Monday, October 19, 2015

Falling Between the Cracks - When Declaring an Identity Does More Harm than Good

While I have read Nakkula and Toshalis before, and contemplated gender in the classroom (and in my research project last year), I feel as if this time around, I am left with more questions. This book does an excellent job of breaking apart the different bits and pieces that make up a person's identity - one of the major components being societal norms and expectations, and what they mean for human beings. "The players are lost to the play itself" (Nakkula 100) seems to be a perfect analysis for what "defining gender" means for adolescents. As humans, we are all in some sense "playing a part," but, for some of us, that "part" comes more naturally than for others. Some of us don't feel the need to modify or break out of the mold that society expects us to fit into, while some can't fathom trying to fit into the mold. So what does this mean for our students? What does it mean that they are trying to define something that might not need to be defined right now? Why can't society allow children and adolescents to "try on" gender, masculinity and femininity, instead of making a definitive choice? What would that even look like/sound like/be like?

Tillett Wright is an activist, speaker, writer, photographer. In her TedxWomen talk "Fifty Shades of Gay" (which I found both captivating and fascinating), Wright brings up her childhood, and the notion that we, immediately upon meeting people, put them into "boxes" because acceptance means there is some sort of bonding going on. She then talks about how these boxes are both limiting and dangerous - and I wonder if our students feel that way when asked to try and define themselves. Perhaps we put too much emphasis on "finding oneself" or "discovering who you are" when instead we should be focused on "try it on" and "see how you feel." Most importantly, Wright talks about the support she had from her parents no matter who or what she decided to wake up and be - she "wasn't asked to define [herself] at any point, just allowed to be." She then felt this weird shift when asked to pick a side - boy or girl, gay or straight. She said she knew deep down that she was none of those things definitively, and because of that, she "fell between the cracks." 

How many of our students are "between the cracks" right now, especially at a time when labeling or defining oneself as "gay" or "transgender" can be seen as a heroic act of courage. What about those students that truly don't know what or who they are, and don't feel like they should have to decide one or the other, but are being asked to do so? I know we have talked about the genderbread person, and the masculinity/femininity spectrum....but why should our students have to pinpoint exactly where they fall? I think our fight needs to be redefined and fully understood in this way: "Gender identity work in our schools is the work of freedom fighting. It is a fight for the freeing of authentic expression, for the full presentation of all our students. It is the fight to help our students be fully present as learners, as classmates, as the people they see themselves to be" (115). 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Windows and Mirrors: Outward Relationships Lead to Internal Identity Development

In the depths of Nakkula and Toshalis's chapters four and five, I found myself remembering why I had groaned a little bit when Julie told me the book we would be using for this class. While I think the stories interwoven with the theoretical explanations of adolescent development really drive certain points home, I also think that there is A LOT packed in here, maybe even too much. It is as if Nakkula and Toshalis are providing us with a synopsis of each educational theorist that has ever had something to say about adolescent development (so, pretty much all of them). Anyway, while I am slightly overwhelmed and having a hard time keeping track of each theorist/theory and how they are all intertwined, there are countless key points that are crucial in attempting to understand the adolescents that walk through our classroom doors every day.

"We come to see and understand ourselves and others - in and through relationships" (94). I have always thought of relationships as both windows and mirrors - they provide us an insight (window) into someone else's world, while allowing us to look inwardly at our own worlds (mirrors). When I think about understanding myself through relationships, I think about the relationships that have forced me to think about what I truly believe, what I think, and what I know. These are not the "easy" relationships. These are not the simple conversations in which we will all agree on everything all of the time. The way our class is set up - a safe place to share our thoughts and disagree with one another, respectfully - is a perfect example of Margaret J. Wheatley's "Willingness to be Disturbed," in which she (much like Duckworth) eloquently states, "what might we see, what might we learn, what might we create together, if we become this kind of listener, one who enjoys the differences and welcomes in disturbance?" What might our students see, what might they learn, what might they create together, if they learn to become listeners who enjoy differences and welcome disturbance, allow themselves to be vulnerable? 

How am I pushing my students to become listeners, thinkers, creators - and how do I emphasize these concepts through their relationships with each other, and they relationships with me? How do I incorporate a space for students to be "disturbed" or put into a state of disequilibrium, in order to enhance their growth and development of identity? These growth-promoting relationships are "characterized by connections in which each person's needs are considered and enhanced, where each person's identity is known and actualized as the self they understand internally" (95).  Slowly, I've been finding a balance between taking the time to get to know them and share a lot of things out loud, but there are also times that I've had the students do some things in small groups that feel a little new, a little different, and a little uncomfortable. There are several students in which I have noticed a slight push from peers will lead to a greater internal push - an adolescent developing understanding of himself through a relationship. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Teacher : Student :: Rafiki : Simba

Nakkula and Toshalis really cram a lot into these chapters of theirs! I had completely forgotten just how jam-packed this text was, but I had also forgotten how much sense it made. As I read Chapters Two and Three, I thought back to several past students and the challenges they encountered as they struggled to piece together their own identities, and find a balance between their colliding worlds...and then thought of the students that sit in those same seats this year, each with pieces of their own puzzle to put into place. 

Erikson conveys the significance of identity in a way that has stuck with me for years: "in the social jungle of human existence there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity" (20). Of course - how can we be alive without being someone...but what happens when our students don't know who that someone is? What happens when they don't have a person to guide them or to help them put the pieces together? 

The first time I read this text, I was immediately reminded of a childhood favorite, The Lion King, when Simba struggles to understand himself and his place in the world. Most importantly, he struggles to understand how his past and his father are a part of who he has become. Rafiki serves as a powerful mentor throughout the film, never giving Simba the "answers" that he is looking for, but pointing him in the right direction of where he might find them. Erik son argues that "identities are only formed after the threat of role confusion is addressed, after an identity crisis is resolved" (24). . . . Marcia argues that there are identity statuses, which one can loop through again and again, which supports Ayers's notion that we are always under construction, "always in the process of becoming" (39). Simba, in this scene, is guided by his past in order to determine what his present self should be. His father argues that he has "forgotten who [he is]," but I'd like to argue that he never really knew who he wanted to be. He hasn't figured it out quite yet, but he is on the path of discovering it through the experiences offered to him. Our students are currently struggling with who they are - as students in each of their classes, as parts of their families, as friends to their classmates, as people in the world - and sometimes it is difficult to explain that they don't have to know it all right now. 


Perhaps that is our role as teachers, then, to serve the purpose that Rafiki does - to "resist the urge to answer outright and instead open space for them to begin to answer those questions for themselves" (34)? How do we ensure that this space is in our classrooms and in the conversations we have every day? Like Brittany mentioned last week, as ELA teachers, it is easy to include writing and story-telling into our curriculum that address a multitude of identity topics. It isn't easy, however, to get students to open up about their past, their fears, and their struggles - even if that is what they will learn from, how they will become more "themselves" every single day. 

I think one of the things that I want to start incorporating into my classroom (which I should do but don't) is writing and sharing with my students. I remember being an adolescent in middle and high school thinking my teachers had it all together, and that they knew everything and that life must be so wonderful as an adult to have everything finally figured out. Little did I know that I would be sitting here a decade later, with some of the same questions swirling around in my mind: who am I, really? I wonder if I would have had these misconceptions had my teachers shared the fact that they were co-constructing their identities as we were co-constructing ours. 

"Adolescents will go where the opportunity to create exists, where they can risk novel ways of experiencing and presenting themselves" (53). The only way they will know that this opportunity exists is if we offer it to them. We must guide them to the place where they can look inside themselves and consider the different worlds that are colliding within - and then be there for them to help them make meaning from their experience.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What did Ahmed learn?

Thinking about our readings and our conversations (both in class and online), I can't help but wonder what your thoughts are on Ahmed and his clock. What did he learn from this? How about students everywhere, constantly making things, creating and concocting, thinking with their inquisitive minds? What other "handcuffs" have students been put in because of thinking differently instead of like everyone else?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Learn More, Become More

"As long as I live I am under construction" (Ayers 121). I thought this a most appropriate way to end the novel - it was also my absolute favorite line, the one I deemed most truthful. Of course we are always under construction - what would we be living for if not to become better. At different times in our lives, this could mean so many different things, but it will always remain true: we are never "done" or "complete." As a teacher, I think it is crucial for our students to see and observe the same - that the adults in their classrooms are like those Ayers describes in Chapter 5 - they're not perfect, don't know everything, and are still longing to learn.

It is part of our job to remind students, and to allow them to learn, that their learning experience is what is the most important part of being in our classrooms. So often, I imagine classrooms where students are trapped, listening to a stream of noise as a teacher lectures endlessly...who is growing from this experience? Neither the teacher nor the students are gaining anything truly valuable, and "students need to know that their presence in the classroom is both valued and valuable" (Ayers 81). This is why I strive to offer a vastly different experience in my classroom. Simply by paying more attention to how my students learn best will result in more productive class time, and a more accurate portrayal of students comfort zones. It is not my job to make sure they stay there, but rather, push them outside of their comfort zones with the support and resources they need.

Carol Dweck emphasizes the power of the word "yet"....when used as in "not yet"....and how influential those words are when discussing possibility and improvement. How can we get more teachers on board with this mindset, though, instead of taking the "easy route" of allowing students to stay where they are comfortable?

This transitions into Nakkula and Toshalis's view that adolescence itself is something that is constructed. "When adolescents implicitly ask what kind of person they should be, who their friends ought to be, in what or whom they should they should place trust, or what kind of world they should make, the answers we construe and imagine with them help co-construct who they become and the way they approach the world, even if those answers are patently rejected." (Nakkula & Toshalis 3) I read this and thought of our first class this semester, and the words of Frank Smith, when we discussed that students are always learning something, whether it is explicitly taught or not. They are always learning and always becoming...more. That is all we can ask of them, because that is all that we are able to do on our end as well. Teachers and students alike need to learn more in order to become more. And we will always be under construction.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Students have the answers - but is anyone asking the right questions?

Throughout our time here in the ASTL program, I have been amazed at how often the texts we are assigned seem to relate seamlessly to whatever I happen to be feeling/thinking/seeing in my own classroom, my students, and myself. I constantly find myself nodding in agreement as I read, highlighting words and phrases that I swear I have thought of before in my head - and Ayers' To Teach: the journey, in comics was no different. I feel like although I have been "teaching" for several years now, each year is a year of firsts for me. My first graduating seniors during student teaching. My first long-term sub position. My first long-term sub position in an urban school. My first real, permanent (albeit part-time) position. My first year starting school on the very first day. So much of Ayers' teaching philosophy aligns directly with mine, with the students and their learning right in the center: "We must open our eyes, always, to the true children before us: dynamic, 3-dimensional, trembling, and real" (19). So many times, even in the past few years, I have heard warnings and cautionary tales about certain students...and each time I hear one I can't help but think to myself that maybe, just maybe, there was something missing from the equation. Maybe, just maybe, there was a learner underneath all of the labels and student database comments. Maybe nobody knew how to get down to the center of that one student, maybe nobody knew how to interest him in the learning or knew how to figure out what kind of learner he was. Maybe nobody wanted to think about that student's "specific, individual world" (11). Maybe nobody ever tried.

There have been numerous times that I've talked with other teachers that share the same students. Occasionally, I'll have learned something really interesting or shocking about that student and ask, "did you know...?!" Usually, it leads to a reply of disbelief - "there's no way" that that student does that after school. "There's no way" that the quiet girl who barely says two words all day plays on the boys' football team. "There's no way" that the class clown who never stops cracking jokes wouldn't let his sister go to the bathroom by herself, but walked her there and waited at the door, after reading a book about a young girl that was abducted. "There's no way" that that obnoxious student who just walked out of your classroom in the middle of your lecture has been sleeping on his best friend's floor for two months.

But there is, and the sad part is that we are so caught up in the paperwork and labels and data that sometimes we overlook the most simple act of what we do - or what we should do - as teachers: we learn and we love. We learn for our students, but we must also learn about our students and with our students. We love what we do and we love why we do it. Much like Jenny mentioned in her blog, it is critical that we consider ourselves as "explorers on a journey full of discovery and surprise" (2). Each day really is like an adventure...and we need to be willing to take those steps with our students rather than watching them take the steps alone. I know that we, as cohort members in this program, are willing and ready to do this, but how do we ensure that this adventure is a piece of all classrooms? How do we ensure that we are adapting our curriculum to each individual learner, without getting bogged down in hoards of paperwork and labels and files?

"To name oneself as a teacher is to live with one foot in the muck of the world as we find it - with its conventional patterns and received wisdom - and the other foot striding toward a world that could be but isn't yet" (11). I couldn't help but think of Frank Smith as I was reading Ayers, his voice popping up within the dialogue boxes or text in between. When Ayers described the way kids experience school (36-37), all I could think of was the classic and official theories of learning that Smith explained. These are the conventional patterns and received wisdom that are passed down from generation to generation - the students who can collect the most chips tend to be the ones who do best in school/enjoy school, and then become teachers themselves, unintentionally passing down the same values to their own students. 

But how do we move further? How do we get closer to the "world that could be but isn't yet?" I was always a good student, and I'm sure I had quite the stash of chips - perhaps I still do. Through this particular part of my teaching and learning journey (the ASTL name just made COMPLETE sense to me, by the way, wow), I really want to start focusing on how I can help all of my students, including (especially) the ones that don't have as many chips, the ones that seem to be the most disinterested in learning, the ones that no one else tries to understand. What is their connection to learning? How can I make it accessible to them? How can I ensure that they're along for the adventure? How can the students that have a lot of chips be pushed even further, out of their comfort zones? How can I ask the right questions that they can answer, or want to answer? How can I be the best teacher I can possibly be, so that the most learning that could possibly take place actually does?