Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 04 2011

Diversity Reflections 1 & 2

Be warned, these are long.

I had to write these for TFA and actually liked comparing then and now (one written in October, one written last weekend). Thoughts?

Reflection 1–Oct 2010

  1. 1. Describe your own diversity/identity. How does this impact the way you learn and the way you will teach?

I was born to a Swedish mother and Texan father, so had a pretty surprising mix of identities from a young age. I grew up with a brother that I became closer with as we got older and our parents’ marriage increasingly dissolved. I became culturally sensitive at a young age and would get upset at age 8 when my parents would make comments about all terrible drivers being Asian. When I was 7, I started attending low-income schools with extremely diverse student populations (culturally, racially, economically, academically). I was shocked when my mom asked me questions like, “isn’t it crazy that she wears a turban to school?” questions that had never even crossed my mind. I was lucky to get a great multicultural education, both in the classroom and out, and attend schools that really facilitated this. I grew up in a culture that nurtured questioning stereotypes, accepting other people’s choices, and forging our own strong identities.

I walked into my school as a young, inexperienced, white girl with a strong sense of culture. Between my great school experiences and living abroad in several low-income cultures, I thought I was ready to tackle anything and everything. Boy, was I in for a surprise. I have found that teaching middle school requires an extreme sense of humor and an impenetrable sense of self. I let comments get to me at first. When students told me my class was “boring,” I would think about it for hours at night, trying to perfect lesson plans to make them more engaging. Of course I need to design engaging lesson plans and that has been a focus, but I also have spent months weaving my way through the minefield that is 7th grade. As I listen more and more to my students and the way they interact with each other, I value the incredible relationships they have that break so many boundaries, but also strive to ensure they have positive interactions, well-thought-out debates, and really listen to each other as the year progresses.

  1. 2. Describe you own personal education history. How will this impact the way you teach and believe students should learn?

I started my education at age 3 when I was put in preschool near my house. I moved on to elementary school in Seattle Public Schools, and was put into the hall to read independently in 1st grade because my teacher thought I would be held back in the classroom. In 2nd grade I was tracked into an accelerated program held in a low-income school. This program continued when I moved on to middle school (also in a low-income school in the “ghetto” of Seattle). When I reached high school, the program no longer officially existed, but I was tracked into a magnet school with AP classes, stellar teachers, and one of the hugest achievement (and coincidentally income) gaps I have ever seen. I was a near-4.0 student in high school and had colleges picked out from 7th grade on. I chose an inexpensive, elite public university to go to in Canada to broaden my cultural horizons and continue to quench my thirst for knowledge. I struggled with grades when I first entered, and ended up graduating with first class honors in Biology and Chemistry after putting up a perseverant fight.

I was always supported by my parents and teachers and told that I was incredibly smart and could do anything I put my mind to. I was offered an incredible education from the start. I am determined to pass this on, and curb the comments of “I’m stupid” that have been passed on over several years. I am teaching my students with the impression that they will be able to do whatever they want to. I don’t want to push them into going to college, but I want that to be an option. As I have a deep background in science, I am pushing them to levels they aren’t usually exposed to in middle school because they are capable. When they are having a bad day, I encourage them to slaughter the lesson in retaliation (and offer an open ear outside of class time). I relate to many of them when subjects are difficult and offer methods for overcoming those challenges as well as tutoring to help get them where they need to be. My students deserve this education more than I did because so many of them have been cheated out of a quality education and the necessary support for so many years that they don’t have those expectations of themselves; I have taken this on as my responsibility to help them recognize their importance and deserved rights.

  1. 3. List 5 words that you would use to describe low-income schools, students, and families.

Rewarding, need-to-be-navigated, unexpected, resilient, trying.

  1. 4. What are the challenges you will face in low-income schools? What resources can you utilize to meet these challenges?

I have faced several instances where I have been challenged with previous troubles that have been passed on. With 18 new teachers and an entirely new administration, students were already in a state of transition. The old administration was apparently quite lax; students sent down to the office with referrals were usually given candy and sent back to the office. This is unfortunately not an infrequent story in low-income schools and was something I had to battle to really set up my high behavioral expectations and tough consequences. As students move into their second third month of school, they have started to accept and live up to many of these expectations. Thanks to the support of the administration, other teachers, and parents, this has been a battle many of us can successfully fight.

I have also been challenged by a low sense of responsibility in my students. As I provide materials for science experiments, those materials are often tossed around without a sense of ownership or respect by many students. As students have not been expected to hold a sense of responsibility for materials, their learning, or their goals, this is an uphill battle I must work to fight by introducing respect for materials, a drive to learn, and time set aside to work on setting ambitious and measurable goals.

  1. 5. If you know and use culturally responsive pedagogy, please describe briefly.

I do not know what culturally responsive pedagogy is. From what I ascertain, it is related to malleable intelligence. I taught a brief lesson on malleable intelligence, in which I taped a candy bar almost at my ceiling. I asked the tallest student in each class to reach it and grab it down. I then asked my shortest student to do the same thing by any means. They would usually take a stool and stand on it to get the candy bar. I related this back by showing that different people solve problems in unique ways, just like all students have different learning styles. I used this to lead into a lesson on how we are all incredibly bright and able to build our knowledge throughout our lives. I am not convinced this has gotten through to my students, however, and would like to continue to bring up this concept.

  1. 6. What have you learned about your students and community already and how might that impact the way you teach?

I have been making an effort to attend school events to meet more members of our community. I have attended every football game and several cross country meets in order to meet students’ families and supporters, in part to help make mentoring connections. I have not spent much time in the neighborhoods that my students live in or to make connections outside of school as of yet. As I continue to get to know my students, I would like to experience more of what their lives are like such that I can design lessons that are more relevant to their lives and thus their learning.

I have begun to work their names and their school experiences into our lessons. We have been graphing relevant relationships in their lives (e.g. amount of sleep they get related to what grade they get on their math quiz) and I have used their names in several word problems. I have begun to get an idea of who is important in each student’s life and who I can count on to help inspire their learning as they succeed in science. We have started to talk about leadership roles in education and who looks up to them as an example (e.g. little siblings, cousins, etc). I will continue to open up conversations of why what we’re learning in each class is important as I learn more about their lives, experiences, and community.

Reflection 2–Jan 2011

  1. 1. Describe what you have learned about your own diversity/identity. How does this impact the way you learn and the way you teach?

My upbringing has been extremely influential in the way that I view diversity. As I stated in the first reflection, I grew up in Seattle, a very inclusive, accepting, diverse, integrated city (or at least that’s how I have viewed it). As I immerse myself more and more in the diversity of Fox Meadow, I appreciate that more and more. I find the power of growing up around people who are different than you one of the greatest learning experiences of all time, and one that will be used to shape your entire life. I have started to bring this into the classroom when I encounter diversity “teachable moments.”

I had a teachable moment a few weeks ago when my students were disengaged and I knew that my lesson was ineffective. We stopped class and discussed why we were at school. We moved from a typical, somber response of “to learn” into deeper reasons and a better understanding between each other. Some students have been told that they are in school to listen to their teacher, but I corrected this to tell them that I am the one learning from them. If I do not hear what they are telling me (in assessments, during class, privately), then I will not be the most effective teacher I can be. I have found more and more that the most learning I am doing this year is from them!

  1. 2. How are the instructional methods you use similar and different to the instructional methods you experienced as a student? For any differences, why do these exist? Do you think the education you provide should be different than the education you received? Why?

I was instructed in an accelerated program that was mostly upper-middle class white students with incredibly invested parents and thus, my classes were incredibly different than ours. I remember 3rd grade math being a series of packets—you started at packet 1 and took a pre-test. If you got at least an 80% on the pre-test, you moved to packet 2; if not, you did the packet and then took a post-test. There was no whole-group math, but the teacher rather pulled those students that needed help on the lower end. We were almost entirely self-taught. This was true for a lot of my education. Though I would love to move to a more student-centered classroom (as is one of my goals for this semester as discussed with my PD), I’m still struggling to get there.

I am an incredibly visual and tactile learner and thus have incorporated a ton of strategies to teach in this manner in my classroom. I have found that doing labs, drawing, learning through visual methods, and acting things out has helped my students make the most gains in mastery. As my reading levels span at least 7 grade levels, I do not do much reading-based learning, but rather do a lot of inquiry-based learning. I am often on the fence about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing: am I helping these students learn the content they need to know by alternate means or am I harming their education by letting them pass by without reading?

  1. 3. List 5 words that you would use to describe low-income schools, students, and families.

Resilient, perseverant, semi-dysfunctional (schools, not families), inspiring, malleable.

  1. 4. What are the challenges you will face in low-income schools? What resources can you utilize to meet these challenges?

I will and have faced many challenges in low-income schools. The most fresh in my mind is when several of my students conspired together to steal my cell phone. I grew up in low-income schools, and remember phones being taken, so before I came into my school I swore to myself not to have stereotypes about what my students might act like. Unfortunately, that stereotype was reinforced when these students stole my phone in order to sell it for extra money. I did not care about the phone, but rather the fact that I have to constantly fight my own prejudices I have formed and must battle them to make education the most important things in these students’ lives. I have not gotten there yet, but have a new drive in making education a privilege and not a requirement for them.

I have also had a lot of trouble with attendance and students being absent and tardy frequently. As a team, we have combatted this by enacting strict tardy policies and making teacher phone calls home ourselves to combat truancy. On top of absences, I have had some extremely positive experiences with parents, and some truly surprising ones. After being cussed out on the phone 3 times, I realized I should not take it personally and instead work to instill a drive to behave and complete work in my students that ensures I do not call home unless it is for something positive. That positive recognition is extremely powerful in my school. My students tell me stories that make me want to tell them how amazingly brilliant they are every day and how much I love having them in my class because so many other authority figures in their lives have failed to do this. I will continue to fight this fight in whatever way I can!

  1. 5. If you know and use culturally responsive pedagogy, please describe briefly.

I have experienced so many instances of students accepting each other for who they are that I have begun to pause class to recognize and appreciate these moments. I would like to plan to have socratic seminars at lunch called “cultural relations” in which we discuss similarities between cultures, races, learning styles, teachers versus students, and accept more ideas from students. I love hearing my students’ stories and am proud of them when they are willing to share them. We had a forum similar to this in high school, and I think it is when I really developed coming from a southern, white family (with several close-minded views outside of my nuclear family) and learned how valuable others’ identities are! I hope to help students seek out social justice and identify ways to mediate when it is not being served.

  1. 6. What have you learned about your students and community already and how might that impact the way you teach?

I have built many close student relationships as the year goes on, and often hear stories of students being proud, scared, and indifferent about their families. My students describe their neighborhood, Meadows, as the “ghetto” and describe the number of people that live in their houses (e.g. 9 in a trailer), the fights that often occur even while the police watch, and the responsibility of looking after younger siblings or relatives. I have known much of this for a few months now, and love any chance to hear more from any student or parent about the community. As I attempt to attend more community events and get more involved, I am starting to learn about it myself. I have visited the two main community centers that serve our students and have schedules of the events at these two places. I have joined the PTO so that I can get more parent interaction and be involved in community decisions and outreach.

I have used many experiences I have or my students have expressed to me to hold myself accountable for continually holding my expectations high. I sometimes catch myself getting caught up in students’ personal hardships, and though I am happy to listen to them, I must remind myself that the best thing I can possibly do for my students is ensure that they are getting the most high quality instruction possible. As I continue to design the most engaging but effective lessons possible, I am always striving to ensure that their learning is not compromised by any of my conceptions or their situations.

One Response

  1. Lisa

    I just wanted to comment on how incredibly insightful and patient you are. I just accepted my offer to join the ’11 Delaware corps and needless to say I’m getting a bit nervous. Reading your blog has really shown me that despite obstacles and not always feeling ‘successful’, it can be done. Thanks for that.


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