Category Archives: On Being a Professor

What Can White Teacher Educators Do?

Part of my work as a teacher educator is to continually educate myself about resisting the reproduction of racism in the classroom. Part of my work as a white teacher educator is to find opportunities to share what I learn. This post is an expression of the latter.

Without going into too much historical context about me, I grew up in a mostly-white community on the east end of Long Island in New York State. For most of my early life, I encountered people who looked like me. I read books about people who looked and sounded like me. I rarely encountered a discussion about race that made me feel uncomfortable. What I knew of race and racism, I largely learned from television, movies, and books.

Which leads me to part of my point: the print and digital texts we bring into our classrooms have an impact on our learners toward shaping their experiences of the world. With the development of technology especially, I spend a lot of time thinking about this. And right now, I think about it in the wake of the summer we have had.

Alton Sterling.
Philando Castile.
Orlando.

Too many lives lost before and since.

I know that it’s not enough to take stock of and change the curriculum or the books we use to ensure that they reflect a more racially and culturally authentic representation of our society. But for many, it’s a place to start. And I would argue it’s a necessary first step for any teacher educator. While we all know a lot happens in between a teacher candidate’s formal teacher prep training and leading an actual classroom, we also know that a lot of ideas transfer to practice. The things we do in front of our candidates every day make an impact. Just like we teach them that the things they do in front of their students every day make an impact.

I hardly have all the answers, and just like you, I will make mistakes and bungle explanations. But if we don’t, as my oldest and dearest teacher friend often says, “use our power for good,” out of fear of sounding unintentionally racist, we miss the opportunity to be a part of the solution — an opportunity that will present itself again and again if we look for it.

The equity that so many say we want as a society is available, but it will not just magically appear. We have to actively press and urge and uncover. What better place to do so than in the teacher education classroom? In a place where teachers — the people who will literally be teaching the next generation of learners — are doing their own learning?

As we gear up for another school year, here are some things to keep in mind — especially if you teach teachers how to teach, and especially if you’re white. They are not research-based suggestions, but they are firmly based in reality:

  1. Consider the textbooks you’re using. Depending on the dynamics of your department, you may have little wiggle room for choosing textbooks, or you may have complete autonomy. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Fight for the opportunity to use alternative texts, especially if compulsory texts are published by large, profit-hungry corporations. Or if that’s not possible, supplement more mainstream texts with ones that more realistically reflect the way structural forces in society actually operate. For instance, when a literacy methods textbook makes a generalization about the low literacy levels of children living in urban areas, pause the discussion to look at what assumptions are being made and what’s not being said. Depending on the context, supplement with articles and blog posts, or even Facebook status updates, from brilliant colleagues who elegantly speak the truth about the way things are.
  2. Consider all materials you use — not just the textbooks. Depending on your discipline and course content, you may be using all kinds of different materials to teach your candidates. I know intimately just how many piles of hands-on resources we teacher educators lug to our classrooms! As you gather your materials at the start of this semester, ask yourself some questions: who are the literacy texts written for? Who wrote them? Who are the characters? What theoretical undercurrents are being promoted by the materials you’re using? What’s not being said? What needs to be said differently? What if we shook up the script on how books make their way to the classroom shelf? What if teachers always got to choose the materials for their classrooms? What if teachers had the opportunity to weigh in on who manufactures their students’ learning materials? What if we had more of a choice to acquire affordable classroom materials from vendors who don’t exploit their workers?
  3. Practice what you teach. While you can do a lot to intentionally decide to choose books and materials that step outside the dominant, white-supremacist discourse that pervades so many of the materials in our classrooms, you have to consider the way(s) in which you teach, too. Anyone who teaches teachers knows that you have to not only know the content that you teach, you also have to know the pedagogy behind the teaching of that content (for more on this theoretical frame, see TPACK). Everything we do — every assignment we give, every discussion we facilitate, every interaction we have in our classrooms — is game for being a teachable moment. Just like K-12 students are sponges, so are our teacher candidates. They pick up on the ways in which we do just about everything.
  4. Own that you don’t know. This summer, one of my teacher candidates shared this observation about my teaching: “You always show us the ways you’re not perfect. You show us that there’s always more to learn.” We hadn’t been talking about race or racism, but the comment touched on something that made me think: we have to admit that we don’t know it all; otherwise, we blind ourselves into falsely thinking that we do. This can apply in a variety of ways to the teacher prep classroom — most certainly to the internet and all other tech-y things coming down the pike — but it can also apply to how we are in the classroom and the assumptions we may make about our students and colleagues, whether intentional or not. We can certainly try and understand what it’s like to be a person of color, but we shouldn’t draw parallels when there aren’t parallels to draw. To put it another way: it’s really okay to try and understand what it’s like to experience racism, but don’t claim to understand when you kind of actually can’t. Parallels can be helpful, but not when they just scrape the surface, and in some cases, even co-opt the narrative.
  5. Don’t token your students. This one’s pretty basic: be mindful of turning to your students of color to teach the class about what it’s like to be a student of color. And also, when you do take time out to talk about racism, structural economic forces, the election — whatever topic disrupts the dominant discourse in your classroom — consider your approach and engagement, generally. How are you facilitating the discussion? Who are you calling on? Do you favor anyone? Ignore anyone? Did you check in with anyone who appeared to be uncomfortable afterward?
  6. Don’t let the tricky stuff go. The night after the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Michael Brown was announced in Ferguson, MO, I taught a class on teaching literacy to early childhood teacher candidates. All day long, I thought about the connections between what I was doing as a teacher educator and what was going on in the country on that day. I wanted to talk to my students — really talk to them — about the work we have cut out for us, and the opportunity we face as teachers to help shift the tide of racism in our society. I ended up poorly facilitating a discussion that night that ended with a white student exclaiming, “but I didn’t cause slavery!?” Clearly, I had failed at helping her see a connection between the non-indictment and the stories about our society that are told in the books on most school shelves. But I share it to say that even with the best of intentions, doing this work does not always mean you’re doing it ‘right.’ We start at the wrong place in the narrative. We make assumptions that are incorrect. We cannot always convince the most conservative, racist, sexist bigot in our classrooms that there is a connection between racism and literacy (or mathematics, or art, or history, or whatever your discipline), but you will make someone who had previously not considered race in the context of their classroom library go home and consider it. As much as I am frustrated by incremental change lately, I have to admit that that is a step in the right direction.
  7. IMG_9029Add anti-racist elements to your classroom. Sometimes, we end up with materials that send a specific message about how things are set up (for example, books in which all the doctors are white and all the nurses are Black, or posters on reading in which all the pictures are of white boys and their puppies, or outdated toys that reinforce the status quo). And in the face of more budget cuts in education, sometimes it’s all we have (which is ludicrous IMHO). If you can’t replace the materials you have available to you in your classroom, then alter them. Here’s a related example: a few months ago, a friend donated her kiddos’ toy cars to our 17-month-old son. And though we don’t need two of these little cars, having two is awesome when other kiddos come over to play! But one of them is a police car, which feels awkward on several obvious (and some less obvious) levels. We haven’t decided yet if we’re going to spray paint it or just try and find another little car to have around, but in the meantime we added a #BlackLivesMatter sign. What if every 2nd grader throughout the U.S. encountered a police car with a #BlackLivesMatter sign on it? How could (or would) that alter the narrative around power and policing? If you’re still not sure about BLM, read this helpful blog post, and consider talking about it in one of your classes.
  8. Listen at least as much as you speak. As teachers and teacher educators, we probably all need to work on this. Myself included. I want to get things right. I have an incessant need to check things off my list and move on. But in reality, the more I stop talking, pause, and listen, the more I learn. While it is our collective responsibility to teach the next generation of teachers how to teach, and speaking to/at our teacher candidates is a huge part of what we do, I want to argue that we have more to learn and teach by opening a dialogue than we do by dictating facts. The next time you find yourself whitesplaining, take a breath and maybe let someone else say something — whether in the classroom, a committee meeting, or anywhere else your daily life might take you. I pledge to do the same.

So in this somewhat lengthy post, I’ve created an incomplete list. There are many other things we can do and suggest. I invited you to add other ideas in the comments section, or reach out and connect to share ideas. I firmly believe that as teacher educators, our daily actions make a difference in the world. If you really think about it, the teacher candidates in our classes — and specifically, methods classes in which we physically teach teachers how to teach — will refer to our classes and coursework for tips on what to do in their own classrooms in the future. Believe it or not, I still refer to those binders my own teacher education professors made me organize so many years ago now…

What I’m talking about here is the traditional legacy of teacher education methods courses: you do with your students what you hope they will turn around and do with their students tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year. So if you aren’t already talking about race, and you’re interested in the project of creating an anti-racist society, I urge you to push yourself this semester not to let the little things slide. Push yourself to see if the books you’re using promote colorblindness. Push yourself to see if you can, in your own everyday way, help your teacher candidates see their potential for being anti-racist, anti-sexist educators in their future classrooms. If not today, then when??

 

Facebookless

IMG_6448I spent the last week without logging into Facebook. To be fair, I kept the Facebook Messenger app on my phone, and messaged with a few people that way. But I removed the Facebook app from my phone, and didn’t log on via computer. Why did I do this, you might wonder? #becausetime

I will always remember the 2015-2016 academic school year as a time when I started missing emails consistently. It’s not for any lack of caring: anyone who knows me well knows that I’ve always been a fast responder. I care very deeply that people know that I’ve heard what they have to say! There are two differences that have created this problem for me this year: 1) I get more emails now than I ever did before, and 2) I have less time than I ever have before.

Thanks to some brilliant friends (who, in truth, I rely on for staying up to date with the latest gadgets and apps), I discovered unroll.me for automating and managing my gmail inbox. But I don’t feel that I can do the same for my work email. Perhaps I should look into it. Because I can’t keep up. It’s just too much!

So what did I discover during this week sans Facebook?

  1. It is possible to avoid thinking in Facebook updates. Earlier this semester, I revealed to a class of graduate students that I sometimes type out Facebook status updates in my head as I travel throughout the day. Sure that this (somewhat embarrassing) revelation would garner some laughs, I was surprised when the room remained quiet. Did I sound whacky for saying I typed things out in my head? Did I sound lame for admitting that I think about my Facebook updates as items worthy of composition? Did I just take a step backward on the respect spectrum for revealing something personal and unsolicited? Either way, I noticed the other day that I had long periods of silence in my head for the first time in a long time. In fact, I can’t remember the last time.
  2. I create false narratives about my friends. I admit that normally, I walk around thinking that everyone’s life is a billion times better than mine, based on Facebook feeds. I know this is slightly ridiculous. I also know I’m not the only one who does it. But in the absence of the constant barrage of information that is my Facebook feed, I felt a sense of calm.
  3. I still had contact with friendsIn the last week, I’ve touched base and/or seen a few of my favorite people, and we’ve shared information via text, phone, or email. Without relying on Facebook for information about my friends, I was forced to be in touch with them — actually be in touch with them. I missed out on a bunch of news without my feed, I’m sure, and I didn’t speak to everyone I wanted to, but I also had some long phone and in-person conversations.
  4. I was focused. Usually when I’m at work, I keep a tab open for Facebook on my computer. I don’t look at it constantly, but when I take breaks, I look at my feed. This week when I took breaks from writing or grading, I did some of the back-logged office stuff I’ve been putting off: I filed a bunch of things, organized my documents, and labeled the book bins on my book shelves. I also read a book and wrote a book review. All in between the normal stuff I have to do.
  5. I started missing a stream in my life. Over the weekend, I attended a two-day conference hosted by SUNY New Paltz and Bard College, the Digital Spaces Unconference. We live-tweeted throughout, which got me looking at Twitter a bunch. A week since I started my Facebook diet, and I’m looking at my Twitter feed several times a day. It doesn’t feel the same, though. There’s something less personal about it. Maybe because I don’t know about half of the people I follow — they’re just people I’ve heard about or I met once and are doing cool #edtech stuff. I’ve been looking at Instagram more, too. But neither Twitter nor Instagram hold my interest like Facebook does. What is it about Facebook??

So the verdict is in: I can get a lot more done when I don’t look at Facebook. But is it worth missing what happens in people’s lives? I hope I can find a better balance, because I don’t want to be a total Facebook hermit — not to mention the academic things that I learn from my brilliant friends when plugged into my feed! But I can’t deny that I’ve enjoyed having a few extra minutes in my days lately. What’s your secret? How do you strike a healthy balance between the stream and real life?

Gendering the Policy-Practice Gap

I gave a guest lecture today in a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Course, “Women: Images and Realities.” What a neat experience. Although my work as a professor is always infused in some way by thinking about gender, it is not the main focus of my practice as a scholar. This talk gave me the opportunity to really think through how my research has the possibility to consider themes of equity around gender, too.

In order to prepare for this talk, I revisited my research blog for my dissertation. What a wonderfully reminiscent (and geeky) experience that was! I haven’t stood (at least digitally) in that data space for quite some time now. I was reminded of how much time and effort I put into building the site, thinking through the architecture, and designing the method by which I would import, code, and organize my data. And, of course, it made me think of all of the incredible people who helped me along the way. It was a true learning-by-doing experience.

So revisiting those posts through a gender lens led me to locate some more thoughts on the ways in which teachers who write about their daily lives in blogs educate us about their lived realities. Following is a tiny glimpse of what I found.

Teacher bloggers write about the ways in which dress bolsters the gendered binary that often exists within school spaces. The image of ‘suit’ surfaces here and there, always as connected to administrators. Miss Rim writes, “4 men in suits; 2 in business casual. During a quality review check. They entered. I extended my hand, ‘Hi, I’m Miss Rim.’ They gave me a blank look. No one said anything. I had no idea who they were. They came in to the room, stared at the students’ coat cubby, calculated how many hooks were there, had a debate over whether or not students could or should have a hook for a coat AND a bookbag, or what. They opened closets. They turned the water in the sink on and off. They muttered and whispered. Then someone said, ‘Well, we can always add another row of coat hooks. Or probably 2 more.'”

They also write about ways in which bodies, and their needs, are disregarded. Miss Brave writes, “…one of our staff toilets broke, and our janitor informed us that that’s it, no new toilet part this year. Which means that we have one bathroom on our floor for about thirty people, most of them women, two of whom were pregnant…”

As I went back through my data, and my theoretical frames, I also considered how I might present the theory I used to help me make sense of my data in a more digestible way. So I used political cartoons. I think this one sums up the way I use the theory of political spectacle well. Mary Wright Edelman explains, “words and numbers appear precise and rational; yet depend entirely on context and interpretation” (2004, p. 13):

numbers don't lie

I’m moving in a slightly different direction now with my research — I’m looking at funding streams for technology in schools in New York State, as well as considering how to make sense of both teacher educators’ and teacher candidates’ use of technology, and the impact it has on their pedagogy.

Till next time…

 

 

 

 

Recently

I was poking around on Facebook yesterday evening, and came across an ad for Recently, a magazine of your life, basically. They print a monthly magazine from your photos. It’s $108 for the year.

At first, I scoffed. I thought, how can we have yet another way of documenting our lives? And why print it when we can scroll through digital albums on so many different devices?

I suppose there’s still this desire to return to print–we are the digital crossover generation in that sense, and the dilemma is likely to follow us wherever we go. I admit that I’ve made many printed photo books and calendars with iPhoto for friends and family members over the years. But there’s something about a magazine that brings it to a whole other level. Is there anything more narcissistic?

AJH at Pujet SoundsAnd then I mentioned it to my partner, and I found myself suggesting that it seemed like a good idea for our baby’s first year. We’re already 9 1/2 months in, but it would be fun to start around now anyway. He’s crawling everywhere and pulling himself up on everything. He’s changing every single day. Capturing it in print would be kind of neat. I’ve got a million (okay, maybe thousands of) photos of him like this one at Puget Sound last week that don’t make it onto my Instagram feed or Facebook wall, and I’ve been wondering what to do with them. I know I’m biased, but the cuteness.

So we’re considering it. $9 a month isn’t so bad.

But REALLY??? A MAGAZINE????

Parenting aside, with my scholar hat on, I’m curious about the draw back to print at a time when screens are capable of so many things. Walls, status updates, tweets, and endless photo albums on social media fill our screened lives. And every day, more and more posts fill this seemingly endless stream. How necessary is it to capture it? Must we capture it? What is the value in doing so? How does making the digital more permanent defeat the purpose of the digital in the first place?

So I’m fascinated by the possibility of this publication–as both a parent and a scholar. I’m curious about the experience. I’m drawn to its simplicity. If I do end up getting a sub, I’ll probably blog about it. In the meantime, it’s making me consider how I teach digital storytelling. More on that some other time soon…

Filling the Policy-Practice Gap

A few weeks ago now, I had the pleasure of attending a discussion focused on the edTPA with colleagues from several local school districts and universities. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the edTPA, it’s a new performance assessment that is being used as a certification exam in New York State and elsewhere around the country.) Also in attendance was Kathleen Cashin, who was recently re-elected to the New York State Board of Regents. Unlike some of her colleagues, Cashin has spent most of her career working as a teacher and administrator in New York City public schools. While her colleagues on the Board of Regents have done impressive work in the field of education, the majority have never taught in the K-12 public school system in New York State. The majority of the Board is comprised largely of CEOs, philanthropists, and lawyers.

Shouldn’t extensive experience in the field be a prerequisite for making major decisions about education, especially decisions that affect the daily lives of teachers and school children? Without such expertise, policymakers can theorize classroom experience quite a bit, but they can’t really ‘know’ what it’s like to be in the classroom. I believe that part of the reason the policy-practice gap in education persists relates to the fact that so many of the individuals who make decisions about classroom practice are far removed from the realities of teaching and schooling.

My work as a scholar so far has largely focused on the policy-practice gap: the space that exists between policies as they exist on paper and the on-the-ground realities of their implementation in schools. This research was inspired by my experience as a 5th-grade teacher in New York City. My colleagues and I experienced policy implementation as episodic, arbitrary, and disconnected from what we actually needed as classroom teachers and building administrators. We experienced pendulum-like swings in curriculum and 180-degree turns in instructional expectations. It was the early 2000s in New York City, and we were knee-deep in what Michael Fullan calls “projectitis,” when schools “take on or are forced to take on every policy and innovation that comes along” before having the opportunity to see if what they’re doing is working.

In my dissertation, I wrote about this policy-practice gap with a new idea and hope: why not fill the gap with information teachers are sharing on blogs that they write? I found teachers’ critiques of educational policies shared on their blogs rife with recommendations from the view of the classroom. I thought, if we could just get policymakers to listen to what teachers have to say, we might be able to change something about the educational policymaking process.

I developed this graphic to illustrate my idea for my dissertation. I admit I’m no graphic arts expert, but it gets the idea across:

policy practice gap

With the development of the Internet, we witnessed unprecedented growth in the ability to publish user-authored content online via blogs and other Web 2.0 tools in the early and mid-2000s. The capability to research and communicate digitally has only improved since. But honestly, it doesn’t matter whether policymakers listen digitally or in person. They just need to listen. The graphic should look more like this:

policy practice gap annotated

This meeting a few weeks ago was the first time in my professional life as a teacher (16 years to be exact) that a policymaker asked my opinion about something related to what I do as an educator. The discussion was dynamic. Regent Cashin is a brilliant, sincere individual who I believe is on the right side of the high-stakes testing movement. She hears the call from the opt-out movement. She understands why the rubrics for the edTPA do little to offer specific, genuine feedback. She gets why it’s unfair and inequitable to judge teachers by their students’ test scores. During the meeting, several panels of K-12 teachers, administrators, and local university faculty shared ideas about why implementation of the edTPA isn’t working. And Cashin listened intently, promising to bring our concerns back to her colleagues.

Without more meetings like this, and opportunities for practitioners to share the realities of their daily work, educational policymaking will continue to miss the boat when it comes to changing practice in a systemic, sustainable, effective way.

The Politics of Being Pregnant

28 weeks and countingI’ve weathered a growing (no pun intended) stream of unsolicited advice, comments, and thoughts on the shape of my pregnant body in the past few weeks, as I’ve begun to show in earnest. While I welcome any bit of conversation about pregnancy from people I know (whether it be family members, friends, colleagues, or students), I am increasingly shocked at how often strangers feel the need (and the right) to comment on my shape, offer predictions, and ask probing questions about name, gender, and philosophy that my partner and I are still figuring out. Of course everyone’s different, and perhaps I unknowingly welcome it, but the comments about what I look like have started to get under my skin.

As someone who was tall for my age as a child and teenager, I have plenty of practice with unsolicited comments about my shape, height, and amount of space I take up in the room. That being said, pregnancy is a very stressful, sometimes unpredictable, often exciting time that is quite personal. And I’m growing weary of juggling the daily challenge of just being pregnant (and everything that goes along with that) and the mounting commentary about my belly, largely from people I don’t know. At the gym this morning, this dialogue with a woman I’ve never spoken to before illustrates just what I mean:

“When are you due?”
(I remove my headphones.)
“End of March. We’re very excited.”
(I smile and put my headphones back on.)
“It must be a girl.”
(I remove my headphones again.)
“No, it’s a boy.”
“Are you sure? You don’t look like you’re carrying a boy. Your body is just so, well, round.”
(I replace my headphones and don’t know (or care) if she’s still talking, and busy myself with another round of reps.)

Other things I’ve heard in passing:

“You’re carrying so high.”
“You’re carrying so low.”
“You don’t look pregnant.”
“You’re huge.”
“Are you sure it isn’t twins?”

And so on…

So what is appropriate to say when someone is pregnant? I’m not sure there’s a rule book. But what I do know is that going through the process for the first time has opened my eyes about it in ways I hadn’t expected. Thanks to the lengthy history of deeply rooted sexism in our society, women are already judged for their appearance in numerous ways. And despite the fact that we are — literally — built to bear children, pregnancy and the resulting physical effects on women’s bodies appear to produce an irresistible topic for conversation that, based on my experience, is sometimes more about the person asking questions than it is about the person answering them.

Again — friends, colleagues, etc. — don’t feel like you can’t ask me questions or engage me in conversation or comment on what I look like. I have no problem with this. It’s the individuals I don’t know who feel the need to insert their opinions front and center that I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around.

And all of this takes me to how women navigate our so-called maternity leave system in this country. Well, it turns out that most places of work don’t have maternity leave — SUNY included. It wasn’t something I even thought to question when I accepted the position at a public university. I naively assumed it was part of our contract. After all, we have a union! But after taking up work around Family Leave policy with colleagues on campus, I was surprised to find out that not only do we have to borrow time from our accumulated sick leave, there isn’t a hard and fast policy that helps women know what they’re facing when they choose to get pregnant. (Not to mention that pregnancy isn’t an illness; therefore, using sick days doesn’t make logical sense.)

Since I haven’t gone through the process quite yet (I’m only 30 weeks and expect to work up until my water breaks to preserve the sick days I do have), I can’t speak to what will happen. However, I can say that I have felt incredibly supported by my Chair, Dean, colleagues, and representatives from Compliance and Academic Affairs. While their hands are tied by the official language in the contract and Trustee Handbook, they’re all working with me to figure out a plan that will, as one administrator put it, keep me “whole and healthy.”

In preparation for a Teach-In on Family Leave on our campus last November, I did research on what maternity leave looks like locally and globally. I was shocked to find out that the U.S. is one of only 8 countries in the world that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave:
maternity leave NY Times

I also discovered that there’s been a bill stalled in Congress for over a year that calls for 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Despite the fact that many countries offer more than 12 weeks, it would certainly be a start.

I could go on, but have said enough for one post. I encourage people to raise awareness about the abysmal state of maternity leave in our country; to talk to colleagues and family members about what has historically been an individually-fought-for, mostly-hidden negotiation in many workplaces; to consider the effect of words when offering them to pregnant women, especially those you don’t know; and to honor pregnancy as something that is exciting and incredible — as opposed to a burdensome hindrance.

I absolutely can’t wait to meet this little boy I’m carrying around with me for roughly 10 more weeks. And while I know it will completely change my life — and my body — in ways that I can’t yet understand, the experience has already shifted my paradigm when it comes to further understanding how destructive and unfair issues of sexism and gender discrimination still are in our society, and how they determine the policies by which we are bound in our workplaces. Till next time…

 

#BlackLivesMatter

Perhaps it’s my own naiveté, but I was sure the grand jury would come down on the right side of history this time. But once again, I have lost faith in our criminal justice system to serve justice. Michael Brown’s death was unnecessary, as was Eric Garner’s. Both were the result of excessive force from law enforcement officials. Makes you really step back and wonder what laws are being enforced — and for whom.

Just after Michael Brown was shot on August 9, I co-organized a demonstration in New Paltz in solidarity with those who had taken to the streets in Ferguson and across the country to protest racist acts by police. It was the first time I was involved in a country-wide action in a location other than New York City in over fifteen years. As a New Yorker, I’d become accustomed to scouring my Facebook and Twitter feeds, emails and texts with info on ad hoc protests that would evolve within minutes or hours after events that warranted civil unrest — and I’d grab a home-made sign and take to the streets. The demo in New Paltz was a far cry from the Trayvon Martin demo that stopped traffic at multiple junctures throughout NYC and actions by teachers for Trayvon, or Liberty Square during the Occupy Movement and the marches that packed NYC streets during that time. But even though the crowd we drew was small, our voices were loud. It was clear that here, too, there are people who are aware of and angry about the fact that racism still exists in both overt and tacit ways.

In the days following the Ferguson grand jury decision not to pursue a trial investigating Michael Brown’s death, a colleague in the Black Studies Department at SUNY New Paltz encouraged faculty to take a moment of silence at the start of each class to reflect on what had just happened. I took this request a step further, and planned a writing and discussion activity to talk about what had happened and the implications of living in a racist society on our work as teachers. As an educator who teaches aspiring teachers how to teach reading and writing, I cannot teach a course without hitting on topics of diversity and the many -isms that continue to pervade our society’s dominant discourse. I saw talking about Ferguson as a natural extension of the work that I already do.

IFerguson Demo in Kingstonn one class, the discussion went well — one student piped in that she saw me in a photo on Facebook at a protest in Kingston, NY, and others expressed how much it influences what they hope to do as future educators of young children. Other students expressed being unclear of what had happened and wanting to know more about why and how the decision had been made not to pursue a trial and indictment.

In another class, the discussion didn’t go as well. What began as a well-intended carving out of safe space to talk openly about what had happened erupted into a contentious conversation about, in large part, whose fault it is that racism still exists. I wondered in the process of where I’d gone wrong as a facilitator. How did our discussion go from a reflection on the racist underpinnings of recent events and their ramifications for our work as educators to a debate on whether or not white people should be held responsible for slavery generations later?

I was able (somewhat inelegantly) to bring the conversation back to the purpose at hand, and concluded the discussion by asking students to write me an anonymous note on what they were thinking and feeling in the moment as the discussion concluded. It took me several days to take a look at these pieces of paper, which I knew would be swollen with personal feelings and thoughts on how or why talking about Ferguson matters (or doesn’t).

For the most part, students expressed that they felt uncomfortable talking about race, but that they were glad I’d brought it up.

More than half of them expressed that no one had brought up Ferguson in their other classes, and they felt it needed to be talked about more.

On the other end of the spectrum, a few students felt alienated by the discussion and asked why we were talking about this when they were here to learn how to teach literacy.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this experience and what needs to shift in my teaching and that of my school community as we work collectively to move toward a more aware, more diverse, more just society. I am in discussion with colleagues around campus who are committed to anti-racist work in both their personal and professional lives. In the meantime, something urgently in need of attention was revealed to me in the discussions I had with my students that I hadn’t been fully aware of before: I’ve been operating from a place of assumption. I assumed that in a small Hudson Valley community that is known for its liberal ways of thinking that we were all on the same page about race — namely, that we’re aware racism is still at work in communities of education, and talking about and acting in resistance to it is part of what we do. It turns out that’s not a safe assumption at all.

I am saddened by this new knowledge, but will not stop fighting for what I know is right; will not shy away from raising difficult topics of discussion in courses on teaching literacy when it’s so obvious how all -isms are deeply embedded in literature we may choose to share with young learners; will not stop naming racism as something worth examining in our daily practice as teachers and teacher educators. I thank the colleagues and students who have openly and honestly engaged in discussions with me over the last few weeks about the work that we do, and how racism places a role. Our work has only just begun.

Writers’ Choice

Every semester, SUNY New Paltz sends undergraduate teacher candidates who are just starting out in the Elementary Education program to Duzine Elementary School in New Paltz for their first fieldwork experience. The teacher candidates each partner with a cooperating teacher and classroom, where they spend 40 hours over the course of the semester. I had the privilege of supervising the partnership for the first time this past spring, and it was incredible to see the teacher candidates’ growth as they learned all about literacy instruction from their cooperating teachers at Duzine.

photo (8)When the semester ended, I asked Rebecca Burdett — a first-grade teacher whose love for writing emanates from everything she does — if I could come back for a visit. Every morning, Rebecca and her students engage in Writers’ Choice, a thirty-minute period of time in which students choose what and how they’d like to write. And I wanted a chance to soak in more of this magical space, where students are authors who find their voices without hesitation. They conduct surveys, choose lines in poems to illustrate, observe objects from nature (like antlers, crickets, turkey legs, feathers, etc.), write letters (and then mail them), make signs, add notes to a kindness jar, and the list goes on.

There are many amazing things to me about this sacred time in which students write, uninhibited by curricular mandates, standardized assessments, and all the other things that go along with today’s high-stress educational policy environment. It reminds me in some ways of how I watched my own 5th-grade class transform when I introduced the idea of a Writer’s Notebook. But perhaps what struck me most of all about Writers’ Choice is that it demonstrates the ability and possibility of first-grade students to write because they want to, not because they have to. Each student is engaged, willing, and ready to participate fully, and does so enthusiastically.

Teachers and students in K, 1st, and 2nd grades throughout Duzine Elementary engage in Writers’ Choice in some capacity, and one thing is absolutely crystal clear: students’ choices about their own writing matter.

At the end of my first year as a faculty member, I’m grateful to Rebecca and the other educators at Duzine who have so graciously invited me and our teacher candidates into their classrooms. I can’t wait to return in the fall!

May Day

megaphoneIt seems apropos to post this photo here — in honor of both May Day and #tbt. It’s from a long time ago, but still represents how I feel about speaking out: if we don’t do it, who else will? I spoke on behalf of the United University Professional (UUP) Women’s Rights and Concerns Committee today at our May Day rally at SUNY New Paltz. Here’s what I had to say:

The most recent Census Bureau analysis showed that women—still, after several decades of organizing and awareness raising—make only 77% of what men make, or 77 cents to the man’s dollar. In 1955, nearly 60 years ago, women made roughly 65 cents for every dollar men made. Given the amount of information we have today about the disparities between men and women, I believe we can do much, much better. According to a study conducted by the UUP in 2009, male SUNY employees make roughly $11,000, on average, more than their female counterparts. That’s a little more than 20% of my current salary. And I’ll be honest, I could use that extra money every month, given how inflated food, gas, and housing costs are in this region. According to a pay disparity study conducted several years ago by the SUNY New Paltz UUP Women’s Rights and Concerns Committee, this pay disparity is alive and well right here on our campus. I’m here today to talk to you about why it’s not enough to be aware that men still make more than women—it’s time to take action so that we can close the gender gap in pay. After all, as my sign says, “everyone deserves to make a decent living wage.” 

When I agreed to speak at today’s rally, most people were supportive. But, a few people raised the concern that maybe I shouldn’t speak because I’m only in my first year, and I don’t have tenure. I admit I got a little nervous. But then I thought, if we keep acting in fear of what might happen when we stick up for ourselves, raise our voices, and point out what’s not right, we just feed right back into the status quo that keeps it acceptable to think that the value of women’s work is lower than that of men’s.

Aside from the fact that women aren’t paid as much as men on our campus, there is something else that concerns me—both personally and philosophically. And that is our family leave policy. While we, like other institutions of employment throughout our country, operate under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, this legislation is not realistic.

Previous to the implementation of FMLA, families struggled to cobble together a patchwork quilt of care that often proved inconsistent, unreliable, and expensive. If loved ones got sick, became pregnant, or adopted a child prior to 1993, there was no legislation that protected their jobs or allowed them the necessary time to cope with the circumstances that come with caring for ailing family members or young children. But the thing that no one talks about is that this legislation guarantees employees up to 12 weeks—or 3 months—of unpaid leave. Unpaid. FMLA essentially punishes workers for having babies, getting sick, and being the primary caretakers for their loved ones. What kind of logic is that?

I’m going to be very honest with you right now. As a woman in her late 30s who has worked since she was old enough to get her working papers, and who has always wanted to have children, I’m terrified of getting pregnant, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford to take a leave without pay. And that brings me to the subject of maternity leave.

There is no clear policy on our campus for maternity leave—or paternity leave, for that matter. I’m told that if I were to become pregnant, I could borrow days from my sick bank. After working here for a full academic year, I will have accumulated about 12 sick days. That means that at this point, if I were to get pregnant, my paid maternity leave could be up to 12 days, or roughly two weeks. Anything after that would be unpaid. With a partner who can’t afford to pay for our expenses on his own, I’m not sure what to do about this lifelong dream I’ve had of having children. I feel incredibly lucky to have been hired in a full-time, tenure-track job, and I absolutely love coming to work every day, but the reality is, I’m not sure I can afford to have a child.

I use myself as an example not to make this all about me, but to say 1) we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about what is real, and 2) arguing for a fair family leave policy for our work should be the norm, not the exception.

I believe the policy should be that if you get sick, pregnant, adopt a child, or have to care for a sick loved one, you get a minimum of 12 weeks of leave and you get paid. They do that and more in other countries, and in one of the richest nations in the world, I think that’s the least we can do for our SUNY workers.

Bullhorn Spotlight

I was interviewed this month for our union chapter’s newsletter, the Bullhorn. I was surprised to see that Jean Anyon makes a cameo appearance!!! I mentioned her in the interview, but didn’t know the author would pull photos from my websites. The picture is from 2007 at an anti-war march in Washington, DC. Something tells me Jean wouldn’t mind being featured in a labor union newsletter…

You can see the full issue of the newsletter here.

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