The Multiculturalism of Language

Divorce. Dinosaurs, Birthdays. Religion. Halloween. Christmas. Television. These are a few of the 50-plus words and references the New York City Department of Education is hoping to ban from the city’s standardized tests.

What interests me about this topic is not the seemingly careful selection of words for inclusion/exclusion. Nay, I’m intrigued that we still hold firm to the belief that language is, can be, or should be, neutral. Maybe someone has identified a few “hot button” words that are potentially “more loaded” than others (debatable), but this idea, that somehow language and word choice is ever truly decontextualized (or even should be) is not just silly, it’s dangerous.

In this world of high-stakes testing, an ever diversifying population is expected to magically measure up to standardized notions of sameness. Those who don’t are deemed failures.

Actually, conversations like this – that some words and concepts are potentially offensive, triggering – should help us to see that standardized tests can scarcely measure a neutral or objective standard. The standards are always someone’s standards. What is assumed common is always someone’s view of what’s common. This means that for someone else (often people of lower socioeconomic status or people of color), these concepts, ideas, words, are NOT standard.  The truth is, we each embody many intersections. Our language choices, including “neutral” words like family, reflect those intersections.

This discussion shows that testing (and schooling) cannot really be “culture blind,” despite the fact that the very idea of standardizing rests on this premise.

Read Brian Vitagliano’s article in full, here.

Adult Literacy Tutor

The training manual.

It’s official.

After a Saturday workshop with the Hillsborough Literacy Council in partnership with ProLiteracy, I am now an adult literacy tutor.

8 is Not Enough
Eight of us attended the training. Paltry numbers given the frequency of the workshops (this is the last one for the year) and the need. According to the Adult Literacy Coordinator, there are 57 learners waiting for a basic literacy tutor. Because the sessions are one-to-one, 57 tutors are required (or at least there are 57 slots). Meanwhile, there 352 learners in need of an English tutor. These students meet in small groups of 2-6 students at a time. That adds up to a deficit of well over 100 tutors. Our group of eight will help some, but so many more are needed.

About the Learners
In fact, 3 out of 20 adults in Hillsborough County read below a fourth grade level. That’s 15%. Many of them developed coping strategies that have served them, in some cases, for decades. One of the tutors asked if all the learners were older, as he presumed. No. For example, one young man is in his 20s, and simply never learned to read because he dropped out of school to work. Learner biographies vary, and older learners also seek help. One older gentleman is now requesting help as his company recently went bankrupt and he is on the job market. His colleagues were aware of his inability to read, but he won’t be competitive for many jobs available now.

Learners, who request services through their local library, are matched with a tutor based on location and mutual availability. All learners are asked to invest $5 in their reading materials, although no one is turned away for inability to pay. The tutors had to pay a registration fee which includes our training materials, and also helps to defray the costs for learners unable to pay the fee.

Becoming a Tutor
After introductions and statistics, we summarized and synthesized short pieces on learner characteristics (i.e., learning style, culture, etc). We then discussed the implications for us as tutors.

We worked with a partner, then shared whole group.

After lunch, we split up into separate rooms – most of us learning more about the basic literacy tutoring, and the remainder choosing to explore English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

There was a super quick review of the five components of reading as outlined in the National Reading Panel: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension.

A sixth component not discussed, is the role of motivation. Obviously our learners will be motivated to learn. After all, they seek out the assistance and are free to stop at any time.

These are our materials for basic literacy tutoring.

The Laubach Way
We watched a couple of short videos (including one teaching us to read Russian!), then had a practice run at an introductory lesson with the Laubach Way materials. Being a critical pedagogue, I have mixed feelings about the series.

It’s tightly structured and scripted, not unlike Direct Instruction in K-12. Beginning at lesson one, you learn specified letters in a specific order, with cues and hand motions delineated. Since most of the tutors have no background as reading teachers, it leaves little room for error. Unfortunately, it also leaves little room for the learner to co-construct a lesson and/or bring her background knowledge to bear.

But, as we discussed later, in addition to the “structured” time of the lesson, there are plenty of opportunities to engage in creative activities.  I chose to think of it all as a reading class with time allotted for phonics, guided reading, and reader response.

Familiar Tools
The leader showed us many materials she uses with her students. They were all things I used when teaching my fourth graders how to read including: anecdotal records, reading logs, and a variety of texts (topics, length, genre). When I begin tutoring I will also add running records as I think they will provide a lot of good information. And, as we live in the digital age, it will be important to include multimodal, multimedia texts as well.

New Steps
At the end of the session the coordinator asked if I would be open to facilitating workshops in the new year. Definitely! My goal is to move toward more community-based teaching (specifically around literacy) and personal learning communities (in literacy and other areas). I’m happy to increase my literacy bona fides in ways that can ultimately support communities and individuals. I’m very excited to start this new chapter in my life. I plan to document, study and share my experiences in the upcoming year.

Waiting. Changing? Not so much…

Waiting for Superman is all the rave. It’s a documentary (now fact-checked as problematic). It’s also a book. And now it’s a call for action. Folks affiliated with Rethinking Schools, for instance, are pretty sure they are not waiting for Superman and urge us to do the same. Other education activists, social justice researchers and policymakers agree.

If you’ve missed out on all the hoopla, this is all about the dismal state of schools – what is being done about it, and the hope of a magic cure all. Superman.

The hero in all of this seems to be school choice, or more specifically, charter schools. Problematically, the news on charter schools isn’t much better than other public schools (unsurprisingly). The overarching narrative in education today advances the success stories of charters while secreting away the fact they aren’t faring all that well. Turns out that treating students like commodities and running schools like businesses is no way to successfully educate a diverse citizenry.

What’s the key? That’s just it. Snapping our fingers and wiggling our noses aren’t the answer. Nor is further dehumanizing people and treating them like widgets on an assembly line. I believe the answer lies, in part, on embracing a dialogic education. One that affirms the life of each individual, helping her to become a contributive member of society on multiple levels.

But I digress. I really just wanted to share this offering from NPR and the Root. More food for thought about treating our children like french fries.

Something wasn’t right at the high school that Darwin Bridgers’ son attends, so he sat in on the class to see for himself. All morning long, the instructor at the Washington, D.C. charter school pointed to a list of ground rules, a detailed list of rewards and punishments posted on a wall near the front of the class filled with black and Latino students.

Read more.

Mashups in the Literature Classroom

I’m always on the hunt for good ideas – especially those that are founded on new/21st century literacies. My friend Beth recently posted about a pedagogical experiment in her writing pedagogy class. Beth’s work was grounded in collaboration and multi-modal/multi-genre composing. Reports of such work are always interesting and helpful for teachers looking to expand their range. That’s why I was glad to see a related article in the Chronicle today.

A professor wrote about doing mashups in to help students explore literature more deeply. Doing this kind of work pushes learners into higher order thinking while leveraging the contributive and collaborative nature of modern literacies.

The best mashups juxtapose materials deliberately; they make the implicit explicit. They expose or highlight underlying features of the source materials—formal, thematic, or stylistic—that casual listeners, viewers, or readers might miss.

In my classes, I’ve experimented with mashups in order to help students think about literary style. I started doing this when I noticed that my students often sensed stylistic differences between writers, but had difficulty articulating those differences.

Read more.

Stories of Stance

I’m presenting at the Georgia Education Research Association’s annual conference in Savannah this weekend. My presentation will be my first attempt at a Prezi – provided all goes well with the technology! I am presenting the results of my dissertation work – a narrative inquiry into how teachers facilitate dialogue as a resource in standards-based literacy classes.

Check it out below:

Schools Kill Creativity.

So says Sir Ken Robinson, creativity expert. In this 2006 TED Talk, featured below, he challenges us to reconsider the status and positioning of creativity. He says schooling tends to be about educating students from the neck up and “off to one side.” Of course he means we value and teach to the left hemisphere as though traditional forms of intelligence are the only or best kinds. I agree with him.

Schools and society miss the mark by overemphasizing the brain to the detriment of the rest. We think if we have the “best and brightest” we can compete in the global job market. (Or even in the local ones). I believe education should not be about jobs, but contribution. How can you be fully human and contribute to the world (and your own authentic happiness) in meaningful ways? An education that ignores the body, the heart, and the myriad forms of expression, is a half education at best, and a mis-education at worst.

Of course all of this assumes a dichotomy of teaching the brain and teaching for creativity, when I believe both can and should be done in concert. Schools today often reify the one right answer, usually from a choice of other answers. That’s not even educating the brain. That’s teaching how to eliminate bad answers. Can we teach our students to be thoughtful and creative? To think and be with both sides of our brain? Ken argues that creativity and literacy should be given equal status. I think he’s on to something.

An ideal education to me is one which considers the whole person, and challenges that person to think creatively and flexibly and be fully present in the world for the betterment of society. Idealistic, yes. Impossible, no. Watch: