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Monthly Archives: January 2014

GMD: Addressing Racism

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I’m white. When professional photographers say that my skin reflects their flashes too much, that’s pretty white. I grew up in a very white suburb of MN. There were 3 black kids in my high school graduating class of over 538 (although a number of Korean kids who’d been adopted). But that’s it. Race wasn’t really addressed in school, except, of course for Black History Month of February, when we talked about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech. Every year, we did some kind of simulation about discrimination, to make us learn (although how could we not know) that racism was wrong and unfair. Senior year, I (and a bunch of my honors-level friends) took a humanities course. We were assigned to write a racist term paper. At first, we thought it was a mistake by the teachers, that they couldn’t possibly mean what they had written in the assignment page. After more than a week of arguing (our class and the other section too), they still insisted that we write the paper. More than half of the class flat-out refused, including two black students. There’s more to this story, but that’s pretty much been the extent of my personal experience with really blatant racism.

During teacher training, the graduate-level Diversity course was pretty useless. Most of the other people in the class were white and had grown up in the area (I hadn’t, and had just moved to the state). The required journal entries were dutifully graded by the Hispanic professor, who wrote comments like, “That’s an interesting idea!” or “Your concerns are valid!” was not helpful nor interesting. We did have to do a semi-anthropologic project of attending a [something] that we didn’t normally do. My group went to a local Islamic service (with a very helpful guide, who assumed we were all Christian) and talked with a few worshippers. Lovely, but I had nothing for or against Islam in the first place, so I’m not sure what I was supposed to get from the experience. I do remember being terrified of accidentally offending someone (the example of a “flip chart” being offensive to Filipinos blew my mind, as I didn’t even know that was a use for the word “flip”.)

In short, I’m really uncomfortable with addressing race in person or in class or online. I just don’t know what to do or when to crack down on (un)intentional racially-charged statements (which partly due to my poor classroom management skills) or to promote minority readings and authors and role models without it being a token gesture. So, I really wanted to “attend” the Global Math Department‘s* lecture by Anne Schwartz (a.k.a., @sophgermain) on Tuesday, but had to settle for watching the recording tonight.


Really, totally worth it. Seriously, go watch it now.

Her last slide was awesome (darn, can’t get a screenshot!):
Seven Harmful Racial Discourse Practices
Making it about yourself, falsely equating incomparable acts, diverting topics from race, portraying government as overreaching, prioritizing political policy over impact, condemning through coded language, silencing/devaluing history.

Anna’s message was mostly about listening to kids and their experiences, and recognizing where racism exists in hidden places. White people have a lot of privileges, and don’t always see how our appearance benefits us over others. She also gave a list of resources, which looks fascinating.

I work at a predominantly white and affluent school. I only have one student of color this year (and two Jewish students). There are very few people of color in traditional Western introductory chemistry history (although more in upper-level stuff). I don’t know how to put them into my coursework without it being a token gesture.

I’d love to get past the terrified state, and change that into the proactive-involve-all-cultures stage. I still need some good key phrases to help me get past just nodding to a student, and into support mode. A friend of mine is a huge advocate of social justice, but I’m not comfortable with talking yet (and don’t know what would make me comfy… more experience would help, I’m sure).

I need to do more thinking on this, and probably some reading from that list Anna posted.

*Where’s the Global Chemistry Department? No activity for months! Darn!

Diane Ravitch and CCSS

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Diane Ravitch, an education researcher (and if, as a teacher, you’re unfamiliar with her work, you should get familiar, because like her or not, she’s one of the more “visible” education advocates at the moment), made a speech to the Modern Language Association on Jan. 11th. The jist of it is the recent history of national-level legislation (i.e., NCLB, RTTT, and CCSS) and its detrimental effects on public education.

While I think a lot of what she says is absolutely true (that testing is hurting our kids, that NCLB and RTTT had some good intentions but aren’t actually increasing learning, that CCSS were started by corporations and non-classroom-based individuals, that teachers aren’t respected in this country), I’m a little saddened by the lack of suggestions as to what to do for politicians and for teachers (very different talks).

Yes, after the first round of tests under CCSS, test scores plummeted. Standards were raised, so how could that not be expected? (Wait, it was expected, so perhaps the media are in large part to blame the big negative hype.) But as an educational historian, Ravitch shouldn’t have jumped on that bandwagon, and instead amplified the real story. It makes sense that standardized test scores drop when new tests are introduced: teachers don’t know what’s on the new ones, and can’t teach to it the first year, which means kids also don’t know what to expect. I also agree with Ravitch (getting into mild conspiracy theory territory here) that this drop in test scores will be used against the public education system and that teachers will be blamed, letting politicians declare a need for allowing for more outsider-influences in the public school systems.

CCSS is supposed to be aligned with the whole “college and career ready” idea, but I have yet to see anyone actually define that. Besides, I think the college-ready and the career-ready paths are very different, and nobody seems to acknowledge that.

No, there’s no plans for kids who don’t pass CCSS standardized tests. But there’s also no plans now for kids who drop out. Some states already have (or have had for years) high-stakes exit exams to graduate, and have missing kids.

Ravitch should be more vocal about testing in general, rather than railing about CCSS. I actually don’t have much of a problems with having CCSS (or NGSS), but do have a problem with testing, especially on nebulous standards. It’s okay to have a nebulous standard (maybe something like, Students will read 4 American novels and write essays contrasting them with each other and their historical significance), but then the state test shouldn’t be about particular novels: it’s so limiting when the standard was so loose. And that type of standard I made up is about understanding the material and discussion with others and ideas, and a standardized test (especially a multiple-choice and/or computer-graded one) is about particulars within a book. It’s so limiting to be told what to teach and how, particularly when the standards are billed as flexible.

Besides, screaming about Common Core (or NCLB or RTTT) isn’t going to change the fact that it’s the new thing for most of the states. CCSS is coming (and/or is here), and it’s not going to be the problem: it’s what we as educators choose to do about it that could make or break our kids. We need to prove to politicians (that’s really who’s controlling the types of standards we have) that testing doesn’t increase what our kids learn, and that instead, teachers need to be trusted as the trained professionals we are.

Edit, Jan. 21, 2014: I was pointed to this article on aligning CCSS with “college and career ready” in Oregon, by EPIC.

Watching My Words

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Cliches are like chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get (but you can guess based on the person giving it to you).

While working on renewing my teaching license, I’ve started to realize just how much jargon is in the education profession. And not really jargon (since the definition of jargon doesn’t exactly fit here because a lot of non-educators use it), but buzzwords liberally inhabit our professional culture. I think, however, the scope of these words is mostly limited to professional development situations, resumes, and political organizations and isn’t found during class time. That being said, teachers need a lot of terminology to describe what they do, at least so their administrators can tell anxious parents that yes, the staff does provide CCSS-aligned differentiated inquiry-based flipped-classroom educational services.

And buzzwords are confusing. They’re supposed to mean particular techniques or methodologies, but can (have to?) be tweaked into a teacher’s own personality and classroom situation to fit teachers’ and students’ personalities.

With that, I’ve started a page of education lexicon (also linked above). Use it for translating political language, resumes, or for a starting point into the terms themselves. I am not judging the efficacy of any of these terms or topics, I’m just listing items that I have found.

Post more terms below (if you have an informative link to go with it, so much the better!) I know I’ve missed some obvious ones, because they’re so ingrained in my own vocabulary. I’d love for this to be a more-or-less permanent glossary.

For Me? You Shouldn’t Have!

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Hey, I got an award! The Sunshine Award, from Gregory Taylor, for bringing a little brightness or inspiration to blogging (or so says teh interwebs). I think it may be a sneaky way of getting people to pass a chain letter around (so much for that brightness thing, eh?)

The “rules” for the award are as follows:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers: they should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love!
  5. Post 11 questions for them and let them know of their nomination.

Anywho, here’s the entry to go with the award.

I’d like to thank the Academy… Mr. Taylor, I truthfully don’t know you very well, having only “met” last fall via MTBoS. It’s nice to see familiar usernames in my Twitter feed. Considering I only have a few dozen followers on Twitter and my blog, it’s very flattering to receive such recognition at all. Thank you!

And you are…?
Facts about me, huh?

  1. I teach chemistry. I hate the way most people use the words “chemical” and “organic.”
  2. I don’t teach biology. If I put some lab materials down for a few minutes, I don’t want it to have walked, crawled, or oozed away when I get back to it.
  3. In my classroom, “nuclear” only has one correct pronunciation.
  4. My husband has to kick me in the movie theater if the science is just too bad (there’s been more than one occasion).
  5. Coffee smells nice and warm, but I can’t stand the taste. Tea is much more my style.
  6. I would absolutely love to work for Mythbusters, but only behind-the-scenes.
  7. My favorite element is titanium.
  8. I double-majored in college, in chemistry and studio art.
  9. I like watching people learning anything. It’s that cool clicking “noise” you can see in their eyes when they get it.
  10. I don’t really care for sports, but do have a soft spot for baseball.
  11. I wish I knew how to do woodworking and some construction-type stuff.

Is that your final answer?
Questions from Mr. Taylor:

  1. Animation or Live Action?
    Both can be good media if the story’s interesting. Because of the state of CGI and airbrushing, a lot of movies really are animation anyway.
  2. Handwritten or Electronic?
    Handwritten. I’m actually pretty old-school. And, it sucks to take chemistry-related notes (with subscripts and sketches) in digital format without crazy tools.
  3. Fiction or Non-fiction?
    Mostly fiction. I like to read to relax.
  4. Parabola or Circle?
    Science people are all about cycles and completeness. Circle.
  5. Introversion or Extraversion?
    Major introversion.
  6. How you see your alignment. (Good/Evil/Lawful/Chaotic: see image below)
    Actually, I already knew this, but Lawful Neutral. I think a lot of teachers fall into this category: mostly rule-following and willing to help.
  7. A regret you would NOT undo if given the chance.
    I try not to regret things, as it just wastes energy (easier said than done). I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes and take the good things from them, so I don’t want to NOT-undo any of them.
  8. Favourite leisure activity.
    (Oh, you Canadians, with your u’s….) I like reading for fun. Doesn’t happen often any more, so it’s kinda a luxury.
  9. Favourite TV show. (Current or not.)
    I don’t have television service, but I do like some Dr. Who.
  10. Favourite time travel story. (Book, movie, whatever.)
    Dr. Who counts, yes?
  11. This space left blank. Option: Pose a question back to me.
    Okay! I know you write a serial. What other serials do you read?

The nominees for the next award are…
Here’s where I’m going to sorta cop out. Like Justin Aion, I don’t like naming names. Besides that, a significant percentage of my followers have already received the award from other people. So, go ahead and answer my questions if you like:

And so I ask…

  1. What’s your favorite non-teaching-related website?
  2. When you were little, what did you want to do when you grew up?
  3. Where do you most want to go in the world?
  4. Where do you most want to go, within 200 miles (that’s about 120 km)?
  5. Along those lines: metric or imperial?
  6. Best thing to eat that you don’t know how to (or don’t like to) cook/make?
  7. Can you spell your name in elements?
  8. If you had to switch to your non-dominant hand, what would drive you the most crazy?
  9. What’s the weirdest/coolest thing you’ve done (or seen) with common office supplies?
  10. Think of your worst class (you know which one I’m talking about). What’s the best thing about that class?
  11. Why is this award based on 11s?