How I Resist the Urge to Get Defensive about My Whiteness

Notes from the Classroom


I’m white. Really white.

I often joke that my skin has two equally lovely shades. In the winter, I’m Casper-white. And in the summer if I’m not careful, I’m lobster-red.

As much as I may joke about my own whiteness, teachers like me have a natural inclination to get defensive when someone calls out our whiteness in relation to our practice. Resisting the urge to get defensive, though, might be one of the most important moves we make in our professional lives.

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a teacher who was new to our district. She complained that our book choices were “too white.” Right away, I felt my defensive barbs prickle, and a million responses rushed to the tip of my tongue. Like, Are you kidding? You should have seen what it used to be!

Thankfully, though, I bit my tongue and, instead of snapping back, I took a deep breath and responded, “Tell me about it . . . . No really, tell me about it.”

Then I listened as she told me where she noticed holes in representation. It was nice to get an outside perspective because, as someone who was new, she could look at our curriculum in ways that I couldn’t. And now I’m sure that she learned more about who I am because I listened un-defensively.

Start with a Descriptive Inventory

Even though it can be hard to resist the urge to get defensive, I’ve found that stepping back to listen can make a world of difference. And I don’t just mean listening when someone is confronting me.

Do you remember that exercise in your undergrad class? The one where you had to observe a class and tally how many times a teacher called on each student. You collected the information first, then backed up to do some thinking and analysis. Do the same here.

Start by gathering observations–lots of them. Save the analysis and conclusions for later and just record what you notice is happening in class. By doing this sort of inventory, you can listen to many aspects of your practice: your students, yourself and your instruction, your curriculum. You might be someone who collects this thinking in lists or spreadsheets or simply by saying them out loud.

Once you’ve got the observations, it will be time to take a step back and reflect on what patterns you notice about whose voices and values are being represented in your class. Is it actually as diverse as you’d hoped it was? I’ve found that taking the time to make some unbiased observations helped me to better realize when my perceptions, and my privilege, might be getting in the way of real reflection–and might be unintentionally causing me to get defensive.

My first step in getting there was to look at some important areas of my practice. To get started on your own journey, you might start your inventory with the following areas.

Inventory Your Students

Describe what you know about your class. Tally, chart, or describe what you know about each student in relation to their:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Geographic origin
  • Languages spoken
  • Gender identity
  • Sexuality
  • Family
  • Socio-economic status
  • Interests
  • Values

Among other benefits, this exercise helped me realize when I needed to get to know a student better.

Next, ask the same questions about yourself as you would your students. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, ask your students to do the inventory on you.

Inventory Your Instruction

Consider:

  • Who do you call on when you’re looking for answers?
  • Who do you “check in on” to make sure they’re getting it?
  • Who do you push with extension or more challenging opportunities?
  • Who volunteers to speak in class? Who doesn’t?  
  • What opportunities do you give for students to talk to each other?
  • How often do students speak to someone inside their social circle? Outside it?
  • What opportunities do students have to give you feedback?

Do the same kind of inventory on the books in your classroom. Get ready to look not only for holes when people aren’t represented, but also for stereotypes that might be perpetuated.

Step Back and Reflect

It’s now time to reflect on all that you’ve noticed. Ask yourself:

  • What patterns do you see?  
  • Who is represented? Who isn’t?
  • Whose viewpoints seem to be given the most voice or value?
  • What stereotypes are present, perpetuated, or disputed?
  • Which students are given opportunities to see themselves, their families, their friends, their values represented in books?
  • Which students get to see and experience others’ perspectives and cultures through books?

This kind of reflection isn’t something that you do in just one sitting. And it can be uncomfortable–really uncomfortable. But once you start, it’s tough to deny that it’s some of the most important work we can do–for ourselves, for our instruction, and most importantly, for our students.

Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students through the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Every time Megan goes grocery shopping, her cart makes her appear to be exceptionally healthy, but don’t be fooled. The healthy stuff is all for her pet rabbit, Hans.

Sarah Brown Wessling – Literacy Webinar

Organically Integrating Vocabulary into the Secondary Classroom

Tuesday, May 9, 2017   7-8pm EST

RECORDING              SLIDES                   SUPPLEMENTAL RESOURCES

SupportingStudentCoreStandardsIf there’s been a vocabulary program out there, I’ve probably tried it. If there’s a vocabulary program I’ve tried, then I probably couldn’t make it work. After years of frustration and feeling like I kept taking students further away from words with lists and definitions and quizzes, I stopped. Then I decided to pay attention to how readers acquire language, how my students adopted it, and under what circumstances they were most likely to make new words a part of their lexicon. And we started to walk toward words instead of away from them. This webinar is focused on classroom practices that keep language and vocabulary essential to the classroom, but embed the instruction within an integrated approach to literacy.

Recommended Reading: Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: 9-12 by Sarah Brown Wessling

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 4.54.30 PMSarah Brown Wessling is a 17-year veteran of the high school English classroom. While a member of the faculty at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa she has taught courses ranging from at-risk to Advanced Placement and has served the department and district in a variety of leadership roles. Sarah is a National Board Certified Teacher since 2005 and in 2010 was selected as the National Teacher of the Year. In that capacity she worked as an ambassador for education, giving over 250 talks and workshops in 39 different states as well as internationally. Currently she maintains a hybrid teaching position which keeps her in the classroom and allows her to write, speak and work on teacher leadership initiatives around the country. Sarah is Laureate Emeritus for the non-profit Teaching Channel. She is an author of Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards and has launched her own blog, Open Teaching, at sarahbrownwessling.com.

 

 

More Than One Way To Skin a Cat

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_240744010My mom always used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

I’d never really thought about that disgusting idiom until I used it in class one day and the kids were rightly horrified. It’s awful, but it addresses a core principle of good teaching and learning: there is more than one way to do something well.

For the past seven years or so, our English department at Novi High School has been on a journey through that principle. As we have attempted to align to the Common Core State Standards, we have moved toward an aligned curriculum with shared texts and common assessments.

This has prompted a debate about the difference between common experiences and common assignments. Must we be lock step, or can we skin cats however we choose? Okay, that’s gross. I’ll stop.

This year, my professional learning community has finally hit its stride and figured out how to preserve teacher autonomy while still providing a CCSS-aligned curriculum for all 500+ tenth graders at Novi High School. How’d we do it? Skills based, aligned common assessments.  

As we head into summer and start thinking about changes for next year, perhaps our model can give you some ideas for how you can better align with your colleagues but still maintain your autonomy.

Before A Unit Begins

This is a key to success. Prior to starting the unit, everyone needs to know where you’re going so you can get there however you’d like. We look at our district curriculum in Atlasand we revisit the five to six very specific learning goals for the unit. Then we make sure our assessments are measuring the students’ abilities with those skills.

For example, in the third unit for the year, we worked on five learning goals:

  1. reading info texts critically
  2. analyzing dramatic structure
  3. maintaining argumentative claims
  4. presenting effectively
  5. using varied syntax

Our PLC talked about what proficiency in each of those standards looks like, and started imagining how students could show us that proficiency. For each standard, we decided on one common skill-based assessment that we’d give to our students. We made samples of what the proficient work would look like, and agreed to use formative assessments with each standard to help students monitor their learning. That’s it. We all agreed on the end point and then went our separate ways.

During the Unit

This is where the freedom came in.

Some of us started with informational reading, while others jumped right into the unit’s anchor text (a play). We shared things informally as we moved through the unit, but the pressure to do the same things and move in lock step was off completely. At our PLC meetings, we shared what was going well, where we were struggling, and worked together to come up with solutions.

After the Unit

shutterstock_410136730This was the most important part, I think. After the unit, we shared our different approaches and what had gone well.

The language standard, for example, was a bit of a mess. Some of us had tried to give students formative assessments in a writers’ workshop with writers’ notebook checks, and quickly found ourselves overwhelmed. Other people had done one-on-one conferences and liked them, but struggled to squeeze all the kids in.

One teacher, on the other hand, had developed a short-answer written formative assessment that had worked well for her and seemed very manageable. For the next unit, we all decided to use her method.

Wait, you’re thinking. I thought this post was about more than one way to do something well!

It is! I promise. Good teaching is about experimenting and testing and figuring things out. That’s what this new structure has allowed us to do. We all tried different ways to teach the language standard and, after that experimentation, we found a way that works best. Had we not had that freedom to experiment, though, we might have never landed on the best way at all.

With some of the other standards, we found that we all did things very differently, we were all happy with with what we’d done, and our kids performed the same on the common assessment. The key is that this structure has given us a way to stay aligned to what’s important–clearly defined standards and assessments–without shackling us to agreed upon daily lessons.

As you go into the summer and think about everything you’d like to change next year, I’d encourage you to consider where you and your colleagues can make agreements about being the same, and where can you leave yourself a little room for creativity. I think you will find that agreeing to give each other a little space to experiment will ultimately help you see that there are many ways to…um..do things well.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Interdisciplinary Curriculum: A Union of Disciplines

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

Lisa Kraiza and her collaborator, Doug Eiland, were part of a year-long interdisciplinary curriculum writing initiative at Oakland Schools focused on research writing.  Explore their interdisciplinary unit about the Civil War and the other completed units from the initiative.

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Lisa Kraiza & Doug Eiland, 8th grade teachers at Oak Park Prepratory Academy

The conversation went a little like this:

“Doug, would you like to write an ELA/Social Studies unit together?”

“Sure, what topic should we do?”

“You pick. I can make ELA work into anything.”

“How about the American Civil War?  The kids really seemed into the brother against brother concept of the event.”

“Great! I can work with that…”

Uh, wait a second, I later thought to myself, I only know the bare bones of the Civil War.  And so it began, the great American journey into cross-curricular unit writing. (I would like to thank my brother-in-arms, Douglass Eiland, for taking a risk and jumping feet first into this adventure.  Our students are lucky to have him as their social studies teacher and a role model.)

Doug and I had this conversation in September of 2013.  We piloted our finished unit in April of 2014.  We decided we wanted the outcome of this unit to be: students can see the connection between two disciplines when learning about a topic and understand the broader scope of the Civil War not as just a bunch of battles that happened a long time ago, but as a period in American history that still has repercussions for us today.  This looked great on paper, but there was one major problem.  I, the ELA teacher, barely knew a speck about the Civil War.  I needed to learn as much as I could so I could feel comfortable teaching my students during this cross-curricular unit.  I had to quickly immerse myself in this time period.  And oh boy, did I ever!

We decided that the essential question underpinning the unit would be: what does it take to survive civil war? Once we had gathered all the information and resources we thought students would need, the question became — what do we do with all this?  How would we remain in this cross-curricular mindset and capture the minds of the students?  The answer: student learning centers.  There is so much to learn and know about the Civil War that it could prove overwhelming for both us as teachers and for the students.  So our plan was to introduce the Civil War in a joint teaching session that involved student learning centers.  We broke the Civil War material down by type of media, resulting in seven different learning centers:

  • Trade Books
  • Photography
  • Poetry
  • Film
  • Trading Cards
  • Political Cartoons
  • Writing
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students learning collaboratively at a learning center

There was a task to complete at each center and students had a recording sheet (click here to see an example).  They would receive a grade in both social studies and ELA for their work.  At the end of the two-day session, students completed an exit ticket to reflect on their introduction to the Civil War.  It was thrilling to see students so engaged and curious.  We received many tickets with “a-has” and “this makes sense.”  After Doug and I high fived each other, we went into our classrooms to answer the students’ questions with our respective lessons.

So now what?  How would Doug and I come together to summatively assess what the students would learn in this unit?  The answer came in the form of a multimedia presentation on a Civil War personality.  Each student was assigned a person on day one of our unit.  These figures from the Civil War came from all walks of life, famous, infamous or long-forgotten.  We had a balance of Northerners, Southerners, military personnel, and folks on the home front.  Students were to present to their peers a study of how their person survived, or did not survive, the Civil War.

We allowed for joint research time, supported students in finding and using sources, and encouraged collaboration.  Students presented to both their ELA and social studies classes and again received double credit.  We had some amazing presentations!  Students became their Civil War personas.  They connected to the war on an emotional level and were able to see that that choices these historical figures made were not as simple as they had once believed.  We saw increased pride and motivation in our students to do a good job.  This wasn’t always the case with traditional “final” projects.  Lastly, students developed a clear vision of how social studies and ELA can live together in their minds.  There were many light bulb moments for our students.

croppedLisawithstudents copyThis experience showed me and Doug that it is imperative for disciplines to collaborate.  Neither of us could have gotten the quality of work the students produced had we done this separately.  For the first time, students were seeing exactly how the skills they learn in their individual classes apply to all classes.  They were developing skills–research skills, presentation skills– not just memorizing facts and figures.

And we learned that it is okay to have students see their teachers try new things.  It is okay to “share the spotlight” and lean on other educators to fill in gaps for us.  True collaboration is honoring what the other person brings to the table, and Doug and I feel that we 100% honor each other as professional educators.  Of course, there are many small items that we will change or revisit in this unit, but the overall meaning and intention of the unit was met with vigor and enthusiasm.

Let the Union prevail and in the words of the great Abraham Lincoln:

“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.”

LisaKraizaLisa Kraiza teachers eighth grade English Language Arts at Oak Park Preparatory Academy.  She is also a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.