An update in September

Every year, my goal is to formalize my inquiry process – and every year, I end up getting off-track somehow. This year, I’ve done an awful lot of work, good work, but I haven’t gotten my inquiry together in a formal style. So instead of stressing over that, I’m just going to proceed informally. Here is what I’ve done so far this year in my classroom:

  • Writing workshop – we have begun writing every day except for Late Start/shortened periods. We start the period with writing and add a minute to the writing time each day. (As of today, September 19, we are at 19 minutes.) I’ve taught some mini-lessons on process/procedure and have just introduced writing conferences. So far, student feedback has been positive: students have written that they appreciate having a chance to write about topics that they choose instead of only assignments that the teacher assigns.
  • In U.S. History, I’ve tried to teach with a workshop format with limited progress. That is to say, I find it harder to set up workshop structure in USH because there’s so much I feel I need to model. In English, I am more confident at giving kids time to think and struggle with new ideas – it’s harder for me to give up that space in USH. It’s not that the kids are less trustworthy; just that I trust myself less. It makes sense: this is my 17th year teaching English, and only my 3rd year teaching USH. It’s natural that I have less confidence in the latter subject. But I want to keep improving at this: less teacher talk, more time for students to practice with difficult texts and writing.
  • I’ve done good work in my role as a teacher-leader. We have gotten the structured collaboration underway in departments. Jennifer and I haven’t debriefed yet on the work that departments did on September 11, but I think we’re on the right track there. We also have a meeting to address the D/F plan’s 4 “remaining” prongs, scheduled on September 21. We’re moving the ship forward.

My next steps would be to continue to write with my students during writing workshop and to explore how workshop can be a “base” from which to launch explorations and inquiries. I also want to keep working on “workshop-ifying” my U.S. History instruction. (Today, for example, in period 1, I modeled an assignment for 10 minutes, and gave the class the rest of the period to work. The only part missing was a reflection at the end, which I’ll do with the class on Wednesday.)
I also have a phone meeting scheduled with Brenda on Thursday; we are going to talk about how her class in Oakland might collaborate with my kids in El Monte.

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Inquiry, redux

I haven’t written here in ages, but instead of writing a long explanation as to why I haven’t written here in ages, I’m simply going to start writing again. (The explanation is pretty simple, anyway: I got really busy.)

I am embarking on the third year of my inquiry into student-determined outcomes, and I’m very interested in how I can use a workshop approach as a basis for organizing my instruction toward this end.

If I were to sum up my learning from the past two years, it would be:

2015-16 – My students needed support and scaffolding in order to take on self-directed projects. I wasn’t quite successful at providing that support in most cases.

2016-17 – I provided more structure and scaffolding for my students, and they were more successful at completing their projects. However, the projects did not reach the level of quality that I had hoped for; more importantly, we did not succeed in taking the projects beyond our classroom to a wider audience (either in-person or online).

This summer, I had a wonderful experience teaching two periods of the first semester of junior English. Because the periods are 160 minutes long, I organized the periods into three sessions based on a workshop model: a reading workshop in which we read The Stranger; a research workshop in which students created a report about self-selected topics; and a writing workshop. When I use the term “workshop model,” I am referring to this essential structure:

  • Mini-lesson (5 – 10 minutes)
  • Work time, with peer support and teacher coaching available (20 – 25 minutes)
  • Reflection and/or sharing (5 – 10 minutes)

The major insight I gained from this summer: my students are hungry to write about their experiences. They are hungry to choose their topics for writing. They are hungry for their writing to have meaning outside of the classroom. They tended to see themselves as writers when I encouraged them and supported them in tackling the topics that they selected as being meaningful for their lives. I don’t think – in my “regular,” year-long courses, that is – that I’ve been giving students space or support to engage in that kind of writing.

As a result, I have resolved to teach a writing workshop in my senior English class, which I teach in block periods. Half of the period, then, will be devoted to the Expository Reading and Writing Course curriculum, which was developed in a collaboration between Cal State professors and high school English teachers with the goal of preparing students for college freshman English; the other half will be a writing workshop.

James Beane, whose Curriculum Integration has been my model for this inquiry, discusses the need to create community with students before attempting to tackle student-directed projects; he recommends autobiographical writing as a method in building this community. With this in mind, I am going to begin my inquiry this year with what Dave Cormier calls a “learning subjective.” In introducing this idea, Cormier asks the question, “How do we design learning when we aren’t sure where we’re going?” At this point, I have a vision for my inquiry – my students will take part in meaningful writing and/or projects that engage an audience outside our classroom. The “learning subjective” has to do with method: I know that I need to listen to students to find out where they want to go with their learning, and I believe that writing workshop can be a starting point for this. Perhaps some students will express interest in community-based projects; the workshop can expand to become a space to explore this. Other students may find that they want to explore writing about intellectually-authentic topics for audiences beyond the classroom; the workshop can accommodate this as well.

There may be – almost certainly are – other expressions of authentic intellectual endeavor that this approach might support.

So my research brief for this year is a bit less well-defined – which is okay, since I didn’t really follow my research plans with fidelity the past two years! My goal this year is to spend more time writing about my inquiry, even if it’s a series of “rough drafts” in the form of blog posts.

We’ll see how it goes!

One more neat thing: I may be able to collaborate with a former student, Brenda, who has become a teacher in Oakland. We talked about our goals for the upcoming year last week and we are going to check in next month to see if there are any ways that our students – she teaches a 9th-grade humanities/ethnic studies course – can work together. At the very least, I hope that they will be able to share their work with each other and thus broaden their audiences.

RESEARCH BRIEF

This is an update on last year’s brief, with italics added where I have made updates.

Question

How can I involve students in setting their own learning outcomes and meaningfully pursuing these outcomes?

Subquestions

How do the power relationships at my school affect (or even constrain) efforts to create democratic spaces?

Can teaching practice that is non-coercive or non-deficit influence student motivation positively?

If students are involved in co-designing curriculum with teachers, will students have more meaningful learning experiences?

What is a meaningful learning experience?  How can teachers collaborate with students and families to determine what a meaningful learning experience is in their context?

What scaffolding or support is needed for students to design and pursue self-determined outcomes?

How can a workshop approach encourage students to pursue such outcomes?

Purpose

I am hoping to discover and describe practical ways to empower students and create a learning space that is more democratic. I am also hoping to include families in an authentic (non-coercive, non-deficit) manner. Finally, I hope to create opportunities for students to compose for and address audiences outside our classroom.

Literature Review

As I conduct the inquiry, I will conduct a limited research review by blogging about relevant research once a month.

Method(s)

I will draw on James Beane’s Curriculum Integration model as an inspiration for inquiry.  In particular, I am interested in the approach described in Chapter 4.

Though I intend to use similar methods with my junior U.S. History classes, for purposes of manageability I will limit this inquiry to my two senior English classes.

I will begin the year by implementing a writing workshop that will take place each period. (We have block periods, so I will teach the required content of the course as well as the writing workshop.) The writing workshop, I expect, will provide the students and me with entry points to authentic writing and inquiry. After building community and a student-driven learning environment in this manner, I will engage students in considering possible directions for inquiry as well as in addressing audiences outside the classroom.

We will also create a Class Constitution and attempt to build a collaborative, non-coercive classroom culture that is based on honoring our agreements to each other.  We will also have brief but regular “check-ins” to discuss how well our Constitution is working for us. Check-ins will take place on Mondays/Tuesdays (i.e., the first meeting of the week in our block schedule).

I will use surveys, interviews, and perhaps sociograms to gather data from students on their perceptions in October, January & May.

Data collection

  • Field notes
  • Teacher blog posts
  • Student questionnaires/interviews/sociograms re perceptions of power
  • Student work
  • Student blog posts

Data analysis  

I will analyze my field notes daily using a version of Shagoury & Power’s method of “cooking” notes, or reflecting on notes shortly after you take them (page 45-50).

I will reflect in writing in my inquiry journal regularly – daily, if possible; otherwise at least three times weekly.

I will blog at least once every two weeks about the inquiry’s progress.

I will also meet monthly, and more frequently if possible, with our instructional coach, Jennifer Yoo-Brannon to reflect on the data collected.

Calendar

August 1 – 16 – draft research brief

August 17 – September 2 – obtain permissions from students, revise research brief as needed

September 5 – September 23 – initial data collection (student perceptions of power); implement strategies; begin field notes

September 26 – December – implement strategies, collect data, analyze data, blog, meet with Jennifer and/or lesson study group

December, end of semester – ask students to comment/write about perceptions of power

January, February, March, April, May – continue to collect & analyze data, implement strategies, blog, meet with Jennifer and/or lesson study group

May – ask students to comment/write about perceptions of power

May/June – final data analysis

June/July – draft report

Publication

I will publish the report on my research on my blog by the first week of August 2018.

Reflection before beginning

I am interested in how I can broaden my conception of authentic outcomes. For example, in summer school, one of my students wrote a translation of an excerpt from Mexican anthropologist Miguel León Portilla’s Visión de los Vencidos. This was fantastic, and certainly an authentic, student-driven product. I hope that bringing back writing workshop – after drifting away from this approach to teaching writing over the past few years – will provide an entry point for student-driven selection of topics. From there, I hope to engage students in forming groups (as needed) and addressing audiences outside the classroom.

The Kindness Calendar, hacked

Earlier this month, I posted about the Kindness Calendar that Tania Sheko proposed hacking for education; since my return to work, I’ve taken on the challenge.

My hack is a simple one: I challenged myself to praise or pay special attention to a different student each day. I mentioned this to my wife, and she said, “Start with your most challenging student” – good advice!

This year, my most challenging students have been the quietest ones. These are the kids who easily slip under my radar because they are so quiet. So I started to think: which students struggled the most in the first semester? Which students passed but perhaps received a grade below their potential? I thought of about a dozen students whom I allowed to struggle in silence during the fall, without realizing it.

I decided that I would start by making a special effort to pay attention to these students. To document my effort, I downloaded a free blank calendar in Word, and adjusted the cells so that I could make brief notes each day about my interactions with students.

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I’ve noticed a few things.

One, keeping the calendar has re-focused my attention on ensuring that I focus on spending equitable time with each student. I am reminded that equitable interaction doesn’t necessarily mean identical interaction.

Two, I’ve taken a fresh look at some of my existing practices – for example, I frequently share student work; now, in sharing such models of excellent work (as on January 13), I’ve asked myself, “Am I sharing everyone’s strong work, or only a percentage of the students?”

(I didn’t note this on the calendar, but one student whose work I shared expressed surprise when I told her that her response was especially strong. This is extremely useful feedback: I know now that I need to spend more time building this young person’s confidence by praising her work more often.)

Three, keeping the calendar increases my sense of accountability to myself. On January 18, I realized that I hadn’t performed a specific act of kindness or praise. It was a hectic day: I had to co-chair a lunch meeting, then attend a collaboration meeting with the U.S. History team. Thus, while it was a very productive day, it was a day that saw me less focused on my classroom practice. When I sat down to fill out the calendar, I realized that I needed to re-focus my attention the next day.

These ten or so acts of kindness have not changed the world, of course, but I do hope that this effort – sustained over the course of a semester – will make a difference for my students. The process of keeping this calendar – and thinking about it during the day – has forced me to avoid being complacent about making my interactions equitable.

Special thanks to Tania for sharing the calendar and to the poster of the original calendar, Helen at Make Today Happy.

My vision: part 1

In my post on political involvement, I wrote about an in-progress draft of my vision for education. I went back to my notes in Evernote & Scapple, and found that I had drafted about one-tenth of that vision; the rest was in the form of a rough outline.

A year and a half ago, I encountered the idea “working out loud” on Tanya Lau’s blog . I’d like to work out loud more often in 2017, so I’m going to post my vision in installments instead of waiting till I finish the entire piece.

MY VISION OF EDUCATION

At the moment, I have five elements in my vision of an effective school.

  • Meaningful learning for all students
  • Accountability to community
  • Culture of care
  • Access to resources for all students and family
  • Sustainable facility

1.Meaningful Learning for All Students

Meaningful instruction is not limited to “career readiness” or preparing for state assessments. In my opinion, meaningful instruction begins with student choice.

While it is reasonable for the state to exert some influence in the determination of expected student outcomes, the state’s current influence is shockingly disproportionate to the influence of the school community. Teachers and administration should have a say in student outcomes, but more importantly, students and their families should have at least equal influence – and probably more influence – in determining what these outcomes should be.

Educators and communities should be wary of statements such as “Students need x to be prepared for y” and particularly wary of uncritical definitions of “student success.” We must always ask, “Whose definition of success?” We must also ask, “Whose interests are served by this definition of success?”

We need to re-evaluate the word “success” and create a much more inclusive, much broader definition for this word.

To be continued!

A Kindness Calendar

Tania Sheko shared a “Kindness Calendar” yesterday in the CLMOOC Facebook group, and she posed the question as to how CLMOOCers might hack the idea.

One idea that occurred to me: use this calendar as a guide or jumping-off point to making a commitment toward one act of kindness or praise to a different student, classmate, or colleague each day.

Those of us in classroom contexts might also ask our students to re-interpret the calendar for their own lives.

This calendar reminds me that I could improve some of my practices by systematizing and documenting them more effectively. That is to say, I make an effort every day to interact with students and provide positive feedback, but do I provide this feedback equally? Even if I do, I have no way of knowing because I do not always document these interactions.

This is not to say that acts of kindness should be audited, or that I should create some sort of arcane, complicated accounting system that will distract me from more important priorities (like interacting with students!). However, something simple, like a calendar, might be an excellent way of keeping track of kindness by reminding myself, at least once a day, that I need to interact equally with everyone. Revisiting such a calendar as part of my daily routine can keep my focus on equal interaction for the day; if the morning goes badly and I run out of time, checking in with the calendar later in the day can get me back on track.

The calendar idea could also help me to improve at creating positive interactions with my colleagues. I have close relationships with about a dozen or so colleagues, and I try to be pleasant to everyone – but I’m also sure that I can be more intentional about showing kindness to everyone. I can write thank-you notes more often, for example, or make an effort to praise or otherwise be kind to colleagues whom I typically have less interaction with.

What do other CLMOOC folk think about this calendar?

“Know Thy Political Self”

After the disastrous election in November, I read as much as I could, hoping to find some way to channel my anger and frustration into positive action. One of the articles I came across was “How to Be a More Active Progressive in 7 Easy Steps,” a piece from a few years ago.

The first step: “Know Thy Political Self,” in 3 short writing tasks:

  • a political philosophy (recommended length: 350 words)
  • a list of my top ten issues, with brief statements of belief on the issues
  • a list of my political activity in the past year (“could contain anything from ‘I voted’ to ‘I delivered a speech at the U.N.’”)

So, here is my first post of 2017: a statement of my political self.

My Political Philosophy

Rights should be extended as widely as possible.

Government should not restrict rights that do not affect others. For example, same sex marriage between consulting adults was rightly ruled to be protected by the 14th Amendment. However, the government should restrict activity that does harm others, such as industrial pollution.

No one should be a millionaire while others are homeless and hungry. In other words, the government should take steps to limit the acquisition of wealth and to provide for the most vulnerable through progressive taxation and aggressive spending on social services. The Rawlsian ethic should apply to economics: if the wealthiest member of the community would not be willing to switch places with the least wealthy member, the system is unjust.

We should adopt the Iroquois idea of considering how our actions will affect the next seven generations.

True costs must be considered in economics and business. For example, Walmart’s low prices come at the cost of atrocious supply chain practices and low wages for workers. Other products often come at the cost of pollution or increased carbon release, for example. Companies should consider a “triple bottom line” that takes into account social and ecological costs.

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights is a more enlightened document than the U.S. Constitution. We must never forget that our Constitution allowed slavery at its ratification.

My Top 10 Issues, plus 1

These are in no particular order except where noted.

Climate change – if we don’t solve this, the other issues will probably be academic.

Money in politics / campaign finance – it feels a bit naive to suggest that this could ever change, given how wealth retrenched itself in 2016, but removing money from politics could be a key to the other important issues. I see some hope in the fact that California passed a proposition condemning Citizens United, and in the fact that leaders like Senator-elect Kamala Harris (who will be the second Black woman in the U.S. Senate!) and Lt. Gov. (and gubernatorial candidate) Gavin Newsom are fundraising with “chip-in” contributions.

Education – not more important than the other issues, but obviously an area where I have the most expertise. I have begun drafting a piece on my vision for education.

Food justice / food security – I feel some shame at not taking a more active role in this. I’d like to become involved in fighting this at a local level in the new year.

Anti-racism – with a racist-in-chief taking the inaugural oath on January 20, white people need to stand in solidarity with people of color.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that in 2014, “median black household income was about $43,300, while white household income was about $71,300.” Black people are also “more than twice as likely as whites to live in poverty”: in 2016, 26% of Black people lived in poverty compared with 10% of whites.

This is not to mention educational inequities for Black and Latino children, police violence against Black people, the recent rhetoric against Latinos and Muslims, and the spike in hate crimes after November 9.

I know that a majority of voters chose Hillary Clinton, and I am encouraged by how much protest and criticism there has been against Trump, but there are still scary parallels between Germany in the early 1930s and our recent political discourse. There are also scary parallels between Trump’s proposals and our shameful internment of Japanese-Americans in World War 2. White people need to be prepared to stand for equality against what appears to be a rising tide of neo-fascism.

LGBTQ+ rights – A committed homophobe who wants to spend taxpayer money on “conversion therapy” is a heartbeat (or an impeachment) from the Oval Office.

Violence against women – with a sexual-predator-in-chief taking the inaugural oath on January 20, men need to stand in solidarity with women.

Health care / reproductive rights – I link these because so many attacks on reproductive rights have the consequence of limiting women’s access to basic health care. Planned Parenthood, for example, provided nearly 1 million cancer screenings in 2013, yet right-wing politicians (including Mike Pence) have demonized the organization and attempted to defund it based on dubious claims that Planned Parenthood is an abortion factory. (Even if it were, abortion is still legal, but that’s another story.)

And, of course, Trump campaigned on ending Obamacare; there is a good chance that millions of Americans will lose their health insurance later this month.

Immigration – immigrants’ rights are human rights. Here is an excellent example of how the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – in this case, Articles 6, 13, 15, and 21 – is far superior to the U.S. Constitution in articulating a broad vision of a just future for all human beings.

Gentrification / housing justice – I am very pleased with the direction California has taken in the past 10 years, but this is perhaps our major Achilles’ heel. It’s too expensive for most families to buy a home. We need affordable housing if the California Dream is remain attainable for everyone, not only the most wealthy.

I went with eleven issues instead of ten because voting rights came to the fore this year. Voter suppression almost certainly contributed to Trump’s electoral win.

I could have also included mental health care, the digital divide, and prisons/criminal justice reform in this list; they are certainly important issues. Access to clean water is another issue that we need to pay attention to.

My political involvement last year

This is a short list. I voted in the primary and in the general election. I wrote to Dianne Feinstein & Barbara Boxer to express my opposition to the TPP. I donated to Keith Ellison, Kamala Harris, and Gavin Newsom. I called Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego’s office to express my support for his brilliant speech against Trump.

Noah Purifoy

The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, in North Joshua Tree, is a priceless treasure.

Purifoy fascinates me because of his background in social work. He was both a major artist and a significant figure in community programs and education. He was also a sophisticated, erudite artist who, according to everything I’ve learned about him, did not get caught up in the politics and materialism of the art world.

He is my favorite American artist. I am not an art historian, but I am an enthusiastic amateur admirer of art, and until recently I had three favorite artists: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Van Gogh. I now have four.

The Outdoor Museum rewards repeat visits as a great book rewards multiple readings. This time when we arrived, a woman introduced herself as the caretaker, Pat. She handed us new brochures and welcomed us to the site.

We started with “Carousel,” one of my favorite pieces – a round “building” decorated inside with a collection of 1980s-era computer parts. Near “Carousel” is my very favorite piece at the museum: “Ode to Frank Gehry,” at right below.

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I read this piece as both homage and critique. Yes, Purifoy pays tribute to the “starchitect,” but he also seems to chip away a bit at Gehry’s mystique – I can do that, too, Purifoy seems to be telling us.

This was the piece that made me a Purifoy admirer when we first visited the Outdoor Museum a few years ago.

The eastern end of the Outdoor Museum has two pieces that especially resonate with me: “Adrian’s Little Theater” (left) and “Gallows.”

“Adrian’s Little Theater” is one of two theater-themed assemblages at the Outdoor Museum. (The other is next to Carousel.) The presence of two such pieces on the property suggests how important the one-time Watts Art Center director believed such public performance spaces were.

“Gallows,” on the other hand, is chilling in its perfection. It is furthest east of the pieces; of all the pieces at the Outdoor Museum, it appears to me to be the most sturdily-constructed. I am not sure if it was constructed from cast-off items, as the rest of Purifoy’s pieces here are, but it appears as though it could have been constructed by a contractor sourcing his items from the local hardware store. That the artist who was born under Jim Crow in Alabama placed this symbol of state-sponsored violence in his desert wonderland seems significant to me. It is as though he wants to tell us that hatred and violence are, like the gallows, sturdily constructed; it seems to be a warning that evil can follow us wherever we go.

“Shelter” is another piece that challenges me. All of Purifoy’s work is constructed of cast-off items, but here the trash feels like trash.

Irene Rible writes that this piece was “made from the charred remnants of a neighbor’s burnt down house and filled with all the manifestations of poverty that Purifoy knew so intimately from his time as a social worker.” I think this sense of the “manifestations of poverty” is what I find so unsettling about this piece. A sign that reads “Kids World,” strategically placed as a sort of welcome mat at one opening reminds that this is the world of many children–bare shelter and little else. Though I don’t especially enjoy looking at this piece, I think I need to spend time with it: when a work of art bothers me this much, it’s a sign that I need to pay attention to it.

On a happier note, the witty “Library of Congress” ends my post. The reading room may not be the most up-to-date, but as you can see from the photo at bottom right, the view is hard to beat!