One of the hardest things about working in a large school district is the unique combination of proximity and isolation that schools have to one another. There are over 200 public schools in Philly, but I’ve only been in a handful of them (and much of that happened the year I was in graduate school getting my teaching degree). Teachers can take an “observation day” to go see another school, but this needs principal approval, and with the current substitute fill rate, I expect administrators are loathe to release teachers from their classrooms. As a result, we’re all on our own islands. It can be tough to get into a colleague’s classroom next door, much less a different school.
But! There are not one but two fabulous events taking place in the next couple of months that do much to connect and enrich the professional lives of educators.
The first is Educon – Friday, January 29th to Sunday, Jan 31st. Here are a few highlights:
Smack in the middle of your school year, this is a place to dream. We have conversations, throw out ideas, challenge each other, and get to hear from some fabulous speakers (including Philadelphia’s newly appointed Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney.)
Folks from both around Philadelphia AND around the country come to visit SLA for a weekend. The opportunities for cross-pollination are huge.
Last week, I posted about students taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) in my classroom. A common question I got in response to this post was, “what did you do to set up your students so they could participate in this activity successfully?”
The big answer is that SLA does a lot to make students comfortable with tough moments and difficult conversations. The small answer is that we did several activities in the days leading up to the IAT that primed students to be open and vulnerable.
On day one, I asked them to simply define bias, prejudice, and stereotype, and then create a poster that visually clarified the differences between these terms — without perpetuating any of the stereotypes or myths that get tossed around these days.
This set a valuable precedent: we can mention common prejudices and stereotypes, but proceed with caution, because the way we talk can impact how people are affected by these ideas, even if they are not being presented as true.
On day two, we played one of my favorite games, which I call “Where Do You Stand?” The room gets cleared, and I project a series of prompts on the board. If you agree with the statement, you move to the window side of the room. If you disagree, you move to the wall.
The prompts, as you can see below, move from more personal and straight-up qualitative statements to more nuanced and complicated aspects of our society.
Once students have picked a side (and no, I don’t let them stand in the middle), it’s time to go back and forth and have folks try and convince their peers to come to their side. Students can switch at any time. One of my favorite scenarios is where just one or two students pick the less popular side of an argument–but by the end they’ve got more people thinking their way.
I think it’s also important to mention that, as the teacher, I hardly say anything during this discussion. Apart from reading the prompts, and an occasional “tell us more” nudge, I am just listening. Because everybody is an active participant, everybody has a stake in the outcome — and the fact that people can move at any time keeps interest up as the debate unfolds.
This game is consistently cited by my students as one of their favorite activities in my class. It consistently gets students who rarely speak to open up, sometimes because it gives them a concrete action they can describe (“Hey [student], why did you switch sides?”). In a class with lopsided participation, requiring everybody to comment once before somebody can speak again can work.
Do you play similar games in your classroom? What’s your experience with them?
It’s a regular occurrence in my 10th grade English class that we spend some time talking about bias, prejudice and stereotypes. Phase one is graduating kids out of the blanket “these things are bad” attitude that can shut down potentially useful discussion about what’s actually going on.
If you wish, you can impress your students by showing this Buzzfeed video, and pausing it for some notes, and making a disclaimer for the out-of-context comments spliced together at the end of the clip (which unfortunately conflate bias, implicit attitudes, and racism).
After that viewing, kids are excited to take the test. In fact, about half of my students already have. Then I tell them that I will take the test in front of them, projected on the screen — and I want them to predict what they think my results will be.
This typically leads to nervous laughter, or dead silence, or a gasp, or sometimes even applause. Kids who want to make an educated guess try and ask some clarifying questions (“Who are your friends?” “What are you, again?”) and then they write down what they think.
I won’t reveal their predictions or my typical results, but I will say that this is the most nerve-racking thing I do in class all year, to the point where I make jokes during the first half of the test, and then say I’m going to shut up because I think it might skew the results.
Here’s what else I tell them: nobody has zero bias in this world.
After they see me do it, we’re off to the races: kids take one or two tests, journal about how their results turned out, and then brainstorm one or two “tough questions” that they want to bring to the whole class for a closing discussion.
Here are a few questions that got posed today:
How did you react if you got a result that was the opposite of what you expected?
How did it feel when the test was asking you to associate negative terms or ideas to a particular group of people?
Did you use any mental “tricks” to try and be less biased while taking the tests?
And then, the one we talked about the most:
For the test that asks you to specifically test your bias for or against Arab Muslims, do you think that your sympathy or pity for Muslims might have made you more biased towards them?
I am paraphrasing that last question, but that was the gist of how it was worded. That particular exam (“This IAT requires the ability to distinguish names that are likely to belong to Arab-Muslims versus people of other nationalities or religions”) was taken by several students… and several additional students confessed that they purposefully avoided that test, because they were too nervous about what their results might be.
“I have Muslim friends,” one girl pleaded. “I don’t want to find out that I’m biased against them.”
We scratched the surface of this issue with some reports about attitudes towards Muslims in the United States (making sure to pull from both Fox News and The Nation, naturally). Looking at multiple research studies, we tentatively concluded that knowing a group of people doesn’t necessarily increase your comfort level with them, but not having any direct contact with them seems to definitely decrease your tolerance and acceptance.
A small part of me wishes I could say we came to a big conclusion here, because it would make a nice kicker to this blog post. We didn’t. A bigger part of me wishes I could say, “my Muslim students felt better about their place in America after this conversation.” I have no idea whether that’s true (although I’ll follow up on that).
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since I started working at SLA: A successful class is not about finding the answer, it’s about asking the questions together.
Note: At a school that’s ranked as one of the most diverse in the nation, that’s harder in some ways, but easier in others, because students cannot automatically assume that they are in the majority, or the group that they’re talking about is not in the room. If you work in a more homogeneous environment, I will be interested to hear how these activities play in your classroom.
In the many dinner table conversations we have around education, my husband and I like to parse out what lasting impressions our different high schools left on us.
My husband attended one of the region’s prominent Quaker schools, so he knows how to sit and reflect and reach consensus. In terms of the humanities, teachers also clearly communicated to him — explicitly and implicitly — that there was a direct line between the great thinkers and doers of eras past and their own classroom.
Now, there are plenty elitist reasons why private schools naturally impart this message, and some aspects of their structure (small seminar-style classes, courses in Greek and Latin) that reinforce it.
And yet — in talking to him, I realized that while I believe my own students are equal inheritors of the global intellectual tradition, that fact is not something I do a great job of communicating in my classroom. And as a result, perhaps my kids were missing out on the empowered mindset that helps us grow into (and trouble, and challenge, and blow up) the adult world of thought.
So, today I made sure my first-day slide show included some explicit discussion about the tradition of writing, reading, and thinking that exists in our world — examples of the people that got together and hashed out some insightful, important, and entertaining documents that have shaped the course of literature and history.
Here’s a few examples.
And here’s the prompt that lead to our first-day sticky-note activity:
Phase two was “How did this work impact your life?” Phase three will come later, and will lead to the generation of new topics and ideas for writing.
Day 1 and we already have a rich collection of suggested reading for the class, and themes that can serve as a springboard for writing. And it all came from sharing our own positions in the larger tradition of reading and writing.
On a more personal note, I am also interested in sitting on beaches, swimming in the ocean (and, in a new one for me, pools), eating watermelon, and playing skee ball on the boardwalk. Gotten to all but that last one so far.
Lastly, if you are in the Philadelphia area, you should already be signed up for the Caucus of Working Educators’ Summer Reading Series. In its second year there are ten books with twenty-plus facilitators, who are all among the best and the brightest in our fair city. Each book connects to the topic of structural racism. You do NOT have to have read the book in advance (that’s the point), nor do you have to attend every meeting of your book club. I will be out of town for several meetings of The New Jim Crow, but that didn’t stop me from signing up and thinking yes, yes, yes when I read the first page today:
Late last year, I tweeted out the following photograph. The brainstorm was student-produced a few days after the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown shooting.
What was great about this brainstorm — apart from the conversation itself — was that it didn’t involve a “break” from our regularly scheduled programming. Juniors already write 2Fer Essays where they analyze a topic of their choice, and we typically pick a topic to play with as a group. Lots of students were keyed up about this topic, and went with one of the questions we generated. But lots of them chose not to as well.
Here are a few of the thesis statements that evolved out of that day:
“If citizens and law enforcers are on the same page, fewer crimes will take place and more people will be safe.”
“Because they are held to such an unrealistically high standard, cops are unreasonably criticized when they make mistakes.”
“The conversations on the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases tend to drift away from the core of the problem, police brutality against black men, and instead use these instances as a platform for discussion on black on black crime and respectability politics. This is because media outlets, which influence much of the public debate, find it easier to comfort in addressing black responsibilities as opposed to addressing a systemic issue.”
“Since because people follow what they are taught… policemen are not at fault, it is the institutions fault because they are corrupt in the way they teach individual officers.”
Again, I emphasize: I didn’t do anything “special” for this assignment — the vehicle for individual research and composition was already built into our curriculum. That’s a benefit of authentic inquiry. Students know they have a safe venue to ask the hard questions and attempt an answer as best they can.
I’ve got a great view from my classroom. And with a gentle snow today, it’s even better.
When I came in this morning, the shades were down, and for a split second I hesitated. Would it be better to keep the view blocked? Will we be more productive? Will today devolve into a day-long whine about snow days?
That idea did not linger. I’m happy to report that authentic learning and a nice view blend well together.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog, I had bone surgery back in July, and since then have been going through a typically non-typical recovery process.
Starting in August, I attended physical therapy twice a week. This involved me doing lots of balancing exercises and walking over tiny orange traffic cones, like a polite Godzilla. Later, as my recovery didn’t go so well, it involved being wrapped in a lot of heating pads and stretching on the floor.
I was never totally immobile, but I still had the task of essentially learning to walk again. When I was doing well, I felt happy but nervous because I couldn’t explain why; when I wasn’t doing well, I fell to pieces because I really couldn’t explain why. I didn’t have the insight or even the vocabulary.
The overarching lesson was this: I had almost no schema for the learning that I was doing while in physical therapy.
It’s not that the therapists had all of the answers; it’s just that they had an infinite level of content knowledge and experience compared to me. This was fascinating on an abstract level, but frustrating in practice. (Same with my surgery — I was fascinated by the x-ray of the titanium hardware screwed to my femur, but dismayed that I really had not understood what on earth they were going to put in me until after the fact.)
So, I began to take note of how the instruction was going, and what I needed to make sense of my learning with my limited understanding of the field.
Explain the purpose of the building blocks. The first exercises I was asked to do — isometric muscle contractions — seemed almost stupidly easy. It wasn’t until I got up and walked around that I could tell that those very muscles weren’t doing what they normally did, so all of the flexing mattered. After that, I asked about the purpose of each exercise.
Describe possible mistakes in advance. In those first sessions, when things were going well, my therapist would compliment me, but then also make a serious-but-vague statement: “you don’t want to pick up bad habits.” I had no idea what those habits could be… until I did pick them up, and got my pelvis seriously out of whack in the middle of October. Could that have been avoided? Probably not, but I would have felt more empowered if I had known what my messed up state might look like.
Provide a baseline. A couple of months into the work, when I could begin to imagine getting back to “normal,” I realized to my dismay that I couldn’t even remember what “normal” looked like in terms of standing and walking. I had never established a baseline — no photos, no video, no concrete memory. Maybe blame the whole medical system for this one: nobody thought to mention this in advance of my surgery.
To be clear, I don’t fault the therapists I see with this situation. They treat thousands of people, most of them with shorter trajectories than mine. But the whole process has definitely made me think twice about how educators have to work to bridge them and students who might be complete novices in their particular area of expertise.
When do we, as teachers, become so “expert” that we isolate the students who are at the starting line?