Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome

Taken from the words of Freire, Kliewer argues that, "Humility is central to democracy.  'How can I dialogue,' Freire asks, 'if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own?  How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from others-mere 'its' in whom I cannot recognize other 'I's'?"  I think this remark is powerfully essential because it speaks to every human being in its attempt to put all people on equal playing fields.  I should not feel superior to someone because my IQ is higher than his/hers, nor should I feel special because I was born with the correct number of chromosomes.  Humility means being able to look at our own flaws and and to be cognizant of the fact that we are not perfect.  In this acknowledgment of imperfection, we become able to fully appreciate the differences of others and a "willingness to see people as they are-different perhaps in their minds and in their bodies, but not different in their spirits or in their willingness and ability to contribute to the mosaic of society" (Snow 12).   I believe this 'humility' lays the foundation for everything else Kliewer argues for in "Citizenship in School: Reconceptualizing Down Syndrome."

Based on my own experience teaching at Cranston West, inclusion works and is highly successful. We have many team-taught inclusion classes and a thriving Unified Volleyball team with its own Cheerleading squad.  We have a few Down Syndrome students, and they are accepted and many times extremely popular.  Kind of like Becky from Glee...  Students with IEP's are always involved in transition meetings and often help write their own goals and accommodations.  This highly differs from the situation Kliewer describes with a student Anne and her misplacement working as a pre-school aide.  "Anne had been left out of her high school transition planning conference"(78).  In this case, Anne was left out of the decision-making because no one wanted to hear what she had to say.  Anne was not able to communicate her desires because someone (probably a well-intentioned individual nonetheless) though he/she would do a better job of it.  This goes back to the idea of humility.  If the person making Anne's decision for her valued Anne as a human being worthy of making decisions about her own life, the bad decision would never have been made in the first place.  If Anne's case worker had begun with "the simple act of listening,"(78) she would have yielded far better results for and with Anne.

I think we are moving in the right direction with the policies and realities of inclusion.  Things are completely different than they were 30 (ugh?!) years ago when I was in elementary school and special education students were completely segregated from the rest of the school.  However, I think we have work to do.  I'm completely dumbfounded at the fact that the Special Education Department is the largest department at Cranston West and serves the smallest number of students.  I am confused by the sheer number of students with IEP's.  Something doesn't sit well with me on those particular fronts.  Just food for thought...

This is a video of my sweet cousin Elizabeth who lives in Florida :)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Multicultural Children

     Virginia Collier writes that "language is enchanting, powerful, magical, useful, personal, natural, all-important"(235) and this description instantly reminded me of the Spanish language Richard Rodriguez's family and he used before learning to speak the "public language" of English.  Rodriguez writes about the somewhat private and special Spanish language he spoke at home before teachers suggested that his parents speak to him exclusively in English. "But I had no place to escape with Spanish.  (The spell was broken.)  My brother and sisters were speaking English in another part of the house...But the special feeling of closeness at home was diminished by then.  Gone was the desperate, urgent, intense feeling of being at home; rare was the experience of feeling myself individualized by family intimates.  We remained a loving family, but one greatly changed.  No longer so close; no longer bound tight by the pleasing and troubling knowledge of our public separateness.  Neither my older brother nor sister rushed home from school anymore.  Nor did I.  When I arrived home there would often be neighborhood kids in the house.  Or the house would be empty of sounds"(36). Rodriguez's teachers (nuns) were trying to drill the English language into his mind by removing the Spanish language from his home; however, in doing so they took away the very essence of what made Rodriguez's house a home.  The nuns inadvertently took away the sense of family closeness that had been sewn together with the thread of a common family language.

See Richard Rodriguez speak to the issue of language and culture in this speech from 1999.  In the first 10 minutes, he addresses the same story he does in "Aria."

     Ironically, Rodriguez ultimately gives credit to his teachers for forcing him to speak only English at home because at the time he thought that English was exclusively a "public language" and Spanish exclusively a "private language."  He didn't understand at the time that a language could be both.  "Because I wrongly imagined that English was intrinsically a public language and Spanish an intrinsically private one, I easily noted the difference between classroom language and the language of home"(34).  I understand that Rodriguez probably learned to be a better English speaker due to his experience, but I ask myself at what cost??  Rodriguez's family completely changed, his home life was never the same intimate experience it had been in the past, and his father became a introvert unless able to express himself in Spanish.  The "enchanting, powerful, magical, useful, personal, natural, all-important" Spanish language was taken away from Rodriguez's family and as a result, his family was never the same.
     After reading both pieces, I immediately thought about Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.  It is a series of vignettes which chronicle the protagonist Esperanza's journey to womanhood.  One thing I specifically remember from the novel was Esperanza's special time at home with her family.  Their family was built around a shared language and there was a certain intimacy in this inclusion.  The opening lines read, "In English my name means hope.  In Spanish it means too many letters.  It means sadness, it means waiting."  In this case, the Spanish meaning has some pain and heartache involved in it, but it has an essential meaning nevertheless.  It has a purpose.  Her family's closeness is further explained when Esperanza speaks about her mother.  "But my mother's hair, my mother's hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and papa snoring." I think that Cisneros and Rodriguez would both agree that the Spanish language was an essential part of what bonded their families together.  They had something that no one else had and they could communicate in a way that was special to them.  This communicative power was taken away from Rodriguez when his family stopped speaking Spanish at home.  I think Collier takes this one step further.  She understands the need for a private family language.  She would also suggest that there is a necessity for this primary language to be spoken and taught at home and at school for students to be able to learn a second language well without sacrificing culture and family communication at home.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

When Silence Just Isn't Enough

In Chapter 5 of Safe Spaces-Making Schools and Communities Welcoming to LGTB Youth, Vaccaro, August and Kennedy argue that we as educators must be vigilant in making sure LGTB students have access to a school atmosphere that is safe both in the curriculum it presents and the communication it fosters. The authors argue that most educators do not fully acknowledge the LGTB community nor do they make a serious effort to discourage derogatory remarks and ideas in the classroom.  "Good intentions are not enough.  Being a fair-minded individual is not enough.  We argue that educators must publicly commit to creating classroom climates of inclusivity and respect with the pledged cooperation of all students"(99).  This statement really got me thinking about my own teaching practice in a way I never have before.  I consider myself to be someone who is completely comfortable with the LGTB community.  I have several gay family members with all sorts of family configurations, so one would assume that I'd feel completely comfortable talking about and choosing literature that covers and embraces these topics.  However, for some reason, homosexuality/transgender topics do not come up all that often in my classroom.  Now I'm asking myself if I am one of those educators who, "shrinks from challenging dominant social patterns and expectations, especially in relation to sexual orientation or gender identity"(86).  The authors, in answer to that dilemma, contend that we are so inundated with ingrained social messages pertaining to traditional sexual roles, that we sometimes (without even being consciously aware of it) ascribe to these notions; as a result, it comes out in our teaching.  "Powerful social messages are responsible (at least in part) for this noncritical allegiance to traditional perspectives"(86).  It's as though we aren't even aware of the fact that we are contributing to the problem.  Now, however, I'm cognizant of the fact that I'm doing it, and I maybe even understand why I'm doing it.  The most important thing I've realized, however, is that I need to figure out a way change.

I think one reason that it's difficult to introduce LGTB topics in the classroom is because of pressure from parents.  When talking about a Postcards From Buster animated series which featured a lesbian couple in one of its episodes, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings expressed opposition to the program by stating, "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode"(86).  Similarly, in this New York Times article, many parents were up in arms when a California school tried to implement curriculum which included various depictions of same sex families beginning in elementary schools.
In the article, Shih argues that parents in the Vallejo district feel as though they should have control over what their children are exposed to in the classroom.  However, I think in the word "exposure" lies the real root of the problem.  These families obviously think that there is something "wrong" with same-sex families; consequently, they don't feel as though their children should be "exposed" to a type of family that goes outside of what they deem "normal."  We, as educators, therefore, need to act as 'outcubators'(84).  "Teachers and peers usher children from the relative protection and insulation of family life into the classroom, where (perhaps for the first time) children encounter cultural and ethnic norms different from those of their family.  If our homes are incubators, keeping our children safe as they grow into the patterns of family life, schools are 'outcubators'-places that introduce new ways of thinking and behaving"(84). It is a school's responsibility to introduce students to many different types of people and to champion diversity as an essential component to a rich life.  I think that from now on in my own practice, I need to act as a vessel of "outcubation."  In other words, I need to introduce LGTB topics, ideas and families as part of my classroom practice.  I can't be afraid to do so because I need to ensure that students who are homosexual or transgender or come from nontraditional families feel included, validated, and most importantly represented in my classroom. It is my responsibility to do so and I think Vaccaro, August and Kennedy would agree.