A heart stretched too thin

I had a teacher in high school who worked so hard to engage us, who poured his heart so thoroughly into his teaching, that one day it all became too much for him. He came to school one morning exhausted and deflated, and he didn’t recover for the rest of the year. He went from leading us through daily engaging discussions and energetic lesson plans to summarizing dry power point presentations every day. It was so sad to see. Fortunately he came back the next year more or less fully recovered. He figured something out; I’m not sure what it was. But thinking back on this, I’m convinced of the importance of self care. We might feel like we need to pour everything we have into our jobs, but we really can’t drain ourselves completely. We need to sleep and eat. We need to have social lives. This is all crucial if we’re going to maintain a consistent, kind, encouraging presence in our classrooms. Students deserve that.

Final thoughts

How does understanding culture and power impact your teaching?

It will impact my teaching more strongly than anything. We are about to join a deeply unjust, unequal system, where wealthy students have access to every advantage and marginalized students face innumerable obstacles. Everything a teacher says comes from a position of power and thus carries enormous weight. To paraphrase Ernestine Hayes, the decisions we make will either combat this injustice or perpetuate it. If we find ourselves making choices in our classrooms that further advantage the advantaged and further set back the disadvantaged, then we need to be able to realize that we are doing something wrong. It’s our job to ensure each student is given opportunities to be successful in school. If a student seems to be falling behind, then that’s on the teacher.

Pick three terms that resonate with you from the Multicultural Education word wall. Define the terms and discuss why you chose them.

Barriers– Barriers can be obvious, or they can be mostly invisible. Everyone faces them, but some face more than others. Education in this country is structured in a way that sets many students up for failure. In many cases, quality of education and access to resources depends entirely on the neighborhood in which a student lives. Those with money and advantaged home lives have access to resources that most kids don’t. Race, gender, class and sexual orientation each bring their own barriers, and in many cases schools do nothing to address them. I think that it is incredibly important for teachers to be aware of the barriers each student faces in school and to structure their classrooms in ways that tear down these walls rather than bolstering them. To do this, a teacher must be cognizant and informed, which brings me to the next term:

Naiveté– Overcoming this is especially important for teachers like me. I am ignorant. I faced very few barriers growing up, being from a privileged race, class, gender, and orientation. Many teachers like me might go into a classroom completely blind to the obstacles our students face. We might label students “slow,” or “poorly-behaved,” or “distracting,” simply because we’re teaching to the strengths of students whose backgrounds mirror our own. This is dangerous. This is destructive. We as teachers can’t afford to be naive. Our naiveté can harm students and exacerbate the injustice of the system in which we work.

Institutional racism– Most people don’t consider themselves racist, but denying the racism present in every aspect of society can be as harmful as outward racism. I’ve written about class above, but the fact is that class isn’t always the determining factor in a student’s education. Students from similar class backgrounds face different systematic racial barriers. Teachers often have different expectations for students based on skin color, which can either be the result of blatant or subconscious racism. Around the country resources are allotted, school zones are drawn, and instruction is given in a way that perpetuates an imbalance in academic achievement.

I chose these three terms because they are interrelated, but each must be addressed in order to create a fairer multicultural classroom environment.

Describe your plan to teach in a culturally responsive way in the coming year. Include teaching strategies you might employ as well as content/units you will implement.

This is a difficult prompt. I can’t say in honesty that I have a firm strategy in mind going into my student teaching assignment. Frankly, I worry about this all the time. I have serious doubt about my ability to address the above problems and to create a safe, equitable environment for my students.

Unlike many in this class, I will be teaching honors courses in a predominantly wealthy, predominantly white school. I don’t know exactly what my classes will look like, but it is likely that most of my students will carry with them a certain set of systematic advantages. I think it is vital that I don’t ignore the lessons we’ve learned just because of this. This happens all too often in these schools, and students graduate blind to other cultures and to injustice and nothing changes. I will treat this class as I would any other; I will include culturally-relevant material, I will encourage students to think globally and multi-culturally, and I will attempt to create an environment that addresses whichever barriers they might face. These barriers might include the naïveté of privilege, but they will also likely include other barriers or race, class, gender, and identity. I hope that I can start to play my small part in combating injustice. I will try my hardest not to perpetuate it.

Project-based learning

I’ve always felt like the most thorough learning comes from self-guided projects. The topics I remember best from high school and college were the ones I independently researched and wrote about. So for me, the biggest takeaway from this course is that the teacher doesn’t necessarily need to feel like an expert on the topic she or he is teaching. It’d be unrealistic, really, to expect a teacher to be an expert on so many things. Students are capable of conducting research on their own and unearthing a deep understanding of a topic through that process.

That said, I agree with some of the other students in this class that certain guidelines are needed in project-based learning, and that work should be checked throughout the process. The last Friday of this course was an incredibly stressful day for me. We came into class feeling as though our work was done, only for us to have to essentially rewrite our entire chapter by the end of the day. I’m glad we did this; frankly, I would have been embarrassed to publish our chapter before our content edits were made. But I feel that this was something that should have been monitored throughout the project, rather than added on as a last-day, anxiety-triggering afterthought.

The point is that I see the value in project-based learning -and I will certainly use it in my classroom- but I feel that whenever students are doing self-directed learning their work should be checked regularly. Allowing students to conduct research without an expert guide can be dangerous; there is a lot of information out there, and a lot of it shouldn’t be used, but students aren’t always able to see their mistakes. All of this is especially true in group learning, when students become responsible for not only their own work, but their classmates’ as well.

Lesson Plan – Climate Refugees

Climate Refugees – Lesson Plan

The above PDF links to a teacher-friendly copy of my lesson plan. A more student-friendly, interactive version is featured in the iBook.

The curriculum standard most strongly addressed in this lesson is Standard E: A culturally-responsive curriculum situates local knowledge and actions in a global context. A curriculum that meets this standard:

  1. encourages students to consider the inter-relationship between their local circumstances and the global community;
  2. conveys to students that every culture and community contributes to, at the same time that it receives from the global knowledge base; and
  3. prepares students to “think globally, act locally.”

This lesson introduces students to the idea of climate change through a local context by focusing in on the community of Kivalina, Alaska. It then expands the concept by introducing climate-threatened communities in Louisiana, Fiji, Greenland, and Solomon Islands.

Groups of students will focus in on these individual communities and discuss the local problems and potential solutions. For instance, Alaskan communities have worked to locate land for relocation and then attempted to source government funding for the move, which has been incredibly difficult to find. Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles has become the first U.S. community to receive such funding for climate-related reasons. Smaller island nations have purchased land in other countries and attempted to find international funding.

When groups bring the communities they’ve focused on to a class-wide discussion, it will create a conversation that has a global focus but uses local perspectives. The different approaches taken by these communities bring up an essential question: since climate change is a global problem with unequal local implications, who is responsible for finding a solution? Is it a global responsibility? Is it the responsibility of countries who are most responsible for emissions? This is a fascinating discussion that should bring out many different opinions. I think it meets all three of Cultural Standard E’s requirements.


Cultural Standard B:

A culturally-responsive curriculum recognizes cultural knowledge as part of a living and constantly adapting system that is grounded in the past, but continues to grow through the present and into the future.

1. Recognizes the contemporary validity of much of the traditional cultural knowledge, values and beliefs, and grounds students learning in the principles and practices associated with that knowledge

2. Provides students with an understanding of the dynamics of cultural systems as they change over time, and as they are impacted by external forces

3. Incorporates the in-depth study of unique elements of contemporary life in Native communities in Alaska, such as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, subsistence, sovereignty and self-determination.

Our group’s main takeaway from this standard is that all cultures have a past, present, and future. It is harmful and misleading to refer to any culture with terms like “ancient,” or in same cases, “traditional,” as these can imply a strictly past-tense understanding of a culture, which reinforces the wrongheaded idea that modernity belongs solely to Western society. Cultures are constantly developing, and the present-day milieu has been built on contributions from around the world. Omnipresent things like algebra and astronomy have non-Western roots, which is important to stress in a math or science classroom.

It is also vital to understand as a teacher that the vocabulary of the classroom is not in any way more “correct” than other vocabularies; it is merely different. Students come from different language backgrounds and from homes with different dialects, vocabularies, and cadences. Teachers have to work with students to reach similar understandings rather than marginalizing those from different backgrounds.

Wave of the Sea-Wolf

The Wave of the Sea-Wolf by Jack Wisniewski is a beautifully-illustrated story with an important historical message. However, Wisniewski was a non-Native author, and while the story celebrates Tlingit culture and laments the destructive impact of Western contact, it is a bit careless in its use of Tlingit legend. In the book’s notes, Wisniewski admits that he uses the myth of Gonakadet (the seawolf) in an inaccurate way by attributing destructive earthquakes and tsunamis to his swimming routes.

Despite this, there is a relevant lesson to be taught from this book, which is based on a historical event involving a massive earthquake and French contact with the region. The story and its illustrations evoke some pretty powerful emotions concerning destruction and loss of culture. I thought it would be interesting to explore the changes contact brought to this region compared to other regions in Alaska, or the difference in impact between French, Russian, English contact, etc.

BH&H – teaching whites about racism

I’m glad to have been able to spend so much time with this chapter of BH&H. It’s noted in the chapter that something like 90% of teachers are white, yet schools are growing increasingly diverse. It’s therefore hugely important that white teachers have an understanding of structural racism in our country. This is always a difficult lesson for whites to learn because a) we have no background experience informing us of oppression and b) after learning the lesson we have the unique privilege of being able to forget it. I’m sure most of the white students in this class have experienced the frustration involved in learning about institutional racism and white privilege, or in trying to get your parents and friends to come to the same realizations you’ve come to. Nobody wants to feel complicit in racism, and thus most whites want to deny its existence, or at the very least their involvement in it. Christine Sleeter, the author of this chapter, notes that even after approaching this topic with her students in a careful, tender way, she will still have students drop the course because they feel antagonized. She will also see students participate and seem to grasp the concept, only to go back to their prior misconceptions afterward. This is such a frustrating pattern, since white people who deny their privilege are only able to do so because their privilege allows them to. It seems almost laughable to have to approach this subject so tenderly with whites, but I do think it is necessary. People understand things through their own experiences, and if your experience doesn’t inform you that a thing exists then the concept of that thing can be difficult to grasp.

Anyway. This is all I’ve been able to think about all day.