Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Low-stakes Writing as Test Prep

In a nutshell: A low-stakes writing exercise can serve as a way of reviewing for an exam and can even allow students to participate in developing the test.

Before I make up essay questions for a midterm or final exam, I sometimes like to take the pulse of my students as to what they think the major themes of the course have been. If we are on the same page, great. If we are not on the same page, something needs to shift, perhaps on the part of the students, perhaps on my part as the teacher, or perhaps both.

You can make this "same page" a literal page by giving your students a low-stakes writing exercise in which they identify themes of the course. To make this exercise a little more creative, a little more real-world, and a little more useful for everyone, you can make it a task. For example, I gave my World Lit II students the following question as their Daily Write yesterday:
Write your own essay question for the midterm! Think of a question that relates to (a) the themes of the course, and (b) the texts we have read. Your question should include the theme or themes you want the student to focus on. It should be a question that can be answered using examples from three of the texts we have studied. My objective here is twofold: (1) to give you a chance to participate in designing your own midterm, and (2) to use this as an opportunity to discuss the themes of the course at the midpoint in the semester.
I usually collect the Daily Writes after 5-10 minutes, then lead a discussion of the question they just wrote about. In this case, I let them keep their papers, and we went around the room (we sit in a circle in this class) and read each answer (some students summarized instead of reading verbatim). As they spoke, I jotted key thematic terms on the dry erase board.

In effect, the Daily Write became a brainstorm for essay question topics. In addition, it served as a midterm review. My students were spot on in terms of the major themes of the course (Yay for them! Yay for me!). Of course, I will use their input judiciously in developing the actual essay questions for the exam. That being said, they will indeed see their own input and ideas reflected in the essay questions. That, I hope, will give them a (justified) sense of collaboration and participation in a student-centered learning process. Within the limits of the teacher-student hierarchy (I do make up the test and assign the grades, after all), this helps destabilize the traditional education "bank," to use Paolo Freire's metaphor, and contributes to a student-centered learning environment.

I notice this post is not pulling in large numbers of readers. Perhaps a video will help? Julia Sapin of the Center for Instructional Innovation at Western Washington University defines low-stakes and high-stakes writing and explains how each is used in her classroom.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Critical Pedagogy in My Classroom

In a nutshell: What I care most about in the classroom is increasing students' awareness of social justice, categories of privilege and oppression, the connection between knowledge and power, and their own potential as champions of freedom. Here I explore how that hopey changey thing is workin' for me.

I like the definition of critical pedagogy in Henry A. Giroux's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Lessons from Paulo Freire." Giroux calls critical pedagogy
[an] educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action.
This semester I am teaching classical mythology, European literature since the Renaissance, and a proseminar for literature grad students.  Except for the graduate course, I have not explicitly mentioned critical pedagogy in the classroom. But my goal, as always, is to find opportunities to raise issues of social hierarchies and their justice or injustice. Some interesting things have happened in both of my undergraduate courses. One of the nicest surprises has been the way the use of an online discussion board has facilitated relevant discussions.

In my mythology class, the greatest energy has swirled around the issue of sexual double standards. In brief, the male heroes of Greek mythology can sleep around as much as they want regardless of marital status, while unmarried women must remain virginal, and wives must remain faithful to their husbands. Many of my students are particularly offended that Odysseus gets to have sexual liaisons with the witch Circe (for a whole year) and the nymph Calypso (for seven years!) while his wife Penelope is home alone in her bed, pining for her absent husband and fending off the scores of suitors who are pressing her to choose a new husband, since most Greeks assume that Odysseus, having failed to return from the Trojan War with the rest of his comrades, must by now surely be dead.

Now, there is only so much I can beat this horse in the classroom without turning my mythology course into a course on sex and gender dynamics, which is not what my students signed on for. Online, however, discussion of the sexual double standard can proceed apace, even resurfacing from week to week in the context of newly read texts. Moreover, those students who are particularly interested in the issue can stick with it, while other students can move on to other topics. Discoveries can emerge from the students' own reading, thinking, and experience, without my having to intervene in any heavy handed kind of way. On the other hand, at apt moments, I can poke my head into the discussion and draw their attention to notions like "patriarchy" and its implications. Even better, students who have taken a women's studies course can explain patriarchy and its relevance without my having to lift a virtual stick of chalk. I was literally thrilled when one of my students brought Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique into the discussion! Now, that's the sort of thing I'm always champing at the bit to do, but again, I feel strongly about staying off my many potential soap boxes so that students do not get turned off to the subject they came to learn about.

In my European literature since the Renaissance class, the injustice of social hierarchies is all over the place, in ways that are immediately relevant to my students' own daily life--but it has taken them weeks to warm up to that idea. The perennial problem is the tendency of students to say that "back then" (the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic era, the Victorian era) society was hierarchical and oppressive and discriminatory, but of course, we are lucky enough to live in the United States in 2012, when none of that happens anymore. I must breathe deeply into my rising blood pressure while I ask, "Do you think the racism that confronts Othello is no longer relevant here, in Columbia, SC, in 2012?" Of course, no student will ever insist that their own world is completely free from racism, sexism, religious intolerance, etc; but they cling to the belief that theirs is a world whose justice is only limited by each citizen's own commitment to hard work and Christian values.

In this class, too, an online discussion board has provided opportunities for discussion of sex-, race-, and class-based privilege and oppression more extensive than would be possible or appropriate in the classroom without risking abuse of academic freedom. In both classical mythology and European literature, I am finding that, as the semester proceeds, posts to the discussion board are becoming more sustained, discursive, and analytical, as well as venturing more opinions and raising more issues for further discussion. Indeed, what started out as a discussion board in name only--more a collection of serial monologues--is becoming a discussion board in fact.

I will end with a plug for Denis Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist and His Master as a superb text for practicing critical pedagogy. Voltaire's Candide is probably the more natural choice as a go-to text to represent the French Enlightenment. But I remembered loving Diderot in my college French classes, and I was eager to share this road less taken with my students. To be sure, they did not immediately warm up to Jacques, and some of them remain resistant as we approach our fourth and final class meeting devoted to this text. But for others, this quirky, highly unconventional, quite experimental meditation on the fundamental conflict between the Rights of Man and the Great Chain of Being has proven revelatory.

To be sure, my students are still at the point of arguing among themselves about rights versus responsibilities, the comfort of stable hierarchies versus the anarchic thrill of freedom. They are not about to march out of the classroom and reboot the Occupy Columbia movement that has been on hiatus since December 23, when the state Budget and Control Board passed emergency regulations that ended the two-month encampment on the State House grounds, mere blocks from our classroom. Nor is that my objective as their instructor. Rather, I simply want them to engage with the issues of social hierarchy, privilege, oppression, and justice, thinking for themselves, making their own decisions, and learning to become fully enfranchised citizens of a democratic society. In the words of former New York City mayor Abe Beame: "How'm I doin?" I don't know. You'll have to ask my students.

Excelling While Black

To Be Black at Stuyvesant High
Published: February 25, 2012
Rudi-Ann Miller is one of 40 blacks among the 3,295 students at New York’s Stuyvesant High School. The experience can be isolating, but she has had no regrets.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Tackling Education in Africa

See the end of this post for the latest updates on education in Africa.

How do you fix education in Africa, where students have far fewer opportunities than their counterparts in other parts of the world? There are two schools of thought on the subject: do you invest bottom up? Or top down? Listen to a report about competing approaches to building education infrastructure in Africa on the Voice of America website, which also has a story on how Africa is dealing with a surge of secondary school students.

There's so much to say about this vast topic, whose surface I have barely begun to scratch. Here's a video designed to show schoolkids in the UK what it's like to go to school in Ghana, produced by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), an international development charity that works sort of like a non-governmental UK version of the Peace Corps. In fact, it is It is the largest such NGO in the world.

Latest education news from Harare - Zimbabwe's coalition government spent three times more on foreign junkets for top government officials in 2011 than on schooling, Education Minister David Coltart said on Friday.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Really, flipped classroom!?!

In a nutshell: The flipped classroom purports to be the latest in student-centered learning, but I suspect it is really the latest in media software marketing. Read on...

As far as I can determine, the so-called "flipped classroom" (also called "reverse teaching" or the "backwards classroom") was dreamt up by a screen capture and recording software company called TechSmith (to which I am NOT providing a link) to drive uptake of their product, Camtasia Studio (ditto the no link), a softward package for creating videos. I  first encountered the term on a perfectly laudable blog, Flipping the Latin Classroom. When I started poking around the Internet to learn more, however, I discovered a site called The Daily Riff, which aggregates education-related content, but also accepts advertising (and so, once again, no link). The Daily Riff posts a number of articles on the flipped classroom, several of which include teacher testimonials in video format, in all of which the teacher concludes with the earnest declaration, "I love Camtasia Studio."

On the face of it, the flipped classroom may sound innovative. Didactic presentation of course content moves outside of the classroom to the Internet, where it can be studied at home or in the library or computer center. The classroom becomes a place for greater student-teacher interaction, individualized attention, group work, collaborative learning, and all those nice things we encounter under the rubric of student-centered learning. But I cannot escape the suspicion that the flipped classroom is really a ploy for TechSmith to sell Camtasia and for The Daily Riff to sell advertising. Which leads me to say, à la SNL's late great Weekend Update Team of Seth Myers and Amy Poehler, "Really, flipped classroom!?!"

To understand the spirit of that emphatically exclamatory interrogative, I invite you to watch what I believe to be the first installment of the Saturday Night Live Weekend Update feature, "Really!?! With Seth and Amy" (apologies for the ads; they are inevitable without pirating the content):

Flipped classroom, really! So the days of the teacher as "sage on the stage" are numbered, and it's time for the teacher to become the "guide on the side." Really! Flipped classroom, if we teachers create videos for our students to watch at home, that will allow our students to get more individual attention from us in the classroom, or engage in more collaborative learning with their peers. Really? You see, it's called the "flipped classroom" because what used to be done in class (the lecture or other didactic presentation of course content) is now done at home via teacher-created videos, and what used to be done for homework is now done in class. Really! Flipped classroom, you're telling me that my students are going to just sit back and watch my lecture on quadratic equations, catalytic conversion, mass-energy equivalence, iambic pentameter, horizontal perspective, or the civil rights movement, and come to class the next day ready to write, draw, analyze, solve problems, or conduct experiments in the chemistry lab. Really!

Of course I'm all for student-centered learning and innovative pedagogy, but I'm not convinced the flipped classroom is anything more than a software marketing campaign in thin disguise.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Banned in Tucson: Critical Race Studies

In a nutshell: Young Mexican-American students in Tucson are under attack by right-wing, reactionary forces for trying to understand the matrix of oppression and privilege in which their lives are embedded.

UPDATE: April 28, 2012 "When they see students asserting their agency, asserting their voice, matriculating into college, for them that is a threat." Interview with Tucson's ousted Mexican-American Studies director in Colorlines. In a related article, Tucson students took over a school board meeting where a resolution to determine the fate of the entire Ethnic Studies Program (not just the Mexican-American Studies part of it) was up for discussion. Additional coverage of the resolution in the Tucson weekly and the Blog for Arizona. Earlier this month, Inside Higher Ed reported that John Huppenthal, the state school superintendent who began the crusade against Mexican-American studies at the high school level, is now taking his crusade to the college level. His major concern: the college ethnic studies programs produce the state's future high school teachers. That is, his goal is to suffocate critical pedagogy at its source.

UPDATE: March 8, 2012. Judge rejects request to reinstate TUSD class
By The Associated Press. Published: March 5, 2012 at 4:40 pm

UPDATE: Feb. 22, 2012. Read this excellent op-ed piece in the Bellingham Herald on "Why Arizona banned ethnic studies."

Scroll to the end for a new postscript and a new video about the latest in cross-border lawlessness: librotraficante!

Scroll to the end for a new video of a Mexican-American Studies student testifying at the first meeting of the Tucson Unified School District Board since the books were removed from the classrooms (held on Feb. 14, 2012)

This story is so overwhelming, I scarcely know where to begin. Let's start with a video from The Real News website about walkouts and teach-ins staged in recent days by Mexican-American students to protest the suspension of the Tucson school district's Mexican American studies program.

More at The Real News

Here's more background on the story. This video from the PBS program Religion and Ethnic NewsWeekly aired on December 17, 2010.

As you can glean from the video embedded above, ethnic studies had been part of the high school curriculum in Tucson since at least the early 2000s (so far I have not been able to date it more precisely than that). What made this story news was the ethnic studies ban passed by the Arizona legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in May 2010.

According to a fact sheet for House Bill 2281, the bill expressly prohibits public schools from including courses or classes which promote the overthrow of the federal government, as well as courses that promote resentment towards a race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular race or ethnic group, or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

The law, evidently drafted to order by John Huppenthal, the state superintendent of public instruction, gives the school's superintendent the authority to determine violations of the law, and requires the school district to come into compliance within 60 days of any such determination, under threat of a ten percent monthly cut in state funding to remain in effect until the districts rectifies its erroneous ways.

Passage of the law gave Huppenthal the opportunity he had long been waiting for to shut down ethnic studies--in particular, to shut down the Mexican-American studies program. In June 2011, Huppenthal deemed the program to be in violation of the law. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the Tucson Unified School District appealed the ruling. On December 27, an Arizona administrative law judge ruled that Mexican American studies program violated the law, giving Huppenthal not only legal but now also judicial cover to shut the program down (as reported in the Los Angeles times, among other sources).

What is really going on here is a right-wing, conservative, reactionary opposition to critical race studies.

While the ethnic studies program in the Tucson school district includes African-American studies and Asian-American studies, among others, the Mexican-American studies program was a particular target of Huppenthal, for obvious political reasons. As best I can tell, it was the Mexican-American studies program that was deemed to be in violation of the law, and it was on behalf of the Mexican-American studies program that the legal challenge was brought.

As stated on the school district's Mexican American Studies website, the goals of the program are as follows:
  • Advocating for and providing culturally relevant curriculum for grades K-12
  • Advocating for and providing curriculum that is centered within the pursuit of social justice
  • Advocating for and providing curriculum that is centered within the Mexican American/Chicano cultural and historical experience
  • Working towards the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student
  • Providing and promoting teacher education that is centered within Critical Pedagogy, Latino Critical Race Pedagogy, and Authentic Caring
  • Promoting and advocating for social and educational transformation
  • Promoting and advocating for the demonstration of respect, understanding, appreciation, inclusion, and love at every level of service
Key inflammatory words: advocating, culturally relevant, social justice, Mexican American/Chicano cultural and historical experience, critical consciousness, Critical Pedagogy, Latino Critical Race Pedagogy, Authentic Caring, social and educational transformation, respect, understanding, appreciation, inclusion, and love.

Them's socialist words!

On one level, this is an attack on the ideas and writings of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997), in particular, his influential book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published in Portuguese in 1968 and in English in 1970, which virtually single-handedly gave birth to the fields of both critical pedagogy and critical race studies. But of course it's much more than that. Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the message, and Freire is the messenger, but the targets of this tragic conflict are the young Mexican-American students in Tucson who are trying, with the help of their teachers and their public school system, to come to grips with their own socially constructed and historically specific identities, to understand the axes of oppression and privilege that form the matrix of their existence, and to become agents of change and social transformation, beginning with themselves.

A pending federal lawsuit (Acosta v. Huppenthal, CV-10-623-TUC-AWT), charges that the state’s ruling and decision to shut down the program is a violation of the First Amendment, free speech rights of the students enrolled in the program to learn about the full breadth of American history. On March 7, the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) and 26 education and civil rights organizations filed a friend of the court brief in the case (as reported by the Sacramento Bee). Stay tuned....

Okay, I think my job here is done for now. I have little more to say about this other than that it is wrong and bad and more people should be talking about it and doing something about it. Start by sharing this blog post on facebook and twitter, and take it from there.

Postscript: One of many no doubt. People are finding creative and resourceful ways to protest this injustice. Learn about the latest in cross-border lawlessness...

Postscript: Nico, one of the Mexican-American Studies students in Tucson who witnessed the confiscation of his text books, testifies before a meeting of the school board.