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Great Student Quotes

My students are beginning a project where they take on the identify of a historical figure and create a blog for that person (sometime next week there should be a few different versions of Leonardo Da Vinci's Blog floating around). As a warm up Friday, I asked my students which teacher most reminded them of their historical figure and why. Some of these are too funny and thoughtful not to share:

  • _____ is a person who reminds me of John Locke. John Locke was a philosopher and _____ talks and acts like a philosopher. _____ has a deeper meaning to any question. If you say "Oh, I'm going to get food," _____ would start talking about what that would do to your body in 5 years.
  • The BLS staff member who most reminds me of their person we are doing our project on [Marie Antoinette] is probably _____ just because she's young and pretty.
  • _____ reminds me the most of Issac Newton because he got long hair and he is light skinned.
  • _____ reminds me of Napoleon because he's mean and tries to take over everything.
  • _____ reminds me of Napoleon because he's always changing the rules.
  • _____ because he talks a lot and Galileo sounds like a man who loves to talk about what he does like _____.
  • _____ and Mary [Wollstonecraft] because they both like to voice their opinion and want to be treated as equal.
  • _____ reminds me of him. Issac Newton was a rebel always getting in fights with other people like rivals.
  • The BLS staff member that reminds me of Issac Newton is _____ because _____ and Issac both studied science and they're both brilliant.
  • My person is Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the BLS staff member that reminds me of him is _____. _____ has influenced me in the way that I think and that has helped me quite much. Just as my person has influenced many, _____ have influenced me so much more than anyone I've met.
  • I would say _____ reminds me of John Locke because _____ is trying to change the school into the best high school preparing every student for college with the best teachers. John Locke made a change focusing on equality of human rights.

The Things That Make it Worthwhile

For a week that could have been a low point in my teaching career due to the stress of a new schedule, an expanded teaching load, new class sections (same students, new arrangements), teaching in a new room, not to mention getting grades done and having parent-teacher conferences -- my students came through time and time again this week. Some thoughts:

- Monday, ten of my students stayed after school with me to help me move all teacherly belongings down the hall to my new room. They took all the graded work I had from the end of the previous Trimester and filed them according to our new section groupings. Because of them, we didn't miss a beat in the classroom. I honestly have no idea how I would have gotten through the week without them.

- Sections take on a life of their own, often with some less than desirable habits. With the new sections groups, I saw students from sections that had better habits ensuring that the students from sections not always as pleasant or productive did not continue to have a negative impact on the class. Many of my students stood up and took control of their classmates, laying the groundwork for a successful new beginning.

- Though I dread parent-teacher conferences every year, I left them this year refreshed. They filled me with hope. Either I spent 5-10 minutes praising wonderful students, or I had genuine problem-solving conversations with parents and/or students who genuinely wanted to see improvement in their children or selves. So much of my time and energy feels like it is spent on managing problems, that it was wonderfully invigorating to be able to take some time and focus on the positive. Most of my students due much that deserves praise, and it was wonderful to be able to focus on that for awhile.


Finding Time, Finding a Voice

Just finished up my first trimester of teaching in the Bronx Lab School. I'd like to think I've made some progress -- though I'm only really sure that I've made progress recognizing how much progress I have to make to be the teacher I want to be. I know this is the biggest challenge I've ever faced, and I know that in order to serve my students I need to be much, MUCH better than I am now.

Extra time, unfortunately, seems to have disappeared from my life. I wish I took more time to stop, think, reflect, and write; but it doesn't often happen and I can't imagine it will get any better with the start of the second trimester. My day to day technology responsibilities are officially ending as I will be seeing my students one extra day per week in order to gear up for the New York State Global History Regents Exam in June. I'm glad my mind can be in one place more often, but with four extra hours of class per week, I can't imagine time becoming more available.

I feel like I've posted a half dozen times right now about not being sure what role this blog plays in my teaching. I know I want to model for students (and hopefully, eventually, for other staff members), but I have no idea what that looks like. I'm not sure where I find the voice to keep this going on a consistent basis. I'd be curious if anyone has any recommendations for other teachers/administrators who are blogging without a focus on the intersection of technology and pedagogy (which is already done so well by so many others). Inspiration is always helpful. I am thankful for Chris and Doug each time I see a new post in my Google Reader account to remind me how valuable of a tool this can be.

To end on a more optimistic note, a few of my advisies just published their first pieces on their reading blogs. I want to give them a chance to find their voice (and the spell check tool) before sharing their writing with the world, but I am happy to share the link to My Reading Blog , which should hopefully have student comments on it within the week.

Also, this week, I am eager to be starting a mini-project with my history students inspired by BionicTeacher. My students will be putting together a brief page My Space-like page (unfortunately not actually on My Space, which is blocked even from our administrative computers by the NYC DOE, though no similar services are blocked) for a Renaissance, Reformation, or Enlightenment figure. I'll post to these when they're live in a couple weeks.


BLS Featured in Washington Post

Very interesting and balanced article in the Washington Post today about DC's consideration of the NYC model of mayoral control of schools. I'm certainly benefiting from Bloomberg and Klein's two biggest policy initiatives (small schools, and the autonomy given by the Empowerment Zone), though I would like to see more information and data on the seemingly valid criticisms raised in the article in regards to the overcrowding of schools before wholeheartedly putting my hat in the Bloomberg cheering section.

But of course the real reason I'm posting this is because my school is featured in a very positive light in the article. I had the pleasure of talking with Mr. Nakamura and welcoming him as a guest in my classroom and was very happy to see his positive portrayal of BLS.

Proposal - Blogging in Advisory

Since I won't be blogging as part of my Global History course, we're started having some conversations about where it makes sense to integrate Blogging into our curriculum. Until we have time to set up/test/teach some sort of Moodle and/or Elgg on a school wide basis (which realistically, may not be until the start of the next school year), we are looking for smaller environments to establish a prototype which (in theory) can be copied by other teachers.

I mean this post to serve as a first draft of my thinking in terms of the proposal I will bring to our staff along with Chris, our Tech Team leader who will be joining me in this endeavor.

All our students participate in an Advisory class. Each teacher is responsible for 12-15 students, who they stay with throughout the students' four years at our school. The class meets 40 minutes, four times per week. Advisory is a very dynamic class that wears a lot of different hats. The two most relevant aspects of Advisory for this proposal are Silent Reading and Letter Writing. Two days per week students (and Adviser) participate in Silent Reading, where students spend the Advisory period silently reading a book of their choice. Letter Writing is a two step process. Once per month, I write each of my students a letter. The letter contains three parts: 1) an update on what has been going on in my life the past month (personally and professionally), 2) a summery of what I have read in the past month (analyzing/explaining plot, characters, and themes), and 3) response and questions regarding the students' previous letter to me. The students then write me one letter per month, following the same format.

Ideally, I would like to switch the whole letter writing process from a traditional hand-written letter to blogs. There are two limitations that prevent this from happening. First, computers are charging during the advisory period (and we would not have enough for all advisories anyway). Second, we do not want to loose the privacy and intimacy of the personal parts of the letters (where students often disclose very important personal information). Therefore, Chris and I have developed the following plan to pilot a blogging program in our advisories (I have a 9th grade advisory; Chris has an 11th grade advisory; hopefully a 10th grade advisory will join us).

  • At least 2-4 students from each of our advisories will participate.
  • Once the initial group of students are set up, this will be offered to the remaining students in participating advisories.
  • Participating students will stay after school once a week (though perhaps only once every two weeks will be necessary) in order to have computer access and for Chris and I to help these students get their blogs started.
  • Students will learn about blogging safety and the importance of anonymity as part of their blogging setup.
  • All involved advisers and students will keep a "Reading Blog" which will replace the reading portion of the monthly letter. Their blog posts will consist of what was formerly Part 2 of the Monthley Letters. Part 3 will be replaced by comments left on blogs (adviser comments on students' blogs; students comment on adviser's blog initially, and eventually other students' blogs).
  • Students will continue to write the personal part of the monthly letter directly to their adviser. However, the student will now have the option to submit this portion through e-mail.
  • Initially, students will be required to publish one blog post and one comment per month, though will be encouraged to do more.
  • Blog posts will be assessed by the same criteria that letters are assessed (which differs from advisory to advisory, and in some cases, from student to student)
  • While non-blogging students are writing their letters in Advisory Class, blogging students will either read silently or write a paper draft of their blog posts.
Questions that need to be addressed:
  • Is this open to any adviser who wants to participate? (Chris and I will not have the time to support additional advisories, so if it is open, how and when do other advisers get the necessary training to participate?)
  • What is our school's policy on teachers' anonymity, or lack there of, online? (My first and last name are on this Blog - Is it okay for me also to be using the school's name? I will be setting up a separate blog to use for my reading - since students will be posting there [and I will likely be linking to student work] to I need to refrain from using the school's name and/or my last name to protect students?)
  • What issues are I forgetting here?
In the interest of modeling the type of conversation that blogging makes possible, I have posted this here in order to get feedback from my coworkers and anyone else who has any advice to give. As always, all comments, questions, and suggestions are greatly appreciated.


Outside [The Cave] 2.0

I upgraded to Blogger Beta the other day, and because of this, am still working out some kinks (my old comments are gone, for one). Hopefully this will all sort itself out shortly. Apologies to anyone who got 25 or so odd posts from me in their reader the other day.

New Job, New Roles

(I actually wrote this about a month ago, but never got around to publishing it)

In my last post, I talked about how I wasn't sure where this blog would fit into my teaching this year. That question as answered for me last week when I found that, since I am three classes short of a full load, I would be part of our school's tech team, with one of my main responsibilities being to help teachers integrate technology into their pedagogy and practice. So even though time constrains will keep me from usingblogs in my Global History 10 classes, I plan on keeping this going to set an example that I will (hopefully) get other teachers to follow. That is of course, once I get all out computers and new Smart Boards working (the joys of being at a young, small school).

With that added motivation and responsibility, I am excited to joining the community of Teacher Bloggers. I am eager to look at what others are doing to hopefully borrow some best practices to share with my staff. Thankfully, I have a supportive principal on this front. Funny story actually - when we first started talking about my new role he mentioned a friend of his who used to teach in the City and is opening a small school in Philli. When I responded, "Chris Lehmann, right? He writes one of my favorite blogs", I knew I would have a supporter on our school's path to Tech 2.0. (Though with that said now my principal talks about the wonderful ways Chris isusing tech at his school and is expecting me to do similar work here - which, at least at this moment, is far beyond the constraints of my time and knowledge).


Looking Back, Looking Forward

Just scanning through the dates of my blog posts on ecto, it seems that I've been really good at falling off the ball after a couple good months of blogging. Many others have written about blogging as a habit. It seems that both times my blogging has hit a major transition in my life (the beginning and end of grad school), I've fallen off the ball. I'm not sure to what extent blogging will fit into my next stage - teaching at a small school in the Bronx this coming fall (and some summer school in the interim). One of the really strong appeals blogging had for me was that it enabled me to connect with a group of similarly minded educators - something I was lacking in my previous teaching job. Moving to a school filled with like-minded educators eliminates that need. However, moving to a school run by like-minded educators means that formal reflection is not only encouraged, but required, which is a good sign that this space will continue to be filled come fall.

Very little of this is on the forefront of my mind right now though. I am getting married this Saturday, and am then off to Spain and Portugal for our honeymoon! I'll post some pictures when I get back.



Today is the first anniversary of my first blog post. For the past week, I've been composing in my head a new version of "Why I (Still) Blog", though I'm not really in the right place to do that right now (it will come sometime in the next couple of months).

As I've neared the completion of my master's work (it's actually done, I'm just revising a couple papers for publication, and will be giving a presentation this FRIDAY (not Thursday, as I accidentally typed last night) at Columbia University based on my thesis entitled, "LIteracy is Liberation: The Citizenship Education Program 1957-1965", which is open to the public if anyone is interested - info here), I've been spending more time in various roles at the school in the Bronx I'll be teaching at in the fall. I couldn't possibly be more excited and content with the match that's been made. In just two years, the school has built a real supportive community for both staff and students. In the past few weeks, I've sat in as a staff member presented a lesson plan to be critiqued by her grade level team as part of a weekly staff meeting, and been a part of a joint English/History 11th Grade planning meeting where two teachers with far more experience and success in the classroom than I've had eagerly listened to new ideas and decided to take their classes in a radical (and almost certainly more successful) direction. Both of these of these were 180 degrees away from previous school cultures I've encountered. I can't wait for similar support for my teaching (which is 99% certain to be in a 10th Grade Global History classroom), and a similar chance to explore new ways of thinking about education. I've also had the chance to get to know some of the students, subbing one day, and spending today shadowing a 10th grade through his full day. They're students I'm eager to work with.

However, one of my experiences today was a very strong reminded of just what challenges lie ahead (and what needs to be in the back of all minds when people talk about urban school reform). This afternoon at an all school gathering, students viewed a documentary against gun violence made by a 21 year old from Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn who witnessed his best friend shot and killed when they were 19. After the film, the documentarian asked the students two questions: How many of you know someone who has been killed by a gun? How many of you know someone who owns a gun?

Over half the students knew someone who had been killed. Almost all the students knew someone who owned a gun.

This is my students' reality - one that I have never known, and probably will never be able to fully understand.


Independent Study Wrap Up

When I started the independent study, I wrote, "my main goal for this independent study is to do the groundwork that will allow me to write a curriculum for suburban high school students about perceptions of majority otherness." Unfortunately, this independent study did not help me accomplish that goal in the manner I thought it would. I hoped that I would read a number of texts that could be useful in building a curriculum. With the exception of a number of pieces in the David Roediger volume, I don't believe I would use any of these books in such a curriculum (though I would definitely teach Parable of the Sower to high schoolers in any grade, and would teach The Known World and Bluest Eye to seniors).

One of the limitations on the study was my (arbitrary) decision to limit myself to novels. I have a feeling short stories and poetry would be more fruitful (and more conducive to most high school classrooms). In terms of longer pieces of literature, the best pieces are ones I did not consider as part of this independent study because I had already read them: Native Son, Beloved, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Daddy Was a Numbers Runner, Down These Mean Streets, and almost anything by Baldwin in the 1960's.

I think one of the most interesting parts of such a curriculum would be a comparison of similarly themed books by black and white authors, ideally taking place in the same city. I imagine that students could gain much from comparing Down These Mean Streets with Catcher in the Rye, or Brown Girl, Brownstones with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Over the course of the semester, I also decided to firmly commit myself to urban education (at least for the next portion of my career), so unfortunately this project will be put on hold for a while. Luckily, I will have the opportunity to help build a very different curriculum for a young school (more on that in the coming weeks and months).

In terms of the books as a body of literature, I do not have any grand conclusions to make. One could certainly compare and contrast the representation of whites in different novels. However, I do not have any grand theories to explain aspects of these books. In discussing my goals, I wrote that I was interested in the representation of whites as an act of resistance. While there is certainly an argument to be made there, such an argument would have to situate works within the broader literary production of the time. I believe the basis for a rigorous argument on that front would entail comparing the representations of race in works by whites with similar representations in works by blacks.

Previous Independent Study Posts:
Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White Edited by David Roediger
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Next Set of Books
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Savage Holiday by Richard Wright
Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston
Country Place by Ann Petry
White Life Novels Wrap Up
Reflections on Being a Student Blogger

Indy Study: Reflections on Being a Student Blogger

One of the main reasons I decided to do this independent study as a blog was to get back in the blogging habit. In that sense, it has been a success. However, the study has done little to take advantage of what blogging has to offer. Yes, blogging allowed my work to reach a larger audience (though not one piece about the independent study received a comment, which points to the likelihood that these posts were less engaged with than my posts on teaching). However, this blog in no way entered into a conversation with anyone else - it was simply a way to deliver information. I think this really points to the imperativeness of using blogging in classrooms to facilitate conversations and social engagements around texts (in the most general sense of the term), rather than simply as a means to post work (which many other teachers have mentioned many times). The posts from the independent study can serve as a good example of what not to do.

Previous Independent Study Posts:
Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White Edited by David Roediger
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Next Set of Books
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Savage Holiday by Richard Wright
Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston
Country Place by Ann Petry
White Life Novels Wrap Up


Indy Study: White Life Novels Wrap-Up

When I first set out to read the four white life novels two months ago, I hoped they would provide some insight into a very interesting historical period right on the verge of large scale social change. I also hoped they would provide insight into their author's understanding of race - that they by concealing the subject of racial oppression, the author might actually reveal more. Unfortunately, the four books did not accomplish either goal. Two of the books, Savage Holiday and Country Place, simply were not that good. Seraph on the Suwanee was brilliantly written, though did not contain a strong social critique. The only book that met my expectations in terms of both quality and having something to say, was Giovanni's Room.

I cannot see much value in analyzing the books collectively as a sub-genre. While initially I believed there would be some scholarly value in looking at books by black authors about (primarily) white characters, I have abandoned that perspective. The value of these books is not in their rather arbitrary commonalities in terms of the race of the author and her/his subjects. Rather, the books serve as interesting contrasts with each author's other work, and can and should be read to deepen or problemize the authors' other works. For both Wright and Petry, these novels deepen and elaborates upon the critiques they deliver in their more widely read works. Baldwin's adds a critique of gender and sexual expectations to his more widely known critique of race relations. And Suwanee raises many questions about Hurton's views on gender (or maybe she was just looking to get paid).

Previous Independent Study Posts:
Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White Edited by David Roediger
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Next Set of Books
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Savage Holiday by Richard Wright
Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston
Country Place by Ann Petry



My thesis is finished! I'm going to have a few posts reflecting on what's been a really amazing journey these past eight months, next week. I'd be happy to e-mail copies to anyone who is interested in reading it.



I turned in the draft of my thesis today! Now only a couple papers away from my master's degree. Writing this history has really been an incredible process and experience (which, thankfully, isn't totally over...it looks like I'm going to continue and try to produce a publishable manuscript) - I'll post more about it once it's totally done and I feel like I can relax.

With the bulk of the work out of the way, I hope to spend a lot more time at the school I'll be teaching in the fall when they get back from their spring break. I'm very excited to be spending time in the classroom again, and am already itching for the start of the school year in the fall.

And I'm getting married two months from today...which is just crazy (in a very good way).


Indy Study: Country Place by Ann Petry

Though basically well written and constructed, Country Place does not have much literary merit. It's hard to call it a bad book (like Savage Holiday), but it's definitely not that good, either. Like Seraph on the Suwanee, Country Place reads primarily like Petry chose to write about white subjects in order to be able to sell her product to a larger market.

The plot of Petry's plot is full of one cliche after another. A soldier, Johnny, returns home from World War II to a small Connecticut town and his bride, Glory, whom he suspects of having an affair. Glory actually didn't have an affair, yet, though Johnny's return drives her to Ed, who is known for involving himself with other people's wives. The town cabbie and gossip, The Weasel, observes the two together one day, and through his snooping, also finds out that Glory's mother, Lil, also had an affair with Ed. Lil is married to Mearns Gramby, the momma's boy son of the town's wealthiest resident, Mrs. Gramby. While, initially at least, Glory does present a soft feminist critique of the expectations for a small town wife, the focus of the plot is really the soap opera material.

Does the focus on white characters make race more or less visible?
Race is not a significant issue in the novel. However, the only characters in the book who seem to have any moral value whatsoever are the three black servants of Mrs. Gramby.

Are these books meant to be critical of their subject or are the lack of racial differences meant to allow the author to focus on other issues?
Similar to the chapter in Petry's novel The Street where its black protagonist works as a domestic worker for a white family in Connecticut, Country Place depicts white people as being callous, selfish, and immoral. However, whereas in The Street, the whiteness of the immoral characters is significant, in Country Place it is not a major focus.

How does the fact that these works are written by black, rather than white, authors change my reading and understanding of the book?
The book makes a lot of sense in the context of Petry's other work. However, if I were to have read this novel on its own, Petry's race would not have significantly changed my reading of it.

How does writing at a time of drastic racial change effect how the author deals with issues in a homogeneously racialized world?
This book, originally published in 1947, is more of a product of the end of World War II then the the period after it. It gives no indication of coming societal changes.
Works Cited: Petry, Ann. Country Place. New York: Signet, 1950.

Next: This is the last book. I'll post some concluding thoughts in a couple of weeks.

Previous Independent Study Posts:
Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White Edited by David Roediger
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Next Set of Books
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Savage Holiday by Richard Wright
Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston


White Privilege and Racial Healing

Doug has a very important post on his blog about his recent experiences in an activity called "The Privilage Walk":

Last week, on the final evening of the class, we participated in what was called the “Privilege Walk.” Each person took one step forward when they could affirmatively respond to a statement based on their race. There were about two dozen statements.

A sample of some of the statements

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

The list was read item and by item, alternating between each of the two facilitators. The class members advanced one step at a time toward a line, all moving in the same direction, some more steadily than others. The statements were taken from an article called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. [pdf version]. Most of the White people in the room advanced every step, which I expected given the point of the exercise. What surprised me, was how far back in the room the Blacks, Native Americans, and Asians were. It was sobering. When asked how she felt being in the back, a Native American woman said, very frankly and matter-of-factly, “I wish I was up there,” and she gestured forward toward the front of the room, as if to say “anywhere but here.” I was touched by the overwhelming realization that I had no idea how it must feel to be standing where she was. I learned that
Reading McIntosh's article as a sophomore in college changed my life. It, along with Ted Sizer's Horace's Compromise, were probably the two most important factors in my decision to become a teacher. The McIntosh article also set me along the path that led to my work this year on a master's degree in African-American Studies. I've used the article to start conversations about race with my students (If any of my old students are still reading this, I'd encourage you to go leave a comment on Doug's post about your experiences with the article).

The fight against structural racism, and the unjust privileges that ALL white people gain from it, must start by acknowledging this privilege, as Doug eloquently argues. And then the next step, which Doug took by posting, is helping other whites to recognize their privialge. Like Malcolm X said, "Where the really sincere white people have got to do their 'proving' of themselves in not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America's racism really is--and that's in their own home communities".


Blogging is Not For Everyone - Part II

In a recent post, I sketched out a polemic against blogging in the classroom. In response, Will posted a really great comment which echoed the devil's advocate in my head as I wrote the original post:

I think the big difference is there is an expectation that EVERY one of us learn to write. We don't expect everyone to dance or draw. But we do expect all of our students to achieve some level of mastery in written language. Now, whether they learn that through using paper or through blogging is really no that important, unless you believe, as I do, that publication in its many forms is going to become more and more a part of what we do in our jobs. The audiences may be limited and focused on narrow topics, but as it becomes easier to share and collaborate in this way, I think we need to think seriously about asking our students to become comfortable sharing their words in more public ways. That's why I think Barbara has all of her students blog, so they can experience it and be ready for a more open audience if that's required.
Doug responded to Will:
The main question that I would ask about the issue of engagement, though, is in what ways are we supporting their efforts? For those students who are reluctant, how can teachers build the confidence and enthusiasm necessary to participate in a social practice that some might see as threatening, or even irrelevant.
Doug's comment raised another issue for me: If I have a classroom where every student can produce a coherent paragraph, of course I want them to publish it to a wider audience. However, what about students whose writing is far below grade level? I'm thinking high schoolers who write at below a middle school level. Couldn't forcing that student to publish: a) increase resistance from the student, who is already embarrassed enough at his writing ability and b) open up the student to ridicule from a larger public audience? One of the most important qualities of a classroom for struggling students is that it is a safe space where they feel okay making mistakes. The Internet can never provide this safety.

I think there are now two threads lurking within my original post, both of which I'd like to pursue:
  1. What are reasons not to blog with students? I think the reasons to blog have been pretty well established. Clarence has a recent post that really shows how the power of producing work for a public audience can positively influence students. And the comments on Nancy's post asking teachers why they blog with their students belong in some sort of blogging hall of fame. However, a rigorous examination requires us to examine the other side.
  2. If not blogs...what? Clarence asked this as a rhetorical question, however, I think its something that seriously needs to be considered. For one thing, many (and likely the majority) of teachers cannot blog with their students either because they do not have the equipment available to them or because of filters within schools (as of now, I cannot access my blog as the school I will be teaching at next fall). I think it's important to find tools that can work for all students, even those on the losing side of the digital divide. Also, blogging is a large time commitment, which by definition means other things will be pushed aside for it. What do we risk losing? I think we need to address the questions raised by Tom Hoffman in a great recent post where he asked us to "Think of some of the best teachers you ever had. ... do you really believe that whatever improvisational, symphonic magic those teachers conjured with their minds and mouths and their whole personalities suddenly wouldn’t work in the 21st century?" I'd add, what would these teachers have given up if they spent more time teaching technology?

Daily Show

Just got an e-mail that one of my professors and thesis advisor, Manning Marable, is going to be on the Daily Show this Wednesday. This I've got to see.

Still looking for help with my Microsoft Word question if anyone has any clue.


Microsoft Word Help

Does anyone know of a keyboard shortcut to return to the place one was typing in the main document after inserting a footnote or endnote? That is, I want to be able to just hit a keyboard shortcut after I type in the endnote information to return me the place in the main body where I had been typing.

This would be saving me a LOT of time as I type my thesis, so help would be greatly appreciated.


Teachers on NBC

There have been worse shows than Teachers. You have 10 seconds to name one.

(Joke stolen from an old Rolling Stone)


Blogging is Not for Everyone

I'm putting this out there in a rather polemical tone in hopes of starting a conversation. This follows the line of thought I was developing in this post. I'm not 100% sure how I feel about the subject yet, but I haven't seen anyone representing this point of view:

Will posted a piece last week, "To Blog or Not to Blog...". In it, he to some extent established a dichotomy between those who get it and those who don't:

I read lots of stories about kids who are getting it, even in Doug's post, where they are reading and writing and commenting and learning. You read Bud or Clarence or Vicki or any number of others and there are stories that border on transformation. (In fact, Vicki's latest post is titled "My students inspire me as they "get" Web 2.0.") But I don't read much about the kids that aren't engaged. And I'm wondering to what extent that happens as well. And further, I'm wondering to what extent they compare to the adult educators we're trying to teach about these tools who choose not to engage. The simple view is that this is generational, that kids are more available to the tools because they live in a connected world or because, well, they're kids and more open to new stuff than adults...but is it?
The excellent comments and trackbacks (from Bud, Chris, and Vicki) follow a similar rationale: people either get it or they don't.

Will also wrote a follow up post where he asks:
how do we get our kids engaged? How can we get them to be motivated to learn? And, since these tools seem to be working for us, how can we use them as vehicles, conduits for students to tap into their own passions? And how do we get other teachers to at least consider them?
Well, I think one of the most important aspects of getting students (and teachers) engaged to to start from their points of view, not ours. The first questions shouldn't be "how can I get my students to do what works for me?" or "how can I share my passion for blogging (or anything else) with my students?" Rather, if we really want to engage our students, we need to ask "what do our students do that works for them?" and "what are my students passions?" Then we must consider how to adapt content matter and learning tools to our students. It shouldn't be the other way around.

I started blogging with my students last year largely because it was something most of them were already doing. I wanted to tap into something they were a part of. Next year, when I'm teaching in the Bronx, I will face a very different student body from the one I had in suburban Virginia. Most of my students do not have computers at home. Will I blog with them? I can't know until I get to know them. Blogging is one of many tools I have available to me to engage my students and help them grow as people, writers, readers, thinkers, and citizens.

Barbara hits a similar note:
Teaching is never about a single approach, a single strategy--it is constant improvisation, a constant questioning.
I don't think any of us would ever expect all our students to be able to express themselves well through painting or sculpture - why is there an expectation that everyone should be able to do it well through blogging?


Indy Study: Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston

Seraph on the Suwanee, lyrically at least, is a beautiful story. Hurston has a gift for hearing and representing speech in a way that I've only ever encountered in the work of James Joyce and Irvine Welsh. The story focuses on Arvay Henson, a self identified Florida "cracker", and her marriage with Jim Meserve. Set in Florida in the early 20th century, the novel primarily focuses on the Arvay's psychological issues surrounding her identity and marriage. Arvay's lack of self-confidence prohibits her capability to connect with others and truly love her family, until she breaks with her past (she quite literally burning it) and accepts her role as a submissive wife. Arvay finds happiness and contentment when she finally assumes a position of hero worship towards her husband, "I'm so proud and pleased with how you have done, that I want to go along with you and see you handle thing" (322). Of course, this is what Jim has wanted from their marriage all along.

Obviously, this novel is extremely problematic when read for its comments on gendered relationships. It is somewhat progressive in the depth and complexity it gives to Arvay's identity as a woman, wife, and sexual being. Yet quite unlike Hurston's better known Their Eyes Were Watching God, the heroine's salvation does not come through a more equitable relationship. Rather, Arvay's salvation comes through submission and repression of her past and individual desires.

Unlike the previous two "white life" novels I've read, Suwanee takes place in a biracial world. There is regular contact and cultural interaction between whites and blacks. This enables Hurston to depict both Arvay's racism (though it is not a central aspect of the story), as well as an image of culture appropriate through Arvay's son Kenny's adaption of black music and his eventual career as a musician.

Does the focus on white characters make race more or less visible?
Even though the main characters in the novel are white, many of the secondary characters are black. However, there is little comment on race relations or identity. The presence of black characters is a reflection of life in Florida at the start of the 20th century.

Are these books meant to be critical of their subject or are the lack of racial differences meant to allow the author to focus on other issues?
The lack of focus on racial issues is certainly meant to allow Hurston to investigate issues of gender -- though even with all the gender questions and issues present, the focus of the novel is really on its characters and their development, not so much the ideas they represent. In a letter Hurston wrote (quoted in the Foreword by Hazel Carby), she explained that she was fighting against the convention of "Negroes not writing about white people" (x). Through this sentiment, as well as the depiction of Kenny adopting black music and making it "American", Hurston seems to desire to create a cultural artificat that dialectically represents the movement from black and white to "American".

How does the fact that these works are written by black, rather than white, authors change my reading and understanding of the book?
Similar to Savage Holiday, there are certain depictions of black characters that reinforce certain racial stereotypes. Had I not known the author was black, I might have viewed these as a product of the author's own racism. However, it rather seems that Hurston was trying to create the world as scene through Arvay's eyes.
How does writing at a time of drastic racial change effect how the author deals with issues in a homogeneously racialized world?
It is very interesting that all three "white life" books I've read so far have been written by the authors while outside of the United States (Hurston wrote this while doing filed work in Honduras). Hurston's desire to write an "American" novel could be read as a reflection on the growing movement towards integration that was brewing at the time, but there are really no explicit commentary on the then current situation in America.

Work Cited: Hurston, Zora Neale. Seraph on the Suwanee. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991. (Originally published in 1948).

Next: Country Place by Ann Petry

Previous Independent Study Posts:
Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White Edited by David Roediger
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Next Set of Books
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Savage Holiday by Richard Wrights


I live dangerously close to the Brooklyn Bridge...

...'cause reading something like this makes me want to give up and jump off it:

Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math
Schools from Vermont to California are increasing — in some cases tripling — the class time that low-proficiency students spend on reading and math, mainly because the federal law, signed in 2002, requires annual exams only in those subjects and punishes schools that fall short of rising benchmarks.

The changes appear to principally affect schools and students who test below grade level.

The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art. A nationwide survey by a nonpartisan group that is to be made public on March 28 indicates that the practice, known as narrowing the curriculum, has become standard procedure in many communities (New York Times).
The divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" grows yet again.

Choppy Blogging Waters Ahead

Now that I'm back in Brooklyn, the time has come to really buckle down and get my thesis done. Over the next three and a half weeks, I need to turn this:

The Thesis

into a 60-100 page mono-script draft.

It's been a really incredible experience researching in depth over the past 6 months, and I'm looking forward to putting it all together and telling a really incredible story about the transformative power of education.

Between that, putting the final touches on my June wedding, and beginning to look for an apartment with my fiancee (which, for those who have never lived in NYC, is a ridiculously time consuming and stressful process) life's going to be pretty busy over the next month and I'm not sure how often I'll be posting (though I PROMISE I will not disappear again this time). Thank god I already have a job for the fall.

Here's one last picture from my Atlanta trip:

Coretta Scott King Grave

New Toys

I just wanted to share a few new web 2.0 type tools I've discovered in the past few weeks.

The first two are practical:

co.mments is a great tool to keep track of blog comments. You just install a bookmarklet and then click on it whenever you come across a post whose comments you want to follow. It them provides an RSS feed through which you can easily keep track of comments.

Tech.Life.Blogged has a method for adding categories to Blogger (kind of). The lack of this capability has been my biggest (and only real) complaint about Blogger. There is also another mechanism, call labelr, which is in a beta test that I just e-mail about. When I get around to it, I'll be adding a category feature to my posts. (related: since returning actively to the blogopshere, I've noticed a few people with Technorati tags at the end of their feeds. Could someone tell me the advantage of using these?)

Finally, a fun one: Last.fm is kind of like MySpace for your iTunes. By installing a plug-in for iTunes, it keeps track of the music you listen to. It also recommends music based on your listening habits, as well as points you to "neighbors" with similar taste. Built in, are a lot of standard social networking capabilities. It's been a great way to find some new music. Here's a link to my last.fm page.


Using Choice to Increase Engagement in the History Classroom

Lest anyone read Tim's article and make the critique, "Sure, choice works in an English classroom, but I don't teach English," I just wanted to give one example of how choice can be used within a History classroom where state standards and testing emphasize a breadth of knowledge as opposed to any depth of (real) knowledge.

Let us take the example of teaching a modern world history class looking at the revolutions in the US, France, and Haiti in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and imagine the unit project is the creation of a newspaper about the revolutions (the above unit is one I observed the last time I visited the school I will be teaching at next fall). For argument's sake, let's assume there are 30 students in the classroom.

To incorporate choice into this project, I would use three different types of groupings. The first grouping would be determined by the revolution. Group I would be American, Group II - French, and Group III Haitian. Students would be allowed to choose which group they wanted to be in at least to the degree that numbers worked out. Since there are many aspects to any revolution, there would be a second grouping based on different aspects of the revolution. Some examples (though there could be different ones based on students interests: A-Politics, B-Role of Women, C-Effects, D-International influence, E-Class, F-Military Strategy, G-Philosophy, H-Role of Religion, I-Economics, J-Arts/Propoganda, H-Education, I-Significant Personalities etc. Students could chose whatever "specialty" they wanted for this. The final grouping would be the groups that would actually produce the newspapers. There would be 5 groups (1-5) with 6 people in each, two from each group representing a different country, and a representation of as many different specialty, or lettered groups, as possible. In the end, each person in the class would have three be a part of three groups: Country, Theme, and Newspaper.

Given the setup, there are many different ways to play with the different types of knowledge being accumulated by the students: students could be assigned to do research in groups based on country, and each of these groups (the roman numeral one) could give brief, informal presentations in class summarizing their country's revolution. Students could be asked to write a group comparative essay on the theme they studies (the lettered groups). Again, using the lettered groups, students could be asked to role play a "meeting" between people affected by each of the revolutions.

I was taught this mechanism as "jigsawing," and have used it in my past classrooms to great success. It enables students to gain in depth knowledge about a certain aspect of an object of study (depth), while the student still gains a basic familiarity with a wider range of topics (breadth).

(This becomes even easier when one gets over the need to teach history chronologically. According to one of my undergrad professors, there has never been a study that shows there is any advantage to teaching history chronologically, while there have been studies confirming that teaching it thematically increases student engagement and comprehension)

What are other ways this could work in a history class? And how about Science and Math? I'm at a loss there, but I would love to hear of models that incorporate choice into science and math classrooms (especially since I may be responsible for these subjects to some degree next year).


Using Choice to Increase Engagement

Tim Fredrick has an excellent piece published in the forthcoming volume of Changing English entitled, "Choosing to belong: increasing adolescent male engagement in the ELA classroom" (which happens to tie into the spirit of my last post). He's offered to e-mail it to anyone who is interested, and hopefully he'll be able to post it on his blog once it's published.

In the piece, Tim discusses his succesful efforts to further engage his male students, who fail at disproportionate rates compared to their female classmates. By giving students the power to chose some of their readings and assigning writing prompts that could be applied to a range of subjects, the engagement and performance of his male students increased. His article raises a lot of provocative issues that extend well beyond the immediate implications of the English classroom.

One of the questions that I had throughout the piece was about the hegemonic control that "traditional" poetry, novels, and short stories have over the English classroom. Tim mentioned that during free-reading or during class he "began to notice similar situations with my own students—boys reading sports pages and video game manuals during class. Technically, they were reading and writing—activities we wanted them to be doing. They just weren’t reading and writing what I asked of them " (152-153). I immediately began to wonder why these texts could not be used, to some extent, in teaching general English concepts. There are likely to be just as many literary terms in a video game manual as there are in Shakespeare. An article about a basketball game is going to need to tell a story in the same way that The Grapes of Wrath does. I'd be curious to hear how experimentation with using different genre's of writing, particularly those that don't find their way into the classroom, could be used "during the mini lessons so that we could discuss the text as a class" (156).

My one significant critique of the article, which may very much have been outside the scope of inquiry, is that it sometimes does not offer a critical eye towards the construction of gendered roles and differences. Tim writes that ELA classrooms are typically "dominated by female literacy" (153), but I am not exactly sure what this means. It seems that any definition of the term would essentialize femininity in ways that could be problematic. Similarly, Tim writes, "I thought about the books as being male or female centred, according to the gender of the protagonist" (156), but this seems to be an oversimplification (I can think of a lot of books with masculine protagonists that could be viewed as "feminine," High FIdelity come to mind, though I'm having trouble thinking of the converse example). It also seems that the implications of Tim's argument, while having more dramatic effects amongst boys, should have positive effects for girls as well. Tim mentions this, though does not provide comparative data for his female students. I would be very curious to see this.

This, by no means though, detracts from the succesful practices and convincing argument Tim makes thourghout the text. The proof of his success comes from most strongly from the students who reported they did not like having choice:

Those who preferred whole class novels overwhelmingly said that they liked it because there was less pressure on them to do the reading or participate in the class discussions or activities. In other words, those who liked whole class novels liked them because they didn’t have to be engaged in the work (156).
Augmented by the corresponding diminishing of behavior problems Tim observed (158), it is clear that teachers should consider how to incorporate choice into their classroom, if they are not already doing so.

Of course, Tim also highlights the corresponding necessity for structural change to support this. He concludes:
Incorporating choice into the curriculum can work in other ELA classrooms across the grades. But, in order for this to happen, teachers must have more power over what happens in their classrooms. In order to offer a menu of books that actually interest their students, teachers must have the budgetary resources to buy books directly based on the assessment of their students’ interests. Teachers also need to be able to exercise freedom in the curriculum and make professional choices in what happens in the classroom. Top-down mandates about what book to teach on what day or what genre of writing to teach during which month are not based on student interests and thus will not offer viable choices to the students (158).
Works Cited:
Fredrick, Tim. "Choosing to belong: increasing adolescent male engagement in the ELA classroom." Changing English. 13 (1), April 2006, 151-159.

Update: Tim posted a very thoughtful response which pretty much addresses all my concerns and questions.


Awesome Oppurtnity

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof is holding a contest to take a university student (undergrad or grad) on a 10 reporting trip with him to a developing country (Kristof is probably best known for his reporting on Darfur and the sex-slave trade):

I’m looking for a masochist. If your dream trip doesn’t involve a five-star hotel in Rome or Bora-Bora, but a bedbug-infested mattress in a malarial jungle as hungry jackals yelp outside – or if you know of an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend whom you would like to suggest for such a trip – then read on.
This really sounds like an incredible opportunity. I'd love to apply, but given that it will be during the first few weeks of my marriage, it's probably not a great idea. This contest is a great idea on MANY levels. (Here's a link to the related column from today's Times, but it's subscription only, unfortunately)


Martin Luther King Center for Social Change

Didn't get around to exploring the entire King complex yet (where I'm doing archival research this week), but here are a couple photos I took on my way out today. More than any other time in the United States, I felt as if I was walking on hallowed ground.

King Tomb

King Tomb


Using Technology to Create Student Centered, Democratic Classrooms

My most important goal, and biggest challenge, as a novice teacher is trying to create a classroom that is student centered and democratic. This presents numerous challenges, not the least of which is defining what I mean by these terms. A few years back, I opened my Teaching Philosophy Statement for my ed program with the following:

The future is filtered through the walls of our schools. Schools are perhaps the primary socializing institution in our society. While the family and religion also play prominent roles in determining who people are, it is through the act of educating that youth are welcomed into the world that everyone in this country shares. The way in which we choose to educate our children will serve in many ways to create this shared world. If we desire to live in a world characterized by active democratic participation, critical evaluation of authority and the status quo, and social justice and equality, then we must find ways to mirror, question, and explore these notions in our schools.
While this statements aren't a definition of a democratic, student-centered classroom, they certainly speak to what I have in mind. Nothing I've thought or experienced since has altered my commitment to these ideas in any ways. As I discovered blogging towards the end of my last year teaching, I saw it as a great tool to help me move in the direction I had set out for myself as a student teacher.

Clarence recently asked
[W]ill changing the communications structure of a classroom "automatically" change the type of learning that occurs, or does it only make it more possible? What about making alterations to the learning? Will this drive changes in the communication structure?
I think Clarence is on the right path here, that certain uses of technology, such as the blogging, podcasting, and vcasting him and many others are using in their classrooms, can move towards a new "communication structure" in the classroom. However, I think these technologies are only a tool, and that if one is really interested in creating new communication structures (a democratic, student-centered one, for instance) then the entire power dynamic of the classroom and what happens inside it needs to shift. It needs to give students more control over both the content and methods through which they learn. It means conversations should not follow the "bicycle wheel model" (every comment goes back to the teacher), but rather that students should be actively engaging each other without the necessary mediation of the teacher. It means that students should have an active and meaningful role in assessing their selves and their peers.

As I've really started reading, thinking, and writing about teaching once again recently, one of the issues I've continually considered is that it seems a lot of the blogs I read are primarily concerned with technology use, and blogging in particular, as an end in itself (notable exceptions include Tim, Chris, and Darren). Unless blogging is used as a tool with which to build a larger educational experience which supports and reifies the democratic and empowering power that blogging has, I fear that many students will miss out on its full potential, as well as the full potential which the classroom presents. (Related, check out the AMAZING responses to Nancy's post asking why teachers blog).

Blame the Student?

One of my closest friends from back home, who is finishing up his law degree at Pitt, sent me a column from USA Today last week and asked my opinion on it. The column, by Patrick Welsh who is an English teacher in Alexandria, VA (same city I taught in last year, different school), argues,

Failure in the classroom is often tied to lack of funding, poor teachers or other ills. Here's a thought: Maybe it's the failed work ethic of todays kids. That's what I'm seeing in my school. Until reformers see this reality, little will change.
Welsh specifically talks about the success of his immigrant students, specifically mentioning two from Africa and one from the Caribbean, in contrast to the middle class "native born" students he sees. While Welsh does not explicitly state this in his article, it must be noted the the majority of his school's students are either African-American or Hispanic (the school was the real life basis for Remember the Titans). It seems that, at least to some degree, Welsh is comparing the performance of native born students of color (and white students) with the performance of immigrant students of color. This comparison is troubling for a number of reasons, but most important is the fact that African immigrants have a higher level of education as a group than ANY OTHER ETHNIC GROUP in the United States, including "native born" whites (I was made aware of this fact at a lecture given at Columbia a couple weeks ago). As many studies have shown, the ONLY social factor which serves as an accurate predictor of a student's success in school is her/his parents' level of education. Therefore, the relative success of his immigrant students is to be expected. Without considering other factors in his students lives, Welsh's comparison is unfair and meaningless when held up to rigorous consideration.

The problem with a critique such as Welsh's is that it removes responsibility from the teacher (and the administrators and district) for the student's performance. It allows a teacher like Welsh to point to the students he sees as models of success and ask "why can't my other students be more like them," instead of asking himself "what can I do to help the students who are not succeeding in the way I would like them to?" Of course, there is only so much a teacher can do - you can bring the horse to the water buy you can't make it drink -- but I will never understand why anyone would go into teaching unless they believed that every student in front of them has the capability and (somewhere, even if it's buried deep inside) desire to learn and succeed. Instead of pointing fingers at the students and their parents (as David Brooks did recently in the NY Times as well), perhaps time could be better spent studying models of schools which are succeeding with a wide range of socio-economic groups.

Update: More thoughts on the subject from Coach Brown.

From 30,000 Feet

I'm on my way from NYC to Atlanta to spend the next few days doing research for my thesis at the Martin Luther King Center (more on that later). After being more or less buried in books and archive copies for the past couple weeks, it's nice to have the chance to catch up on some blogging I've wanted to do.


My Bad

I just realized (thanks to Jeffrey) that the e-mail on my profile is incorrect (a .org instead of a .com). Presumably, this has been the case since I set up the blog 10 months ago. So, if at any point someone has tried to send me an e-mail and I have not responded, I owe you a huge apology, but now we know why. It's now correct - outsidethecave [at] gmail [dot] com.


To New York City K-12 ELA Teachers

Though I'm not an ELA teacher, and not technically a NYC teacher yet, I thought I'd help Tim spread the word:
To NYC K-12 ELA Teachers:

New York City teachers’ voices are not heard at the State Education Department in Albany. We do not have our say in important matters regarding ELA education. We have a lot to deal with here in New York City, but what happens on the state level is vitally important in each of our classrooms. First and foremost are the new 3-8 ELA tests, as well as the ELA Regents exam. Many matters in ELA instruction are made on the state level which in turn affect the mandates on the city level.

When the State Education Department needs advice from classroom teachers, it turns to the New York State English Council (NYSEC), the professional organization for ELA teachers in the state. Unfortunately, NYC teachers are underrepresented in NYSEC and, thus, our voices are not heard on the state level. NYSEC would like to change that.

We are inviting NYC K-12 ELA teachers to join a free newsletter only for teachers in the city. By signing up for this newsletter, you will get:

* The latest information on the 3-8 ELA and ELA Regents exams.
* Information on how you can easily make your voice heard in Albany about important issues facing ELA instruction.
* Application information for grants and awards for you … and scholarships for your students.
* Calls for manuscripts for all NYSEC publications – your way to get published!
* Opportunities to network and share ideas with other NYC ELA teachers.

This is a FREE newsletter and we will not inundate your inbox with messages – the newsletter will be sent to you once a month or once every other month.

Please follow this link to get more involved in ELA education in New York State.

http://groups.google.com/group/NYSEC-NYC (after pressing the link, click on the “Join this group” link in the middle of the page).

Fellow NYC ELA Bloggers: A post or link about this would be greatly appreciated! :)

Indy Study: Savage Holiday by Richard Wright

Inevitably, I was going to read something as part of this study that was not that good. And Richard Wright's Savage Holiday was unfortunately that book. It is an overly simplistic, contrived, and unrealistic story based on a shallow interpretation of Freudian psychology. Standing on its own, I can't see much literary value in the text. It does have some value when, as suggested in the afterward by Gerald Early, it is considered as part of Wright's larger project tof analyzing what exactly is wrong with American society. However, even then, it pales in comparison to Native Son and Black Boy.

The novel looks at three days in the life of Erskine Fowler, analyzing the effects of a life of emotional and sexual repression. I opens as Erskine is forced into early retirement from his high status position as a New York insurance executive. The following day, Erskine is accidentally locked out of his apartment while naked, which ultimately leads to the accidental death of a young boy, who falls of a balcony because he is scared of Erskine's nudity. In his guilt, Fowler attempts to befriend and pursue the boy's mother, a war widow, who bears a striking resemblance to Fowler's mother who was the cause of his repression. For anyone familiar with some of the basic ideas of Freudian psychology, the book's climax is obvious.

Does the focus on white characters make race more or less visible?
Unlike Giovanni's Room, Savage Holiday does have one black character, Erskine's maid. While she is only in a couple scenes, it is clear that Erskine perception and relationship with her is based on the "mammy" stereotype. This serves in some ways to point to Erskine's many psychological problems as somehow intersecting with his whiteness. However, this is not a primary concern of the novel. While race is not invisible, it is certainly significantly less visible than in Wright's other work.

Are these books meant to be critical of their subject or are the lack of racial differences meant to allow the author to focus on other issues?
Without any doubt, this book is meant to highly critical of Erskine and the society he represents. Wright has a strong critique of Protestant Christianity made through Erskine's position as principal of his church's Sunday school and his devout religious beliefs. Wright also critiques the corporate structure which chews up the best years of Erskine's life only to spit him out at their convenience. The strongest critique is against the hypocrisy of of Puritan moral judgement. Erskine, and the other "respectable" tenants in his apartment building, are quick to blame the boy's death on his mother and her perceived immoral sexual activity. While Erskine is quick to judge and condemn others, he is unable to see the disturbed nature of his own sexuality.

How does the fact that these works are written by black, rather than white, authors change my reading and understanding of the book?
Had the work been written by a white writer whose politics I did not know, I may have seen the depiction of the maid as a product of the author's own racism. Being familiar with some of Wright's other work, it was clear that this was meant to criticize the white characters. However, other than that, I do not believe my reading of this work was effected by my knowledge of the Wright's race.

How does writing at a time of drastic racial change effect how the author deals with issues in a homogeneously racialized world?
Like Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Savage Holiday is the product of the author's time living in Europe. The novel does not deal changing conditions in America, which can likely is attributed to Wright's self-imposed exile.

Work Cited: Wright, Richard. Savage Holiday. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. (Originally published in 1954)

Next: Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston

Previous Independent Study Posts:
Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White Edited by David Roediger
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Next Set of Books
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin


Assessment: Couldn't Have Said It Better Myself

Tim has an outstanding post up about assessment that really hits home what it should and shouldn't be:

When I write about assessment, I'm referring to all those things that teachers do when we look at students and their work. Assessment is the million little things we notice in student behavior. It is the piles of paperwork we go through. It is the assignments we give and the questions we ask.

Many of the student teachers I work with in my student teaching seminar think that assessment needs to be "objective". I tell them that this is not the case. Assessment will never be objective and it shouldn't be. We are making informed, professional judgments about student work. It is in its very nature subjective. . . .

Assessment also needs to be fair and transparent to the student. We MUST tell students how they are being judged and what they are expected to do. We often leave this step out, but it is the only fair thing to do for students. One way we can do this is to show students models of work - these models can be teacher-created or, ideally, past examples of real students' work.
This is somehow all connecting with what I was thinking about with my last (real) post, but I am having trouble finding the words to correspond with the image in my head at the moment.


This is Just Cool

This has absolutely nothing to do with education. But for those whose formative years were spent with the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, this will bring you back.

Mega Man vs. Ghosts 'n Goblins Mashup - You play G&G as Mega Man, pretty sweet (via Gothamist).


Standards: How Can We Measure Schools?

This post has been swimming around in my head in different incarnations for the past week, and is in response to three different posts. It started when reading David Warlick's post about his shock about finding out that many of his son's peers are having their college application essays professionally edited:

“Wait a minute!” I said. “Kids are having their essays edited by professional writers, and then submitting them as part of their application packet?”
“Well, yes!” she said.
“But that’s cheating! But that’s cheating?”
Do the universities know that students are doing this? Do they care? How much does it cost? Would I encourage my son to take advantage? (No!)
I'll get back to this in a bit. A few days later, I read Tim Stahmer's very insightful and accurate critique of Jay Matthews's (Washington Post) Challenge Index, which is the source for Newsweek's annual Top HS in American List, based on a recent Education Sector report :
Creating a list like this wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t given such high credibility by the news media. School quality is a complex issue and the flurry of publicity that surrounds the Challenge Index masks many other factors that need to be addressed.

[From the report] Using publicly available student performance data, we found that many schools on Newsweek’s 2005 ranking have glaring achievement gaps and high dropout rates. By presenting them as America’s best, Newsweek is misleading readers and slighting other schools that may in fact be better than those on Mathews’ list.
Finally, Chris Lehman just posted a really beautiful piece on what schools are, and are not:
We are not:
Only a sorting mechanism for colleges
A target market
The next great money-making scheme.
A business
A way to create the next generation of workers.
With these three pieces in the back of my head, I've been thinking a lot about how we should and can measure schools. As much as I hate to admit it, I think the spirit of NCLB is on the right path - Schools/teachers should be held accountable for the achievement of their students, and this should be measured not just in aggregate, but also for sub-populations within the school based race, gender, and eligibility for special education services (I would add class to the list). Now in its implementation, NCLB is so wrong in so many ways, but those have all been well explained elsewhere.

When I first read Tim's piece, I thought about what "Challenge Index," or other such ranking would look like if it actually responded to what the community wants for its students, i.e., what a community believes its students should know and be able to do upon graduating. One of the obvious answers that came to mind was to measure schools by what their students are doing 1, 5, 10, etc... years after graduating. In suburban schools for example, (the ones that look the best in Matthews' Challenge Index), the primary concern of parents and students is college admissions. Wouldn't then it make sense to measure schools by where their students are admitted to college?

However, this raises another program, which David ignores in his piece: the problem of unequal access to college essay editors, test prep, tutoring, etc. When I started off at Brown, one of the biggest shocks for me was that it seemed that every middle and upper class student from one of the coasts had taken private SAT prep courses, and many (the majority?) had private tutors. In the community I grew up in, a middle/upper middle class suburb in Ohio, the only students who took SAT prep courses were those who had difficulties with test taking. The ability to be tutored for the SAT and AP tests, as well as hiring private editors for college essays gives the already advantaged yet another advantage over most students. So would it really be fair to measure a school on college admissions?

Which leads me to a quandary. How can we measure schools in a way that would satisfy the (unfortunate) cultural demand for numerical measurement and comparison while staying true to what a school is (or at least should be)? How can we measure in a way that avoids becoming what Chris very eloquently does not want us to become?

Primary Documents

Lifehacker posted a tremendous resource for social studies and English teachers the other day: a list of primary document sites available online. I started using primary documents extensively in my classroom in the second half of the year last year, and found that it bared tremendous fruit. Not only did it engage the students more effectively than our poorly contracted textbook, but it also allowed for students to get multiple perspectives on the same historical event (the Crusades accomplished this best). On top of the great list from Lifehacker, here's a few other sites I've found useful:


Citizenship School - Dress

Citizenship School - Dress

Bernice Robinson and students at the first Citizenship School on Johns Island. (Avery Research Center. Charleston, SC. 1957 or 1958).

Citizenship School - Crochet

Citizenship School - Crochet

Students at the Citizenship School on Johns Island often brought their children with them. Robinson taught them how to sew so they would not be a distraction. Here, they show off their work. (Avery Research Center. Charleston, SC. 1957 or 1958).

Citizenship School - Sewing

Citizenship School - Sewing

Students at the Citizenship School on Johns Island often brought their children with them. Robinson taught them how to sew so they would not be a distraction. (Avery Research Center. Charleston, SC. 1957 or 1958).