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The curriculum of race in a nominally desegregated school

December 3rd, 2014 · Uncategorized

by Clara Burch

This essay by Clara was based on observations in classrooms in a public school in Middle Georgia.

I learned a lot from these assigned classroom observations. I learned that it is not difficult to become invisible in a classroom. I learned that observing with a focus is different from a general observation. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very surprised at the information I gathered.

I was surprised to see how easily one can become invisible in a classroom. Even I, obviously much older than nearly everyone else, quickly disappeared. All I had to do was sit very quietly and not draw attention to myself. At first the students were curious, perhaps nervous, (the teachers too) about my presence, but like little birds, their short attention spans soon moved on to something else, something more exciting than a middle age woman in the back of the room. In all three classrooms I saw the students segregate themselves by interest and peer groups, but mostly race. Perhaps there is a correlation. I saw the “jocks” sit together, and the theatre people banded together, black girls tended to sit with other black girls in close proximity to the black males, but white girls were divided up into subsets, attractive (as defined by current teenage standards) and/or popular white girls, and the rest. Even though this assignment was to observe interaction between teachers and minority, gender, class subsets, it was the invisible children who caught my attention. I watched as they silently glided into their classrooms avoiding eye contact. Several immediately opened novels and lost themselves in the pages; others put their heads down and tuned out the world. Some just sat silently watching without being obvious they were watching. They all had the same modus operando, the one I adopted, be quiet, keep a low profile, and don’t attract attention. In each class there were at least two of these students. Some male, some female, some black, some white, some brown, but all invisible.

It seemed as if no one noticed them, none of the other students spoke to them, the teachers didn’t call on them; they weren’t there. I watched them. The readers hid their books and continued reading, the sleepers sat up, but didn’t engage, and the watchers kept watching. When it was time to work, they worked, or at least looked like they worked. They handed in papers. They did not interact with each other. They were invisible. Why?

Did they prefer to be unnoticed? Had the others given up on trying to include them? Did they interact in other classes? With other groups? Was this behavior chosen or forced upon them? The teachers in all three classes seemed to have their hands full with the more demanding students. Evidently if one is well behaved one can easily avoid the teachers’ attention. Did I do this? Were there invisible students in my classes? I mentally went through my seating charts and they were there. Ghosts sitting silently, invisible, waiting on the bell. When as the last time I called their names? When did I last ask them to respond? When did I let them go invisible?

I suppose it is not uncommon to stumble upon an unexpected or interesting “phenomenon” while observing for another. Becoming invisible in the back of the room opened a new window. I was used to being in the front, standing, directing (dictating?) being the center of attention. This new window gave me a whole new view.

My observations on race were predictable. All three teachers were white, there aren’t many black teachers at my school, and middle class. Obviously they were all educated. It appeared that they also were all more comfortable with white students. I do not have any data to back up that statement, what I have is a feeling. It just appeared and felt as if the teachers were more relaxed when they interacted with white students before class. They were perhaps more assured about how to talk with white students. In the class I observed focusing on race, at first glance it may have appeared that the teacher was harsher and more demanding of white students, particularly male white students, but after reviewing the small amount of data collected, and observing firsthand in the classroom (albeit for only 50 minutes) I think the reverse may actually be true. Comments such as “you know better,” followed up reprimands or redirections from the teacher almost always with white students, but not with African American (AA) students. White students (particularly males) kept her attention. They were not allowed to rest their heads, or shout out in class while similar behavior in AA students was ignored or received a cursory reprimand. Was she perhaps subconsciously giving the message that she did not believe AA students understood the proper behavior in a classroom? Or were unable to follow proper classroom conduct? Was she unintentionally showing bias? Did the students pick up on this? As Dr. Deneroff said, “Teenagers are great observers, but terrible interpreters.” Could it be the students were actually interpreting that Ms. B. was favoring AA students by not adding the subtle admonishments? Was Ms. B. just reluctant to engage AA students in a negative manner? One short observation could not possibly do more than raise questions.

My observation concerning gender indicated that at least on that day, the teacher favored the girls. It was not recorded, but she interacted most readily and easily with white girls. I think this may be expected as she is a white female in her first teaching assignment and likely identifies most closely with those students. The teacher did call on girls more often than boys, and did reprimand boys more often than girls. It appeared as if there were a power struggle between the teacher and a group of AA boys. The teacher reprimanded these boys for behaviors she ignored in girls, i.e. coming in late, talking in class. It may have been that the girls were much quieter when they “misbehaved” and so did not draw the attention of the teacher. I don’t think this teacher had much experience with interacting with AA males. I got the feeling that she was perhaps a bit intimidated by the group I mentioned earlier. Which is understandable, their behavior was loud and boisterous and their attitude appeared defiant. The teacher seemed a little unsure about her position (understandably) and a bit frustrated with the behavior of those students. But the boys were just as frustrated. They seemed to struggle with having such a young woman in charge.

My observation in this class made me wonder what type of training is provided for teacher candidates in behavior management and cultural awareness. Too often I have seen first year teachers simply thrown in the public education pool to sink or swim. (I include myself in that analogy). With our society becoming increasingly multi-cultural it is imperative that teachers are knowledgeable of and sensitive to, the norms of the predominant cultures in their rooms. One of the best seminars I ever attended was a no nonsense approach to African American culture. I learned a great deal and have found the information invaluable over the years. I also appreciated an extremely short in service about the culture of poverty. I was lucky, but more than luck, I listened.

I understand there is a language of power and a set of social rules that are observed in the “real world,” and I try to teach those so my students will be successful when they get out there, but my students don’t always appreciate what I am doing. They often feel as if they are betraying their true natures or cultures if they practice the behavior and language of white middle class America. Knowing something of their cultures, “where they are coming from,” if you will, has helped sensitize me and perhaps that helps in reaching them. It is sad how often I have heard teachers dismiss other cultures, particularly those of students with low socioeconomic status, AA, or EOSL. In my experience there is a definite elitist attitude in schools. This was illustrated when I attempted to observe interactions between teacher and lower socioeconomic students.

In my school there appears to be a “school within a school.” The AP/Honors kids, and then everyone else. Many awards and honors are not opened up to “regular” students. Awards night is an exclusive event for AP/Honors kids. Even with a multimillion dollar grant to bring AP instruction to more students, our low status students are being left out. Nearly every AP/Honors class is entirely populated with middle/upper middle class students, and the elitism doesn’t end there. Somehow it has become accepted that AP teachers are the gifted and talented elite on every high school staff. Apparently AP/Honors is the nirvana of the teaching profession. I have taught nearly every English class at every level and it is true that those upper levels come with very few behavior problems and instruction/planning challenges. The real teaching is in the lower levels where motivation, appropriate behavior, and confidence are all but nonexistent.

This assignment took me to some surprising places. I learned just how easily a student can disappear in class if he/she chooses. I also learned that the optimum position to be in is white, middle class, male, and athlete or white, middle class, pretty, popular, and female. The status quo of the fifties is still intact, regardless of the huge influx of multiple cultures, the shrinking of our world through technology, and the best attempts at school reform. To be a minority and/or have very little social status or collateral is to doom one to a mediocrity and perhaps invisibility.

Another thing I learned is that research takes time. To really understand the dynamics of a classroom or school requires hundreds of hours, if not years, of observation. I would like to believe that the time I spent observing in other classes has made me re-examine my own attitudes and actions towards race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

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teaching about race and social class

November 17th, 2014 · College teaching, social justice

This semester I’ve been teaching “the diversity course” to MAT students. My goal has been to facilitate students’ development of insights into how differences that appear natural, such as smartness in school, are actually socially constructed. It’s been tough at times, because while it’s not polite to talk about race publicly, it’s really not polite to talk about social class.

Last week a White teacher candidate, one of the more outspoken class members,  remarked, “You really don’t like White people do you?” To which I replied, “I don’t like privilege.” What I don’t like is that the ideology of whiteness denies access to social goods to people of color. Facing America’s long history of privilege for some made possible by oppression of others is painful. We still have to talk more.

But the cool thing that happened is that one of the African American students wrote me an email this weekend saying this class has really opened her eyes to what has been going on. I want to find out what she means  when we meet this week. We still have to talk more.

The sequence of readings and activities I hoped would scaffold examining of assumptions about schooling seems to be working,  although I need more evidence to say this definitively.

  • critical place-based curriculum readings
  • focused observations of classroom interactions around race, class and gender in practicum placements
  • reading the classic Ray Rist article
  • talking about it over and over
  • reading The Children in Room E-4 by Susan Eaton
  • learning about and doing Complex Instruction

We still have to talk more.

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Postmodern science education research

March 29th, 2014 · Uncategorized

An oxymoron?

What would be the contours of such a project? As I (and I am all I’ve got) see it–

  • An understanding of science as a socially constructed set of practices with the purpose of making and evaluating claims about the nature of a taken-as-shared objective world;
  • An understanding that an objective world exists only in the minds of those who observe it;
  • An understanding of the science classroom as a lived experience constructed by those within it;

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Handling children’s questions

March 23rd, 2014 · Uncategorized

Here is a link to a chapter by Wynne Harlan about inquiry questions. http://www.learner.org/workshops/lala2/support/harlen2.pdf

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balancing equations: algebra v. chemistry

March 16th, 2014 · College teaching

Yesterday in our content pedagogy class, we were talking about key ways of thinking in the disciplines, which we called signature pedagogies. A proposal for a signature pedagogy brought up by a chemistry teacher included balancing equations. One of the high school math teachers suggested that balancing equations is a concept in algebra also.

The goal of the discussion was to consider disciplinary ways of thinking. While it is true that there is a procedure called “balancing (or solving) equations” in these two disciplines, they involve very different ways of thinking.

In chemistry, balancing equations is grounded in the big idea that matter cannot be created or destroyed. The key  idea is that the same atoms we start with must be the ones we end up with. I used to tell students that balancing chemistry equations is just bookkeeping.

In algebra, we start with a true statement, and “balancing” equations is part of solving them. The solution, finding out what x can be, is about maintaining the integrity of the original true statement. The procedures for solving equations include balanced operations on either side of the equal sign.

Balancing mathematical equations is about logic. Balancing chemical equations is about processes which occur when different atoms react. To some extent, both require bookkeeping. However, understanding them as only bookkeeping does not go to the heart of the disciplines.

While this might seem like a philosophical quibble, I think it has important consequences for learners. When I used to tutor algebra, I would focus on the procedure for solving equations as being about maintaining the truth of the statement. When they went from a procedural understanding to a conceptual one, every young person (but one) that I tutored went from low grades to A’s. One high school student decided she didn’t need to go to class anymore, and started skipping, still getting A’s, at which point her mother ended the tutoring. What kind of commentary that is on math teaching in the US, I will not venture to say since it’s not very comprehensive data.

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Content Area Presentations 6598/6950

March 2nd, 2014 · Uncategorized

I’m posting these for the convenience of the class, since D2L is being uncooperative. I’ll be taking them down in a week or two, since they don’t really belong in the public sphere. However, they are quite worthy of being seen!

Click on the links.

Social Studies. (Just click on the url.) http://msletze.edu.glogster.com/twelve-years-a-slave/ Social Studies. (Just click on the url.)

English

Math

ESOL

Science Part 1

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STEM WRITING HEURISTIC

February 8th, 2014 · Uncategorized

Please click to download.

STEM Writing Heuristic

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GSTA Conference Presentation 2/7/2014

February 7th, 2014 · Uncategorized

Click on the links to download

Powerpoint

Newton’s Cars Lab Instructions

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4th Annual Institute for Teachers of Color

February 3rd, 2014 · Uncategorized

This will be held at San Jose State University in California, June 25-27 2014.

The application deadline is April 1. Go to  www.instituteforteachersofcolor.org to register.

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Diversity Conference Forum

February 1st, 2014 · social justice

The Middle Georgia Diversity in Education Conference will be held at Georgia College on March 24, 2014. Dr. Thomas M. Philip of the UCLA Graduate School of Education will be the keynote speaker:  Beyond Disaggregation: Examining
and Addressing Racialization in Classrooms and Schools. The url for  conference information and registration is http://diversityconference.gcsu.edu. 

At Georgia College we are moving forward in our efforts to prepare teacher candidates for diverse learners. We face many of the same challenges as other selective teacher colleges in rural areas: predominantly Caucasian and female cohorts of teacher candidates, schools for field placements which are lacking in resources and serve high-poverty populations. Click here for our diversity conference  forum.

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