Saturday, September 27, 2014

Teaching the N-Word: Can I?

"Teaching the N-Word" - Michelle Kenney
Fall 2014 -- Volume 29 #1, pgs 19-23

As soon as I logged into ReThinking Schools, the first article I saw was the one about using The Hunger Games to teach social class, and I was beyond tempted to just go with it. I kept digging around a little bit (mostly because I feel like I was takingThe Hunger Games in a slightly different direction than Marshall and Rosatti did, but I'm sure we'll come back to that), and came across an article that seems to segue beautifully from our first few discussions. Michelle Kenney, a white, middle-aged language arts teacher in Portland, Oregon, makes a point of having a very important discussion with her students every single year - the "n-word talk." My first thought as I started reading the article was holy brave soul, but as I continued, I realized this is a woman who knows what she's doing. Reading about the sources, methods, and discussion techniques she uses makes me realize even more how necessary this conversation is for each of us to have with our students.

Kenney uses different forms of media (documentary videos, rap songs, talk show clips, news reports) to draw students' attention to how the n-word and its meaning have changed significantly over the years. She then asks them to reflect on this after they have discussed it at length, and to decide how they feel about using the word, along with how they feel about other people using it. What I found most powerful about this was that this white teacher had openly discussed something "taboo" with her students, an issue that they may (or may not) have thought about in depth previously, but one that they had certainly encountered in their diverse community. I wonder what this conversation would look like in my classroom. How it might differ in the classroom at Tolman that I was in last year. How it might differ if I was older, or in a different setting...but then I stop and ask myself, why?

Why should it matter where I am teaching? Do my students not hear the n-word on a daily basis in the music they listen to, the videos they watch, the friends they have? Do my students have to be able to decide whether or not they will use the n-word, and know why or why not? It would certainly be a very different conversation from the one Kenney has each year with her students, and different from the conversations that Emily Bernard has with her university students as a black professor. But it would be a conversation, out loud, in which my students would be asked to analyze and assess the n-word, its history, and its meaning. Don't I owe it to them?

I can't wait to discuss this article and all of yours on Wednesday.

Also, I came across this after our "Take a Step" activity from last class, and was going to share it with you all anyway, but I feel that as I am pondering my responsibility of teaching my students so many things I never thought I would be ready for, this is beyond appropriate, and just may become my new mantra.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Food for Thought

I realize we probably have way more things to discuss tonight than we will have time for, but I think this is huge. Emma Watson gave a speech at the United Nation headquarters in New York over the weekend launching a new campaign, HeforShe. Yes, she's fabulous and yes, I love Harry Potter and yes, I would kill for her British accent. But it's not just that. She's got some important things to say, and her position in our society as a celebrity means that people will listen. She immediately brings to light several misconceptions about feminism (and feminists), and recognizes and addresses the issues that men face within gender inequality as well. Go, Emma.

The gist of the campaign is actually to urge men and boys to become advocates against gender inequality, because it is everybody's issue. "Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one?" She poses the question and immediately I think of our Johnson discussion - we have to start using these words out loud in order to help people understand what they truly mean, so they can stop being uncomfortable and frowned upon. She also says something that I think we can all take with us as part of the duties of the roles we are in as teachers (even if we aren't Harry Potter stars with British accents...), that "having seen what [we've] seen and given the chance, it is [our] responsibility to say something."

What are your thoughts?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Are We There Yet?

Reading Three: Margalynn J. Armstrong & Stephanie M. Wildman – “Colorblindness is the New Racism”

                “Whereas colorblindness urges us not to notice race, color insight says, ‘do not be afraid; notice your race and the race of others around you; racism and privilege still do affect peoples’ lives; learn more about the racial dynamic’” (68). So. Here we are. In a graduate-level course, reading literature about and discussing the issues of privilege and power across many different facets of education. Color insight: that’s what we’ve been discussing without even realizing it. We have begun to “[provide] a vocabulary for teaching across racial lines” by utilizing the “lens with which to examine societal interactions and initiate conversations” in order to achieve a greater goal: racial equality and justice. That’s why we’re all here. So how are we doing?

As I read the four steps required by the process of color insight, I couldn’t help but question: are these steps in order? I think so. And if so, where are we? I am fairly certain that we (in our classrooms, in our schools, in our lives, and in this cohort) do our best to “consider context for any discussion about race.” By noticing the racial composition of the worlds around us that we are active in, we are better able to prepare for conversations in and about those worlds. A conversation about race will be structured very differently in my classroom in Burrillville from the way conversations about race were structured in my classroom in Pawtucket. So, step one – check.

Step two: examining systems of privilege. Yup, I think we’re doing a pretty solid job of that each and every week, through these blog posts, comments, and especially through our class discussions. Guys and girls, I think we can be the ones to help stop the rain. By acknowledging our privileges and power as white, middle-class teachers, I think we are in a prime position to guide all of our students along this journey with us, as we perhaps try to influence those who are in a position of even greater power. To do this effectively, we have to be prepared to have the real conversations about race, using real words. This includes having conversations about the real things that are going on in our world, our country.

 An article I read on NPR further reiterates the importance of THE CONVERSATION we have with our students about things like the Michael Brown case***, because these things are real and frightening and important. Erin Stevenson, a high school teacher from Rhode Island, is quoted in the article, “Ultimately, I care more that my students are informed, engaged, active citizens of the world. If they don't care to pay attention or don't feel it affects them, then I haven't done my job." Exactly! This is the importance of color insight in our daily lives, and the significant of becoming aware of it now that our country has seen some of the most devastating riots surrounding the issues of race in a very long time. We have to have these conversations with our students so that they may understand and learn more about the racial dynamic, and participate in the conversations about what is going on in the world around them.

Steps three and four are the steps I think we have begun to approach this week. Perspectivelessness is a long, complicated word and I am still struggling to grasp its complete meaning, even as I read and reread the section explaining it. Because of color insight, we have begun our conversation about race: now we just have to keep talking, and talking as loud as we can so that those people in control of the rain are forced to stop. 

***Side note: I also read Rios' "Stealing a Bag of Potato Chips and Other Crimes of Resistance" and was immediately struck by the reiterations of our conversations from the past two weeks. The boys in this article, like many of the young boys we encounter on a daily basis, have not been taught from an early age about the rules and the codes of the culture of power. I have strongly mixed feelings and thoughts regarding the issues going on in Ferguson, but this article did provide some insight as to why Michael Brown may have reacted to his situation the way he did. Hoping our discussion on Wednesday helps me understand some of my reactions and emotions to such a complicated situation. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

When I Grow Up, I Want to Be....An Ethnographer?

Reading Two: Lisa Delpit - "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children"

“No, I am certain that if we are truly to effect societal change, we cannot do so from the bottom up, but we must push and agitate from the top down” (40).  Wait a minute – isn’t that exactly what we discussed in class?! Society will truly change if we make the rain stop, rather than simply hand out more umbrellas. We can't wait for society to change itself, we (those in power) have to work on changing it ourselves. Or something along those lines. Yes! Way to go, team! We knew what Delpit was all about before we even read her article (well, read it again…).

I remember reading this article in FNED 346, with Dr. August. My first education class, and I had no idea what to expect.  I remember thinking, wait – when do I learn how to set up my gradebook, and practice writing on the board? It was in this class that I got my very first peek at the real challenges that would await me in the classroom. It was also in this class that I realized teaching was very different in the kind of schools I grew up attending (white, middle-class) and in the schools that I would someday teach in.  One of the issues Delpit addresses is an issue that is still questioned today: can white teachers effectively teach black students?

Delpit concludes in her article that the greatest dilemma we face as teachers is “in communicating across cultures and in addressing the more fundamental issue of power” (46). As teachers we have a certain power and a certain responsibility to not only teach our students about the rules and “codes” of power, but also how these codes of power interact with their own codes, and why it is important for them to learn about both of them, to know the difference, to know why each is important in its own way. She, much like Johnson, insists on a true discussion with all of the issues in the open, both sides listening, “a very special kind of listening, listening that requires not only open eyes and ears, but open hearts and minds” (46).

 It shouldn’t matter if the classroom contains a white teacher and black students, a black teacher and white students, or any combination at all of teacher and students! What should matter is how teachers and students interact with one another, and how teachers (of any color) listen to the voices of their students and what they have to say. We have to be willing to “put our beliefs on hold” in order to learn what it might feel like to be someone else, and teach our students how to do the same. Not only will we then become ethnographers, but our students will have the ability to as well, and that is where the change will come from. That is how we can stop the rain. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

It's Not Our Fault - But It IS Our Problem

Reading One: Allan G. Johnson – “Privilege, Power, and Difference”

 “The truth of this powerful force is everywhere, but we don’t know how to talk about it, and so we act like it’s always somewhere other than here and now in the room with us” (7). It’s interesting that we, as a society, like to talk so much about ourselves while, at the same time, try to draw as much attention away from ourselves as possible. Johnson points out that we don’t like to talk about the issues of privilege and power because we don’t know how to do so; maybe the more frightening truth is that we do know how to do so, but are afraid of what might happen as a result of voicing these issues.

Strangely enough, just this morning, as I was flipping through this month’s Cosmo (another guilty pleasure), I came across this and stopped, a little baffled and a little unsure of how to feel:

Finally, we are talking about white, heterosexual, male power (and using those exact words!), but only to acknowledge that those unearned privileges are what allow white, heterosexual males to remain in power. I think what makes me most confused as to how to feel about this blurb is the word “eventually.” It seems so vague, so faraway, that it’s like a dream that just might come true if we wish for it hard enough. Instead of this (obvious) statement, why isn’t Cosmo telling us how to make that “eventually” come sooner? Who will? More importantly, if this is the kind of thing our students are reading, especially black/homosexual/female students, are they going to expect the cultural change to occur on its own? We need to bring up these issues that Johnson addresses to our students so that we may change society ourselves. Articles like this one from Cosmo take the responsibility away from us; meanwhile Johnson addresses the fact that we cannot be blamed for the problem, but the responsibility to fix it has fallen into our laps.

We need to stop ignoring what research and human experience have revealed “about human beings and how [we] live” (4). By looking at the harsh truths and sad realities of privilege and power and talking about them, perhaps then we might be able to understand them and, more importantly, understand how we can begin to change them.  Johnson disagrees with the “popular assumption that people are naturally afraid of what they don’t know or understand” by pointing out that we, as humans, are all “drawn toward the mystery of what [we] don’t know” (16). If we don’t know, then why are we afraid to make a change and see what might happen? The problem is that we think we know what is going to happen, and for that reason, people with power (as a result of an unearned privilege) think they stand to lose the most, regardless of how much people without power stand to gain.

People in positions of power are not willing to put themselves in a vulnerable position for someone else. What they (and we, as a society) need to be reminded of is that vulnerability is not always negative. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has spent over ten years studying vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness. We could all stand to gain something from putting ourselves on the line for others. Why can’t we focus more on what connects us and makes us alike, rather than disconnection and what makes us different? Let’s start talking about white, heterosexual, male power so that we can start changing.

It’s 2014, and we cannot afford to wait for someone else to fix our problems for us, our students, and the world that surrounds us. We are in positions of power as educators – let’s use this power to help others talk about, understand, and change the problems of privilege, power, and difference. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Day One

Hey, new friends! 

So we've just met and I am already super excited to start this adventure with you all. I've been looking forward to grad school just about forever, so now that it's finally here I feel like there are a million things running through my mind. I graduated from RIC in 2012 - Secondary Education, English. Once I graduated, I knew it was only a matter of time before I went back, and Dr. August recommended ASTL. Since she was my undergrad Honors Project Advisor, I tend to listen to her advice. Although I am still job-hunting, I have come to realize that there is something I love about each grade considered "secondary" - even 9th grade (who would have thought?!). I love learning about teaching, learning, reading and writing, and I completely consider myself a Nerd. This semester, I am also finishing up my MLED certification by taking classes on Saturdays. I am subbing at Burrillville High School, Burrillville Middle School and Tolman High School, and have a part-time job at Memorial Hospital in the ER. 

But that's all business; here comes the fun stuff. My parents are both from Croatia, and I consider myself to be one of the luckiest human beings alive to have such strong ties to such a beautiful place. I used to go every summer when I was younger, and just spent two weeks there this summer with my boyfriend. It was wonderful showing off some of my favorite places, but even more exciting to explore new ones. 


 During my free time, I can be found on the soccer field, lifting super-heavy things at the gym, babysitting fantastically awesome kids, spending time with my family and friends, reading lots of books, or watching Criminal Minds. Pretty soon, my life will be consumed by a new puppy; his name is Tucker, I'm in love, and we get to take him home at the end of September. I can't wait to get to know you all as we take on Grad School together.