Monday, November 30, 2015

Johnson & Richer - Rhode Island Teachers Respond to PARCC

In their 2015 piece, Johnson and Richer sought to discover how teachers and students from different Rhode Island communities responded to the last year's PARCC test. The researchers administered a survey in order to "discover how teachers perceived the test and its effects on student learning and well-being, their own teaching, and school climate."

Last year was my first year as a teacher in an under-resourced public high school in Rhode Island, and it was also the first year that my school administered the PARCC test. Although I was not a part of Johnson and Richer's survey, I shared many of the same experiences as those who were.

I find myself at a crossroads in regards to standardized testing.

On one hand, I think standardized testing is a necessary reality in our society. I remember being in a boarding school and working into the early hours of the morning to try and earn a B+ on a paper, when some of my friends at the local public school were doing less rigorous work and earning 4.0 GPAs with ease. This never sat well with me, because it seemed unfair that colleges could look at two different transcripts, and, at least on paper, some of my friends at the local public school looked like much better candidates than I did. For this reason, I was glad that we had standardized testing like the SAT - it "created an equal playing field" if you will.

On the other hand, I am also sympathetic to the MANY problems that standardized testing creates. Because I was the teacher in the classroom, I saw first-hand the achievements and struggles that my students experienced throughout the year. I saw many of my students come to the US for the first time with little to no English ability, and celebrate their progressions in learning a new language. One of my students had not been in formal education since she was 8 years old, yet she was able to grasp concepts from basic multiplication to solving simple equations. Unfortunately, the PARCC test did not capture these stories. My students were given scores on a number scale - and, in almost all cases, they were labeled as failures. Many of my students struggled with the long math passages, the computer usage, and the pressure of it. As a teacher, I felt horrible that my students were not up to the standards that the PARCC wanted them to be at. This is not to say that there was not real teaching and learning going on during the year, but again, the PARCC test did not reflect this.

Ideally, teachers - the people who are in the classroom - should be the ultimate evaluaters of their students. There are many educators, including Johnson and Richer, that support this idea. In an ideal world, I would as well. We as educators can evaluate our students' abilities better than any standardized test ever could. My only concern with this notion is that there is no way to account for differences in opinions, standards of success, and biases (not that our current system isn't bias already!). For instance, I currently have a senior in my freshman Algebra I, and he recently asked me to write his college recommendation letter. For lack of better words, this student has not been the "ideal" student - he often does not do her homework, he often comes to class with an attitude, and he has struggled on assessments. Still, I find myself almost obligated (perhaps because this is my first college rec!) to "fudge" a bit when I describe this student in my letter. If I am having these thoughts, who is to say that other teachers don't as well?


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Pecha Kucha Thoughts

This class has been a whirlwind of thoughts, ideas, and emotions for me. I know it's going to be extremely difficult for me to try and sum it all up into just one 20 slide x 20 sec presentation. I really liked the example that Professor Bogad shared with us. The speaker did a great job by seamlessly going from slide to slide. Each slide was important, connected, and relevant, but they did not take from the overall message - they enhanced the speakers words without being too distracting.

Some ideas that I want to focus on:

What is our role as educators? Is the idea of teaching a curriculum, the culture of power, and affirming our students' backgrounds too daunting or do they go hand in hand?

Is equality the goal?

How do my students perceive me? Am I the math teacher or am I the person who helped challenged them to be critical of the society around them?

Monday, November 2, 2015

"Tongue Tied" Chapters - Review

In the chapter, "Aria", Richard Rodriguez offers a personal narrative of his acquisition of the English language. Rodriguez explains how learning English effected his public confidence, his family, and his own private and public identity. Almost in contrast to Rodriguez's piece, Virginia Collier's "Teaching Multilingual Children", offers seven critical measures that ESL teachers must take in order to best teach students who are learning English.

Some of Rodriguez's account resonated with my own upbringing. The author eloquently describes how his family interactions changed when he and his siblings became more proficient in their English ability. I have seen this with my own family; my father, whose English is limited, is a much different person at events when speaking in Portuguese is the norm, than when we are in an English-speaking environment.

What I found most interesting about Rodriguez's account was his final remarks on bilingual educators. I am really looking forward to better understanding this passage in class, but it appears as though Rodriguez is critical of bilingual educators who propose that children lose a degree of individuality by becoming assimilated into public society. Rodriguez suggests that while these children may lose a bit of private individuality by becoming better assimilated into public society, learning English allows them to achieve public individuality. Perhaps the most depressing reality of Rodriguez's account is that his family interactions were changed as a result of his improvement in English; dinner conversations were muted and his parents became less involved in their children's day to day experiences.

As I read this, I could not help to think about my own students who are English language learners. I have some students who have really committed to learning the language; they fearlessly insist on speaking English in class and with their friends. More often than not, these students learn English quickly, and they are essentially fluent by the end of a year. Still, I have some students who have not been successful in learning English even though they have been in the country for two to three years; I attribute this to the fact that they primarily speak Spanish in with their friends in school and with their families at home. I do not teach in a bilingual school, and I always wonder why all of my students do not commit to learning English as strongly as some others. I always argue that it is too easy for many of my students to not have to speak English; learning a new language at age fourteen is hard, intimidating, and not necessarily that important in the near future when all of your friends and family choose to speak Spanish. After reading these two pieces, I wonder if this push back is too simplistic though. Do my students consider their private and public identities? How has learning English effected their relationships with their friends and families?

While I was reading these pieces, I thought about the Delpit reading we discussed earlier this year. Delpit argues that it is our duty to teach our students about the dominant culture that we live in, and more importantly, about how to navigate in that dominant culture. Although Delpit was primarily speaking in regards to race and social class, I find her remarks to be interesting when thinking about students that are learning a dominant language. Is it our duty to say "we must bring both languages/cultures to the classroom" or are we as educators expected to only teach the dominant culture? I have been reprimanded by my principal because I am not allowed to speak Spanish or Portuguese with my ESL students. She has informed me that because we are not  bilingual school, I cannot assist my students in their native language, even if it will help them to better understand the material. I always thought this was harsh, but after considering Delpit, maybe my principal has an ethical point?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

August - "Safe Spaces"

Dr. August's piece, "Safe Spaces" really made me reflect on the day to day proceedings in my own classroom. Dr. August explains that marginalization often comes in the form of messaging. This messaging refers to the verbal and nonverbal communications that LGBTQA youth receive from family, peers, teachers, the media, etc that indicate what is supported and what is not. 

During passing, I must admit that I do hear many students reference homosexuality in derogatory manners by saying expressions like, "that's gay" or call another student "a fag". While these are blatant expressions of negativity towards homosexuality, Dr. August notes that we do not necessarily have to use overt language to show our acceptance and promotion of heteronormativity.

I, like most teachers, hope that my classroom is an open and safe place for my students. While it is difficult to moderate all of the language used in the hallway, I always make a point to stop my lesson and ask a student to "watch his language" if he uses a derogatory term that refers to someone's race, gender identity, or sexual orientation. I often see many teachers at my school who do not address these commonly used phrases, so I figured I was doing something right to help my underrepresented students. 

While I do think that it is better for me to say something rather than remain unconcerned when I hear these phrases, I am starting to realize that I too take the "path of least resistance" when I work with my students. For instance, if a student is late to class - she gets a detention. If a student says "that's gay", she gets a stern look and a "watch your language" warning from me. What kind of message do these two differences in punishments portray to my students about what I value? Likewise, part of my school's mission is to "value all students", but what do we tell out LGBTQA community members when we punish students for having cell phones in the hallways but we act like we do not hear the derogatory slurs and homophobia that endlessly persists in the same hallways?

So why don't more educators try to consciously take a stand against this marginalization? Dr. August suggests that it is because we often fear repercussions from parents and administrations. I have no doubt that this is what prevents many teachers from doing more. Personally, I think many educators hear their students say these phrases and they think "oh, they didn't mean anything by it" or "that was harmless." Admittedly, I do not think that all of my students who use these phrases intend to ridicule those who identify as LGBTQA. That's not the point though. The fact is, these small messages prevent us as a school and as a society from truly accepting all persons in our society. By not saying anything, we are part of the problem. We need to take an active stance to support all members of our schools, or else our passive stances actively support our culture of marginalization. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Reflection on "Introduction to Rethinking Popular Culture and Media"

The introduction to Rethinking Popular Culture and Media focuses on the commonly held notions surrounding children and popular culture, and then it makes us reconsider these beliefs.

I loved the quote that described talking about popular culture as “getting the fish to think about the water.” Popular culture is something that we are so immersed in that we often fail to recognize it; it surrounds us on TV, billboard ads, clothing, toys, the internet, and even the phrases we use. Although it affects us so much, we fail to address it. As teachers, we do often notice the popular culture that our students engage are a part of, but we do not speak of it. Indeed, we often try to go against it. We ban cell phones from school, look at texting like its the worst thing to happen to our youth, and we think that popular media is in opposition to our classrooms and our curriculum.

One issue that the authors bring up is that we as adults often dismiss youth popular culture. While this may simply be because of differences in tastes, adults often view youth culture as inferior or in "opposition to the good values of adults." I see this all the time in my daily life and in my own school. Teachers are not often "into" the same popular culture as their students, so we teachers make make fun of or make remarks about trends, clothing styles, and the music that our students enjoy. We often describe our students or even youth in our own family as "going through phases". The authors note that it is more interesting to consider how our youth are using popular culture and media. What are the implications that come about in areas such as citizenship, agency, and consumer action? If we choose to not actually focus on the culture itself, we should at least consider its effects on our students and their autonomy in navigating a heavily branded world. 

As I reflect on my own practice, I must admit that I too have failed to embrace the benefits of working with my students and their popular culture. I find this interesting because I am only six years older than many of the students at my school, so my popular culture often blends with theirs. Still, my students will tell you that I am quite strict about cell phone usage in my classroom; I follow the school's "no cell phone policy" very strongly. I do play popular music during work periods in class, but I do not talk about the issues brought up in their  music explicitly. I hope that I can incorporate more of these creative discussions in my classroom. I know it would be an interesting area to examine, but I think I need to work on how to structure these types of discussions if I want them to be meaningful.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Class Facilitator Reflection

Overall, I think that today went well. I was really nervous about facilitating today. When I first started teaching, I remember always feeling flustered in front of the room; I was constantly wiping sweat from my forehead and, no matter how much I prepared, I went into every lesson assuming something would go wrong at some point.

Considering this, I have to give a huge thanks to my classmates and Professor Bogad for all of their cooperation, insight, and hard-work during class. The class was structured in a way that it would only be successful if everyone was engaged. Even with a large paper due the same day, it was evident that everyone had deeply engaged with the rather long text, and everyone was willing to reflect and be vulnerable in our discussion.

I was excited to see how the class would play out given that we each have very unique backgrounds and educational experiences. I do not think the class would have been as interesting if we all came from the same area, taught the same number of years, and taught in the same school district/grade levels. I really did not know what results would be of our gallery walk. I thought it was great to see the differences between how we were taught, how we are supposed to teach, and how we actually teach today. I think this activity was in line with Anyon's findings; for instance, new teachers who work in lower-income public schools reflected what she saw in the working class schools so many years ago.

I was also very pleased with our discussion following our viewing of "Tammy's Story". I really wanted to show this video because I think it shows many interesting dynamics in low-income household. While I was eager to show the video, I was also a bit hesitant because I did not want the conversation to simply turn into a sympathy session for Tammy and her sons. Undoubtedly, we all were touched in some way by this video, but I wanted to focus on the implications of this family's situation, the vicious cycle of poverty, and, of course, what does it mean for our role as educators? I was very happy that we were able to connect this story back to Finn's text. We were able to see the need for conscientization and dialogue in our classrooms - two aspects that are often lacking or not sustained.

Ultimately, I think the class was a success because we came to the session well prepared with ideas and opinions, but I expect that most of us left with even more questions and ideas that we had not thought about before. And that's a great thing. We may not have been able to wrap a bow around the discussion, but we have initiated a dialogue that may lead to some real change - for us and our students.

Some of you may be interested Part II of Tammy's story, or any of the other PBS "People Like Us" videos. Although they are somewhat dated, I still think there is a lot of value in them.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Critical Response to: "An Open Letter to Teach For America Recruits" - Katie Osgood

I recently read Katie Osgood’s An Open Letter to Teach For America Recruits. Osgood, a Special Education teacher in Chicago, writes an open letter to new Teach For America (TFA) recruits, urging them to not join the national organization. While Osgood tries to belittle and attack the organization using several personal and general examples, she fails to address the true problem that persists in so many urban school districts across the country: minority children do not receive the same educational opportunities as white students in wealthier school districts.

I am a TFA corps member – there, I said it. I am sorry I cannot give you a story about how I knew that I always wanted to work in education. Indeed, I never thought I would be in the classroom two years ago. The son of two immigrant parents, I grew up speaking Portuguese in a lower-middle class household. I earned a scholarship to play soccer at a prestigious liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Much to my parents dislike (and apparently Osgood’s as well), I decided to join TFA instead of pursuing a lucrative job on Wall Street.

I thought I was doing a good thing at the time. I was going to be a mirror that many minority students in urban education do not have. I was not going to “forget where I came from”, join the “evil one percent”, and never look back. Yeah, about that…

As you can imagine, my fellow corps members and I have read dozens of articles like Katie Osgood’s during my time with TFA. Regardless of the work I do in my classroom, the successes of my students, or my volunteer work in the community, I must seemingly forever hide the fact that I am a TFA corps member publicly unless I want to hear a rant about how horrible I am. Even as I type this, I find myself in fear of ostracizing myself from my grad school professors and co-workers. The fact is, TFA gets a bad reputation in the education community. My question is simple: why?

Is TFA the solution to the “achievement gap” that persists between inner-city and suburban school districts? No. Actually, contrary to popular belief, the organization does not expect to be the solution either. TFA’s goal is simple: one day all children will have the ability to receive a quality education. We are not here to spread “right-wing propaganda”. I do not have a poster of Walmart above my bed, and I do not have a “vested interest in the status quo of inequality, breaking unions, and keeping wages low and workers oppressed.

The fact is, TFA would not exist if there were no inequalities and deficiencies in our urban school districts. Instead of focusing our energies on solving this persistent and institutionalized dilemma that has existed for over a century, many seem more preoccupied with debating about an organization that has been around for 25 years.

With every article I read, the arguments against TFA become seemingly more and more intense. In accordance with Osgood, I want to highlight a few common themes that I hear:

“Teach For America corps members are unqualified, untrained teachers who cannot adequately serve our most deprived students”

Every TFA member has heard this one: “How can we put so much faith in these new college graduates who have no prior teaching experience?” Yes, it is true: I attended that “horrible” five week training program that uses students as “guinea pigs”. Of course, anyone can frame a story like this. I can also say that I took twenty sixth graders that had failed math the year before, taught them the key points of a curriculum in four weeks, and saw twenty children pass a New York state exam that allowed them to pass onto seventh grade. Osgood notes that “regular teachers” undergo extensive training prior to entering the classroom. This is very true. Traditionally, teacher hopefuls spend several years learning theories, observing teachers, and finally doing some instruction themselves in front of a classroom. Unfortunately, many student-teachers are not trained in urban-school districts. In my school’s 15 year existence, we have never been asked to support a student-teacher.

Interestingly, Osgood attempts to discredit TFA for being “too data-driven”. Yes, TFA does focus on data-driven results (is that bad??). Indeed, if districts are going to bring TFA in, and if schools are going to hire us - we better produce results. For “unqualified teachers”, TFA Rhode Island produced very positive results last year. Over 73% of TFA Rhode Island first year teachers received a “4 - Highly Proficient” rating on the state-wide evaluation, with 100% of first-year teachers receiving a “3 – Proficient” rating or higher. Even in a national, independent study, TFA faired extremely well; TFA members  “who average just over a year and a half of teaching experience, were aseffective as their counterparts in the same schools, who averaged 13.6 years ofteaching experience.” Not bad for a bunch of “unqualified teachers.”

In many developed countries, the teaching profession is as highly reputed as that of becoming a doctor or lawyer. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the United States. Trust me, teaching is hard – really hard. Still, there is a negative stigma that surrounds the profession: teachers are lazy, they get summers off, it does not pay well enough, etc. Needless to say, the woman who says she’s a doctor gets a lot more respect than the woman who says she’s a teacher. As a result, many of our top students in the US grow up wanting to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, and bankers. In Finland, almost every teacher was in the top 10% of their graduating high school class. This is not the case in the US today. If nothing else, TFA has opened thousands of eyes to the injustices that persist in our most deprived schools. For 25 years, it has taken some of our nation’s most successful graduates and immersed them in worlds that they most likely would never have experienced. For those that argue that TFA members are notorious for leaving the profession, over two-thirds of TFA alumni are still involved in education. Personally, I would never have considered working in the classroom had it not been for TFA. To those who knew that they always wanted to work in urban schools, I want to say, “Thank you for the work that you do. I’m sorry that I didn’t know as early as you, but I am glad to be here now.”

“TFA corps members taking over districts and taking jobs that more qualified teachers should have.”

There is a surplus of teachers nationally. Unfortunately, many of these teachers have been forced to lose their jobs. Although TFA has experienced a decrease in applications over the past two years, many onlookers were enraged when they discovered that TFA was growing in numbers, but more and more teachers could not find work nationally. It does seem rather peculiar, right?

In all of the research that I have seen, almost every major urban school district experiences teacher shortages – especially in math. Indeed, my own school has been unable to hire a math teacher for three years; the position is repeatedly filled with a long-term substitute or a displaced, forced hire. We also have two open science positions that are “taught” by a different 
substitute each day. If you look at the composition of TFA Rhode Island, all of the teachers that we provide are certified in “high-need” positions. So, when someone says, “I wouldn’t want my kid taught by a TFA corps member”, I always ask them to consider the very real alternative.

“TFA is the problem in urban school districts today”

Alright, this is just ignorant. As a member of TFA, it almost seems like I cannot catch a break against the onslaught of negativity that comes with this title. An abundance of research has been done to show that students in urban environments need “teachers that look like them”. This is a call to try and end the common dilemma of black and brown students in urban schools potentially never seeing a role model in the classroom that “looks like them”. Currently, over 82% of teachers in the United States are white. Yeah, 82%. Currently, over 50% of TFA corps members identify as persons of color, 47%identify as coming from a low-income background, and 34% were first-generationcollege graduates.

Similar to Osborn, I can sit here and rattle off a number of grievances. I can tell you that even though my students improved 2.9 grade levels last year, a school mentor of mine still refuses to talk to me ever since he found out that I was part of TFA. I can tell you that it angers me to see my students have no biology or history teachers because two “more qualified” teachers are using 160+ consecutive paid “sick days” the year before they retire. I can be just as ignorant as Osgood and say that all traditionally trained teachers are horrible, unions are the worst thing since the ice age, and every TFA teacher deserves to teach at Harvard.

I won’t though.

The fact is, we should not be having a back and forth about this. Whether you hate TFA or you want a Wendy Kopp mug for the holidays, you have to remember what really matters: our youth. Face it or not, the system is broken. It’s about time we did something about that. If you don’t like TFA, that’s fine. Let’s create a world in which our most deprived youth can get a quality of education, regardless of where they live.