To Those Who Think That Differences Hold Us Back…

Question: You have a student in your class who is living with a developmental disability that requires your and the other students’ care, attention, and time. In discussing the situation with a colleague, he rolls his eyes and comments that the student with the disability is “holding back” the rest of the class. Craft out a well thought-out response.

 

Let me first say that the above question is what inspired me to write this post, but I will not exactly be answering that question directly. Instead, I am going to tell a story about one of the people I went to high school with and how he impacted me. For the sake of this story (because it is on a public site) I will not use his real name. Instead, I will call him (*drumroll*) Andy.

 

Andy was a student with diverse needs in my high school class and was a part of the Autism program at our school. He did not go to the high school I was apart of for all four years, so I did not know him prior to taking a Creative Writing class with him when I was in grade 11. Andy sat at the back of that class, next to our teacher’s desk, at a table with a teacher’s aide who assisted him with his work. Because I was young and had never had a class with someone in the same situration as Andy, I made the mistake of thinking that he was incapable of what the rest of the class, including myself, could do. He quickly, however, proved me very wrong. Every Friday, we were all expected to share a piece of our writing with the class. The first time Andy got up to read his poem, we were all blown away. Not only was he one of the most charismatic readers in our class—he had about one hundred times more confidence than I did—but his writing was beautiful. From that day on, there was not a single person in the class who did not eagerly anticipate hearing more of Andy’s work. He was creative, intelligent, and gave me a great deal of motivation to improve my own work. I felt terrible for having misjudged what he was capable of and was so grateful that he had proven me wrong.

 

I did not have any more classes with Andy after that, and did not see him around school much because of it. So despite the fact that I, and the rest of our class, ultimately spent very little time with him because most of his classtime was spent with the Autism program, something happened at our graduation ceremony that proved how important Andy was to us. A great deal of time is spent during the ceremony giving out students awards for various things including academics and leadership. It was fairly dull, for the most part, until one particular award was presented. Andy was presented with a leadership and service award for the work he had done to create and execute a recycling program at our school. And for the first and only time that day, everyone in the room stood up to cheer for him. There was not a single student, staff member, or parent who did not get up to cheer for him. I remember looking around the room and seeing many people, including my mom, shedding tears because the moment was so powerful.

 

So to anyone who assumes that someone who is different or “developmentally delayed” in anyway is “holding back” his peers, I would point to this story. I got a chance to see first hand the impact that someone who is different can have on his peers. Andy did not hold us back in anyway; instead, he inspired us to think bigger and do better. I call that a decent lesson for the “rest of the class” to learn!

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Curriculum as Currere: Greta Elbogen’s Poetry Collection

2014-04-11 17.17.21You may remember me as the person who got more emotional than she had anticipated during her Curriculum as Currere presentation. I suppose I should anticipated that, however, considering I was discussing someone who had impacted me a great deal. I met Greta Elbogen last June when I took a study abroad class in New York through Women’s and Gender Studies. While touring the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we got a chance to meet Greta, a Jewish woman who had survived the Holocaust, and to hear her story. She was born in Vienna, Austria and was sent to a concentration camp at a very young age. Fortunately, when she was six, Greta, as a part of a group of Jewish children from the same camp, was rescued and kept hidden in an orphanage in Budapest, Hungary by Gabor Sztehlo, a Christian reverend, and members of the Red Cross. Although Greta’s story has a happy ending, she experienced a great deal of pain in her life. Not only was her father killed in a concentration camp during the war, she experienced hardship long after the war was over. She had an extremely strained relationship with her mother, in large part due to her father’s death, she was pressured into a marriage for stability, instead of love, and she took it upon herself to divorce her husband so that she could pursue the education she had always wanted. Greta now has a Master’s degree in Social Work and works as spiritually oriented counselor for individuals, couples, and families where her main message is “Heal yourself, heal the world.” She also writes poetry as a method of healing, and encourages those she works with to do the same. She is, undoubtedly, one of the most inspiring people I have ever met, and, not only did meeting her make me a better person, she also did a lot that day to prepare me for my career as a teacher.

 

The first thing I learned from Greta is the importance of telling our stories, whether real or fictional, as well as listening to those of others, as a way of teaching and learning. Herb Kohl wrote: “I also try to tell empowering stories when I teach, and I encourage students to create their own tales and imaginings. In periods of stress, when people don’t take the time to tell or listen to stories, they sacrifice their imaginations and allow hope to slip away. I’ve never had any problem trading formal learning for storytelling in my classes, and I believe the students have been better for it. After all, seeding hope is at the center of the art and craft of teaching.” (The Herb Kohl reader, 2009, page 12) Greta has no formal training as a educator, but, by sharing nothing more than her story and her outlook on life, she is without a doubt one of the best and most inspiring teachers I have even come into contact with. People like Greta, as well as her story and her poetry, contribute greatly to my desire to be a teacher, and specifically to why my teaching areas are English and Social Studies. I am primarily interested in people and their stories.It is one of my goals as a future teacher to ensure that young people know that, no matter what they have experienced in their lives, they have a story that is valid and worth sharing.

 

Greta also taught me that it is crucial that we never let the oppression experienced by our students let us limit our expectations of them or our hopes for their futures. In the hours that my class spent with Greta, she spent only about ten minutes, if that, talking about her experiences during the Holocaust. She made it clear from the beginning that she preferred talking about the life she lived afterward, not only because it was difficult to relive such a tragic period of her life, but also because she wants never to be seen only as a Holocaust survivor. Greta, like other survivors of the Holocaust, lived a full life that, while not always easy, is full of love and hope.

 

This year we have learned a lot about anti-oppressive education. We have learned all about different forms of oppression, the negative impacts it has on people, and the importance of recognizing our own bias as future teachers. And although these things are all extremely beneficial to our education, there is something else—something that Greta taught me—that I also want to remember as a teacher. Greta’s story and her poetry serve as a reminder to me that we as people need to be able to see beyond the oppression that may have impacted those around us. Because when we see only oppression, we are in danger of placing limits on a person’s abilities, opportunities, and on his or her future.

 

Herb Kohl must have known I’d be writing this someday when he wrote his book because, once again, he wrote something that relates perfectly to what I learned from Greta. He said: “Central to what you see in someone is what you are looking for. If you want to find a child’s weaknesses, failures, personal problems, or inadequacies, you’ll discover them. If you look at a child through the filter of her or his environment or economic status, and make judgments through the filters of your own cultural, gender, and racial biases, you’ll find the characteristics you expect. You’ll also find yourself well placed to reproduce failure and to develop resistance in some children, a false sense of superiority in others. On the other hand, if you look for strengths and filter the world through the prism of hope, you will see and encourage the unexpected flowering of child life in the most unlikely places.” (The Herb Kohl Reader, 2009, p. 14)

 

Greta wanted to be remembered as more than a victim, as more than a survivor of the Holocaust, and every student we will encounter in the future who may have experienced oppression deserves to be seen as more than a victim as well. For every student with a troubled or tragic past, there is also the potential for a bright future. And inside every person who has been hurt, there is also the potential for strength, courage, and hope. As teachers, we have the opportunity to help our students discover this in themselves. We have the chance to help our students’ stories end not with sadness and oppression, but with joy and beauty instead. Every student can have a story similar to Greta’s and can have a positive impact on our world, or, as Greta like to call it, our “Human Family.”

 

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Anti-Oppression in Teacher Education Programs

Question: Your own teacher education program has included what Kumashiro argues is rare in teacher education programs, which is the examination of self through anti-oppressive education courses. Discuss how your anti-oppressive lenses have been critical to your formation as a teacher thus far; provide examples of how you feel your anti-oppressive learning have better prepared you to meet the needs of your future learners.

Had it not been for my educational experiences prior to entering this college, I think I would have had a much more difficult time understanding the importance of anti-oppressive teaching practices. After all, the amount of time we have spent covering the topic of oppression and the difficulty in removing it from schools can seem like a very overwhelming task. At times, it feels like the expectations that have been laid in front of us as future teachers seems nearly impossible, in large part because we have not yet even conquered the basics of teaching and may feel unprepared to take on the challenge of anti-oppression.

 

That being said, I believe we have, ultimately, benefited from the emphasis on anti-oppression in our program. To ignore the topic of diversity and oppression while we are just learning to teach would be to risk our never considering these issues even when we are comfortable in our roles as teachers. It needs to be addressed early on in teacher education for the same reasons it is important to cover these topics with high school students: to delay our learning in these areas would mean allowing oppression to continue unnoticed.

 

In my opinion, one of the most helpful tips for anti-oppressive teaching came from our last day in this class. Amanda quotes Zeus Leondardo by saying “trying not to be racist is a different project than being anti-racist.” The reason I find this so helpful is because it is a reminder that we are all human and have been conditioned by a particular social world and, therefore, cannot be expected to be perfect in our desire to be anti-oppresive. Perfectionism is certainly not what is expected of us, especially at the very beginning of our careers. What is most important is acknowledging the injustices which exist in our schools, allowing those topics to be addressed in our classrooms, and, perhaps most importantly, encouraging our students to think critically about the world in which they live.

 

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Tradition vs Innovation: The Challenges of Creating Change

Question: According to Kumashiro (2009): “the ways we traditionally think about teaching and learning are not the only possible ways” (p. 29). What makes it difficult to re-think what it might mean to both teach and to learn?

 

One of Kumashiro’s main focuses thoroughout Against Common Sense is that schools and teaching are capable of change, and that our students and our world deserve to have us work toward making positive changes to enhance, not only learning, but the way young people learn to think about the world and interact with their surroundings. We have devoted a great deal of time this year learning about the importance of working toward creating positive change in schools, whether it was in this class or our other classes. Paul likes to remind us that, as teachers, we are in a position either to maintain or to challenge the status quo, and I think most of us have a desire to do the latter. We know, because we have been high school students ourselves, that tradition in schools is often not beneficial to students. I know that I want to be a teacher that does everything I can to make classrooms more welcoming and includive spaces where more meaningful learning takes place.

 

The difficulty that I have been finding while student teaching this year is that creating this change is much more easily said than done. I do not know if this is true for everyone else, but I am still struggling sometimes just to feel comfortable standing at the front of a classrooms or making sure that I deliver coherent sentences. I’m still trying to master the superficial elements of teaching, and it’s extremely overwhelming to think about being progressive when I still feel incapable of the most simply teacher tasks. I think this may be one of the reasons that breaking free from traditional teaching practices is so difficult. It may not be the case that new teachers want to maintain the status quo by sticking with tradition; perhaps this happens because beginning teaching creates so much anxiety and fear (at least for me) that we unconsciously channel the teaching practices that we have seen before. It is not apathy that drives tradition, but rather we do not know how to change teaching for the better because we have barely become comfortable in the teaching role at all. In other words, the only way to feel like you are not drowning is to grab onto what we aready know about teaching, even if that means drawing from traditional practices.

 

I hope that when I become more confortable in my new role as “teacher,” I can figure out how to implement more innovative practices. The alternative is that I become a teacher who merely sticks with tradition and will likely be tolerated and then forgotten by students, which I shudder at the thought of. After all, students—even those who are successful in the traditional school system—deserve for these changes to be made, and if I am not willing to work toward progress, I will do a diservice to future students.

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Response to “The Emotions That Fuel Our Teaching” by Maryellen Weimer

I was reading a news article from The Teaching Professor Blog by Maryellen Weimer who decided to research the emotional aspect of teaching because, despite the fact that teaching is often considered to be based in intellectual content, she believes strongly that “you cannot power a teaching career on intellect alone.” I found her article particularly interesting because, not only does she note that “emotions are an ever-present part of teaching,” but she also talks specifically about the emotional aspects of first-time teaching. She notes that, for most of the first time teachers that participated in her study, there was a rollercoaster ride of emotions. When something went well, there was elation, but when something went poorly, there were feelings of misery. Based on my experiences students teaching this year, I can understand how this is possible. The week we were there I remember distinct moments where I was so happy that things were going well and then the next day, there would moments that went so poorly I had to ask myself what I was doing there. This is one of the reasons that new teachers need support and proper teacher induction and mentorship programs. In order to help new teacher deal with feelings of fear, anxiety, and frustration, we need to know that, not only is it okay to make mistakes, but that every teacher started out experiencing the same difficulties.

The second part of the reading that I found so interesting was one of the major factors that has been found to shift a teacher’s emotional state. According to a study done by Keith Trigwell in Australia, whether or not a teacher is focusing more on the students or himself/herself is plays a large role in the teacher’s emotions. The study found that teachers who expressed more pride and less frustration in their work were more focused on the experiences and learning of their students whereas teachers who experienced more anxiety and frustration were more teacher-focused and concerned with the act of transmitting knowledge. I think it is extremely important to know, as someone at the very first stages of a career in teaching, that the best thing I can do, both for my students and for myself, is to make sure that my focus is on them. Of course this does not mean that we throw out the notions of self-reflective practices. Instead, we have to avoid allowing our teaching to become all about our actions and feelings about a lesson, so that we can keep our focus on students.

 

If anyone would like to read the article, here is the link: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/emotions-fuel-teaching/

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Play as Learning

Saifer (2010) delineates the benefits of play for development and higher order thinking for all ages. How might you use play in your classroom to enhance student learning? Provide several examples or one detailed example.

 

I feel extremely fortunate to have been placed with a coop teacher this year who makes meaningful play an ongoing and important part of his Social Studies and History classes. I think History classes are often assumed to be dull, primarily because the teaching is often lecture based and involves taking notes, answering questions, and writing an exam. My coop teacher, however, prefers to take alternative approaches to instruction and assessment, and the activities in his classes are extremely engaging.

One of my favorite examples of using play as learning opportunity comes from his grade 9 social studies class. They were learning about the development of civilizations and had learned about a pyramid for civilizations that you can look at by clicking on this link: P of C. To help them understand the order in which the elements of civilization came together (for instance, the reasons that domestication of plants and animals had to happen before political organizations took shape) the class divided into groups to spend two days playing the board game Settlers of Catan.

Settlers of Catan board For those who are not familiar with the game, players are given the game board of an unsettled area of land and their goal is essentially to become the most successful settler by collecting things like resources (e.g. brick, wool, grain, lumbers, and ore) as well as by building things like armies, libraries, churches, and universities. By playing this game, students not only learned about important considerations when faced with building a civilization and what is needed in order to accomplish this, but they also had a great time making these realizations. It helped cement the pyramid of civilization in their minds in a way that simply copying it down and having it explained to them could not. After playing the game, the students were asked to fill out a reflection to demonstrate what they learned from playing the game.

This is only one example of a game being used in one of my coop teacher’s classes to develop understanding. We also used a lot of simulations to learn about things like cultural awareness, Canadian unification, imperialism, and systems of government. All of these games and simulations engaged both us as teachers and the students, provided us with opportunities to interact with and get to know students, and allowed us to bring content to life. I am determined to make play a part of my future classes as I have seen the benefits of it first-hand.

 

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Why Problem-Based Learning Isn’t the Problem

“[Problem based learning] requires one to also consider the goals of education—including not only learning content but also “softer skills” such as epistemic practices, self-directed learning, and collaboration that are not measured on achievement tests but are important for being lifelong learners and citizens in a knowledge society” (Silver et al, 2007, p. 105). Discuss this citation by linking it to implications for a school environment driven by test scores or standardized testing.

I remember preparing discussion questions for Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chin’s article “Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006)” and this is one of the lines that most stood out to me. It seemed to sum up what is perhaps the greatest fault in our current education system: it values, in my opinion, all of the wrong things. I remember being in high school (granted it was not that long ago) and feeling like the majority of what I did, particularly the assessments, were not at all useful because they were not in the least reflective of my actual learning. One of the reasons that I was always drawn to classes like English Language Arts and Creative Writing, besides the fact that both included a lot of reading, was that neither involved a great deal of memorization and regurgitation on tests. It is not that I was not capable of these things; in fact, I never had any problem reading over my notes from a class, memorizing the words, and remembering them for a test. I succeeded in classes like Chemistry, where the subject matter did not always make sense in my head, simply because I could memorize information and write it down. It did not really matter that the moment the test was over I immediately forgot all of that information because I was getting grades that meant success. It was only when I went to English classes that I felt real learning took place. English was about interpretation, communicating ideas, and writing about my opinions. (Side note: This is not to say that ELA is superior because it allows for this type of learning and assessment; I’m merely saying that it was the only subject in which I had teachers who would value this type of assessment. It is entirely possible that a teacher specializing in the sciences could create engaging and thought-provoking lessons while an ELA teacher simply has students read something and answer tests questions about it.)

Unfortunately, considering the emphasis our current system puts on things like standardized testing, we are devaluing things like the “softer” skills—things like self-direction and communication skills—which are not only important for developing independence and critical thinking skills, but are generally much more useful in the world after high school. I do not know of a single job in which a person can succeed by memorizing facts and filling out multiple-choice questions correctly. Yet, our current system suggests that if a student struggles with rote memorization, they are likely to be unsuccessful. This is not only misleading and discouraging, but it means that teachers and students are subjected to far duller and less exciting lessons. If teachers are focused on “teaching to the test,” there is far less time for problem- or inquiry-based learning, which is more engaging and develops skills that are ultimately more useful.

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