“If you shovel the ramp, we can all get in!”

At a meeting at the district office a couple of weeks ago, one of our district directors presented this cartoon by Michael F. Giangreco and Kevin Ruelle:

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I did a Google search for the cartoon, and found it also cited in this post by Amy Delgado on Ability Hacker. I wanted to blog about this post because I found it very thought-provoking and relevant to my classroom practice.

Delgado points out that the idea of the cartoon “illustrates that the majority of time, if you make a space more accessible for people with disabilities, it also makes it more accessible to people with typical function.”

This is certainly true of education—good instruction is beneficial for students with specific needs (English learners and students with disabilities) as well as students whose needs are more “mainstream.” 

(At first, I wrote “typical,” along the lines of the word “neurotypical,” but learning is such a personal endeavor, so informed by the diversity of experience and strengths that our students bring, that I changed the word to “mainstream.”)

An approach like Universal Design for Learning (the focus of the presentation at the district office) that takes into account this diversity of learners will benefit all of the students, just as shoveling the ramp allows the students who walk and the student in the wheelchair to get inside the room.

The post goes on to describe the moving short film The Commute:

“In this short 3 minute film, you see hours pass in the [disabled] man’s life as he desperately tries to make it home in time for his daughter’s 8th birthday. … His journey looked like it started early in the day. However, it took him so long to get home that he missed his daughter blowing out her candles. He missed her opening her presents. He even missed saying goodnight to her.”

Delgado notes that

“Everyday situations = Huge challenges for some people”

and then discusses “everyday design challenges” for accessibility “identified as part of a research project completed by students at University of Cincinnati College of Design Architecture Art & Planning.”

I especially like the ideas in this passage:

“If you are in charge of or on a committee to design anything (a building, a playground, a parking lot, decorating the dining room at your place of work, etc.), ask someone with a disability to review your plans/be on your committee. If you don’t know someone with a disability, go meet someone!” 

This is something for me to think about as I design activities in my classroom. I think it is useful to think about the range of obstacles that students might face – in addition to issues with physical mobility, students enter my classroom with learning differences and with mental health challenges. 

How can I make all of our work together more accessible and inclusive for all learners?

This is a question that I try to keep at the forefront of all of my instructional decisions. Amy Delgado’s ideas are helpful in terms of giving me a new lens through which to ask this question. I also like the idea of an accessibility checklist that can be collaboratively developed as a guide for educators. I’m going to think about how I can adapt the ideas in this blog post for my classroom.

Bayard Rustin, Luis Valdez, and the failure of our education system

In January, I saw this article, shared by Senator Kamala Harris’s Facebook account, about newly-discovered audio of Bayard Rustin discussing his belief that being open about his sexuality “was an absolute necessity.”

To Rustin, asserting his identity as an African-American went hand-in-hand with identifying as a gay man. “It occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice,” he said. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

In addition to reminding me of how Rustin’s achievements are worthy of my astonished admiration, the article got me thinking about the failures of our education system. To wit: I am certified to teach U.S. History in the California public school system, and yet in the course of 20 years of formal education, not once did I encounter a lesson or a reading about Rustin. No, it was through the song “A Good Day” by the 90s post-punk band Smart Went Crazy, a song I discovered in the first decade of the new century, that I first heard Rustin’s name. I looked him up, and immediately became an admirer.

In a similar vein, I never knew about Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino until a former student, Brenda Rivera, taught a workshop on the topic at a Latinas Guiding Latinas de UCLA meeting at my school in 2013. (Brenda is now entering her 5th year teaching English and social science at Oakland Tech.) Now, I don’t object to learning from students; to the contrary, I don’t think that educators can be effective without learning from students. That said, it is absurd that a California teacher, raised and educated and trained in California, should have gone through over a decade as a classroom teacher without encountering these stories from California history! It is an indictment of what our system prioritizes and whom it ignores.

I have also been complicit in this failure of our education system. In my own classroom, I’ve struggled to implement both the mandates of the FAIR Act as well as incorporate the local history that I have access to. I am excited, though, about some of the progress I’ve made recently.

The FAIR Act is a California law that mandates the inclusion of LGBTQ+ history in social studies curricula. I believe I have done a good job of teaching the truth a out our History, including the genocide of Native Americans, the atrocities of slavery, the subjection of women to second-class status, the long-running demonization of immigrants, and the ongoing Inequalities that pervade our systems and prevent all people from sharing in the unkept promises made by our founding documents. However, I have not done a good job of teaching about the LGBQT+ community.
The morning I read the NPR article, I shared it on Facebook; later, when I saw my colleague Chris Lewis, he shared a trove of resources on LGBTQ+ History that he and a team of educators developed recently. Chris was my predecessor as the AP US History teacher at my school; he is now a teacher on special assignment (TOSA), and he has already forgotten more about teaching history than I will ever learn.
Among these resources was an excellent lesson on Rustin, which I taught in April when we studied the civil rights era.
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Chris Lewis visited and took pictures, which he tweeted, and my administrator did my formal observation that period as well. It was actually quite fun, one of those days where you say, “Wow, this is one of the reasons I went into teaching” – the kids were doing high-level reading, with materials that were similar to what you would find in an archive; there were adults in the room documenting their work; and we were all learning about the life and work of an under-recognized champion of both anti-racism and LGBTQ+ rights.
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I also incorporated local history more effectively this year. We all read Daniel Morales’s essay on Hicks Camp in connection with immigration in the early 20th century; student analyzed the essay using the STAMP method. I also made Andre Deckrow’s article on Japanese-Americans in El Monte an optional assignment; several students read the article and used STAMP to analyze the piece. I was pleased with this because we were not only making connections with local history, but also doing college-level work with the reading and analysis.
I still have a lot of work to do to improve in these areas, but I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made since January. This summer, I plan to read An American Genocide so I can find ways to connect my teaching on Native American history to our local history; I also plan to revisit my long-term planning so I can incorporate more LGBTQ+ history and more of the local history archive.

 

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.

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?