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Reading, Writing, and Rising Up

On the whole, we liked Reading, Writing, and Rising Up by Linda Christensen a lot. We weren’t expecting the amount of narrative that was present in the book, and the peer dynamics and student-teacher connections that the author described.

We liked the specific examples of social justice oriented lesson plans and how to incorporate social justice into our classrooms. However, it left us with a lot of questions about how to incorporate social justice into a classroom where students aren’t from the areas or situations Christensen was teaching in. We also were left questioning how to grade writing and narratives, especially those that Christensen encouraged were for the purpose of expression and discussion. If we ran our own classrooms completely, without anyone else to answer to, we could use all of the lesson plans and lead extremely social justice conscious classrooms just the way Christensen described (and it would be absolutely lovely), but the reality is the book doesn’t offer a lot of alternative assignments that aren’t so intensive.

But on the whole, we loved the book. Particular lesson ideas that we liked were the Tea Party (making students interact as if they were characters from the books they read at a Tea Party), the re-examining of cartoons with a critical consciousness, and the Forgiveness Poems (which can even be adapted to write from characters’ perspectives). The connections Christensen made with her students are narratives that we hadn’t experienced in our limited realms of education thus far, and it was truly enlightening to see how transformative teaching can be. We also felt like Christensen’s book provides a good starting point of how one can look at social justice pedagogy, and we would recommend the book particularly for teachers or future teachers trying to get acclimated with social justice issues and how to incorporate them in the classroom.


A Reflection on Resources

During this week, we reflected on the lesson plans introduced in the book used by the author her classroom. .As a whole group, we liked the emphasis on dialogue and narrative works because it encapsulates the students’ home language and culture. Relating the book and its offered practices to other resources and standards gave us an interesting view on activity application in the classroom. Activities utilized in curriculum have to fit with the relatively new Common Core Standards.

One of the more relevant activities the author used in her classroom includes analysis of perpetuated stereotyped in child-geared media. Disney movies took the focus in this activity. One example of a stereotype embedded in Disney movies is the idea that the female characters are actually damsels in distress. The author’s students really got into this activity because it allowed them to analyze things that they were exposed to from a young age.

Melissa really enjoyed reading about the tea party activity which consists of students coming up with descriptions of characters and then brainstorm how they would interact with them at a tea party. She made this activity a part of the lesson planning in our Curriculum bubble map assignment. The example the author included was for the idea Their Eyes Were Watching God. With the cultural differences, students would interact in distinct manners reflective of their own culture. 



Hannah wished that the author discussed more about how she graded her students. Although she focused on the activities and their implement in the class, she did not address how she evaluated the activities that they completed in class.

Reflecting on the author’s practices allowed me to predict what I may use in my future classroom. I love the idea of using real-world examples in my classroom, such as comparing Disney movies to characterization and stereotypes in media, because it provides a relatable instance for kids to learn. I don’t know if I necessarily would use all of these methods in my classroom, as I will be in an elementary classroom for my career. However, the students in middle and secondary grade levels will benefit from these practices.


Rubrics: A Puzzle-Game for Teachers

So this week, we undertook the challenge to examine the complications of rubrics in the classroom. The implementation of rubrics is often debated amongst education communities and between teachers, because it cannot be decided whether a “blue-print” of a model paper actually assists students or hinders their innate creativity.

On the college level, some courses will offer contracts, which will list conditions such as “turn in all assignments in prompt manner” in order to achieve the desired grade. Furthermore, the contractual system offers a sort of agreement betwixt the instructor and the students, through which so long as the conditions are met, the students should receive at least the minimum grade stipulated in the contract. The keen stipulation with college-level courses, however, is that getting an ‘A’ may take a lot more effort, placing a strong emphasis on process as well as improvement.

Likewise, we’ve seen in high school courses how the emphasis for grading has been placed on students’ efforts and improvement. Students could demonstrate improvement in the classroom by conversing with teachers, peers, and utilizing self-reflection practices that enable students to acknowledge the need for improvement, and then constructing a reflexive plan to help achieve such improvement.

On the same note, sometimes the grades given in the classroom are collectively decided by the teacher and the student in question. Often through interactive conferences between the teacher and the student, peers will also have the chance to engage in the conversation as it pertains to the grading system used in the classroom. Emphasis, in these classrooms, is placed on the fact that writing is always a draft and can always benefit from revising; in fact, even the most renowned authors, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, have revised their papers constantly before they went on to publication.

It is best to be weary when collaboratively deciding on a student’s grade, because you want to communicate both your perspective of the paper and your reasons for saying so. Indeed, as a teacher, you’re doing your students a major disservice by only telling them that they turned in an ‘A’ paper, without guiding them through a process that evaluates how you came to that conclusion.

And that is why implementing rubrics is so vital to the classroom experience, right? Actually, this matter is still ambiguous, because in isolation a rubric does fulfill the requirement for students to understand why they received a certain grade, but it does not salvage the fact that not all rubrics are the same. Rubrics are good in the sense that they scaffold information brought to the table by the students by having them build on those material constantly through discussion and revision. And even more so, rubrics are relevant to all age groups, because everyone (regardless of immediate writing capacity) can use improvement on their drafts: this applies to college-level, high school level, and middle-school level, and potentially even the elementary years of education.

So diving in deeper, what exactly are the benefits of rubrics? In sum, rubrics provide students with a baseline for what they have to do in a paper, or other assignment, and often outlines how the students can go “above and beyond” to achieve a better grade. In addition, utilizing a rubric offers a sense of security for students insofar as they can appeal their grade if they feel that the grade they’d received does not align with the details stipulated in the rubric. For students, rubrics sort of act like a contract that hold the teacher accountable to grading their papers fairly.

However, not every rubric satisfies this requirement. Most rubrics follow a basic guideline that details what students ought to do on the assignment, but not all rubrics will elaborate on these details any further. In fact, good rubrics will not only list the expectations of the student, but it will also emphasize how the scale functions. For example: You grade one of your students, and they received a 45/50. But, this ratio on its own does not tell the student why they received a 45; instead, a good rubric would also detail that the student lost 5 points for some occurrence such as grammar and/or mechanics within the paper. Likewise, the rubric ought to list all possible grades across a scale with a short description that distinguishes the differences between one grade and the next. Assuming a rubric follows these guidelines, most students will have a basic understanding of their own expectations on the assignment, and students will also be more secure about the grade they receive because it won’t seem nearly as arbitrary or without any immediate, concrete reason.

But, then again, such a structured rubric can also potentially hinder creativity amongst your students’ papers and their overall writing styles. As such, it has been suggested that it might be beneficial to let students generate their own rubrics as a means to engage the student more avidly in the grading process. Ultimately, the teacher would have the final say in what the student in question deserves. However, by having students participate in the development of the class rubric, the class opens into a forum that allows for the teacher to assess what aspects of the writing process do students care about the most.

However, when all is said and done, grading is truly arbitrary. Rubrics alone will not change how teachers grade intuitively. But, having a rubric may hold teachers accountable to being fairer about grades.

But then again, can a rubric encapsulate previous student work and determine improvement between assignments accurately? No.

And also, should having a student that is a naturally developed writer influence your perception of other students’ efforts in the classroom? No.

So should we have rubrics in the classroom? We still don’t know.

But please, join the conversation and let us know what you think…

Involving Students Emotionally in Writing

Our discussion this week hardly stayed on one topic because each idea we brought up led to another question or problem. We ran from one end of the spectrum to the other, with the common theme of how exactly we can involve and address students as whole people in our classrooms, and that includes their potent emotions that come with adolescence.

We began our discussion by evaluating the idea of Forgiveness Poems, championed in the book. We loved how these poems allow an exploration of what the author termed as “the explosive feelings of adolescence.” We think it is important that we address the holistic well-being of our students, not simply their academic success or failure. Their academic achievement, or lack thereof, could be a direct result of what else is going on in their lives. We liked the idea of our groupmate Melissa when she explained the lesson she created where students wrote forgiveness poems from the perspective of the characters of The Outsiders. In this way, students would be able to identify and work through emotions (hopefully to characters they relate to) in a low-stakes way.

We wonder, however, why emotions are always tied to poetry writing and not other modes or means of expression. For instance, our groupmate Sarah brought up the idea of writing letters. I think another means of expression could perhaps be narratives. In general, however, the conclusion we reached to this qualm is that writing in all forms is a means of expression of thinking and feeling (we just temper the feeling aspect at certain times for certain audiences in certain disciplines). As a result, writing, in any form, is a great way for students to express themselves.

We also liked the idea that Melissa brought up (she really loves Forgiveness poems) that was something she did while in high school- her class wrote poems forgiving themselves for something they had done. This would also help students come to terms with hard emotions, and these poems may not even have to be read aloud. The problem we found with this idea, however, is what if students bring up something they have done that is illegal? Or offensive to people in the class? Once again, with this question, our group is brought back to the our seemingly eternal question: Where do we draw the line as teachers?

This question has come up in every discussion we have had thus far this semester, and we have come to the conclusion that boundaries of course stem from what the teacher is willing to do (talk through issues with students, set classroom tone of respect, perhaps keep a confidential air in the classroom, as the author does). More importantly, though, is that each school, each district, each county, each state, and the national agenda will all set restrictions and standards for what teachers are allowed to talk about. If Danny teaches in an inner-city school who’s focus is to get students writing about their lives in any capacity, his practices will very greatly from Melissa who teaches in a conservative Catholic school. What efficacy, then, do we teachers truly have in this face of societal standards?

A further standard will be set on what and how teachers run their classrooms by the PLCs that they are a part of, just as we guide one and other in our group now. In today’s educational climate, teachers cannot really say “I want to do this—to heck with all the rest of you lot.” What are the set-in-stone standards of how writing is taught? We have checked out common core (which seems more of a guideline). How it is evaluated?

This discussion brought us around to the topic of how exactly writing is judged. Megan (me) recalled how she wrote a final paper last year for a class regarding the different discourses around evaluating writing. For this week, our PLC will read this essay and use it as a base for discussion (or debate). We have included below the link to a google doc with Megan’s paper that allows anyone with a link to comment. We would be interested to see practicing teachers’ take on how to evaluate and grade writing!

Should we (code-)Switch our Language Use?

In class, we all watched a video highlighting Ebonics use in an Los Angeles Elementary School. The students were participating in a Jeopardy game in which they were completing code-switching for sentences from their African-American vernacular to Academic English. This topic hits directly with the focus in class on classroom language and “Standard English.” The definition of “Standard” English in a school defines the way students interpret “correct” and “incorrect” forms of language use. There is a controversy between what is considered appropriate language for a school environment and what is not. As future educators, our group has agreed that there is some discrepancies between the phrases “standard” versus “non-standard” English. We discussed that referring to the language in schools as “Standard” alienates certain groups that do not use the language in everyday speech. In deciding this, we are choosing to define “Standard” English used in school as “Academic” English. This would tailor the name of the language used to the environment it is used in.

Another main topic discussed during our meeting was code-switching. Code-switching is the shift of wording and tone as a result of context change. Differences in tone for code-switching are interpreted differently for certain people. I personally code-switch when I am around children, animals, and non-surprisingly, individuals with a lower intelligence level than I do. I alter the kind of vocabulary I use too, making it more simple/easier to understand. I honestly do not realize when I do it. I have been told I have motherly qualities, and when someone is experiencing hardships or are feeling bad, I automatically change my tone as well.  A fellow pre-service teacher in my group, Melissa, and I differ in code-switching practices. She will simplify her language and alter her emotions because of the context, but she does not change her tone of voice. As a result, sometimes she is not perceived as sympathetic to a person’s situation when she actually is. The importance of tone in language is just as important as the words used. One of the class readings, entitled “No Kinda Sense” from Lisa Delpit’s book The Kin that We Speak, highlighted code-switching techniques used by her daughter. She thinks that it is possible for students to develop a usable form of code-switching that will allow students to be successful in an education setting.

As a whole, our group decided that language development in school requires a set “Academic” form of English that can translate over into the educational/professional lives of students. We also discussed the importance of keeping language diversity incorporated into certain assignments, such as those that reflect more personal expression or reflection. Different forms of language do not need to be prevented- they need to be celebrated! With a nice balance between vernacular and “Academic” language in school, I think that a student’s educational experience would be stellar!

Future readings: pages 125-133 of Reading, Writing, Rising Up!

Where Does Common Core Fit In with Social Justice Pedagogy?

This week for our PLC, we looked at the Common Core Standards (either on the website or on the iPhone app which we found to be very easily navigable… props to you Common Core), and compared them to the lesson plans and activities provided in Reading, Writing, and Rising Up. We couldn’t imagine a world in which those activities would have been taught in our own classrooms. What else is education defined by if not the linear pattern of The Outsiders to Romeo and Juliet to The Scarlet Letter to Oedipus Rex? We feel the pressure and the desire to want to teach from a social justice standpoint and apply all of the pedagogy methods we’re currently learning, but we wondered whether or not Common Core would allow this and also admitted that we don’t truly know exactly what the Common Core Standards are.

We found some issues. But much to our surprise considering all of the anti-Common-Core banter we have shoved in our faces on social media and the news and Jim’s mom’s cousin’s daughter’s uncle who has an opinion on what the standards of education ought to be despite his lack of children– we found some things we liked as well. As can be found on the following page, we found that the Common Core designers have flat out published what Common Core does not include: What is not covered by the Standards. We summed this up by saying that they set the bar for what students should know, but it’s up to teachers on how to teach it. Sure the app provides teachers with step-by-step examples of how to teach a certain Standard, but it is up to teachers to turn these guidelines into engaging lessons that we want to teach and students want to learn. There is no reason that the following standards couldn’t be applied to a Social Justice perspective:

Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.
Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.

One big issue we had was how the standards effect the development of IEPs, and all we found was this: For Students with Disabilities.  If there are more resources available, they weren’t as easily accessible. We also were concerned about how the standards affect gifted programs. If Common Core is designed to set a “rigorous” standard, what do we do with students who need a more rigorous standard? The standards seem more or less reasonable to adopt for middle of the road students, but what about those who for one reason or another need more attention or IEPs? How do we regulate that all teachers are meeting the standards and that their methods of teaching are providing the proper knowledge for the scaffolding process that Common Core attempts to get schools to adopt?

The big problem we had with nationwide standards is that education is a top-down process. Standards may be set by the Common Core gurus who are the be-all and end-all of defining what every student should know, but curriculum can be regulated by the district or individual school and lesson plans are the responsibility of the teachers. A nationwide standard also brings up issues like the one brought up in this article: Another state redefines ‘proficiency’ on Common Core tests, inflating performance. There is no formula for the perfect education, but trying to compete with every other state, district, or school in the country leads to that many more issues. If we made a nationwide commitment that standards were set by the state, and there were that many more gurus trying to determine what statewide standards are by taking into account SES of students in schools, education budgeting, and teacher education, we would have a reasonable standard and there would be no incentive to inflate the performance on Common Core proficiency tests (I’m looking at you Arkansas).

However, as my group member Hannah said, “I feel like we could have an educated discussion about this all day and never come anywhere close to an answer on how we should versus how we do feel about Common Core.” The opinions of five School of Education students matter very little, but as we continue to look even more closely at Common Core and how it will affect us as teachers, our opinions will begin to count even more. So, does can Common Core fit with Social Justice Pedagogy? In short, yes. But how do we feel about Common Core? We’re not sold, but we’re not completely against it either.

Up for next week, we’re getting back into our selected text for the first time in a few weeks: Reading, Writing, and Rising Up pages 100-113.

Common Core Standards—-Investigation: What Should We Focus On?

For this upcoming week, we are planning on familiarizing ourselves with Common Core Standards regarding English. Sarah and Megan will look at Elementary Standards (Sarah: K-2; Megan: 3-5), while Hannah, Melissa, and Danny will examine Middle Grade Standards (Hannah: 6th; Melissa: 7th; Danny: 8th). We are looking at these standards because in reading our Reading, Writing, and Rising Up text, we are learning about a plethora of interesting and social justice centered activities. We have to wonder, however, how these activities would fit into the standardized education system we are about to enter into. Can we meet these standards while still being social justice activists and teachers with critical pedagogies?

As we enter our week of examination of these Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, we pose these questions to practicing teachers and our peers:

  1. Are there any specific standards you think we should focus on?
  2. What are your thoughts on the incorporation of such standards and socially aware activities?
  3. Are there any further articles we should read in order to address this topic? About common core in general? Common Core and Language Arts? Common Core and critical pedagogy?