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.