Tag Archives: teacher education

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.

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??


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.

Writing Process

Every semester of graduate school so far has been marked by some event.  For better or for worse, several of those events have been, for me, injuries.  I fractured my tailbone at the end of July (a swimming accident), and then broke my toe about a month ago (a less glamorous fall in the middle of the night).  So for much of the semester, my body has been broken. Literally.  It’s not been my favorite, but it has forced me to sit in one place a lot.  In the last month or so, as I have given more thought to how my dissertation will be shaped (and how I’ll actually get it done), I keep coming back to writing process.

I realize it isn’t an odd statement for any educator or aspiring academic to say they are thinking about writing process, but it’s not something that has always been so acutely on my radar.  The first time I can remember really paying attention to how I write (i.e., the process by which I actually sit down and start forming sentences into paragraphs) was when I was faced with the task of teaching a class of 32 fifth graders how to write a literary essay.  It was only through the exploration of my own writing process (in my mid-20s) that I was able to be a successful teacher of writing, and also, begin to understand what it means to have a writing process.

As a young student, I was taught that writing starts with a draft and ends with publishing, but I didn’t really understand what it meant to “edit” or “revise” something — that the process isn’t linear, but recursive, and good writers tend to go back and rework what they’ve written as they go. I tended to skip over these steps; I would start with a blank page, and write until I filled it.  I almost never wrote a paper before the night before it was due until my dissertation prospectus. It just wasn’t in my bones to spend time on writing craft, until I had to teach it (or the paper just got too long to write in one sitting!).

So something happened to me as a writer when I became a teacher of writing.  I found it was no longer acceptable to meander so much with words (though I’m admittedly still working on this), or be unable to create and utilize an outline or writing plan (especially if I had to teach how to do these things). I started going back to the beginning, dialoguing with myself about what makes sense and doesn’t as I crafted a piece, and using a set of answers to touchstone questions like “so what?,” “for whom?,” and “why?”

In recent years, I’ve begun to flex my fiber artist muscles again for the first time since high school.  As a child and teenager, I spent hours creating intricate designs of macrame and crochet, completely engaged in the processes of construction and problem-solving.  My mom would proudly announce to the proprietor at a shop that her daughter could figure out how to make any friendship bracelet, no matter how complicated, just by looking at it.  It would embarrass me, but there was something she was hitting on that I wouldn’t recognize for at least another twenty years: in order to be able to fully articulate something, I had to start from the end. (This isn’t unlike backward design, which Grant Wiggins and James McTighe suggest as a pedagogical approach to planning assessments. I relied heavily on this method of preparation as both a classroom teacher and teacher educator.)

I wouldn’t make this connection between my writing and crafting processes until a few months ago, when Shannon Mattern and I met to chat and she suggested I think about how (in my research) to connect the worlds I spend the most time in: academia and knitting.  Our conversation reminded me of a paper that Nabin Chae (a dear friend and colleague) delivered at the 2009 American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in San Diego called “Finishing Techniques.”  Nabin is a skilled knitter and writer, and drew a parallel between finishing techniques in knitting and the use of theoretical frameworks in academic writing. The impact of her analogy stuck with me, but it wasn’t until my recent conversation with Shannon that I realized I had to start writing about this.

I started thinking about how I approach a project involving yarn, and noted that it depends on the technique.  If I’m knitting, I have to sit down and plan — knitting is all about numbers and measurements, increments and multiples; if I’m crocheting, I kind of just sit down and fly — even though I design my own patterns, I find it far more forgiving than knitting, and don’t often go into a project with an airtight plan but rather find myself writing the pattern down once the piece is complete.  In thinking about this further, I realized that my process for writing has often been like my traditional approach to crochet — spontaneous, hopeful, and without a plan; however, when my process for writing follows how I might approach a knitting project, I give myself time to consider, think, and rethink a plan of action. For my dissertation, the latter approach is going to be necessary.

So what do I make of this discovery? Is there a way to work it into my dissertation? Is it relevant to my teaching? I don’t know and I’m not sure yet.  But I know I like thinking about it.  There’s something very exciting about considering a way to theorize knitting and simultaneously concretize theory by looking for a channel that connects two worlds that mean, well, the world to me.