Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace (Trailer, 1972, USA)

I couldn't get the link to work below, so I decided to share it separately.

Full Inclusion: A Response to Christopher Kliewer's "Schooling Children With Down Syndrome"


In his book "Schooling Children With Down Syndrome," Christopher Kliewer writes passionately about the responsibility schools have to include all children in mainstream classrooms, regardless of their ability or inability to function "normally" within the classroom environment. Kliewer quotes Pablo Freire, saying "democracy can only occur when no person's voice is deterministically silenced." Truly democratic classrooms include all learners and utilize Gardner's multiple intelligences as a framework for inclusion. Just because a student can't pass a written test or sit still and listen to a story being read aloud, this doesn't mean that they are  unable to become invaluable members of the classroom community. Just because a student's IQ is not at an age appropriate level, doesn't mean they are not intelligent. If we only measure intellect by a number on a scoring sheet, how can we possibly see the world around us as inclusive?

From Past to Present:

American society has come a long way in the past fifty years. About two years ago I had the experience of working with students in a group home who attended a specialized school. These students came from various towns across Massachusetts. They lived in a residential neighborhood and rode in a school owned van to their specialized school. My job was to arrive at their group home at 5:30 a.m. I helped make breakfast, bathe and feed the children. Once everyone was ready for school we took a van to the school, where we would stay for the next six hours or so. Although the van ride was only about twenty minutes long, it was usually the longest twenty minutes of the day. Students would pull hair, bite and have meltdowns on the way to and from school each day. These behaviors were typical of all students in this school, this is why they were sent here, rather than their home town's public school. Employees were taught methods of restraint and were exposed to a world that many people forget or neglect to acknowledge exists. I only worked in this setting for six months. Actually, most employees were only able to stay for a year or so before being completely burned out and disillusioned.

My point in sharing this story is that we went through about two weeks of intense training before working with the students in this school. One piece of the training incorporated a video documentary entitled, "Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace." This documentary was recorded in 1972, with Giraldo Rivera anchoring. It documents the way that special needs children were once treated in this country, the reality of institutionalization. Institutionalization doesn't really exist today, but it is a disgusting part of America's history of "handling" children who are disabled. I use the word handling because this is really a large part of the legacy that continues to pervade our school systems and society today. Older methods of handling disabled students are disgraceful and almost too painful to watch. It's really difficult to believe what these institutions got away with. (for some reason the embedding link won't work for this...just copy and paste I guess)

So, we have come a long way from our past treatment of special needs students, to where we are today. This doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to reevaluate and re-investigate new ways to help all students become part of the classroom community. Kliewer pushes teachers to continue to "listen deeply" and develop innovative and creative ways to include all students in the learning environment. He also wants teachers to realize that learning looks different from child to child. Blanket assessments and goals are not the way of the future, and they are not the way of democracy or authentic community. Additionally, Kliewer suggests that students who have been held back and kept separate from others will flourish and see a huge turnaround when encouraged to work with their peers. He provides examples of students who were once excluded from the mainstream classroom environment, but with some effort and creative thinking became fully valued members of new communities that were more accepting of their differences.

My Personal Experience with Inclusion:

I shared a little bit of my experience with special education students in the above segment. My experience at the "separate school" was definitely a time of learning and reflecting for me. It is honestly a time that I would never want to return to. Each day was so chaotic and stressful that if I stuck around any longer I probably would have had a nervous breakdown. I want you to know that I don't have thin skin. I don't cry or become emotional easily. Living that reality made me appreciate every little thing I'm able to do in life. It made me appreciate the job I have now. It made me realize that there are some people in the world that are beyond amazing because they are able to be hospitalized from violent incidents which occur at work, and still return a few days or weeks later. I'd encourage anyone who doesn't have some experience working with students who are severely and profoundly disabled to spend one day or even one hour observing in that type of environment.

Today I work with inclusion students who are not as severely or profoundly disabled. My school supports the co-teaching model, a newer model (for us) which has been adopted in the past couple of years. Prior to this, the special education teacher would come in and assist with students with special needs in the room. And prior to the special education teacher as assistant model, all special ed. students were kept separate (we are talking about twenty years back).

My personal experience with this has been somewhat tumultuous as well. I've had several different people in and out of my room in the 2.25 years I've now been teaching inclusion (because of retirement, reassignment, etc.). I've also had very little training on co-teaching, which sounds like a simple enough premise, but is actually quite difficult in terms of logistics. I do have some students who come into my room from a separate program within the school. They are supported by a paraprofessional, but the special education teacher is unable to come in at this time. Also, the special education teachers and myself don't have the ability to meet extensively before and after school. Additionally, I have over 100 other kids I'm responsible for, kids who also have a variety of needs. So it sounds really nice to be able to find creative and innovative ways to work with each student and each type of learner, but I've found that logistics often get in the way. I do try to differentiate and teach in a way that incorporates the multiple intelligences and different types of learning styles, but it's very challenging to do this en masse. Differentiation should not be a method used to teach a different lesson to every kid every day. I think about differentiation as adding room for movement and flexibility within the classroom, both literally and figuratively. This is what all of us should be focused on in all classrooms, not just inclusion.

Ultimately I agree with much of what Kliewer writes about, but I'm also all about reality. I think its unrealistic, and actually insulting to ask teachers to develop several different plans and spend hours before and after school planning and toiling away working on accommodations (as in the example of Shayne and Isaac). I think this may be a better example for elementary teachers, as they are only working with 20-30 kids each day. One final point I think needs to be brought up is that we should not constantly be asking non-special education students to function as assistants to those who need extra help. I've found that many of the struggling kids get paired up with students who are most patient and accommodating. This is a great example of the reciprocity that Kliewer talks about, each student benefits in some way, but it often requires a tremendous amount of patience for non-struggling students. This setup often ends up happening in each class throughout the day. For example, one student I know of was asked to work with a challenging student in ELA, science and in my class. Is this fair for either child in the scenario?

In summary, inclusion can be wonderful in working to build the confidence and participation levels of those who struggle with learning. It can also be wonderful to witness the reciprocal relationships built between "regular" education students and "special" education students. However, inclusion cannot and should not be taken lightly. It is not a field full of pretty flowers and holding hands where everyone gets along and is at peace with each other. It is real, hard work and planning that requires a lot of time, dedication and consistency to make things work effectively. Consequently, there will always be more work to be done. 

GoldieBlox Rube Goldberg Machine 'Girls' Commercial

Interesting video relating to gender roles in media...

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Welcome to the Machine: A Response to Unlearning the Myths That Bind Us

It's difficult to consider or envision a starting point and end point for this post. I say this because I feel like I'm drowning in a sea of advertising and marketing, literally drenched in logos, makeup, branding and expectations. We all are. We are part of a massive machine which consists of what seems like an infinite number of gears constantly churning and being oiled. When you really stop and consider the ways in which your life and psyche are impacted by marketing, it's paralyzing. Everything from the clothing you wear, right down to the way you walk and talk, is impacted by somebody else. Most habits you think to be "normal" were at some point contrived by someone somewhere along the line in history. We drink eight glasses of water because that's what "they" say you should do. Poland Spring loves that this has caught on. We shower daily because that's what "they" say you should do. Meanwhile Johnson and Johnson are benefiting. You brush your hair and your teeth. Suave, Colgate and the mega companies that own these companies are happy.You eat particular foods to try to be healthy. Nabisco and General Mills laugh all the way to the bank as you crunch down on your over priced hundred calorie pack. You watch football and baseball and golf, all multi-billion dollar industries. You go to the movies. You go out shopping for shoes. Everywhere you turn you are being hit by marketing ploys and gimmicks. 

As if the gimmicks and marketing were not enough, you are also being told what to think, how to behave and what to believe about yourself and others. This is the heart of what Linda Chistensen gets to in "Unlearning the Myths That Bind Us." Christensen describes a secret education that we all receive. This secret education begins at a very early age. Picture little girls in princess costumes. Boys dressed as super heroes. Think about all of your favorite Disney Movies and the expectations for the characters in the movies. People of color are servants. Overweight people are slobs and "buffoons." People with blonde hair are beautiful and get to live "happily ever after." These are the lessons we learn, lessons that many adults have no problem allowing their children to listen to and internalize. 

It's ironic that so many people are OK with the political agenda of Disney, but outraged by the accused "liberal" agenda in movies that attempt to break the mold. There are literally people who have a problem with the movie "The Lorax" because it teaches kids to care about the environment, it pushes a "liberal agenda."

Christensen offers some wonderful examples of how to teach students about media awareness and stereotyping. Students explore cartoons and videos that send subliminal (and not so-subliminal) messages about what an ideal society looks like. Her students put what they have learned into practice and create pamphlets to be distributed in the community. The writing is meant to help readers make informed decisions about what types of material they allow their children to watch and consume.

This is all great work, but Christensen really just gets to the tip of the iceberg with her students. She plants a seed of skepticism that will hopefully flourish and continue to grow strong roots as the students move into adulthood. Her work is excellent and a great example of how to get kids to critically analyze their surroundings, a necessary 21st century skill. 

There is a need to dig deeper with this though. The foundation for this type of thinking needs to be set at a much earlier age. Christensen's work needs to be a call to parents. This type of work starts with children as young as 12 months old. It starts with less toys. Less games. Less television. As babies grow into toddlers and elementary school children, they lack what Christensen refers to as "intellectual armor." Parents must arm their children. 

Now, does this mean that we all stay stuck in a place of paralysis? No. Does this mean that we all move to a hippie commune and live off the land? Probably not. It does mean that we learn to think about what we are thinking, and we teach our own children and students to do the same, all of that great metacognition stuff. Why do I want this game? Why am I afraid to walk through south Providence? Why am I dieting? Why do I feel so terrible about myself? Why am I comparing myself to others? Why don't I care more about slavery in the world today? This is an arduous task, especially with the new world of social media and reality television, both of which are incredibly distracting and contributing to the machine of marketing and skewed social norms. I don't even know if I want to go there, but you probably get the picture. To learn more about metacognition and teaching, check out this link. Shameless plug, I know.

What I'm getting at is that we are part of a machine whether we like it or not. Will we ever be able to unplug the machine? Probably not. But it is at the very least possible to throw a monkey wrench or two into it by simply learning to question and critically analyze your own actions as well as the actions of others.

"Welcome To The Machine"

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
Where have you been? It's alright we know where you've been.
You've been in the pipeline, filling in time,
provided with toys and Scouting for Boys.
You bought a guitar to punish your ma,
And you didn't like school, and you know you're nobody's fool,
So welcome to the machine.
Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
What did you dream? It's alright we told you what to dream.
You dreamed of a big star, he played a mean guitar,
He always ate in the Steak Bar. He loved to drive in his Jaguar.
So welcome to the machine. 

-Pink Floyd 

*I would consider posting clips to ridiculous shows such as "Toddler in Tiaras" or "Jersey Shore," but I'm hesitant to give any of these shows any kind of fan-fare through the much coveted "share" function.*


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Education


"Aria" by Richard Rodriguez tells a bittersweet story of a boy caught between two worlds. Ricardo, is one of a handful of Latino students attending a Catholic school in California. While at school as a young child, Ricardo is hesitant to speak or contribute to the classroom community. He feels as though he doesn't have a voice, he "couldn't believe that the English language was (his) to use." Rodriguez writes about how as a child he felt that there were two types of language, a public language and a private language. English was the language he was supposed to use in public, a language he disliked, saying that it sounded harsh and rough. Spanish was the warm, tender language he used in private, in the presence of family. It was a language he loved so much that he would run home after school to the safety of this warm environment, a place where he could really be himself and be comfortable.

Rodriguez writes about the ways in which this dual world perspective was harming him and holding him back, without him even realizing it at the time. At school he refused to answer questions, he was seen as a slow learner, timid and shy. His teachers were concerned about his lack of progress. But all of this changes with a specific turning point, a point when a "clash of two worlds" turns life as he knows it upside down. A point where Ricardo really becomes Richard. With a quick home visit from a couple of well-intentioned nuns, Ricardo's family is changed forever. The two visiting nuns ask Ricardo's parents if they could practice speaking English at home. This public language now becomes a private language as well, and "in an instant, they (Ricardo's parents) agreed to give up the language that had revealed and accentuated the family's closeness."

As a new version of this family is born, Richard feels tremendous sadness and despair. He becomes angry and cannot understand his parent's willingness to leave a piece of themselves behind. As time goes on though, Richard accepts this new fate and decides that he must really, for the first time, learn classroom English. Weeks and months after his family undergoes this metamorphosis, Richard "becomes" an American citizen both inside and out. He is begrudgingly, yet fully assimilated.

Rodriguez's voice throughout this memoir is somber, but also positive. As an adult he is able to reflect on the sadness and struggles of his "golden age" of youth and actually argues that the difficult transformation he was forced to undergo was worthwhile, a testament to assimilation. His writing reminded me a lot of Lisa Delpit's metaphor of a "picnic" vs. a "banquet," where native language is seen as good and fulfilling, but also meant for a specific time and place. Public language is meant to be used in and is necessary in formal situations.  I think Delpit would be less than thrilled with the complete transformation Rodriguez's family underwent, and I think I'd agree. I don't believe that the nuns in the story were asking the family to give up their native tongue, but were simply asking Richard's parents to "practice" using English at home. Richard's parents took this to the extreme and really felt it necessary to give up their language for their "children's well-being." Their reaction reminded me of  Booker T. Washington during the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War. He was an African American who was widely criticized and scorned for telling other African Americans to "cast down (their) buckets where they (were)," basically saying "be happy for what you've got" (despite the fact that Blacks after the Civil War were just as worse of as they were prior to the war). Don't fight back. You've already been given enough. A sort of give in and give up attitude.

So what about today?


So how does this look today? What is the right answer? Is bilingual education the best way to prepare students for a successful future in America? What if Rodriguez was never forced to learn English? There are a lot of what if's surrounding this issue, and the data is interesting to look at. According to a recent Gallup poll, most Blacks and Hispanics believe that bilingual education is best, whereas only slightly more than half of whites favor bilingual education. The questions you really need to ask yourself though, is who has the most power here? Who has the most cultural capital to begin with? 

I really feel that Lisa Delpit is an appropriate scholar to turn to here. I think that children should be taught the "rules and codes" of power. They should know that their native tongue is beautiful and should be celebrated, something Rodriguez's family failed to do. However, teachers and schools that do not prepare students for such a harsh world are really doing their kids a disservice. It is nice and warm and comfortable in schools where 90% of students are Latino and/or speak Spanish. Any kind, caring, open-minded individual would say that the best way to teach kids is through the use of a language they already know. The tough reality is that when students exit that warm, caring environment, they will find a very cold world.

Additionally, much of the research points to bilingual education being ineffective and often inadequately implemented. There are some schools that have managed to implement successful bilingual programs, but most are ill-equiped and underfunded and therefore unable to provide a successful bilingual education. Christine Rossell wrote this insightful and revealing article, The Near End of Bilingual Education. In her research she interviewed teachers from various school districts in California. She found that overall, most teachers found bilingual programs to be unsuccessful. She states:

"In the fall of 2001, I asked several former bilingual-education teachers who were now teaching in sheltered English-immersion classrooms whether they would ever go back to bilingual education. Not a single teacher said yes. All preferred sheltered English immersion, even though they thought it was harder work for them as teachers. A recurring theme was that 'bilingual education was a good theory, but in practice it just didn’t work very well.”

Rodriguez did not enjoy having to learn English. He did not enjoy being transformed. But he recognizes the fact that it was a necessary evil. If he hadn't learned English when he did, his life would look very different today.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Oops...I guess I should be sticking with LGBT, not LGBTQ...apologies...

I just looked up whether or not I should be taking on the "Q" piece to my blog or others' blog posts, as this is what I've heard in the past. Through a little bit of quick research, I realized that the use of "Q" may no longer be appropriate. I'll need to be careful to use the correct terminology in the future. Live and learn and research everything :)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil: A Response to Safe Spaces

The title of this post, See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no evil, addresses the much too familiar status quo regarding sexual orientation in the classroom, and in our society as a whole. This "don't ask, don't tell" mentality continues to fog up and pervade the daily lives of most heterosexual individuals and traditional families today. As part of our (heterosexual individuals) privilege within the culture of power, we don't have to think about or be conscious of LGBTQ issues on a daily basis. Often we go about our daily lives and routines without giving the words "gay" or "lesbian" a second thought. Its a "political" topic of controversy, often placed on the back burner of minds. We get soundbites from the media about foolish politicians rallying against gay rights. We hear our friends or family members use the word "gay" to describe something that's not OK. Many Americans remain "open minded" and think that gay marriage should be legalized across the United States. But do we really think about our day to day actions, and conversations and the message that we send about sexual orientation through these interactions? Authors Annemarie Vaccaro, Gerri August, and Megan S. Kennedy would argue that we should all take a step back and reexamine our daily lives and interactions to find blind spots where we may unintentionally be marginalizing those who identify as LGBTQ individuals.

In their book, Safe Spaces, Vaccaro, August, and  Kennedy write about why we all (adults, teachers, parents, children...) need to start to wake up and take an activist approach within an invisible civil rights movement that is happening as we speak. The authors don't ask their readers to make protest signs, or design entire units just for those who are gay, but they do encourage readers to think about ways, particularly in the classroom setting, that we can create safer, more accepting and open environments for gay students to be welcomed into. According to the authors, often those who are doing the marginalizing aren't aware of the fact that they are the marginalizers. To marginalize literally means to push someone or something outside of the main story. When writing a story, or when writing the history of a given era, for example, those "things" that aren't considered as important or were afterthoughts, end up outside of the text in the margins. In this case, the "things" are living breathing people who have not been given a voice. When a teacher neglects to include books or resources which incorporate the stories of LGBTQ individuals, they are the marginalizer. When a teacher forces students to identify as either "boy" or "girl" without room for those in between, they are the marginalizer. When a teacher looks the other way, or joins in as a boy is scoffed at for wearing a skirt or dress, they the marginilizer.

Vaccaro, August, and Kennedy ask a number of very important and critical questions in this piece. They also offer great practical, "do now" advice for teachers. As I was reading this article, the piece about silence really clicked for me. In my school the topic of sexual orientation is swept completely under the rug. Even the teachers are hesitant to talk about this topic amongst each other. We have a couple of "suspected" gay teachers in the building. I've hear teachers say about students, "I think so and so is going to be gay when he grows up." It's amazing how hushed this particular topic is within schools. I hesitate to even call it a "topic," because these are people we are talking about. Last year there was a girl who the students targeted for possibly being a lesbian. There were rumors about her and another girl possibly "liking" each other. The rumors and ostracization got so bad that the entire seventh grade were brought to the library to meet with the school psychologist. The psychologist spoke in a very broad way, not naming names, and not using words like gay or lesbian. She spoke so broadly about the topic that I'm not even sure the students knew what she was talking about. This was something the teachers were not supposed to discuss in class. Reflecting on the "handing" of this situation, I realize that it was such a ridiculous way to approach the topic, that I'm wondering what a better path would have been. I wonder how the students felt. I wonder why we as a school have not reevaluated or readdressed the ways in which we should go about creating a safer environment for gay students.

As I was reading this piece, I was reminded of a documentary called "Bully" that was made about a year ago. The video follows a few students from all over the country that are the victims of bullying. These kids have very intentionally been targeted, a couple of them for being gay. This is different from the discrete, quieter form of marginalization practiced within the classroom, but is still a very real and loud piece of the exclusionary puzzle. I watched "Bully" a few weeks ago and thought about trying to find a way to bring it into the school, or into my classroom. I wanted to show it in October, because October is bullying awareness month. October has since come and gone, and I failed to follow through. After reading and reflecting on Safe Spaces, I think I will need to return to trying to find a way to share and reflect on this video with students. It would make a good starting point.

Here's the trailer for "Bully":