Sunday, November 16, 2014

Golden Rule for a Democratic Education: Treat People the Way Dogs Would Treat Them

From: "Citizenship in School: Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome" - Christopher Kliewer

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When we started this course, one of the first activities we did asked us to reflect on certain privileges that people who fit into the dominant ideology (based on Straightness, Christianity, Whiteness, Able-bodiedness, American-ness, Male-ness, Property Ownership) take for granted on a daily basis. When thinking about able-bodiedness, it was easy to understand how an individual in a wheelchair may not be able to participate fully in a world/school/classroom unless it was specifically designed to include him or her. It wasn't until just a few weeks ago that I understood more fully the term "able-bodied," how many individuals don't live up to the dominant ideology's expectations, the infinite ways that their voices and experiences are silenced...and how much our schools are at fault for maintaining the status quo. 

Kliewer poignantly states that "acknowledging students with Down syndrome as thoughtful, creative, and interested learners with personal identities that distinguish them from all other people suggests an individual value that enhances any context containing the child" (86). Each individual student, disabled or non-disabled, has a unique viewpoint and experience that they can share with their classmates. Their classmates, in turn, build webs and connections to these people and experiences; Vygotsky's research and writing clarifies the understanding that children are "active constructors of knowledge who constantly enter into new relationships of understanding with adults, peers, and materials," leading to "...constant reformulation and recontextualization of understanding" (82). Kliewer refers to Vygotsky's findings and relates them to the "culture of segregation" that is usually associated with children that have mental disabilities, such as those with Down syndrome. 

Two weeks ago, I covered the isolation classroom for students with special needs at the middle school after teaching my two classes. In this room, there are between four and seven students at any given time (depending on when particular students attend extracurricular classes), and four adults. Two of the students aren't in any inclusion classes, and only leave the room to use the bathroom and go to lunch. Three of these students have Down syndrome, and the others have moderate-severe disabilities that prevent them from joining an inclusion classroom. The work they are asked to do is boring, and the day seems to revolve around having something (busywork, games, etc.) for the students to do so they won't act out and misbehave. This isn't the only thing that bothers me about that classroom. 

What I noticed during the days I covered the isolation room was that when regular-education (non-disabled) students came into the room for advisory, they walked straight past the other students and huddled in the back corner, trying not to make eye contact with any of them. There were no friendly exchanges or advisory games, and the regular-ed students couldn't get out of the classroom quick enough once the bell rang to signal the end of advisory. These students, and the teachers that allow this non-interaction on a daily basis, are reducing the level of democracy in the school, and ultimately, in their world: "to eliminate a single person through any form of banishment, no matter how benevolent the logic, reduces the web and makes the community a less democratic and less rich place" (95). If these students with disabilities can't join a regular education classroom, and other students can't even acknowledge their existence in their own classroom, how will they know how much they have to offer the world? If these students with Down syndrome and different mental/physical disabilities are treated as "other" or "lesser" compared to the rest of the student population, nobody gets to benefit from all of the magic and wonder that they have to offer, because every single student has these things to offer. We have to be the change agents, the teachers that advocate for respect of all students, both as "active agents in the learning process and essential members of the learning community."

Reading this article reminded me of a video I saw earlier this year about a magnificent little boy named Owen and his dog Haatchi. Dogs (and other animals) are often used to help treat and educate young children with mental and physical disabilities. Why can't we encourage our students to view the world as these animals do: that all humans are capable and deserving of love, companionship, and happiness? Why can't we, like Dewey, foster the belief that "schools must serve as the sites in which children develop both a sense of commitment to one another and a sense of self-direction leading to the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious?"

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Multilingual Melodies

From "Aria" - Richard Rodriguez   & "Teaching Multilingual Children" - Virginia Collier

Language has always been magical to me, enchanting, beautiful. I have always been mesmerized by the way people can take language and manipulate it, carve it, sort it, arrange it, and change it - especially when they have complete understanding and control over the words being used. I suppose that's why I like reading and writing, listening to fairy tales, and I'm pretty sure that's why I have chosen to teach English. It's why I like reading to the boys I babysit, and why I fell in love with Dr. Seuss' magical word play in all of his stories.

I don't really know for certain which language was my first, whether I said "mama" or "mom" (because now I use them interchangeably), or how I learned to determine which language I could use when. What I do know is that I am incredibly lucky that my parents chose to teach me their native language even though they were (and, to some extent, still are) learning the English language. Because I learned Croatian at the same time I learned English as a child, I am completely fluent in both. I am able to talk to my family, visit and stay with them for entire summers, and navigate a country more beautiful than any other I have ever seen. I was able to consider a completely different life if I wanted to, and right now I could be teaching the English language to little Croatian schoolchildren. 

Although I have always understood the power language has to connect people, I have also understood the tall, unbreakable barriers and confusing miscommunications it can create among people. My Croatian grandfather and my Portuguese godfather would carry on entire conversations at our summer cookouts, without speaking a word of the same language. I like to think that they understood one another completely, although I never thought to ask them then. Time after time, my parents used to make me translate school notes that came home, and I still have to type up my father's estimates when he evaluates a potential new job. My mother hated going to birthday parties where parents had to stay, because she was embarrassed at the thought of trying to talk to them in a language that wasn't her own.

Although both my parents now have grown comfortable with and are fluent in English (minor grammar mistakes don't count, I tell them), I still identify with Rodriguez whenever I see them talking with friends and family members in Croatian: "Using Spanish, he was quickly effusive. Especially talking with other men, his voice would spark, flicker, flare alive with sounds. In Spanish, he expressed ideas and feelings he rarely revealed in English. With firm Spanish sounds, he conveyed confidence and authority English would never allow him" (37-38). When speaking in their native languages, English language learners are able to manipulate words to create magic, to tell stories, to connect and communicate with others. As teachers, we should be aware of and responsive to this need, this flare that can be lit simply through the ability to communicate. Maybe our quietest students aren't quiet because they have nothing to say; maybe our quietest students are quiet because they don't have the knowledge and control of the language we are making them participate in. 

I found Collier's seven "guidelines" interesting, and agreed with most of them, but not all. The one that most intrigued me, however, was the fifth one, regarding code-switching. I think this is perhaps one of the most important pieces of multilingual education. Reading this, I thought about my family, and how often we code-switch (which happens to be pretty often). I also thought about Richard Rodriguez's family, and how their transitions from Spanish to English might have been different had they not been discouraged from ever using their primary language. Collier quotes Guadalupe Valdes: "Bilingual speakers are aware that each of their languages has certain strengths and that two languages can be used simultaneously to convey the most precise meaning" (230). This article states that bilingual students actually have an advantage, if they are encouraged to utilize both languages throughout their lives. 

Our job as educators shouldn't be to extinguish a non-English speaker's primary language; instead, it should be to help multilingual students create melodies by intertwining both of their languages, in order to help them communicate and understand the beauty and magic of each of them, separate and together. Let's help our students understand that "language is enchanting, powerful, magical, useful, personal, natural, all-important" (Collier 235). Although they might not all fall in love with stories and words, they deserve to be able to use them however they please, in any of the languages they learn. They deserve the right to speak up for the things they believe in and want to change. They deserve the right to use their languages to create an aria, a melody, as beautiful and unique as they each are, and they deserve teachers who will listen. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Buy a dictionary.

Yes. I want this laminated, hanging up in my classroom. 

Also came across this article a couple of days ago: I applaud this parent. How do we send this same message, as teachers, without always explicitly stating "yes, a girl can dress up as a male character on Halloween"....sometimes I feel like it's the unspoken things that we do or don't do that send a stronger message.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Our Words: The Windows and Mirrors of a Safe World

From Safe Spaces: Chapter 5 - Inside the Classroom Walls
Annemarie Vaccaro, Gerri August, and Megan S. Kennedy

If there is one thing we have reiterated over and over in our discussions and readings, it's the fact that "language is a tool" (95), and conversation is one of the most important pieces of each of our classrooms. Reading this chapter, I was once again reminded of several of our previous readings and discussions. One line in particular really stood out to me: "Apparently, educators would rather omit or veil important themes in Whitman's poetry than broach a topic they consider taboo" (87). Immediately, I thought of Michelle Kenney's "Teaching the N-Word" and her take on taboo topics. Much like the discussion of the N-word and racial inequality, the LGBTQ discussion is one that needs to happen in today's classrooms, perhaps now more than ever before. Maybe one conversation can lead into the next, and we can have talks about many of them together. As Yoruba Richen poignantly states in What the Gay Rights Movement Learned From the Civil Rights Movement, "As these movements continue on, and as freedom struggles around the world continue, let's remember that not only are they interconnected, but they must support and enhance each other for us to be truly victorious." Yes, yes, yes. One thousand and ten percent, yes.

I think about all of the times I've heard the word "gay" thrown around or used to make fun of someone, and then I think about my students' reactions when I stop whatever else is going on in class to address it. Some of my closest friends and greatest role models are gay, and I have never known anyone else's hearts to be bigger. And that's exactly what I tell my students. I tell them that if my best friend was sitting in this classroom, and I let someone use the word "gay" as a derogatory term without asking them to understand why they shouldn't use it that way, he would probably be extremely hurt. I tell them that even though he isn't sitting in this classroom, I would be letting him down if I didn't stop to have this conversation, and that maybe someone else is sitting in here, thinking of somebody that they love who would also be hurt by our senseless use of words. The first time I spoke up in such a way, I was furious, and I was also nervous. I was furious with my students for disappointing me, for hurting the people I loved with their words, but most of all, I was furious with myself for being nervous. I noticed something that day, though, and I have never once been nervous when talking to my students about LGBTQ issues (regardless of how they come up in our conversations) since then. I noticed that my students became much more deliberate and considerate when choosing their words, and I noticed that that deliberation and consideration extended far beyond my classroom, as I overheard certain students' conversations in the hallways after that.

It is not up to the LGBTQ community to create safe spaces for themselves; rather, it is up to all of us to create safe spaces for all students, LGBTQ included. Safe spaces include classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, buses, soccer fields and basketball courts. They don't start there, though. They start in our conversations, in the words we do and don't use, and the ways we explain why we do or don't use them in certain situations. They start by reading Tango Makes Three to elementary students, and by addressing the homosexual themes in Whitman's Leaves of Grass with secondary students. They start by acknowledging that some students have spent their entire lives "denying [themselves] or explaining [themselves]" (88), whether they are part of the LGBTQ community, or have loved ones that are. They start with us. We create the safe spaces, the mirrors and windows in which students see themselves in our classrooms and, essentially, our world. The world we describe or introduce or discuss in our conversation needs to have a space for all students, so that they understand that the real world has a safe space for them too.