Some final thoughts---blog #8

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The last one! I didn't think it was possible, but I am almost out of things to write and say! This class has taught me so much and validated so much I am already doing. I am excited for the fall and scared all at the same time (FYI, I still get butterflies at the beginning of each school year!). I am planning on using the monologues activity with Invisible Man and Montana 1948. Critical lenses will be something else I will tackle for the first time in my teaching. While I think my district has a good start on using multicultural lit in our curriculum, I am already thinking about what new novels we can add to our list and what one's we should drop. I am also thinking of better ways to incorporate discussion in my classroom. Discussion is really something I am always working to make better. Aside from theoretical concepts, I have also been reminded of some great summarization and critical thinking strategies that I can use in my classroom: save the last word activity, one sentence summaries, tableaus, interviewing and hotseating to name a few.

So many ideas swirling in my head, but I liked the quote at the end of the Pirie article about taking small and purposeful steps towards making a more culturally relevant classroom. Again, teaching is such a complex occupation. I look back on my first years of teaching and it was all about surviving the year. Now that I am about to enter the second decade of my career, I feel I am hitting my stride and enjoy finding ways to fine tune my craft. What I love about teaching is that is ever changing in terms of the fresh ideas I get from fellow teachers, but steadfast in our purpose: to educate our students to be compassionate and empathizing global citizens who are willing to climb into the skins of other's and walk around in it for a while.

Critical lenses and AP---blog #7

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"New critical approaches assume that the meaning of the text is embedded in the text and needs to be teased out by closely reading textual language. By focusing solely on the text, teachers employing these approaches often do not examine the larger cultural and institutional forces shaping the author's or reader's construction of the text" (p. 123).

This really got me thinking. In a way, this is a good thing and a bad thing. Last school year was my first year to teach AP Literature and Composition. I struggled with how I would teach the use of critical lenses because I didn't understand how it would help students accomplish the goals of the AP exam. And because I didn't want to do a bad job with it and confuse my students because I was unclear about my purpose, I stayed away from it. However, what made a new critical approach a good idea is that it in a way leveled the playing field for students especially those who come to the class with not as much reading background as their classmates who have been AP classes before. Though I don't agree to teaching to a test, the AP exam is "fair" in that a student is just using the text in front of them to draw conclusions and understand the meaning of the text. Teaching close reading skills is something that can be learned with lots of practice and feedback from the teacher. By using the text as their support and not their outside experiences, students all have the same starting point.

However, after taking this class, I am beginning to see how I can use this in my classroom and why this is important. First of all, I think having students look at a piece of literature from different perspectives will only create more risk taking in terms of critical thinking. What I have found is that because students are only focusing on the text in front of them, they overlook other cool things that the text is implying and all their responses sound the same. Their creativity is stunted and it becomes a task when they are looking for the definitive right answer. While close reading is a good skill to have, I don't think it is the be all and end all, and it ignores the bigger picture of the piece's message (which they will have to be able to figure out for one of the essay prompts on the AP exam, anyway). This year I am going to be very intentional about the use of critical lenses and use close reading as only one of the many tools I will give my students as they navigate the world of literary analysis.

Having an "agenda"---blog #6

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Tonight I went shopping with my former sister-in-law. She and I are still friends and her daughters are still my nieces. Melissa and her daughters, Brittany and Abbey, are all carbon copies of each other. Blonde hair, blue eyes, tan and very bubbly, and very well to do. Melissa has worked hard to achieve the life style they lead: two-three big family vacations a year, shopping at high end stores (though she is a sales-aholic) and living in a very white neighborhood with homes that are close to a million dollars. Whenever I am with Melissa, I don't complain about my lot in life (one income, three kids, lots of bills, lots of stress) because she does all the complaining. She seems to think that I will relate to her "financial" status. That I will feel sympathy for all the money that the government is taxing her. I tell her that she won't find a sympathetic ear from me: for crying outloud, I am a teacher; I have a tendency to be a little more left leaning than her or at least more open-minded about things.

So where am I going with this? I was thinking about all the homework I had as I was shopping at places like Justice, Claire's and Aeropostale (definitely the 9th circle of Dante's Inferno), and I realized that people like Melissa are the one's who don't recognize their "white privilege." She is oblivious to the struggles of underrepresented groups and she is passing on this thinking to her children. Yes, she is a kind and good Christian, but she is one of the most close-minded people I know. And she represents the type of person who wouldn't understand what I am trying to accomplish in learning more about multicultural teaching and literature. The fact that I want to give a voice to students who don't normally feel like they have one would be completely lost on her. And forget about teaching literature with gay or lesbian characters. I could totally see her saying that this went against her religious beliefs and that she wouldn't agree with her daughters reading this kind of work. That's why I think it is sooooo important to have a solid rationale based on sound research and pedagogy when tackling such difficult and often times, uncomfortable texts. Not all parents will be open to our "agenda," which is how they will see it. Melissa will argue that she is responsible for teaching those sensitive topics and my job is just to teach them to read and write and to get them ready for college (I promise she would say this.) I know it sounds like I am ranting, and maybe it is because I am tired and shopping with her is always a little irritating. However, the students that come to us will have parents like Melissa. Though I love her dearly, she is my complete opposite. She would be the one to try and "love one out" thinking that homosexuality is a choice even if I could counter all her arguments with research and readings that said otherwise.

It is not enough to just teach multicultural literature, but also to have a sound foundation for why you are teaching it and to understand your own ideas and motivations you bring to the teaching. We all have an agenda; we all want to change our students' thinking, but we need to remember the social worlds they are coming from while we are doing this.

"Talking Back"---Blog #5

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My best friend is black. Her name is Nicole, and we have been friends for 20 years. She and I have been friends through deaths, births, marriages, divorces and a myriad of other experiences. Her dad was a surrogate to me after my father died in 1991, and her house was my home when my mom was absent for whatever reason. Nicole is probably the better friend between the two of us, but she would never hold that against me. She is my family, and I love her. We would talk on the phone for hours when we were in high school. My father could never understand what we had to say to each other since we had spent most of the day together. When it was time to get off, he would gruffly say, "Write her a letter, Lina. Get off the phone now." (BTW you pronounce "Lina" with a long I like in Carolina...it was my dad's nickname for me since in Spanish my named is spelled this way). And whenever Nicole would call, she was unphased by his snarky remarks, "Hello, Nicole. Whatever do you want?" "Good evening, Mr. Bradley, may I speak with Caroline?" Somehow she was always able to engage him in some small talk before I finally got the phone. She liked my dad, and I think he begrudgingly like her, too.

Sometime towards the end of my sophomore year, right before school let out for the summer, Nicole was over at my house while my dad was out of town and decided she wanted to meet him in person. "I like your dad even if you think he is mean. I want to meet him," Nicole said matter-of-factly. I froze and searched for a reason why this was not a good idea. After listening to her keep bugging me about it, I blurted out, "He is prejudiced. He doesn't like Black people, and I can't let him meet you. He doesn't know you are black, and he will flip out to know you were ever here." And her response is why I am still her friend. "We can just tell him I am Puerto Rican. They aren't really black. We can tell him I am just really tan." I told her she was crazy and that I didn't even know what Puerto Ricans looked like and that my dad was really smart and would see through that in a second and I didn't want her to get hurt. However, the discussion became a moot point. My dad died that summer after my sophomore year. He never got to meet Nicole, and despite knowing what he thought about Black people, she showed up at the funeral, as did her dad.

Nicole reminds me of the mythical Maniac Magee. Her ability to empathize with people is boundless. Though she recognizes with much ease that there are differences between people and is never afraid to have an honest conversation about race (The first thing she asked me when she introduced herself to me is whether I was Italian; no joke!), Nicole doesn't let those differences get in the way of seeing where that person is coming from and letting that person see where she is coming from as well. I love the bell hooks quote that opens the Enciso article, "Talking back meant speaking as an equal to an authority figure. It meant daring to disagree and sometimes it just meant having an opinion" (p. 13). There are times I think Nicole is color blind and there are other times when she isn't afraid to call people on their beliefs about race and culture. Because of her friendship, I am challenged to "talk back" and have those conversations that aren't always comfortable. I wish my dad would have met her. He would have loved her just as I do.

A good reminder about race and experiences---Blog #4

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"I liked what Beach said in one of his readings. I can't find it right now, but it was something about how we are all "multicultural in nature." I'm white, but I'm multicultural and "navigating" different worlds of my identity every day too. It is important for us to keep in mind that all of our students--regardless of their race or life experiences--has this totally awesome mosaic of experiences and a background far more complex than we can ever know. It's cool to think that all of our students bring those experiences to the classroom as a "lens" through which they view literature and a "lens" through which they view the world! " (Jane's comment to my blog #2).

Thanks for this quote, Jane. This is something I acknowledge to myself about my students, but I think my white students need to hear it more often, too. "White" is such a generic term. I have a friend of mine who is white and is married to a Japanese woman. They have two beautiful daughters who look like their Japanese mother. Though he is "white," his identity is very much made up by her experiences and traditions. There are so many kids with this same story. Though white culture is the predominant culture in power, so many students don't feel this power and will take offense if I ever clump all white kids into a generalized group. Sometimes I catch myself thinking about my white friends, "You just don't get it." When really their experiences are just as rich as mine and maybe even richer since I have grown up in the biracial no-man's land for so long.

I think today's discussion about race coming up in classroom discussion is one that is difficult to tackle. White kids get tired of being made to feel like they have lived these cushy lives when in reality they have had the same struggles as students of color and those struggles should not be discounted or minimized just because they are white. I am always glad when white students are willing to share their experiences because most are not always willing to do so. What I have noticed though is that my AP students aren't as willing to "go there" as are my regular English students. I had one AP student get into a program at St. Olaf because she was a first generation college student. She was embarassed because it was typically for minority students. She didn't view herself as a minority because she was white, but I told her that among college students at her school she was one because her parents never went to college. In a sense she had been navigating two different worlds for a while and didn't even know it. Most white kids are so used to being put in this spot where they can't possibly get the experiences of students of color that they don't recognize their own "multiculturalism."

When I begin the school year, I will remember to tell my students what I have always been thinking. They have much to offer this class because they all come from unique and different cultures and identities, and as a class, we will need to honor and respect that.

Celebrating failure---blog #3

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Celebrating failure. Isn't that an oxymoron? How can you celebrate something like failure? But that is precisely what is going on in schools today, especially among Black males. What I find interesting is that my African males are not a part of this group, now that I think about my students from last year. And to be honest, I tell my students that failure isn't an option. I had one student tell me last year, "Ms. B, I learn a lot from you, but you are kind of scary." Yes, I am. I've never gotten that Minnesota nice thing down.

I liked what Sarah said yesterday about making it real clear to students of color that there is a system on how to "do school." Without that explicit knowledge on how to do well in school, because they don't have that support from home, students of color will always be "left behind." The predominant white culture has this underlying and unspoken code of behavior and thinking that white kids come to school knowing and understanding. Students of color come to school trying to figure out what white kids know. I learned in an earlier class the importance of explicit instruction with students of color. (I believe it was by Lisa Delpit. Anyway, the basic assertion was that MN nice (my words not her's) isn't going to cut it in the classroom with students of color. Students of color need the teacher to be direct with them about expectations, behavior, how to succeed in a white world, but still retain who they are culturally. (I am simplifying her article "The Silenced Dialogue"). So for example, instead of asking a student, "Is that where the scissors belong?" You would TELL the student directly, "Put the scissors on the shelf." (Delpit 288). It sounds way too simple, I know. But students of color need to know that you are in charge. They need to know what is expected of them. You can't tell someone to "behave" when they don't know what that is supposed to look like. Your version and their version might be totally different. As a result, I am a hard-ass and sometimes my white students are put off by my directness, but I know my students of color appreciate it. Students know right of the gate, I am in charge; I tell them explicitly what I expect from them. Failure is not an option, and yes, I will push and pull them until graduation. Most come along willingly, but there are always a few that I have to run the last few miles with cheering, coaching, encouraging and yes, yelling at them to finish school. That is not to say that I don't lose a few, because every year someone breaks my heart and stops a foot, an inch from passing my class. But it's not because I quit caring.

That's the other thing with students of color: they need to know that you see them. I had this student one year that he and I started off on the wrong foot. He was sleeping in my class, then talking all the time, and finally just not doing anything. I was always on him to wake up, or to take the notes from the board or to turn in his work. Finally, he said I was picking on him, and he wanted out of my class into another teacher's (who he had had the same problems with coincidentally). I sent him to the office (not because he wanted to be in a different class, but because he walked out of my room yelling expletives to me) and he was gone for about a week. I am not sure what transpired, but he came back a week later and said he was going to clean up his act and wondered if he could come back to the classroom. Before I would accept him back, I made it VERY clear to him that I was in charge; I would always be on his case to do well in my class, and that I would send him out if he was disturbing students who were working. He came back with, "Are you always this way?" I said, "Yes, you should worry if I don't get in your face. It means I don't care anymore." And he said, "Damn." I never had problems with him again, and he went out of his way to see me in the halls during his senior year. It is an exhausting process, and you can't go it alone. When I work with students of color who are in danger of failing, I have a team of people who are supporting me and this student. Students of color need to know you care, need to know how to work in a system that is dominated by white culture, need to know that you see them and need to know what you expect of them in very clear terms.

Blog 2---Racial and Cultural identity

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I can remember my first day of kindergarten vividly. The school I went to was in another town for some weird reason. I say 'weird' because there was a school directly across the street from my house. Now that I look back on it, I guess the district must have had a kindergarten center at the time, but I remember thinking how unfair that I had to ride a bus to school and couldn't just walk across the street like my sister was able to the next year. Anyway, on the first day of school, my mom drove me to school, and I must not have been enrolled, because I remember we had to meet with the principal first. I obviously don't remember what they said to each other because they were speaking Spanish. My mom's English wasn't that strong, and to this day (36 years later) she still speaks with a thick accent. I recall sitting in the office with these adults, wondering what I was doing here, scared that something very big was about to happen to me. I had a bag on my back, a lunch box in my hands, my hair in the customary pig tails, and a sick feeling in my stomach. I wanted to cry. When the adults were done talking, the principal came around the desk, knelt down to my eye level and began speaking to me in Spanish. I remember kind of looking at him and then looking at my mom, not sure what to do or say (believe it or not, I was super shy as a child). My mom said to him with her thick accent, "She doesn't speak Spanish. She speaks English." And he went from saying my name in Spanish, Carolina, to saying, "Welcome to our school, Caroline."

That moment keeps happening to me even now as an adult. Of course, it has taken various forms. And I still continue to struggle with the fact that my outside doesn't match my inside. My mother is of Spanish birth, but grew up in Mexico because both her parents died; my dad was born in Brooklyn, NY to an Irish father and German mother. My mom came to the United States the year they were married in 1974. Growing up, I was not encouraged to learn Spanish (a long and sordid story in itself, but the long and short of it is that my dad was a bit prejudiced and didn't want me sounding different), and I must have been destined for the Midwest, because I vividly remember a friend asking me in Spanish 3, "Are you from Nebraska or something? You don't sound like a Texan." (And yes, even after taking 4 years of high school Spanish, I can squeak out only a few phrases. Sigh.)

People are always trying to figure me out, and living in MN, that happens way more often than it does in TX. I fit in there, here I stick out. So I have this great ability to morph into my surroundings wherever I go. And my students of color seem to see me differently when they know "what" I am. It's as if they are glad they have someone who "gets" them or might "get" them better because of who I am. And my Hispanic students even forgive my lack of Spanish speaking when they hear part of my story about why I never learned to speak it.

In chapter 2, "The Role Racial or Cultural Identity," Dilg, writes, "Biracial students acknowledge different identities in different settings" (p. 69). And that's been me my whole life. In high school, I had my Hispanic friends and my white friends. Not that the groups didn't mix, but when I was with my Mexican friends (who by the way, didn't speak Spanish either), I felt like I was acknowledging a side of me that I couldn't at home. And when I was with my white friends, I felt like I had to move beyond my Mexican background to prove that I wasn't inferior to them. The idea of trying to figure out where a person fits in and how it affects their thoughts and actions is something I understand when I work with students of color. As I grow older, I tend to identify more with what I do (being a mom, a teacher, a single-divorced woman) than what my "race" is. But it continues to be a struggle, and I am sensitive to the struggles my students will have to face in figuring out who they are. Hopefully, through reading about different cultures and talking open and honestly about their identities will help move toward this knowledge.

Multicultual Literature Blog 1

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"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." (Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird).

I love this quote. I reread Mockingbird this summer because it had been a lifetime ago that I read it for the first time. I have never taught the book since it is taught in the junior high, but it is a book that kids inevitably bring up each year, even as seniors. To me, this quote encompasses what a good multicultural education should be about (notice I am not just talking about literature here), understanding the motivation of others, seeing things from their point of view, and then feeling empathy and compassion for those experiences, even if they can't in their wildest dreams imagine being in that person's situation. I am not saying a person needs to all of a sudden love and become BFF's with this other person or agree with the situation or ideas presented, however, students need to be taught that they shouldn't be so quit to judge a person and their actions (like Scout and Jem do with Boo Radley) without first "climbing into his skin and walking around in it."

When I was an undergrad (back in the 90's!), multiculturalism was not explained very well to me. It meant reading books by a diverse group of authors (not just dead white guys) about a diverse group of people (not just white males). Never did I receive explicit training about how and why to teach it. It was more about "exposure." Also, multiculturalism didn't really take into account other cultural identities such as gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, family makeup, etc. It was all about the color of your skin so to speak.

One of my group members made the comment that when he reads, he doesn't think about what identities he brings to the book. He isn't thinking about his preconceived ideas about things or what experiences he has had in the past that will connect with the book he is reading. However, I told him that I think he does this on a subconscious level because he is a good reader and I think all readers (good or bad) do this on some level: that's why we choose to read the books that we read for pleasure and (hopefully) want to teach. My students will see a novel, and before even reading the book, immediately begin judging it without really thinking about why they feel the way they do. And I think that is what a good multicultural education will do for a student; it will force them to question the why and how of their thinking, to think about why they are thinking about what they are thinking. (It makes sense when you say it outloud.)

So I think this year, Atticus's words will be my invitation into literature. Don't be so quit to make assumptions and judgments about characters (or people in their lives for that matter) without first climbing in to that tired skin and walking around in it.

What makes music "authentic"---lesson ideas

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Music assignment.doc

Poetry Wednesdays.doc

The first link "music assignments" will reference the handout "Poetry Wednesdays," the second link. I have used the Poetry Wednesdays handout to teach poetry techniques to my AP English students. I think using the music connection will be a good way to "sell" poetry to them. So many hate poetry because they don't see it as approachable and are quite afraid of it. If I can show them that music is very much like poetry, then I think they will be more open-minded and willing to jump into a serious analyis of the genre.

What makes music "authentic"

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All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I've been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don't mean anything
When you've got no one to tell them to
It's true...I was made for you

Brandi Carlisle [ The Story Lyrics on http://www.lyricsmania.com/ ]

I love this song. I am a survivor. I have been through a lot, and when faced with a challenge or crisis, I know I will get through it, even if I am a little more bruised and scarred than before. My "battle scars" tell "the story of who I am." I am a divorced woman who has found love again; a single-mom raising three boys; a teacher demanding the best from her students, rejoicing in their triumphs and grieving in their defeats; a daughter and a sister; a friend and a mentor. All of these things make me who I am, and in this song by Brandi Carlisle, I appreciate the fact that the people in my life love and accept me for who I am. They listen to my stories, and most, if not all of them, make up the threads to my tale. Songs like this are the kind that makes me appreciate those in my life. Songs that speak of overcoming adversity, rising to the challenge, celebrating or grieving the human experience are the ones I will stop and listen to and remember the words to. (And if I am alone, I will sing along with! ) These are songs I find to be "authentic."

Now, when I first heard this song, I thought, "Wow, she is an old soul. This song totally speaks to me. She has to be someone who has experienced this stuff. She has to be older than me." Uh, no. She is not quite 30, and I am pretty sure she is single with no kids. Does this make her any less "legit" in my eyes? Well, sort of? Maybe not? You see, I connect well with people who have been there, done that in their life. I am not one who makes superficial friends. I want to know your story, and I want to understand where you have been, and if we can't understand each other, then we just can't be friends. That's the same with music. If I can't understand what the singer is talking about or get their experience, then I can't connect with the song. And if the singer hasn't shared the experiences they are singing about, how can I trust them? How can I believe they mean what they are saying? If the singer hasn't experienced the emotions in their song, it is authentic? This is where the "sort of"/ "maybe not" comes in. For me, a song is "authentic" when the singer has either experienced what they are singing about, or they are able to empathize with those who have gone through this experience and are sincere in the message they are trying to convey to the listener.

Now, of course, I see musicians that are "created" or "branded" to be a little less authentic than those that just sing and worry less about the image they portray and focus more on the music. I'm a big fan of country music, but some of the newer singers are bit too flashy for me, and as a result, I don't like their music as much. Also, if a song is too harsh to my ears, I can't even begin to listen to the words. (Hello, rap singers and head-bangers, I can't stand listening to some of the stuff that is out there.) But is that to say then that just because I can't stand it, it isn't "authentic?"

I think every generation and culture has its own version of music they consider "real." And I think everyone has their own definition of what makes a song "authentic." (Though does anyone think Lady Gaga is for real?). I could spend all day talking about why my music tastes are more authentic than, say, rap or heavy metal, but then I would probably be offending the lovers of those genres that feel just as strongly as I do. That type of music speaks to those listeners for a reason, right?

Now what if I told you I am NOT a music nut? Would that change the value of my opinion. I love listening to a good song and have some favorites from when I was growing up, but I don't have a favorite artist that I would absolutely lose it for. (I wouldn't have fit in so well with Elvis or Beatle fans.) So does that make my opinion about what makes music authentic less valuable than someone who is a total devotee to a genre or group? Details, detail.

So my final thoughts on this? I think music that connects to you in a way that moves you emotionally and makes you think and makes you feel is "authentic." I might not agree with the message (I certainly will argue with anyone that loves a song that promotes some perverted and/or deviant behavior), but maybe you have had experiences that the music can relate to and I can't. We all have experiences that make up who we are. We all have stories that we want to tell and sometimes that story is best told through music and its lyrics.

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  • dolan116: Geez.....there must be something about the first day of kindergarten. read more
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