Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Response to "Beyond Pink and Blue"


For this week's assigned reading we were asked by Dr. Bogad to search around and subscribe to As I was looking through various archived issues of this publication, I came across an interesting article entitled "Beyond Pink and Blue," written by a fourth grade teacher named Robin Cooley back in 2003. Ms. Cooley and her class are from a prominent town called Newton, in the state of Massachusetts. This is a town that has been ranked as a "top city to live in" in years past, according to their Wikipedia page. This is an affluent town, a place where we see the evidence of the "rules and codes of power" have played out for decades. What's interesting though, is that according to the author, "Newton Public Schools is actively working to create an anti-bias/anti-racist school environment." As a result of this district wide goal, Cooley and her fourth grade class delve into some pretty deep and rich content which directly addresses many of the stereotypes we see in our society.

Cooley starts off by discussing the first part of the school year. In the beginning of the year her classes worked on addressing gender stereotypes. This was done through a series of readings and picture books, as well as class discussions which asked students to think critically. One story is entitled William's Doll. In this story students learn about a boy who liked to play with dolls. His father disapproves of his dolls, and tells him it's not allowed. It turns out that William has an ally though, his grandmother. Grandmother talks to the father and persuades him that it's OK for boys to play with dolls. After reading the book, students are asked if they have had similar experiences. Student's are also asked to identify who the ally was in the story, and are asked if it's possible for all of us to be allies? Cooley's strategy and questioning are spot on and age appropriate. This is a wonderful way to make lofty ideas and questions relevant and applicable to a fourth grader's life.

Cooley goes on to discuss other books read in fall, the emphasis being placed on gender stereotypes. By the time winter rolls around, the students have moved into a series of readings and questioning that deals with family stereotypes. They read books like Heather Has Two Mommies and King and King, a book that "does not have a typical Disney ending." Students discuss different types of family structures and what these family structures may look like in our world today.

Cooley doesn't mention any specific material her class works with on racial stereotypes. This doesn't mean that she never covered these materials with her class, but just maybe failed to mention it. Going with the sequential order of things, maybe this was the topic in spring? This isn't clarified. She does, however, continue her article with a wonderful story and example of how she says the classes"work on stereotypes was sinking in." The story goes like this: a girl from the class came in one morning upset about the color pink. She was examining the latest issue of "Pottery Barn Kids." Everything in the girls section was pink. "I HATE the color pink," she told Ms. Cooley.  From here we learn about a sequence of events that are seemingly unbelievable...

Other kids in the class felt the same as the girl. Boys were upset that they were often portrayed according to gender stereotypes as well. Boys felt underrepresented and offended by the "Pottery Barn Kids" flyer. As a class they decided to write letters to Pottery Barn's corporate office. One student stated in their letter "I do not like the way you put together your catalogs because it reinforces too many stereotypes about boys and girls." Each student goes on to provide specific examples of the stereotypes they found in the catalog. What an amazing example of an answer to the question of "do now?" Ms. Cooley took her class to a level many fourth graders, or grown adults for that matter, never achieve. This became a real living and breathing entity and thought process. It roared in the face of avoidance. It went beyond story time.

In the end Pottery Barn did write back. The company apologized for offending the kids and promised to work on "incorporating (the) feedback in the propping and staging of future catalogs." This is a great example of both ends of the power spectrum working together for change. People at the top, a major corporation, promised to work on improvements for the future (whether or not they will follow through is up for debate). At the bottom, a group of kids made a difference and a personal connection. Somewhere in between was an excellent teacher encouraging us all to carefully reexamine our world view as well as our teaching practices.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Deconstructing Armstrong and Wildman. A Response to "Deconstructing Privilege: Teaching and Learning as Allies in the Classroom."


In chapter five of the book Deconstructing Privilege, authors Margalynne Armstrong and Stephanie Wildman address a modern racial dilemma, a term and practice known as "colorblindness." They argue that colorblindness, our warm and fuzzy friend, and nice friendly alternative to direct and outward in-your-face racism is really not so warm and fuzzy. Armstrong and Wildman say that despite all of our best efforts to see everyone as equal and support diversity and a utopian multicultural society, racism is still alive and kicking. The authors refer to racism as pervasive, and insidious, and say that striving for a world full of colorblindness is absolutely the wrong way to address these very real  issues.

Old News

In many ways these authors sound a lot like their predecessors, people were writing about this same stuff over ten years ago. Armstrong and Wildman sound a lot like Allan Johnson and Lisa Delpit, authors we have carefully examined in class. Johnson's key phrase was to "name it." He asked citizens and educators to put the terms racism, oppression and power on the table. Johnson also included a graphic wheel that illustrated the ways in which we step into and outside of the culture of power. Armstrong and Wildman do much of the same in this chapter of their book. They include a Power Line chart which looks an awful lot like the SCWAMP activity designed years ago. The voice of Lisa Delpit comes through in their writing as well. The authors toss around terms like "white-privilege," "perspectivelessness," and "systemic power" saying that white people often don't realize that they hold the power within society, similar to Delpit's "Culture of Power."Delpit also argued that "good intentions" often resulted in further problems in the realm of race. Colorblindness is a perfect example of good intentions gone awry. By pretending that we are all the same, we are in fact making matters worse. These are not new concepts or realizations in the academic world. They are also not new realizations in the day to day world and life of anyone who has ever read or learned through experience about race issues in the United States.

New Food For Thought  

Armstrong and Wildman do bring a couple of fresh ideas to the table. One particularlly interesting quote was used in regard to President Obama, "commentators describe U.S. society as 'post-racial,' as if the election of a Black man to the nation's highest office meant no more conversation about race was needed." This statement really struck a chord with me. I think that the topic of a Black president is an important one to address. People do tend to use Obama as a cure-all piece of evidence that whites in the U.S. are finally done being racist. However, when the media is carefully examined, our president is often painted in a negative light, not just because of his politics, but often because of his race and potential religious background. People continue to argue about whether or not he is truly a citizen. His middle name, Hussein, is often used in a derogatory way. Think about the number of times you have hear him called "Barack Hussein Obama" rather than Barack H. Obama. George W. Bush was NEVER referred to as George William Bush. One individual I know refers to President Obama as the "Commander in Thug." The President is a prime example of the ways in which our society still demonizes those who are "other."

 Obama-Jimmy-Carter-in-thug.jpg image by itsforthechildren

One final piece of the text that I appreciated were the example educator lessons provided. These lessons were pertinent and thoughtful, and really seem like great ways to engage students in the thought process necessary to understand why our society is not O.K. I like the idea of having students observe the world around them for a 24 hour period. To take note of all of the small ways in which white people are given privilege. Privilege in today's world doesn't look like separate bathrooms and restaurants, but "white hands on the fasten seat-belt sign." It looks like white people working on computers in the airport, and people of color cleaning the bathrooms and working behind the scenes. I don't know that the provided lessons would be appropriate for seventh graders, but I think they are applicable to our every day lives and the world around us. Armstrong and Wildman encourage readers to look carefully below the surface, to scratch the exterior, because the more we become aware of the ways in which the world around us functions, the more we will see that this is still a white man's world.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lost in Translation: My Reaction to "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children"


Culture is a funny thing. Many Americans will tell you that they have "no culture." They are American for god sakes...what do you mean culture? The term itself seems to be affiliated and associated with the term "other." Other countries have culture. Ethnic people have culture. Us Americans, we aren't used to thinking about our own culture and subcultures. Lisa Delpit, the author of The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children, says that American Culture definitely exists. That there are in fact a wide variety of cultures practiced in the USA. Despite such a fantastic diversity of cultures in America, though, Delpit argues that there is a "culture of power." This culture of power comes with a set of very specific rules to be followed, and is like an exclusive country club riddled with systemic racism caused by good intentions. The culture of power is one created, practiced and easily accessed by those who are white, middle and upper class individuals. If you think you don't have a culture, you probably are part of this group. Delpit argues that those within the culture of power often don't realize they are participants and practitioners of this particular culture, insiders often don't recognize their role as insiders.

So what does this culture of power look like and why does it even matter?

This culture is not dissimilar to any other culture. It affects the way you speak and dress, the types of questions you ask and the way you see yourself and others. The use of "Formal English" is emphasized and considered more acceptable than "Black English," or "Native American English." Authority figures are seen as authority figures because they are hired for a particular role in society. A teacher, for example, has the authority in the culture of power simply because he or she is a teacher. A parent is considered a good parent if they don't yell at, or seem overly commanding of their children. Good parents in the culture of power speak softly and make suggestions for their children.

Contrastingly, those outside of this cultural sphere have a hard time looking in and acting appropriately. According to Delpit, these are often people who grew up with a lower socioeconomic status, or are part of a minority group with its own "sub" culture. Delpit uses many examples of people outside of the culture of power in her writing. She explains that each time they are forced to participate in a culture which is not their own, they feel as though they are in a foreign country and don't understand the language or the lingo. It feels unnatural and forced and leads to tremendous amounts of anger and miscommunication. Often times children don't realize that they are not part of the culture of power, and find themselves getting into trouble or being labeled by school districts as slower learners. Those who grow up outside of the culture of power have many specific disadvantages according to Delpit. Things tend to get lost in translation, and this is why it's important to be aware of the systems that are in place which support such an exclusive culture.

How should teachers react to Delpit's explanation of the culture of power?

This is the biggest part of the puzzle for Delpit. It's also the piece that people, namely teachers, so often get wrong. Recognizing differences in white and black, high and low income culture is the first step, but the following steps we take are the most critical. Delpit says that teachers need to consider who they are teaching. We should realize that some children will benefit tremendously from clear and direct instruction. For example: instead of saying "what do you think you should be doing?", teachers should say "you need to do X."  This type of advice reminds me of Lee Canter's book Assertive Discipline. In addition to rephrasing the ways in which we say things, Delpit argues that teachers should make sure to set high standards for their students. Treating those outside of the culture of power with lesser expectations has created a perfect storm scenario where teachers are unintentionally setting kids up for failure. Finally, Delpit says that we should teach children about the multiple expressions of culture in our society. Recognizing that there are certain ways to behave and speak around certain people, depending upon the circumstances, is a huge step in the right direction. Teachers shouldn't teach children that their culture is "wrong," but that it has a time and a place to be practiced.

My response

This was an interesting read for me. I think that Delpit makes some excellent points in the ways she says we should address children. I think that her ideas, however, expand beyond the classrooms of urban schools, and actually beyond classrooms altogether. I teach in a suburban school district after spending a couple of years teaching at Woonsocket Middle School. At WMS I learned to be an authoritarian, and considered my role much like acting on stage. I am a naturally easy going, non-demanding individual. I learned quickly that in order to communicate clearly with my students and run a classroom smoothly, that I couldn't be wishy washy. The skills I learned in the city have transferred over to the suburbs with me. I still run my classroom as an actress. Every day I'm on stage directing kids and coming in with a strong leadership mindset. I think even beyond the classroom that more parents need to practice assertive discipline. Many families are completely run by the children. They dictate what foods everyone will eat, the schedule of the family and the overall culture of the family. Many parents have lost control and need to find a way to gain it back.

Additionally, while reflecting upon Delpit's article, I feel that she is justified in her conclusion that we need to teach children about the culture of power and how to function within it. I think that in some ways we already do. We say things like "that's not appropriate school behavior" or "do that on your own time." There has to be some agreed upon system by which we all function through. I don't know that I'm ready to argue otherwise, and can't quite imagine what it would look like. I guess the key phrase here is "agreed upon." We need to work on defining societal norms together and recognize their existence as a collective community rather than an exclusive community. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Orange is the New Black: A Follow up to Allan Johnson's "Power, Privilege, and Difference."


Just recently my husband and I have started watching the Netflix show Orange is the New Black. Several friends told us that it was laugh-out-loud funny, and that we had to see it. So we gave it a try. It's hysterical. The show is about a white woman named Piper Chatman who goes to prison for a crime she committed ten years prior to her conviction. I won't get in to the plot too much here, but thought that it would be appropriate to put up a post about how this show connects perfectly to the discussion we have been having in class and online.

One example that Allan Johnson uses to describe privilege in our society is through the statement that "African Americans, (for example), have to pay close attention to whites and white culture and get to know them well enough to avoid displeasing them." There are several great scenes in ONB that illustrate this point perfectly. This particular clip from the show is a spot-on example, it's a bit crude and vulgar, but it's fitting. In prison many of the African American and Latino women talk about how they need to "look" or "act" white when they go to hearings or to trial. They believe that if they do this they may get their prison sentence reduced. It's a perfect example of a cultural connection to the realities that Johnson discusses in his book. Orange is the New Black is funny and it's real. It flat out addresses the many power struggles within our society, in a wonderfully unapologetic way. Good show. Good connection. Good food for thought.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Working Hard and Playing by the Rules: A Response to Allan Johnson's Privilege, Power and Difference

Quoting Relevance:

Allan Johnson is a white, heterosexual, American man. He is the epitome of power and privilege, and he knows it. Despite his fortunate and rather comfortable position in our society, Johnson has chosen to step outside of his comfort zone and investigate, make sense of, and teach others about the social constructs that define and constrict our modern American Society. He offers some challenging and thought provoking material. His writing serves as a warning to those who are in the most privileged circles of our society and may not even realize it, but also as the beginning of a solution to the problems of inequality and inequitably in our society. Here are a few of Johnson's most important points emphasized within his writing:

1. "We are prisoners of something."

Johnson argues that people feel that something is off in our society. We don't like it. We don't want it to be this way, but this "something" or "elephant in the room" seems beyond our control. Like trying to control the weather, it's not possible. According to the author, we easily point fingers or look at parts of a picture and place ourselves on the outside of it, but Johnson would argue that we are inside of this picture, we are the focal point. This "something" that we feel is "closer to our own making than we even realize." We are prisoners of history and a long series of events that have resulted in the "socially constructed society" in which we live today, and whether or not we like it, we are in it heart and soul. No one living in the United States today can separate themselves from the history and "legacy we all inherited."

2. We live in what sociologists might call a "social construction of reality."

So what is this legacy we inherited? This legacy is the ruling force behind the comings and goings of each and every individual and all of the things that happen in between in our day-to-day lives. It is a set of rules that say some people are more trustworthy, important, intelligent, and valuable than others. Men are more important than women. White people are more trustworthy than blacks. Heterosexuals are normal and homosexuals are not. Johnson provides evidence of these norms which can be witnessed within society in the section entitled "What Privilege Looks Like in Everyday Life." For example:"whites can succeed without other people's being surprised," and "men can reasonably expect that if they work hard and play by the rules, they'll get what they deserve." These norms amongst many others are all part of what we have accepted as the product of a "socially constructed idea of reality." The challenge for each of us is to question that reality, acknowledge that it is part of our world and rather than blindly accept it, become part of the solution.

3. Those who are privileged often don't realize it, it is a "legacy we (the privileged) all inherited."

Simply put, you are not exempt. Even though you may not have done anything to offend, harm, or condemn others, you live in the product of a society that has systematically done this for centuries. In order to start solving the problems of segregation and inequality in our country, everyone must realize that they play a role in the solution. 

4. People are not afraid of what they don't know. They are afraid of what they think they know. 

Johnson debunks this myth entirely and really hits the nail on the head. Think about it. Are you really afraid of what you don't know? Or are you afraid of what you think you know about a group or individual?  This is a critical part of Johnson's argument, in that we need to shut down or circumnavigate the conditioned reaction we have developed when meeting new people. As human beings we have the tendency to categorize people and put them in boxes. Each person must be treated as an individual, not as a statistic or representative for the group you may think they belong to.

5."Once you name it, you can think, talk, and write about it."  

In summary, Johnson asks readers to step outside of what is comfortable. Instead of talking about vague terms like "love," etc. We need to confront racism, sexism and homophobia head on. We can't act as if these realities don't exist. We cannot go on living as we have. That "something" needs to be dealt with directly. The sooner we "name it" the better off we all will be.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Just Me

Hello blogging world! My name is Brittany and I am many things. I am a gardener and flower lover. I am a food lover, although I often don't have the time to cook or create the foods I love most. I am a wife to Eddy and a mother to a dog named Sadie. Most of my limited free time is spent outside or on the couch with Sadie and Eddy. I have been teaching for five years now, and as of today I am both a teacher and a student. Four years ago I earned my bachelors degree through Rhode Island College. Within a few months of graduating I was incredibly fortunate to be hired for a position at Woonsocket Middle School. I spent two years working in Woonsocket with ESL students. After being laid off due to budget cuts I decided to work on becoming certified in Massachusetts. Again, I was fortunate to become certified just in time to be hired for a position teaching at Beckwith Middle School. I am now going into my third year teaching at BMS, and although it is an entirely different world than the world of Woonsocket, it has been a great experience. I currently work with seventh graders teaching geography and hope to continue with this position for many years to come!