Category Archives: Motivation

NEH Fellowship: The First Week

Researching @ the Schomburg

After only one week of my first NEH experience-I am completely blown away!  The title of my summer institute: From Harlem to Hi-Hop: African American History Through Literature and Song, is horrifically terrifying due to the fact that my experiences with Hip-Hop are limited to: 1980s ghetto blasters, music videos, radio play, an unfortunate but memorable experience with Wyclef Jean, Eminem (I love MANY of his narratives), The Beastie Boys, and what I call Hard-Rap/Rock-Rap like Rage Against the Machine, or the much later Prophets of Rage.  The institute is a collaboration of Dr. Laura Nash and Andrew Virdin, who openly retell stories about how their first proposal for the fellowship was rejected by the NEH. Luckily, this agenda passed through all of the readers because in one week I’ve been connected to inspiring, intellectual voices in the vast field of African American studies.

Dr. Yohuru Williams

I think you can tell from the smile in the picture, Dr. Williams is an engaging speaker  who is not only knowledgeable, he introduces and models critical strategies that can immediately be used in the classroom to engage and challenge students.  At the same time, he is a prolific writer and I’ve included some links that you should NOT IGNORE!  In a later post I will share some lessons I am working on inspired by Dr. Williams.

The Nation, Huff Post, Books, The Progressive, The History Channel 

Dr.  Arnold Rampersad

We’ve enjoyed three Skype sessions with Dr. Rampersad who has been a Stanford faculty member since 1974 and also written books about W. E. B Dubois, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and others.  The generosity of Dr. Rampersad cannot go unmentioned as he volunteered to Skype with any of the teachers present individually or in a smaller group to aid in research.

Dr. Tricia Rose

While Dr. Tricia Rose is most notably known for her books The Hip-Hop Wars and Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, her expertise and scholarship on 20th Century African American studies on politics, gender, social thought and popular culture allow her to reveal hidden layers in society that even well-read people have missed, or simply grown accustomed to over time.  Her lecture mainly dealt with the practice of Redlining and how that still impacts African Americans, as well as other underserved minority communities to this day.  While Dr. Rose is currently working on a new book, it will probably take me that long to unpack everything she shared at our institute.  An interesting website to look at is Mapping Inequality.

Sylviane A. Diouf
Sylviana A. Diouf

Our visit to the Schomburg exploded into a unique talk given by the curator and director of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library! Though soft-spoken, I could feel through her words a woman of achievement and a certain amount of power who still has to fight to bring education to the public.  The two exhibits Sylviana A. Diouf worked tirelessly to present are Power in Print and Black Power! She let us know the irony of her speaking to us, for she had herself proposed an NEH institute for the summer, but she was denied because the readers felt it was propaganda.  While there have been various exhibits about The Black Panthers, Diouf explains this is the FIRST exhibit strictly about Black Power.

Digital images of the two exhibits: Black Power! & Ready for the Revolution

 

Research at the Schomburg
Langston Hughes burial

Before arriving at the institute, I booked an appointment with the Schomburg research library in the Archives and Special Collections department and I was able to spend hours underground, reading letters written by Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Dubois, Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and many, many others! While entrenched in a tapestry of letter-language, the Harlem rain poured outside.  At some point, I will write extensively about my specific research.

 

DJ Ivory Snow
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The Hate U Give: A Great Companion to Citizen: An American Lyric

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Navigating two worlds and a young life full of tragedy, Starr Carter drops into your view in that headline moment, at a party that is broken up due to a gun shot. While the obvious binary conflict of Power vs Oppression occurs in the moments after the party, when Starr and Khalil flee the party in his car, the less-than-visible conflict of Appearance vs Reality brings Starr’s different lives together. Will Starr have the strength to become one whole person?

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but I must confess that at one point I felt like Thomas gave Starr too many problems to overcome and this somewhat slowed down the pacing of the novel. After completion, I changed my mind and I realized that the issues in the book, and in our country, are so complex that no one can fully realize the ramifications of one interaction. Obviously, if you are unwilling to have an open conversation of the black/white divide that continues to create conflict, then this book is not for you. Likewise, if reading about drugs, alcohol, and language that typical teenagers use, then don’t read this book. However, if you want to read a well-written book that depicts real problems and real feelings, then READ IT NOW! One of the most enjoyable aspects of Thomas’ writing is her realistic dialogue that allows you to feel like you are actually sitting in the car. For example, when Starr is in the park playing basketball with her brother, she ends up speaking for the first time to one of the neighborhood gang members with whom one of her friends acts ridiculous over, Starr says, “Yeah, I’ve heard about you. And you may wanna get some chapstick if your lips that dry, since you’re licking them so much” (147). This illustration reveals that if Starr can speak her mind to a known gang member, she may have the strength to be honest with herself and everyone else in her life.

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Is Grading a Student-Centered Practice? Part Two

The Art of Grading

“The professor never explained that was how she wanted the assignment done; therefore, we all got low grades.  I wish she’d just tell us what she wants.”

I’ve heard collegues voice this complaint too many times to count.  These are adult, graduate students attending universities from Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount University, California State University, Northridge, amongst others.  The gap between what the professor expects in her mind, and what she receives from graduate-level, or shall we say professional learners, is reflected in the grades.  Does the grade reflect my colleagues’ understandings and capabilities? Of course not.  Should they be afforded the chance to redo the assignment to meet the unexplained criteria of the professor? Should they have to redo the work?

My answer to that question is with my own question: Do you allow your high school students the chance to redo assignments and assessments in your classes?

High school students experience the same frustrations after receiving a low grade for their work, and they are still developing the critical thinking skills required to articulate statements beyond, “The teacher sucks. . .the class is stupid anyway. . .or, next time I just won’t do the assignment.”  Without the support of an involved parent, students often defend themselves by becoming angry at the class or the teacher and eventually completely shut down and stop attempting to do the classwork.  The problem with the typical grading systems have long been discussed by teachers, and I wrote a lengthy blog post about the issue in Part One.

Feedback vs. Grading

As most assignments are practice for what will eventually be on a summative assessment, then it follows that most assignments are at least partially, formative assessments.  The purpose of formative assessments is to guide the teacher in planning which lessons the students still need in order to achieve the learning outcomes on the final assessment.  Obviously, nobody practices perfectly.  Teacher feedback should then be followed by student reflection.  In this moment, the teacher helps students build their critical thinking skills in analyzing the space between what they turned in and what skills they still need to learn to gain mastery of a learning objective.  Equally, this is a moment for the student to voice why s/he completed an assignment in a particular format and also point to places where s/he disagrees with teacher feedback.

Student Input on Grades

While I’ve heard amazing educators speak about how their schools are gradeless, I think many of us work in schools or districts where this would not be possible (at least not in the foreseeable future).  Therefore, I’m attempting to find ways to work within the grading system so that I may better serve students who struggle to achieve learning – without them becoming frustrated by the grading parameters.  What if part of the reflective process incorporated students assigning their own grade on larger projects and essays and then providing justification for the grade? Whenever there is a huge discrepancy in the student’s self-grade and what the teacher believes the grade should be, this would require a personal conversation where the student and teacher get to explain their thought process and ask each other questions.

Confession

I am guilty of every possible grading mistake a teacher can possibly make in their career! During last semester, I particularly focused on how day-to-day assignments are graded and what specific impact that has on the student. In the upcoming school year, I will experiment with incorporating student input into the grades and teaching the critical skills necessary to be self-reflective learners.

I am super curious to hear how other teachers struggle with the grading system and how they are addressing the issues in their classrooms.

 

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5 Questions About Mindfulness in the Classroom with Lisa Harrison

Mindfullness with Lisa Harrison

I’ve worked with Lisa Harrison in the Special Education department for over five years.  As an RSP teacher (Resource Service Provider), she is passionate about helping students with autism overcome social obstacles to be able to communicate feelings and develop the skills necessary for friendship.  This year, Lisa has utilized a mindfulness practice in her 6th period resource class. But let me take a moment to describe the class:  Imagine a room full of wiggly high schoolers, during a 6th period class who are supposed to be completing homework, and then imagine asking them to pause for ten minutes and breathe.

On the last day of school this year, I had the opportunity to interview Lisa and ask her 5 questions about mindfulness in the classroom.

* I recorded the interview on my iPhone, while excited students finished with finals celebrated outside the classroom. You can listen here, or read below!

What inspired you to bring mindfulness into the classroom?

At the start of the interview, Lisa referenced a PD we had before the school year  a couple of years ago where representatives from Goldie Hawn’s Mind-Up program came in and talked to teachers.  She was interested in how the program

“helps  develop student’s potential brain [thinking process] and the ability to calm themselves.”

What were your biggest fears about trying to introduce this practice to students?

“The biggest fear was whether or not I could get the students’ buy-in. Once I started it with one of my classes, I went gung-ho and realized that not everyone’s comfortable sitting there with their eyes closed, so I kind of had to adjust.”

What did you do to adapt? 

“I looked at different programs to see what they were doing. Some of the programs require more teaching. Some of them are with all of the senses and that was tough to do in a resource class so I had to adapt and just go to the breathing techniques.”

How has the practice impacted you as a teacher, or how do you think it has impacted the students?

“It’s helped me quite a bit to get grounded and ready for the chaos that can be sixth period. I think it’s helped the kids too, because the kids come in, after doing it all year, some of the kids come in looking forward to it.”

What advice would you give other teachers that might be interested in sharing mindfulness with their students?

“I would say research the different programs and do what you’re comfortable with. Rushing into it, telling people ‘sit down! Be quiet! Don’t move! isn’t conducive to relaxation. There’s so many different ways to come at it, you can do the breathing which is more like a  meditation. You can do the senses and have them listen to something and focus on something. You can do body scans. There are just so many different options.”

As a special education teacher, I can attest to the numerous distractions and extreme issues that students can walk into the classroom with-and this is not always visible to people around the student.  While some students exhibit behaviors that tell the teacher something isn’t right in life, other students can shut down completely, or put on the “I’m fine” face.  I truly appreciate teachers like Lisa who are brave enough to take valuable class time and teach students skills and tools that let them feel in control of how to react and get through challenges in life. 

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All Teachers Who Love Frankenstein: Read Charlotte Gordon’s Amazing Duo Biography

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary ShelleyRomantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two women who never truly met, whose lives intertwine and mirror each other in surprising and alarming experiences, create a masterfully told story of a past that is constantly being rewritten. No matter how much you know about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, this book reveals the passions and struggles faced by all women in the time periods and every reader will gain historical insights that help bring literature to life.

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Is Grading a Student-Centered Practice? Part 1

The Art of Grading

Last year, a student emailed me during the final week of school:

Dear Mrs. Lee,

I see you’ve given me a D.  I want you to know I really tried in your class.  I think I deserve a better grade than a D.  If you don’t, well then I guess I don’t.

I checked the grades and her point average, a 62%, clearly point to a D.  I’ve done my job, right? She earned a D, she gets a D. But something doesn’t feel right about simply boiling everything down to a number in a grading app to represent a three-dimensional student.  I do further research:

  • Reviewing her essays, she writes tons of interesting details about the text; however, there is not any structure, or any of the component parts of an essay.
  • Her attendance is near perfect
  • In her other classes, she has all Fails, and one D
  • The previous year, she had all Fails and one D.
  • I reflect on how many insightful comments and questions she asked throughout the year.

Is it possible that something is being overlooked? Is there a part of student performance and engagement in the classroom that can’t be captured by grades? As a teacher of students with special needs, I am almost numb to the amount of Ds and Fs my students receive from the collection of their classes.  The lesson my student learned last year, as evidenced in the email, is the lesson I want all students to learn: self-advocacy.  She definitely has a voice and a healthy perspective on her worth as a student.

The Problem

There is a quote arguably  attributed on the internet to Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  This same sentiment has been made into cartoon sketches, videos, and it is often used for Special Education professional development.  Despite this focus in schools on Universal Design, alternative assessments, choices in expression of knowledge, many students in special education programs continue to have multiple Fails because they don’t measure up to the rubric, the standards, the points.

I haven’t figured out how to articulate this thought clearly, but I will attempt to get the gist of it here.  If students can do something, they get an A or B or C.  If they can’t do it, they are graded and punished for what they do not know how to do on demand, in a certain format, under specific time constraints.  While discussing this at a table with colleagues, a teacher voiced her opposition:

The Art of Grading

Obviously this is not my position.  However, for students that consistently earn Ds and Fs, the effort to show-up is immeasurable.  MindShift published an article, “The Emotional Weight of Being Graded, for Better or for Worse,” that discusses the impact of ‘bad’ grades on students’ mental health.  Additionally, one professor of neuroscience and psychology is quoted several times explaining that students assess their own knowledge of a subject based on the grade they receive, and also, students are emotionally attached to the grades, which can dictate if they like or dislike the subject. Therefore, if a student Fails a class, s/he will feel that s/he does not know anything pertaining to the topic, and the student will develop an aversion to the subject because s/he received a negative grade in the class.  Considering I work with teens with special needs who often have difficulties acknowledging, naming, and expressing their emotions, it is difficult to comprehend how damaging receiving 3-4 Ds and Fs on every report card is to their general feelings about education and self-worth.

While the emotional needs of a student cannot be a basis for assigning a grade, it is equally inappropriate to state that students who receive Ds and Fs aren’t trying hard enough in class. My teaching philosophy is that every kid wants to learn.  There are multiple reasons why it can appear to a teacher that a student isn’t ‘trying hard enough.’ When a student struggles to understand a concept or subject, often, the student doesn’t understand how to ‘try.’ Sometimes teachers say, “All I want is for him to try,”-and when he attempts to–the result is the same D or F as he earned before this assignment.

At my table of colleagues, I told the story of a student who joined my English class in the middle of the year.  He’s an 11th grader who has never attended a school for more than 10-20 days in a row.  Many grade levels he did not even experience.  He tells me about helping his grandmother set out products on the street in downtown LA to sell at 4 in the morning.  The first writing assignment he completed in my class consisted of one sentence.  Each assignment afterwards, I had someone helping him, even if it was an assessment–so that he could learn how to write a formal response to a text.  We just completed a comparison essay on The Crucible and “Half-Hanged Mary” and he wrote the entire paper by himself.  He wrote three full paragraphs that showed his position and used evidence from the two texts to support his position.  I was thrilled beyond belief for his accomplishment; however, if I graded him on a rubric, he would receive a D or an F.  He did not have any of the three components of an introduction paragraph, he did not write using transitions, and he did not have an in-depth analysis of each text. Despite this, while reading his paper, I felt like I was on a bicycle for the first time, riding without my hands, with a cool breeze guiding me to the next destination–and I know he had to have a similar feeling about his work and effort.

Possible Solutions

In the planning stages, I thought I could get all of my ideas in to one blog post.  However, after writing everything, I will add a part two to discuss how I plan to approach grading for the next school year.

 

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#LABookFest Take-Aways

Luis J. Rodriguez 22 April 2017
Poetry is Magic

“Books saved my life” is the quote that stands with me after watching Luis J. Rodriguez read from his new poetry book, Borrowed Bones.  My students have always read books from Rodriguez. At first, it was kids from foster homes that gravitated to the Rodriguez biography, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L. A. But now, you could walk in and find any variety of students reading the first biography, or It Calls You Back.  As for myself, I’ve only read a couple of his poetry books: The Concrete River and My Nature is Hunger: New and Selected Poems 1989-2004.

Rodriguez is personable and he writes with a realism that can make you laugh, or feel the twist of a blade. Though I’ve had so many students read his books, though his book is so often stolen from libraries by kids who might also be able to say: A book saved my life, there were very few people out in the morning to see the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles share his work.  Regardless, he told stories as if he was among friends that he hadn’t seen in a long time.

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My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s Short Review

My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson'sMy Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s by Peter Dunlap-Shohl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Peter, a charming, comedic man with a cute dog, begins his story at 43. The first chapter, “Diagnosis Blues,” introduces Parkinson’s Disease (PD) as a psychedelic meteor that disrupts all aspects of life, and needs the intervention of a certain ‘angel.’ Will Peter outlive his suicidal thoughts?

After reading the first 4 chapters, turning off the lights for a later -than-normal bedtime of midnight, I was compelled to flip the switch and complete the final chapters. Dunlap-Shohl is insanely talented at layouts, designs, coloring, storytelling, metaphors, and metacognition. I recommend this book to everyone who enjoys intelligent, comedic, real-life narratives.

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Check-out these engaging blogs from Peter-Dunlap-Shohl:

Frozen Grin

Off & On, The Alaskan Parkinson’s Rag

 

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