The ordeals that have kept me from writing regularly and resuming an academic career for the past three years are…not over. Thankfully. But this past Lent and Holy Week have been an inflection point in my life, I hope and believe.
Completing my first dozen years brought me to faith and literacy; my second dozen to teaching and service; my third to family and study. I don’t have a crystal clear idea where this fourth dozen leads me. But I do have these fuzzy notions: The times mean I’m fighting against revertin’ back to our daily programs. I need to write like I’m running out of time. And if I only live another dozen years, I want to have known that I spent these raising my daughter to be strong and humble, proud and loving, in this world.
So I’m trying to crawl back to the table.
This is one of a series of posts presenting some ideas of my dissertation, in progress.
The first of the three parts of my project involves investigating how a group of four teachers I worked with figured out ways to include civic learning and engagement in their English instruction. These four middle school English teachers had been colleagues for years, and worked together in what’s called a “Professional Learning Community” (PLC). I presented the general idea of integrating civic action of some kind into their English classes, and I offered suggestions and coaching along the way, but primarily I wanted to let them devise how they would make the idea materialize in their own classrooms. I learned a lot both from their individual, unique ways of trying out this idea, and from their dynamics as a team, the things they learned from each other and how their team interactions produced interesting results. The clearest result was that the question of how to get students involved civically in their English classes tapped into, and put pressure on, what this PLC of teachers thought mattered most in their jobs, their core visions as teachers, and opened opportunities to pursue those priorities together.
I spent a whole school year working closely with these teachers, attending their meetings, watching their classes, interviewing them. It was fascinating to watch the different ways that they interpreted the idea of “civic engagement,” and how each infused the vague idea I presented of doing “civics” in the English class with their own visions of what it meant to be a participant, a citizen, a young person active for justice. It was also fascinating to see how they learned from each other, the ways this team of long-standing colleagues exercised their teaching talents uniquely.
To offer an example, I would describe the approaches of two of the teachers. These two (we’ll call them Carol and Donaldo) had been colleagues and friends for years, both veterans at the school. Both had taught English, Leadership, and special programs for underserved youth. Both were seen as teacher leaders and enjoyed strong relationships and rapport with students around the school. They embodied the school’s philosophy of putting relationships of high expectations and respect at the center of a rigorous yet caring atmosphere.
Yet they were stylistically quite different, in some ways opposite, when it came to teaching English. Carol could be masterful at orchestrating a lively debate in her class, students on the edges of their seats and talking over each other to share their perspectives and experiences about issues relevant to their lives and concerns. Donaldo, on the other hand, would organize and tinker with his students to produce visual presentations (sometimes digital, sometimes on paper) that were diligently crafted and revised into gallery objects of individual expression. And though their reading and writing instruction were strongest at those tendencies, that’s not to say their teaching repertoires were limited or narrow. They were professionals who expertly taught skills and knowledge that didn’t necessarily fit neatly in their wheelhouse. Rather, it was by playing to their respective strengths that they made other aspects of the English curriculum exciting and vivid. Carol made energetic arguments in the classroom into motivation to write thoughtful essays. Donaldo used the occasion of writing a compelling personal narrative about family photographs as an opportunity to embed lessons about precise language and word choices.
Thus the projects that each teacher ultimately conducted with their students, which I’ll describe next, reflected their different tendencies as English teachers, even as the two teachers influenced each others’ notions of how to integrate civics into their teaching. But their projects also reflected their different ideas about what it meant to engage young people civically, which were again a Venn diagram of shared values but distinctive approaches. Both sought to make the idea of civic engagement something personally meaningful, inviting students to seek out and research a social issue that touched them individually somehow. Both built their curriculum around culminating projects where students had the opportunity to create something that would become a kind of civic self-expression, which served both as preparation for their future democratic participation and as a contribution now to influence others about their issues of concern.
Carol wound up having her middle school students create a picture book that they would read to a younger student, at an age level they could choose, about a social issue they had interest in. This followed from a year of selecting and reading texts that bridged the chasm between larger issues of justice and young people’s personal sense of power or place. Students in one of her classes had read Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, a book written as an Open Mic poetry slam for a class of urban youth, and Monster by Walter Dean Myers, about a young African American standing trial dramatizing his experiences as a screenplay. Carol integrated reading these texts with lessons from Teaching Tolerance and activities surrounding the school’s Ally Week. In all of these teaching units, Carol helped her students to feel the personal power of how social injustices impact young people’s lives, and her encouragement to speak up productively and compassionately represented an important ideal of civic engagement. Creating picture books and reading them to younger students as a civic education practice aligned with those ideals of engagement and language, where standing up and showing caring as an ally or older sibling was how these adolescents could become agents in their formation as members of their communities. Corresponding with her language teaching tendencies towards interactional exchange in a community of fairness and respect, Carol presented a version of civic engagement where young people took on the responsibility of communicating with younger community members to teach and demonstrate values of social concern and allyship.
Donaldo’s culminating project also focused on civic participation through persuasive storytelling and advocacy media. In Donaldo’s class, his students heard samples of recorded radio essays from the series “This I Believe,” and composed their own “This I Believe” essays. These essays included a blending of the writing types that the team had taken on as a goal, trying to effectively blend narrative, expository, and argumentative writing. And they had to tackle a social issue that was personally meaningful to them, another attribute Donaldo’s project shared with Carol’s. But rather than a project built on creating a tool for interacting with a younger learner, Donaldo’s project was aimed at producing an essay that would be accompanied by a recorded audio reading of their essay by each student. Donaldo also set up a well-lit location to take professional quality photographs of the students’ faces that could go with their essays, most of them featuring a quote from their essays printed over them. These images, together with the audio recordings of the essays, and the essays themselves reprinted and posted on a website, could be shared with peers or adult audiences. They conveyed a strong sense that these “This I Believe” essays, despite being concerned about a social issue, were profoundly personal expressions for the students, a piece of crafted, multi-media expression of self as advocate on the broader public forums of the internet and social media. Though Donaldo’s project had similarities to Carol’s, his tendency towards teaching language in the context of presentation and performance rather than dialogue and interaction corresponded to the suggestion of civic action as an organized expression of prepared advocacy and artistry.
Together, these two teachers’ projects provide a glimpse into how English teachers might make the connection between teaching English and engaging in civic action. Both demonstrated that young people’s civic engagement is often imagined or perceived as powerful when it is an act of self-expression and personal conviction, tied to narratives of young people’s own experiences and observations of the world. At the same time, both teachers pushed their students to communicate in registers other than the personal narrative mode, to seamlessly integrate factual information and persuasive rhetoric into their pieces. Both imagined a social component to their language, though the audiences they conceived of differed, one picturing a civic role of teaching younger children, the other a public contribution of multimodal media production.
Over the next few posts, I will describe some of the development that occurred among the teachers in the course of doing these projects, for Carol and Donaldo and the other two. I will use some of Carol and Donaldo’s students’ work and how these two teachers introduced, aided, and adapted to their students’ learning and language as my examples and evidence. (I will have much more to say about the other two teachers in later segments, when I discuss the case study classrooms and focal students.) These examples will tell a story of how focusing on civics crystallized many of these teachers’ pre-existing ideals of what teaching English was all about. At the same time, the circumstances, potentialities, and constraints of these civic action projects also surprised these teachers in some respects, and those surprises are also instructive about the prospect of the English classroom as as civic development space.
I was late to reading this piece in the New York Times Magazine by Nikole Hannah-Jones about ‘Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,’ but it’s a good one. What’s most powerful about it is that, of all the great things that have been written and produced about our deepening problems of school segregation, this piece by Hannah-Jones can speak with a poignancy and authority because of how honestly and earnestly she wrestles with these issues through her family’s own school decisions, her own daughter’s schooling.
What we wish for our society’s schools and what we would want for our own children’s schooling can be surprisingly hard to reconcile. I’ve learned that tension as a parent, but also as a teacher who has sat with parents for long hours, listening to their troubles and conundrums, and also as an educational researcher. “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children,” says John Dewey. That’s been a precious notion to me, one that I make part of my mission as a teacher, that families should feel less of a gulf between their hopes for their own children and the whole school community’s hopes for every child.
But it’s not so simple to agree on what the best and wisest parent wants (or who the best and wisest parent is), nor on who “the community” is and isn’t. Because integration– not just “diversity,” but transformative, anti-segregation, good-for-all-of-us integration– involves some very different people with some very different ideas being willing to coexist. And not just coexist, but to find common cause and harmony on the most important, and often most sensitive, thing to almost anyone: raising their children.
I want to keep thinking and writing about this in this space, knowing that the issues are very personal and also socially complicated, and therefore the problems complex and gnarly. Which is to say, I’m not prepared to offer a listicle of “How to Become Involved in Desegregating Schools as a Parent” or “Ten Tips for Reconciling the Deepest Divisions and Suspicions in Our Society Through School Rezoning Meetings.” I think Hannah-Jones’ piece is a great place to start, but accompanying that is an agreement to respect how important, particular, and often wrenching these decisions are for parents, no matter what their ideals or concerns (as Hannah-Jones devotes more than a few words to acknowledging.)
For our own part, my wife and I have shared the ideals that our daughter’s social-emotional, intellectual, and personal development weren’t best served at a cloistered school exclusively serving “high achieving” and privileged White and Asian kids. Nor were they best served at a school where her culture, language, passions, and personhood as a Chinese-American would be unrecognizable or reduced to stereotypes. Although we are theoretically on the same page, this hasn’t always meant perfect agreement on the practicalities, the real decisions. So far (and we’re not far into it), we’ve felt really blessed that the school district where we work has many examples of great, diverse (actually diverse) schools, one of which offers a Mandarin dual-language immersion program. It is challenging for the school to be as integrated as some others in the district, though I’ve often been encouraged and impressed by the staff and families and their commitment to inclusion. The school is not a high poverty school, but it is about 35% Latin@, 20% Black, and 20% Asian, though I believe those demographics skew differently in the DLI program, for understandable reasons.
So the complicated questions aren’t at all settled for us, and we expect them to remain difficult, especially as we continue to try to be committed as parents, educators, and (for me) a researcher in this district to all schools and all kids while we parent our child as we ought to. But I take from Nikole Hannah-Jones’ example a model of transparency and probity that I hope might be helpful to others who care about these issues.
As the discussion continues, I’m reminded by two bits of wisdom from today’s Revised Common Lectionary passages of the Bible, if you’ll allow my drawing from them. One is the source of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” song, Ecclesiastes 1, which reminds us that there is a time and a season for everything. The second is Matthew 25, where Jesus says that whatever we’ve done unto “the least of these,” we’ve done unto him. Taken together, the passages are reminders that we should not be quick to judge or cast blame on individuals as they search out what is the right time and choice for their own children, that there is “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them together.” Yet we’re also reminded that we’re judged not only by how we have taken care of our own kin, but also by how we have taken care of “the least of these,” of children least privileged by our historically unjust systems with power and resources, as our own children. As my satirical listicle title above is meant to suggest, I know this is placing a huge weight on a very tough and tender pressure point, working out our deepest rooted divisions through our most delicate and defensive worry, our children’s lives. But hopefully, for exactly those reasons, we realize we can’t shirk our responsibility to thoughtful and careful dialogue, to rolling up our sleeves and working toward better answers. I think we owe that to our children.
Tis the season for graduations. Lengthy commencement speeches endured in sweaty crowdedness. Florid leis and loud hoots reminding us that every kid deserves a family that roots for them, that takes pride in their strut. Pictures, pictures, pictures, and muscling other people for position… for pictures.
In our small household, we “only” had a preschool graduation (someone isn’t done with his dissertation….) I remember, early in his national fame, Barack Obama on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me ribbing the notion of a preschool graduation ceremony (I think Malia was that age at the time), suggesting wryly that maybe we ought to set our sights a bit higher. I know what he means, but I sure appreciated a little (actual) Pomp and Circumstance, because these first five years felt like they deserved some ceremony, some celebration. Is a preschool career worth that much hullabaloo? I say yes. Not because she’s accomplished the remarkable feat of surviving naptimes. But let’s call it a dress rehearsal for the bigger things that are bound to come, as well as an appreciation of the importance of these years for us.
As we soaked in the cuteness of dance performances and pledge recitations, I reflected on the significance of preschool. I won’t repeat here the promise and power of preschool for all, as has been eloquently argued by one of my heroes, David Kirp. Suffice it to say, there are few social policies that I’m more assured would make a positive impact than guaranteeing quality preschool universally. I know that sounds simple, and it’s not so simple– for instance, preschool teachers in our current system are severely underpaid compared to their K-12 counterparts, so we might be looking at a fairly expensive proposition to expand preschool access. But the investment in those critical years has a substantial body of evidence to show huge long term benefits. Especially if we can make sure the preschool we provide kids is quality.
But I’m immeasurably thankful that our kid got a great preschool education. Truly great. Those teachers of hers are amazing. We really didn’t need them to drill her in the ABCs, she had that covered. We didn’t need subtraction worksheets, or tough discipline for the “unruly” boys who pushed her off a slide. What we cherished was the social-emotional learning, patiently and lovingly rendered by her teachers. The way they comforted her when she was hurt, whether physical booboos or emotional ones. The way they taught her to talk to her classmates about taking turns, or not biting people, or joint projects of Magnatile kingdoms.
My wife and I teach adolescents, so early childhood’s not necessarily our realm of expertise, but we know enough to know that what’s going to be most consequential for her future test scores, earning power, and whatever reductive social indicator you want, is how capably her preschool teachers helped her to set goals about what crafts she made, how gently and persistently they taught her to respect boundaries, and how patiently they listened while she practiced using her words. What made our kid’s preschool quality was not how they “pushed” her towards “achievement,” but how lovingly they included and integrated all of the kids: the non-English speakers, the inattentive squirmers and handsy pokers, and all the four year-olds parroting their parents’ home-brewed inanities to one another– including ours. So three cheers to her preschool teachers, and to preschool teachers and staff everywhere.
I mentioned the dress rehearsal for things to come. As a teacher, one of the pleasures of the job is to see families come out to celebrate their children’s graduation. Especially when you have an inkling of the dedication needed to wake up every day and send them to school fed, the trials and tribulations to make sure their children aren’t left behind, and even the struggle with teachers and principals sometimes to broker a fair shot for their kid. Despite all of my family’s advantages and privilege, I can think of many times when my ability to provide the right steerage and environment for my daughter’s learning was tenuous. So I can only imagine the challenge if a parent is raising multiple children at different ages and stages, perhaps on their own, dealing with financial or legal insecurity. Parenting a child, even through those first five years, takes tremendous resilience.
A preschool graduation is a little oasis, a foretaste for those parents of those rewards, and a reminder that the efforts, headaches, and arguments were worth it for the wonder of the little one who is becoming her or his own person with every milestone.
Joel Westheimer opens his book by asserting his overall thesis, that schools teach civics and are concerned with civics, and not just in Civics class. The kind of society we want, what it means to be a good society, who’s in and who’s out, what it means to participate and how to participate in civic life… these are dimensions always mentioned by teachers, administrators, and parents when they imagine the purpose and role of school. Though so much of the talk about schools is about competitiveness, achievement, and results, even people who name those objectives would not say that they ought to come at the expense of thinking how we’re shaping young people to lead and create the society we become in the future. The democratic impulse of education is deeply embedded in our political consciousness and our beliefs about schools. That’s a good thing, because whether we think about it or not, schools shape how kids ultimately engage in society in huge ways.
Do you want to read this book with me? I’d love some company. My plan is to post every Tuesday about a chapter a week, going through the ten chapters and inviting discussion about them on Facebook and maybe also on comments on these pages every week. If you are interested in thinking about how our schools impart a sense of civic responsibility and learning to our children, and what that means for our society, it would be great to have you read along with me.
Roughly, the schedule for reading the book with me, when I’ll post a summary and some questions to talk about, as well as links to relevant other readings:
Tue., June 30: Chapter 1, Changing the Narrative of Schools
Tue., July 7: Chapter 2, No Child Left Thinking.
Tue., July 14: Chapter 3, No Teacher Left Teaching
Tue., July 21: Chapter 4, How Did This Happen?
Tue., July 28: Chapter 5, What Kind of Citizen?
Tue., Aug. 4: Chapter 6, Personally Responsible Citizens
Tue., Aug. 11: Chapter 7, Participatory and Social Justice Oriented Citizens
Tue., Aug. 18: Chapter 8, Thinking, Engaged Citizens
Tue., Aug. 25: Chapter 9, Seven Myths about Education
Tue., Aug. 1: Chapter 10, What Kind of School?
Join me, and let me know if you’re interested!
The summer reading book for Paul the Teacher is “What Kind of Citizen: Educating Our Children for the Common Good” by Joel Westheimer, published 2015 by Teacher’s College Press. Read along, comment, interact with me. I’ll be posting snippets and thoughts throughout the summer.
My lesson plan is cooked up. On some days, I rely on the same old eggs and toast, but this time, I whipped up something special, seasoned with inspiring sense of purpose, custom-made from time-consuming assessment of student work. If they listen, if I can keep their attention for just a few minutes, if I get this thing rolling, it’s going to be good. They’re going to feel motivated, confidently glide through the steps I’ve laid out, take away a sense of satisfaction from what I’ve led them through, accomplish some breakthroughs in their academic language use while taking away an increased sense of efficacy, start imagining themselves as scholars and leaders.
Before class has even begun, the train starts coming off the tracks. My technology is glitchy, and my eyes and hands are preoccupied fidgeting with it. Kid-with-no-filters marches into the classroom somehow simultaneously distracted by a video game on his cell phone and filling the airspace with unprocessed nonsense questions designed to annoy. A pack of guys saunters in a passive-aggressive thirty seconds late, right as I’m gaining momentum in my attention-grabbing opening salvo, deflating my speech completely. Suddenly, my passion is shading into anger. Nine student start class short of the basic starting point: no pencils, headphones in the ears, hoodies covering eyes, head on the table, and/or KickOff page nowhere to be found. Addressing these nine, even efficiently, leaves me breathless for the rest of the students, who copy the KickOff prompt and then stop short of the actual thinking part of the task. Only four students try; of these, only two have appropriately applied the simple language lesson we have been repetitively practicing with little variation for two full weeks now.
From there, I’m damned both ways. If I rely on routines, students who have struggled with the actual cognitive challenge but managed procedural displays of the activities might toss a few bones my way, but by this time of year, few routines have not been drained of their original intent. If I introduce a new activity, the instructions, the risks I ask them to take, the confusion because of half-understood instructions, whatever it is, makes the prospects of a properly functioning and useful (let alone engaging and curiosity-stoking) activity pretty grim.
At the end of a rough class period of cajoling, preaching, reflecting and asking for reflection, reviewing, reading student work, I am spent. Is the curriculum centered around relevant inquiry questions, social justice and personal interest related? Yes. Are my activities appropriately scaffolded, with progressive sharing of responsibility, and thoughtfully backwards-planned? Yes. As I maintaining positive relationships of trust, support, and accountability with students? Insofar as I can. Do I give students immediate, direct feedback that they can act on to improve, take the next steps, and push themselves to an appropriate level of challenge? I think so. I try.
What would I tell myself if I were coaching myself? If I were watching this class every day, seeing what I tried, understanding what was going on with these students?
I would say, keep on. Keep at it. You think enough about what to do, and you’re already doing what you can do.
And when I heard that from myself? I would shake my head. It’s not enough. It’s not enough.
Months ago, in August, I started to blog about the academic language workshop I conducted, and never finished detailing its contents. Today, with a special shout-out to Rebekah Caplan of the Bay Area Writing Project for pointing me to some of the ideas and references I’ve been putting into practice, I’ll continue describing my approach to thinking about and teaching academic language.
Like all registers, dialects, and languages, I think academic language has multiple aspects, including the systematic/structural/patterned aspects, the social/symbolic/ideological dimensions, and the dynamic/emergent/idiosyncratic phenomena that keep it constantly changing and evolving.
Teaching one aspect without consideration of the others can lead to misfires in our attempts to impart that knowledge on students. For instance, teachers often try to correct and conventionalize students’ writing, but their red-inked feedback falls on deaf ears because the students have found the academic register in general to be irrelevant at past and alienating, colonizing, or otherwise antithetical to key aspects of their identity, so even when they know its importance in school and society, they resist internalizing it as part of their repertoires of language. This is trying to attend to the systemic/structural/patterned aspects of language, teaching grammatical structures or punctuation rules, without attending to the social/symbolic/ideological dimensions.
One illustration of this phenomenon is a conversation on an episode of Slate Money (first third of the show) about the jargon used in the banking industry, where the commentators debate whether bankers use such jargon as code to keep out the non-specialists and circle the wagons as a special club, or whether terms such as “credit default swap” are, in fact, efficient intra-group communication shorthands for complicated processes, devices, products, etc. that would take too long to explain or capture in a truly lucid title. The answer they come to is, unsurprisingly, both: jargon is both shorthand and gatekeeper.
Academic language can be thought of in this way too. Many aspects of academic language (which we will examine in a subsequent post with the help of some experts such as Mary Schleppegrell, Douglas Biber, and Catherine Snow and Paola Uccelli), such as the density of the vocabulary and the ordering of its syntax, turn out to be very efficient ways to communicate a large amount of ideas, including the kind of abstractions and generalizations that academic language is often in the business of discussing. At the same time, no language is without its associations, the “air” it gives off, the kinds of social contexts and social meanings it takes on to people. With these associations, results will vary, of course: a Southern accent can be taken by one as genteel, by another as backwoods, by yet another as wizened. The degree to which a student identifies with those associations matters a lot to how they will receive it being taught.
Of course, however a student might affectively react to academic language, isn’t it reasonable to think that anything taught in an accessible way can grab a student’s interest, especially if it’s something of so much important in society? I think this is what most teachers assume, and because of the power that schooled knowledge has in society, I think that presumption is indeed true most of the time. Most students don’t take a shine to academic language because they’re not good at it, because they’ve struggled with reading or writing or classroom discussion, because they don’t feel themselves to be good students and proficient users, and if they only had clearer instruction, or a chance to fall in love or become totally enraptured with a book or a documentary or political heroine or whatever it is, they’d be very interested in how to “sound smart” in the same way. Yes, I think it’s true that as teachers, it’s incumbent on us to make academic language accessible, remove the “gatekeeper”-status of it by making its structures and patterns more transparent to students.
But I also think we cannot neglect the reality that oftentimes, as a “gatekeeper” language, academic registers are associated with people, institutions, and traditions that have been exclusionary, hostile, or authoritarian, and sometimes that language intended to keep out or to wound rather than to empower groups of people. However, what makes language such a fascinating cultural tool to study is that it is so readily and so often appropriated, taken on by other users and invested with new meaning. In other words, for many students, especially those most estranged from the contexts where academic language is used, recognizing how it can be used as a gatekeeper but teaching how it can be appropriated for purposes that are meaningful to themselves and their communities is crucial. And it helps when teachers themselves understand academic language that way– as a code that we who are benefactors of a schooled society have gained from, but a code we are trying to share more broadly as part of the project of a more equitable and just society.
Which is the starting notion, for me, for thinking of academic language primarily as a generative tool. For both the students who would embrace academic language if it could become accessible to them as a system, AND for the students who would embrace academic language so that it can become a tool of the oppressor to use in the liberation of the oppressed, thinking of academic language not as a set of arcane rules or evaluative gotchas, but as an arsenal, a repertoire, a toolkit, a code bank, a set of moves and series of resources, all to be used in the service of developing a voice that can speak powerfully and effectively in those arenas in which academic language has weight and prestige… that’s a reframing of academic language that can be powerful.
I tell the story of walking into an art store one day as a teenager, dressed in a way that had some cultural cache as a Tupac-era adolescent: shaved head except for bangs, baggy jeans sagged low, backwards baseball cap. I dreamed of being an artist, and I was interested in the tools of the trade. Seeing me browsing uncertainly in his small store, the owner behind the counter asked me what I was looking for. “I’m not sure, just looking,” I answered. With a stern thumb, he pointed out the door, and muttered an obscene non-request to leave the premises. I guess I looked like a shoplifter.
I was angry, defiant. I didn’t want to dress differently. In fact, I left with a more rebellious strut than I walked in with. I’ve thought now and then of going back to that store with a rock for the window, or my award for outstanding leadership from my high school graduation, or my Berkeley diploma, to stick in the face of that old white man. But I never think to tidy up and walk in with a suit and tie. I want to dig up that old baseball cap and those baggy jeans, or the present day version of them, for whatever great comeuppance I would unfurl.
But sometimes I imagine a different encounter. What if that gentleman had the patience to find out that I was socially uneasy, but actually, very curious about what a bottle of black india ink looked like, and art gum and Strathmore bristol board? What if a proper apron and hands-free pants (with a belt) were what it took to get my hands dirty as an artist, he would eventually convince me? What if a suit and tie were the appropriate apparel of the gallery exhibitors whose community I then felt a part of? Wouldn’t I trade my Giants cap and baggy jeans in a second? Or at least mix and match for the version that was true to me as an artist and as a young person?
Tools are meant to be learned with careful instruction and modeled apprenticeship. They’re also meant to be put in the hands of human beings for the purposes of creation and expression. They should be calibrated for accuracy and appropriateness for audiences and users. But they should also begin to feel at home, organically linked to the experts-in-the-making who wield them. They should be held correctly, benefiting from the accrued learning and development of generations of previous tool-users. But they should also be flexible, adaptive, re-fashioned whenever new uses or new challenges require their manipulation.
This is my general perspective of academic language.
I didn’t teach in a high school classroom for two years, and the year before that, my sole class was a group of seniors I had known for years in a “zero” period class that was designed to support their college applications and readiness, so not the most challenging class. This year, I’m back in the classroom for one period, teaching 9th grade English Learners who inspire and motivate me every day, who show great resilience and character, but who also face numerous struggles. I find myself, with two years of graduate school in Education intervening, a slightly different teacher than I was when I last left the classroom.
Certain characteristics remain the same: I talk too much, I’m better in front of students than on the back-end organization, I primarily try to “discipline” through engaging instruction that confronts power, language, and students’ cultures. But I also find myself matured in a few aspects. Here are three:
1. Self-Advocacy and Self-Monitoring. I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this change, but I’ve become much more conscious than the teacher I was five years ago that I’m not only trying to inspire students and connect with them in my own class, but I’m trying to facilitate the growth of those self-monitoring and self-advocacy tools that they need in all areas of life. I think this results partly from a combination of re-reading John Dewey and other pragmatist philosophers and from being exposed to the brain research that helps us understand the importance of executive function. But even more important an influence is the thinking I’ve done (thanks to being a researcher) about how youth are positioned by their social world into particular roles and expectations, how having some say over those roles and expectations requires youth to be able to grab hold of who they are and to manage themselves, and how intensely interested adolescents are in that management of perceptions.
In concrete terms, rather than pull students aside and vent my frustrations or try to win a moral victory over them, as I was more likely to do in the past, I now resort more often to the reflective sidebar where I ask students what they are achieving, how they perceive themselves and their situation, what they would like to become, and what they should attend to in order to get there. I talk a lot about who they think they are acting out, whether that’s true to who they want to act out, and what kinds of signals or tools they can appropriate to project the person they want to project. I leave the decision-making much more to the student.
When students have difficulty, I’m more likely to put them in a meta-cognitive position of evaluating their social and interactional situations and considering what choices they may not know they’re making. And I’m learning the long-term payoffs of this; students know I’m indeed on their side, invested in their development, not trying to antagonize them but to help them grow in their understanding, perception, decision-making, autonomy.
2. Language in Use. I had the same tendency in the past that many classroom teachers had of expecting the classroom teaching and classroom assessment become the telos, the end or final product, while the rest of the world abstractly existed out there as “do well in school ->do well in the world one day in the future.” I find myself much more conscious of the molding and shaping effect of the outside context interacting with the classroom context. My previous tendency was to think, “before we read this text, I have to build background knowledge and activate prior schema about this thing we’re reading.”
Now, especially in my writing instruction, I’m more prone to recognize that reading and writing for real life audiences, as part of actual social interaction with stakes, makes those tasks more meaningful to students. In the past, I used to do a project or a unit that involved writing some kind of text or piece that others would see, usually something about community or social change. Now I realize that both those tasks and the aesthetic and cultural ones, the ones engaging about literature or arts, as well as the ones that weigh in on complex social issues that don’t lead to immediate action but do involve real deliberative dialogue, ought all be part of the students’ writing portfolio and purview. In other words, everything should be written for real-life audiences.
Those real-life audiences who we hear from and speak to are the ones who shape, normatively, what language looks like, what’s acceptable, what’s powerful and persuasive. This does include using more model texts and mentor texts, but it also includes underscoring the social messages, meanings, groups, and gathering places that give life to those texts. Students see a text with “researchers at Brown University”– I have to show a picture, talk about what they think researchers are like and what they do to gather information and draw conclusions.
These are the people they are writing to and in dialogue with. That perception needs to start early for them, so they grow up believing and habituated into the idea that they have the voice and power to interact with the broader community, where their voices have impact, and where they must therefore fine tune their spelling, syntax, and stances to be heard.
3. The Long Arc. In my last stint of teaching before going to grad school, I got to stay with a group of students for several years, some of them for all four years of high school. When I first started teaching, the push to get more of these students along the same path that I went on, SATs, Honors classes, four year universities, helped me to maintain high expectations and ambitions for students who others might have written off, and I think that was important. But this time back in the classroom, part of the seasoning of years of experience is recognizing the longer arc that exists for students, the multitude of possibilities and pathways, and the actual constituent elements of lifetime positive change. I am less gung-ho about college, more concerned about students’ reconciliations with their own communities and families, the broader academic and professional world, the potential varieties of schooling and the implications of social class and civic participation. In other words, I’m less college-driven, more attentive to a broader range of social and human imperatives, all of which can matter, none of which is meant to crowd out any other.
With this year’s freshmen, I realize that I have to continue to instill a vision of college, but having sold previous generations of students that bill of goods without having equipped them with what they need right now to get there or succeed there, I recognize more clearly the steps in-between we need to build: the support structure, the socioemotional development, the sense of mastery over youth’s own current environs and immediate futures as roads to who they are becoming.
All this alongside a more mature concern over not just what individual students are becoming, but what we are becoming as a community, including the school, our families, and our collective generation. Although I have always talked about returning to your community, serving your community, making an impact in your community, I think that notion always felt more ideal and abstract than it does to me today. As Gustavo Gutierrez challenged, (paraphrase here), if you claim you care about the poor, then tell me their names. I am differently aware of the struggles and challenges of my students’ families and communities, especially as they become and resemble more and more my own.
All this makes me more interested in the long arc of what students are becoming than the urgent, short-term payoffs of having this many students enrolled in this or that many who make it past that bar. Those ambitions are often healthy, but can become self-serving.