Category Archives: On Being a Teacher

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??

 

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.

#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!

Monday 11/18 and the Common Core

As a new 3rd-grade teacher in 2001, I remember hearing about the “new” standards being implemented across New York State (and still have one of the original spiral-bound copies of the Reading and Writing standards we were issued sitting with my collection of teaching materials). At the time, we were told the standards would guide our instruction, and were asked to make sure they accompanied bulletin board displays and were incorporated in lesson plans. But we would later find out that the standards had a dual purpose — they were also a measure by which our students would unknowingly come to be defined and by which teachers would be evaluated.

Almost immediately, our students became numbers instead of names; we were conditioned to see our students as digits that either supported or undermined our path toward becoming another “failing” New York City public school.

testing genreI recently sifted through my teaching materials from that time, and came across a packet for teaching test-taking as a genre. Back in the early 2000s, the balanced literacy model — the method of instruction in which students learn to read and write using real books in a workshop model (as opposed to using basal readers with little to no interaction with their peers) — was just being introduced (or re-introduced) in many public schools. And so we switched from using scripted lessons that were packaged by Harcourt-Brace to using scripted lessons that were packaged by Teachers College, Accelerated Literacy Learners, and America’s Choice. We taught reading and writing via a set of genres — we’d spend a month working on narrative, then move on to informational, persuasive, etc. With the influx of testing awareness, during what we now know as the start of the standardization movement, someone creatively came up with the idea of creating a unit of study around testing. And suddenly test-taking became a genre, too. Eek.

At the time, it made sense — we had to make sure test prep made its way into our instruction so that students felt prepared to take the tests that would, in many ways, determine their futures; however, it gave test-taking the same level of importance as actual literary genres. And sadly, as we’ve seen recently in the media and via personal experience, the standards attached to the Common Core — the latest iteration of learning standards — have created a similar frenzy around what counts as educational success.

Despite my own personal feelings as a literacy specialist that the Common Core provides some truly useful ideas to guide instruction at a variety of instructional levels, I acknowledge that the true problem lies in how the standards are being used and why. At the end of the day, no matter how high we raise the bar on paper, we’re not going to change how well students learn in reality unless we look at the economic, social, and political issues surrounding education. As parents across the country take a stand and keep their children out of school on Monday, November 18, to protest the Common Core State Standards and what they’re doing to public education, I stand in solidarity with their decision to make their voices heard.

Why We Need to Organize

The last few weeks have been hard. I still keep reaching for my phone to text or talk to Jean. Everything everyone said about your first year as a full-time professor being tough has been true. The learning curve is straight up: from learning how to decode university- and location-based acronyms and prep for classes to figuring out how to juggle the demands of teaching, service, and scholarship and strategize about how to find a parking spot, I’ve been spending more time at my office than at home, and I’m exhausted. Add the pressure from changing policies in teacher certification requirements to that mix, and, well, my head is spinning. The truly wonderful news in all of this is that I love my colleagues. I love my students, too, but my colleagues in particular are incredibly hard-working, brilliant people who know their stuff inside and out. I feel honored to walk among them every day.

When Jean and I started talking — roughly a year ago — about where I wanted to end up as a professor, I thought out loud about my fears of being able to be an activist in higher education. She assured me that there would plenty of opportunities, and indeed she was right. Today, I had the opportunity to attend a union meeting as the representative for my department.

The last contract, ratified earlier this calendar year, was a tricky one for the constituents: it includes a number of givebacks — some of which are overt and some of which are covertly vague. All come from the same place: to make us work more for less pay. I walked away from the meeting feeling a little bleak. Morale is very low.

And then a few things happened. I remembered back in 2004 (or thereabouts) when I started as an adjunct at Pace University, and helped organize a union there. I thought back on being a delegate in the United Federation of Teachers in the years that followed, and organizing actions with coworkers. None of it was easy, and we didn’t win every fight, but we found opportunities to organize together and be heard. I’m not sure what’s in store here at SUNY New Paltz, but people are angry and understandably so. I wonder what Jean would say…

Radical PossibilitiesA few weeks ago, my colleagues and I took photos with our favorite books to post on a bulletin board in the department. As you already know, Jean’s teaching, activism, and mentorship made an enormous impact on me — how I teach, what I teach, and why. Her call to action in Radical Possibilities is so relevant for me today: we won’t have a voice unless we collectively find one.

MORE

I’m officially a month into being a full-time faculty member at SUNY New Paltz, and couldn’t be happier about my new job so far. Everyone has been welcoming and warm, and I instantly felt at home here. My colleagues are hardworking, supportive, and brilliant, and my students are inquisitive and enthusiastic. And have I mentioned the facility!? Old Main, the building where the School of Education is housed, is the oldest building on campus. It recently underwent a renovation, and although the original stairs and beautiful stain-glass windows were preserved, the interior was completely rebuilt. Each classroom is furnished with smartboards, projectors, and document cameras that, from a pedagogical perspective, make interactive teaching with digital components a seamless possibility.

There have been many moments during the last two weeks when I’ve reached for my phone to call Jean Anyon. Despite my happiness over my new position, I have had a perpetual lump in my throat. I miss her terribly. As I expressed in my last post, she was more than a mentor and professor to me and so many others — she provided both professional and personal guidance, and it’s hard to adjust to life without her being an email, text, or phone call away.

She would have wanted to know that I went to the first meeting of our union, United University Professionals (UUP). I was grateful for the opportunity to find out more about the UUP, but the feeling of disappointment in the room about the last contract was palpable. From an important question about family/maternity leave (or lack thereof) to a report on plans to organize for a future contract in order to prevent further givebacks, it quickly became clear that we need to build more local support from the rank and file.

IMG_5574Last week, I received a t-shirt from the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a caucus of the United Federation Teachers (UFT), in the mail. It seemed like a timely, and necessary, reminder of the work that can be done when workers come together. Although everyone at New Paltz seems very happy to be here, the one thing they often — and openly — vocalize is that they’re not in it for the money. While I agree that education as a career path isn’t always lucrative, I was shocked to find out a year ago when I went on the academic job market that university professors in education make as little as they do.

Doctoral students who are wrapping up their dissertations now are curious, and understandably so, about what they’re facing in terms of salary. After doing some calculations, I realized I’m making less than I was as a 5th-grade teacher seven years ago (in comparison, other universities where I interviewed weren’t offering much more). While context matters to some extent, the facts are clear: the cost of living is going up steadily everywhere, and teachers at every level remain underpaid. When I did a little research online to see what professors in other departments make, I found that business professors at the same level — with the same education as me — make tens of thousands of dollars more. Put simply, that just doesn’t seem right.

When I was an active member of the UFT, I signed on to several caucuses at various points that were fighting to protect members’ rights. At the time, we were lucky if five or ten people showed up to meetings. At a MORE meeting I went to this summer — in July, mind you, when most teachers are taking a well-deserved break — there weren’t enough seats for everyone who showed up. I walked away feeling energized by the reminder that when enough voices come together, people really do start to listen.

It reminded me of the time, many years ago now, when Randi Weingarten (the then-UFT president) called on me in the Delegate Assembly to speak. I turned around to address the largest audience I’ve ever spoken in front of, and started out, “Hi. I’m a teacher, and I’m tired.” The room erupted in supportive applause and shouts, and I knew immediately that our resolution — of which I don’t recall the exact details now — would garner support from members. We’d been working without a contract for several years, and the rank and file was tired of being ignored.

I have a lot on my plate to balance the demands of my new job, and fully intend to do whatever I can to successfully juggle the expectations of teaching, scholarship, and service that come with my new position. However, as I await the arrival of my first paycheck, I can’t help but wonder about how we’ve gotten to a place where 1) we feel lucky if we have healthcare; 2) managing debt (as opposed to being able to pay it off) is the norm; 3) teaching, despite it being one of the most important jobs according to public discourse, continues to be such a low-paying profession; and 4) unions have somehow been painted as an obstacle instead of a vehicle. I worry about our future, America, but hold out hope that it’s not too late to fight for what we deserve.

How Do I Even Express…

getting on the busAs many of you already know, we have lost a brilliant scholar, teacher, mentor, parent, and friend. Dr. Jean Anyon, whose work has impacted the lives of so many, passed suddenly but peacefully on Saturday, September 7, 2013, after a long battle with cancer. While her body battled inwardly to fend off the disease that ultimately consumed her, she worked tirelessly to dedicate her time, passion, and energy to her life’s work of teaching and contributing to — and often resisting — the academic canon.

When I first looked for PhD programs in the summer of 2004, I was in the midst of doing a dance with socialism as a then-member of a large organization fighting for change in our often contradictory society, and stumbled upon Jean’s article “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” As a teacher in a school in Harlem with few supplies and policy-driven expectations that ratcheted up with every day that passed, I was in search of a language to help me unpack, understand, and resist what I witnessed on a daily basis: the overwhelming inequities inside the classrooms of New York City and beyond. Although there were multiple programs in which I thought I could do good work, I decided to take my chances and apply only to the CUNY Graduate Center (GC), in the hopes that I could study with Jean. Her work provided the missing link to helping me gain an understanding of how things really work within the education policy world, and I was eager to get started on the project of becoming a teacher educator under her tutelage.

I’ll never forget my first meeting with Jean, prior to submitting my application. I had read her book Ghetto Schooling and several other articles, and arrived at her office armed with copious notes and stacks of ideas for what I wanted to study at the GC, based on my experience as a NYC public school teacher. I remember her office door being open, and having her invite several current students in during our meeting to meet me. She immediately put me in touch with multiple students via email, so that I might ask questions and find out more about the program in a candid way before I applied. I was so grateful for this welcome. As she would many times throughout the years to come, Jean let me and countless others know repeatedly that we are part of an enormous network of people who share a desire to create a different kind of world. Those who knew her are all part of a community that she built, from the ground up.

As the following eight years passed in what now seems like a flash, I had my ups and downs as a graduate student. Like so many other students, I suffered heartbreak and loss, battled bouts of illness and writer’s block, and struggled through many email exchanges and phone calls in which Jean convinced me that I should stay in the program when I wanted desperately to leave — when I questioned if being a scholar would also allow me to be an activist for the work I wanted to do. Although I took longer than some to complete my PhD, she was my guiding light throughout the entire process. There are a number of memories that struck me last night, as I tried to fall asleep long after bed time. Thoughts of her wisdom, humor, and high expectations for her students cycled through my mind. I thought of:

  • the first time we talked about switching her email account from AOL to Google, and how she struggled (in her wry, humorous way) with accepting Facebook, Twitter, and the ways in which technology was changing communication and face-to-face contact
  • it taking quite some time to convince her that researching blogs written by public school teachers was worthy of dissertation research…and when I did, she was so proud. I look often at the email that she wrote after I submitted my final draft. In three words she summed up everything I was feeling: “YOU DID IT!”
  • the delight that lit up her face when she got an iPad and iPhone and admitted that she, well, could probably get used to this
  • the time she had to have major back surgery and we were all so worried for her…and she unexpectedly sent me in her stead to deliver a keynote address at a new teacher retreat in Columbus, Ohio
  • when she got on the bus with us to head down to DC to protest the war in Iraq
  • when she asked me to coauthor an article that has since become an important piece in explaining why policies such as NCLB don’t work, “No Child Left Behind as an Anti-Poverty Measure
  • when she invited students over to her apartment, or up to her home in upstate New York, reinforcing the idea that while an educational community may start in the classroom, it travels with you wherever you go
  • when she appropriately scolded me for not completing the revisions on an accepted article for Democracy and Education because I second-guessed the points I was trying to make (which would later lay the foundation for my dissertation)
  • how much pride she took in the many accomplishments of her students and the faculty with whom she worked so closely
  • always pushing us to think outside of our comfort zone, and above all, remain ourselves in scholarship, in the classroom, and in life in general
  • how much she talked about her daughter, Jessie, who she loved with all her heart

The memories are coming at me swiftly right now, and I am overwhelmed with emotion at the loss of a woman who, in her “free” time, reached out to act as a parent when I and many others needed it most. She was more than a teacher and a contributor to the canon; more than a friend and a surrogate parent. She meant so much to me, and I hurt in her absence. But I am not alone, and gather strength from the support of the large community she built. We will continue to honor her in days to come, and reach out to one another to find ways to express the loss of someone who impacted so many of us so deeply.

Please join us at the GC in the Urban Ed lounge tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week, and stay tuned for news of a more formal gathering in the months to come where we can share Jean’s impact on our lives — both personally and professionally — and make plans for how to both pay forward the mentorship she so graciously offered, and ensure the immortality of her brilliant scholarly work.

Data

I’ve been silent for a while. After spending the balance of the summer recovering from a mysterious virus that had lodged itself in my inner ear, I dove head-first into my data collection and analysis this fall for my dissertation, The New York City Teacher Voice Project. So in the last five months, that’s where I’ve been: collecting, analyzing, aggregating, and wrestling with my data. And I couldn’t be more excited about writing up my findings.

Motivated by my experience as a 5th-grade public school teacher in New York City, my dissertation takes up questions around policy and practice in public schooling and investigates the local knowledge teachers share in their blog posts. As a teacher, my colleagues and I confronted obstacles to our work as teachers on a daily basis — there was a revolving door of schedule changes, too few materials, generally insufficient resources and training, etc. — and found ways to adapt to or resist the circumstances in the name of consistency. And we went through the motions largely on our own. But as online spaces to communicate grew, teachers began blogging about their experiences. It is one assertion of my dissertation that policymakers have something to learn from what is shared in these blogs.

I was thinking the other day about why my work as an educational researcher is so closely tied to my experience. I’ve always been attracted to stories. I majored in anthropology as an undergraduate student, and worked on an oral history project during an internship the summer after I graduated from college. Ethnography, or some digital version of it, was an obvious choice for my work as a doctoral student, and I’m drawn in by the narratives shared by teachers who blog about their daily work in the classroom. The experiences they write about are so similar to mine — from a lack of stall doors in the girls’ bathroom and broken copy machines to insect infestations and faulty internet access — and I’m in the process of weaving together their experiences in a sort of kaleidoscopic word quilt.

So onward with the writing. Day in and day out till it’s done. In the meantime, I spent time before the holiday break printing out my data. Don’t laugh. Until I did this, I had no sense — and no tangible way of sharing — how “much” data I had. I’ve got quite a bit to work with. And this is the one and only time I’ll every have to do this. Now I have a sense of what a stack of roughly 400 blog posts looks like in the real world.