Category Archives: Ethic of Care

New Historicist Lens (A Lesson in Reverse)

I just had a chance to send this letter off to one of my Sophomore classes:

Dear Silver Stream,

Just wanted to give you a collective shout out for the quality of today’s conversation in class. Here are a few things that made it so good:

  • You talked about how you felt, not just what you thought. The space was safe enough for you to share some deep feelings. 
  • You really listened and took each other’s viewpoints into consideration. You built off of each other, and sometimes surprised me with where you agreed and disagreed (in a good way).
  • You really used the literary lens we had just learned to dig deeply into the different angles of our topic, so it wasn’t just strong feelings. It was strong feelings and analysis. 

There are many schools where this kind of complex, emotional conversation would never happen. Thank you for making our school a place where we can really talk. I am proud to call you all my students. Keep asking good questions. 

Peace, Ms. Pahomov

Here’s the topic that prompted the conversation that went so well:

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And here is the super-condensed literary analysis tools that we reviewed before diving into this discussion:

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Talking about “A Birthday Cake for General Washington” wasn’t even on my official plan for this conversation — but some of my pre-written prompts made me think of it on the fly:

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People often wonder how we make things work at SLA. Listen to Saltz: there is no secret sauce. This lesson was embedded in a book-long conversation about literary lenses, so this was not their first time applying some critical theory. But thanks to a few years of inquiry and learning to talk about race in the classroom — props to the work of fellow SLA English teacher Matt Kay here –the students were able to speak their minds and actually listen to each other.

They were able to say, I’m sick of having to hear about slavery, as if that’s the way my people came into this world.

They were able to say, I’ve spent so long learning about slavery as an abstract, horrible thing with a lot of numbers attached, we need something to humanize what often gets painted as a phenomenon without real people in it.

They were able to argue about when children need to learn about the problems of the world, and whether it’s acceptable to sugar coat the bad stuff (and to what degree).

And they were able to to both agree with and challenge each other, across racial lines that you don’t always see in the room together in Philadelphia, converging and diverging in ways you didn’t expect in the first place.

At the end, we were asking questions: How do you tell the story of somebody who was denied the chance to tell it themselves? Do you even have a right to? Should we trust stories told by anybody other than the person who experienced it personally? What do we have to gain by re-creating the past?

So yes, having this conversation can be easy. And yes, it takes a whole school to make it happen.

And yes, the work is totally, totally worth it.

Keeping the Social Contract.

Almost exactly a month ago, I wrote about recovering from surgery and going back to work.

Then, on Monday, my school district had a stealth meeting to cancel my union’s contract and impose health care payments onto staff.

In response, I sent out a tweet that was personal, but important to me.

If you’ve been following the #phled news recently, you know that students at several schools took matters into their own hands today and held their own strikes, organized under the hasthag #studentsforteachers.

(One of their big reasons for doing this? According to state law, Philadelphia teachers cannot strike, or we risk having our teaching licenses revoked. We are the only district in Pennsylvania for which this is true.)

There have been many times on this blog when I have described the community that is SLA, from the thank you notes I write to students to the “safety net of actual human care” that has helped me in the last month. But then last night I got this e-mail:

Hi Ms. Pahomov,

Hope this email finds you well. I was wondering if I could turn your tweet, the one in the attachment, into a poster for the student strike tomorrow

Thanks for your help!

Nikki 

And then, she did:
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I also received the following e-mails from my student assistant teachers while they were striking in front of the school:

Hi I’m outside protesting for you guys. If you need me I’ll come up.

Hiii Ms Pahomov, I’m outside protesting right now but if you need me to help next band I can come up, I don’t want to leave you if you need me.

These are students who I teach and care for — but in a very real and concrete way have cared for me as well, in the last month since I returned to work, and in the years prior to that as well.

As I said to a reporter earlier today, this is not a Hallmark card. This is a situation where both their education and my livelihood are under attack. But in the best version of school, teachers and students have a reciprocal level of trust and respect that allows them to continue to learn and be human — even in the face of crushing adversity.

So why do I keep showing up to work, even though my contract is supposedly canceled? Because I’m trying to be as thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind as my students are to me.

Teaching After Surgery.

At the end of July, I had hip surgery. Nothing about this event or the condition that caused it were life-threatening — I had a tumor in my femur that we already knew was benign, but it still had to go. However, I am new to the recovery game.

Many people have already experienced their own personalized version of this game. (If you haven’t yet, here’s a spoiler: it’s not linear.) My version of the recovery game involves a cane, a boatload of physical therapy, and a joint that will occasionally ping me just to announce its continued existence.

On our first day of school, despite a great day overall, the recovery game meant that I spent a good portion of my prep period cuddling with an ice pack, face down on a couch in the counselor’s office.

My principal casually poked his head in and asked how I was feeling.

“I’m awake!” I replied.

“It wouldn’t be a problem if you were asleep,” he said.

This may sound like one educational Kodak moment, but variations on this scene played out several times (right down to my advisees checking out the x-ray of my newly installed hardware, or one of my senior student assistant teachers telling me to stop walking around already.)

For some of you in caring school environments, your reaction may be something along the lines of “yeah, duh.” But at the end of today, I am acutely aware of why this stuff matters. In my analytical moments, I might say to myself “well, I’m just getting back what I have put in,” but that’s applying a very corporate approach to a culture that is anything but. Banking your sick days is one thing. Having the safety net of actual human care is something else entirely.

What the students are watching.

I just finished The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract by Theodore and Nancy Sizer. Turns out it’s a great read for an evening when tomorrow’s snow day has already been called.

I’ve been thinking periodically about the hidden curriculum that all schools impart to their students, and their chapter categories resonated: modeling, grappling, bluffing, sorting, shoving, and fearing.

My mind quickly turned these categories into probing questions for my own classroom:

Where do I allow students to grapple with complex, un-solvable concepts? When do I discourage that behavior, and why?

When do I “shove” into the academic and personal lives of my students, even if they protest? Does it work, or does it backfire?

Do I induce fear in my students? Intentionally or unintentionally? Does this help or harm their work? How about our relationships?

I love thinking about this stuff. I’m fortunate to work in a building that allows me to address it explicitly with my students, and also with a staff that also wants to have these conversations.

There’s a danger, though, as well — if I think about it too much, I end up down the rabbit hole, over-analyzing every move that I make in the classroom, not to mention the hidden moral lessons being imparted by the larger school system (and in Philadelphia, that gets real depressing real quick).

And yet — in my sixth year of teaching, I can cautiously report that I’m getting better at that balance.

(Not going to try and figure out why, right now. That might ruin it. Wishing you all some balance in the new year.)

How to Enrich Publich Education.

I’m happy to be the co-signer of an opinion piece that ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Here’s a key section — as the representative for Teacher Action Group, I can say that we were particularly keen on expressing this sentiment:

When it comes to learning readiness, it’s important to acknowledge the violence of poverty and its impact on children. Children from families that are proximate to poverty have diminished learning readiness. The solution is to provide safe neighborhoods, sustainable employment, and access to health care. Poverty, however, is outside the direct purview of teachers. It is a societal responsibility. The challenges we face in school are a result of an anti-intellectual, anti-democratic economy that maintains the violence of poverty and vilifies teachers in the process.

I fear that too many people assume that teachers don’t deserve to be a part of the larger discussion about quality education — or that we’re too busy making lesson plans to even think about these matters. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Thanks to Gamal Sherif and Teachers Lead Philly for inviting TAG to co-sign the letter.

What keeps our kids going?

During 11th grade English today, students were presenting their “Problem in Philadelphia” research mini-projects, our principal happens to walk in during the group working on “Teen Motivation after High School.” (I know, I know. You can’t make this stuff up. Lehmann walking in is actually a non-event, and if the kids had some reaction to his presence, they didn’t show it.)

The group included the following graph in their presentation, which they later cited as being from The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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Their snapshot assessment of why these numbers are the way they are?

Students at neighborhood schools don’t have the support structures that are offered at SLA.

Now, they’re not experts about what goes on in schools across Philadelphia — and neither am I. But this idea of community and support continued to be echoed through the class. During Q&A, Lehmann followed up on this idea, asking them: what keeps you guys from dropping out? What keeps you motivated? Everything they listed was both structural and human — our ILP internships around the city, the Math Lab and Lit Lab that offer tutoring and study space during lunch, our Student Assistant Teacher Program (which they were shocked to learn doesn’t exist at any other school in Philadelphia.) That the teachers care. Our four-year advisory system.

Not one student said “we’re smarter” or “we’re just more motivated.”

In fact, it only occurred to me now, upon reflection, that they could have said that. Because that’s the argument leveled against the special admit schools sometimes — that those kids are going to succeed anywhere, so pulling them into their own environment just skews the numbers.

I agree that the numbers are skewed. But my students offered a very different, big-picture viewpoint about why. And they’re the ones who know it personally.

Working through school wounds.

This activity is a continuation of my write up from yesterday about getting students to identify what their “school wounds” are.

Once students had picked a category they identified with — numbness, creativity, compliance, underestimation, or the average — we handed out some blank paper and asked them to draw:

What was an experience that made you lose your desire to learn?

The results were sometimes predictable, sometimes unexpected, and often hard to look at and accept.

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We talked a bit about where all this was coming from — many different places, obviously. If this was had been my English class, we would have been composing essays / digital stories post haste. As this was the spring of senior advisory, however, we took a more mellow, holistic approach, talking it out in groups.

We also followed up with a second, positive prompt:

When was a time that learning came alive for you?

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I have to admit, I was a little bit relieved that several of the drawings kids created were directly related to school. I also liked this one, which showed a timeline of many different influences on learning, both school-based and self-chosen:

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Our final push with this activity was along the lines of, “you’re going to college soon. You probably have four more years of “formal” learning in front of you, and some more hurdles to jump with school. How are you going to heal your wounds now, and get through this?”

Of course, looking at it now, I don’t think that line of thinking pushed hard enough. In fact, I think it was sort of cowardly — asking students to accept the poor structure of school at face value and just “deal with it.”

The question I want to ask now:

How could we all transform school, so that these wounds don’t happen?