Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Identity Project


My primary job at my school is teaching mathematics. However, I also teach a support class (note: not a math-specific support class). I've taught this support class for the last five years. And this support class has always been my least favorite class to teach.

One reason it is my least favorite class to teach is that the support class has always felt poorly defined in terms of the purpose of the class. When I took over the class five years ago, there were no curriculum, tests, or units. Basically, the class was a study hall and the students used the class to do homework.

The other thing: this support class is for English Language Learners. So all the students in the class are recent immigrants to the United States. They have low (or no) English proficiency. Often, they have experienced a disrupted education. Since most of these students are from Central America where the school calendar runs from February to December, they often come to the United States in January and start at my school in February--bad timing!

In short, there is a real need for 'extra' support for these students. But I've seen the data and the result is clear: this support class--my support class--is not increasing opportunities for students to learn. At best the class maintains the status quo: 'good' students keep doing good and 'bad' students still struggle with school.

That's Called Paternalism 

I am embarrassed to share that in the last five years I've taught this class I haven't done much to define the purpose of the class. I haven't done anything to define the why. I've added a few structures to promote 'good student habits' and reflection on learning. And those structures are doing a decent job. But those are whats or hows, not a why. Why do I teach this class? Why do students take this class? I feel like I can answer those questions for the content math classes I teach, but not for this support class.

In five years why haven't I fixed it? Good question. I could have. One roadblock is the number of different classes I teach. This support class is my 3rd prep. So after planning lessons for the other two classes I teach, I don't have the time/energy to do more lesson planning. Also, I'm not superhuman; I'm just human. Thus, like any decent human, there are many areas I need to improve on. And this class is one of them!

Then I read Other People's Children by Lisa Delpit. As I was making my way through the book, Delpit helped me realize that the support class is paternalistic and the lack of challenging standards (or any standards) was an example of the racism of low expectations. In this class, I was forcing students to "attend to hollow, inane, decontextualized subskills" that Delpit suggested are a sign of good intentions gone bad. After reading Other People's Children, I was really not feeling the support class.

So I decided to finally fix it. (Thanks Lisa Delpit!)

At the end of last year, I read another book called Influencer.  One of the many things I pulled from the book is the idea of a positive deviant. A positive deviant is a person that should fail but doesn't. In my context, this might look like an English Learner (EL) student that had a disrupted education and low English proficiency. The student might work a job on the nights or weekends. Or take care of siblings. Maybe the student doesn't live with close family but with a cousin or aunt or uncle that they may or may not know very well. And the student lives in poverty. In short, the student has many valid reasons to give up on school. And many students in this situation do exactly that: they give up on school. But positive deviants do not give up in school.

Postive Deviants

After reading the book, I decided to interview EL students that were positive deviants. I wasn't sure how I would use the interviews as data, but the book made me curious. I wanted to find those EL students that should fail, misbehave, and cut class but aren't. After talking to a few teachers, I decided to also ask a few students that struggle with school these same questions. Here is the full list of questions I asked both groups of students. Here are a few of the questions I asked:


  1. What do you hope to get out of school?

  1. What is the most important reason for you to come to school?

  1. What makes you feel good about coming to school?

  1. What makes you feel bad about coming to school?

  1. Who do you hang out with?

So what did I learn? I learned that positive deviants have a purpose. When asked what is the most important reason to come to school, one student said, "to get to the next step, the next level. Each level of school is a step and I need each step to reach my goal of being a civil engineer." Another student explained how her parents sent her to the US and didn't want her to be in Mexico because "school is different in Mexico" (her words). Her parents sent her to the US so she could have a future and be someone in life. And these aren't straight A students. But they are demonstrating effort and motivation even in the face of challenging circumstances. They are working for something in the abstract future because they believe in tomorrow and they believe in themselves. And they believe in tomorrow because they have a purpose.

Those students have a purpose--and it is not school. Rather, school is a means to an end. But they come to school because they have a purpose.

I also learned that the students who struggle don't have a clear purpose. They come to school because they "want to see friends". Another student talked about "just getting done with it [school]" so he can move on with his life. Or they had a purpose that seemed false. One student said he comes to school to make his mom proud. I asked him how his mom felt about his low grades and poor attendance. He said he doesn't talk to his mom about school and she doesn't ask. For these students, the purpose of school is social. Or school itself is the purpose--they come to school because it is what they do. These students aren't working toward the abstract future; rather, they get through today.


We interviewed about 10 students. And after reading Other People's Children, I realized I had a use for my interview data! I would use what I could glean from the positive deviants to help me build a curriculum for my support class.

Teaching for Social Justice

Here's the thing: I can't give kids a purpose. And I can't make them find a purpose (see paternalism). But I can definitely provide opportunities and experiences that help students explore what their purpose might be.

The EL students I have do need support! But not sit the kind of support I was providing--which was superficially a study hall and arguably a textbook example of the low expectations we often have for EL students.

The students need support in understanding who they are in their new social space, their new country. The students need support in understanding how their own culture intersects with the dominant culture in the United States. The students need support in knowing how to express complex emotions that arise as one is exploring and building an understanding of identity. And, I hope, that once the students have built an understanding of their complex identities and how their identities intersect with the dominant culture, they will be able to find their purpose.

Easy, right? Of course not. But I'm going to give it a try! Here is my plan:

My goal is to do four PBL based units in the support class this year. At the end of the year, students will have created a multimedia portfolio. Students will then present their portfolio to a panel and 'defend' their work. A lot of this is still in development (ok... I'm lying...most of it is still in development!). There is an amazing teaching for social justice resource I am using called Tolerance.org. They have lessons, activities, readings, videos and more all organized by grade level and social justice strands.

My year will be broken up into four units. Each unit will have a final project.


Here are links to the tolerance.org projects I am using. I will definitely be blogging about my adventures in this project. If you have questions, ideas or suggestions, please let me know!

Final project: Photo Essay Exhibit

Final Project: Oral History Project

Final Project: Artistic Expressions Showcase

Final Project: PSA for Change

Students will still get homework support and academic support--I'm going to feel it out, but less than half the time in the class will be allotted to homework help (previously, 100% of the time was homework help). But, more importantly, the purpose of the class has shifted from homework help and academic support to exploring one's identity and building communication skills. The students will be learning the English language by engaging in meaningful communicative endeavors. And they will build an understanding of the complex intersectionality that exists in their life. And, for the first time in 5 years, I'm looking forward to teaching this class!

1 comment:

  1. Gaaaaa this is so metal. Please let us know how it goes!!!

    ReplyDelete

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