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Not to be that guy,

But I’m going to be that guy. I’m going to talk about something that I’m already on board with. It’s the idea that playing is learning. At its simplest, the theory is that people become what they pretend to be.

Cas Holman, in her Personal Story on the CLA website writes, “We don’t know what future jobs are going to be. Students are going to graduate into a world that contains roles we haven’t seen before.” Because of this ever-evolving job marketplace, it becomes more and more important to teach students how to think, rather than specific skills. If students have the ability to be creative, to see new ways to use the tools that are given to them, then they are able to develop as learners as career fields change. A key for this, one of the key takeaways that Cas notes, is not giving your students directions on how to use the tools that they’re given.

Many times students will figure out the tool’s intended uses, but sometimes they’ll surprise you with the ways that they adapt them for new purposes. As a lifelong fan of Lego, I can attest to this. Anytime I had the instruction book in front of me it was just too tempting to build what was on the front of the box. But take the instructions away and mix the boxes together, and whole new worlds were ready to be created at my fingertips.

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You call this Education?

Okay, so this post is related to my teacher as connected learner badge, but it is “extra-curricular,” in that I’m writing it because it must be said. A caveat before I begin: I  believe in an education that teaches some subjects broadly, things like mathematics, the sciences, arts, literature, reading, but I don’t think that teaching to a standardized test is helping us get there.

Over the course of this past academic year, the business I work for had the opportunity to take on a student intern from a local public high-school. We’ll call him Sean. Sean was chosen for this internship program because he was not succeeding in the classroom. I could see why on my first day working with him. He was completely calloused towards, well, a lot of things. I couldn’t help thinking that the education system hadn’t done him many favors.

But, two days ago my manager got to go with him to his school where Sean had the opportunity to award our business the school’s “Employer of the Year” award. I was in class, so didn’t have the opportunity to join in this endeavor, but seeing the picture of this young man, dressed in the clothes of a punk, skater-kid, smiling next to my manager, award in hand, could not have made me more proud of both Sean, and our opportunity to be part of his education.

See, my manager told me that Sean’s teacher had noticed a change in him. He had begun to take responsibility for himself, saying things like, “My jeans have holes in them! I can’t go to work like this.” Sure, it’s a small thing. But it shows growth in Sean. Over the course of the past year he was able to put his love for people to work in a customer service environment, he developed people skills (I put him through the ringer, role-playing customer service interactions from people who are super kind and know what their looking for in our retail shop, to characters who are probably on drugs, and aren’t exactly pleasant for anyone to show kindness towards), he did the dirty-work of keeping the shop tidy, and his desire for cleanliness shined (ha! see what I did there?), and that’s before I mention his utter inability to work unsupervised nine months ago, to his relative  aptitude now.

It wasn’t our business that did this for him.

It was the opportunity to be a human being, in a real work environment, working with real people. We were able to capitalize on some of Sean’s interests and skills and channel his energy into places where it mattered–to Sean.

These are lessons that he will take with him whether he works in retail, becomes an astronaut, works for a non-profit, or writes a best-selling novel. Let me know how calculus, or for sake of equality, the proper placement of a comma, will have that wide of an application. If you can think of a way, let me know. I can’t.

This is why I think connected learning matters. The emphasis of this badge is on how technology can help us to achieve this sort of broad application across subject areas. How do we develop students as human beings while also developing their ability to solve a quadratic function? With the new technologies, we have new tools to accomplish this, but it doesn’t count for anything unless we rethink the multiple ways in which students can grow in a classroom. Yes, knowing how to do math and construct a good scientific hypothesis and develop an argument about The Outsiders is important, but to restrict our view of education to those things is to do a great disservice to our children and our future. I’m worried that this sounds preachy, but then I look at Sean’s growth this year and I can’t help but say something. Because of his school district’s alternative approach he grew from a punk kid into a young man that stays true to his punk roots (lol). Even if he had been successful academically, he very well could’ve turned into a punk kid that knows how to graph a sin wave. But the skills he learned in his internship will help him (hopefully) have the work ethic to learn trig functions, and be a better person.

#sorrynotsorry if that got preachy. Don’t let children be crippled as human beings but good at history. Give them the tools to be good humans and good students.

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Art? LOL

This morning’s Morning Pages prompt comes from Kendra, Ronnie, Savannah, and Alice:

“..Something strikes you when you move to America and travel around the world: Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one. Doesn’t matter where you go. You’d think it would be otherwise, but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and at the bottom are the arts.” – Ken Robinson  

Do you feel like creativity is still advocated for in schools? Is education sacrificing creativity by having a rubric culture and an emphasis on tests? Are STEM schools taking priority over theater, music, and art classes? In your own school experience did you feel like your arts education was lacking? If so, how?

Art is impractical. From an economic standpoint, both the creation and enjoyment of art is something that takes away from production. Think of all the valuable, practical things that could be making life more efficient, solving world hunger, or cleaning garbage out of the oceans in the time that is spent on writing, painting, reading literature, or crafting sculptures. Likewise, think about the cultures of days gone by whose art we still have access to. Art is almost always a sign of a privileged society. There has to be an audience for it, and there has to be time for it.

Maths, Sciences, even Writing to a degree, all help a society to be more… well, productive. They are things that help you live life.

Art is something that makes life worth living.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think art is the thing that makes life worth living, but in the words of C.S. Lewis, it is something that adds value to living. From this, I understand why the STEM subjects are prioritized.

There also needs to be mention of the nature of art as “creative” and STEM as… I don’t know… less creative? But think where we would be if people like Isaac Newton or Renee Descartes weren’t as creative as they were interested in “fact” and science. We might be able to have food and shelter and the other necessities of human life without creativity, but what value would there be without the sharing of experience that comes from artistry?

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So… connected learning?

I’ll be honest. As soon as I saw the logo for this badge, I knew I was going to avoid it. Yeah, I like technology (but not more than you, you see… name that reference!) but I’ve never been one for incorporating something into the classroom just because it’s new and fancy. I say this, not having ever been a teacher, but having been a student. Sure, Smart boards were cool, but did they help us learn? It sure didn’t when I was in eighth grade. But, they’ve come a long way.

I digress…

My point is, I saw the logo for this badge and it looked like a wifi signal and I didn’t have any clue what to think, except that I wasn’t on board.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, or a badge by its icon?

Then, when the Teacher as Reader badge kicked the bucket (Requiescat en pace) I knew I had to explore other options. That’s when I stumbled upon connected learning.

The Connected Learning Alliance says:

The “connected” in connected learning is about human connection as well as tapping the power of connected technologies. Rather than see technology as a means toward more efficient and automated forms of education, connected learning puts progressive, experiential, and learner-centered approaches at the center of technology-enhanced learning.

Now this, this is something I can get on board with. Learning that is focused on connecting students with their interests and desires, and rather than it being “about” technology, using technology to make it about the student. Man, what I would have given for this sort of approach in my own schooling.

A slogan I want to hang in my classroom is, “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.” This became a motto of mine when I first heard it on a hunting trip I took in tenth grade. I’d taken a week off from school to sleep in the woods and wander around with a rifle slung over my shoulder. There was so much more to learn about living than what I was studying in my Algebraic Functions class.

I wonder what I would have become if I had been able to pursue my interests in the classroom from day one. For those of you who have been reading along with me this semester, you may remember that I have always loved reading, and often spent way too much time on writing assignments in Elementary school. What if I had been able to leverage and channel that energy into learning how to be a storyteller instead of the focus being on just getting a certain number of words out in the short breadth of time we had for free writes? Or, what if someone noticed the capacity for creative planning and problem solving that Legos allowed me to cultivate, as I spent countless hours designing and refining models of starships and medieval landscapes. Maybe I wasn’t thrilled about learning trigonometry, but if someone had related it to modeling and engineering then maybe I’d be pursuing a career that pays a lot more than teaching or writing…

My point is, from my first look into connected learning it seems to be all about the student’s interests, and leveraging the technologies that are available in the twenty-first century classroom to support that learning. This allows educators to support student interests, and match curriculum standards to practical applications. Most of us have had classroom experiences where we wondered how we were ever going to apply the lesson to anything practical in life. Connected learning is about bridging that gap in ways that interest the student, making the learning theirs, so that they can pursue their goals, interests, and desires, rather than forcing them to fit the mold of a student, without preparing them for the vast number of individualized, tailored, and multi-faceted careers that they will encounter upon graduation.

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Morning Pages: Anxiety? HA!

Today’s prompt for morning pages comes from Kendall, Sarah, and Cass. They simply asked us what worries, fears, anxieties, we may have about teaching.

Welp, here goes…

The first thing that came to mind when they asked that question is the simple fact that I am a people-pleaser, and in the teaching profession, there are a lot of people to please. There are your students (who, to quote someone wise than me, they don’t need to like you but it sure makes things easier), there are parents, there are administrators, there is the community at large that has high expectations for you–the patrons of America’s future.

Ha! Jokes are fun.

They’re also my favorite way to deal with anxiety because it totally takes the attention off of the thing you may or may not be anxious about… which is how you can tell that what the above is real.

But, of all those things, the one that worries me most is administrators. Why? Because I have this feeling that I may be that teacher that causes some concern among parents. What if the literature I choose to teach is too mature for what they want their kids to hear? What if the content is *gasp* inflammatory or says something bad about the current state of our society. What if there is a sex-reference (thanks Shakespeare, can’t avoid those in your work), or violence, or… lessons to be learned?

(My mom and dad read this blog so this is my note to them: this is not to slight the way you parented… I know you loved me and did your best. I love you too!) I know the things I was sheltered from growing up, but I also know how my literature classes expanded my perspective. I hope I can assign work that does the same for my students.

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Advocate/Ally?

When I was working on my teacher as ally badge I was in the majority of the class. While we all had our choice of badges, it seemed that most of us had chosen to pursue ally, and now, most of the class is pursuing the advocate badge.

While I am not going to be pursuing teacher as advocate (I will be pursuing teacher as connected learner) there are some common themes that ran between ally and advocate that I will be sharing based on Lauren, Lauren, and Alex’s morning pages prompt this morning:

“I was asked to share my story, my concerns, and my beliefs about education. No one outside my family had ever asked me about my outlook on education. I realized I had a voice – an authentic, small but strong voice with a valuable perspective on students’ needs. Somehow I understood how to paint a picture with words, a picture that pulls people into my world with students.” (Crabtree). Both the Ally and Advocate badges inspire different reactions within each of us, but we all have a unique voice to share these reactions. How can you act as a leader within your current community? Your future community/schooling system? Think of the ways you can use your voice to share your thoughts and inspire change within all aspects of life as well as the education system. What will you do?

The way I have come to think about the differences between these two badges is that the ally is someone who advocates for their student, while the advocate fights for the profession. Both of these drives come from the same place for me. The thing that drives me to teach is my love for literature and my love for students, and my desire to advocate for the profession stems from that. The people I’ve met in the teacher education program at CSU are some of the most kind, caring, and dedicated people I could have ever imagined. They are deeply committed to helping their students and peers through all sorts of hardships, whether it be the next standardized test or the next change of policy or a bully in the hall, these men and women are here for one another and their students.

Watching the way that these people care for each other makes me wonder how one could not be an advocate for the profession. While teachers, according to José Vilson, are often some of the most respected people in their communities, the overall perception of teachers continues to be negative.

Why?

Why the heck has the perception become that teachers are whiny, lazy, spiteful people who are just there to torture kids and float through a career on tenure?

And if that’s the case, why would anyone choose to be a teacher?

Sure, maybe there are some miserable human beings out there in the teaching profession, but that’s just because human beings are involved. Go back and visit a high school teacher that made a difference in your life, or think about one of your elementary school teachers whose name you haven’t forgotten. Think about the difference that they have made in your life. Think about the difference that they’ve made in your community. These people fight to make the world a better place by educating you and your children. They give people voices, they give people the tools to participate in our communities, and the tools to learn about others.

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English Teacher Allies

Another group of students where teachers can model ally behavior is those living in poverty. These students face all sorts of challenges including housing, insufficient nutrition, bullying because of things they have no control over, dirty clothes, and instability in their families, among other things. Needless to say, students who live below the poverty line face many challenges in and out of the classroom, but here are a few ways for teachers, English teachers in particular, can act as allies on their behalf:

  1. Establish a relational interaction. In order to enact change, you must first find your voice, your platform. But, in order to make your platform effective it is critical to develop a relationship with your students. As a teacher this looks like developing a self-image that students respect, and respecting their human experiences as well.
  2. Give students the language to advocate for themselves. Oftentimes the language that students use at home is not empowering in the classroom and community at large. By teaching students how to “code-switch” to the formal and accepted standard of English, you give them a microphone to be able to advocate on behalf of themselves and those in similar situations. I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative wherein he uses a language, a code, that would be more familiar, and thought more highly of by his English and Union audience than the language used informally among the African-slave community.
  3. Teach students the rules of navigating in the school community. Students coming from more unstable backgrounds may have learned ways of protecting themselves that aren’t permissible in a school context. Fighting is one example, but teach them alternative ways of approaching conflict that lead to greater understanding rather than busted lips and black eyes.

Resources for further reading:

http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr08/vol65/num07/Nine-Powerful-Practices.aspx

https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/5-ways-help-students-affected-generational-poverty

 

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Takeaways for Dealing with Bully Behavior

In order to become a better ally to all students in my classroom, I went to the NCTE website to search for ways to support bullies. As expected, the search didn’t yield many results that were explicitly directed at that issue, but I think that the techniques we use to be an ally to all of our students can challenge bullying behavior and create a safer classroom. Here are some takeaways from the resources I found:

  1. Curate an inclusive classroom atmosphere. By acting as a role-model of ally behavior, you set an example for students to follow. Use pronouns that students are comfortable with. As an English teacher, try to include texts that portray a diverse set of backgrounds, and examine the way that language either affirms or challenges cultural norms of race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.
  2. Address bullying behavior when you see it, especially in the form of “micro-aggressions” — behaviors, intentional or otherwise that reinforce cultural norms that discriminate. We experience behaviors on a daily basis, and see them in our classrooms, that promulgate bullying behavior. Take advantage of your content, English in my case, and the opportunities it has to engage in the conversation about creating safe spaces. Almost all texts will provide this opportunity if you challenge the assumptions that the text makes about cultural norms. Note: you can do this without sacrificing your integrity or your student’s trust by playing the “Devil’s advocate.” Avoid consistently choosing one side of an argument, but present the pros and cons of both sides. Even if you disagree with a side, you create safer spaces by acknowledging their strengths and your own bias.
  3. Use the many resources available online and through various student-advocacy and  teacher organizations to learn about marginalized groups that face bullying. The internet has provided instant access to innumerable chances to become more educated on the challenges that students face. By becoming more aware teachers are better able to empathize with their students and to act as a firewall to bullying behavior. And, this philosophy is not limited to the internet–use your student’s stories, the experience of colleagues, and your interactions outside of the classroom to develop empathy and techniques to combat bullying.

My learning on this continues, and as it does, I find more and more resources that reinforce the idea that students should not be identified by the name “Bully.” Instead, like any other student group, they are people first. By treating them as people, and by modeling that behavior towards those in your classroom, school, and community, you plant the seeds of what it looks like to be an ally instead of a bully

All resources used for these take-aways can be found by joining NCTE and searching “supporting bullies.”

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Allies Outside the Classroom

Let’s imagine for a second that there’s this perfect student: they spend eight hours a day in class under the tutelage of a teacher in a perfect environment, they sleep for another eight hours a day, but there are still those remaining eight hours. You, the teacher have no control over this critical time, right?

Okay, assuming that this hypothetical situation is true, then even the best of teachers could not constrain being an ally to the classroom. We know that this situation is at the very least, highly unlikely. Which gives all the more credence to the argument that a good teacher should act as an ally win the classroom and out.

Public Allies is a resource for those of us, teachers or no, who wish to be allies outside of a school setting. Their mission is “to create a just and equitable society and the diverse leadership to sustain it.” They work towards this goal by employing what they call “integrated strategies” for those who enter the program to develop the leadership skills necessary to create inclusive, diverse, and honest allies in society. A key dilemma to their approach is that it is only effective for those who participate in the program. Their scope is limited, just like a teacher’s. But then again, are holistic approaches achievable? And if they aren’t, are they worth pursuing anyway?

I would say yes, but that’s another bag of marbles altogether. We can get a coffee if you want to talk about it…

Another resource for students to get involved in safe places, and where adults can act as allies, is After School Alliance. Their mission is “To engage public will to increase public and private investment in quality afterschool program initiatives at the national, state and local levels.” They work for this by advocating on behalf of the benefits of after-school activities to provide safe places for students of all backgrounds, beliefs, races, or whatever other categories you could squeeze a person into. They engage on all levels, from the government bureaucracy to families and community members to stress the value of these after school programs. While their platform is well grounded, with voices advocating in policy making to community awareness, their platform is again limited to participants. I wasn’t a huge fan of after-school programs, partly because it was hard for me to feel included in them–so I just did my own thing. Some parents would prefer to be the loudest voice in their children’s lives, and have the resources to provide a space to exercise that voice in their homes. To add to this dilemma, current policy is shifting towards defunding public education, and publicly funded after school programs. This throws a wrench in their proverbial cogs.

Once again, I will return to the military metaphor. Like I said earlier, it is hard for me to believe that we will ever fully achieve a just and equitable society, but I do believe that it is worth fighting for anyway.

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Supporting LGBT Students

“Remember, it’s not about politics—it’s about supporting students. Any educator, regardless of his personal beliefs, can be a resource for LGBT students,” says the page on tolerance.org. If you are a teacher, if you are in a classroom, your students are a priority.

This issue has been very present on my mind lately. As someone who has so many friends who are part of, and who have faced the consequences in school and out, of being part of the LGBT community, I have personally been challenged to learn what this means to me.

I remember a day in High-School band–I was asking one of the other students about their experience as someone who is gay. I told them, “I’m just interested because I haven’t known that many gay people.”

The joke was on me, as people all around chorused, “I’m gay!” “I’m bi!” “I’m bi-curious.” I was shocked. Not that I was surround by so many people who were “different” than me, but that they were just people. I learned that day that they were people first, and that I couldn’t see what was below the surface, whether that was sexual orientation, emotional distress, or whatever-what-have-you. They were people first, and that was good enough reason for me to treat them like people, and not like problems.

That was how I thought I would treat people if they were gay on entering High-School. As problems to be solved. Thank you everyone who spoke up that day, who weren’t afraid of what I might have thought.

So, with that in mind, here are the “top five takeaways” that I have learned about being an Ally to those in the LGBT community, student or otherwise:

  1. They are people first. That, and not their sexuality or gender identity, defines how we ought to treat people, regardless of who they are. Not only is this a moral thing, but as Americans it is a constitutional right protected under the first amendment. People are protected to act based on what they believe, provided that we as educators don’t discriminate. Sure, if girls can wear dresses, then gay men or trans women, you go for it too.
  2. Respect their privacy. If someone confides in you about their gender or sexuality, do not assume that they want the whole world to know. Being able to keep the information they have entrusted you with is a good first step towards being a “safe space.” This goes for anything (within lawful application of course, teachers are still required by law to report suicidal thinking, abuse, etc. to parents and administrators).
  3. Do not tolerate bullying. Yes, I did write an earlier post asking about how we can support bullies, but that does not mean we must tolerate bullying behavior in our classes and schools. Schools should have resources in place, and training for staff and administration in order to protect students from bullying of all stripes. And make sure that you, as the person you can control, is not a bully, and is a resource that is safe for students to turn to if they are being bullied. Train students to be aware of bullying, and to act on behalf of others if they see bullying behavior.
  4. Address the religious question. Yes, religion and the LGBT community are often at odds with one another, but disagreement doesn’t have to end in a fight, argument, or belittling. Use opportunities in your classroom to allow students to practice confrontation and disagreement in constructive ways. Consider fostering an environment where disagreement leads to greater understanding on behalf of both parties, rather than leading to conflict. This goes back to seeing people as people first.
  5. Remember that safety and change both start with you. You cannot control or fix all of the environmental aspects of your student’s lives. This goes for both LGTB students, and any other students in your classroom. You may not be able to control the beliefs of their parents, peers, or even your co-workers. But, you can craft in your own classroom a place where discrimination isn’t tolerated, were students of all stripes feel safe to voice their beliefs and ideas, and perhaps most importantly, do disagree with one another on important issues while knowing that their words, ideas, and identities will be respected.

Resources to check out if you are interested in learning more:

http://www.tolerance.org/lgbt-best-practices — a good resource on an overview of what being an LGBT ally in the classroom looks like

https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/files/gse-mcc/files/lgbtq_resource_list_0.pdf — a resource with links to helpful pages on how to be an ally to subsets of LGBT students like, “LGBT students of color” and resources for creating inclusive curricula.

https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/supporting-lgbt-students-your-school — this site has helpful tips on how to create an inclusive environment in your school, not just for LGBT students, but for everyone.

Do you disagree with me on any of the above? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear what you have to think.