August 2010 Archives

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 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.

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