Modern Women of Influence

Too often it seems the “classic” women of influence are early suffragettes and women who made a difference as “sidekick” to the men who in their time received the accolades.  So classes of students may “discover” that in addition to Watson and Crick and the DNA model there was Rosalind Elsie Franklin, molecular biologist, and then students may question what is meant by the term”sexism”.  My problem with any learning that appears to polarize rather than to unite is that reductive and reactive stance; men were credited- women were ignored.  Perhaps a change of pace would have some looking into the “men behind the women”, noting for example that although a writer like George Sand had to take on a pseudonym to first be seen as an independent author (and then read) being a ‘special friend’ to Chopin didn’t hurt her creativity or her career.  Or take George Elliot ( George appears to have been a popular choice of male name for female writers !) born Mary Ann (Marian) Evans, her biography reminds one that her positive relationship with philosopher and critic George (actual name- male) Henry Lewis may have contributed to her prolific writing and the novel Middlemarch.   

When we share stories of strong females, we have an opportunity to also speak about social change over time, to note where and when women had influence: ancient Egypt had a female Pharaoh, China an Empress dowager, and Britain (today and) in its history many a powerful Queen.

Fast forward to Madonna and Beyonce- female powerhouse singers, dancers, entertainers, breaking the financial barriers too!  Beyonce’s start was as lead singer with the musical group Destiny’s Child- a group managed by her dad – who apparently resigned from his job to manage the  group.  Madonna remains unique in her determination, and her quote: In 1996* she said: “I came to the realization that a strong female is frightening to everybody, because all societies are male-dominated – black societies, poor people, rich people, any racial group, they’re all dominated by men. A strong female is going to threaten everybody across the board.” ( *amybrown.net)

The quote in itself opens discussion.  Why should strength on the part of a female be threatening? When and where have societies embraced rather than obscured female talent? How do politics/economics/education and opportunity inter-mesh, and in what ways can history enlighten girls of today – offering both a form of mentoring (they did it!) and a timeline with potential for further changes. Of course not only history: sports, the arts, politics, economics, current leaders, modern technology; examples abound and females of influence may be found in each sphere. Please remember though- women and men make up the whole, and society benefits when both genders are open to communication; to fully celebrate women of influence let’s not create a further polemic and instead encourage mutual appreciation, and keep the whole class curious about invoking positive social change.

More time for the “Arts”

Movie watching.  144 minutes of complete entertainment and at the end an awareness that to share it in a school setting would require a tremendous amount of juggling between timetables.  Over two hours and each minute compelling, meant breaking it into 45-50 minute “chunks” would simply render the movie an antique, and remove the energy and enthusiasm and challenge the story itself presented.   In my “ideal” school design, there would be a viewing room where students would be able to have a deeper experience with the medium than the short and at times chopped up viewings that are often given to a class.  Many of the older films took seriously the concept that a story could be explored, even while allowing a viewer to come to one’s own conclusions about the characters- neither preachy nor in one’s face with action and special effects, the mood was capable of offering both the “escape” (from regular routine) and the challenge to empathetic response that the arts – participation in the arts- encourages.

For the record this wasn’t a film that I had watched before, nor was it in English- subtitles helped but the sounds of the language in which it was set made for extra enjoyment.  And Empathy with a capital E; first offered in the 1960s, in black and white, the “foreign” setting added to the tone, while images of high style juxtaposed with the very gritty, both romanticized and de-glamourized a life of crime.

The High School students I have worked with are often craving a change of pace and a chance to deeply explore ideas.  Going deeper suggests examining the layers of nuanced information, unpacking a story both for the content and for the way it was presented.  Project based learning, flipped classrooms, to test or not to test…back and forth the arguments are waged and emphasis placed on “real world” material- translation- will the learning later provide “work”?  Given that no singular style of classroom setting, no singular type of testing, no singular school environment has been proven to actually “guarantee” students a future with the possible exception of ‘apprentice’ style learning and then “owning” a mentor’s position, it seems relevant to suggest that instead of declaring “empathy” a needed character trait that schools are now to “teach” within programs variously labelled  and meant to promote Character Development – why not offer students a chance to debate, and care about others in situations beyond their personal experiences?  After all, empathy demystifies the “other” ,  recognizing instead the similarities over the differences.

STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, ART and Math- please don’t forget about the A.

Differentiated Instruction

A request came to elaborate on my last blog post, and clarify how a similar lesson was offered in different fashion to different students.  The Topic was the “Chinese New Year”  and I had mentioned in the last blog post how a couple of  students questioned the widely used title for the holiday- feeling the title had ignored their place of birth and own celebrations.

Together we discussed how families celebrate holidays, and looked at the skeleton of a human body.  The lesson moved on to talk about how skeletons may appear basically similar but the skin and outer garments of a person suggest both our similarities and our differences.  Then, we created an outline for the holiday itself- the Lunar Calendar, and using a combination of graphic charts, Venn diagrams, and reference material, on and off line, were able to highlight how and where the material – reference material- differed from the student’s personal practical knowledge.  His way of celebrating within his family- the specific traditions- became the focus of a written piece, the general traditions which appeared in common to the people of China and the other South Asian communities which we had looked up became affixed to a poster, and diagrams were extended to highlight how and where traditions may have changed, with reference to a timeline.

A simple question formed the basis of a full project, leading to a number of sessions while one aspect of inquiry encouraged deeper research and the review of geography plus history texts.  Given that literacy involves more than the deciphering of words on a page, the project enhanced literacy and began to involve math as well.  Statistics present in population charts, and cultural change over time brought us back to the present day, and the ways in which a topic may be extended.   Another student not of South Asian background had grown curious and was given the task of sharing one of his family customs- provided similar effort at understanding background and connecting the personal to the global would be shared.

The students were of different ages and at different grade levels- the expectation then was for the project work to demonstrate their different understanding of “how much is enough” – by not setting a page limit or restricting the amount they could share, the students “created”  work to share and were influenced by peer comments- questions and responses which I encouraged them to write down.  This was not a full class project – other students were working on other activities.  And it is only one example of how educators must become more open to what students may be asking, and when their students are craving some outside- of- routine work.

Much as I have put aside the assigned test prep packages and instead suggested articles in the Economist and other magazines to higher level students prepping for standardized  tests, and saw the test scores of said students jump – it was a pleasure to see the interest in the younger  students mentioned above, and to note that  when the standardized tests were offered, these students scored high as well.

Students had been encouraged to look for patterns, and to develop a personal set of inquiry based responses to their readings.  They were also encouraged to aim for accuracy over speed.

My personal pet wish: that the learning which goes into programming for students deemed “special ed”, be they remedial or gifted, would be training encouraged and expected for all new incoming teachers, so that differentiated instruction could become a part of programming across the board, and in large sized classes the movement among groups of students become more fluid.  Students themselves quickly absorb attempts to stream, and note which tables they are seated at, which work they are given, and which level they are expected to participate at.  Mind set and flow-two ideas that are meant to work together.

Multi-culturalism and learning

Young student to his teacher, ” Why do they call it ‘Chinese New Year’? I’m from Vietnam and I celebrate it too!”

Maps, look at population charts, find some of the history for both countries, discuss foods, customs, language, and what it means to celebrate in a “home country” versus in an adopted country.

Recall and share a comment from another student “Russia is part of Asia too!” – once again maps, populations charts, history…

What it really means to teach a “diverse group of students”.  It means to be aware, to be open, to respect cultural differences, to recognize family practices versus “global” ideals.  And to learn with one’s students.  When we learn together, we give each other “voice” and when we listen we move beyond words and expected understanding of the words to the personal and how each student may or may not “relate” to a concept.

Kindergarten through grade 12 and for many – a number of years in post secondary- that is really a lot of time in the places we label “school”.  As educators we need to be aware of how our own understanding of vulnerability is affected when children voice their confusion, and to join the students in their research and review of concepts that adults may be “taking for granted”.  Our purpose after all is to encourage their thinking skills, their curiousity, and their desire to learn more.  But first we do have to create a safe space wherein they may question us.  And if we do not have the immediate answer- or better yet if we ignore the immediate answer and instead join with our students in the search for answers, we just may be modelling what inquiry – makers, and doers, is all about.

To all who may be celebrating the Lunar New Year Festivities- Enjoy!

Reading Week- or Spring break?

Officially it is reading week for University students starting next week in Ontario- but for many it means vacations to …

Plus we have Valentine’s day and Family Day- a double long weekend of activities and it seems then a picture or two will set the scene: Whether on the slopes or swimming at a beach or in town and playing tourist at all the local spaces- HAVE Some FUN!

children-playing-philippines_40412_600x450

Two novels: multiple lesson plans


Little Women and/ or/ versus/ Gone with the Wind

Two classics


Neither story only for “girls” though Gone with the Wind may have more “action and adventure” while Little Women tends to be about domestic events both stories give different insights into the period of time known as “the Civil War”- American.  And boys will read and get interested in the history of the events, for both stories offer a reader a stylized “first hand” look at how war affects the personal.   Never “just political” -War invades and permeates the two stories, and with one set in the North East (Concord) while the other gives readers a Southern perspective, what both do share is a female perspective on events.  “Rosie the Riveter” may adorn posters and suggest that women played a part in going to work and taking over factory jobs in the 1900s((often volunteer positions during WW11)- what Little Women shares is how minus the male in the household, the March family girls HAVE to earn a living and doing so is neither “ordinary” nor at times “pleasant”.  Heroine Jo has a patchworked dress and only one glove to wear- Scarlett of Gone with the Wind fame manages an outfit made from former curtains- yards of extravagant material reworked, and hands that display her manual labour in the fields- bereft of gloves, they show blisters.

Close reading provides further details into what each author saw as values related to the times, however Ms. Alcott experienced the Civil war, while Margaret Mitchell recreated it.  This in itself is a question for a class to consider- the personal first hand knowledge of events versus research to highlight and backdrop a love story.  And some may even argue that Gone with the Wind is not a classic, however as a tale that grabs at one and simultaneously presents a reader with characters who later become almost archetypes for a period, Gone with the Wind deserves a review.  The text also presents strong images of plantation life and automatically lends itself to discussion of contrasting tales, tales written by former slaves, and more recent authors, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou rounded off with material from:

http://www.besthistorysites.net/index.php/american-history/1900/civil-rights

Writing this from my current perch in Toronto, Canada, and hoping that it won’t be seen as only for those in the United States- we live in a global time, and are bombarded by images of what ever is taking place elsewhere.  Because of this it can be difficult for students to comprehend facts of history if presented as bare facts; stories that weave the caring of people for one another make real the inter-relatedness of events- even in a pre- internet, pre -modern- technology time period.  Louisa May Alcott knew Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau two icons of American thinking and persons who ought to be discussed in conjunction with a class talk featuring American History, civil rights, Black History Month and today’s consciousness.

And if time permits – share the movies, but please-  have a few departments open up the time to show a movie properly- not in segments and pieces but as a sweeping event- when a holistic approach is taken to education, when the history department and the language arts department, and the science (imagine the topics for a discussion on technology/weapons, agriculture/communication per time period) department and today’s IT department collaborate, the message will become clear; the school cares.

( going to call this a”soap box” pitch and will be adding to the series )

Answers and more questions

Groundhog Day- and being originally from the midwest I and my neighbours knew, regardless of what the groundhog displayed, there WAS going to be a lot more winter weather!

Still, this mini-event, televised and discussed, makes for reflection: halfway through a school year- the typical, “why do you teach?” question arises.  

In a nutshell: the reflection of pure thinking, joy in recognition of understanding, comfort when an idea registers, communication without guile-it is a total delight to hear a learner puzzling over an idea, considering a new concept, and when the struggling occurs- working through the problem towards some level of resolution.   As a result the joy I take in sharing my education, and the comfort learners experience when the lessons lead to results – here I will clarify- results on “standardized” tests – yes- but more importantly results in desire to learn more…

It is after all- that desire to learn more, that pushes the educators I have been blessed with meeting and working with to continue to not only teach but also-Learn.  Yes, today I offer private lessons, based on years of accumulated instruction in public and private institutions, working with both children and adults.  That statement was made to offset any suggestions that tutoring is “easier” than teaching to the class within a formal/traditional setting.  In fact tutoring done well, is extremely challenging, for the student and for the tutor.  Both must be prepared to recognize when challenges occur and to directly change direction if a particular course of study bogs down; for communication to be both given and received, an openness is necessary.

Little is expected of that groundhog- it appears, photos are taken, and Nature continues its course regardless of what was “predicted”.  And so I throw away the crystal ball, forgoing predictions and focusing on the student, the practical and abstract aspect of a lesson, the shy smile, the deep belly laugh, the drawings and sketches, doodles, and comments.  Because one day at a time, change is happening, we need only be open to noticing it.  And to reflecting anew on the questions our students offer, and to remembering that they in fact may be the ones who best supply the answers.