Category Archives: Soapbox

Teaching (reading)

The worst thing a teacher could have is unteachability.  If you’re smart and you go into a teaching program and roll your eyes through the whole thing, because for some reason, you and your 2 years of teaching experience are more valid than your instructor, you are going to end up being one crud teacher.

In other news, if all teachers understood a little bit more about reading development*, zones of proximal development**, and race-power relations***, I’d be more motivated to collaborate.

As it is, it’s tiring to hear someone say that X, who has an intermediate English language level and has to look up every 4th word, has the ability to fully read and understanding a book that is 2 levels above his grade level.  Sure he has the ability.  Just not in the way you mean it.

It’s really tiring.

*reading development: For the average educated adult reader, the following excerpt from a random abstract will be very difficult to understand:

An interpenetrating network structure created by a maleic anhydride (MA) compatibilizer imparted additional interactions between the two matrices, which has resulted in increased miscibility within the blends. A modified interface has been characterized using morphological analysis through FT-IR and SEM analysis. Because MA compatibilization distributed flexible intermolecular hydrogen bonding within the blend matrix, elongation at break and Izod impact strength has been reported at a maximum of 540.17% and 99%, respectively, compared to those of the PLA matrix.

Unless you have background in this, there is at least one word per sentence that you may not know.  Sure, you might gain a general gist using your context skills and sentence-structure knowledge, but would you be comprehending this?  No.  You may be “decoding” this, which means, simply using proper vowel/consonant knowledge to pronounce each word. But by no means could you comprehend this.  In fact, you might be able to provide a nice written summary without actually understanding what this says.  We know, perhaps intuitively, that having a student read books that are too easy for him will not help him learn.  However, if a student reads at a level that is too high for him, he will not improve in reading comprehension either!  Even if this student did, he would not improve as quickly as a student reading at his level.  How do you determine an at-level book?  Try the five-finger rule (read a page, if you missed 1-2 words, it might be too easy, 5 or more words: too hard).  Or give a quick reading assessment.

**zone of proximal development:  Think: Vygotsky.  Basically, think in terms of onion layers ( Shrek!).  A student’s brain and ability is sort of layered.  In the center are all the things he can do independently.  The next layer might be things he can do with help.  The last layer is something he cannot do even with help.  The zone of proximal development is that space between where he can do work with help and where he can’t do work with help.  That is the space where you want your teaching to be.  This way, the student is constantly being challenged but not overwhelmed.  By crafting good questions to encourage investigation on the part of the student, you’re growing this student’s previous layer.  You want your student to always be hovering at the edge of the layer of what he can do with help and what he can’t do with help.. so that gradually he can do more and more things with help and independently.

That makes sense too, right?  This also means, don’t stick your teaching in that awful outside layer where the kid couldn’t do it even if they kid had help.  Such as, giving the kid a book that’s 2 grades above his level in terms of content and reading ability.  What is so wrong with having a kid read a book he might enjoy or at least could feel confident that he could read on his own?  If it’s too easy for the other kids, then pull out your learning taxonomies (Bloom’s, Costa’s, whatever), and start getting your kids digging deeper.  Don’t throw your weakest kids under the bus just so you can feed your ego and work through “challenging” texts.  There’s a difference between challenging and impossible.

Guess what?  The 60% of your class who are amazing can still be amazing without you.  You are not the reason for their success – although you definitely could be a factor.   Most likely that 60% just needed a break in that they could go to a school that held actual expectations.  Now, the 40% of your students who struggle are the ones that are true measures of your ability to inspire, coach, instruct, and guide.  That means finding their level, and then figuring out how to push them beyond that level.  It does NOT mean lecturing on a book the whole time and giving them all this background information and preloading a bunch of vocabulary etc.. Students aren’t learning to read.  They’re learning how to think like you and pull opinions and thoughts off of your own presuppositions.   What are you?  God?

***Race-Power relations: Now this topic is sensitive, so I’m going to keep it simple.  Most of us come are not where we are because of merit.  There was some uncontrollable factor in our lives that allowed us to get to where we were in the present.  The fact that you were born into a stable family, the fact that you never had to worry about your meals, the fact that you didn’t need to worry about being accused or given the second degree due to skin color or ethnicity.. those are all privileges that allowed you to be where you are today.  We are all biased.  So stop acting like middle school kids ought to reap the consequences of every crappy decision they make.  They’re in middle school – it’s time to make mistakes.  Help them learn from it.  Meet them where they are and then help them rise above it.  Acknowledge that their circumstances are tough, and sure, you don’t need to baby them or “dumb down the information.”  In fact, thinking like that, again, makes you appear incredibly condescending.  Affirm what they can bring to the table and build on that.  And don’t assume that you understand everything, because we don’t.

Maybe one day, if I have more time, I’ll stick this into cartoon form.

I get so incensed about this, because… why would a kid be motivated to read and learn to read deeply if for him, reading is work?  If reading is equated to difficulty?  Reading shouldn’t always be difficult – at least not in the way we present it.  It shouldn’t be all this busy work of looking up all these words.  It’s freaking Middle School.  Start building motivation and enjoyment so that when they do hit the hard books in high school, they don’t groan.  When they hear an author’s name, they don’t immediately equate it with a miserable 7th grade experience.  Make it GOOD.  DAH!

The only people defending teachers are teachers.

Usually.

My teacher friend just shared this Thought Catalog article, “Parents need to be reminded that teachers are people too.”

The usual snark accompanied this article as well.

This year, I’ve chosen to be more vocal about my issues with the teaching industry.  In some ways, it’s a coping mechanism, in other ways, it’s because my school is very representative of all the issues with our education system.  Throughout most of this, I’ve gotten blanket (and useless) sympathy where it’s come to a point where I hesitate to talk about my day or my weekend or how I’ve been because I feel bad only talking about school.  (It’s also a bit hurtful when you see people’s eyes glaze over at your endless lists of obstacles you face).  However, the worst part are the well-meaning advice I get from people who have never been in the teaching profession but feel they have the knowledge to give me advice or criticism.

Sure, they’ve worked with kids.  Sure, they have kids.  Sure, they’ve researched kids.  Sure, they’re in policy; they’re in outreach; they’re in youth development; they’re in justice empowerment.  Great, great, and GREAT!  I am glad to have peers and colleagues who are doing amazing things in the world.  But guess what?  I used to be in those environments too.  And I know I had the same mentality as you.  Back then, I’d look at my amazing students as they come in tired after school, with loads of homework, loads of emotional burdens, and I too would blame the teacher and the school.  But, that’s just not fair.  Because you have never taught before.

I agree that good intentions aren’t everything, but, you need to give teachers the benefit of the doubt.  A lot of former teachers at grad school would always belabor the topic of “professionalizing of the teaching industry” and point to doctors, lawyers, business execs, etc.  I’m not even shooting for being treated like a professional.  Just don’t belittle me.  Don’t condescend.  Thank you for reminders.  Thank you for your concerns.  Keep them coming.  But try to couch them the same way you would when giving feedback and reviews.  I’ve only had a few interactions like this – where the person felt concerned about something, exactly explained the concern, and then acknowledged what I might know / what I might already have been doing.  The rest have just been offhand thoughtless comments.

It doesn’t help that apart from social circles, the media out there has an equally shallow perspective.  The same mundane compliments or coverage or sensational criticism.  I know that if I were in a teaching environment where I was supported internally, all that is happening externally wouldn’t bother me as much.  But I’m not, and most young teachers aren’t at schools with healthy, supportive environments.  In this case, being peppered by little daily comments turn into blows.

teacher meme

I’m a pretty confident person, but these past few years have a done a number on my self-esteem.  It takes all the mental battling in the world to remind myself of my true identity in Christ, and yet I despair at the fact that I feel that all I do is smear the name “Christian” through the mud.  Does that mean I just sit back and meekly take what everyone else dishes?  I don’t think so.  I think in my conscience, I’m not just writing to defend myself; I’m writing to keep a record of what is happening in schools.  People avoid difficult issues and would rather talk about some basketball athlete’s injuries than about the fact that there are natural disasters, moral disasters, and social disasters everywhere in this world.  I’m sorry to rain on your parade but if no one’s going to speak up for teachers in your circles, well, at least you’ll get a little somethin’ somethin’ from me.

George Zimmerman Charged: Not a night of celebration

I was on my way to Washington DC, taking advantage of JetBlue’s free TV when I saw Breaking News: George Zimmerman Charged with Second Degree Murder.

I watched bits of this news segment and below is one thing a pastor with Trayvon Martin’s family said that really got to me.  While saying that what they hoped for was a fair trial, I was struck by their lack of this push for retribution.  I was also struck by the humility of allowing the judicial system (that in a sense, initially betrayed them until they rallied media support) to continue its work.  I am glad that they reminded the world that this isn’t a viral hype, but the start of a movement that requires sober discernment.

“There are no winners here. There are no high fives tonight. They have lost a son. We will not be gloating around here. We are still mourning with this family. We will monitor this trial every step of the way. This is not a night of celebration, it is a night that should’ve never happened in the first place.  We are trying ot make sure that something happens so that this will not happen again.

Personally, I am not very “PC.”  I get irritated when people don’t give others the benefit of the doubt or too quickly label something racist or culturally-insensitive.  I wonder if instead of hollering about race, why not just shrug it off, keeping living, and respond to ignorance gently?

I wonder about George Zimmerman. Is he a product of racism or ignorance?  Both?  Does the latter breed the former?  I don’t believe he is an anomaly.  I don’t think humans are naturally good and Zimmerman is just a bad egg.  I wonder what the outcome would have been if Trayvon Martin’s story didn’t become viral.  Perhaps because the nature of the death was so violent and because the actions so blatantly stared us in the face, we were forced to take action.  But so many things like this happen every day (albeit at a milder part of the spectrum).

I still have plenty of thoughts but I’m rambling, and I’m trying to learn to cut myself short.  I will end with a few words from Trayvon Martin’s mother.

I want to speak from my heart to your heart because a heart has no color. It is not black nor white, it’s red. So I want to say thank you from my heart to your heart.

In all this pain, I am amazed and encouraged to see this family glorifying God in their responses of grace and trust.  We can know that even in this, God is still good.

Trayvon Martin.

I don’t know if it’s because it’s so late at night, but I just got very emotional reading this article.  I think growing up in California, I was rather sheltered compared to the rest of the USA.  Sure, I had my share of racial slurs, but they didn’t bother me too much.  In California, I felt people were so overly PC that I used to get really annoyed.  But for some reason, this year, I’m seeing the full effect of ignorance when taken to its logical ends.

It makes me sad.  To quote Charles M. Blow’s tweet, “Even if you remove the racial element from the Trayvon case, it’s just as outrageous: a grown man killed an unarmed kid holding candy.”

Amen. With that said, I want to include an excerpt from an article that I read today (Facebook rec from a friend).

“Nineteen years ago, on a frigid December night in Waco, Texas, what was intended to be a quick stop at the convenience store turned into a two-hour lesson on the racial history of America. A teenager, I was wearing a large jacket with a hood. As I readied myself to exit the car, my grandfather, with whom we were visiting for the holidays, proclaimed, “Take that hood off your head before you go in that store or they will blow your brains out!” Such sudden outbursts were uncharacteristic for my rather mild-mannered grandfather. I found his proclamation of the possibility of my abrupt and violent demise rather upsetting. And it was difficult for me to comprehend. I was simply going to buy some sodas, a rather non-hostile action in my opinion.

For what felt more like an eternity than two hours, my grandfather, grandmother, mother, and uncle awakened me to some troubling realities: 1) That my dark skin, then embracing a 5-foot-10-inch, 13-year-old frame, was a considerable threat for some people, and 2) that some people would not be patient enough to judge me based on the content of my character but rather would be fixated on the color of my skin, and that the color of my skin, viewed through the lens of their own prejudices, meant that I was the physical embodiment of their greatest fear (a big, Black man), fears reinforced daily by mass media. Ever since that fateful December night, I have lived life in full view of these realities.”

You can read the whole article from the Huffington Post here.

Thoughts on ‘Kony 2012′ Viral video

True to form, I first heard of Kony, LRA, and Invisible Children through the 30-minute video that I watched from start to finish after the fourth person on Facebook posted it within the 10-minute period I was on Facebook.  I was stunned, informed, and I “shared” it along with a quote that I thought was appropriate.  

Then over the next week, I watched as different responses poured in.  There was outrage on all levels.  From (1) lamenting how sad it is that it takes hype/celebrity voices to get people to pay attention to (2) raging that this is yet another “White Man’s Burden” venture to (3) warning that this is a thinly veiled attempt to popularize American militarization into other countries, many resulting concerns have also popped up into the web stream.  (4) Pictures  of Kony 2012 campaigners posing with weapons also drew public condemnation and today, I read (5) how one of the founders was arrested for sexual gestures in public.  (I read all these articles through Facebook, by the way.) **

So, obviously, this movement is far from perfect, and there are parts that are very disconcerting to me too.  But (6) protesting that the video is focused too much on the videomaker’s son or saying that this is (7) giving America an excuse to loot lands for natural resources seems like a stretch.  To relate to people, pathos is a huge necessity.  This video is not simply an informational watch, it is a call to some sort of action. There are many sources of information, I know.  But, because they were simply “sources of information,” they didn’t get very far.  The populace remained unmoved.  As “sad” as it is, people respond to things that grab their attention, and usually in order to do so, you need to relate to them.  Perhaps the “white-centric” nature has to do with the fact that the audience that needs to be reached is a more mainstream audience.  Furthermore, the narrator’s personal connection between him and his son and what Kony is doing when he kidnaps children adds not only a pathos angle, but draws on the power of human empathy as well.  Numbers rarely do the job. Anecdotes do.

Also, now that this video is out there and people have a limited understanding, the rest of the protests/issues/responses make sense.  If these people tried to post something earlier, it would have been swallowed up and lost amongst everything else.  How do I know this?  Well, Joseph Kony has been around for a long time, and I’ve never really heard of him – have you?  But now, after watching that video, I had some sort of basis to draw my opinions; the rest of the articles made sense.  I know I’m not the best basis for a generalization, but I think you understand my point.

Lastly, others bring up the issue that this campaign has weakened US efforts to capture Joseph Kony.  But I don’t believe that’s true at all.  There was a point when President Obama and others commended the group for their efforts.   If the US were truly on the verge of doing something, then why would the President support the campaign?  Let’s not blameshift.

Anyway, I’m not really on the Kony bandwagon.  I just think it’s unfair that every time someone tries to do something, people jump on EVERYTHING.  Can we get rid of conspiracy theories and give people the benefit of the doubt and add a healthy dose of compassion, please?  The infighting gets old/pretentious real quick.

Other interesting reads that shaped my thoughts:

  • Backlash aside, charities see lessons in a web video [NYT]
  • Kony 2012: A lesson in critical thinking [Forbes]
  • What Kony 2012 can teach us about ourselves [Forbes]

**EDIT:  Concerning issue #5 above, I just read this article from The Atlantic.  Jason Russell wasn’t being lewd in public, he’s suffering from a brain disease.  Don’t we all just looooove our media outlets?  If anything, it does show that we need to watch ourselves, lest we turn into lemmings!

Black History Month is over

But Thurgood Marshall is timeless, and I recently came across this piece of his that I read a few years ago.  The lines still resonate.  Man, when I was little, I didn’t want to be the first female president, I just wanted to be on the Supreme Court.  I felt (and still feel) that they were actually the ones who shape the important decisions of our nation.

“The Sword and The Robe”
By Thurgood Marshall

The task of interpretation is the cornerstone of the judicial process.
 As we undertake it, we must strive for neutrality. None of us is perfect, and I recognize that neutrality is more ideal than real. Each of us brings along to the judicial role certain preconceived biases. It is, I suppose, impossible to make a decision totally uninfluenced by them. But we as judges must try to do so to the extent we possibly can.This ideal of neutrality is particularly hard to maintain in times such as these, when our society faces major unsolved problems. Indeed, we judges are frequently criticized these days for our neutrality. For example, it is argued by some members of our society that the judiciary has not taken an active enough role in combating crime. It is urged that we as judges, should take sides, that we should stand shoulder to shoulder with the police and prosecutors. Convictions should be easier, appellate review more rapid and resort to habeas corpus – what the founders of this republic called the Great Writ – drastically curtailed. All of this frightens me, because when I was in law school, I was taught not that judges were there to see the defendant convicted and punished in every case but that they were there to see justice done in every case. Of course the state had to carry a heavy burden to obtain a conviction. Of course appellate judges would weigh each case carefully. Of course an individual, once convicted, could attack his sentence later. This, so I was taught, was not to coddle the guilty but to protect the innocent. I was raised in the days when the prevailing maxim was: “It is better that a thousand guilty people go free than that one innocent person suffer unjustly.Well, that’s just what I was taught, and maybe I was taught wrong. But the suggestion that we as judges take sides frightens me for another, more fundamental reason as well. As I have said, judges are required in our system to be as neutral as they possibly can, to stand above the political questions in which the other branches of government are necessarily entangled. The Constitution established a legislative branch to make the laws and an executive branch to enforce them. Both branches are elected and are designed to respond to everchanging public concern, and problems. Indeed, as we were reminded just last November, the failure of either branch to respond to the will of the majority can quickly be remedied at the polls.

Bar the framers of the Constitution recognized that responsiveness to the will of the majority may, if unchecked, become a tyranny of the majority. They therefore created a third branch – the judiciary – to check the actions of the legislature and the executive. In order to fulfill this function, the judiciary was intentionally isolated from the political process and purposely spared the task of dealing with changing public concerns and problems. Article III judges are guaranteed life tenure. Similarly, their compensation cannot be decreased during their term in office – a provision, as we have recently seen, that certainly has its tangible benefits, Finally, the constitutional task we are assigned as judges is a very narrow one. We cannot make the laws, and it is not our duty to see that they are enforced. We merely interpret them through the painstaking process of adjudicating actual “cases or controversies” that come before us.

We have seen what happens when the courts have permitted themselves to be moved by prevailing political pressures and have deferred to the mob rather than interpret the Constitution. Dred Scott, Plessy, Korematsu, and the trial proceedings in Moore v. Dempsey, come readily to mind as unfortunate examples. They are decisions of which the entire judicial community, even after all these years, should be ashamed. There have also been times when the courts have stood proudly as a bulwark against what was politically expedient but also unconstitutional. One need only recall the school desegregation cases to understand why this ability to stand above the fray is so important.

Our central function is to act as neutral arbiters of disputes that arise under the law. 
To this end, we bind ourselves through our own code of ethics to avoid even the appearance of impropriety or partiality. We must handle the cases that come before us without regard for what result might meet with public approval. We must decide each case in accordance with the law. We must not reach for a result that we, in our arrogance, believe will further some goal not related to the concrete case before us. And we must treat the litigants in every case in an evenhanded manner. It would be as wrong to favor the prosecution in every criminal case as it would be to favor the plaintiff in every tort suit.

We must never forget that the only real source of power that we as judges can tap is the respect of the people. We will command that respect only as long as we strive for neutrality. If we are perceived as campaigning for particular policies, as joining with other branches of government in resolving questions not committed to us by the Constitution, we may gain some public acclaim in the short run. In the long run, however, we will cease to be perceived as neutral arbiters, and we will lose that public respect so vital to our function.

I do not suggest that we as judges should not be concerned about the problem of crime. Every thinking American is worried about it. And just about all of us have lurking somewhere in the back of our minds what we consider the ideal solution.

But when we accepted the judicial mantle, we yielded our right to advocate publicly our favored solutions for society’s problems.
The tools for solving these problems are in the hands of the other branches of government because that is where the Constitution has placed them. That is also where we should leave them. I therefore urge that you politely disregard any suggestion that you give up the robe for the sword.

Personal semi-related plug:  Just like they overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, we can overturn Roe v. Wade.  Stop the gendercide.  Stop the racism.  Search both sides for yourself (instead of swallowing skewed “facts“).  Take responsibility.  And realize that it’s not simply speaking out for life but also promoting preventive actions and safe, safe, respectful, and SAFE spaces.  
Thurgood Marshall, you may have been pro Roe (unfortunately, in a case with fabricated premises), but that doesn’t disqualify your powerful words.  If anything, it shows how no matter how hard we try to be neutral, human beings are easily swayed.  A reminder to be all the more vigilant in our thoughts and convictions.

Must Watch: 20/20 Children of the Plains

I just turned in my first final exam yesterday.  Two more due Wednesday.  The final one due Friday.

I feel like I should be at least 85% productive daily.  But I took a break to clean my room and watch this: http://abc.go.com/watch/2020/SH559026/VD55148316/2020-1014-children-of-the-plains.

I really wish you would watch it.  It’s heartbreaking, and I would like to talk about it.

I wonder, though, there’s such a finite power in human beings.  The questions of hope and life are answered by the Giver of Life alone.

“Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  John 4:13-14