Teaching, Learning and Other Things That Happen at School

Recognizing Each Student

Valuing Diversity in the Classroom

I have learned that, while it is important for all students to know that they belong in the classroom and that they have opportunities to share their perspectives and culture, it is  equally important to make sure students do not feel pressured to be ‘the voice for all __________.’  Fill in the blank; Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, etc.  We should welcome their stories, language, traditions without putting on the spot. I once witnessed a teacher turn to an African American student while the class was reading a text featuring an African American protagonist and ask the child, “Mariah, do African Americans really ___________.”  I wanted to hide under the table. ‘Mariah’ was the only African American in the room. That didn’t make her feel included; it made her feel like a spectacle.

One unit that was amazingly successful was our “Where I’m From” unit.  Students did not have to talk about their culture if they did not want to – maybe just experiences, locations, family, etc.  All the things that make us unique but relateable. We used George Ella Lyons poem “Where I’m From” as a starting place.  Please Google it if you have a chance. It will be worth your time!

Once students feel respected and valued in a classroom, they will naturally share their experiences and stories. We all have stories. By incorporating diverse texts into our classrooms, not only are we giving kids that important opportunity to connect with what they are reading, but we give them a chance to share and open the minds of others about their particular culture.  Short stories and fairy tales from various cultures are an awesome place to start. Kids can bring in their favorite to share with the class.  Here is a list of possible diverse novels for the middle school level.

Trino’s Choice, Diane Gonzales

Red Glass, Laura Resau

Hope in the Unseen (more high schoolish), Ron Suskind

American Born Chinese (Graphic Novel), Gene Luen Yang

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

Year of the Dog, Grace Lin

Wishtree, Katherine Applegate

See You in the Cosmos, Jack Cheng

The House that Lou Built, Mae Respicito

Amal Unbound. Aisha Saeed

When Dimple Met Rishi, Sandhya Menon

Um, I could go on. And on.

Thanks for reading!  Please share your favorite diverse texts.

Automaticity and Languaculture;

Principles at Work in the Classroom

Automaticity. Two principles that already inform and guide my teaching are automaticity and languaculture. As a language arts teacher, I give them a risk-free place to practice language through the Writer’s Notebook and through class and peer-to-peer discussions. Their writing in this notebook, for example, is not graded or criticized. Fluency and thoughtfulness is encouraged instead. I encourage them to try new writing strategies or to attempt to express themselves in a different way or genre. Later, when in revising and editing mode, I teach mini-lessons on the elements of writingImage result for writer's notebook and let them find their own mistakes to correct. Nothing is as discouraging as a paper filled with a teacher’s red ink; instead, I conference with students, show them models, allow them to have discussions and to gather feedback from peers before my ink dirties their page. Same with discussions. We don’t correct each other, we allow our peers to self-correct. Students speak much more freely this way without the fear of criticism that is present at the beginning of the year.

Languaculture. Our students our transforming before our eyes, whether or not they are aware of it, and the last thing I want is for them to lose their cultural identity. While this orienting and integrating to a new context is normal (Brown, 2015, p. 82), I want them to continue to value and hold onto their cultural heritage. I allow them to share out differences and similarities they notice between cultures. I acknowledge the struggle that they have as an ELL and take every opportunity to praise efforts and successes. We use diverse resources and content in our classroom that is relevant to the diverse group of kids sitting among us.

Terrified, Transcendental, and Tenacious Testers
nail biting

They are in every classroom in every state in every country around the globe.  They beg to be seen as individuals, as distinct students, as nonconformists, yet throughout the history of testing we see them replicated in classrooms every where. They are the hair-twirlers, the constant snackers, the leg shakers, the gazers, the sleepers, the quadruple checkers, the experimenters, the drummers, the rushers, the driven ones, the emotional break-down testers, and the early finishers.  Test my theory.  During the next state assessment, when you are desperate for cognitive stimulation, analyze your testing group.  You will see them.  And you will smile.

The Hair-Twirler – Also morphing at times into a hair smoother, this student is compulsive, attempting to bring order into this abstract and random domain of testing.  The test is something to be conquered – a group of seemingly arbitrary questions that require definition.

FullSizeRender (3)This category is naturally more alluring to girls, but guys too are caught twisting the hair at the nape of their neck or trying to bring that unruly curl into its proper place.  As if by doing so, the task before them will somehow gain purpose.  The twirl, they twist, they prod and they persist until they feel accomplished.

She sits in her chair twirling the same piece of hair through the same two fingers over and over again, and I wonder, how long can she keep this up.  Her hair is straight and will not become any straighter by the manipulation.  Yet, she twirls on…and on.  After ever two or three twirls, she smooths the hair to assess the situation.  All hairs are still in their proper place.  I glance across the room.  Another twirler, except she occasionally brings the ends of the twirled lock into her mouth to taste it.  I must look away.

The Constant Snacker – These students enter the testing room ready for the day.  Their expression says, “I got this.”  The teacher packages up all cell phones and gives directives about where lunches should be placed.  She notices that this child still has a lunch with them.  “Oh, this is just my snack,” they say.  A bag overflowing with food?  Really?  Ok, then.  There are more important battles to fight this morning.

Pencils, test booklets, and scantrons have not even been distributed yet and the child is already eating.  “Did you eat breakfast?” you ask.  “Of course!” he mumbles through a mouth full of marshmallows.  That smile!  All is right in the world as long as they have snacks.

cheetosTesting begins.  He is on snack number two. Goldfish. Then on to fruit snacks, cheerios, granola bars, string cheese, Airhead Extremes.  I stop him at the Flaming Hot Cheetos.  I imagine his test scores disqualified because of spicy cheese smudges.  He cheerfully agrees to wait until lunch and proceeds to break out the popcorn.

Across the room another child is oblivious to the world as a twelve-inch ribbon of fruit roll hangs from her mouth.


Culturally Meaningful Learning

April 11th, 2017

Unsettled.  Irritated.  Maybe even short-tempered.  I struggle to identify the emotions swimming through my heart.  My mind chases runaway thoughts that scamper away like squirrels up a tree. Maybe it’s just one of those days when I am easily irritated.  Perhaps I didn’t get enough sleep.  My page-long to-do list could be fighting for my attention. But something, something has crawled under my skin.

Every couple of weeks I meet with a group of teachers to discuss issues relevant to the field of education.  In particular, we focus on the unique needs – social, emotional, educational, cultural – of our minority students and our students who are at risk.  

This week we are discussing an article about cultural relevance in the classroom – how to stay aware and sensitive to the differing social and educational needs of our students because of the diversity that exists in every classroom.  The article, not so gently, reminds us to respect the learning styles and preferences of every student.

students readingThe article we discussed last week admonished us not to treat students differently just because of culture, race, and economic differences.

Thus my irritation.  How are teachers to practice culturally responsive teaching while ignoring huge chunks of students’ identities’?

They can’t.

Even without cultural differences, diversity in the classroom has never been greater, nor has individualized instruction ever been as needed as it is today.  That’s without cultural differences in mainstream America.  Teachers differentiate because of needs associated with

  • Autism
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Dyslexia
  • Other Health Impairments
  • Eating disorders/ weight issues
  • Hearing impairments
  • Visual impairment
  • Diabetes
  • Allergies
  • Anxiety/ Depression
  • Asthma
  • Tourette’s Syndrome
  • Epilepsy

Not an exhaustive list, but these issues are some that have necessitated accommodations for many of my students -past and present.

The first article encourages teachers to ask immigrant students to share their experiences with classmates.  Stop for a moment.  Remember how it was for you as a new immigrant, or imagine how it might feel being singled out as different.  Everything is new and strange and you already feel like an outsider.  Now the new – probably white – teacher is drawing attention to you, confirming that you are, in fact, the outsider.  Culturally responsible teachers recognize that individuals that identify with certain cultures  feel uncomfortable with the spotlight on them.  Yes, allow them opportunities to share their experiences…on their terms, not in a way that draws unwanted attention when they are already self-conscious.


(in progress…)

Safe Space Triangle

Safe Place“I never felt I could talk about it or even be myself in this class because your room does not have the ‘Safe Space Triangle’ outside of the door.”

Two students have echoed these feelings recently and it deeply disturbed me.  Four months in my classroom and these students did not feel safe because of the absence of a sticker outside my door.  Shouldn’t every classroom in any school be a ‘safe place’ for all children?  Placing the sign outside of classrooms leads children to believe that some classes are safe while others are not.  Is it an error in reasoning on their part?  Of course it is.  They are kids and aren’t supposed to be completely logical yet.  Even adults illogically make assumptions.  The intention behind the ‘Safe Space’ initiative is commendable.  However, it perpetuates division and feelings of rejection.

Groups have designed Safe Spaces as a place where anyone can go without fear of criticism, exposure, harassment or bullying.  It should be a place where every child is valued, where diversity is embraced, varying opinions appreciated and all lifestyles welcome. The people in these spaces (ideally) model kindness and do not tolerate hate speech or insults.  Originally, safe spaces were created for those in the LGBTQ community who needed a refuge from onslaught of negativity. Then, these spaces became a place of refuge for anyone who needed somewhere to go, an escape, a place to relax and be themselves. A place of acceptance.

The idea, some say, originated with gay and lesbian bars and with the women’s movement of the 60’s (Harris).  During a time when there were actually laws that punished gays and lesbians for having intimate relationships, these bars became a rare ‘sanctuary’ of sorts where people could be out and experience an accepting environment.  The term ‘safe space’ broadened with women’s groups of the 60’s and 70’s, focusing more on the community of females working towards a shared cause.  This shared space freed these women from male domination and supremacy, even if only during their time together (Harris).

Designated ‘safe places’ are not appropriate for K-12 schools.  In these settings, every child is entitled to a safe environment – in classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, cafeterias, libraries, student centers, gyms, playgrounds, etc.  If a teacher cannot commit to respecting all children and to fighting for tolerance and kindness in the classroom, if a teacher cannot look into the face of a transgender or homosexual child with love and kindness, if a teacher cannot promise to prohibit hate-speech or racial slurs, then that teacher has no place in a classroom or around children.

“There’s virtually no way to create a room of two people that doesn’t include the reproduction of some unequal power relation…(Harris)”

A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe…


boy fingers test proofThere are moments as a teacher when your heart skips a beat and suddenly everything around you seems to move in slow motion.  The unexpected.  The inspirational.  An epiphany.  Hope.  I experienced a moment like this today with Marqy Marq (nickname), my student who struggles with reading comprehension and writing fluency –  my student who passes each grading period because he faces challenges ‘like a beast‘ and refuses to fail.  He struggles through each assignment, but he does not quit.  He earns passing grades in Language Arts because he meets the minimum requirements with the help of tutoring and after school homework programs.  Success comes at a price.  And he does not pay it easily.

There is a certain type of knowledge and understanding that comes only from experience.  The insights gained from experience are usually deeper than those acquired through traditional learning methods.  This is a strong statement coming from a book freak.  More specifically, experience brings wisdom, and Marqy Marq demonstrates this with his recent poem.

Marqy Marq poem– published with permission of the author.

Children enter our classrooms with insights and experiences that would shock us if we would give them the opportunity.  As teachers, we should expect each child to inspire us. Expecting every child to amaze us each day is simply overly idealistic, but it is okay to be idealistic.  Didn’t we get into teaching because we loved watching students succeed? It may not happen every day, but we should expect it to happen consistently.  We should anticipate success.  Our students need to feel that we expect them to succeed. All of them – Black, Hispanic, Indian, White, affluent, economically disadvantaged, Bilingual, English-only, angry, emotionally disturbed, struggling with ADHD, autistic, plagued by learning disabilities, talented and gifted, homeless, abused, socially awkward, extroverts, introverts, anxious, athletes, musicians, artists, gamers… every child.  Planning with each child in mind means providing opportunities for each of them to succeed.  Some successes will be greater than others, but all of them are important in creating an “I can do this!” climate in our classrooms.

Marqy Marq may not write eloquent essays or intriguing literary analysis pieces, but he certain can write poetry revealing the heart of a broken mother struggling to make the best decisions for her child.  His poem acknowledges the maternal bond between mother and child, even when the mother fails to express is appropriately.  Marqy Marq reminds his audience – children and young adults – that parents have problems that their kids know nothing about.  In this piece, he encourages his readers to resist hate and realize that parents make difficult decisions in order to spare their children long-term pain and hardship.  Marqy Marq is thirteen.  He already knows how to forgive and how to look past actions to see underlying motives.  He is wiser than most adults.



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