Decolonizing Through Dialogue: Authentic Teaching in the Age of Testing and Common Core

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If you’re not careful, being a public school teacher can become an act of colonization.

 

This is especially true if you’re a white teacher like me with classes of mostly black students. But it’s not the only case. As an educator, no matter who you are or whom you teach, you’re a symbol of authority and you get that power from the dominant structures in our society.

 

Believe it or not, our schools are social institutions, so one of their chief functions is to help recreate the social order. Students enter as malleable lumps of clay and exit mainly in the shapes we decide upon. Therefore, as an educator, it’s hard not to fall into the habit of molding young minds into the shapes society has decided are appropriate.

 

In some ways this is inevitable. In others, it’s even desirable. But it also runs against the best potential of education.

 

In short, this isn’t what a teacher should be. My job in front of the classroom isn’t to make my students into anything. It’s to give them the opportunity, to generate the spark that turns them into their best selves. And the people who ultimately should be the most empowered in this process are the students, themselves.

 

But it’s easier said than done.

 

The danger is best expressed in that essential book for any teacher, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” where Paulo Freire writes:

 

“Worse yet, it turns them (the students) into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be filed by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.”

 

In most cases this means Eurocentrism – a kind of worship of all things white and denigration of all things black, brown and all pigments between.

 

We take the status quo and find every blind justification for it. In fact, this can become the curriculum, itself. Every counter-narrative, every criticism of the power structure then naturally becomes a danger. Revisionist history becomes history. European philosophy becomes the only accepted definition of rationality. Ideologies of empire become obvious and inescapable. White becomes the norm and racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia all become hidden and internalized.

 

You’ve heard the criticism of curriculums focusing exclusively on dead white males. This is why.

 

And not only does it silence minority voices, it reinforces a false view of the world. Folk singer Tom Paxton made that clear in this classic song:

What Did You Learn In School Today?”

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that Washington never told a lie,
I learned that soldiers seldom die,
I learned that everybody’s free,
And that’s what the teacher said to me,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned the policemen are my friends,
I learned that justice never ends,
I learned that murderers pay for their crimes,
Even if we make a mistake sometimes,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that war is not so bad,
I learned about the great ones we’ve had.
We fought in Germany and in France
And some day I might get my chance.
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned our government must be strong;
It’s always right and never wrong!
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

 

We can see why this kind of teaching is valued. It reinforces the status quo. But at its core education is essentially subversive. It supports new ways of thinking. It is by definition revolutionary. When you encourage students to think for themselves, some may come to conclusions that differ from the norm. This is entirely healthy and the only way societies can grow and change. But it’s inimical to the people in power who often are in charge of the educational system. They don’t want new ideas if those ideas will challenge their hold on the reigns of power. Socrates wasn’t forced to drink hemlock, after all, because his lessons supported the Athenian elite.

 

So we’re left with a real quandary. How do teachers remain free to inspire while being a part of a system that doesn’t value inspiration?

 

The natural forces of society work against authentic teaching like gravity pulling at a rocket. Unless you’re actively pushing against the ground, the most natural thing in the world is to just go with the flow. The textbook says this is the way. Teacher training programs often agree. Cooperating teachers who have been in the classroom for decades back it up. This is the best method. Just keep it up.

 

But it’s not. And you shouldn’t. There is another way even though it’s hard to see. And THAT’S often what you need to be doing for your students.

 

Let me pause at this point to make one thing clear: I don’t have all the answers.

 

I am no expert in how to do this. I have fallen victim to it, myself, more often than I’d like to admit. It may be next to impossible to avoid the accepted route much of the time. But if we want to be good teachers, we need to try.

 

If we really want to provide the best service to our students, their parents and the community, we have to break out of the mold. We have to allow our students the chance of seeing the world and not just our version of it.

 

The best ways I’ve found to do this are through selection of texts, use of Socratic Seminars and allowing as much choice as possible in assignments.

 

When selecting texts, you want to be as inclusive as possible. Provide students with the widest possible range of authors and opinions. In Language Arts, this means purposeful multiculturalism. It means authors of color being prized equally with the European cannon. It means women and transgender authors. It means authors subscribing to a wide range of beliefs and skepticisms. And it means accepting genres and forms that are often devalued like song lyrics, rap, Manga, graphic novels and anything that can be considered deep, substantial texts.

 

Finding such sources can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating. Unfortunately, not all schools permit teachers to do this to the same degree. Some districts mandate teachers only use certain texts already approved by the school board. Others provide a list of approved texts from which teachers can pick.

 

Each educator will have to find ways to navigate the system. It’s best if you can find support from administrators and in the community for what you want to do and go from there. But this can be a challenging road especially in our era of high stakes testing and Common Core which values authentic teaching not at all.

 

Another essential tool is class discussion. You may or may not be able to broaden the texts being discussed, but you can usually provide space for students to discuss those texts in class.

 

My 8th graders and I use the Socratic Seminar method of discussion extensively.

 

With almost every piece of literature, I write guided open-ended questions for the students to consider. The questions come out of the text, but I try to focus on queries that will get students thinking about how the text relates to their lives, gender and economic issues, questions of theme, race and opportunities to make connections of every type. Eventually, I even allow students to begin writing these questions, themselves.

 

The way I see it, my role is essentially an opportunity maker. It isn’t about finding an answer that will please me, the teacher. It’s about exploring the subject. It’s not about what I think. It’s about what students think. And that makes all the difference.

 

Finally, I’ve found it beneficial to allow students choice in their assignments.

 

There are many ways for students to demonstrate knowledge. They can write essays, take a test, create a collage, design a power point presentation, make an iMovie, act out a scene, etc. I try to expose students to multiple formats the first half of the year and then give them increased choice in how they’d like to express themselves in the second half.

 

Not only does this free students to think, it encourages the deepest kind of learning. It makes the lesson vital, important and intrinsic.

 

All of these approaches share a common feature: dialogue. They put the student, teacher and the author in a vital relationship. They take steps to equalize that relationship so that one isn’t more important than the others. It’s not just what the author, teacher or student thinks – it’s the interrelationship of the three.

 

Ultimately, it’s up to the student to decide the relative value of the results. Sure, they get grades. Sure, the system will judge students based on those grades. But the value of those grades isn’t as important as the resultant learning and the value students place on the experience.

 

To me, that’s the best kind of learning. And it’s the result of authentic teaching and dialogue.

 

It is the most inimical thing to colonization. Students are not enslaved to a system. They aren’t in servitude to a prepackaged group of ideas and norms.

 

They are valued and empowered.

 

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing for them?

Great Reading Must Be Felt, Not Standardized

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I made my classes cry today.

That sounds terrible, but if I’m honest, I knew it would happen and meant to do it.

I teach in an urban district and most of my 8th grade students are African American and/or impoverished. We’re reading Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” together, and the kids were loving it.

Until today when we got to the verdict in the Tom Robinson trial.

Jaquan closed his book with wide eyes.

“What the heck happened?” he asked.

Other students in the room murmured their agreement.

“They found him guilty!? What the F!?”

“I hate this book.”

“This is so freakin’ racist.”

I let them go on for a moment.

Frankly, it was the reaction I had been expecting.

It happens every year around this time.

Until this moment, my kids were really into the book. They were enjoying the case and excited by how well the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, had proven that Tom, a black man in the 1930s South, is innocent of raping a white woman.

But even last night I knew what was coming. The next day – today – I’d have to go and break their hearts when they read what the jury actually decides. Some of them were bound to be crushed. And today they were.

For those who haven’t cracked this book open in decades, let me recap.

There is no physical evidence that the crime actually took place. Moreover, because of a crippling injury as a child, Tom is physically incapable of perpetrating the crime in the first place.

In a world where black males could be tortured and killed just for whistling at a white woman – like Emmett Till – it’s clear that Tom is the victim, not the aggressor.
It seems like a slam dunk case. Yet the all-white jury finds Tom guilty, and ultimately he is shot 17 times in prison after losing all hope and trying to escape.

It’s no wonder that when we read that cascade of Guilty’s from the jury’s mouths today, my kids couldn’t believe it.

Some of my best students closed the book or threw it away from them.

So I let them express their frustrations. Some talked about how the story hit too close to home. They have family members in jail or who have been killed in the streets by police. One girl even told us that she’s never met her own mother. The woman has been locked away since the child was an infant, and because of a missing birth certificate, my student hasn’t even been allowed to visit.

“Mr. Singer, when was this book written?” one of the girls in the back asked.

“The late 1950s,” I said.

“I thought you were going to say it just came out.”

And so we talked about what the book has to do with things happening today. We talked about Eric Garner. We talked about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

At a certain point, conversation ceased.

My class of rowdy teenagers became quiet. We could hear people stomping in the hall, a movie being shown a few doors down.

There might have been a few tears.

I knew it would happen.

Last night I debated softening the blow, preparing them for what was about to take place. When we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” a month ago, I made sure they’d know from the very beginning that Anne dies. It should have been no surprise to them when Anne and her family are captured by the Nazis. It’s scary and upsetting but not entirely unexpected.

However, with “Mockingbird” I just let events unfold. And I stand by that decision.

It’s frustrating and painful, but my students need to feel that. It’s something I can’t shield them from.

It’s not that they have never felt this way before. Many of them have experienced racism and injustice in their everyday lives. But for this book to really have the desired impact, they need to FEEL what the author meant. And it needs to come from the book, itself.

A book isn’t just sheets of paper bound together with glue and cardboard. It’s a living entity that can bite. That’s the power of literature.

I can’t in good conscience shield them from that. They need to see it and experience it for themselves.

Writer Flannery O’Connor put it like this:

“I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

This is what our policymakers either misunderstand or forget when they demand we assess understanding with standardized tests.

The meaning of a story is not expressable in discrete statements A, B, C, or D. We wouldn’t read them if it was.

Every person is unique. So is every reaction to literature.

You can’t identify the meaning of this story on a multiple choice test. You can’t express what it means to YOU. All you can do is anticipate the answer the test maker expects. And that’s not reading comprehension. It’s an exercise in sycophantry. It teaches good toadying skills – not good reading strategies.

Perhaps that’s why Common Core encourages us to shy away from complex texts like “Mockingbird.” We’re told to focus on short snippets of fiction and to increase our student’s diet of nonfiction. Moreover, we’re told to stay away from narratives like Anne Frank’s. Instead, we should have our children read from a greater variety of genres including instruction books, spreadsheets, recipes – just the facts – because as Common Core architect David Coleman famously said, “No one gives a shit what you think or feel.”

Frankly, we don’t do a whole lot of that in my class. We still read literature.

Today, even after the blowout, we kept reading “Mockingbird.”

My kids suffered along with Jem and Scout. They reveled in Atticus’s example. They feared where it was all going.

And when class was over, a few of them had come around.

“This is such a good book, Mr. Singer,” one girl told me on the way out.

“Is Atticus going to die?” another asked to which I smiled and shrugged.

Jaquan stayed after the bell to ask his own question.

“Do you think in a hundred years things will be any different?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean do you think people will still do things like THIS?” he said holding up his book.

I looked at him and swallowed.

“I don’t know, Jaquan,” I said. “But things are better now than they were. We can hope.”

He nodded.

I clapped him on the back and wished him a good weekend.

You don’t get that kind of reaction from Common Core, and you can’t assess it on a standardized test.

Students can’t ask such questions to computer programs.

They need teachers with the freedom to teach and assess as they see fit.

Otherwise, it is not just Tom Robinson that suffers a miscarriage of justice.

We all do.

Hundreds Gather in Puerto Rico on Martin Luther King Day Demanding Arts Education

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They came with trumpets, tubas, bongos and acoustic guitars.

They came with brightly colored banners and freshly painted posters.

They came armed with songs, dances and slogans.

More than 500 teachers, students and college professors marched to the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan to demand the island government bring back public school arts classes.

The group of activists calling itself Let’s Save the Arts has been fighting against the narrowing of curriculum for the last three years.

At that time, the island Department of Education changed the length of class periods at all public schools in the U.S. territory.

Students used to have seven class periods of 50 minutes each. Now students have six class periods of 60 minutes each. In effect, officials eliminated one class.

Students still receive Spanish, Math, Science, Social Studies, and English instruction. However, now they have to choose between Physical Education or Arts where they used to be able to do both.

Secretary of Education Rafael Román approved the measure to save money. More than 3,000 half time teaching positions were lost.

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“It was an austerity measure,” says Mercedes Martinez, president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) – the  teachers union.

“They’re saying these teachers are not needed.”

Senator Rossana Lopez has proposed a solution. She introduced Bill 584 – legislation that would require all Commonwealth schools to include arts courses as a graduation requirement.

Arts teachers across the island formed the collective group to help pass the measure.

“Having a holistic  education is a right and not a privilege,” said Carlos Vélez, an art teacher from Ángel Sandín Martinez Middle School in the Vega Baja region.

“The study of the arts benefits all students – especially those living under poverty that can’t pay for art courses elsewhere.”

The teachers union issued a strong statement of support.

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“Students were off school Monday,” Martinez says. “In symbolism to MLK’s holiday celebration, they protested the best way they know: performing.”

During those performances, Román, the architect of the plan to eliminate the arts, changed his tune. While at the rally, he said he supports the bill.

However, the Secretary of Education could make most of these changes, himself, without legislative action. He could return the alignment of class periods to their previous configuration tomorrow.

“We’re waiting for him to put words into action,” Martinez says.

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Meanwhile, supporters hope Bill 584 will pass before this Congressional session ends in June.

Corporate education reform measures like this one limiting arts classes are a consequence  of financial woes imported from the mainland. Puerto Rico is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling the territory’s debt.

Hundreds of American private equity moguls and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.

As a result, tax revenues to fund public goods like education are drying up while the super rich rake in profits.

Officials warn the government may be out of money to pay its bills this year. Over the next five years, it may have to close nearly 600 more schools – almost half of the remaining facilities!

Of the 135 schools closed in just the last two years,  Román had originally proposed shuttering 200. The remaining 65 were only kept alive because communities occupied the buildings and refused to let the government step in.

The people of Puerto Rico aren’t letting their government defund and defraud their public schools without a fight. Monday’s musical and artistic protest was just another note in the battle hymn of the people.

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Putting the Arts Back in Language Arts – One Journal at a Time

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This is the fifth in a series of blog posts focused on the value of art in our lives, and the role art can play in resisting the test and punish model of education.  See the intro and links to other posts in the series here.


Sometimes in public school you’ve just got to cut the crap.

No testing. No close reading. No multiple choice nonsense.

Get back to basics – pass out notebooks, crack them open and students just write.

Not an essay. Not a formal narrative. Not an official document. Just pick up a pencil and see where your imagination takes you.

You’d be surprised the places you’ll go.

You might invent a new superhero and describe her adventures in a marshmallow wonderland. You might create a television show about strangers trapped in an elevator. You might imagine what life would be like if you were no bigger than a flea.

Or you might write about things closer to home. You might describe what it’s like to have to take care of your three younger brothers and sisters after school until just before bedtime when your mom comes back from her third minimum wage job. You might chronicle the dangers of walking home after dismissal where drug dealers rule certain corners and gangs patrol the alleys. You might report on where you got those black and blue marks on your arms, your shoulders, places no one can see when you’re fully clothed.

My class is not for the academic all stars. It’s for children from impoverished families, kids with mostly black and brown skin and test scores that threaten to close their school and put me out of work.

So all these topics and more are fair game. You can write about pretty much whatever you want. I might give you something to get you started. I might ask you a question to get you thinking, or try to challenge you to write about something you’ve never thought about or to avoid certain words or phrases that are just too darn obvious. I might ask your opinion of something in the news or what you think about the school dress code or get your thoughts about how things could improve.

Because I actually care what you think.

Strange, I know.

At times like these, I’m not asking you to dig through a nonfiction text or try to interpret a famous literary icon’s grasp of figurative language. It’s not the author’s opinion that matters – it’s yours – because you are the author. Yes, YOU.

You matter. Your thoughts matter. Your feelings. YOU MATTER!

And sometimes students raise their hands and ask me to read what they’ve written. And sometimes – more often than not – the first thing they say is, “It’s no good.” “I don’t like it.” “I did bad on this.”

So I stop reading, I look them right in the eyes and ask them who wrote it.

“Me?” they say.

And I respond, “Then I’m sure it’s excellent.” And it usually is.

My 8th grade students have been ground down so low under the weight of a society that could care less about their well being that they’ve begun to internalize it. They think their thoughts and feelings are worthless. No one cares about what they think.

But I do.

So I offer them a chance to share what they’ve written. I don’t demand. I don’t force anyone to read anything. I know that some things that spill out on the page aren’t for sharing. But I want them to know that I value what they’ve just put down and that I think it’s worth taking the class time to let others hear it, too.

“Mr. Singer, I wrote five pages,” Jaquae tells me this afternoon. “That’s too long to share.”

“I disagree,” I say. “If you think it’s worth our time, you should read it. You deserve our attention.”

So he reads, blows out a cleansing breath and smiles.

In the process, we all become ennobled. We become more. We become a community. We get a peak at our common humanity.

It’s so easy to look at others as mere adversaries. Even our national education policy sees things in terms of a competition, a race. We set children against each other for points, for grades, for attention, just to feel valuable. You’re a Proficient. You’re a Basic. You’re a Below Basic. And somewhere along the way they lose the sense that they’re all valuable because they’re all human beings with thoughts, feelings and experiences that no one else has ever gone through before – but with which everyone can relate.

So I write, too. Every time I set my students a journal, I put pen to paper, as well.

At the beginning of the year, I share what I wrote to show them that it’s okay. At the middle of the year I ask them if they want me to share. And at the end of the year I remain silent unless they ask me to do otherwise.

Because these class moments aren’t about me. They’re about them. I’m willing to be as much a part of their creative space as they want, but it’s a choice, not a dictate.

In my class I will make you learn, but I don’t control what you learn or how you feel about it.

I extend my students this respect because I know that what we’re really doing isn’t some meaningless exercise. We’re creating art.

Not just scribbles on a page. Not something done just to please the teacher. This is an excavation of the soul. We dive into the depths of ourselves and come back all the better for it.

That’s why my students journal almost every day.

That’s why we put mechanics and spelling and grammar aside for a few moments and just write what we need to say.

Because Language Arts, after all, is an Art. It says that right in the title.

My students are artists. I am their muse. I hold a mirror up to their fractured and beaten spirits to show them the grandeur of what resides inside them.

And hopefully they come away inspired.

Because they are wonders. They are joyous. They are little pieces of my heart.


NOTE: This article was also published in Living in Dialogue, the Badass Teachers Association Blog and mentioned on Diane Ravitch’s blog.