Sunday, January 24, 2016

Social Construction of Race and the Structural Power Line

In July I blogged about my experiences at the CARLE Institute, and again in November I wrote about learning to be a white anti-racist educator. My experiences at CARLE have absolutely impacted and shaped the way I currently teach, and I expect to have another major learning experience at April's White Privilege Conference.

I recently had a chance to present some of what I learned at CARLE alongside a colleague, Isabelle de Trabuc Smith, who also attended the institute, and I wanted to post our presentation here. We had only a short amount of time with our faculty, so focused on distilling down the weeklong CARLE experience to a handful of what we felt were impactful, easy to understand, and simple to implement ideas. First, we shared the following bullets, which we felt were critical to the foundation of white anti-racist education:

  • Racism = race prejudice + power
  • The work of anti-racist education cannot rest on the shoulders of People of Color
  • Most radical act a white person can do is begin the conversation with another white person about issues of anti-racism
  • Color blindness is a version of white supremacy - by claiming not to see race, we claim it does not matter
  • Develop your own racial identity and name your whiteness
  • Good intentions do not undo negative impact

Next, Isabelle presented a brief outline of the history of the social construction of race. This was one of the most powerful workshops from CARLE, and one that still astounds me every time I read it:

  • Race is not based in DNA or science, it’s a totally specious construct made by “scientists.”  
  • Johann Blumenbach - German physician and anthropologist who wanted to study the “human races."
  • Examined 60 human skulls, created a system of races on differences in skull formation.
  • “Degenerative Hypothesis”  was the theory of the time.
    • Adam and Eve had come from the Caucus Mountains of Central Asia and were the first people on Earth. As such whites were classified as “Caucasoid.”
    • Other races came about because of exposure to the sun and poor diet.
    • Blumenbach classified races based on specious geographical assignments.
  • “Mongoloids”, or the yellow race, came from Mongolia, including all East Asians and some Central Asians
  • “Australoids” came from Australia.
  • He made up the classification of “Negroid” as there was no one place called “NegroLand.”
  • The system stuck because it benefitted the people, the white men, already in power.
  • It leant “scientific” importance to the classifications which supported slavery and social structure already in place across the continents of Europe and Africa.
  • White men perpetuated the system in America for their fiscal and social benefit.
  • The “American” race was added later - for Native Americans who were commonly referred to as the “red” race.

Finally, we shared a Structural Power Line, along with some notes about how students and teachers can initiate discussions about power and identity:

  • Which identities can you hide if needed?
    • ex: your religion, sexual orientation is not necessarily something people can know just by looking at you
  • Which identities are obvious regardless of context?
    • ex: for some of us, our physical appearance tells others about our race, ethnicity, country of origin, physical ability
  • Do some identities carry more weight than others? When you start combining various identities from above and below the line, which ones help you succeed or hold you back?
    • ex: white woman vs black man; differently abled white man vs able bodied white woman
  • 5th Grade English, Mexican repatriation act of 1930s
    • students couldn't comprehend how legal citizens could be forced to leave US just because they were Mexican, or even just looked Mexican
    • drew power line, asked them to place white Americans and Mexican Americans. Gave them a simplified visual of how people in power can mistreat people without power
    • students started to realize that certain identities could put you below the line, but others, sometimes within your control, can pull you up on top.
    • very basic way to encourage Ss to think about their own identities and what power they lose or are afforded because of those identities

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sentence Annotations

I've long been aware of Jeff Anderson and have read and cited his excellent book, Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer's Workshop, many times. Despite the fact that his approach appealed to and resonated with me as soon as I read it, it has taken me a long time to process how to make it work in my classroom. I've tried pausing during a class reading period to examine an author's punctuation or grammar, and whenever possible I use actual novels when discussing specific concepts with students during 1:1 conferences about their writing.

Last week I tried using sentence annotations (a variation of his approach to teaching grammar and usage) in my English class. We are reading a few chapters in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and I chose a several rich sentences from the novel to use for this activity. After retyping the sentences in a large font, I handed out a sheet with six unique sentences, and as a class we modeled how to annotate them for capitalization and punctuation. Once students began working in pairs to continue their annotations, they marked up parts of speech and figurative language, which (excitingly!) went beyond the scope of what I intended for the activity.

While they could easily annotate for simple things like using a capital letter at the start of a sentence or ending a sentence with a period, my students also noticed more complex punctuation. For example, in a single sentence they saw that some commas were used to indicate a pause while others were part of a list. They noticed that an apostrophe might indicate possession or a contraction. Some students even marked up my page citations at the end of each sentence, noting the parentheses and the abbreviation of 'page' to 'Pg.'

Just as Anderson promised, my students found greater meaning and learning in sentences that came from actual texts they have read and loved, as opposed to random ones in workbooks, which feel rote, repetitive, and devoid of personal meaning. Additionally, by examining individual sentences, the small grammar, capitalization, and punctuation issues which usually get lost were front and center. The activity was fun for my students and, I think, beneficial. I'm looking forward to seeing if I notice an improvement in the quality of their writing (specifically editing and proofreading) in the next few weeks.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Google Classroom in the English Classroom

In a recent post I wrote about my school's launch of Google Classroom. Two months in I am loving the way it's changed my teaching, and have found that our school-wide adoption of Classroom has overlapped nicely with some of our English Department's new goals for teaching grammar and usage. Whereas in the past students turned in hard copies of assignments for teachers to mark up with a grading pen, this year we, as a department, decided to go for a different approach. Inspired by Constance Weaver's The Grammar Plan Book, we've been working on teaching concepts an "inch wide and a mile deep." Instead of marking every single mistake in a student's writing, we're looking for general themes and providing feedback about those themes. For example, I might let a student know they need to spend more time proofreading for comma usage or capitalization errors, as opposed to automatically correcting every single mistake they've made.

Google Classroom's feedback and assessment features have turned out to be a perfect way to implement our new approach to teaching grammar. In most cases, my students are not even turning in hard copies, but rather submit their work digitally through Classroom. Once they've "turned in" an assignment, I have the opportunity to provide comments directly on the document, as has always been the case with Google Drive. However, in Classroom I can also provide a general comment or grade, and this is where I've started to give my "inch wide, mile deep" feedback. Instead of line by line edits, I share with students my advice for general areas of their writing they can improve. Instead of fixing mistakes for them, I draw their attention to a few specific examples, then leave the task of making the majority of edits to them to complete independently.

I'm also finding that having student work organized in Classroom has made it easier for me to notice specific grade-wide trends. For example, as I looked through 50 short reading responses, I realized I was seeing a lot of run-on sentences. I was then able to devote some class time to a mini-lesson on run-on and incomplete sentences, and used Classroom to quickly assess my students' on their learning post-lesson. It's true that one might just as easily notice a trend like this with hard copies, but there's something about the way Classroom visually organizes student writing, and the ease with which I can toggle between different students and class sections, that's made it much easier for me to pick out writing challenges are address them immediately.

Like all GAFE products, my students took to Classroom right away. They're already familiar with Drive, and it was just a few short steps to acquaint themselves with Classroom.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Learning to be a White Anti-Racist Educator

I've already blogged about my experience at the CARLE Institute, which had a tremendous impact on the way I think about race and issues of racism, equity, and justice. Two months into the new school year, I wanted to record some of the ways in which CARLE has directly impacted my teaching and, by extension, my students.

One of my biggest takeaways from the program was the power of a white teacher naming her own race. It's been easy enough to incorporate this into my classroom. This year, as we read Esperanza Rising and discussed the racism Esperanza and her fellow Mexican farmers endure, I was careful to say, "As a white woman, I've never been made to feel like I'm less than simply because of the color of my skin." As CARLE promised, this simple sentence was powerful. While white students snapped to attention, listening more closely, my students of color gave me knowing nods or eagerly volunteered to share stories of when they themselves were victims of prejudice and stereotyping. This simple declaration, this small acknowledgement that I, as a white woman, have a race, opened up a conversation that I'd never had with my students in quite the same way.

More recently, as we learned about the Mexican Repatriation act, one white student asked me how government officials could just force people who looked or were suspected of being Mexican to leave their homes in the U.S. Rightfully so, she did not understand why people would behave so hatefully towards Mexican immigrants who were working hard and abiding by the law. I took this as opportunity to do a mini-version of an exercise we participated in at CARLE. I drew a line on the board and labeled it "Power Line." With my students leading the conversation, we spent a few minutes brainstorming what characteristics or traits would put someone above or below the power line.

They quickly picked up on the fact that white, educated, wealthy, Christian males have historically been dominant in most countries, but then something really amazing happened. I asked them to think about how different situations and circumstances might affect our place on the power line. Since we'd already established the power most white men are afforded, I asked, "Can a black woman rise above the power line?" In unison the class started shouting about Michelle Obama. It was such an amazing moment, and one that wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago.

I feel I've only just scratched the surface of these conversations with my students, but it's been incredibly striking, and rewarding, to see how eager they are for this opportunity. My 5th Graders seem hungry for frank discussions about race, gender, and sexual orientation, and I feel fortunate to have found my voice in leading this conversation with them.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Why I'm Loving Google Classroom

It took only a few days of fooling around with Google Classroom to convince me that it would be a valuable tool for my teaching. Once I started thinking about shifting my curriculum to Classroom, I quickly found a great excuse to review my existing assignments with fresh eyes, and I've happily found many ways to tweak assignments to make them stronger, more interesting, and most importantly, more student centered.

We were already a GAFE school, and I had moved all student writing from Word to Drive years ago, so I wasn't sure I needed Google Classroom. What I discovered, of course, was that this new tool streamlined my workflow and made it easier to do more. 
Image Courtesy of
Below, a quick list of reasons I'm loving Google Classroom:
  • As mentioned above, it streamlines my workflow. Rather than searching through hundreds of shared documents in Drive, Classroom is organized by class section. When I need to look at a student's work, I know exactly where to go and can navigate to her assignment in a matter of seconds. 
  • In the past, it was a struggle to get a classroom full of 5th Graders to title their documents in a uniform, organized way, and to remember to share them with me as soon as they were created. With Classroom, the title field is automatically populated with the name of the assignment and the name of the student. Of course, it's also automatically shared with me through the student's class section. 
  • Because Google Classroom is a paperless classroom, I've been forced to rethink the ways in which I provide feedback on student writing. Instead of using a pen for line by line edits, I can use in-document commenting for specific feedback, and then use the overall comment feature to assess the assignment as a whole.  
  • Classroom is not just for Google Docs. Sure, I can use it to assign a long-form writing assignment that is best suited to a document, but I've also found the Ask a Question feature to be incredibly useful. I regularly use this feature to check-in with students about the novel we're reading. I can ask a quick reading comprehension question in the middle of a class, have students respond to a quote, or even use the function to do a free write. This feature is, to me, the height of efficiency
  • It's easy to plan ahead with Classroom, as I can create assignments and save them as drafts until I'm ready to assign them. It's also just a few clicks to push a single assignment out to several sections. My hope is that the next iteration of Classroom includes a feature for pushing out drafts on a specific future date. 
Assignment options in Classroom
A sample question from my 5th Grade English class. I used this to assess students after a mini grammar lesson 

A sample question from my 5th Grade English class. This was one of several "check-ins" students responded to as we read Esperanza Rising. Their responses helped me assess their level of comprehension as well as their writing skills. 

If you're starting to explore Google Classroom for your school, I'd highly recommend visiting Alice Keeler's site, which has an entire section dedicated to her informative posts on how to best integrate Classroom into your classroom.