Monday, October 19, 2015

Why Gender Discussions Matter

Here’s the simple truth...Gender and biology are not one in the same.  This notion is incomprehensible to many, but at the same time essential for people to understand. Take my parents for example: they are in their early sixties and moderately progressive in their ideas and opinions.  However, they were dumbstruck by Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transformation.  They simply could not fathom that a biological man could feel inherently like a woman and take the necessary steps to changing that identity.  To my parents, gender is synonymous with biological sex.  I tried talking to them about gender “scripts” and how “biology is merely one prop, albeit it a crucial one, supporting the larger performance” (100).  Unfortunately, they weren’t too keen on these ideas, and we ended up agreeing to disagree on the subject.  What my parents couldn’t seem to understand is that Caitlyn Jenner changed her script by “modifying and breaking out of it which takes extraordinary acts of insight and courage” (100).   

Gender scripts are so ingrained in our culture, and we constantly utilize these scripts to define our “maleness” or our “femaleness.”  I think the first step to having gender discussions with our students should be acknowledging that gender is not based solely on a person’s sex and that a lot of what we think we know about gender is deeply internalized through traditional gendered norms.  

Gender norms and stereotypes affect and limit both boys and girls.  It’s difficult to be an adolescent girl, and it’s difficult to be an adolescent boy.  [As a woman and a feminist, I might argue that it is more difficult to go through life as a female; however, for my purpose here I want to talk about the difficulties as I’ve noticed in my own students (male and female) and my own children (female and male).]  Nakkula argues that schools are gendered spaces, and that these gendered spaces can be limiting.  Even names schools and teachers use to label students are drenched in gender scripted language.  “‘Ophelia’s,’ ‘queen bees and wannabees,’ ‘odd girls out,’ ‘lost boys,’ ‘bad boys,’ ‘real boys,’ and ‘super predators’ remain dominant monikers for the gendered way in which educators are taught to frame youth identities and behaviors” (105).  Students are constantly labeled in gender specific language, and it is so entrenched in our collective memories that we might not even realize we are using this type of language.  I’m sure I’ve called some of my students (not to their faces necessarily) “bad boys” or “queen bees” without even realizing the gender implications of those names.  Since taking Dr. Bogad’s class last semester, I am definitely more aware of times when I label students as having specific gender roles, and I am trying to change some of these habits in my classroom.  I am also trying to have more regular conversations about gender as part of classroom discussions.  

In terms of my own children, Gwen and Zach, I have noticed how gender expectations have limited them in certain ways.  For example, Gwen was placed in all honors and advanced placement classes in middle and high school except for math.  As I am thinking about gender, I’m now questioning whether she actually struggled with math (as I always assumed) or if her placement was (subconsciously) due to her gender.  “Girls are highly underrepresented in advanced placement math and and science classes” (105).  There’s nothing I can do about this now in terms of Gwen considering she’s in college, but I can certainly look at my own students and encourage girls to try and push their way into those classes.

In terms of my son Zach, I also see some of the limitations gender scripting has placed on him.  He, as a male, cannot appear vulnerable enough for fully engaged learning to take place.  He feels pressure to “measure up,” “be tough” and “be a real man” (112).  These gender specific norms can be difficult and unrealistic for any male to live up to, but it becomes even more difficult when learning is to take place because true learning requires a sense of vulnerability.  “Learning-fully engaged learning-requires vulnerability.  It requires the capacity to leave oneself open to criticism and to willingly seek and provide support.  These are not ‘masculine traits,’ which is why for so many boys, particularly from late elementary school onward, ‘school learning’ is seen as the educational terrain of girls.” (113).  I’ve seen this play out in Zach.  I often think he is not truly and completely engaging in the learning process because he is afraid of looking weak or unsure.  I am doing the best I can to make him more comfortable, but again, the gender script is there and subconsciously playing out in his actions.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

From Red Pen Corrections to Care

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Phew!!  These two chapters were charged with theories and terms taken from the worlds of education and psychology.  From promotion to invention to thought-action gap to chumship, it was tempting to get lost in the sea of terminology.  However, I did my best to stay on track with some of the more general and useful ideas Nakkula and Toshalis presented, and I tried to think about some of the implications they present in my classroom.

Nakkula and Toshalis definitely “get it” in the way that they understand the sometimes harsh realities of being a classroom teacher.  They also get the fact that we need to assess students for our own inferences as well as for data that we, as educators, must use as part of our own evaluations.  “When teachers see upward of 100 students per day and are expected to assess the progress of each of them and then differentiate instruction to meet the varied needs of each individual child, it is no wonder that standardized diagnostics become necessary”(67).  Whereas the authors acknowledge that we do need to assess students, they also feel as though “an over reliance on the identification of student deficits can obscure the many assets or talents they may possess...Grading papers can become an exercise in hunting for mistakes rather than scanning for success”(67).  I used to be that type of teacher because that’s how I thought I should “correct” papers and essays.  However, as I have grown in my teaching practice, I realize that this doesn’t really work.  When my students used to get their papers back and look at my red writing all over them, they did not pore over each comment and mentally commit to not making that mistake next time...instead they shut down.  So, now, what I attempt to do is focus on three things the student did well in his/her paper and two things to focus on in the revision or next writing assignment.  My students respond positively to this type of feedback.  And it actually saves me the pain and agony of “fixing” every little error.  I think now I’m working smarter not harder, and I think Nakkula and Toshalis would agree.  “We must nurture the high end skills just as we must help students develop in areas of relative weakness”(70).
This five minute clip gives us a gentle reminder as to what good student feedback looks like:

I’ve always thought that the name teacher is pretty much synonymous with the name mentor.  I I am a teacher and I am a mentor.  These are not roles I take lightly.  “These studies show that the availability of one natural mentor can yield long-term, substantial benefits for young people, such as increased self-esteem, stronger coping skills, and a more positive view of the future”(97).  Obviously, I cannot be a mentor to every single one of my students...and I think that’s ok.  However, if I can act as a true mentor to even five of my students each year, the positive benefits are overwhelming.  I like to think in these cases, we are even more strongly co-constructing our own and our students identities.  “It is educating to care-for oneself, for others, and for the world around us; and it is educating through care-through caring for the student as the pedagogical priority”(98).    

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Taking the Risk out of Risky

As I read Chapters 2 and 3 of Nakkula and Toshalis’s Understanding Youth, I was brought back to my many undergraduate psychology courses at Rhode Island College.  However, contrary to what many might think, it wasn’t necessarily a bad reminiscence because I enjoyed most of those courses, and the ideas of psychologists such as Erikson and Marcia have helped me to further understand adolescent (and human) psychological development.

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With that being said...I don’t want to spend time going over the distinct stages of youth and adolescent development because I think the authors do a good job condensing the material.  I also appreciate the way they weave in and out of informational writing and real world narrative accounts of some of the theories being played out in a high school atmosphere.  (Although I have to say that some of the students’ dialogue is funny to read because I know the authors were trying to hone in on teen dialect and slang, but it sort of felt contrived…oh well, at least they tried!)

I want to focus on two quotes from chapters 2 and 3 that I feel spoke to me and my role as a teacher and, therefore, contributor of meaning making identity:

“Our own development is reflected in the challenges of our students; if we pause to recognize the images of adolescence reflected back to us, the possibilities for authentic connection are multiplied exponentially.  The us-them dichotomy can be reconfigured as an integrated “we,” working together, relying on one another, to create possibilities for who we are and what we might become”(27).  I agree completely here and I think Ayers would as well.  We need to, as educators, understand that the terms teacher and learner should be replaced with the terms human and human.  OK, yes, it is our job to teach students, but we need to be ever reminded and aware of the fact that we are a direct reflection of our students, just as they are a direct reflection of us.  Also, like Nakkula and Toshalis argue, we need to remind ourselves of the experiences and challenges we ourselves faced as adolescents when interacting with our students.  If we are able to do so, we are better able to work as a team with our students, thus creating the “we” Nakkula and Toshalis speak of.

“As school-based professionals, when we project ourselves into relationships with youth, it is important to be risk takers, not just because it models the sort of risk taking we would like to see in our students but because it helps us to secure relationships and project ourselves into possibilities we might not consider otherwise.  In fact, the adults who take risks in their work with youth are better positioned to influence youth risk taking than those who do not.  As school-based professional try to defend a victim from bullying, step outside the de facto dress code dictated by their peers, voice an unpopular opinion, or raise their hand in class despite being shy, they are most likely to be heard by the youth they are attempting to influence if they have practiced taking the same risks in faculty meetings!(55).  Wow!  This one really struck me because I am most definitely NOT a risk taker in any sense of the word.  I would be the last person to speak up at a 150 person faculty meeting.  But it did make me think that maybe risk taking can sometimes be a good thing...and maybe I should try it more often.  There is a certain level of courage in risk taking that I, of course, want my students to have (and I also want myself to have).  Therefore, if we are, in fact, projections of our students and vice versa, I need to be able to give them an example of some positive risk taking behavior.  Maybe not at the next faculty meeting steps.

OK, one more quote because it reminded me of the famous Shakespeare “All the world’s a stage” quote from As You Like It…

“All of us are playing with and experimenting with identities, trying to be a sort of Chameleon, but one that people can actually see and like”(35) very true about human beings in my opinion! And actually, the stages Shakespeare mentions tie in very closely with Erikson's stages of human circle...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Meeting of the Minds

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In Chapter 1 of Understanding Youth, Michael Nakkula and Eric Toshalis argue that adolescents are in a constant state of “constructing their lives”(5) and “creating development itself”(5).  While the authors ultimately feel that an adolescent’s development is solely based on his/her own interpretations of the world, they also acknowledge that the adults in these adolescents lives “may have an enormous impact on those interpretations”(5).  Therefore, as teachers, we certainly don’t construct an adolescent’s development, but we do play a large role in developing the “theme of education”(5) which is essential to teens’ developing life stories.  

As I was reading Chapter 1, the phrase “Meeting of the Minds” really stuck in my head.  Nakkula and Toshalis believe that, “there must be a meeting of the minds if educators are to play an influential role in the development of their adolescent students.  This meeting can occur around formal academic content as well as less formal social interactions”(8).  We must, as educators, attempt to read the minds of our students in order to be able to connect with them and “meaningfully coauthor students’ educational self-stories”(9). This struck me as weird.  How would I ever be able to read a student’s mind?  I’m not a clairvoyant!  But then I really started thinking about the concept.  OK...I can try to figure out what’s going on in the minds of my students, and, yes, I might be wrong...but without the attempt, I will have no chance of learning how my students think and share my own thinking with them.  So, thank you Mr. Nakkula and Mr. Toshalis.  I’m certainly going to give this Meeting of the Minds a try because the the authors (and I agree) contend that my teaching is high stakes, but not in the traditional way we think about the term.  It is high stakes in terms of my relationship with my students.  Nakkula and Toshalis write, “To promote the development of one’s students and safeguard the development of one’s own craft as an educator demands that we stay connected to the ways in which adolescents are interpreting and constructing their lives, and, in turn, ours”(15).  Wow...sort of heavy stuff...this teaching thing is a lot of responsibility!

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William Ayers talks about the difference between good and great teachers.  He uses the analogy of actors to showcase these differences, and he contends that great acting (and great teaching) can be explained by three principles: 1.) Engagement, Interacting, and Drawing Energy 2.) Learning a part anew each time and 3.) Finding Authenticity (Ayers 96).  I think that Ayers, Nakkula and Toshalis would all be on the same page with this idea of teacher greatness, and I suggest that Ayers also feels that greatness has something to do with self-awareness and the ability of great teachers to be aware of their own educational self-stories (Nakkula and Toshalis 9).  Ayers alludes to this similar perspective: “Greatness in teaching, too, requires a serious encounter with autobiography.  Who are you?  How did you come to take on your views and outlooks?  What was it like for you to be 6?  Where are you heading?  Of all the knowledge teachers need to draw on, self-knowledge is most important”(97).  So...yes...understanding ourselves as human beings is crucial to getting to know and understand the unique complex human beings sitting in our classrooms each and every day.  And if we are more aware of ourselves, maybe we will be better at knowing our students and maybe, just maybe we will be able to advance to a Meeting of the Minds with them.

Something just reminded me of this song as I was writing...One of my favorites and I think fitting :-)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Odyssey of Teaching

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William Ayers looks at the teaching profession through a somewhat tongue-in-cheek mythological lens in his graphic novel To Teach: the journey in comics.  Like the famous Greek hero Odysseus, teachers must navigate through dangerous perils in order to become effective and rewarded in a profession ironically saturated with “myths.”  Ayers writes, “In fact, it’s often the myths themselves that the young teacher must fight against”(3).  He even goes so far as to say that, “Myths tower above the world of teaching like fire-breathing dragons.  Somehow teachers need to slay these creatures in order to move from myth to reality”(8). Ok, so Ayers is clearly toying with mythological allusions here....but his point is well taken.  When I started teaching, I fell prey to many of the myths Ayers discusses.  I believed that “kids today are way worse than ever before”(4) because that’s what the teacher across the hall said to me on the first day of my long-term sub position.  I also thought I had to put on a show everyday and be a “good performer”(5) claiming “center stage”(5) because a lot of my college lesson plans and observations had me doing just that. that I’m a little bit older and (hopefully) a lot wiser, I understand that I was, all this time, Odysseus on a perilous journey to enlightenment--well probably not real enlightenment --but at least enough enlightenment to make me a better observer, a better listener, and hopefully a better teacher.

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I think it is interesting that Ayers chooses to cover his book with an two images: one that depicts a teacher teaching a student and the other image the reciprocal-a student teaching his teacher.  I think this notion of reciprocality is exactly what Ayers wants teachers to understand and embrace.  Ayers argues that, “Teaching is an interactive practice that begins and ends with seeing the student...The student grows and changes, the teacher learns, the situation shifts, and seeing becomes an evolving challenge”(13).  I think this is the most important lesson to learn as a teacher.  As teachers, we are not the ultimate supreme keepers of knowledge.  We are constantly learning and evolving, and the majority of this evolution is a direct result of insight we gain from our students.  Since I’ve started the ASTL program, I have just begun to really think about teaching as a reciprocal process.  I was probably always learning from my students but I am just now starting to realize it and label it as such.  There is a level of compassion to my teaching this year that I’ve never experienced before and I think it is due to my acknowledgment that I am learning more from my student than I could ever teach them.

One of my favorite authors Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes, Teacher Man) looks at teaching as a journey in this clip...pretty cool!