Tag Archives: English literacy…

Hot Town; Summer in the City

More than Semantics

Difference between then and now:

Bankrupt currently has a high status notation- in an unusual twist bankrupt (today) seems to imply the ultimate risks were taken, a business was created, failure was the result of any number of things, and one may now join the ranks of iconic success stories for rebounding; after all bankrupt tends only to affect one’s business aspects not one’s personal assets so the ability to live through bankruptcy is allowed. In contrast being broke suggests stupidity, not understanding how to play the high stakes financial games, not borrowing effectively which translates to borrowing without penalty something that big businesses may be getting away with all the time, or simply “not savvy” – perhaps less than astute when it comes to knowing whom to “play” during the building process. Plus once one has attained a certain financial level then there are ways to “own” more than one company and to sell off, walk away from, or to bankrupt one of the businesses while still thriving through another. Now contrast these relatively comfortable situations with the image of a person on social assistance of any kind. Add to that person the stigma of living in a social housing unit. Big problem now to access financial advice let alone assistance in a meaningful way. Broke has only stigma attached to it- zero glamour, even less than zero expectations. But, say people, bootstrapping is still possible? Not without shoes!

Charles Dickens wrote of debtors’ prisons because he had knowledge of the ways in which society affected individual opportunity. His writing is now considered part of “classic English literature” and to an extent relegated to the sidelines for the readers capable of enjoying his in depth descriptions and his very strong points of view. For many, his general story line is accepted as the story expressed via movies that have been created around his characters, Scrooge from a Christmas Carol representing “the terrible boss”, Oliver in Oliver Twist, representing fairy tale dreams of rescue for orphaned children or any child wishing a different situation, Little Dorrit and “good character” winning over moneyed positions; these stereotypical characters were meant to share with real people some basic flaws in the social organization of Dickens’ time. Real people being the readers, who could readily recognize both the exaggeration within the fictional character descriptions and the real “truth” the novels themselves were sharing about the big thematic issue of social evolution. In Dickens’ times, debtors’ prisons enclosed a society; today we have social housing which when truly examined offers little benefit over the debtors’ prison of yore however people apparently strive to access social housing; newspapers would suggest that the line up to get into such “projects” is enormous. The debtors’ prison Dickens portrays was a punishment and recognized for the soul crushing environment and the stigma it produced. Social housing however attempts to suggest it is a “leg up” and here I must question “for whom” as the statistics about current individuals “escaping” the social housing situation is limited if in existence at all.

These thoughts are with me today with the end of a school year arriving and many students not running off to luxury camps and marvellous trips and the expectation of “amazing” experiences. I also recently reviewed the book “Just Kids from the Bronx” an Oral History compiled by Arlene Alda, released this year, 2015. The author interviews over 60 successful and famous folk who originated in the Bronx, New York. In reading many of the stories what became clear was that many were children of recent immigrants, and accepted that within their mixed communities, the pressure to succeed, the dual emphasis on work and education, mixed with the knowledge that they were “broke” in comparison to other regions in the state such as Central Manhattan and its upper East or West side, and attaining a higher income and achieving a better lifestyle was not only doable but expected! The concept of “you can do it” was actually more “you must do it” – there were no big educational mantras as we have today discussing “mindsets”, nor discussions of “Grit” versus “learned helplessness” instead there were visible options, hard work , a generous application of luck and steady if not always agreeable, goals to be crossed off and achieved. Yes this is a book about “success stories” but it is also a nostalgic look back at an area that had been “low economic” yet propelled many to other levels. Very different then from social projects of today which appear to suggest “stop complaining; you already have a roof over your head”, and which enclose low income communities more to “protect” the wealthier neighbours than to provide a stepping stone for the working poor.

However as an educator what also stood out for me in the variety of stories were the “crucial wake up calls from teachers who recognized potential”. Note the use of the word “crucial”; necessary today as then to be validated, to have others suggest that talent or desire to practice is a valid goal. Amazingly, the collection of stories is lauded as not only inspiring but “proof” that the “American dream” (success on one’s own terms) remains achievable. Disclaimer- I had the pleasure of living in New York and genuinely agreeing with the song “if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere; New York, New York!” New York seemed to be alive with people, and in the middle eighties many of these people were literally in the streets, entertaining, busking, dancing, proclaiming, and it seemed, anticipating our appreciative discovery of them. Walking was a given, and one could expect that not only would the sidewalks be crowded, but also so would just about everywhere else! Yet one found private spaces, and began to revel in how much the city itself appeared to pulse, how energy encouraged energy, and how very much art, and appreciation of the arts was prevalent on every corner. For educators this IS important, and a close rereading of many of the narratives reminds that even with the educational structures that today are considered taboo such as streaming of students based on expected abilities, school and the place it played for many balanced the idea of work to survive with work that will allow one to thrive. Artists and scientists and business executives remind that it is not the grades of A’s versus C’s that could make one feel “inadequate” ; it is being ignored. I blogged elsewhere about recognizing the quiet ones in a classroom; we also need to recognize the one’s who may appear to deliberately be craving attention and not dismiss them under today’s current structure of labelling.

The stories of the Bronx do change over time, as did the area. What begins as recollections of “community space” slowly becomes like the above mentioned “contained” areas that social projects turn into. I was struck by the following sentences; “It has to do with what the horizon looks like. The horizon from the South Bronx was limited to an everyday survival worry about clothing and shelter…” (in contrast to) “It is one of the gifts of a place like Allen-Stevenson (a school)…that they not only educate you, but they open up limitless horizons for you. My course was changed and set from that moment in fourth grade when a teacher decided to take matters into his own hands.” Wow! What an inspiring positive reaffirmation for Educators! To be reminded that being in the field can make a difference, and to recognize that sometimes little gestures make for opportunities.  

 

A side note: Libraries, museums, free concerts, outdoor theatre, writing challenges, are also mentioned for their affirmative value in suggesting that creativity is to be enjoyed, and encouraged in various avenues. Summer in the city does offer “amazing experiences” however they might be of a more personal nature than the group camp experience or the community activity. And one needn’t be in New York State to seek what is offered closer to home. Summer wishes: keep reading and writing!

 

“Limitless horizons”…lovely thoughts               

 

Second Sunday in May? Mother’s Day

Playing Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and wondering how these four men managed to capture beautifully in lyric and score the feelings of parents; so deeply moving when we do “look at them and sigh, and know they love you…”

Grace and beauty just walked out the door together, intent on a project and pleased to share – and I feeling truly blessed have the afternoon “free”, and time to catch up with writing, reading, cleaning (housework rarely takes care of itself), and Yes, Thinking.  So often we are deluged with activities that simple “quiet time” now comes at a premium, to be cherished and appreciated.

Mother’s day for me began the minute I knew I was pregnant with each of them, and has continued daily since; blessed with a son and a daughter, each uniquely capable and caring, and filled with that exuberance of personality that needn’t be restricted but ought to be unleashed- “Hello World”- they are ready for you!  And as a Mom, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

And as always, special good wishes to the parents of the children I am fortunate to have taught and  those I continue to work with- You are Amazing

Enjoy the day!  And if you have the minute- give a listen to “Teach the Children”

Red Herrings and Holiday Musings

RED HERRINGS
In mystery writing, the red herring is the suggestion of a clue- it also misleads the reader as well as the mystery solver. In real life people too are given red herrings- that is – led astray with diversions – tactics meant to exhaust rather than help and which over time wear a person out. When I was beginning my divorce, so many games ensued until I finally stood up in court and said “stop.” But a few years later the very agency claiming to “help” me also created games, of an even nastier nature. When my children were little, I had the energy to be up at 5:30 on a Sunday morning and out the door with two kids in tow hoisting a hockey bag and all the needed equipment for a 7:am practice- we became very familiar with the early am bus drivers! And I grew adept at juggling as many a new parent learns; to organize as much as possible the evening before, to have snacks and treats already in the bag, to bring an activity for the one not playing, and to be ready to cheer for the one on the ice.

Slowly the children do grow up and being able to communicate with their teachers was a blessing. My own background combined education and anthropology, the former allowed me to practice and be hands-on in encouraging, hands-off when it came to the doing of the homework and the practical matters, the latter was a reminder that there is more than one system of learning, and that learning is how all skills are acquired.

And so I once again accepted delayed gratification and put the personal pursuit of higher level credentials on a back burner while accepting almost any and every type of work that would still offer the much needed flexibility a single parent requires. To paraphrase Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) I never let schooling get in the way of real life. And with every day providing further challenges, and positive reinforcement by way of those oh so meaningful little, and sometimes big, gestures which our children offer to us, I turn now and marvel at my young adult children who generously and caringly offer love and affection.

I won’t pretend it was a cake walk- not at all. When we as parents see a child in pain, all caution goes out the window; and each of us can probably recall or if your children are young and growing through the growing pains, can relate to the feeling of pure helplessness at times when one or the other is unwell, and the prayers sent to all the heavens above until the danger is passed. However prayer is only one part of it- action here on earth being as necessary, it seems this long weekend of spiritual experiences and traditions steeped in tales of action and renewal, is a genuine reminder of how much each of us as adults were indeed influenced by personal tales of experiences and challenges that ultimately were overcome.

That other red herring mentioned above? It was an ugly, nasty business that caused headache and heartache, money and time- but- like red herrings in novels, I am able to realize now that it was a diversion and while not yet ready to “laugh about it” am able to recognize that the blessings of friends and genuine caring made me never lose sight of the big picture goals. People ask me why I teach, and I have realized that it is more complicated than a quick surface response would allow. When a learner gains confidence – be it a child in the early grades or an adult changing professions, I am grateful that the experiences I am able to share can actually help another. And it is such a genuine treat to learn with them- to continue to share in the excitement and frustrations that learning any activity may provide; if educating means encouraging thinking and while supplying possible solutions also giving way to a learner’s discovery of a personal path, then one can’t expect every lesson to be ‘magical’ nor every paper to be polished- one can however relish the surprise twists in the learning challenges, be ready to pivot when a student requires it, and if lucky – be there when they surprise themselves with their own achievements.

Holiday and ritual practice may attempt to take the “mystery” out of life by prescribing a set of practices- red herrings as they provide a type of clue, and a diversion from the everyday – they link us to the past and when about redemption or rebirth, remind us how the power of story can transcend a time and a place, can provide hope, and does share the wisdom of experience. But life itself- to me anyhow, remains wonderfully mysterious.

Fiction-Literacy and Action

Considering my own book shelves  makes it clear that the concept of telling a story in pieces has a longer history- much pre-dating the blogging period.

Harriet Beecher Stowe so famous for the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin published in March 1852, first attracted readers when she published her pieces in an abolitionist newspaper- apparently as a 45 part seriesimagine (!) the excitement for readers when the whole collection was bound and then shared as a complete volume  – actually a two volume book.  Today she is credited with helping to change public opinion globally about slavery– the books having been sold and translated and shipped across the world.  Charles Dickens is another author whose concerns about (1836 and on) social conditions also managed to attract a large audience through the newspapers- publishing his stories in serial installments and generating what today we refer to as  a “buzz” or word of mouth excitement – we tweet about our favorite tv shows/movie character/ musicians, references to the character’s exploits, and -perhaps- consider the situations in reference to contemporary social issues.  Both Dickens and Stowe knew that their stories would only work if readers could recognize the “truth” within the stereotype and character.  And today?  we bemoan the retirement of a TV personality like John Stewart whose regular satire allowed us as viewers to poke a bit of fun at ourselves, while being made aware of very real social issues. And in installments, with each episode capable of illustrating a current concern while the big picture “story” of recognizing social justice/injustice was never far from the scene. 

Perhaps news as “NEWS” – social issues horrific and frightening at times not only have become almost commonplace but require the distilling through a commercial lens.  Can we laugh at the horror? ought we too? and if not laugh, can we empathize with the struggles of others?  Dicken’s famous character Scrooge, epitomizes to many what may have been lost in terms of charitable feelings when people became commodities /objects at a factory and as dispensable or replaceable as any part in a machine – but the story holds sway and stays in people’s minds because we are presented with the three ghosts and the ideal of being able to change the future through present action.  Scrooge actually changes and while not a fairy tale, Dicken’s story provided for this awakening, this way to merge owner and worker, in this space we call humanity.  Harriet Beecher Stowe not only united many in the fight to end slavery, she also united women in an amazing cross cultural and cross economic fashion, when women signed a petition to become vocal on a political level, expressing their outrage at the continuation of practices that set one group of people against another.  Fiction then can change lives when readers have access to the story, and opportunity to care deeply, passionately about others.

But the books and authors mentioned also brought together their personal experiences and their ability to craft a story through researching the lived experiences of others- when teaching and analyzing novels with students it seems imperative to make clear that imagination isn’t either “out there” as a thing itself, or solely inside as a personality trait but is indeed an action, practiced, encouraged, developed and extended which each student is capable  of accessing within him or her self.  Some become better at the craft of sharing this trait- the ability to design in any fashion demands imagination what ever field- the ability to care? I would like to think it is innate if not always encouraged.

Music to teach by:

Early morning, and as light flashed through the blinds and the sounds of a new day began with the street rumble my brain kept hearing David Bowie singing “Ch-Ch changes”, and I found myself marveling at how the singer’s vocals had so captured the feelings of worry and confusion major changes might bring on.  The near stutter evoked palpable fear- and the lyrics continue to suggest why and how major social upheavals will produce this worry.  We have mottoes today such as “change is good” and websites “teaching” how to be a disruptor, yet if people were actually to follow a blueprint for disruption then the bandwagon effect of everyone doing pretty much the same thing happens, and little “ch-ch change ” actually occurs.

Technology and education go together and regardless of what age or grade level one may be  working with, most educators do make use of various forms of “equipment”- computer, phone, i-pad, smart board, digital cameras, and even the lesser in vogue today but which schools may have on hand, audiovisual equipment such as TVs, and overhead projectors.  But the change today is to almost insist that the students are the ones offering the lesson in order to have them demonstrate some understanding of subject matter.   Academics still demands testing, be it in the form of board wide generated formal exams that are meant to provide a summative overview of where a group of students may fit within the big picture perspective of “learning goals” ( formally called objectives) or in the everyone”must” first acquire testing that either welcomes or eliminates students from moving to new levels  (any pre – program assessment test from the SAT through the GRE).

So what really has changed?  The day to day encouragement which in some ways may be reminiscent of apprenticeships of old, with a slight slant.  Many of the younger generation are technologically “gifted” that is swift learners when it comes to using and applying new technology, however this technology to “make sense” of Academic goals is still applied as a “tool” for learning, rather than the end means in and of itself.  Learning coding becomes a new strand neatly placed alongside IT courses, when really it could be right up there with Language Arts- coding is a form of communication – not only do computers speak with one another, but the person versed in code understands a language as does the person using vocabulary specific to any field of study.  And like the acquisition of any new skill, some basics must be learned /applied/understood, before the “creative” aspect that leads to “ch-ch changes” or real innovation will be demonstrated.

Bowie’s  song with its direct appeal that we ought to “turn and face the strange”  continues to be of value- when listening to ( “but I”) “can’t trace time” , the clear concept of a younger generation not becoming a carbon copy of its predecessors but instead further innovating and adding to the picture as a whole is both “disruptive” and positive-the singer readily acknowledging that time itself  may change him-allowing for his own growing and changing, as a reminder that it is not mere rebellion but is new direction.

Has education really changed? Or are we merely participating in that ripple effect which technological changes create? Bottom line, as educators, we are compelled to encourage the students to question-when they do so -like Bowie-they too may “ch-ch-change” things up.

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.

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.

12 steps for essay writing

Was preparing this set of 12 steps with a student and realized they will benefit all:
Step 1) brainstorm or thinking about all the different ideas
Step 2) putting these ideas onto paper (or the internet)- in any order
              some students make lists
              some students draw “mind maps”
              some students like to draw and fill in the “clouds”
                   some students even doodle or draw the things they are thinking about!
Step 3)  using point form- and a mixture of sentences – write down the main points that you remember without needing to look these points up- you may reference material later.
Step 4)  If you need to support your ideas with facts from research- or from the novel, or from statistics…now is the time to add those facts beside the points you wrote for step 3
Step  5)  You are ready to number your points and to join ideas so that the reader will understand what ideas go together
Step 6)   the notes you make in class or on your own- refer back to them- have you left any important point out? could you add to the writing with any other description or fact?
Step 7)   write the rough copy
Step 8)   wait at least one day
step 9)   reread the rough copy? what could be improved? what do you think will make it better?
Step 10)   type up your first draft/ read this aloud – listen, does it seem to tell a story? Are the ideas clear?
Step 11)  check your punctuation and spelling
Step 12) now type up the good copy to hand in  🙂
———————————————————————-
Things to remember:
If a teacher asks a specific question- you must answer this question.
If a teacher leaves it up to you, as the student, to “create” a response- begin with asking yourself a question!

Participatory Action

Giving Thanks –

For friends who mean it

For children one is blessed with

For abilities even if not always being allowed to share them

For love- in the way my children grow and develop

For knowledge, that others contribute and share

For history- personal and global- that helps when things need to be placed in perspective

For laughter- the personal chuckle and the broad belly burst

For today

Having spent a number of years in the States,  November continues to mean Thanksgiving- a time when the country appeared to generate goodwill, and when giving thanks on a personal level, regardless of religion or ethnic background, allowed for sharing; giving thanks for simply being able to.

Education via Barney!

Do you remember Barney and his Backyard Gang?

” I love you – you love me”…  the song was infectious and the children’s show a simple reminder that children could play and learn together within a variety of age groups- whom ever happened to people their neighborhood.   I had been doing graduate work in both anthropology and linguistics- plus education, as they are indeed entwined- and the furor caused by the introduction of Barney’s little sister and whether she, TV character and role model that she was, should speak English “properly” or the way a two year old might actually articulate continues to resonate – particularly when writing conferences happen and student’s wish to “break the rules”.  Sociolinguistics is a field of practice that looks closely at speech patterns, the ones we actually use when we communicate together.  And writers tend to listen and observe these speech patterns too.  For this reason characters to be believable must sound like they would if overheard on the street.  Since few children at age two have their grammar in sync with the adult world and even adults do get confused over the “proper” use of the word “me”, hearing a TV character proclaim “me want to go too!” may have rung “true” to the majority of the watchers as to how a child would talk, however, being a role model (even if a furry dinosaur), the prescribed “I want to go too”, became mandatory for the show to be labelled enriching, and to be “OK” for kids as an educational viewing.

Problem- overuse of the word “I” has meant that one hardly ever hears anyone use the word “me” anymore- and while I can’t track this to the above mentioned Barney TV show- I do know that students of all ages have trouble placing the object in its expected situation because they rarely hear it in use outside of grammar books-  The ubiquitous “I” is the noun now that often causes the most confusion- “Please give it to ______?  (me- belongs in the blank) – so simple refresher here:

you and I – can we substitute the word “we”

you and me – can we substitute the word “us”

And if writing dialogue and you “just know” that is how a person really would speak- by all means share the sounds as you have heard them; however, if answering a formal set of questions where grammar is expected to be “just so”- then review the basic expected constructs and create a few simple guidelines for yourself.  For example, if there are particular structures that you find a reader/teacher nearly always circles and suggests could be improved, focus on these to begin, reminding oneself- “check the verb tenses”, or  “have I looked it over for transitional connecting sentences between paragraphs?”  By recognizing one’s own form of practice it can be easier to begin the needed proofing of a draft- Oh hadn’t I mentioned this? yes- after the brainstorming and the rough draft comes a mini-break- then the proofing and editing / and most important of all- the handing it in!