Category Archives: Anti-bias education

Everyone listens to everyone: my visit to Still Waters in a Storm

This time last week I visited Still Waters in a Storm, a community writing center in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I first heard about Still Waters a few years ago when comments regarding the center came across my Facebook feed. I hadn’t visited the center at that time but it was a strong influence on my decision to open a writing center here in San Francisco. I still haven’t opened a center and I’m still listening to know how to best go about it in order to best serve the community, but it will happen.

Last week was my first visit to Still Waters in a Storm and I hope it won’t be my last. It was everything I hoped it would be, and more. The motto of Still Waters is “everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen Haff, the director, set up the program nine years ago. He has a background in theater and was a high school English teacher for close on a decade. The center is everything schooling and education needs to be to truly speak to the hearts and minds of the community it serves.

The Saturday sessions run from 12-5pm and follow a similar structure each week. The children arrive and have time to play and eat lunch before sitting down to start work.

At around 1pm, an invited guest reads an excerpt of their writing and takes questions and comments. The invited guest last week was Emma Brockes, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper and the author of two books, one of which she read from last week. The book she read from is a memoir of a journey to South Africa she took after her mum’s death. Emma wanted to find out what led her mum to leave South Africa to go to England, never to go back to the country of her birth. The excerpt Emma read told the story of a road trip she went on in South Africa when her best friend arrived from England for a few weeks.

The center operates on a drop-in basis and the number of children present may vary from ten to forty. Last week there were about twenty kids there. They varied in age from six to sixteen. Emma’s memoir was not written for children, and from what I could gather, most of the invited guests write for adults. The excerpt Emma read appeared to be accessible to all the people there. It is a highly engaging text with strong visual imagery. The reading was paused on a few occasions to clarify vocabulary or expressions that might be unclear.

After the reading, and after questions and comments, the children generated a topic list inspired by what they heard. Some examples that came up last week were misunderstanding, family, animals, racism, helping someone, guns, loneliness and a few more. Nothing was off the table and anything that was raised could tie in to the reading in one way or another. From there the children spent around fifteen minutes writing. They are welcome to write in any genre or format they preferred, including writing a list, writing a letter, whatever makes sense to them. The younger children worked with volunteers who put the child’s words to paper. Once time was up, it fell to the children, and some of the adults, to share their writing with the larger group. Volunteers read for the younger children while the child stood next to them.

“Everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen said that part of the inspiration for the center is for people to participate in a neighborhood ritual. The group sharing time is based on meetings such as Quaker meetings, when people speak as they are moved to do so. There is no talking over one another; there is respectful silence and active listening as the writers share their work. People are reminded to peacefully control their own bodies. Stephen commented that it is rare in today’s society to have to just listen. Thinking back on last week, my heart skips a beat when I recall the work the children shared and the how powerful it was to be part of that community.

 

I came away from my visit with renewed vision and purpose regarding La Pluma Poderosa. I am building ties with the Latina community in San Francisco through my work with Mujeres Unidas y Activas and I am also connecting with people at local schools through USF preservice teacher supervision. Still Waters in a Storm is housed in a dedicated ground floor space in an area with some foot traffic. Stephen taught at Bushwick High School so before opening the center he already had ties to the neighborhood. He has built up participation through word of mouth and from people walking by. It is completely free and all materials, as well as food, is provided.

Stephen has a respectful and good-humored relationship with the children. They are all of Mexican and Ecuadorian descent, reflecting the community in this part of Brooklyn. The writing is all done in English and all the children are capable of telling a story in English, even if Spanish is their maternal tongue. Stephen communicates with parents and community members in Spanish when the need arises.

Inviting guests such as Emma Brockes to share their writing with the children felt to me like a mark of respect. Respect is given when it is assumed that children can relate to a detailed text and can use that text to inspire their own writing. Stephen reminded the children that they had been working on using similes in their writing, in the weekday afterschool sessions. He encouraged the children to use at least one simile in their work. A simple thing, such as reminding the children they can write a list if they like, gives all children the tools to participate and to share in the writing and sharing process.

The multi-age format of the center clearly bears fruit when you hear the detailed stories the younger children tell. They appear to be picking up on the skilled work of the older children and their work is also testament to their listening skills. Stephen doesn’t accept money from financial sources that would demand accountability measures and other forms of standardization. He wants the center to be free from the toxic trappings of school that transform children into data points. A child is not a number on a graph, and measurement does not equal growth. Spaces such as Still Waters in a Storm provide the community with a powerful example of the learning we do together, and what our children are truly capable of.

My goals for La Pluma Poderosa are still the same: a drop-in, multilingual writing center for children 6-18. I knew that there would be a need for more structured sessions, and in fact, I can maybe start with more structured sessions in a temporary space. I am grateful to Stephen and everyone else at Still Waters in a Storm for renewing my faith in the power of holistic and compelling educational experiences for young writers. Right now I need to listen and to reflect on what the next steps for La PP will be. I carry with me the joy and heartfelt emotion of listening to the young writers in Bushwick, an experience that won’t easily leave my side.

To learn more about Still Waters in a Storm and to support their efforts please go to http://www.stillwatersinastorm.org

 

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“Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners”

Nelson Flores, Tatyana Kleyn & Kate Menken (2015) Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners, Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14:2, 113-132, DOI: 10.1080/15348458.2015.1019787

I’ve been interested in language and language learning for almost as long as I remember. One of my earliest career goals was to go around the world cleaning houses. I’m not sure where the cleaning houses part came in, it was maybe related to my gran’s field of work. I wanted to travel the world so I could learn many different languages. My mother tongue is English and I’ve never needed to clean houses to make a living so I’m privileged in more ways than a few. I’m close to bilingual in French, competent in Spanish and I know smatterings of Portuguese and Xhosa. I haven’t taken on languages far removed from English and I can talk about bilingualism and the need for effective bilingual/multilingual education without it being a life or death matter (for me).

I don’t feel I’m exaggerating when I couch the linguistic debate in such extreme terms as ‘life or death’. When I started formally studying bilingual education we discussed BICS and CALP and the problem with students being ‘semi-literate’ in both home language and English. It’s important that educators are aware of the differences between conversational language acquisition and academic language acquisition but there is much more to the story. I read an article recently that addresses this issue, and one of the elements that  made it a compelling read is that over the course of the study the authors found their assumptions challenged and they addressed this in an open and honest manner. The article addressed the need of students classified as LTELLs (Long term English language learners-generally defined as not testing out of their English language learner status after seven years in a US school). Leaving aside the problematic of testing, what resonated with me was that with all the best will in the world, the authors themselves had held onto this notion of being semi-literate and the damage this can bring (I’m not paraphrasing and I hope I haven’t misrepresented their words).

From the article: “In his critique of the term semilingual, MacSwan (2000) argues that it not only sees students through a deficit lens but also privileges certain ways of using language as superior—namely, academic English. This construction does not explore the important question of what defines a proficient speaker of English, nor does it deconstruct the assumption of the mastery of academic discourse as a prerequisite for being considered a proficient user of English for certain populations, nor does it explore who or what defines what academic discourse is and who has mastered it.”

The authors continue: “For example, in the United States a monolingual English speaker who never mastered academic discourse would not be considered an ELL, and yet somebody who is bilingual must master academic discourse to be considered fully proficient in the language.”

This article is based on interviews done with students who have been classified as LTELLs by the system. “Unsurprisingly there was unanimous rejection of this label by the students who not only found it offensive but as simply inaccurate in describing their fluid language use and transnational identities.” There is much of interest in this article and it opened my eyes to my own deficit view of emergent bilinguals. I’m reminded of my privilege and background and the option I have of stepping back, an option too many children in our schools don’t have. Articles like this one, and the spread of Ethnic Studies in California gives me hope that more voices will be raised, and that all students will be treated with dignity and respect. The authors point out the harmful cycle happening in schools: “Furthermore, there is an assumption that hard work will suffice, yet the inability of schools to build on Lorenzo’s linguistic repertoire suggests that far more is needed than simply an increased effort on the student’s part.” So not only does systemic racism and prejudice endure, the students battling this are made to feel as if they are to blame.

And this: “In this article, we hope to push the discourse of partiality even further and argue that it, in fact, can be understood as a racial project that serves to perpetuate White supremacy through the marginalization of the language practices of communities of color through a form of epistemic racism that situates the epistemology of privileged monolingual subjectivities as the unmarked societal norm.” Too many educators shy away from embracing languages they don’t understand. Furthermore, a hegemonic monolingual stance reduces empathy and increases the likelihood of making an ‘other’ of students whose lives matter every bit as much as those who fit the hegemonic mould.

I used to use a quote attributed to Wittgenstein: “the limits of my language are the limits of my life”. I took this to mean that we needed to support students’ learning so these limits will be surpassed. This quote now sticks in my craw, as limit used once is too much. I’m now more drawn to a Czech proverb that states, “learn a new language and get a new soul”. This does not imply fluency in another language, but it implies putting yourself in another linguistic frame that may lead to greater empathy and compassion. As educators we are privileged to work with students from diverse backgrounds, and we have a moral duty to show empathy and compassion. We must always “teach with joy and justice”, as Linda Christensen artfully states. The article I’ve discussed in this post is essential reading for all educators in the country, no matter what the age or stage.

“The deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard”

May 2015

“We know of course that there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.”

-Arundhati Roy, Sydney Peace Prize 2004[1]

Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of the Baltimore police was caused by gross acts of violence, while more pernicious forms of violence led to his illegal arrest. Johann Galtung (1969), a peace education scholar, describes violence as that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual. It is clear that in too many urban areas in the United States violence disrupts the lives of even the most peaceful of people, in untold ways. Giroux (2004) notes that the dominant public pedagogy of neoliberalism negates basic conditions for critical agency. “Public pedagogy in this sense refers to a powerful ensemble of ideological and institutional forces whose aim is to produce competitive, self- interested individuals vying for their own material and ideological gain.” Neoliberal policies are by nature violent, as profit is made off the hands of those less fortunate, and less likely to have their voices heard. Giroux also notes that the relationship between culture and power constitutes a new site of both politics and pedagogy, leading to resistance movements and opposition to the dehumanization of the 99%. This needs to begin in the early childhood arena. Early childhood experiences play a major role in a child’s life and early childhood educators need be intentional about lessons being taught, both explicitly and implicitly, in order to generate a more peaceful and productive world.

In “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. excoriates the white moderate who is “’more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” The Baltimore Uprising stems from issues regarding disinvestment in urban areas, leaving people with very few options in regards to education, nutrition and physical and mental health. Violence is meted out to this community, and too many others, in gross acts of abuse, and in more insidious forms. Robbing inner cities of essential resources, such as recreation centers, libraries, health clinics, access to healthy and inexpensive food, is a violent act, yet those responsible can still sit back and gloat when these communities explode. These faceless destroyers will never be held accountable for their crimes, and it is unclear whether they genuinely feel a loss of humanity, thoughts of profit most likely fill those holes. Violence is carried out every day against children in schools robbed of resources, not simply in obvious acts of deprivation, such as excessive punishment, but in terms of not providing a school environment that would really see these children thrive. Their promise and potential may rest untapped, to the detriment of society as a whole.

In the place of the ‘achievement gap’, Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) contends there is an ‘educational debt’ we owe our students, and it’s not a debt that will be paid off anytime soon. It could be argued that this debt is only growing, along with the number of children living in poverty. Ladson-Billings mentions four components that make up this educational debt: historical, economic, sociopolitical and moral. The moral debt equates to the disparity between what we know is right and what we actually do. Pauline Lipman (2011) affirms that we need to harness the collective wisdom and political will toward fashioning a sustainable, democratic, socially just alternative. Kumashiro (2012) notes that movement building requires forming coalitions with various constituents in ways that build on their strengths (emphasis added). Involving all stakeholders in discussions relating to the educational futures of a community is vital in affirming that education and policy making should be done with those affected, rather than to those affected. Rick Ayers ( 2009) reminds us that a socially just curriculum should not take on a dogmatic approach. All students must be respected as thinking beings. Each person is ‘an entire universe’. The centrality of the curriculum should be the point of view of the marginalized. Socially just classrooms always teem with possibilities; always seek out relevance, deeper meaning and connections.

Ethnic Studies has emerged as a major theme in my work along with home/school/community connections in the early childhood setting. I am particularly interested in critical literacy, and I am a strong proponent of the maintenance and promotion of home languages, in a broad sense: language and discourse not needing to be defined by an official title. Much has been written about Ethnic Studies in high school and into middle school but there is less research concerning socially just practices in elementary school and younger. This is not to say the work isn’t happening but it doesn’t take up the place it should in academic journals and elsewhere. To be clear, it’s possible not all Ethnic Studies classes promote social justice and equity, just as a ‘multicultural curriculum’ does not always equate with anti-bias teaching, but it’s a start. In Rethinking Early Childhood Education, Ann Pelo (2008) sets out the argument for socially just practices in early childhood settings. She states that ECE is a political act that necessarily involves values and visions. She goes on to point out that early childhood is the time in our lives when we develop core dispositions. We must attempt to nurture these dispositions towards empathy, ecological consciousness, engaged inquiry and collaboration. Pelo also points out that social justice teaching grows from children’s urgent concerns. Observing and listening in to conversations happening at school, and paying attention to what other avenues of self-expression are in play, helps us target curricula to suit individual and group needs.

“Children are fundamentally concerned with making sense of their social and            cultural world; teachers and caregivers can join them in this pursuit, guiding         them towards understandings rooted in accurate and empathetic         understandings-or we can leave them to figure out their questions on their own,    coming to conclusions based on misinformation and cultural bias.” (Pelo, p.xii)

It’s easy to forget how disorienting those first years can be and how dizzying it is to grow from a tiny baby to a little person who can do a lot on their own, but not everything. In this process, as has been discussed in the previous paper, it is essential families and the community are brought to the table. The more children see home and school intertwining the more successful they are likely to be at school, not just academically but socially and emotionally as well. It is also essential that teachers view education through a wide lens, and not as that confined to four walls.

“In an Indigenous worldview, education is based upon the requirements of everyday life. In this way, education is “an experience in context, a subjective experience that, for the knower, becomes knowledge in itself. The experience is knowledge.”[…] The idea that learning should take place only within the four walls of a school, through the prescription of a fixed written curriculum, is diametrically opposed to the idea that learning is dynamic, experiential, and grounded in a sense of place.” (Madjidi & Restoule, 2008)

Mariana Souto-Manning (2013) highlights the work of multicultural and anti-bias educators in early childhood classrooms. She emphasizes that to teach multiculturally is create spaces of possibility and to position power at the center of our teaching. “It is not possible to engage with race and gender or to question structures of privilege unless we consider power relations.” One of the teachers Souto-Manning writes about is particularly successful with linking home and school literacies. Ms. Baines is a first grade teacher in South Carolina. She works from what the children are already familiar with, what the children are already good at and who, what and where is important in their life. Environmental print from places in their neighborhood shows them they can already read certain items; making up new words to favorite pop songs builds on their musical interests and literacy skills, and learning about their communities through student generated interviews, class books, and community artifact shares (among many other amazing activities) shows them home and school can be one. Ms. Baines also makes home visits, thus strengthening the already powerful ties between home and school. Related to these visits, Souto-Manning reminds us that school may not always have been a welcoming place to parents and family members of traditionally minoritized communities. It is our place to show that we are different and to articulate how, and why. It is essential to show we value their practice and that we are committed to making the learning experience better for them and for their child. Honor and respect should be the brook babbling underneath us.

Henri Giroux (2004) states that proliferating sites of pedagogy bring into being new forms of resistance, raise new questions, and necessitate alternative visions regarding autonomy and the possibility of democracy itself. Bickmore (2008) asserts that just as people learn about conflict by witnessing and participating in it, people can learn about constructive peacemaking and peacebuilding by practicing peace in informal community activities. Peace, along with honor and respect, should tie a classroom together. It is also important to remember that Paolo Freire refused to accept fatalism, until the end. “At every turn, he emphatically rejected the idea that nothing could be done about the educational consequences of economic inequalities and social justice.”(Darder, 2009) I am reminded of Freire’s words as I despair over the fact that Giroux’s words regarding neoliberalism are no less true today than they were ten years ago, in fact the neoliberal attack on public education brought about by the Obama administration under the stewardship of Arne Duncan, is an attack like no other seen before or since. We need all the grassroots organizing and creative vision available to carve a kinder world out for the children yet to join the system, and for those who are already there.

References:

Ayers, R. (2009). Classrooms, Pedagogy and Practicing Justice. In W. Ayers, T. Quinn, & D. Stovall (Eds.), Handbook of Social Justice in Education. New York, N.Y: Routledge.

Bickmore, K. (2008). Chapter Ten: Education for Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding in Plural Societies: Approaches from Around the World. In K. E. Mundy, K. Bickmore, R. Hayhoe, M. Madden, & K. Madjidi (Eds.), Comparative and International Education: Issues for Teachers. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press.

Darder, A. (2009). Teaching as an Act of Love: Reflections on Paulo Freire and His Contributions to Our Lives and Our Work. In A. Darder, M. Baltodano, & R. D. Torres (Eds.), The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2nd ed.). New York, N.Y.: Routledge,Taylor & Francis ; National Council of Teachers of English.

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167–191.

Giroux, H. (2004). Public Pedagogy and the Politics of Neo-liberalism: making the political more pedagogical. Policy Futures in Education, 2(3&4).

Kumashiro, K. K. (2012). Bad teacher!: how blaming teachers distorts the bigger picture. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12. http://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X035007003

Lipman, P. (2011). The new political economy of urban education: neoliberalism, race, and the right to the city. New York: Routledge.

Madjidi, K., & Restoule, J.-P. (2008). Chapter Four: Comparative Indigenous Ways of Knowing. In K. E. Mundy, K. Bickmore, R. Hayhoe, M. Madden, & K. Madjidi (Eds.), Comparative and International Education: Issues for Teachers. New York, N.Y: Teachers College Press.

Pelo, A. (2008). Introduction: Embracing Social Justice in Early Childhood Education. In A. Pelo (Ed.), Rethinking Early Childhood Education. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Rethinking Schools Publication.

Souto-Manning, M. (2013). Multicultural teaching in the early childhood classroom: approaches, strategies, and tools, preschool-2nd grade. New York: Teachers College Press.

 

[1] http://www.smh.com.au/news/Opinion/Roys-full-speech/2004/11/04/1099362264349.html