Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 5: Historical and Cultural Context
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Laina Jones
Tonya Perry
Peggy McIntosh
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Commentary
Laina Jones
The Harbor School
Dorchester, MA

Talk about your experiences teaching at the Harbor School.

The Harbor School is an Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound school. What other schools might call "units," we consider "expeditions" -- and as part of these expeditions we do field work and bring in expert speakers. We're a project-based school. A lot of our projects consist of an art piece, a writing piece, and a sharing piece.

In the two years that I've been here, I've been to Maine and Seattle for conferences. This past summer I had an opportunity to take part in an amazing experience with a program called SEED, which is Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity. I went through a week-long training right outside of San Francisco, then brought the strategies for working with diversity and gender equity back to our staff and to our school. Now I have the opportunity to do professional development on these issues with the Harbor School staff once a month.

How did your training with SEED influence your approach to teaching?

At the SEED training, there were about 50 people of all races, genders, and ages together for a week going through some serious diversity training. I came back from California a completely different person and, lucky for me, a completely different teacher. I saw myself differently; I saw my kids differently; I saw my colleagues differently; I saw the work that I do differently. No matter what color you are, and no matter what color your students are, multicultural learning is a must. We shouldn't be learning exclusively out of textbooks teaching from a white male point of view. We live in a society that is multicultural. That's what our kids need to be seeing, but you have to see that within yourself first before you can portray it to the students.

I think that teachers have to do work within themselves with the "isms": racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism. That then radiates to the students and makes them want to do the same type of work. Yes, I'm an African American woman who teaches at a predominantly black school. My teaching partner is a Jewish woman. She does that work within herself constantly, and our kids know that. Our kids look at us and see that we want to be here, that we want to help. They see that my teaching partner wants to help just as much as they see that I want to help. They see both of us really trying to get through to them however we can.


How did you enable your students to have open, mature conversations in the classroom?

To make students comfortable, you have to build community. Sometimes you have to put yourself out there. A lot of the kids know about my life and things that have happened to me in the past. I've brought those experiences into the classroom to compare or to connect or to relate. We also do team-building exercises to help the students understand that they'll be together for three years. They all have to help each other walk across that graduation stage.

In the beginning of the year, students write in their journals more than they have conversations. We spend the entire first quarter on the issue of identity, getting them to think about who they are and what that means. We read The Gift-Giver by Joyce Hansen, and we ask them, "What gifts do you bring? What makes you who you are? Your community? Your family? Your culture?" They can't talk about other civilizations and other groups of people until they learn how to identify themselves. They write an autobiography and create a time line of their lives. They write identity poems. We work with Tupac Shakur's book of poetry. The kids love that and they think, "If Tupac can write about that, let me put my experiences into words." The things that come out in their poems are just amazing. We do an oral history project where the students interview senior citizens at the senior center around the corner. This allows them to learn about other people's identities, and at the same time do a service to their community. I have found that studying their own identities and learning about their classmates' identities helps bring students together as a team.

The first three months of school are about enabling students to do discussion groups. Sixth-graders really want to tell you things; they're just waiting for an opening. When I create a safe space for them to share, I'm prepping my students to be able to have a discussion, to be able to talk about themselves, to be able to listen to each other's stories. But my kids will still pass the state and national tests. My kids will still know how to write. I am just establishing the way that they're going be able to relate to and talk about all of the content that I have to teach by state standards. A humanities class isn't authentic without open discussion.

Talk about the process of cooperative group work.

We do a lot of group work; that's another piece of the Harbor School culture. The collaborative model is very good in middle school because it's the type of support that they need. People need to learn to work with each other. In my class, I have a varied range of learners. I may have a student who is on a third-grade level in the same class with a student who's on an eighth-grade level. Working in cooperative groups really helps both of them. It helps the lower-end students try harder and push themselves. And by helping the lower-end student, the higher-end student will better understand whatever skill we're trying to teach.

A typical class begins with my teaching a skill in a whole-class mini-lesson; then the students break into groups to apply that skill. They finish the lesson by working individually to show that they understand the skill. There are times when I explain an idea and the students don't get it, but by working with their peers, they tend to learn from each other and work it out. Cooperative learning allows that necessary peer teaching tool.

In the first semester, the teachers pick the groupings. We don't know the students yet, so it's the luck of the draw, and we change the groups frequently in the first quarter. By second quarter we start to see who works well together. In the second semester, we start to let them choose. They tell us their top three choices of people that they want to sit with, as well as one person with whom they know they cannot work well. They're guaranteed they won't be put in a group with someone with whom they cannot work. However, I don't guarantee that they will be put in a group with someone they ask to work with. I try to accommodate, and I learn which students are able to work with anyone. When they choose their own groups, they're choosing them to be successful.

Afterward, there's always an evaluation of the group work: "Who held up their end of the assignment? Who did what they were supposed to do? What grade do you think you should get? Who was a strong leader?" Sometimes I'll give them an individual grade and a group grade, but a lot of times I purposely tell them they're just getting a group grade -- and they're brutally honest because it's affecting their grade. When they say, "Well, Ms. Jones, so-and-so isn't doing what she's supposed to do," I say, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" You create leaders that way -- no student wants a bad grade at the hands of someone else. They learn to speak up for themselves and their group. They learn how to take charge. They learn to work together, and that's how they're going to be successful.

Why is it important for students to learn to critique each other's work?

The peer editing process is hard at first. Kids don't want to hear another student criticize their writing. The process we've drawn up has warm feedback and cool feedback, which means you give both positive comments as well as suggestions to help make a piece better. And you don't say, "You should do this," you say, "Well, you could do this," or "This could help your paper." It goes back to trusting that everyone in here is trying to help you get to the seventh grade, and we emphasize that point, especially in the second semester.

Once they get into the habit of trusting that the other students have their best interests at heart, then it becomes a really valuable piece of the writing process. It remains productive because there is a worksheet that they must complete and hand in. It stays respectful for two reasons: one, everyone is going through the same process, so no one is embarrassed by his or her mistakes; and two, they peer critique the second draft rather than the first. Since I have critiqued Draft 1, most of the big mistakes have been fixed. Draft 2 tends to have fewer errors for their peers to pick out.

When they critique someone else's paper, they start to think to themselves, "I made the same mistakes." And it sticks to them more -- they experience it rather than just having me lecture them about it. Critiquing their partner's work teaches them how to edit their own work. When it comes time for a standardized test, or when they get to high school or college, they can edit their own work.


Why is it important for you to teach the civil rights movement to your students?

It's a part of our collective history, not just for the black students. The same way that the state expects us to teach about Massachusetts's government or evolution in hominids, we know that the civil rights movement is a part of American history and needs to be taught. The empowering ideologies and the struggles that African Americans still face are things that I want to use to inspire my students. This is especially beneficial when we go into the "Urban Survival" expedition and the kids begin to look at their current struggle and want to take on some of the ways people in the movement changed things.

The children take a lot from it because they come to realize that there are things they have now that they wouldn't even be close to having if it weren't for the Little Rock Nine or Malcolm X or Dr. King. The fact that we can vote, we can sit where we want on the bus, we can go to school, we can drink from the same water fountain ... I feel so passionate about this expedition because I see our kids as detached and not appreciating the struggles of those who came before them. They look at it as happening long ago. Therefore, the expedition has plenty of room for expansion and plenty of room for bringing in the idea of other struggles.

What we're doing with the expedition right now is leading it in the direction of our next expedition, "Survival." Our math and science teachers teach about wilderness survival, and in humanities we teach about urban survival. We push the civil rights expedition to think about: "What are we still struggling for now? What is still unjust now? We're not at 100 percent equality. What does it mean to be able to drink from the same water fountain but still get followed around a store, or pulled over if you're driving a nice car as a young black man?" I want my students to know that some of the overt, legal discrimination and racist tactics may be dead, but the institutionalization of racism and the covert tactics are still alive and kicking! I'm not here to make them angry, but I am here to help them see the trials they still face today. I want to give them a sense of power that they can do something about it.

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