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Published in: on April 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm  Leave a Comment  


This is my second experience with RSS bloging. The first time I wrote this summary post and gave my opinion about the technology’s use in the classroom, I was quite a bit more skeptical than I am now. I think I have grown to appreciate the idea of it more now than I did last semester. I learned a lot through my “inquiry for equality,” and I feel that I have a more balanced, less fearful perspective on the issues I chose to learn more about. The largest reason I believe my experience was more positive this time, is the fact that I felt more freedom to choose a topic that didn’t seem to directly relate to writing at first. As I read more in class and discovered more in the news, I started to draw connections, but I wasn’t really thinking of the connections when I picked my topic. This differs largely to the way I chose my topic last semester. Last semester, I put a lot of pressure on myself to come up with a topic that has something to do with teaching literature to adolescents. I felt very limited by that, because it did not feel like many news sources would really care about pedagogical issues. Finding news sources on disparities in education was a much more authentic task.

Assuming that students are able to pick topics that are written about often, and which they are deeply passionate about, I am all for this type of writing assignment in high schools. I think that I would either require fewer entries, or lighter content in the entries though, because time management is a huge issue with this kind of assignment. It seems that no matter how many entries I write, I never seem to learn how to do so in a time efficient manner. Exploring web content and then integrating that content into your own thoughts is always a time consuming process. I want to be sensitive to this fact when I am teaching.

I want to frame this type of assignment as an exploration. I feel that this is what it has been for me this semester, and as a result, I have grown in many ways. I feel that I not only understand the causes, complications, and possible solutions for educational inequality, but I also have a more holistic perspective. I feel much less naïve about the complexity of the issue and the forces which maintain inequality. While I’m not sure that I’ve ever been encouraged to reconsider my opinions through my inquiry, I think that I understand the positions which oppose me more fully. These were important things for me to learn and understand if I am going to live my life and my teaching career in a way which will improve the situation. If I have the opportunity to teach at risk and underprivileged students, I want to be sure to not assume anything about my students, but to understand that they may be dealing with things that I never had to deal with at their age. I want to be aware of how their lack of privilege hinders their resources, their motivation, and their support systems. I want to work to counter the oppressive forces that they are subject to every day. I want to always be aware of the fact that privilege and prejudice is something that constantly is at work, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. I resolve to not act out in defense for myself when students judge me for the color of my skin. I resolve to instead earn their trust, meet them where they are at, and give them reasons to believe that their skin color and financial background will somehow not prevent them from being successful. I must do this by providing them with examples of successful adults who came from backgrounds like them. I must do this by providing ways for their voices to be heard. I must do this by letting them read diverse authors so that I do not perpetuate the message that dead white men are our history, are our pride, are the definition of success. These students need someone who will acknowledge the power of minority voices in literature and in the world. As everything else in our culture screams otherwise, necessity demands that I do this.

Published in: on April 18, 2007 at 9:46 am  Comments (4)  

Bright Ideas

The Bright Ideas conference this weekend was a blast for me. I love going to conferences like this one and exchanging ideas with people of like minds. Jacqueline Woodson, the keynote speaker for the event, spoke of her writing process as a professional author. Although it was difficult to transfer some of her experiences to writing classroom pedagogy, it was helpful to hear her talk about her writing. What I took away from her talk, was the fact that when all is said and done, writing is a highly creative, highly inspired activity. There are things about “the writing process,” aspects to the way in which a story is created that will never fit into a flow chart or concept map. While it is difficult to instruct this kind of inspiration to students who are not “born natural writers,” I think it is important that we never forget the fact that writing cannot be forced, tied down, or predicted. Jacqueline Woodson said two very important things. The first was that in order to write well, you must read good writing. I certainly think this is true, and it is an important thing to incorporate into writing classrooms. The second was Woodson’s statement that “you should never ask yourself what the story is about. Instead ask what the story is saying.” Perhaps in other words, this means that plot is not as important as relevance and purpose. Woodson’s stories give voices to voiceless populations. All of her characters have something to say. I think it is important to make students aware of the need for purpose, relevant reflection, or underlying messages and themes to be present in their writing. This is the difference between “a nice story” and a relevant piece of writing.

I first attended a breakout session on Virtual Worlds for Teaching Literature. It wasn’t the full action literary video game that I was expecting, but I was very interesting in this emerging area of classroom technology. The presentation was on using MOO spaces for teaching literature. (The presentation was inspired by and dedicated to Professor Rozema, and he video taped it from the side of the room like a proud parent.) In spite of the fact that the literary worlds did not take the form of a Zelda game for a Nintendo platform, I was excited about some of the things that were happening. Some of the “worlds” took on the form of a museum which would give students background information about the history surrounding a novel or play. Others created a virtual world where students could role play as characters in order to learn more about character motivation as they interact with each other as their assigned character in order to achieve that character’s goals. I really liked both type of ideas. I felt that the museum approach would be a more fun and meaningful way to teach back ground information. The role paying gaming ideas excited me most. I felt that they were very similar to David and my presentation on character exploration through Myspace. I think that this type of instruction is important if we are going to get students to think about literature from the inside out. It is so important for students to understand character motivation and character interaction. This type of technology offers an optimal way for students to do this.
The second presentation I attended was about what Principals say they value during interviews. While I probably should have been in a session about how to teach, this session helped me to feel more prepared for the competitive job search I will need to begin next year. The biggest message I took home was to let my excitement, enthusiasm, and interest in the school show through. I need to let the hiring board know that that interview day is an important occasion for me. They need to know that I have done my homework on the school, and that I am a perfect fit for their students and their community. I should be dressed in a way that shows that I know it is an important day. It would be good for me to ask for a tour of the school before my interview. This shows interest and familiarizes me with the school. I would have never thought to ask for a tour before attending this session, so I thought that was very helpful information. Also, eye contact with everyone in the interview room is important. This made so much sense, but I also might not have thought about this. When I first came to GVSU, I fought the idea of going into teaching because my Dad has not been able to get a public school job although he is certified. He always had to settle for part time country school jobs, and eventually he had to give up teaching all together so that my family could afford health insurance. My father’s unsuccessful experiences with interviewing have left me nervous about how I will measure up when the time comes. This session helped me see that I can be my excited, enthusiastic self. If I practice answering questions, keep my cool, but show how interested I am in the position, I should be fine. Also, practicing how to articulate my teaching philosophy, and being very familiar with state standards is important to principals.

Of course, I also enjoyed presenting at this conference. It was an invaluable opportunity for me. There is nothing more rewarding than being able to share one’s own ideas with a group of interested people. It also is amazing practice for speaking in front of an attentive audience about academic ideas.

Published in: on April 18, 2007 at 9:45 am  Leave a Comment  

A Lesson in Accountability and Standards

I found an article in the New York Times that tells a frustrating tale of potential, hard work, and even compliance with State “standards” gone to waste. This student was more than successful. He was a shining star in his academic achievements. He no doubt, would have gone on to do extremely well in college. Unfortunately, he lived in a rough part of town, and his success will never be fully realized.

During the spring of his sophomore year in high school here, Jeffrey Johnson took the standardized tests that Florida requires for promotion and graduation. He scored in the 93rd percentile in reading and the 95th in math. That same semester, he earned straight A’s.

Two years later, in May 2006, Jeffrey was about to graduate summa cum laude, having received a full college scholarship. Days before commencement, at the age of 17, he was shot to death at a party during an argument about his car. His graduation mortarboard was found near his body.

For Paul Moore, who had taught Jeffrey in an advanced social studies class at Miami Carol City Senior High School, a terrible question began to emerge. It all turned on the concept on accountability. Jeffrey had proved accountable to the state by passing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. But what about the accountability the state had to keep Jeffrey alive?

Jeffrey was the third Carol City student shot to death during the 2005-6 academic year. By the first semester of this year, two more had been killed in gun violence. It was then that Mr. Moore decided to do something more than deliver eulogies, visit weeping parents and initiate class discussions about all the senseless death.

He drafted a petition, expressing his righteous anger. (“Anger” indeed was the word, for it derives from the Norse “angr,” which means grief at the wrongness in the world.) The petition appealed to the newly elected governor, Charlie Crist, to “make Florida’s schools and the communities around them ‘measurably’ safer” and it concluded, “You are accountable to us for it!”

In the past month, several thousand people have signed the petition. It is not being forwarded, in the modern way, on the Internet. Instead, volunteers take paper versions into classes, churches, offices; a copy even turned up among some teachers in Chicago. Mr. Moore’s words have reached to the heart of something.

“I see these kids as the canary in the coal mine,” said Mr. Moore, 53. “They’re the first to go. But ultimately all our lives are in danger. I know there are personal failures here, but you have to give children a chance to live long enough to make moral choices. The Preamble of the Constitution says the government must guarantee the general welfare. They’ve failed. They’ve failed. These children shouldn’t be dying.”

This is an example of a real life Linda Christiansen moment. It is an example of the only power a teacher and his or her students can poses in such a powerless situation. Reading this made me think about whether or not I would be ready to deal with these kinds of situations, and whether or not I would have the strength to help my students address them as well as they are grieving, devastated, and frustrated beyond belief. I am glad to see that Mr. Moore took action to speak and write for change, but I wonder if a teacher’s voice, unversed in legal ways, will make a difference. I hope it will. I am just still seeing the complicated web of problems that leads to an environment like this. There are so many sacrifices that must be made, so many people who must change their minds. I think in addition to this kind of activism, each one of us needs to do our part to think differently, motivate others to think differently, and put money where our mouth is as often as we have the chance.

Dealing with these issues requires determination and compassion. Reading these articles is helping me understand the kind of determination I will need, and the extent to which I will have to lead by example.

Trying to Disarm the Dangerous World That Students Live In
By Samuel G. Freedman
Published: March 28, 2007
New York Times
Complete Article

Published in: on April 18, 2007 at 9:43 am  Leave a Comment  

Finding Solutions

Once racial and socioeconomic disparities are recognized, it is difficult to determine how to address these issues.  We seem to be most comfortable with taking a color blind approach and avoiding reverse favoritism, but this seems to do nothing to help the issues.  With the recent overwhelming vote in favor of proposal 2 on the last Michigan ballot, we can see that people clearly want to pretend that equal is fair.  Color blind and money blind policies that focus on giving everyone the same opportunities based on level of qualification might work in a perfect world, but unfortunately, we live on Earth.  I hope that some day Affirmative action will not be necessary.  I hope that someday we can honestly say that equally qualified African Americans and individuals with second hand clothes are just as likely to be hired in comparison to their white affluent counter parts.  Today, I simply do not think this is true.  Until our prejudices are bred out and forgotten, until widespread residential segregation in
Michigan is no longer a factor, until children of all colors and socioeconomic statuses start out with equal access to resources and equal amounts of support, we cannot expect them to compete in an “equal opportunity market.”  It ends up not being equal at all.


So how do we address these issues without calling attention to the child who is wearing a threadbare coat?  How do we provide support without prejudging young men based on the color of their skin?  Very carefully, I suppose, but I believe that the risks are of far milder consequence than the benefits.


As detailed in the NYT article, “To Close Gaps, Schools Focus on Black Boys,” Ossining Union Free School District  is implementing

a special mentoring program that pairs [young black males] with black teachers for one-on-one guidance outside class, extra homework help, and cultural activities during the school day. “All the black boys used to end up in the office, so we had to do something,” said Lorraine Richardson, a second-grade teacher and mentor. “We wanted to teach them to help each other” instead of fight each other.


While many school districts have long worked to close the achievement gap between minority and white students,
Ossining’s programs aimed to get black male students to college are a new frontier.


Ossining school officials said they were not singling out black boys, but after a district analysis of high school students’ grade-point averages revealed that black boys were performing far worse than any other group, they decided to act. In contrast, these officials said, the performance of black girls compared favorably with other students and did not warrant the same concern.

The district calls the program a “moral imperative,” and I agree with them.  It is certain that care needs to be taken so that negative messages about skin color are not communicated to students, but all of the examples of special support which the young boys receive seemed very positive rather than punitive or stigmatized. 

Under the programs, the extra attention begins in elementary school; every black boy in fourth and fifth grades, for example, is assigned a team of teachers to track his academic progress.


The boys also meet black role models, while their parents attend workshops on planning for college. Motivation is emphasized throughout. As part of a recent dress for success contest, high school boys wore suits to school for a month. The two winners received hand-tailored suits.

I think this is an extremely good thing.  The program is giving boys the chance to interact with strong role models who share the same color of skin.  This is an important step to take if negative stereotypes of African American Males are going to be reversed.  Encouraging professionalism and helping parents plan for their child’s college education is also an amazing and needed resource for these students.


While this seems like an all good thing, it is understandable for some individuals to think that things could take a wrong turn.

Some of the nation’s leading minority scholars have praised
Ossining’s approach, but other educators, parents and civil rights groups contend that such separate programs do more harm than good. Last year, the New York Civil Rights Coalition filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education over such a program at the
City University of New York, and the group plans to file a complaint with the state against
Ossining’s program.


“I think this is a form of racial profiling in the public school system,” said the coalition’s executive director, Michael Meyers. “What they’re doing here, under the guise of helping more boys, is they’re singling them out and making them feel inferior or different simply because of their race and gender.”

While I understand the concern, I firmly believe that there are too many aspects of our culture that already tell young black boys that they are inferior.  Many influences also tell these young men that doing well in school is lame or “acting white.”  These are lies can only be reversed when we call the problem by its name, and then work to reverse it.  Of course it is bad to single out a certain group for their race, but it is not wrong to give young people positive role models who are similar to the young person, or to help motivate the young person with programs with which they can relate.  White children enjoy this privilege every day as they turn on their tv sets and open their classic literature books to view and read about white heroes in a white society attaining white money and white success.  The disparity exists, and we can not afford to ignore it.

In Maryland, a state education task force asserted in December that “school, itself, is an at-risk environment for African-American male youth” and issued a 58-page report “to justify fixing it — whatever the cost.”

This program addresses the issue at hand, and it seems to be working so far.

The school officials here noted that it is too soon to measure the impact of their programs with test scores, but that the percentage of black students enrolled in college-level courses in 11th and 12th grades has more than doubled to 55 percent this year from 26 percent in 2004.

In the lower grades, teachers have also reported that disciplinary referrals for black boys have dropped — as much as 80 percent at Brookside — and that the boys are missing fewer homework assignments and paying more attention in class. (Efforts are under way now to begin similar programs for Hispanic boys, who have also not performed well.)

While singling out populations of students in order to assist them will always be a sensitive issue, I would rather have schools give assistance where assistance is due.  Dancing around the issue, and convincing ourselves that the world is already being fair to these young people will do nothing to break down the barriers to the success of minority populations.

To Close Gaps, Schools Focus on Black Boys

By Winnie Hu

April 9, 2007

New York Times

Complete Article

Published in: on April 17, 2007 at 11:58 am  Comments (5)  

A Glipse at the Cause of the Inequality

As a child, I knew that some families had more money than others.  I knew that some of my classmate’s parents could afford better clothes for them than mine could.  I also knew that some children were not as fortunate as I was.  I knew that some children’s parents could not afford to feed them at all, while mine could afford certain foods but not others. 

In early college courses, I began to learn that students in my own country did not have the same recourses that I did.  Not just at home, but at school.  In buildings that were funded by the government.  In classrooms that were meant to provide equal opportunities to their students, no matter what color or socioeconomic status the students were.  I started learning about the digital divide, and about economic and resource disparities of all sorts in “inner city schools.”  I saw images of school buildings that were falling apart, classrooms without books, students angry and violent because they know that the powers that be have already decided they will fail. 

Last semester, before one of my classes, my peers and I were having an open discussion about school funding.  “I don’t understand why all the schools in the state don’t just get equal funding based on size, or something more fair.  It’s not right for impoverished constituents to have to fund their own schools.” 

This comment, which I thought was so obvious, so pure, so true, and undeniable, came face to face with a peer who openly disagreed.  It was the first time that I had met a representative of this vast majority of our people.  A person who was glad that things weren’t equal, and saw good reason for the way that funding works for “public schools.”  “NO, because then my school wouldn’t get as much money.” 

“You really think that?” 

“YES.  My school does an awesome job, and if our funding had to go to other schools we would not be able to keep our standards.” 

Hmm… class started soon after, but I probably would not have been able to continue the discussion even if my professor had not walked in.  I had lived my life in Naivety for so long, never meeting the other side, always thinking that things were so unfair because of some evil giant far far away who rigged the system to make it this way.  Now I had to realize that giant live among us, and that maybe I am the minority, but these giants just don’t normally speak out because they don’t have to. 

While I don’t know a lot about the difficulties in creating equal school funding, it seems intuitive that it should be done.  While I realize that it is easier said than done, and one of my friends who shares the same view has even been called a “radical communist,” I appreciate any attempts I hear of for making school funding more equal.  In a January article of the NYT, David M. Herszenhorn writes, “
New York City School Chief Outlines a Financing Plan

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein yesterday laid out the first specifics of his ambitious plan to change the school financing system so that schools of similar sizes and demographics get roughly the same amount of city money per student.“I think it’s important to the city that we can say that we are being equitable, we are being transparent and we are treating kids who are in a similar situation the same,” Mr. Klein said.

Equal funding… based on similar size… don’t know how exactly demographics would play a part, but he says the plan would allow them to say they are being equitable.  Sounds good right?

The expert, Noreen Connell, who leads the Educational Priorities Panel, a nonprofit group, said that the changes would initially make the budget system more complicated, and would be harmful long term by making it overly expensive for schools to retain veteran teachers.

This certainly does sound like a good point.  After all, what future teacher wants a budget change that will make it hard for schools to “retain veteran teachers?”  And aren’t veteran teachers more expensive partially because their experience often makes them better teachers.  Where are these veteran teachers which would be so hard to retain teaching anyways?  If less funding equals less capacity for “retaining veteran teachers” wouldn’t that mean that advantaged schools are the only ones who can now afford veteran teachers?  Maybe these experienced teachers should be spread out a little more fairly themselves?  Or perhaps I don’t understand how “permanently devastating” equal funding in public schools might be.

Robert Gordon, the Education Department’s managing director for resource allocation, who is designing the new system, said it would maximize the amount of control that principals have over their budgets, allowing them “to retain their most experienced teachers if that is what they want to do.”

So, there are two sides to every argument as they say, and I guess we’ll have to wait to find out if this budget change will prove to be “equitable” or “irreversibly damaging.”  In the meantime, let’s take a look at a more obvious cad when it comes to educational funding legislation. In an article of the NYT by Jennifer Steinhauer, “A School District With Low Taxes and No Schools,” the front picture caption reads,

Patrick Flynn led a successful drive to avoid paying higher property taxes by creating a school district that would have no schools or students.

You really must click on this link and get a load of this guy.  I don’t normally openly insult people in my blog, but this gentleman has earned himself an exception to that rule. Apparently, this guy found a loophole in Arizonal law which allowed him to create a school district with no schools, teachers, or students so that he would not have to pay for the children of his town (Troon) to go to a nearby school in

“The whole purpose of this was to avoid taxes on their million-dollar homes,” said State Senator Linda Gray, a Republican who has sponsored a bill to prevent the formation of a school district without schools.Even if Ms. Gray’s bill, which the Senate passed last month, becomes law, the taxpayers of Troon will not be affected. The legislation would not be retroactive.

While Mr. Flynn’s action alone is outrageous enough, he takes selfishness to a nauseating level as he glosses over an argument he now faces with the young families in his home town:

“I am happy,” said Mr. Flynn, the president of a homeowners group in the area, which, he emphasized, had nothing to do with his opposition to higher property taxes.The quandary over what to do with the roughly 450 public school children in Troon and adjacent Rio Verde essentially pits older homeowners in a place best known for its excellent golfing against young families who are part of this rapidly expanding area in
North Scottsdale.“By forming our own school district, the children will be educated by the schools they choose, and the residents will keep their tax rate the same,” said Mr. Flynn, a retired salesman whose children are grown.Casey Perkins, a parent with a young child, disagreed. “I am willing to pay for my own child,” Ms. Perkins said. “I am paying Social Security, and I am never going to see it. But both are part of living in our society.”

Well said Ms. Perkins.  The frustration continues as Ms. Perkin’s children and the other young children of Troon have to attend schools in districts which tend

to give priority to families living — and paying taxes — in the district. When Ms. Perkins went to enroll her daughter in kindergarten in
Scottsdale and realized that her child would be bused miles from home, Ms. Perkins said she was told by a district administrator, “Let’s face the facts, you are not paying your fair share.”

So how does this all connect to my naive understanding of how public schools should be equal?  It is this very philosophy that fuels the disparities.  Whether you are Mr. Flynn not wanting to pay for school because he has no small children, or an affluent parent, not wanting to pay for a poor child’s education because your child needs a fencing team, the consequences are the same.  A society driven by members with selfish motivations and an “each man for himself” mentality will never stop seeing me as a “radical communist.”  But until we are willing to admit that we are not equal, that we are unfair, and that we practice systematic racism in our school systems, we have committed the offence of glossing over our cruelty with rhetoric, just like Mr. Flynn.

New York City School Chief Outlines a Financing Plan By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN

Published: January 25, 2007

New York Times

Complete Article 

A School District With Low Taxes and No Schools


Published: February 16, 2007
Scottsdale Journal: New York Times

Complete Article

Published in: on March 6, 2007 at 9:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

A School Curriculum of Empathy

One of the most powerful messages throughout Linda Christensen’s book, Reading Writing and Rising Up, is a curriculum of empathy and forgiveness for kids who are caught up in violence.  In a New York Times regional special from Greenwich Connecticut, “Pushing Back at Bullying,” Gerri Hirshey tells of an exciting program with similar goals. 

Over the last 11 years, some 65,600
Connecticut high school students have participated in “Names,” which is sponsored and supervised by the Connecticut Office of the Anti-Defamation League. Guided by teachers, trained student volunteers and league facilitators, students talk with the unflinching candor of children about topics most adults would prefer to avoid: gossip, rumor, physical harassment, racism, homophobia, depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation, drinking, drugs, suicide — the full range of bullying behavior and its consequences.

Marji Lipshez-Shapiro, the Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut regional director of education, created “Names” in 1995.  In one part of the program, students have the opportunity to voice their experiences with bullying whether they have been bullied, have helped someone who was being made fun of, or are repentant bullies themselves. 

“A lot of kids hurt,” [Lipshez-Shapiro} said. “In a forum like this, they can hear their own voices, they can make a difference. Like ‘Wow, my little story is going to impact people.’ ”

And these stories certainly do impact people.  As the forum provides an opportunity for perpetrators to gain empathy for the people they have victimized, and even publicly apologize to those they have mistreated, it also gives all involved a real audience to whom they can voice their concerns about social injustice right in their own school.  I see this type of program as a large-scale version of the critical pedagogy practices and empathy awareness activities that go on in Linda Christensen’s classroom.  While some of Christensen’s kids might not be willing to get up in front of an auditorium to proclaim some of these stories after just two months of “training,” the two venues get at the same underlying themes of discrimination, hate, and injustice.

In a darkened school auditorium, Ms. Lipshez-Shapiro’s eyes welled up when a boy explained how he had to ask his best friends to stop calling him D. J. “Some of them didn’t even get it, that D.J. was short for dirty Jew,” he said. “They apologized. They really didn’t understand how it hurt.” It is rare that anti-Semitism comes up in “Names,” but Ms. Lipshez-Shapiro explained why an organization devoted to combating that ancient transgression got into the bully business. “At A.D.L., we look at the consequences of being different, at prejudices and stereotyping and discrimination,” she said. “The main reason people are bullied is because they’re different or perceived to be. Our programs are really anti-bias more than anti-bully. Our goal is to teach empathy to perpetrators. A lot of times they have no idea of the power of what they’re doing.”

“Names” assemblies are full of success stories and apologies as well as stories of regret and pleas for understanding: ““…if you see somebody alone all the time, just remember, they’re not necessarily freaky. There’s a story there — a life. And they could probably use a friend.”


So are these assemblies simply emotion ridden rallies that are full of promises, but short lived?  The follow-up research seems to show otherwise:

A pioneering 1988 study done in Norway by Dan Olweus, a social researcher, found that the incidence of bullying in Norwegian schools fell by 50 percent or more in the two years after an anti-bullying campaign; truancy, theft and vandalism also dropped markedly.  A follow-up survey of the “Names” program in San Diego in 2000 found that 60 percent of students said that after the session they would be less likely to call someone a name; nearly half reported positive changes in other students’ behavior.

Clearly the program works to create empathy and a more friendly atmosphere in schools, but it is costly and time consuming to employ, and as one teacher in the article points out, 

Trying to change the hearts and minds of bullies can be a risky business. Not all schools opt for the open-mike segment of “Names,” when audience members line up to speak their minds, though it is very popular with students. League facilitators are at the speakers’ elbows, ready to intervene should matters get too emotional. Guidance counselors are on hand for especially fragile speakers.

It is always a risky endeavor to “pull back the curtain’ and talk about controversial things honestly, but as Professor Rozema says, “conflict is often the midwife of social awareness, understanding, good writing, interesting discussion, and critical pedagogy on a whole.”  Sorry I can’t actually remember which one of those he said, but I’m sure all of them apply.  I also think that a point brought up in class here is important.  In a writing classroom, it might not be a worthy use of time to have a cry and share forum for apologies and activism.  Obviously the media are different in a Critical pedagogy classroom and involve purposeful writing to a real audience, and activities to help students develop a strong voice in their writing which does not neglect their backgrounds. 

Although school budgets and differing goals may make it impossible for programs like this to function in all school settings, I find it exciting that so many schools are making “anti-bias and anti-bully” rallies and education a priority.  I think it just goes to show that such values as forgiveness and empathy can indeed be included in coarse goals.

Pushing Back at Bullyingby GERRI HIRSHEY

January 28, 2007

New York Times


Complete Article

Reading Writing and Rising Up
by Linda Christensen
a Rethinking Schools Publication 2000

Published in: on March 6, 2007 at 5:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Super Size Me – Linda Christensen style

The first time I watched this documentary, I did not eat McDonalds for one year. I started once again eating McDonalds when seldom guilty cravings would strike me, only to quit once again when my husband who used to work at McDonalds told me about his job on a daily basis. He would explain how not salting a meat patty or grilling the chicken for the salad in enough butter could cause managers to give speeches about “standards.” I started to wonder if even McDonalds salads are processed in trans fat in spite of their being advertised as a “healthy choice.” Such a finding would not surprise me at this point.

All of this being said, it seems that this grotesque documentary, “Super size me,” unreasonably attacks the fast food god of all fast foods when America’s obesity problems are far larger than our good friend Ronald.

If I could for a moment share a personal anecdote from my limited multicultural experience as a high school student. My best friend in my Junior year of high school was an exchange student from Russia named Alex. Alex and I are only two days apart in age, we are both 5’3, and we have similar interests and hobbies. The difference is that at the beginning of the school year, Alex weighed about 110 lbs, and I weighed about 127lbs. By the end of the school year, Alex and I both weighed 127 lbs, and Alex began to bulge and fill out in similar areas of her body to her now American look alike: me.

When I asked Alex what was so different about her life style here in the States compared to Russia, the differences were hard to compensate for. In Russia, she walked everywhere she wanted to go, and then walked for recreation as well. Even though Alex and I tried to walk home from school (6 miles) at least once a week, our level of exercise did not compare.  Her meals were structured differently, with her large meal in the middle of the day instead of at the end. The types of food she ate were completely different. Maybe her food in Russia was not processed as much. Maybe it was not as high in fat. She couldn’t really explain what was so different about it.

Through a non-profit organization in my hometown, “The Pioneering Association for Teachable Health,” I’ve learned a bit more about the food we eat in the States. We are heavily dependent upon corn for starters. In Europe corn is grown for livestock exclusively. We “refine” everything. Refined and “enriched” white flower makes up most of our bread. We depend upon cheep refined sugar and other sweeteners in order to make inexpensive food products. The most common sweetener is high fructose corn syrup. Soft drinks are loaded with high fructose corn syrup, but you can also find it in everything from bread, crackers, and cereal, to yogurt and fruit juice just to name a few products. You might easily spend three times as long in a super market if you try to buy only products without high fructose corn syrup and enriched white flower, and you will pay through the nose for such products when you do find them.

Here are the problems with these foods in a nut shell. “Enriched” is simply a nice way of saying that this flower has been striped of all it’s natural vitamins and infused with only meager amounts of vitamins to replace them. The wheat is no longer a rich and complex source of fiber. The result is that your body breaks down the food too fast, and the wheat turns to sugar and ultimately into fat. If white flour doesn’t bother you too much, fine. High fructose corn syrup is the kicker. This highly refined source of sugar (which is extremely affordable by the way) also breaks down too quickly in your body. Ever heard the phrase “it picks you up and then drops you?” This experience is similar. The result is that you feel hungry again soon after eating and you will crave the same white bread and refined sugar in a vicious and unending cycle. This cycle can cause you to feel depressed and perpetually unsatisfied as you binge upon food that has no real nutritional value for your body. This phenomenon also explains the addictive quality of those Big Macs and the depression that the maker of Super Size me experiences when on his McDonalds diet. Another gateway through these foods for depression is a yeast which develops in your gut and feeds off of refined sugar and wheat gluten. This condition is called Candida. Often times, the only effective way to treat Candida is through extreme diet changes that will “starve the yeast.”

So, while McDonalds might embody this kind of food in a large corporation, clearly the problem is much larger than fast food. Americans in general, are willing to compromise the quality and safety of their food for the sake of smaller grocery bills. This is a compromise that European countries are not willing to make. We can see evidence of this in the uproar that European countries made over discovering they had been served genetically modified organisms.

While high school students might not all be interested in nutrition facts about staple foods, I think that this type of documentary and current event could spark discussion and paper topics about what exactly it is we want as consumers. We buy Big Macs thinking that Michael Jordan eats them before his big games, we buy cover girl make up thinking that top models wear it and apply it themselves. Are these subconscious assumptions true? Of course not. Star athletes, top models and super stars have personal trainers and nutritional consultants. You would be hard pressed to find a celebrity who would be willing to put these things into his or her body. So why does the advertising work? Why do we still want this food? Are we too busy for anything else? Too poor? To undereducated? Too preoccupied with the bottom dollar? If we could change what we want, what we buy, what we eat, would we? Or are we happy with the way things are until someone gets hurt?

I can see a variety of research topics, papers, journals, letters, blog posts and arguments arising out of this movie in a critical pedagogy classroom. I think it would be a great way to get adolescents thinking about the motivations that are involved in American society and to evaluate their own motivations as consumers.

Pioneering Association of Teachable Health

242 S. Steele St.

Ionia, MI 48846



GMO Free Europe

Complete website

Published in: on March 1, 2007 at 11:13 pm  Comments (3)  

Getting the horror story out of the way

After “starting with the inspiration,” or basically an unattainable hero in the arena of educating at-risk kids, I want to take just one moment to visit one of the stories that might be sure to spook me away from such a calling. Joshua Kaplowitz tells a horrific tale of how he “Joined Teach for America—and Got Sued for $20 Million.” He was sued for “gently nudging” or “shoving” a student into the hall way. Either way, Kaplowitz did not have the miracle classroom-revolution-experience that Gruwell did, or the success that Teach for America often fosters.

In his lengthy but articulate article, Kaplowitz explains his well-meaning enthusiasm as he started his Teach for
America assignment:

My head filled with visions of my students happily painting imaginative murals under my artistic direction. I peered through windows into classrooms, where students were bent over their desks, quietly filling out worksheets. I smiled to myself as I imagined the creative lessons I would give to these children, who had never had a dynamic young teacher to get them excited about scholarship the way I knew I could. Their minds were like kindling, I reflected; all they needed was a spark to ignite a love of learning that would lift them above the drugs, violence, and poverty. The spark, I hoped, would be me.

Regretfully, Kaplowitz’s hopes were in vein. He explains the racial tension that I fear may hinder my ability to teach students in a similar situation.

Being a white teacher in a mostly black school unquestionably hindered my ability to teach. Certain students hurled racial slurs with impunity; several of their parents intimated to my colleagues that they didn’t think a white teacher had any business teaching their children—and a number of my colleagues agreed. One parent who was also a teacher’s aide threatened to “kick my white ass” in front of my class and received no punishment from the principal, beyond being told to stay out of my classroom. The failure of the principal, parents, and teachers to react more decisively to racist disrespect emboldened students to behave worse. Such poisonous bigotry directed at a black teacher at a mostly white school would of course have created a federal case.

While it is not my goal to insult or undermine Kaplowitz’s efforts, I’d like to take this opportunity to examine how I might not repeat his unfortunate experience. While it is obvious that no one should be treated in this manner because of the color of his or her skin, as a white teacher in a racially diverse school, I would want to be sensitive to the larger underlying racial issues at hand. It is my goal to handle such personal attacks with understanding as well as assertion.


When I consider the fact that many of these students see white skin as an embodiment of a life style they don’t think is possible for them, of a law enforcer who might shoot, arrest, or beat a young black man without reason, of authority figures who don’t recognize potential or grant resources, I can understand why such students may view me apprehensively. With this in mind, I would try to build an atmosphere of empathy and open community with my students by being transparent with them and encouraging them to be transparent with me. A writing classroom would be the perfect place to share personal stories, to create discussion about our similarities as human beings, and to recognize and value all perspectives in the classroom. Creating a safe environment may be easier said than done, but I do believe that it starts with showing your students that you are human and that you care about them in an individual way.

In addition to and as a result of the racial tension in his classroom and an uncooperative principal, Kaplowitz describes a horrifying level of

violence I never could have imagined among any students, let alone second-graders. Fights broke out daily—not just during recess or bathroom breaks but also in the middle of lessons. And this wasn’t just playful shoving: we’re talking fists flying, hair yanked, heads slammed against lockers.

When I asked other teachers to come help me stop a fight, they shook their heads and reminded me that D.C. Public Schools banned teachers from laying hands on students for any reason, even to protect other children.

When I first read this description, I immediately thought of behavior modification procedures. As a psychology minor, I have had the good fortune of learning and implementing some very effective behavior modification techniques. To boil behavior modification into a paragraph, it is all about figuring out what is motivating a behavior, and then altering the events before or after a behavior occurs in order to decrease the occurrence of unwanted behavior and increase the occurrence of desirable behavior. The hardest part about these procedures is discovering the motivation. If behavior is occurring, it is being reinforced. As a teacher, I will need to know my students well enough and observer them thoughtfully so that I can determine what is reinforcing their behavior problems.


Linda Christiansen gets at the heart of this issue. In her book, Reading Writing and Rising Up, she has two pages directly titled “Discipline: No Quick Fix” (37-38). While Christianson acknowledges that managing problem behavior was an on going struggle, she brings hope to the situation. Regarding a difficult student she writes, “on bad days, I threw Wesley out. On good days, I tried to look behind his behavior and figure out what motivated it.” Looking “beyond the behavior” and “recognizing the cause of the behavior – embarrassment over poor skills” for instance, allowed her to give that student the extra help he or she needed to improve (38). The only way it all can work though, is if the students know that you care about them, know that you believe in them, and know that they are worth your time.

While stories like Kaplowitz’s still make me cringe, reading Linda Christiansen’s book and the discussions that we’ve been having in my Teaching Writing class have helped me feel a lot better about my ability to help in this capacity. Christiansen has given me some solid tools and creative ideas to reach these kids. My Behavior Modification class has helped me to look at human behavior in a new and less judgmental light. Most importantly, I believe that as an empathetic and realistic person, I will be able to take on these challenges with hands willing to get dirty instead of with a head in the clouds.

How I Joined Teach for America – and Got Sued for $20 Million

City Journal: Winter 2003

by Joshua Kaplowitz

Complete Article

Reading Writing and Rising Up

by Linda Christensen

a Rethinking Schools Publication 2000

Published in: on March 1, 2007 at 1:07 am  Comments (2)  

Let’s Start with the Inspiration

It’s always fun and inspiring to hear success stories.  I decided to start by responding to the success story of Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers, which inspired the topic for this blog.  Much like the “moan and groan” stories, one of which I will cover in my next post, Gruwell started her job with odds against her.


In the fall of 1994, in Room 203 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, an idealistic teacher named Erin Gruwell faced her first group of students, dubbed by the administration as “unteachable, at-risk” teenagers. The class was a diverse mix of African-American, Latino, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Caucasian students, many of whom had grown up in rough neighborhoods in Long Beach. In the first few weeks of class, the students made it clear that they were not interested in what their teacher had to say, and made bets about how long she would last in their classroom.  Freedom Writers Foundation Home Page 

As depicted in the movie, in the midst of her chaotic classroom she never broke up a fight herself or lost her temper over physical skirmishes in class.  She was fortunate enough to have another adult that she could call in the room to break up fights while she sadly observed the tension in her class.  If this is what really happened, I think it is what allowed her to have a strong relationship with these kids later on once she captured their attention.  She never made it into a power struggle.  She took the time to figure out what her students were passionate about, and taught them by harnessing that passion.  She was sincere and honest in her teaching and had no intentions of babysitting or simply controlling her pupils.  In one part of the movie, a student said something along the lines of, “why do we have to be here?  What’s the point?”

Gruwell made sure there was a point.  What I admire most about this woman, is that according to the true story website and the movie depiction, she used amazingly sound teaching strategies.  She made sure that their assignments had an authentic purpose.  She designed assignments so that they would have a real and meaningful audience.  The students knew that they weren’t just “jumping through hoops” for a grade or being baby sat by her.  I can’t think of a more authentic way to respond to the text of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank than to have students write to Miep Gies, the woman who hid the Frank family in Natzi Germany.  As the article about the real Erin Gruwell puts it,

By fostering an educational philosophy that valued and promoted diversity, she transformed her students’ lives. She encouraged them to rethink rigid beliefs about themselves and others, to reconsider daily decisions, and to rechart their futures. With Erin’s steadfast support, her students shattered stereotypes to become critical thinkers, aspiring college students, and citizens for change. They even dubbed themselves the “Freedom Writers” — in homage to civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders” — and published a book…

Currently, Erin serves as president of the Freedom Writers Foundation. She raises awareness by traveling nationwide to speak inside large corporations, government institutions, and community associations. But Erin’s capacity to convert apathy to action matters most at schools and juvenile halls, where any observer can watch the expressions of troubled teens shift from guarded cynicism to unabashed hopefulness.  Erin Gruwell

The whole website is a great resource.  I want to keep the Freedom Writers Foundation in mind if I someday become eligible to apply to undergo their training program for current teachers in at risk schools.  Until then, I plan on picking up the book,

The Freedom Writers Diary – How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. Through poignant student entries and Erin’s narrative text, the book chronicles their “eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding.”

Freedom Writers Foundation Home Page

Article about Erin Gruwell

The True Story

Published in: on January 31, 2007 at 11:56 pm  Leave a Comment