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Black History Month and the Achievement Gap

Beautiful book.

As I am sure you are aware, February marks the start of Black History Month.  Students across the country will learn about Rosa Parks, read Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech, and will organize local celebrations. I hope I do not come across as cynical, but much like last week’s celebration of “Literacy Week” in Florida, it seems a no-brainer that this is something that should be a part of our everyday classroom environment.

Despite the perceived success of our nation’s students via standardized testing, one key demographic is not keeping pace–minorities, primarily Hispanic and black males. This Achievement Gap has garnered plenty of national attention but we must look at this “gap” beyond the standardized test scores.

There is much more that must be done beyond the classroom walls to fix the problem. Poverty and prejudice might be beyond our direct control, but they are not beyond our teaching. One month to celebrate the contributions and the history of a huge portion of our students seems barely enough.

One of the initiatives of the nonprofit, The English Teacher’s Friend, is to implement a new program called NAS (Not A Statistic) intended to focus on black males for reasons beyond the Achievement Gap, including educating students and teachers about the startling statistics of highly disproportional incarceration rates, as well as a focus on local black history that is often glossed over in our curriculum and communities.

Florida statute 1003.42 Requires instruction in “the history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the contributions of African Americans to society.”

Although we likely cover enough black history to meet the requirement in our history classes and during Black History Month, we are certainly not designating many courses of study for students to truly immerse in their own history.

I was born, raised, and taught school in Brevard County, Florida. Our County complex is called the Harry Moore Center. But it wasn’t until several years ago, on my own searching, that I found out who Harry Moore was. Harry and his wife Harriette were civil rights activists-he a member and organizer for the NAACP. They were responsible for huge increases in African American voter registration across Central Florida and both were honored educators who were fired for their political activity. They made a huge impact in the Civil Rights movement before it became an official movement. Harry investigated every publicized lynching in Florida and was likely murdered because of once such investigation–the Groveland Massacre.

Harry and Harriette Moore were killed on Christmas Day, 1951. A bomb was placed under the floors of their home directly under their bed. Harry died on the way to the hospital and Harriette died nine days later.

Since I learned about the Moore’s I have been curious to know how many students  and adults are aware of their story. I have been asking my new classes which consist of mostly minority students, if they know who Harry Moore is? I often ask adults, too. I am rarely met with someone familiar with this local connection to our National history. We live 30 miles from where the Moore’s house once stood.

This prompted me to research more Florida history in relation to African Americans and there are so many stories that our students do not know-that I did not know. This is what I love about being an educator-the constant learning and discovering. If you don’t take advantage of getting paid to learn, to discover with your students, you are missing a valuable enrichment for your life, a nice fringe benefit.

Our NAS program is designed to work with the students to discover, uncover, and enrich their understanding of the local history. Through this relevant curriculum and targeted demographics we hope to engage students with more relevant curriculum. Out of the 10-15 admitted to the program, we hope for a minimum of 3-4 to become leaders and organizers of a group to continue to share these stories and statistics through workshops and presentations at schools, conferences, and in the community.

Please follow the blog as we detail the making of this program. Through the combined efforts of students and teachers working together for a common goal, we hope to create a program that can be replicated throughout the state, and maybe elsewhere in the country.

In the meantime, I will be sharing what I can with the students I have in class right now. I will start with a checklist to see where their background knowledge stands. Visit these sites for more materials you can work into Black History month and hopefully March – January too.

Read more about Harry and Harriette Moore.

Separate is Not Equal: Brown Vs. Board: This site includes lots of resources and lessons to teach an entire unit on the inequality of education. This is a key topic to address at a time when many students find education a burden.

History.Com list of resourcesfor Black History Month.

Another interesting read: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

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The First Step: Fall in love with Language

My first week back in the classroom was a blast. Although exhausted, I am also rejuvenated. More than I ever I see the need for what we do at The English Teacher’s Friend.  During my first 4 days of teaching I attended (or presented) 5 meetings. Most meetings, as you all know, are a bit of a time waster. The intentions are always good but when one is constantly in meetings, there is no time to implement the things you discuss in the meeting.

I continuously hear this complaint from teachers–never enough time.

In these meetings we talk about how to improve student learning–how to show better scores on the next assessment (which also takes time away from teaching).

What I don’t understand is how we –and I say WE as in the greater WE in the US–cannot see the most obvious. Students have to be engaged. Who thinks these struggling students are truly interested in the strategies we teach them? Langauge Arts is just that–the art of language. We have to start with letting THEM discover the art of language. How?

Share poetry every day–without analysis, without picking apart the pieces, just sharing and letting it sink in.  Today I will share this poem with my students and when it is over I will give them a prompt: digital living –go. I will write with them in a student seat, not at my desk.  We won’t grade it. We will share. We will highlight words or lines that resonate. Then move on. Spoken Word poetry is incredibly powerful with students (and adults) and provides that “in” to the world of language. Don’t devalue the time spent on it. 

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Read excerpts of books about real events they haven’t known about. Build their background knowledge without KWL charts or pre-assessed quizzes. Share your passion for reading. Offer a page for them to check out your books.

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Give examples often of how language is a living thing, always evolving (some would say devolving) The popular words kids would know–like those in the new today . Occupy used to mean “the naughty”–as in to “occupy a woman.” These interesting facts on The Hot Word on dictionary.com. Talk about how words and cliches derived their meaning.

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Ask them what they want to learn about. Make a list. Find material that relates. Have them bring in articles of interest. We have that luxury in our classes that other subject areas do not. We can pull the content we want. Ours is skills based–primarily. So use that to your advantage by asking them what they want to know.

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Provide writing prompts that are truly prompts–a little something to get them thinking, get them started, but then allow for them to express their own topic. Don’t grade everything they write. Give them more opportunity for brainstorming and revision.  When students listen, have them share words or phrases that stand out, words they connect with.

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Too often we say we don’t have time for these things–to share poetry everyday, write open prompts everyday. I understand. Coming into this class at semester time and trying to get them ready for the “big test” in jsut a few months is daunting and I have wondered if I am doing these kids a disservice by not focusing solely on the testing-style questions.

I guess you have to ask yourself some things about that. First, they have been doing the testing cycle for a decade now. Has it worked? How many times have they  not passed? How far behind are they?

It is easier to justify these more creative and student-driven decisions when the other option hasn’t really been working. Some say we cannot afford the time to try it. I say the student cannot afford for us not to.

Students love quotes and I admit I do too. Fortune Cookie papers line my desk. This one is taped to my computer monitor: Your Present Plans Are Going To Succeed.

But this is the quote I think of the most when I think about my teaching philosophy:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

How do you get kids to LONG for language?

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