Thursday, June 4, 2015

Creating a Space for Student Voice: Comfort versus Truth

by Lakeya Omogun 

Last month, I had the pleasure of hearing author, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi speak at the Pen World Voices Festival here in New York City. Essentially, she spoke about silence, censorship, and obsession with comfort. She prefaced her talk with a comparison of hospitals in the United States and Nigeria, emphasizing that American hospitals offer a comforting experience for patients, lavished with medications and frequent checkups. Nigerian hospitals, on the other hand, simply offer healing for patients; providing comfort is secondary. Whereas Nigerians expect pain and discomfort to be part of the process of life, Americans prefer comfort. She then extended this idea to larger social issues, arguing that our addiction to comfort causes us to remain silent about poverty, race, and income inequality. Thus, we leave things unsaid, and as a result, a boring, comfortable, and safe environment transpires.

As she spoke, I couldn’t help but think about the idea of comfort in my own classroom. Have I neglected to engage my students in critical discussions to maintain a safe and secure environment? Have I evaded a student’s question about inequalities so as not to make anyone feel uncomfortable? Have I not undertaken controversial social justice classroom projects because I felt like my administration wouldn’t approve? If I’m completely honest, I can say ‘yes’ to each of these questions. While I’ve engaged my students in critical readings of texts during the school year, I have also been guilty of choosing comfort over truth. I’ve facilitated shallow discussions on racial, age, and gender inequalities, ensuring that they never became “classroom inappropriate”. I’ve convinced myself that the classroom isn’t the place for such discourse.  Well, if the classroom isn’t the place, then where is the ideal place?

Adichie’s speech compelled me to take a risk during my final unit of the school year, science fiction. Using Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, I’m moving my students and I outside of our comfort zone to engage in deeper and more authentic conversations about class, perceptions of beauty, and social structures that impede or enhance social mobility. The content in this book definitely lends itself to such discussions. Why does our society have racial categories? Who do they benefit? Who’s in control of our idea of beauty? Even though the city of New York does not have visible boundaries, are people grouped together based on similarities and differences? Why?  These are just a few of the questions that have elicited transparent, and interestingly, truthful responses from my students. So, right now our classroom discussions are not safe. They definitely are not comfortable. However, we are discovering root causes of injustices and inequalities and connecting them to our everyday lives.

So, again, is the classroom the place for such discourse? Considering that my students represent a population that has been historically marginalized within the society and the educational system whether due to their racial/ethnic background, socioeconomic status, or various perceived and/or valid ability labels, I would say the classroom is definitely the place to help them see the world through a critical lens, even in the midst of discomfort.

About the Author: 
Lakeya is a 7th grade Literacy teacher at New Design Middle School in West Harlem. She has also taught 6th grade in Newark, NJ and 3rd grade in Detroit, Michigan. Lakeya was a McNair Scholar at Michigan State University and is an active member of Kappa Delta Pi International Education Honor Society through the Teachers College chapter. Currently, she is completing a year-long research project in her classroom, which is funded by the Louise M. Berman Fellows Award. She recently completed the Masters Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College Columbia University. Lakeya is going into her second year as an LTI fellow. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Guest Teacher: Lauren Scott

Lauren has taught middle school English Language Arts for the past seven years in Brooklyn and the Bronx. She is currently ELA Department Leader and a New-Teacher Mentor at her school and completing her Literacy Specialist Masters degree at Teachers College Columbia University. Lauren’s past research focused on the connection between motivation and writing using sketchbooks in the classroom to foster a love of writing among resistant middle-school students. Her current research examines how to help readers construct text-based, inferential ideas and draws on research by Beers and Probst (2013) and theories of transference (Keene, 2007). She has presented her research at Teachers College and the New York State Reading Association annual conference. Lauren has been an LTI Fellow since fall, 2012.

Friday, April 10, 2015

When Things Get Loud, Remember the Power of "We"

By Lauren Scott

It’s April.

Good news, right?

It depends who you ask.  Or maybe from which angle.  

With signs of spring surrounding us: warmer temperatures, green on the ground, shades of whites and yellows returning to the trees, and last but not least, a ten-day break written into the New York City public-school calendar, how could there be anything but smiles on faces right now?

Ask an English and Language Arts or math teacher.

Their answer will be short, but will have tremendous implications:

“State exams.”

Starting next week, children in grades 3-8 across New York state will be testing for two consecutive weeks in ELA and math - six days of exams in total (three in each subject).  

The stakes are high.  And so is the anxiety.  Because just like our city, the volume of it all - the politics, the implications, the consequences, the constant back and forth between government officials, contracted corporations, administrators, teachers, teachers unions, parents, communities -  is just so...


With the risk of sounding rather blunt: I kind of don’t care.  

Because here is what I have learned and what I am continuing to learn the more I teach:

The outside noise will always exist.  The politics are not going away.  Reform movements will come.  And they will go. Or maybe they won’t - maybe standardized testing will be here for a very, very long time.  

So I don’t care about the noise.  I care about kids.  

I am not saying the “noise” is not important.  It most certainly is and I admire all those who are ready and willing to step up and challenge it and in some cases, even fight it.  
But what I am saying is that based on my own experience, I used to be the kind of teacher who too often allowed outside forces to have the power of influence over what went on inside of the four walls of my classroom.  The outside noise caused me to feel like a failure, to feel like I wasn’t good enough, to feel like my kids deserved someone better than me and that I should just leave.  

And I almost did.  Until I took that power back and realized I needed to learn and follow the same lesson I teach my students (ironically, during our “test-prep” unit): The goal is progress, not perfect.

Lisa Delpit once wrote, “When one ‘we’ gets to determine the standard for all ‘wes,’ then some ‘wes’ are in trouble!”

Whether the “one ‘we” is Pearson or Common Core or New York state or ________ that is trying and arguably succeeding in setting the “standard” for our kids and as a consequence, creating an abundance of noise that we just cannot seem to silence, I would just like us to remember the other “wes” in OUR classrooms…

Our kids.  

And us.

So during these next two weeks and beyond, let us remember and most importantly, use our power to create a culture of love and support in our classrooms and schools.  
Let’s ask our kids and each other:

“How are you?”

“How was your day?”

“Are you okay?”

“How can I help?”

Let’s say to our kids and each other:

“Good morning!”

“I’m here for you.”

“It’s going to be okay.”

“Thank you.”

Let’s remind our kids and each other:

“You are more than a test score.”

“Some things (including some of the best things) just can’t be measured.”

“We will get through this!”

“Progress, not perfect.”

We all need each other.  Especially in New York City. After all, it’s really loud out there.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Learning Takes Differentiation and Time

By Jodene Morrell

This year marks my 20th year in education and I continually draw on lessons I've learned as an elementary teacher, middle school literacy specialist, student-teacher supervisor, university professor and researcher. The most important one I’ve learned and many educational researchers would agree – is that change takes time. We seem to have no patience with new curriculum, new professional development, or school reform. If we don’t see immediate results by the end of the school year, we toss it out. However, the “we” is rarely the teachers who understand that change takes time. We understand that we are investing time and energy and love and effort into the children with whom we are entrusted for a year and we may never see the fruits of our labor. But that’s not why we teach. We, and I mean the teachers, understand that we are making a long-term investment into an individual’s future, into their growth as a learner, into their self-esteem. If we are lucky, we may see phenomenal growth but most of the time we are simply adding another layer to the foundation on which they will continue to add subsequent layers of learning and growth and development.

Becoming teacher-researchers is no different. It takes time. Now at the end of our fourth year, I get to see the fruits of our labor. Conversations are significantly different. No longer do I ask the Fellows what they would like to do for their research – we talk about their existing research and then they tell me about their future research plans. In a meeting last week, one Fellow discussed final steps for this year’s research – conducting oral surveys with her first graders about their development as writers before we were launching into a conversation about next year which will focus on various forms of teacher evaluation systems. We also discussed writing an article for an academic journal over the summer. It is a profound transformation from three years ago when we were talking about how to identify a topic, how to develop a research question, what “counts” as data and so on through the research process with me leading the conversations. These days, I’m just trying to keep up with them!

The difference in learning is most obvious when we come together as a community each month at our All-Fellows meetings. Our two newest Fellows are engaging in amazing research and collaboration across state lines (NY and CT) – focusing on co-planning and teaching a unit on Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement from a critical perspective with their 6th and 7th graders. I forget when they ask about forms of data that this is not as “obvious” to them as the Fellows of the first cohort who began January 2012. A crude comparison would be teaching students (who come in as non-readers) to read for two and a half years and expecting a new (non-reader) student to be reading at the same level with the same comprehension, vocabulary, and understanding of text. I need to remember to step back, see how to best meet the needs and interests of the teachers, and support accordingly. It’s not so different from teaching.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we’re in this for the long haul. We recognize that there is always a new topic to research, room to grow, another article to read or write, another grant to pursue. Learning takes time – whether we are talking about K-12 children, teachers, researchers, or as a community. We are at a point, as a community, when we can talk about "years" ago when we first got started and remain enthusiastic about our upcoming plans for a new line of research. I hope this is a message we can convey to others through our publications and presentations - be patient with the learning process. We are all a work in progress.        

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Becoming Teacher Researchers 

By Jodene Morrell

One of my go-to-quotes when writing grant proposals, conference proposals, or for academic journals is by Dr. Magdalene Lampert (1985) who stated there is a belief that, “The teacher’s work is to find out what researchers and policy makers say should be done with or to students and then do it” (p. 191). 

I used to scan my syllabi and check the publication dates on readings to ensure the content would feel current and relevant to my students. I no longer do that. After 20 years as an educator from K to MA, I recognize that we continue to hash out the same arguments, push back on policies that reduce our teaching to teacher guides, pacing guides, and high-stakes tests, and use all our energy and talents to meet the complex interests and needs of our students. The date on the publication starts to feel less relevant. We strive to teach the whole child while seeking balance in our own lives. Our hearts hurt for students and families that just can't seem to get a break and we celebrate moments when students succeed - in whatever way we define success together. And we do not put the researchers' and policy makers' agendas ahead of our own... unless we are the researchers and in that case, it's quite a different conversation. 

I'm looking at my calendar for the rest of the academic year and my university is more than half way through the semester which already has me thinking about end of year interviews with each of the LTI Teacher Fellows. It's one of our annual rituals. We meet in their classroom, in my office - where ever is most convenient. And we reflect on the year - what went well, what they wished they could have done differently, plans for next year, what it means to be a researcher. I transcribe their responses off my digital recorder, store the files in the Cloud, and reflect. Each year I am astounded by how their discourse around teacher-research has evolved, their insights into action research, and what this means for teacher learning and student growth, and what it means to be part of a community. Mostly, I reflect on our relationships and the organic growth of our community of practice. 

We are building and shaping and reshaping and tweaking our community which is something no researcher or policy maker could have possibly imagined. We do not tell one another what to do. We listen. We suggest. We laugh. We eat. We drink. We support. We are growing together as researchers and as educators. There is no formula. There is no teacher guide. It's a bit of fixing the plane in the air - but there is no high stakes test at the end and we're not competing with one another. 

We will be wrapping up our fourth year as a project at the end of this spring. We have eight Fellows actively engaged in research at this time and a total of fourteen active members and alumni. Four of us are heading to the International Reading Association Conference in July, so we'll turn our attention to that soon enough. Our Fellows take time off from research, maternity leave, time to work on tenure and other life events because we know we are in this for the long run. We have no end date. Fellows are free to come and go without judgment.  

The LTI Project is a community that no policy maker or researcher could have imagined. It is organic and it is all about relationships and support. That is how teachers from nine different schools and two states become researchers, colleagues, and friends. This is what it means to become researchers with the LTI Project.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Black History Every Day

By Christina Chaise

As February comes to an end, I question what the implications are of ending the chapters and conversations around Black history and the inclusion of the Black Lives Matter movement in classroom dialogue. Will the conversation stop? Will business carry on as usual? Will classrooms—both urban and suburban—cease to celebrate the accomplishments of Black Americans because March has begun?

It must not.

It is not new news that there is a dearth in histories of people of color represented in social studies/history curricula in US schools. Although Howard Zinn (2005) had been able to bring these histories together as a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric history we had been taught in our classrooms, not many children, especially those from marginalized communities, are exposed to this knowledge. This knowledge is not usually found until one finds themselves in a university—a place to which many people do not have access. Most children never get to know the histories/herstories of their people and communities. Knowing how powerful and liberating such an education would be for black and brown youth, why then, has there been no movement to diversify the narratives within history classrooms?

Blame is always put on different peoples and institution; it’s the fault of NCLB, Race to the Top, Common Core, policy makers, politicians, administration, teachers, parents, etc.—or so the story goes. I argue that we all play a role in shaping and maintaining many of the oppressive forces within the education establishment, including the absence of recognizing the historical contributions of people of color—some people more than others, of course. In this framework exists the assumption that the system, school, and classroom are not set up to be liberating spaces, but rather, oppressive spaces to ensure the stratification and reproduction of an unequal society. Whether actors and institutions are conscious of this is up in the air. For social justice-oriented teachers, this is obviously not the objective of why we started to teach. And for those trying to fight the binds of policies and administration to bring about a more radical curriculum with critical pedagogy, burn out is inevitable. Unless we remember that we are not alone. All educators are at different places and spaces in developing our pedagogy and exploring different modes of teaching and learning history/social studies, and finding a community that is on a similar trajectory helps us figure this out organically. Luckily, there are quite a few communities in existence organized around this, including the Literacy Teachers Initiative at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education.

But back to the issue at hand. Espousing Eurocentric history curriculum may not be intentional (and even worse if it is intentional), and can be a difficult act to modify if it has been commonplace. Indeed, absence of alternative curriculum is a normalized aspect of the US schooling system, integral to maintaining the larger economic system as is, but we’ll leave this critique for another time. Yet, this should not be a deterrent for incorporating different content that can transform the classroom, particularly content that can re-humanize a space that has been historically dehumanizing, especially for black and brown students.

What if you’re not too confident in your knowledge of the content? Or perhaps you’re still cultivating your pedagogy. Maybe talking about race instills the fear of God within you. Like I said, we’re all at different stages, and that’s okay. What’s most important here is that you are making the commitment to teach your students a history through a social justice lens—a history that can transform lives. Race talk, or ‘difficult dialogue’, is too often avoided rather then explored, which is a representation of larger phenomena related to forces of privilege and oppression. However, make no mistake; not talking about race and issues around race is oppressive. (I highly suggest the work of Dr. Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College, Columbia University to further explore this notion. You can find one of his articles here: For an even deeper theoretical analysis of symbolic violence in omitting race dialogues, please see an article by Dr. Zeus Leonardo of UC Berkely:
Discussions around race, both in present and historical contexts, are necessary for the development of a powerful capacity for social analysis within our urban youth. It should be embedded in American history lessons because, simply put, race plays a major role in American history; without it, we are missing an important piece to the puzzle. What’s most unfortunate is that this missing piece is the space where history meets biography for students of color. It is the space where we can see how our histories have been shaped in order to be better informed on how to shape our own futures and that of our communities. This history is not simply about our oppression, but about our struggle to fight for our own liberation, about the battles we’ve won and about the people who paved the way for us. I would bet money (something I never do since well, #graduateschoollife #thestruggleisreal) that if a history class had such content that enabled students of color to see themselves and their communities through an additive lens—In contrast to a deficit lens—the culture of the classroom would drastically change.

Once again, however, the content can be transformative, but without critical pedagogy, the message will be lost. There is a plethora of research on critical pedagogy and all its different branches, yet I want to focus on one that I find is most easily digestible but equally effective: reality pedagogy. Developed by Dr. Chris Emdin (2011), reality pedagogy is centered on bringing in the experiences and sociocultural understandings of students into the classroom. Rather than summarizing the core aspects of his theory, I’d rather let him explain it to you himself:
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A cheat sheet of the 5 C’s he discusses can be found here:

Reality pedagogy can be powerful tool in normalizing the inclusion of American Black history (as well as Latin@ and Asian history) by connecting the present realities of our youth with the histories of their communities. The marriage of history and biography is what C. Wright Mills called, the sociological imagination—a way of looking at the world, I argue, through the lens of political consciousness. This lens, as Mills (1959) writes, “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals… The first fruit of this imagination… is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances… The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two in society... Back of its use there is always the urge to know the social and historical meaning of the individual in society and in the period in which he has his quality and being.” (p. 5)
Not only does this tool of social analysis allow students to understand the larger structures that have shaped their histories and present realities, but it gives them the knowledge and empowerment to address these structures too.

I would like to note, that although the above statements were written with urban populations in mind, it is necessary that radical education and race talk be a part of white, suburban, and/or middle-class classrooms, too. As much as we need to work on combating the internalization and reproduction of oppression, we must also turn our heads to the spaces and places where privilege is also internalized and reproduced. Both processes must be disrupted. As a result of these disruptions and interjections, the understanding of white hegemony, which necessitates a dichotomization of white American history and black American history, can be fostered within students to help them liberate themselves from its effects. In the hands of these students—our students—lies the political possibility that history classrooms may one day include all stories and realities because we will be the teachers and students to make that change.

Celebrating black history should happen every day, in every classroom.

Please see below for a few resources and articles, as well as online communities to join to further educate ourselves and find colleagues to support each other. If you have any links that relate, feel free to share as well!

Online Communities and Resources (including children’s books and syllabus suggestions):


Emdin, C. (2011) Moving Beyond the Boat without a Paddle

Engaging Young Children in Activities and Conversations about Race and Social Class
Lee, Ramsey, & Sweeney (2008)

Racial literacy in a second-grade classroom: Critical race theory, whiteness studies, and literacy research
Rogers & Mosley (2006)

Promoting Equity in Children’s Literacy Instruction: Using a Critical Race Theory Framework to Examine Transitional Books
Hughes-Hasssell, Barkley, & Koehler (2009)

Transforming My Curriculum, Transforming My Classroom: Paulo Freire, James Banks, and Social Justice in a Middle School Classroom
Hudalla (2005)

About the author:

Christina Marie Chaise is a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University in the Sociology and Education Program under the Education Policy and Social Analysis Department. Christina was a McNair Scholar at Hunter College; she is also a graduate of the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her activism and community organizing experiences have shaped her research interests, which include critical pedagogy and epistemology, ideology, and identity development around race/ethnicity and class. Her current focus is on studying spaces of both oppression and privilege to explore how the reproduction and internalization of racist/classist ideas can be disrupted, particularly in the classroom—from kindergarten to graduate school. She is currently a teacher’s assistant for Dr. Ray McDermott in the Anthropology Department and a project assistant at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. Christina has been with the LTI project since fall 2014.