Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pedagogy of Poverty....Say it isn't so!

I was reading this article by Alfie Kohn: Poor Teaching for Poor the Name of Reform. Within the pages, I found a reference to Jonathan Kozol: "The children of the suburbs learn to think and to interrogate reality, while the inner-city kids are trained for nonreflective acquiescence." After my immediate love affair with the phrase 'nonreflective acquiescence' began to subside, I got to thinking about teaching and learning.

Do you work in a low-income school? Are you in a middle class town or an affluent neighborhood? I have worked in a super low-income area and now work in more of a middle class neighborhood. Needless to say, I have been in the schools that teach to children of poverty. In my decade of my teaching career, I have been that teacher who led kids to a nonreflective acquiescence. In the past five years, I've had some major philosophical shifts...

In the days of standardized testing and accountability to the state, feds, and parents, all teachers are in a tizzy to raise test scores. But how are teachers going about doing this?

hahhahhaaaa....also, kinda scary!

Is raising of the test scores focused entirely on skill practice...moving from one reading strategy to the next literature analysis question that might be on the test? Do worries of the test keep coming up and that is the only focus we have? While I believe that we do need to prepare our kiddos for these kinds of exams, I believe a higher form of literacy happens when students are learning around a content and using those skills to navigate it. There has to be some big meaning they are working toward, otherwise are we really teaching about how education is meant to empower?

When I was at Heritage Middle School, I was lucky because I taught on a 7th-8th grade loop. During seventh grade, kids did get a lot of reading strategies, but it was always centered around making meaning of text. I threw out my books of worksheets, bought hundreds of books for my library, and made sure kids were reading every night. During seventh grade, my students learned how to be great readers. (Our mantra: Reading is thinking. Reading is thinking. Reading is thinking.) As Kohn cites: A three-year study (published by the U.S. Department of Education) of 140 elementary classrooms with high concentrations of poor children found that students whose teachers emphasized 'meaning and understanding' were far more successful  than those who received basic-skills instruction."

During eighth grade, our focus shifted. In light of an inspiring leader who has just passed away today, I remind you of something he said: Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. After getting into critical literacy briefly at my beloved Arizona State University, I decided it was time to figure out exactly what that meant. So, when my seventh graders turned eighth, our theme became, "You can change the world." Posters of this phrase, quotes by Ghandi, and all of the work we did in literacy during that school year centered around this.

We studied the Holocaust and the people who secretly helped those who needed it. We read about teenagers who did things to make a difference in the world. (See the book: It's Our World, Too by Hoose.) We watched movies about kids who made a difference: Freedom Writers (I cry everytime I watch it!) and Walkout. We wrote short reports in small groups about "Upstanders" - the people who made great change through peace in our addition to Nelson Mandela, they studied Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Rosa Parks, and Mother Teresa As they studied these Upstanders, they learned how we reserach and write reports.

Eventually, my students had to pick a cause and then research it. They chose something that was important to them for any reason and then wrote a research paper on. That was just getting us started. Then, they had to do service - go out and make a difference in the world.

Some of the memorable groups who participated in this action research project did the following:

A group of three boys whose passion was music held a benefit concert where their band played at a local coffee shop. Ticket sales and sales of their music on CDs all went to the chairty Autism Speaks. They even had their friend be the body guard. He brought brownies and sold them, adding those profits to the donation as well.

Another pair of girls raised money for the Walter Lawson's Children's Home. Crystal's cousin had Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) which causes the patient to be unable to walk, talk, see, or hear. With her partner, Jasmine, the girls had an open gym event at the YMCA, where they raised $170 to donate to the children's home.

Yet another pair of boys studied illiteracy and then held a book drive at our middle school. They collected over 400 books and donated them to a food pantry in town.

We had a whole team car was as well, for any students who didn't figure out their own project. We washed cars for 4 hours and made $400 which was divvied up to all the different charities.

In the end, these are some of the things my students said about this culminating project:

So, I come back to my original thought: Are your students being taught with a curriculum around a big idea that causes them to use literacy practices for authentic purposes? Are they skilled and drilled with an endless supply of worksheets? Are they reading for meaning and discussing new "lived-through experiences" with their peers?

My hope is that all children come to find that education is the most powerful weapon with which you can use to change the world. Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela. You've touched my life, through my profession, and that of all the kids who may be my students in today and for years to come...

Have a great night, blogging-land!

Some references:

Poor Teaching for Poor the Name of Reform
Alfie Kohn
Education Week
April 27, 2011

There's No Such Thing as a Reading Test
E.D. Hirsch, Robert Pondiscio
The American Prospect
June 13, 2010

Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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