKalb. 

           By the way, what does it mean to "go in different directions" to give our kids the best education possible and why it is implied to be a bad idea? Clearly in the person's county, a different direction is not a bad idea. Unless the person wants to continue the trends seen here and here

"When words fail to describe the dismay..."
- "'Smaller class sizes are certainly going to be a benefit in an environment like we have here in DeKalb County.'"

          Make no mistake, I'll never say that class size doesn't matter, because in my own experience, it does. It affects the types of activities that can be reasonable done, how much time I have with individuals, my workload, et cetera. I'll even admit that it affects achievement, which is the larger purpose behind smaller classes; we want to boost our students' achievement! However, consider a few questions. How do we define achievement? Are there other effects on achievement other than class size? What are the other effects of class size? I'll give you a jumping point to explore these issues if you choose: Type in "what affects achievement" into Google Scholar and see what you get. Pick your three favorites and read them. Then respond to following:

1. State the definition of achievement that you found from the articles. List the similarities and differences between the definitions. 

2. What were the researchers examining in the articles you read? What effect did the variable have on achievement?

          Without giving the gory details (as I've been reading on the issue of achievement for a while now), I'll say that I've been hard-pressed to find a singular definition of "achievement". Some define it as some test score, and others define it as some possession of skills or abilities. "Achievement" is a bit of a moving target. As it turns out, so is the issue of class size. Some studies say low is the way to go. Some say that it doesn't matter. Others say it's good for x grade level but not for y grade level. The consensus behind class size effects is...drumroll.... There is no consensus! How anti-climatic! We don't know the real effects of class size, so one can't make the argument for it.  

"For when one facepalm doesn't cut it."
        If I may further put salt on the wound, let me go back for a second. I think it's cute that this person thinks that class sizes will be reduced if/when illegal immigrants pull their kids out of school, especially because DeKalb is consolidating schools due to underpopulation. 

Get it? It's a cute polar bear!
        To be fair, this person is not the only one who is off-base, to put it nicely. As much as I like the AJC Get Schooled Blog for allowing for spirited discussion on education issues and questions, this same discussion can bring out a lot of ugly. The blog post discussing how the decline in student enrollment might affect teaching jobs brought out the ugly in full effect. 
        Illegal immigration is a big deal in country that comes with a lot of political and social "baggage", so to speak. However, when it comes to talking about children and their education, the nonsense needs to go. Whether or not my position of illegal immigration is clear here, we all should agree that it is never a good idea to have uneducated children living in our society, simply because of who their parents are and where their parents come from. In every classroom, every kid should be taught. I hope that's what everyone wants out of their kid's teacher. If not, some should steer clear of my classroom. 

That's sums it up!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I Stand Corrected: 1st Edition

"If you are going home fried because your kids were nutso, you shouldn't be thinking about what rules were broken or what you'er are going to do to the kids. You should be thinking about your lesson and what you did. Good teaching is your best defense." - Professor S.

I stand corrected about this graduate school thing. If hear nothing else helpful during graduate school, this statement was what I needed. To recall, my last post "What's the point?" has an answer...Good teaching.

Cue Mr. Freeman....

Monday, June 13, 2011

"What's the point of this?"

More and more, I find myself thinking this in my grad classes this summer. Admittedly, this is partly due to fatigue, boredom, frustration, et cetera. The other reason why may be more justifiable.

In these education classes, I've already heard, "Make sure your instructional decisions are beneficial to your students," a million times. Got it, professors. Now, you sure your instructional decisions are beneficial to your students, especially because you teach in a college of education and should know better. 

To be fair, this is not an attack on them. They are all smart people with good-intentions in training teachers. However, some of them are guilty of making us do extraneous/cutesy/redundant/pointless/redundant assignments. How many reflections does each professor need? Why are we not learning or reviewing middle school math content in a content class? Why are we doing math puzzles in a content class? Are five chapters in five different books with the same perspective of the same subject necessary to discuss? While we, the future teachers, are supposed to be thinking about the purpose of homework or notes and why a hands-on might be better than direct instruction, it seems that some professors are sleeping at the wheel and not thinking about their craft. 

"Ms. 'Insane' Teacher? Ms. 'Insane' Teacher"

I have no problem with reflecting upon what we discuss.  Nor do I have a problem with reading a bunch of chapters every night as long as there is some sort of larger point to them all and it is not repetitive! In fact, I welcome the reflections and readings; it forces me to think critically about the decisions I make in the classroom and why I make them. I do have a problem with hypocrisy. If you are going to teach about good teaching, you must practice what you teach.

If only Magic Squares and Sudoku were a part of the curriculum.

Monday, June 6, 2011

It Just Got Real

Got an email with information on my start date. In the interest of keeping this blog as clean as possible, I won't post a clip of my immediate thoughts.

What he just said. 

Seriously though, after a few hours to breathe, I'm seeing the bigger picture againwanted this. I still feel the same rush of excitement I felt as I went to change my major to psychology as the first step on my way to doing this. I still feel the same passion for the field as when I first began embarking on this journey. There is not much more I can do to prepare myself other than getting off this blog right now and reading these articles for class in the morning.

Before I do that though, let me note. As much as I've been pontificating here so far, it doesn't change the fact that I'm still a newbie and will continue to be one for the foreseeable future. I want to be teacher, because I want to contribute to the positive in the world, and the best way I can is by investing in the people who are upcoming. I don't know all the answers; I come only with questions and opinions. This public forum for me is a way to share my questions and opinions in the hopes for finding new ways of seeing things or contributing to the pool of solutions. Okay, done.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

College-track versus Vocational-track: Why is this a debate?

Two Years at the Blackboard: Mr. N's Curmudgeonly Rant About Everything That is...

I must give a kudos to Mr. N over at Two Years at the Blackboard for his post on the current trend to peddle college to every student. I completely understand that getting a bachelor's degree is worth the large investment in time and money. The data implies that, from the potential earnings standpoint, we should encourage everyone to go a four-year college. However, consider the following: Is it worth it for those who had to drop out due to lack of time, money, etc? Is it worth it for those who don't want to go because they know college "isn't for them"? If you answered "no" to either question or both, then by extension, you don't believe that everyone should go to four-year college. 

It's okay. You are not a bad person for thinking this, especially if you work with kids (However, you may suck as a person if you believe this about kids given social or racial factors. Just saying.) In fact, I believe that all students should be encouraged, if not pushed, into a post-secondary education program. Not necessarily a four-year college, though that's an option. For some of our students, a four-year college is not the best option for them. Not because they are "less than"; it simply comes down to "it is not their thing". This is a hard concept for folks in education to grasp. There isn't a group of factors that we can list and start sorting kids. If that were true, there would be a few less Lifetime movies in existence.

Not going for the obvious "Feed the homeless" extracurricular joke.

We do our students a great disservice when it comes to discussing post-secondary options; we either do a really poor job at discussing options or we don't talk about them at all. I must confess that when I was high school, I looked down on the kids in the vocational track (back when Georgia had one). Sorry, but whenever the counselor interrupted English class once a year, she looked like she was discussing the contents of poo, not post high-school education options.  It wasn't until I realized that I knew a financially successful, hard-working, and smart kid who didn't go to a four-year college, that the vocational path is not one to be looked down upon nor is it one for the "less intelligent". If college were his "thing", my brother would have wiped the floor with the Harvard elite and certainly the nerds at my prestigious public college. However, he chose his own path and is running a pretty successful business of his own (Now that I think about it, he does business with the same nerds from my college). As for me? My name is "Insane" Teacher. Look up the starting salary for one of those.
Accurate depiction of how I look when I open my wallet. 
As for not discussing vocational options, I don't get why not? The HVAC specialist that came by today didn't seem worried about his job security. My car technician is also not worried. However, several of my friends in nice offices are worried. Several teacher friends are worried. Seeing a trend? Many jobs that require an associates or some other training program are more available right now. Jobs that require a bachelor's? Not so much. Bachelors in some domains are a dime-a-dozen, so it is not simply about just getting one (Psychology majors, I'm looking at you! [IT is now avoiding mirrors.]). Besides, have you watched the news on our economy?

Looking from the earning perspective we started with, exhibit A and exhibit B. Many on this path will make as much, if not more, money than I will as a teacher. Certainly more than the social workers working in schools.

I want all of my students to shoot for the moon, and luckily for them, I know that there are several launchpads for them to use. We just need to find the right one.