Monday, May 30, 2011

The Bill of Rights - How Should we teach it?

It seems that the empty rhetoric of freedom that is trotted out every Memorial Day is meant by the system to distract us from what is to be done to ensure that all live in a state of freedom. We always hear about how freedom isn't free, especially when it comes to Memorial Day, and we always hear about how the soldiers died to protect our freedoms. Yet as Redalicious, a friend of mine notes, our soldiers are not seeming to fight against institutionalized oppression in our very shores...Our soldiers are being sent overseas and for what? Now don't get me wrong, I am not criticizing our troops...but rather our leaders who send them overseas and play chess with their lives with the cavalier attitude of those who do not have to risk life and limb facing enemy fire...

Yet, let us examine what freedom means and how it is presented with respect to the curriculum and standards our students have to deal with.

How is freedom presented in our curriculum and standards? Is it presented as a continuing and ongoing struggle or is it presented as a relic of the past, a paean to past heroes who died to make us free such as Dr. King? Do we view the contradictions between our noble rhetoric and our support of dictators overseas who kowtow to corporate interests? How do we reconcile our ugly chapter of imperialism overseas which is continuing to this very day to the rhetoric that if it weren't for our soldiers, we wouldn't be free to express controversial views which are maligned by the very same people who say that we have the right to say these views? How do we reconcile the fact that institutional oppression still exists in this country with the rhetoric of freedom that seems to be brought out from under the carpet in this Memorial Day? Gay people cannot get married, can be fired in 30+ states just for being gay, women face institutional sexism and misogyny, especially when it comes to sexual crimes and health care, Muslims are being demonized by politicians seeking to milk the issue of "national security" for political gain...people of Latino background are being demonized by those who want to close our  borders, People are being demonized into threats so that we stay divided and conquered, while those in high positions of power laugh to the bank with our taxpayer dollars...

Students should question the rhetoric of our leaders, especially in an era when propaganda and the concept of American exceptionalism is being used to justify imperialistic ventures overseas and to try to snuff out freedom movements around the world. Students should question the double standards we hold in our foreign policy. For example, we are using the rhetoric of freedom and liberation to justify bombing Libya to shreds while walking a fine line at best in Bahrain where protesters are being massacred in the streets. Yet we say how Gaddafi is massacring his own citizens as if that is our motive in overthrowing him. Yet the same thing is happening in Bahrain and we have stayed rather silent, with admonishing here and there that is viewed as impotent and without force in the leadership of Bahrain. Students should question the rhetoric of those who espouse freedom, but continue oppression when it comes to their policies regarding gay marriage or even poverty.

Students should question the materials and textbooks that they have been given that sanitizes our country's hypocrisy when it comes to freedom and its commitment to civil liberties. Take for example, the Patriot Act. Why shouldn't students examine it and raise the question on whether the act itself is an infringement on our civil liberties? How is surveillance supposed to keep us safe from so-called threats from aboard and who is being targeted? How can we protect ourselves from a government that might abuse the provisions of the act far beyond the bill's intent? What this lesson plan from a Teachable Moment does is to personalize the Patriot Act by asking students to imagine if the government suspected that THEY were terrorists. What it goes on to do is to examine three instances of a government curtailing civil liberties in a time of warfare from Abraham Lincoln, whom we should not forget suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus and ignored a Supreme Court decision that sought to rein him in to Fred Korematsu contesting Japanese-American internment.

Take civics for example...A college textbook that I am reading currently states that high school civic courses are meant to educate students on the workings of our system of government rather than to critique the contradictions between lofty rhetoric and freedom. For example, students are to learn...

Standard 12.2 - Students evaluate and take and defend positions on the scope and limits of
rights and obligations as democratic citizens, the relationships among them,
and how they are secured.
1. Discuss the meaning and importance of each of the rights guaranteed under the Bill
of Rights and how each is secured (e.g., freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly,
petition, privacy).
2. Explain how economic rights are secured and their importance to the individual and
to society (e.g., the right to acquire, use, transfer, and dispose of property; right to
choose one’s work; right to join or not join labor unions; copyright and patent).

Now all of this seems fine and all, but how can we as teachers stretch these standards to encompass a critical view of the material that we work with? For example, is it not inadequate that we only discuss the meaning and importance of the Bill of Rights? Questions that can be asked when examining the Bill of Rights...(I like to question students and have them express their viewpoints when I teach)

  • What about blatant examples where those rights supposedly enshrined in the Constitution have been violated by those in high positions in power? 
  • When it comes to the Bill of Rights, has our government or those in authority done an adequate job in guaranteeing our rights as enshrined in the Constitution?
  • How is the curtailment of our civil liberties justified and are those justifications valid or not?
What about our schools? Where are the standards that talk about the Bill of Rights when it pertains to the schools that our students reside in for a quarter of a day? Would it not be common sense that the school should be one of the first places to examine whether students' constitutional rights are being respected?
  • Do school rules encourage or inhibit one's freedom of speech and if so, what is the justification given? 
  • What kinds of speech are limited in the schools? 
  • Is the justification sufficient enough to curtail that kind of speech?
  • Why are the rights of students limited by administrators and are they a violation of the First Amendment?
  • What recourse do students have when they feel that their rights have been violated?
  • Why does the Supreme Court tell us that students "shed their constitutional rights when they enter the classroom door?"
  • Who benefits from the Supreme Court's notion?

How can we as high school teachers encourage civic participation by making it meaningful to our students when it has been shown that senators and representatives do not acknowledge the needs of anyone other than the extremely wealthy? How can we as high school teachers encourage students to take on an active role if our standards discourage this by obscuring the protest movements from the people that have forced the hand of those in power to bring about change?

Our standards need to go beyond explaining and discussing, for it is not enough to present a  factual-based curriculum for our students. It only serves to  turn them off and to encourage passivity and complacency. People died and suffered for their freedoms...whether they were women suffrage activists who threw themselves under the king of England's horse or they were brave African-Americans who paid the ultimate price in defending their right to cast a vote without infringement or harassment. We focus so much on Dr. King, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and so on, but without the unnamed masses behind them to bolster their movements with a show of numbers, they may not have won the successes that they have been credited with. Yet, if we are only asked to identify leaders and discuss their importance, how are students supposed to learn that they  too are agents of change that can strike at the heart of the structure that limits their ability to function as agents?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Charts and figures are great, but what's missing are the voices of the people...

Teacher Certification
Brought to you by Teacher Certification Map and MAT@USC | Masters of Education

The chart says but half the story...but kudos to the MAT@USC for soliciting personal stories...They will make the difference...

I was in the classroom today and noticed that my music teacher who is still teaching by the way received a care package with a lannard, a black whiteboard marker, a bag of Cheetos, and a tiny bottled water...and I was thinking to myself, "It must be Teacher Appreciation Week..." Yet much like these days of remembrance or whatever appreciation week, it seems to me that this is just a way to show that even though we crap on teachers, blaming them for society's ills, call them freeloaders when they rise up to protect their benefits, we actually really do care...It's still shit even if it's sugarcoated with chocolate...

What are we actually doing to show that we appreciate teachers and what are we doing to show that we appreciate the students who are also maligned in the media and by those who desperately want to cut public education?

When we talk about cuts, (I know it's state funding in the chart above) we never hear about the bloated Pentagon budget...we never hear about oil subsidies or corporate welfare...we never hear about states subsidizing highly profitable industries such as the oil industry, when we talk about taxes, we do not hear about raising the tax rate on the highest income brackets...we hear about how hard it would be for those making $250,000 to pay an extra 3.6% on the income that is over $250,000 as if they would become destitute and penniless...we never hear about how the failure to extend the Making Work Pay credit will affect taxpayers who received that credit ($400 is a lot of money these days...)...We never hear when it comes to sob stories about the richest Americans, teachers paying out of pocket to ensure that their students have the best school supplies available for their classrooms...we never hear about the turnover rate in this job, which is the favored scapegoat of those who engage in class warfare...

How do we frame funding education? The Santa Clara Unified School District relies on property taxes, but the majority of it comes from the commercial properties in our city, such as Intel. Could we not frame this as a way to fund the future employees at Intel or the other high-tech companies we have in this area? Could we not frame this as fighting for our country's future so we remain competitive? With elementary school education on the chopping block, with the district proposing that it be cut completely, how do we frame the benefits of music education? The district had proposed turning it into an after-school activity, but that carries the stigma of it being voluntary and students may see that as something that they can come whenever they feel like it. Music gives children the chance to express themselves emotionally and artistically...some students may not shine in the standardized tests that we force down their throats, but when it comes to music, their genius may finally be revealed. 

Which brings me to my point that standardized tests are not enough to measure what our children gain through school. Unfortunately, our focus on the number games the standardized tests make available to us has ensured a mentality that since we don't test on music, music programs become expendible...This is a tragic mistake as it denies students what brings them joy in actually going to school...along with drama programs and art programs. These are a vital part of the schooling experience, not extras...I see students every day at the high school I work at, and their faces light up whenever they're in Drama or even Choir...I see students who WANT to take this choir program and build upon it...I hear things about show choirs, choir and drama students working together to produce musicals just like we did in the old days when I was going to high school, I see students who bemoan the fact that Cantanova at Wilcox had been cut...These are the voices that need to be heard instead of those emotionless, soulless voices talking about budgetary figures and statistics. Unfortunately, these voices full of passion and anger are drowned out by news of "budgetary shortfalls," "cuts," "increased class sizes, the voices that those who promote a culture of austerity except when it comes to perks that benefit themselves and their system...This has to end.

Update: I just remembered that the survey that I saw at the middle school was based on a scale from 1 (DO NOT WANT as in cuts) to 10 (WANT cuts) to use LOLCAT...I do not remember if there was a space provided for comments, but I realize that I made a huge mistake in not writing personal comments. In this budget battle, the voices of the people are the ones that need to be heard, not the numbers that the system wants to reduce this debate down to...I shall return and fix this oversight...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mock slave auctions gone wild!

The story of a teacher, this time in Virginia, who placed African-American students in the role of slaves in a slave auction lesson is just another chapter in the tome of latest mock slave auction lessons gone wrong...but this in my mind shows more keenly that teachers are not infallable like the Popes used to claim, (haha) and they screw up, in this case royally...

Now in the interest of viewing this with a critical lens, as teachers, we aren't immune to errors in judgment, especially one as serious and traumatizing as this one. While she may have tried to elicit empathy for the experience of the slaves, the fact that she did not randomize the slaves but chose to ironically otherize in a lesson that probably sought to teach students about marginalizing the other, and the fact that she reduced a slave auction to a experiential exercise, shows that we still have a long way to go in dealing with and teaching about the experience of African-Americans. While I commend her for trying to connect the Civil War to slavery, a cause that those who believe in the Lost Cause seek to obscure, a more effective way would have been to randomize the sample, instead of making the black students the slaves. She did not take into account how they might have felt about the experience, and should have received consent from the students first if she was to pull something like this off.

Slave auctions cannot be reduced down to a simulation, because it trivializes the experience in the minds of students who do not identify with the slaves as nothing more than a game, while it brings out the notion in those who can relate better that they are different, they are not of the dominant group, and that they are the other...A more highly effective way to elicit empathy would have been to read primary sources if available, or even to view images of slave auctions, asking students what they saw, or how they felt...but ironically, in seeking to educate students about how a marginalized group was otherized and oppressed, she made that more painfully clear to the students who identified with that group.

The danger of liberal multiculturalism is that we reduce the experiences of those who have not been a part of the dominant group into something trivial, either to be celebrated or to be treated as something exotic. Liberal multiculturalism speaks volumes about respecting differences and others, but what else? Is it doing anyone a service if we just agree to respect everyone without challenging those power-based relationships that mask oppression and inequality? Critical multiculturalism which challenges the status quo and the established power base in this country whether it's institutionalized or not is the way to go. Now to take into account this teacher's lesson...Did the teacher not create an instance of oppression in making the forced "otherness" of black students more clear and blatant?

I believe that there is room for experiential exercises in the classroom, but not when it comes to experiences of oppression and such...However, if you were to undertake one, you would have to be very clear when to stop. For example, one of my lesson plans at San Jose State was a card game where students drew random classes in ancient Athens, with the number of citizens based percentage-wise. So for example, in a class of 30, only four students would draw a citizen card. Then after students took a look at their cards, the simulation would end, and we would discuss the role of these classes and whether they got the right to vote or not. Then we would tie it into the present day, with brainstorming questions such as, "What if you were not able to vote in the student council elections because you belonged to a certain classroom?"

My professor warned me not to take this exercise too far, and I agreed wholeheartedly. That is why I would not have had the citizens vote on something that affected the whole class...but would have only limited it to discussion.

The fact is those who seek to institute critical pedagogy run into much resistance, from the institutionalized forces in education seeking to preserve the status quo and seeking to teach a history that does not rock the boat. Yes, we learn about slavery, we learn about segregation, but do we actually teach those topics to relate to the present-day? Do we teach about racism as a relic of the past, or do we teach it as something that can be and needs to be identified? Do we teach oppression as conquered or still alive, breathing underneath the depths of our consciousness? Do we allow for the use of diverse voices in what Carrie Shiverly Leverenz calls dissensus pedagogy where students challenge each other's and the teacher's ideas? What if those students in that classroom had a chance to voice their objections before the simulation went through? What if the teacher allowed the students to persuade her that this might not be a great idea as it might have seemed in the whole planning stage?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

From a good friend of mine...

top-down, trickle good man. equal, inclusive, interactive, critical, etc.. is the way to go
The teacher should not be the one who has all the answers which cannot be challenged, as if what she or he says is sacrosanct. Sometimes, we have answers, sometimes we don't. I told my therapist that sometimes I am anxious when I see my master teachers seemingly knowing everything, but I comfort myself in seeing others and myself potentially admitting that yes, we do not have all the answers. Sometimes, humility goes a long way in establishing rapport with students, especially avoiding the whole top-down mentality when it comes to content knowledge. Students may bring what we as teachers feel are misconceptions, that may be true, but could we not allow them to examine evidence that might contradict what they bring, instead of just correcting them and leaving it as that? I wonder if we correct students without giving them a say in defending or challenging their own ideas, do we turn them off when it seems that we are not giving their ideas the respect that an inclusive and critical classroom might?
I guess this is where I feel a bit uncomfortable in presenting ideas as if they are set in stone. As I moved farther along in EDUC 542, I found myself moving away from presenting Big Ideas in the form of statements, even when I had big ideas guide the students' research. The lesson plans I write tend to focus on open-ended questions where there might not be a correct answer. One of the last lesson plans I was working on was a war crimes tribunal that the students would hold, trying the Truman administration on their decision to drop the atomic bomb. It might seem astonishing to hold an American president accountable in this manner, but could this not be an opportunity to model holding the most powerful among us accountable, showing them that they are not above the law? 

What I'm noticing in my scripts, that I should do a better job in framing what I say in the form of questions...such as "Does American exceptionalism mean that what we do is justified and excused simply because we are the good guys?" I realize that yes, that question may itself be biased, but I do not claim to be impartial if I cannot. However, what I can do is to present dilemmas such as the decision to drop the atomic bomb in a form that might allow students to choose sides and then present their arguments in the interest of contributing to the classroom's funds of knowledge where everyone, teacher, students, and everyone else deposits knowledge into a common account.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dr. King's Forgotten Legacy: Economic Justice for all and Peace

43 years ago, Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. What he was doing in Memphis is probably not as well known as his famous, "I Have a Dream" speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or his letter written from the Birmingham jail...Everyone knows he was a civil rights icon, the face of the civil rights movement. The schools teach that he was primarily concerned about civil rights and ending segregation, but that he did so in a non-threatening way that won the hearts and minds of those who may not have had a direct stake in the struggle. A biography from Louisiana State is typical in my humble opinion in that while something is said about his defense of the rights of workers, it is obscured in the middle of the paragraph and reduced to one sentence. While I am grateful it is included, it reminds me of important news being reduced to page A16 in the New York Times or whatever.

Dr. King was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, by James Earl Ray. James Earl Ray was arrested in London, England on June 8, 1968 and returned to Memphis, Tennessee to stand trial for the assassination of Dr. King. On March 9, 1969, before coming to trial, he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to ninety-nine years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. Dr. King had been in Memphis to help lead sanitation workers in a protest against low wages and intolerable conditions. His funeral services were held April 9, 1968, in Atlanta at Ebenezer Church and on the campus of Morehouse College, with the President of the United States proclaiming a day of mourning and flags being flown at half-staff. The area where Dr. King was entombed is located on Freedom Plaza and surrounded by the Freedom Hall Complex of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site, a 23 acre area was listed as a National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1977, and was made a National Historic Site on October 10, 1980 by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In this post, I want to ponder the establishment's co-opting of Dr. King, but from a viewpoint of the California state standards. Now, I've been highly critical of the state standards, noting my frustration of how "politically safe" they truly are. Now, granted the students will learn about Dr. King's legacy, but what they might not learn and what is glaringly missing from the standards is his fight for the right of public workers to unionize, his fight for economic justice for all, not just African-Americans...Others have noted the "Santa Clausification" of Dr. King into a non-threatening figure who preached love and non-violence and eternal patience. He has become someone who turned the other cheek but persevered with the help of figures on top like LBJ to effectively slay the dragon of racism, or so we are to believe.

US11.10.4. Examine the role of civil rights advocates (e.g., A. Philip Randolph,
Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, James Farmer, Rosa Parks),
including the significance of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and
“I Have a Dream” speech.

What I feel should be added to the standard is a focus on the people who made up the movement as well. I get it that often movements need leaders to guide them...that is fine, but focus should be put on the unnamed activists who marched in the streets, who braved the fire hoses and the dogs, and who risked life and limb to fight for change, the change that they demanded as the birthright of every American.

The text we use in the classroom I observed in last month is History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals! Now don't get me wrong. I believe that it goes quite a notable way in detailing the struggle for equality from the perspective of those who do not fall under the dominant group, such as women, feminists, and most impressively gay Americans. History Alive's treatment of the Stonewall riots as the beginnings of the gay rights movement is notable considering that we live in an environment where "concerned" parents might raise objections if anything related to the gay rights movement is mentioned. Chapter 47, entitled, "The Widening Struggle" is an excellent read that I would use in my future classroom. Likewise, History Alive's text mentions that Dr. King went to Memphis to "support a sanitation workers' strike," but it barely mentions his passionate speeches regarding poverty and the shame that millions in America went to bed hungry. History Alive reports, "In his sermon, King spoke frankly about racism:"

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle...Something positive must be done. The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism.

Yet, they could have included this portion of that very same sermon...

But I say to you this morning, my friends, there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes God’s children sleeping on the sidewalks at night? In Bombay more than a million people sleep on the sidewalks every night. In Calcutta more than six hundred thousand sleep on the sidewalks every night. They have no beds to sleep in; they have no houses to go in. How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population of more than five hundred million people, some four hundred and eighty million make an annual income of less than ninety dollars a year. And most of them have never seen a doctor or a dentist.
and during a time when the Vietnam War was still raging, the textbook could have included

I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor. 
It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.
Now, count me as a cynical person, but I wonder if the establishment's co-opting of Dr. King was to link him solely to African-Americans and to celebrate his struggle against segregation and overt racism. Now segregation was an instance of blatant institutional racism, that is true. Anyone with an education will admit that, but what is being touted in this so-called "post-racial" era is that racism is a thing of the past. Dr. King went a long way in doing away with racism, but we have finally gotten over our race problem with the election of President Obama. The very fact that we have a federal holiday that finally celebrates a civil rights icon is further proof that we have "come a long way" and the job is "done." Yet institutional racism still exists, institutional prejudice exists, and we have a recent example of Proposition 8 in California to remind us that oppression exists, but masks itself in the legitimacy of "family values."

His message of economic justice and ensuring that America spend her money not on militarization in the name of "humanitarian interventions" overseas in favor of housing, health care, and ending poverty once and for all is dangerous to an establishment that is trying to argue that we cannot afford to have a living wage for all, we cannot afford collective bargaining, we cannot afford NOT to cut public education, even when we are spending $1.5 million per Tomahawk missile in Libya, even when we are asking everyone to sacrifice for tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy. How dangerous is this to an establishment that cries fiscal responsibility when it comes to giving ordinary people who might need a bit of help in these tough economic times a hand up
but remains silent when it comes to war and protecting corporate interests abroad in the name of human rights?

Dr. King faced the questions that sought to limit the scope of his vision to just being concerned about civil rights, and left unspoken, African-Americans.

For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a Civil Rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed from the shackles they still wear.
 He goes on to say...
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the "brotherhood of man." This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant or all men, for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved His enemies so fully that He died for hem? What then can I say to the Viet Cong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death, or must I not share with hem my life?
At a time when it might have seemed treasonous to actively call himself a voice for the North Vietnamese civilians who were being bombed to oblivion, at a time when it might have seemed treasonous and threatening to the establishment that his voice was passionate and eloquent in calling to attention the poverty of those who were being left behind by the military-industrial complex's funneling of taxpayer dollars in Vietnam, at a time when the establishment's voices were trying to mold him into someone manageable as they always try to do, either by marginalizing their voices, silencing them through ignoring them, or framing them into a non-threatening caricature, Dr. King's voice of dissent protesting against economic injustice and a war that looked more and more unjustifiable is what we need to pay attention to, instead of the caricature that the establishment has attempted to force on us.

How do we start? For one thing, the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University has lesson plans geared towards brainstorming with students what THEY can do to make a difference in their communities. Liberation Curriculum (I love it!) focuses on students becoming active participants in making change, instead of the establishment's desire that we stay passive, patiently waiting for the day when their "benevolence" will bestow upon us equality and justice. One of the lesson plans that I hope to use someday and to modify to broaden the scope to include not just laws but rather even examples of institutional racism or sexism or whatever in their communities calls for

Strategizing for Justice
Identify an unjust law or policy in your school or community. Using the Montgomery bus boycott as a model, create a step-by-step plan to change the law or policy. Present the plan for causing systemic change to your class. You may want to use the Model for Social Change Handout as a guide.

What I love is that the PDF file has a column entitled YOUR strategy for change. How empowering must it be when students are presented with an opportunity to find their own strategies and their own answers in issues that matter to THEM.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Trivializing "walk in your shoes" moments...

A hard lesson that I learned is that sometimes experiential exercises such as the ones advocated by TCI (Teachers Curriculum Institute - the people behind History Alive) are not the best types of lessons for events and eras that involve great suffering and tragedy, such as in this case slavery. These are lessons that my coworker and friend, Mr. Hayes calls "walk in your shoes" moments...

When I was in EDUC 542 - Teaching Secondary Social Studies at USC last quarter, I thought I had an effective way to portray the shameful chapter of Japanese-American internment in the form of a simulation and experiential exercise. First of all, I would have had announced that another teacher had dumped crumpled-up paper balls on my desk and that now I would declare war with that teacher. I would read my version of Executive Order No. 9066 that Any students of that teacher past or present would be told to leave the room, but they would have to leave most of their belongings around, with the exception of a few things they could carry in their hands. It was my hope that the students would protest and I would end the experiential exercise before they actually had to.

I was like oh my gosh, I think this might be a good lesson...that Guinness commercial ("Brilliant!) ran in my mind (kidding!)

Writing this lesson plan was a learning experience as I was looking into the term project. I had found an interactive, hands-on approach that would simulate slaves picking cotton. This lesson plan would brief students about the differences between the simulation and slavery in the Antebellum period pick cotton and clean them, while reading a primary source document from Solomon Northup about the process.  At first, I was like with the controversy with the usage of cotton picker as an epithet or a slur, I was taken aback and decided to replace the simulation with stuffing envelopes. However, I realized that would dangerously trivialize the suffering and the experiences the slaves went through. Therefore, the simulation could not be used, and would be ditched immediately in favor of a “What if” reflection piece that would serve as a warmup. I later replaced the simulation with a reflection on comparing two sets of images: one an image of Japanese children at Manzanar, taken by Ansel Adams, and the other, a political cartoon that portrayed the Japanese as stereotypically-alike with buck-teeth and slanted eyes receiving TNT from a stand labeled, "Honorable 5th Column..."

It's like moments like these that make me realize how dangerous experiential exercises can be. We do not know how our students will take them. Trivializing the experiences of slavery will not get our students to understand the tragedy that those who suffered through experienced. Often, experiential exercises might be viewed as a game and we might fail to establish the connections between the exercise and the content that we are studying. Do we really want to reduce Japanese-American internment, the Chinese-Exclusion Act of 1882, slavery, and other instances of discrimination to a game? Not to mention informing parents of the type of activity especially when the feelings and emotional well-being of students are concerned. How far is going too far in the name of eliciting empathy for the sufferings of the other? How far do we go in putting ourselves in the shoes of others?

I understand role-playing when it comes to the dramas we read such as Romeo and Juliet. I understand it when it comes to stories we might read that do not involve suffering or tragedy, but that is exactly that...they do not involve content that should not be reduced down to a theatrical activity...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Today's movement

Today's movement is not about truancy or cutting class as the movement's detractors want to suggest, but it's about students empowering THEMSELVES. How utterly predictable that those who are afraid of the voices of students are accusing them of being lazy and unconcerned about school.