Part I: Giving Students a Voice
Becoming an English teacher
I'm an assistant professor at Colorado State University. I'm in the English department. I currently do research around children's literature, young adult literature, the uses of technology in classrooms, and I mainly prepare students who are going to become English teachers.
Like many English teachers I came into becoming an English teacher just as a passion for reading and writing. I had powerful mentors throughout. My high school and middle education, and elementary, both of my parents were educators. My mom was my 7th- grade English teacher. My father was an educator and an activist, and I think those have been empowering mentors for me to think about along the steps of my career.
I spent eight years as a high school English teacher in South Central Los Angeles and that's really where I learned the most powerful lessons about who our students are, and not taking for granted what I think are the possibilities in urban schools.
It was there that I also did my graduate work thinking about the role of critical literacies and games within high school English classrooms and that tends to be the space I tend to do research around today.
We talk about literacy, right as the stuff of what we, how we read books, how we interpret texts, right. Critical literacy really thinks about the role of power dynamics in society, right. So the fact that we speak in standard English and this conversation between us is in a form of language that might be very different from how I might speak with my friends if I'm at a local bar and we're catching up, right.
When you think about the power dynamics the way society helps impact how we understand the world around us.
A person who is a large part of the critical literacies research is someone named Paulo Freire from Brazil. And he has talked about the idea that we need to read the word and the world, right. That the language that we speak and the ways that we interact with text is also tied with how we interact with the world around us. And I think that's a useful way to think about critical literacies.
The role of technology
So technology has really changed critical literacies in that it could be more democratic in who gets a voice in the world. How can we hear other people? Things like Twitter that have been instrumental in the Occupy Movement for example, right, or the Arab Spring, right, these are huge opportunities where we can think about how the rule of literacy is playing a global role, and it's not tied to the people who have the means of being able to offer mainstream media, but anybody can. I think that's a huge piece.
But on the other side, right, is this component of what happens in schools today? And we've got the Common Core and we've got high stakes testing, and we've got teacher evaluation that's somehow tied to all of this stuff, and it probably depends state to state, and city to city, and day to day, right.
Thinking of all these pieces together I think critical literacy is a way for us to think about, at the end of the day, what is happening in schools and how is it helping young people being able to affect change outside of schools? I think that's one way to think about the role of critical literacies is let's take a step back and think about, how are all of these pieces making an impact on my education as a student in school in the United States in 2014?
Civic identity as I understand it would be how somebody is able to understand their place in society around them, right. And how they can see spaces for them to affect change in the spaces around them.
So for example the population that usually has the least amount of input in the civic life that they're a part of is young people. Young people just aren't able to engage, they don't get to legally vote as one obvious means of civic engagement, right. But we can think about how that voice is changing with technology, right. That young kids today are able to have a conversation, I'm thinking about the students who are just an hour from me in Jefferson County.
Where there's been issues around the expectations from their school board of what happens in their AP U.S. history classes. And they've been able to speak with their feet, have demonstrations, have school walkouts. And there's some real opportunity for us to think about how civic identity is this huge space for education, particularly in my field of thinking about how the English language arts can play a role in what civic identity can mean for young people. And so I think we're in a big moment of opportunity for us to think about.
Untold story: Student experiences
I think the most important untold story is the story of the experiences of students in our schools today. We spend a lot of energy, spend a lot of time talking about kids. But how often do we get the voices of kids talking about what happens in schools today? I think that's really what's missing in that dialogue.
I think we make this assumption as adults that kids can't self advocate, and that kids can't have a place at the table when we talk about educational policy and educational changes. And in my experience in working with kids that's not the case at all, right. I learn so much from the students when I get to teach in the high school setting. And I think they have just as valid insight into what schools in 2014 look like, and what their feelings are when they experience schooling as a process on them. And it would be nice to have their voices present in these conversations.
We Need Diverse Books
We need diverse books because it is a life and death matter. Diverse books are going to be the lifeblood of how students see themselves in classrooms, it can be a portal into civic engagement, it can be a portal into finding identity in academic worlds, right going to college, going to universities.
So if we think about what mainstream media looks like, right, the diverse students that are becoming the larger and larger the majority of the students in their classrooms today aren't reflected very well in, you know a lot of the movies, a lot of the books, the book covers of young adult literature don't reflect the types of lived experiences of most of my students, right.
But on the other hand civic identity gives students a space to push against us. To think about, why am I not the student that is seen on the cover of "The Hunger Games" for example. So if we look at "The Hunger Games" as an example, right, if I go to young adult literature.
Katniss, the woman who plays Katniss is one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, right. We get a white female actress. And on the other the woman who played Rue is a black actress, right, and she was decried for being cast as a black character, even though in the book she's written as a black character. She has dark skin is how it's written in the book.
And I think it's important for us to recognize we're in a space where society couldn't even imagine this character as black, even when the author wrote the character as such, right. What does say about where we are and how should students be able to push against this right?
Part II: Preparing Teachers for Today's Classrooms
Using informal assessment
Some of the initiatives that NCTE has taken up recently is really thinking through the role of formative assessment, and not just this idea of a big test at the end, or a summative assessment that comes at the end of a year, at the end of a big curricular unit.
Instead we should be constantly assessing students. One thing that I think the general public should know is assessment is something that's always happening in classrooms. When I have a conversation with a student, this is an informal assessment. When I have students talk through what did they read last night, what did they underline, why is that an important passage? That's a form of assessment. It's not the same as the high stakes test that we expect at the end.
Formative assessment means that assessments always happen. It's something that as a teacher I'm going to gauge where each individual student is along the process of learning, right. And I'm going to continue to work with them. Use the feedback I'm getting from students, change the kinds of instruction I'm doing, and move forward with those pieces, right.
I think we assume that assessment means this one singular test that everybody gets. This is an assumption that's made. And formative assessment really reminds us that every student is unique. That we need to think about the unique needs of every individual in our classroom, which means we also need to acknowledge every student as unique. It's a fundamental shift in seeing our students as human beings with emotions, with feelings with passions right, versus somebody who is going to put their name and bubble in letters.
There's a real difference. And formative assessment is a useful reminder for us that that's who - it's a reminder of who is in our classrooms today.
Common Core: Informational Text
I think if we can think about what the role of informational text plays in a classroom for example, which is a big emphasis in the literacies of the Common Core. As an informational text, we can think about different sides of arguments, polyphonic voice, we can think about languages shifts, we can think about the types of positions that we bring into classrooms and allow students to engage and interact and question.
It seems to me like an opportunity. The stuff that can be liberatory, revolutionary, transformative isn't confined as a result of the Common Core. We just need to be articulate in how we're meeting these standards as we continue to do the powerful work that we need to do in classrooms.
Preparing new teachers
Particularly in the role that I play now working with people who are becoming teachers, right, I think the role of civic education should be more and more present in what we expect of teachers today. That this is an opportunity, right. If I'm going to spend hundreds of hours with kids as my career, and working to have them think meaningfully through the world of education, thinking meaningfully through how they're going to participate in the world around them, this is really an opportunity for them to understand their civic role, and how we develop those relationships in schools should reflect how we interact and socialize outside of schools.
So on the one hand I think the kinds of texts, the kinds of conversations, the kind of work we're expecting of kids should be stuff that mirrors what we're going to expect of them in society, right. So for example there's this whole refrain that “Careers we're preparing kids for today don't exist, right. That we're preparing them for this kind of unknown future.”
But we know the social dispositions of what we know - is how we communicate, how to be civil with one and other, we should be teaching and interacting in those spaces right. The technology stuff is going to come and it's going to look cool, and it's going to be flashy, and I've got my phone that is too big, and does too many things, I don't understand what it does. But all that stuff doesn't really matter. As much as I like technology right, it's really going to be about those relationships we're going to create with kids, right.
If we can't have meaningful relationships where we can have powerful conversations, right, and it's not necessarily about the kinds of tests that we ask kids to perform on. I think that's the space that we need to reconsider, and that's what I've been thinking with how I worked people who are becoming teachers.
Preparing for diverse classrooms
So I'm trying to prepare my students to work in diverse classrooms by having them, one, step away from assumptions of what they think diverse classrooms look like. So for example, teaching in Fort Collins is a space where we're seeing some huge demographic changes. So my students who might have grown up in that community have assumptions that classrooms are going to - might look similar to the classrooms that they were in several years ago.
And that's not necessarily the case right. Diversity is everywhere. It's not these some places. The urban spaces of Los Angeles and New York or where urban schools are. That diversity is in all of our classrooms today and that's a space that we need to, one, breakdown those assumptions. And then think through how do the texts we read, the things we write, the languages we write them in, reflect the lived experiences of what it means to be in America today. I think those are the places that we've got a lot of work to do.
Mentors for young people
As someone who is monolingual and I don't speak Spanish, and I taught primarily bilingual teaching student population, I think about the needs of students to see powerful mentors like themselves, and we need young men and women of color to see people like themselves being able to self affirm their identity. We don't get that very often. We may have a couple of examples in literature, and we can point to one or two of those. But we need people who are powerful mentors, right, and can offer those kinds of shared lived experiences for young people, and we don't have enough of them.
Mom as teacher
I would say my mom would be the English teacher that continues to stand out in my mind as a powerful mentor. She was also the teacher where I would come home and I would watch TV and she would remind me, "I know you have homework tonight." You just can't escape doing your homework when your mom lives next door to you. And like literally next door in the same house, not next door one door down, so.
Catcher in the Rye
So one of my favorite books in high school is such the cliché high school favorite book was "The Catcher in the Rye." Just because you could so identify with who Holden Caulfield is as this kind of arrogant jerk, who's a liar, right. I think I appreciated the kinds of challenges he was going through as a teenager.
And it's funny because as much as I loved that book in high school, I really debated teaching it when I was in South Central as a teacher. Because I made this assumption as a teacher, what do my - my students who are all living in a high poverty community are all black and Latino, is that really something they're going to connect with? And even though I made that assumption, I realized my students loved him. Because at the end of the day Holden really is a teenager at heart and really speaks to an adolescent condition if we could call it that. Just these grasping with our place in the world, and it was refreshing to see that those are those kind of timeless identities that we find in literature.
NCTE is my home
So NCTE is my professional home, as an English teacher at heart and as someone who prepares English teachers, this is a place that I come to for professional growth, for mentorship, it's a place where I have a lot of other friends. So I can think about my professional network, my personal network of friends. The kind of 3 a.m. educational world calls, are the people that come to NCTE every year. I regularly learn in this space, and it feels like a space of nourishment every year coming to the annual conference.
I think we need a space that's going to help advocate for the profession of teachers of English, and NCTE to me seems like the place that does that.