School Week Round-Up: Week Three

LessonsOne of the advantages of being a “specials” teacher is repeat performances. My schedule is such that I see every class in the school once per week for approximately fifty minutes. I teach one class of each grade per day. Usually (but not always) I teach the same or similar lesson to an entire grade level. So by the fourth or fifth time through, I really have it down pat. Makes me feel sorry for the kids who get that lesson first, though, because my fear is they’re not getting my best version, and that’s not fair. I need to figure out how to do better.

Support: There was one day this week where I was on the brink of turning into a puddle like Larisa Oleynik in The Secret World of Alex Mack if another person said to me, “Can I just ask you a favor…?” But that was only because I heard that phrase quite a lot in a surprisingly short span of time. It was just one of those days, when the printers jam so hard you think they ought to play roller derby, but your schedule is already booked with diagnostic testing.
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But it made me really appreciate that I have coworkers who schedule things in advance when they can, and take initiative in asking for help, and are very descriptive when describing tech issues. I am also very grateful for the gentleman we call in to fix our multi-function printers when their issues are outside of my ability to fix!

Things I Did Well: I’m trying to foster some growth mindset in the computer lab. I reflected on how I’ve previously said that computer lab is a lot of training before we can get to the learning, and I wondered how to make the training part more transferable. So when I give a set of directions, I am trying to leave room for what the kids know or figure out along the way. For example, there are multiple ways to get to a particular website: you can type the address into the URL bar; you can use a search engine. You can type on the keyboard, you can use the microphone and dictate.You can use auto-complete, even, if you’re careful about it. And when kids make mistakes and end up in the wrong place, it’s not the end of the world. We can learn what to do so when we make a mistake again, we know how to fix it. One student in a class accidentally directed Chrome to ciassroom.googie.com (typing i’s instead of l’s) and a classmate made the same mistake fewer than five minutes later. So I sent her to advise him, since she had just learned what to do!

Things I Will Do Better: I will try a little better on the home front, actually. I am rocking it so hard at work (or at least trying to) that when I come home I turn into Himouto! Umaru-chan. I think maaaaybe that’s getting to be a bit much for my partner. I cannot remember the last time I cooked, did the dishes, or cleaned the bathroom. I can remember the last time I vacuumed, but only because it was before we got married, almost three and a half years ago.

Cold Prickly: We had a meeting about retaking the RESA (because I failed the Second Lesson Cycle task). Counts a cold prickly because, as a human, I psychologically recoil from being reminded of my shortcomings. I have to pass the RESA this year or else I have to retake coursework. Or, I could just become a yam farmer. First order of business would be learning the difference between a yam and a sweet potato, once and for all!

Warm Fuzzy: A new student gave me a big hug on his way to the bus yesterday and said, “I love school!” The feeling that gives you? That’s the high every teacher is constantly chasing.

Binary of Feelings: Oversimplifying the Spectrum of Human Experience

In reading more on Colin Kaepernick’s protest, I read this opinion and many things about it resonated with me. I especially appreciate this bit about moving the conversation forward:

The rub lies in how we move the conversation forward. Free speech is a right, but it’s also a test for both the speaker and audience. It demands grace and conscientiousness. Criticism of America won’t always be accurate, it won’t always be fair, and it won’t always be delivered in an articulate fashion. There’s nothing wrong with pointing this out. But we need space to disagree on views of America without making the leap to that’s un-American or you aren’t patriotic or you don’t support the troops. These are nothing more than verbal grenades, McCarthyisms designed to denigrate the speaker at the expense of engaging their ideas. It’s cheap, it’s dumb, and it’s beneath us.

Another friend posted this link to a comic by the Oatmeal (some language may be unsafe for work). “I’m not ‘happy’ because our definition of happy isn’t very good. It’s a monochromatic word used to describe rich, painful spectrum of human feeling.” Especially after reading Ross Richendrfer’s Whose America Is It?, it got me to thinking about how many feelings we treat as binary: if you’re not happy, you must be unhappy. If you don’t love America the way I love America, then you must hate America.
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And what problems does this really cause? In a post about undemocratic schools, Will Richardson describes the “race to the bottom” in campaign rhetoric, and how our binary polarization feeds it. Acknowledging spectrum would make room for nuance but might be too complicated for us.

We’ve become a nation of dull-witted consumers of whatever partisan drivel we might subscribe to, preferring  just to cement whatever worldview we already have rather than engage in some type of reasoned conversation that negotiates where the “truth” might actually be.

And this is a scary thing. It’s no wonder one candidate for president proclaims “I love the poorly educated,” because that’s a great way of getting elected these days.

This isn’t good for the health of democracy overall.

Seeing the world critically and not simply accepting what is is a fundamental part of what democratic societies need their citizens to do… I’m talking about “reasoned conversation” of an intellectual type that I don’t think we’ve seen at all this year in the primaries or general election. In fact, at least in politics, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen two candidates just sit down at a table and have a conversation about something they disagree on with the intent of understanding the other side more fully.

When we treat these issues like a binary, we’re taking shortcuts, we’re jumping to conclusions. We’re putting people into boxes without taking time and energy to try to see and understand their perspective. We’re kind of turning into the mob from the end of Beauty and the Beast.

So what do we do? We begin by acknowledging complexities both in ourselves and in other people. By remembering that we can’t always know someone else’s point of view without listening to them first. Beyond that, I don’t know. I want to build more empathy, cooperation, and democracy into my life and into my classroom. I stand open for suggestions.

School Week Round-Up: Week One

We made it through our first week of school! Five whole days, even. Yeowch Francis pants! (That’s a bowdlerized cuss I actually said this week when I hit my arm against a heavy cart handle. It was in my classroom, but it was five p.m. and there was nary a soul within earshot.)

I thought I might do a little round-up of my week. I might try to make a habit of it, so I can go back and re-read later on and maybe get some bigger picture ideas of where my strengths and weaknesses are.

Lessons: Most of the lessons in the computer lab this week was setup and troubleshooting. Basically, I made sure students knew how to log in to their accounts, and when they couldn’t, I troubleshooted. Sometimes it was due to user error (darn the 1’s that look like l’s and the o’s that look like 0’s). Sometimes it was just their machine being uncooperative. Other times, I needed to actually fix something in the system.

Getting the students to log in meant guiding them towards their school email and, if we had time, getting them onto Google Classroom. I did have a simple assignment waiting in Google Classroom if they got in, but for a lot of us, that’s just where we’ll have to pick up next week.

SupportA big part of my job is supporting other teachers using technology in their classrooms. Much of it this week was dealing with updates in software; missing pieces of hardware; remembering the little things we had forgotten, like adjusting displays and finding printers on the network; and so on.

Our second grade teachers also started using the online product that we use as a growth measure to begin preassessing students. It was a rocky start — our Chromebooks didn’t work exactly like we had remembered, and we had plenty of issues with individual accounts to contend with. The first day of this, my head was spinning, but by day two I had it back on straight. We figured out how to work with the quirks and we finished out the week much better than we had started in this regard. Next week will be better with the first and third graders, because the second graders’ experiences showed us what we need to anticipate.

Things I Did Well: I think I am doing a good job of improving on the resources I made last year. I’ve updated some spreadsheets to improve the login cards from last year. I’m excited about a new piece I’ve incorporated that I’m sure I’ll write about once I start using it.

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MVP of the Week: My laminator! Our school laminator is great for big things like posters, but for little things that little hands will hold all year long, my thermal laminator is the way to go.

Things I Will Do Better: Time management is always something I could stand to improve, both in my professional and personal life. Not only did I allow discussions in lessons to go on a little too long, I found myself staying late in the building most nights this week, doing things that most of my colleagues probably would have done last week before school actually started. I’m paying for procrastination now by playing constant catch-up.

Cold Prickly of the Week: I overheard an adult say the hot lunch being served in the cafeteria looked “gross.” I didn’t enjoy hearing this. Firstly, I didn’t agree that the lunch looked gross. Secondly, I know how hard our cafeteria staff work to make and distribute nutritional lunches that are as appealing as possible. Students also have much more choice in their lunches at our cafeteria than I had seen in previous schools where I worked or where I went. Students must take a certain amount of fruit and vegetable servings, and they must take an entrée, and they must take a milk. And while there is only one choice of entrée each day, there are three choices of milk, at least two choices of vegetable, and two choices of fruit. And that’s just usually. Three out of five days this week, there were three or four choices of fruit and veg. Also, a student has to take at least two servings of fruit and vegetable — but can take up to four if they like. So if a child isn’t excited about the entree, they can take more fruit and vegetables. And if green beans don’t tempt you, there’s tossed salad or broccoli you can get instead.

So, I asked if I could start getting the same lunch as the students. It turns out I can, for the low price of three dollars per meal. It’s actually a really attractive option to me — packing a lunch is something I struggle to do consistently anyway, so it’s nice to just not have that concern. It’s probably healthier than eating fast food, more pocketbook-friendly than ordering delivery, and more appetizing than frozen meals each day. Also, I’ve been trying to walk to school as much as I can instead of driving, so it’s convenient to have one fewer thing to physically carry.

Warm Fuzzy of the Week: So, I started having the same hot lunch as the kids.  The portions are filling. I have eaten most of the things I have taken. The first day I had eyes bigger than my stomach and took the maximum helpings. But, I had neither time to finish eating them all, nor room in my belly. Luckily, the food is packaged in a way that means it could be taken back if it wasn’t open. Extras from one day are often put out the next day if they are stored properly and still good, which is one reason there are additional options. (This goes for entrées as well.) I sat with students, too, and it was really great to talk to them outside of instructional settings. It’s something I hope to continue doing at least a few times a week throughout the school year.

Unsurprisingly, my roundup for the first week revolved largely around food. But, I promise you, this week was nourishing in a lot of other ways. I feel great about how excited other teachers are about integrating technology and using the SAMR model. I think my principal did a great job setting the tone and improving school culture. (And I had that opinion before she brought donuts in on Friday!)

Happy first week to everyone else who had their first week of school, and good luck to everyone whose first week is still in the future!

Wine and Wine Not: Teachers and the Halo Effect

11970894281309688612johnny_automatic_wine_and_goblets.svg.hiAt our staff meeting before our students return, our principal set us to a task of discussing ways in which we would challenge ourselves and change our behaviors to better reflect our shared belief that every student can learn. It was just a short part of a bigger meeting, and like many chats between colleagues who know and like each other, someone opened with a joke.

“I promise to be there with a glass of wine when you need one!” she said.

“And remember that, regardless of whether the glass is half full or half empty, there’s still wine in it!” someone added.

Another person remarked that someone needs to teach her how to properly enjoy wine.

“The key is actually not to worry too much about it,” I said. “Even the professionals get thrown by labels. I mean, a cheap wine from Wal-Mart won a major award this past year, so the pressure’s way off plebes like us.”

In a wine competition, judges do a “blind” tasting, meaning that they have no idea what specific wine they are tasting. They may know details like the vintage or the varietal of wine but not much else. It seems that this is necessary to really assess the wine, as experts have been tricked into believing wrong things about wine — basic things such as the colorIn a 2001 experiment, a scientist invited fifty-seven wine experts to sample glasses of wine, half of which appeared to be red wine, the other half white. In fact, every glass was the same white wine, but some had been tinted with food coloring to look red. For the most part, it seemed as though no one could detect the truth. On top of that, the experts were allowed to see labels — which were intentionally misleading and inaccurate. Glasses served out of a fancy-labelled bottle were praised, while glasses served out of the table wine bottle were denigrated. Again, this was the same wine, and the only difference was the packaging. But their expectations of the wine turned out to have more weight in their judgment than what was actually served up in the glass.

And what’s the teacher’s take-away? One of the first grade teachers told me weeks ago, “I heard from the kindergarten teacher that one of my students was ‘bad,’ but I didn’t want to know which one, because I don’t want to assume they’re going to be ‘bad’ for me this year.” Just like the wine experts, we’d like to think we’re capable of objectively judging the specific qualities of someone or something. But, we tend to assess the individual attributes of others based on their appearances, and our expectations of them. This first grade teaching colleague of mine doesn’t want to hear which kid is “bad” because she doesn’t want to allow herself to subconsciously expect him to be bad, especially not when he’s going to a new school with a new teacher and has a clean slate ahead of him.

We teachers are especially prone to the halo effect, which is when our overall impression of somebody influences all your thoughts and feelings about that person’s character. Author David McRaney discusses a study done on teachers in his book You Are Now Less Dumb. Teachers all watched the same video of a fourth grade student performing activities. The teachers did not know it, but the child on the video was specifically chosen because he was absolutely average, with test scores well within normal ranges for his age. The teachers were divided into four groups. The first group was told they would be evaluating emotionally disturbed children. The second was told they would be evaluating learning disabled children. The third group was told they would be evaluating mentally retarded children. The fourth group served as a control group, and they were told nothing specific about the children they would evaluate beforehand. (This experiment was conducted in 1976, so the language they used at the time may not reflect the language we would choose today.)

The control group, who had no expectations in particular of the child, accurately judged him to be typical. But the other groups who attached a label to him before seeing him judged him much more harshly. They saw a child struggling with challenges that did not actually exist. All groups saw the same video of the same child doing the same things. But those who thought he was emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, or mentally retarded did not revise their assessment when he behaved normally. Rather, they found evidence in his behavior to support their expectations, not subvert them. “The halo effect can easily set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy in which attitude changes behavior, which then loops back around over and over for the persons both giving and receiving a label,” writes McRaney.

Our first day of school is next week. I prepare in so many ways — decorating my classroom, picking my outfit, packing my lunch. But I also try to adopt the attitude of my colleague. I shall try not to judge each student as a whole based on their appearance or reputation alone. My students shouldn’t be burdened with my first impression of them for the rest of the school year.

Shakespeare and Straight Outta Oz: A Case for Pop Culture in the Classroom

My spouse and I recently saw a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged at the local university. To be honest, I wanted to see it because my twin sister and I did it as a speech cut for duo interpretation our senior year of high school. I realize now how many of the jokes went over my head at the time!

More importantly, I realized how many things about Shakespeare are still deeply embedded in our culture. Turns of phrases like “my kingdom for a horse” and “to thine own self be true.” Characters like Iago from Othello remind me of political figures currently looming large. Narratives like from Romeo and Juliet have surfaced across cultures throughout all of history, and the lessons we mine from them depend on our context.

I first read Shakespeare when I was in fifth grade, perhaps. I first studied and learned some in class in ninth grade, then again in twelfth grade. We touched on some Shakespeare in some of my college courses, and I was in a couple productions of Shakespeare comedies at that time as well.
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I’ve seen adaptations like Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Things inspired or influenced by Shakespeare like The Lion King and House of Cards. I’ve seen hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of Bollywood movies and I think about the structural similarities between those and Shakespeare’s contemporary stage productions.

When we teach Shakespeare, we’re teaching students to notice some of the water we swim in – things like references and vocabulary words that we might otherwise take for granted. And when we take them down for deeper dives through such material, we’re hopefully helping them to pay attention and interpret meanings for themselves.

And that brings me to “Straight Outta Oz” by Todrick Hall.

(Some language and visuals in the links may not be appropriate for work or classroom, depending on your work/school culture.)

So, yes, I’m running for president of awkward transitions.

“Straight Outta Oz” is an album by Youtube star Todrick Hall. While I think all the songs on this particular album are original, he has built a large following for himself by playing around with pop culture. Disney princesses singing a medley of Nicki Minaj songs and retelling Alice in Wonderland to a soundtrack of Taylor Swift. So it seems a natural choice for him to use an iconic piece of media – The Wizard of Oz – as the vehicle to tell his own life story.

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Todrick Hall and actress Uzo Aduba, who portrayed Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz Live! (2015). Photo from Todrick Hall’s mobile uploads album on Facebook.

This is not his first time referencing The Wizard of Oz, but this is clearly his most personal turn. He depicts all the major players himself: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and even the Witch of the West. He uses events from the narrative of Wizard of Oz to illustrate his own journey through the fame machine. Along the way he explores, through song, reflections on sexuality, masculinity, race, and identity.

Were I a high school teacher with flexibility of curriculum, I might use this album as a way to introduce concepts of literary criticism. There’s a tendency to focus on “high brow” texts and media, things that are well-established in the literary canon. Or, if we include newer things, they are almost always books. I do love books, but they do not have a monopoly on storytelling. Here are reasons I might try to incorporate Straight Outta Oz:

  • Access. The visual album is available to all viewers on Youtube, for free. Many of the songs are available individually, though the voiceover narrative only comes up in the album video. Youtube can be accessed on many devices or at public libraries.
  • Intention. In weaving together autobiography and fictional narrative, Hall is very clearly commenting on culture or illustrating his ideas. The material is there to be mined. There is a clear arc, buoyed by symbolism, laced with themes.
  • Relatability. Adolescents are going through a stage in life where they question the world and how they fit into it. This piece of media would probably speak to many teens on an emotional level. Also, this is the water they swim in. Shakespeare speaks to us today because the stories are rooted deeply in our culture since before William put them into plays. But the language and the settings sometimes get in the way. When we change the setting and language to be more familiar, it is not just an update — it’s an attempt to reduce obstacles to comprehension.
  • Cross curricular potential. There’s no question that music, dance, and costuming are all integral to Hall’s style of storytelling; that brings in the arts. Commentary on current events could fit in with social studies.

I know a high school teacher who last year taught a unit on the first season on popular podcast Serial, to great success. I know another high school teacher who, powered by the momentum of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit, has been coaching students through Chernow’s biography of Hamilton for summer reading (and using Twitter to send reminders!). From Khan Academy to Crash Course, a resource like Youtube has found a place in the classroom in STEM subjects. So why not humanities as well?

Now, I make a case for Straight Outta Oz on the basis that I really enjoy it. Obviously my enjoyment of a piece of media is not the sole rubric to measure its appropriateness for the classroom. (Otherwise The Little Prince book would have gone over much better years ago when I taught sixth grade.) What relatively new medium do you dream of teaching in your classroom?

“Ghettoside” and Charles Kinsey: A White Teacher’s Developing Reflections on Race

Let me start by saying that no one needs my hot take on anything in current events. Not individually, anyway. On the other hand, need to add my voice to the conversation. Not because the conversation needs me, but because the conversation needs many.

Secondly, it’s a conversation I find difficult to enter. I am a white woman who is not directly, personally affected by racism. But it does affect me, like dominoes. My students and their families are affected by racism, and so it affects me. My friends are affected by racism, and so it affects me. My family members are affected by racism, and so it affects me. I struggled with finding a point of entry into the conversation without speaking over someone else, without co-opting someone else’s narrative, without making it about me. So up til now, I’ve mostly been sharing links and retweeting.

But now, two things: I have been reading Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. I am not yet done with this book, but I do have a lot of reflections on it so far. I was waiting to write anything about it until after I finished it. Then, this morning, I checked Twitter to read that yet another unarmed black man has been shot by police. Charles Kinsey was not killed, but he was injured while assisting a client of his, an adult man with autism. He identified himself by his role and complied with all directions. As I commented to a friend on Facebook:

I watched this and wondered, if I were in the exact same position, what would have happened? I would have behaved the same way — complied while explaining. I would have spoken in the same volume and tone. I would have said the same words. Would I get the same wounds? No. What exactly is the difference between me and Charles Kinsey? I’m a white woman. He is a black man. And that difference puts a reticle on him where there isn’t one on me.

Charles Kinsey is just another black, male victim of a police shooting, and for me, the most relatable yet. And that’s a problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Again, I haven’t finished Ghettoside, but it’s already given me a lot to think about. The author’s intention is to focus on the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of “blue before black” L.A. homicide detective Wally Tennelle. But the entire first portion of the book attempts to give context. The author has, so far, discussed:

  • statistics and history on black-on-black crime, locally to Los Angeles, calling it a “plague of murders.”
  • the personalities and histories of individual detectives who work in the predominately black neighborhood where Tennelle was killed.
  • the overall culture of the police (and how the individual detectives may differ in their philosophies).
  • aspects of the culture of the community of the neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles, and the things that shape it like stereotypes, and lack of media coverage for major crimes.
  • numerous stories of families affected by homicide investigations.

The author focuses on Los Angeles, but there were several ideas and facts that came up that made me feel like this was also relevant to other communities. To my community.

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The poster on the left was made in response to the death of Eric Garner, but could apply to any number of homicide victims mentioned in Ghettoside.

Okay, so, there’s a lot to sort through here. The first part of the book discusses “black on black” violence, admitting that it is statistically higher than with other demographics. But then it dives deep into the tangle of reasons that may be.

First, I want to express my emotional response to this book so far, as a teacher. The author works hard to delineate between “the police” and “a police officer” and so on. What I mean is, the institution and the individuals who make up the institution are different entities. When the detectives go out into the neighborhoods, they represent the institution rather than themselves as individuals. So when residents accuse them of racism by saying things like, “You don’t care because he’s a black man!” they don’t take it personally. They realize the person is referring to them as police and not individuals. Privately, they may even agree with this perspective.

As a teacher, I felt very affected by this. I am also a public servant who represents a larger institution. And there are definitely instances where my personal philosophy diverges from the one embodied by the institution I represent. I have been accused of racism before, and in the contexts where it has happened, it’s not necessarily wrong. I may, through my job, be asked to enforce an inherently unfair policy, one that was never intended to be racist, but in following it through, it is. One example on a large scale I can think of is standardized testing.

As a teacher, I also related to the description of the allocation of resources, and the workarounds the detectives use. The leader of the department asks for, and is repeatedly denied, things that would make the detectives’ lives easier and help ensure the safety of members of the community they serve. “His requests seemed pretty reasonable for a department that ran its own helicopter fleet,” the author writes on page 68, “Again and again he was turned down.” Resources are not distributed according to need.

I also related to the part where the author discusses some prevalent attitudes in policing policy on page 58 of the hardcover edition:

Cops were told they were supposed to “be proactive,” focus on “suppression,” or practice “crime control.” Showered in such nonsensical orders and jargon, they couldn’t really be blamed for struggling to find purpose in their work… It could feel quite pointless. It didn’t help that even as they were supposedly held to high standards and expected to display the skill and initiative of trained professionals, many so-called innovative policing strategies tended to reduce them to cogs.

I defy any public school teacher to read that and not see yourself and your colleagues in it.

These details did not constitute the bulk of the first part of the book, merely part of it. There are narratives of specific homicides and their investigations. The author discusses some major barriers to homicide investigations in neighborhoods where “the shadow system” of law is more pervasive than the formal system. Witness intimidation. Distrust of police. The author discusses how programs and policies meant to address these issues, well-intended as they may be, fall short.

On reflection, it feels very easy to blame black people for their own circumstances. “When your business dealings are illegal, you have no legal recourse,” the author writes on page 79. “Violence substituted for contract litigation.” But on the very next page the author describes how gangs, “pointlessly self-destructive” as they may be, form. Banding together for mutual protection is a normal human response to the vacuum of legitimate legal authority. “Fundamentally gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause.”

But Ms. D! you say. There are police in these neighborhoods! People just don’t respect them! Ah, well. The police department, as an authority, undermines itself when it hyper-focuses on small infractions and fails to follow through on the appropriate response to serious, community-destroying crimes such as homicide. “Street hustlers would make it clear that they would rather have formal justice if given the choice: they’d call 911,” the author states on page 83. “Skaggs learned to think of his job as persuasion: selling formal law to people who distrusted it and were answering to another authority — shadow law.”

And the author discusses the struggle between what you experience in your job and what you want to believe in your heart. From page 65:

No one in the wider world wanted to talk about it, but black residents, to many officers, seemed more violent than Hispanics. Their own eyes told them so. Statistics backed them up. Few officers wanted to believe that black people were somehow intrinsically wired for violence.

Many cops fell back on a rhetoric of “choice,” that some individuals choose violence. That way they didn’t have to make uncomfortable generalizations of black people as a group. But if people choose violence, then they also can be blamed for violence. “And since blame also served as a satisfying distancing mechanism, officers ended by blaming not just suspects but victims.” And when many cops carry that attitude, it becomes easy to distrust all cops, because you can’t tell just by looking at someone what they think of you and how they’re likely to behave. As reported by Psychology Today:

The tendency to classify our experience into categories is a fundamental and universal aspect of human cognition. We create concepts in order to make sense of the endless complexity we encounter in our environment. This is a necessary part of human thought, allowing us to process information efficiently and quickly… In social categorization, we place people into categories. People also reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups. Furthermore, people tend to evaluate out-groups more negatively than in-groups. In this way, social categories easily lend themselves to stereotypes in general and to negative stereotypes in particular.

And that’s also why it’s problematic that I see Charles Kinsey as a “more relatable” victim. The author writes on page 33 how a particular detective learned to view all homicide victims.

“She ain’t a whore no more,” he said. “She’s some daddy’s baby.” Wally Tennelle loved that philosophy. Whatever the wider world’s response, the homicide detective’s call was to treat each victim, no matter how deep their criminal involvement, as the purest angel. The murdered were inviolate. They all deserved the same justice.

Many words are devoted to describing attitudes towards the black residents of Watts; conveying that “gang member” is the new “n” word when diminishing the value of a black male’s life, for instance. How some police officers felt that “the whole culture of the black community is crime;” “they love selling drugs;” they “could better their lives, but they don’t.” “I like to think it is a choice,” says one gang detective on page 65. “Even in this environment, you have a choice!” A different detective, one set up by the author as a protagonist, has a different perspective described on page 88:

Skaggs had concluded that many residents connected to Watts murder cases were ordinary people, trapped by conditions of lawlessness. Coercion and intimidation lay behind much of their apparent “acceptance” of violence, he thought… Skaggs also saw that many victims had no role in provoking the attacks that killed them. His colleagues insisted that Watts had no real victims.

It’s important to point out that the focus of Ghettoside is not police brutality or the misconduct of police officers. It’s focus is the fact that there is a “plague of murders” affecting a community that the media largely turns a blind eye to. Jill Leovy, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, wrote the book with the knowledge that her employer was only covering about ten percent of all homicides in the city. But it does shed light on attitudes and on policy, both in policing and in society at large, that could stand to be scrutinized and reformed. #BlackLivesMatter not only in terms of police interactions, but in terms of media coverage and our prevailing attitude towards black on black crime.

My thoughts: when we call on the black community to address these problems, we overlook and diminish the ways in which they already are addressing these problems. And we, as white people wearing the blinders of privilege, make it harder for the black community to make positive differences. Our attitudes change at our convenience, not upon real conversion. We derail discussions when we respond by saying, “All Lives Matter!” And while we may follow through as far as arguing that point on social media, we fall short of demonstrating that all lives matter to us when we fail to challenge policies that maintain inequalities and preserve discrimination. If all lives truly matter, than we need to act like we matter to each other.

So, white community, what if we use our white privilege for good? Acknowledge the goodness within individual police officers while addressing problems with policing, such as resource allocation and training — problems that also plague public education. Ask our government to study gun violence as a public health concern. Acknowledge that these issues are complicated and part of larger issues of prejudice that can’t be solved with hashtags alone. Listen to the points made by those most directly affected. Educate ourselves before joining the conversation. Understand that examining our own prejudices may be individually painful in the short term, but will be beneficial to our communities in the long run; it’s worth doing. When I choose to help dismantle institutional discrimination that benefits me directly, I’m actually being selfish, because I know I will reap benefits later on when my students and their families begin to experience the positive effects in their lives.

Update 7/23/16: According to NPR, the officer who shot Kinsey had actually meant to shoot Kinsey’s client.

Pokémon Kept GOing

The biggest thing in my planner today was how I needed to take my car into the shop so the mechanic could give it a check-up. What a perfect opportunity to keep playing Pokémon GO like the ridiculous human being that I am!

I have leveled up in my gameplay, and experienced broader play elements now.

Firstly, my spouse and I took over a gym, extremely briefly. It took several fights to do so. To take over a gym, you have to lower the gym’s “prestige” first. It’s like you’re chipping away at the hold another team has over the gym. Failure is a common and arguably even necessary part of this progress. It is definitely easier to take over a gym when you work together, and possibly easier to hold onto it, too. This part of the game is better with a buddy!

Secondly, the game really encourages walking. No wonder that’s the most-talked about aspect of the game on social media! You can get closer to many spots and gyms by walking than you can with a vehicle. Also, driving in a vehicle, even at 35mph, takes you past most spots too quickly for you to have an interaction with them. Also, you hatch your Pokémon eggs by walking. Even a little bit at a time helps. It occurred to me that I didn’t mind parking a little farther away from a destination if I had my game going. That’s a tenth of a kilometer closer to hatching a Jigglypuff, dudes! My deepest hope is that this will inspire more people to return their carts/buggies to proper locations at the grocery store, which is one of my biggest pet peeves.

Thirdly, I wonder whether this game might help us teach our children how to talk to strangers. “Stranger danger” and “don’t talk to strangers” is a deep-seated but misguided attempt at keeping children safe. I wonder whether Pokémon GO can help us teach children when and where and how to interact with people they don’t know. When I see kids playing the game, I usually see a parent with them or very close by. This could be an excellent opportunity for modeling a lot of positive, safe behavior. It could be as simple as asking another player what team they picked to start a conversation. Of course, you want to look out for “tricky people” playing the game, just as you would in any context. Real life rules still apply.

Related to that, parents also have the opportunity to model how to cross streets safely, how to look out for traffic, and so on. City kids might know that stuff intrinsically by now, but not everyone does.

There does seem to be an imbalance between areas of high interaction (having Pokéstops and gyms) and areas of low interaction. At least in my city, the historically less privileged part of town is severely lacking in interactive spots. The park there doesn’t even have a Pokéstop, much less a gym! The local university is lit, though. My understanding is that the map was largely ported from a previous AR release. So the dearth of spots in one neighborhood vs. the glut of spots in another probably speaks to the demographics of who played that other game. Also, many landmarks are outdated. On the left is how one Pokéstop appears in the game. On the right is how it actually looks as of now. Where did that sculpture go?

Like Minecraft, the game itself doesn’t give you all the best details on how to play it. This forces players to either learn by trial and error, or seek out resources. Those resources might be other people or online searches. These days, there are a lot of Minecraft books in the library kids can use too. I wonder whether Pokémon GO might head in this direction, inspiring kids to pick up books and read more about something that interests them.

For what it’s worth, I have always enjoyed video games, from a very young age. Pokemon was a big thing when I was in middle school and high school. (It wasn’t cool to like Pokemon in high school, but that didn’t make me like it any less at the time.)

Teaching & Learning in Lunarbaboon

Lunarbaboon is an ongoing webcomic that explores parenthood, particularly fatherhood.

I was catching up on it the other day and came upon one titled “Learning.”

Firstly I want to comment on how the dad in the comic teaches. When the child asks a question, the dad doesn’t state the answer. In fact, he never indicates that he knows the answer. He responds with “Let’s find out!” or “Count!” indicating that the child should seize the opportunity to learn for his or herself instead of rely on someone to tell them. The dad is also willing to model finding out. As a new teacher, this was one of my struggles initially. I wanted to demonstrate my expertise and display my own knowledge at every turn; I mistakenly believed that would establish my authority in the classroom. Besides that, I equated knowledge with learning. Silly me, knowledge is only evidence of learning — and only one possible piece of evidence, at that! The father’s method is far superior. It encourages learning as a skill in addition to learning in the pursuit of knowledge. It also builds the relationship between father and child.

Secondly, that punchline! “But I want to keep learning…” I get you, kid. I get you. As a teacher, one of the most frustrating things is that teachers don’t have a lot of choice about what we teach, and students don’t have a lot of choice about what they learn. I understand that there is information and skills that we all need to know in general; I don’t disagree with that. But in school, we don’t learn for its own sake, the way the child wants to. We learn to earn a grade, to earn a score, to pass a test. To see how we measure up against others and with our past selves.

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As much as I enjoy my career, I also feel very frustrated by it. I feel much of what I do as a teacher is not teaching. I train, instruct, manage, serve, assess, discipline, counsel, proctor, advise, plan, and also learn myself, among so many other things. I don’t believe all of those things to be equally important. But the very structure of school, where learning is the supposedly the highest priority, sometimes quashes it instead — or at the very least postpones it while I have to step into a different role. Yet current educational reforms don’t propose actually transforming schools. They move traditional educational models to the web and dust their hands off. Or they move students from one school to another and say, “This will be enough, probably!” Or they make more and longer checklists of things that students and teachers should accomplish, along with making us responsible for keeping records.

I might not have complete control over the setting where I work, but I can work towards bettering my community; building relationships, and making decisions such as voting to hopefully enact positive changes that will ultimately make my job (and my students’ jobs) easier. And I can control my attitude.

But that may not be enough. Parents, educators, and members of the community — support your schools. Learn about the issues that affect them and the challenges they face. And act on what you learn. As Lunarbaboon shows us, knowledge without action can be unhelpful!

There Are No Right Answers

So I clicked on a link on Twitter — the headline of “There are no wrong answers!” successfully grabbed my attention. In it, the author discusses how the refrain of “There are no wrong answers!” in education, particularly during the discussion of fiction works, is often quite unhelpful. Because there are wrong answers. It’s a good post that touches on preventing students from internalizing misconceptions, getting “too firm a hold on the wrong end of the stick;” the blogger discusses the importance of teaching the context for a work alongside the word itself.

But the headline really got my brain motor running. “There are no wrong answers!” is a pretty useless battle cry, unless the question is, “Which donut would you like?” In that case, every answer is a correct one, and the level of correction is a spectrum that I have helpfully charted here.

donut chart

But yeah, when the question isn’t concerned with the imminent consumption of donuts, there are usually wrong answers. You take a bubble test, yeah, only one of those choices should be the correct one. The rest are, at best, near misses. Interviewer throws you a curveball? Think quickly and clearly, because you probably won’t get hired if you tell them your greatest strength is “getting away with embezzlement.” Don’t even get me started with the possible minefield when the cop asks you, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” (In my case, they could probably smell the donuts on me — hey oh!)

But the reason the headline kept flipping over in my head was… sometimes, there are no right answers.

Once, students asked where they should hide or what they should do if an armed intruder entered the school, intent on hurting them.

I have witnessed adults put children into a double bind scenario, where the child was going to be wrong no matter how they answered (even if they abstained), simply so the adult could exert control over them.

Gosh, a student last month simply asked me who I was voting for to be the next president of the United States.

Sometimes there are no right answers. Sometimes all the multiple choice bubbles seem wrong; sometimes the question shouldn’t have to be asked in the first place. We are imperfect people and we operate within imperfect systems.

Sometimes the best we can do is to make do.

And sometimes the best we can to is to make donut jokes.
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Congrats, Grads!

My younger brother graduated from high school yesterday. Before the part where they called each graduate’s name and had them walk across the stage to receive their diploma, they did their annual reminder for families to hold their applause until the end. The reason, they state, is that the graduates want it to be a formal occasion and that singling out a graduate with cheering and clapping is embarrassing to the graduate.

I call BS.

It was, word for word, the exact same reminder that was read at my high school graduation thirteen years ago. They never surveyed my class of graduates as to how we felt about cheering. Over half a dozen of my siblings have graduated since then, and I don’t believe their classes were ever polled either. And that’s fine — the graduates only graduate once, so they aren’t the best positioned to set the norms of the graduation ritual. But then it doesn’t hold water to say that it’s the graduates who call for the solemnity.

Which brings me to the graduation speaker. Though it was kept a secret until the day of, the address given was written and delivered by a teacher of the school for the past forty-two years, who is finally taking her well-deserved retirement. It may have been one of the best graduation speeches I have ever heard, even though I understood only parts of it. The entire first segment was only for the graduating class. It was in-jokes, references, and name-dropping, and the graduates loved it. Even as the speech continued, it was clearly tailored to the specific audience of 2016 graduates, though it still applied to the audience at large. This teacher could have made it about her, about her years of teaching, or about the school itself. Indeed, most graduation speeches I have heard are less about the audience and more about the speaker. And goodness knows forty-two years of teaching likely provided copious material to mine for bits of wisdom. But she focused on the students in front of her, and the time she spent with them — just the last ten percent of her career. And I think that was exceptionally meaningful.

4moreyearsLike any ritual with significant cultural importance, a graduation can be tricky. A balance must be struck between all the parties who are invested in it. A graduation is the graduating class; it is important to the families and friends of the graduates, as well as alumni and future graduates; and it matters to the educators and administrators who repeat this ceremony year after year, for every single student. Not only that, but there’s often overlap between these groups — younger family members who are future graduates; teachers who are also parents; administrators who are also alumni. And even then, individuals within the groups will have conflicting values and ways to demonstrate their values. Despite the reminder, there were still some families who cheered for their graduates, and I don’t begrudge them one bit. Even my brother asked our family to transgress slightly: he asked us to bring signs. There’s nothing in the ritual reminder about signs, but to some they likely undercut the intended gravity of the ceremony. Especially considering that we mostly recreated signs that he brought to football games. (I brought a dry erase board so I could continually renew my slogans, though it proclaimed “Congration You Done It” longer than anything else.)

The point is, we exist alongside one another anyway in our day to day. Coming together for rituals reminds us that we may have different values and different ways of living out our values. And though it might not be completely comfortable, we compromise and make room for others — out of wanting to be inclusive; or just because we want to survive yet another graduation.