Black Parents are Doing It. How Should White Parents Teach our White Children about Race?

preschool-girls-outside-60-1438674Debates and discussions about race relations in the US have sprung up everywhere over the last week following the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, Philando Castile in Minnesota, and five police officers in Dallas.

Yesterday in the Boston area, as I drove from errand to errand, the discussion continued on sports radio. As in other places in the media the debate eventually turned to what parents should teach their kids about race, the police and their place in US society.

Michael Holley (@MichaelSHolley), one of the co-hosts on WEEI, at one point spoke about “the talk” black parents have with their kids, specifically their teenage sons, about racial profiling (If you are not sure what this might sound like then take a look at this short documentary, ‘A Conversation With My Black Son’, at the NYTimes). Holley made the point that he does not want to have the talk with his kids. He does not want to have to scare them and make them feel as if they are less than their non-black peers. Yet, Holley concluded that in order to keep his kids safe, as a black parent, he has to. Holley got me thinking about my own interactions with race, and my attempts to discuss race with my kids.

But what do I, as a white parent, have to offer my white kids about race in the US?

Continue reading

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Connecting the Public and Personal in Education (Part 1 of 2)

“Teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life. … As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, ridicule. To reduce vulnerability [many of us] disconnect from students, from subjects, and even from ourselves.”  –  Parker Palmer. “The Courage to Teach”

Our teaching practice and our personal investment in it are on display daily. We make ourselves vulnerable to scrutiny from students, parents, colleagues, administrators, and more frequently these days in public and semi-public forums.

       All teachers fired at R.I. school. Will that happen elsewhere?
       About the suicide of an L.A. teacher
       Facebook gripes protected by free speech, ruling says

I have been reading “The Courage to Teach” for the first time recently. Palmer’s discussion of teaching as a practice at the intersection of the public and private has had a particular resonance for me.

However, I find it especially interesting when the above quote is reworded into a learning perspective.

“LEARNING is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life. … As STUDENTS try to connect THEMSELVES to our subjects, THEY make THEMSELVES vulnerable to indifference, judgment, ridicule. To reduce vulnerability [many STUDENTS] disconnect from the CLASSROOM, from subjects, and even from THEMSELVES.”

Students, like us, walk a thin line between the public and personal, especially as information about their success with learning has moved beyond the classroom and is increasingly made available for public scrutiny through:

School report cards:

School rankings based on state assessments: 

And News reports:
Board approves takeover of Lawrence schools

Is it any wonder that so many of our students “reduce vulnerability by disconnecting from the classroom, from subjects, and even from themselves?”

How do we establish an environment in our schools where kids are willing to take risks in their learning, and not feel vulnerable to outside scrutiny? How do we establish an environment where trying and not succeeding is a regular part of building academic resilience, confidence, and a willingness to try again?

I do believe that part of the answer is in making public school truly public on a regular basis and not just at annual testing time. But we also need a greater discussion in the public sphere about what is required for good learning to take place.

The path to good learning, just like good teaching, can be a long and messy process that takes place both within us and in our interaction with others. Recognizing and supporting this “messiness” is critical to maintaining engagement and growth.

In part II of this two part post I am going to look at what progress means for a student who has disconnected and has struggled to progress through “regular measures” of achievement.

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Using a space to introduce hormones

I liked that we were able to use information in posts that were created by other students instead of just listening to you tell us the information. It was more interesting and the language was easier to understand.

This was a response from one of my 10th graders after I asked my classes today to reflect on how effective using a space was in helping them begin to learn about the endocrine system (the system of glands that control hormones in the body).

My classes are in the beginning stages of an anatomy and physiology unit, and the endocrine system was this week’s topic. The first few classes in the past have focused on a straight presentation of the key glands, some of the better known hormones, and their function in the body. To biochemists (and in many cases adolescents) hormones make for a fairly interesting topic, but a straight lecture can quickly kill interest for students.

I decided I wanted to approach this introductory material in a slightly different way. Endocrine System Inquiry is the MSWord document with my directions for the lesson.

The school’s essential question for the year is “What’s our Impact?” I decided to connect the hormones to man-made chemical disruptors of hormones that are often found in the environment. This provided context for the lesson.

Students were assigned to one of seven hormone/disruptor pairs, and all together the seven topics related directly to the seven key endocrine glands I wanted the students to learn about. Students were asked to address four prompts through research during class and then for homework. Their answers to the prompts were then  posted to via an e-mail.

Today students worked together to view each other’s posts, and take notes on each of the seven hormones.

Benefits I saw in the posterous driven inquiry approach:

  • Students were engaged on both days. They discussed what they were reading and what  should be summarized in their post. As the intro quote shows, the fact that the kids were learning from each other helped with engagement.
  • By adding the environmental context for learning this material students saw the relevance and were interested to learn more. For example, several students asked whether they could select specific hormones or disruptors based on prior interest.
  • For most students this was the first time they were asked to distill information from fairly technical sources, and even though they struggled at times, ultimately they took pride in their ability to make sense of the sources.
  • Posting with posterous can be done through an e-mail, so the technical threshold was very low and enabled participation. The theme I used put each post side by side into 3 columns as opposed to the more typical scroll on blogs . This made it easier for the students to find information in the second part of the lesson.
  • This is an introductory level class, so the amount of information in the posts, and the level of the content is not very high. But this was a benefit. The small number of structured prompts and the amount that I was expecting (1-2 paragraphs) for each post was a low barrier. Kids for whom the technical sources were a challenge were less intimidated because they could see themselves completing the assignment.

Some draw backs:

  • The students’ posts did have errors and I did not edit the posts. I will be debriefing part 2 of the activity in a class discussion on Thursday to make sure that the errors are addressed. However, as I walked around today and saw the notes kids were taking, the majority of the information was well done.
  • This is an activity that is probably 3 times longer (1 day for research, 1 day for note-taking on posts, 1 day to debrief) than the standard lecture approach. For many classes this might be an issue. I feel that the time was worth it. Students were engaged and interested.

I still need to see how lasting the learning will be with this approach, but my sense is that for most it will be better than if I had just presented it at the board. We’ll see.

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When student mental illness gets in the way of learning

Today my thoughts were on past and present students for whom mental illness has made academic learning, and life in general, a major challenge. Today I don’t have many answers, but I do have questions for teachers and school leaders to consider:

  • How can non-therapeutic schools be responsive to the needs of these students?
  • Are our programs flexible enough to help students make progress academically, while at the same time supporting them through their more critical challenge of learning to manage their diagnoses?
  • Whose job is it to help these students manage their needs so that they can be successful learners in the classroom? Does the challenge of student mental illness  only belong to the school counselor, nurse, or therapist?
  • Are school programs flexible enough, or have enough leeway in this standardized environment, to define progress differently for these students as compared to others?
  • What supports do teachers need to better understand mental illness, as well as the methods to successfully work with these students in our classrooms?

Otherwise capable students, who face the challenge of accepting and managing their particular diagnosis, often struggle to keep up with the their peers. Do we provide these students with the supports they need in school to make progress, or do we blame the illness and throw up our hand in despair? Do we do enough?

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A first attempt with backchanneling in the science classroom

I have been trying out new tech related ideas in my science lessons this year. Monday I built a backchanneling session into an evolution unit for my 9th/10th grade science class. Over the last week we have been looking at various types of evidence for evolutionary theory, and today we began looking at how anatomical structures can help support evolutionary relationships between organisms.

The lesson was focused around the documentary “Inside Nature’s Giants: Whales”. It is a wonderful look at the dissection of a fin whale that beached itself on the Irish coast. Whale anatomist, Joy Reidenberg,  leads the dissection looking at how different organs helped whales adapt to their marine environment.

Parts 1 and 2 are shown below. These are embedded from

The backchanneling was set up using, and I used a mobile laptop cart unit, where almost every student had a laptop to log in with. There were some pairs that ended up sharing a laptop.

I had prepared some questions the previous night which I saved into a Word document. That way, with a simple cut and paste, I could interject the prompts into the conversation as they became relevant in the movie,

You can view the resulting chat here. Unfortunately the Todaysmeet transcript function is not allowing me to convert into a time sequenced text file, so for now you will have to scroll up from the bottom of the feed to see the flow of the conversation in sequence.

Some observations and student feedback:

  1. There were many students who participated in the backchanneling session. Feedback at the end of class indicated that most students liked using it and found it engaging.
  2. About 1/3 of the students said they couldn’t concentrate on both the movie and the backchanneling session at the same time.
  3. I was able to clarify some of the less obvious points, and answer questions I didn’t immediately know by posting links or quickly looking up the information on-line.
  4. Students seemed to be engaged with the lesson, either watching the movie only, or using the backchannel and watching. My co-teacher walked around to peer over student shoulders to check this out for me.
  5. Students liked the fact that they could use a different name and post anonymously without fear of being wrong. I did see some misuse of this (and I had asked for them to use their own name), but nothing major that would prevent me from using it again. I did see students who tend to be less vocal in class ask and answer questions via the backchannel.

My main conclusion from this first attempt at backchanneling is that it can be a useful tool in engaging students, BUT there need to be alternative entry points into the lesson’s learning goals for those students who are not able to effectively split their attention between the backchannel and the presentation taking place.

I tried to provide the multiple entry points with the transcript,  homework that focused on the key concepts, and the follow-up discussion today that tied the homework back to the movie and the backchannel discussion.

One application of the backchannel tool that I am very interested in trying in the future is using it during another teacher’s lecture-focused lesson. I can see myself (the 2nd teacher in the room…maybe a SPED teacher or paraprofessional in another school) focusing on the meta-cognitive aspects of the lesson.

I could prompt students through the backchannel to focus on such things as:

  • transitions/connections between concepts
  • providing context for concepts
  • answering some questions before kids get lost in the presentation, and prompting kids to ask the lecturer other questions
  • prompting kids to write down notes on statements or rhetorical questions that are stated, but not written on the board

Overall I felt this was a successful attempt at using some new tech ideas in my classroom. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this lesson and your experiences with backchanneling in the classroom.

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Are We Too Late? Teaching with Development on the Brain

It has been a while since I last posted. One reason is that I tend to be, unfortunately (to some parts of my life), a perfectionist. I started writing two different posts recently which I just couldn’t finish, and I was not happy with what I had written.

So today I am trying to commit myself to more frequent, but shorter posts. My inspiration for this approach is Barbara Blackburn’s (@BarbBlackburn) blog, Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word. Barbara has a very nice and concise style to her posts, and I am hoping that it might rub off on me.

On to today’s post.

This week my CFG (Critical Friends Group) looked into some brain research and how it can help the work we do as educators.

One of the things that surprised me was a section that discussed windows of development, time periods in brain development that seem to be ideal for acquiring certain skills. The two parts of this that I found particularly interesting were the emotional development, and the development of mathematical concepts and reasoning.

The following excerpt is from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families:

A great deal of emotional development takes place during a child’s first 18 months. Infants need loving care from a consistent caregiver. There is no substitute for a nurturing environment. Without it, a child will not attain emotional stability.

Between the ages of 1 and 4, children develop the capacity to understand logic and mathematical concepts. There is also a great deal of evidence suggesting that experience with music at an early age may enhance a child’s mathematical ability. Children whose math and logic capabilities are not exercised during this stage may have more difficulty learning those skills throughout life.

I’m a high school science teacher who co-teaches with a math teacher, and my first reaction was, “How can we possibly make up for lost time with students who struggle with math, logic, and/or emotional issues, if their brains stopped developing in these areas 10 years(!) before they even walked into my classroom?”

My next thought was, “How badly did I mess up my own kids’ development?”

One beautiful saving grace about our minds is that even when these windows of developmental opportunity close, there is still a level of plasticity in our neural connections. This allows us the ability to continue learning, albeit maybe not at the same skill level as others.

Yet, the fact that students do enter our classes with large gaps in these skill areas, requires us to address some larger questions:

  • What type of support can high schools provide to students whose early development in these areas was weak?
  • How to we fill in the gaps, so that high school students meet both testing and graduation requirements?
  • Can an older student with gaps in emotional development even begin to address academic needs before the emotional gaps are closed?
  • Are there structures in place in high school programs that can understand the needs of students in a timely manner, and then have enough flexibility in the program to address them?

Using a co-teaching model at the high school level is one answer to these questions. For example, today one of my students, for whom math is a challenge, struggled in manipulating negative values in an algebra lesson on quadratics. As the co-teacher in the room, I was able to pull him aside for some one-on-one work in order to provide some clarification and strategies for the types of problems he was working with.

This model of instruction is not possible in many schools, so what models does your school use, or could use, to address long standing developmental gaps?

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EdCampNYC presentation links

My low-tech abilities have prevented me from posting this on the EdCampNYC wiki page, so here is the information for those attending my session.

Tools or Toys: What does Rigor Mean in a Tech Context

In this session we will make some decisions about what we mean by rigor. We will then discuss how we should approach implementing technology in our classes, so that lessons are meaningful and not just play time.

Here are some articles that I will refer to in the session.

The challenge to technology in education:

Rigor vs Vigor – Joe Bower blog

Rigor on Trial – Tony Wagner

Rigor and Relevance Model – International Center for Leadership in Education

Posted in 21st century skills, Teaching and learning | 2 Comments