Prioritizing Student Voices

September 10, 2014

[Cross-posted on Edutopia]

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I once taught a student whose self-confidence was so low that often, after submitting assignments, she would send several apology emails. Milly (not her real name) would write that she was sorry for the low quality of her work. (The work Milly submitted was generally excellent.) She was sorry for wasting my time with ideas that weren’t interesting. (Milly’s thinking was complex, and her ideas were regularly impressive.) Lastly, she would write that she was sorry for wasting my time with the previous apology emails.

A particular class period with Milly remains etched in my mind. Before class, I had scanned students’ drafts for a monologue project. Milly’s draft stood out for the depth of the character she had created and the dramatic tension throughout the piece. As students entered the classroom, I stood by the door and asked Milly if she would be willing share her draft with the class. Milly never made eye contact, but from the side of her face I could see the smile as she shrugged assent.

When I called on Milly to read her draft aloud, she left her slumped, seated position, where she normally spent much of her time staring down at the table, and stood to face the class. She kept her focus on the laptop screen in front of her and read in a voice louder and clearer than she had ever used in the classroom. Students applauded the draft and offered affirmations and ideas for revision. Milly’s body language alone made it clear that the process of sharing work and receiving widespread recognition helped shatter a piece of her shell and challenged her to see herself in new, positive ways.

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Over the past several days I’ve been reading over some of the teaching resources and ideas that have been published since the murder of Michael Brown and the militaristic police response to protestors in the weeks that followed. Rethinking Schools and The Morningside Center offer excellent curriculum ideas. My friend and principal Chris Lehmann has a thoughtful post on this and I was happy to see Nicholas Kristof’s recent column about race in the US. 

The reality of this country is that, for many, stories similar to what happened to Michael Brown are not uncommon. Many of my students witness violence in their neighborhoods on a regular basis. Many of my students have had or know others who have had negative experiences with law enforcement. Many have had experiences that lead them to feel that their people do not have a fair and equal place at the table.

It is the responsibility of teachers to design curricula that help students critically read and make sense of tragic, horrifying events in the public consciousness. It is also the responsibility of teachers to ask big questions which lead to inquiry and the development of larger analyses and connections.

We need to teach about race, violence, and oppression because of Ferguson. But these issues should already be an integral part of humanities classrooms. Classrooms need to be places where injustice is regularly acknowledged and examined. Space needs to be created for students to share stories and experiences in order to learn from each other and to understand their own realities more deeply.

The role of educators is to help students more fully understand themselves, their society, and their world. Our classrooms need to be places where justice is pursued, silenced voices are heard, and visions of transformation and change are nurtured.        



Looking Ahead

August 31, 2014


Last week we decided to replace our old dishwasher. After what must have been thousands of loads our trusty friend, who had always been loud, was becoming unruly. Once we turned her (or him?) on the only conversations we could have in the kitchen had to be yelled. Between cycles it (?) would let out a loud screech, similar to a car slamming on the breaks at the last moment. It seemed that he (!) wanted us to know that he was here even if he wasn’t going to be here much longer.

When the new machine arrived I slid it into the opening between the cabinets. My vision of a quick installation faded away when I realized that the electric connection had been cut too short for the new machine. After solving  that problem the first test run revealed a small leak in one of the water connections I had made. Thankfully we now have a working, dry, quiet, new dishwasher.

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Rewriting the Script

August 21, 2014

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[The following article was published in the Summer 2014 issue of the Penn Urban Ed Journal]

And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.

                                                                      – Audre Lorde (1978)

My high school students are creators discovering how to express their ideas and emotions in multiple, complex ways. I teach students who write their lives through words on pages as they fill journal after journal. There are others who constantly write and create in the form of tweets, photos, videos, status updates, and texts that tell their stories and define their worlds. And finally, there are those who do not regularly express themselves but spend much of their time observing and developing their own private ideas.

It is my hope that, during their time with me, students will master multiple forms of communication and thought. Developing the skills necessary to be critical media consumers; close, analytical readers; and insightful creators is not easy work.

If I were to force my students to be writers and creators in only traditional academic forms I would suppress their creativity, talent, and emotion. Academic writing is not intrinsically engaging or comfortable for them. While I do want them to become experts in academic discourse, I also want them embark on processes of inquiry that allow them to discover new ideas about themselves and their world.

Traditional forms of text and communication are eroding and being replaced by new, hybrid forms. These new forms have changed research and allow students to individualize content and express themselves in multiple ways while inventing new forms. My goal is for students to develop unique, individual voices and discover multiple avenues for communicating their ideas as they present their work to public audiences using multiple modalities.

To read the full article click here.


Students As Historians

July 16, 2014

[Cross-posted on Edutopia]

Thinking back on my own personal history as a student, I have remarkably few memories of impactful learning happening inside a classroom. I remember social situations (both good and bad), I remember moments of personal connection with teachers, and I poignantly remember the small number of real-world, hands-on experiences facilitated by teachers.

Deep, impactful learning is learning by doing, learning by experiencing, and learning by discovering. When learning is built around these beliefs, classes can be structured so that creation and discovery happen both inside and outside of the classroom walls. With this in mind, I structure the study of history around the concept of students working as historians. Instead of restricting them to memorizing dates and events, I want young people to understand that history and the past are contested and contestable. When doing the work of historians, instead of merely learning about history, students actively immerse themselves in gathering information, interpreting sources, and developing original ideas.

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