Category Archives: Reflection

Ambition!

My ambition got away from me. I have continued to read Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity, but I haven’t been posting reflections here. I will, eventually. I just need to finish a project I’m working on before I post here.

In other news, a manuscript I submitted to English Journal was rejected with encouragement to revise, and I just don’t have time to revise right now. I think the peer reviewers’ comments were helpful and would make the writing a stronger piece, but it’s just not going to happen. Instead, I plan to post the article here, perhaps in three or four parts, so that the ideas might be something you can implement in your classroom (if you are so inclined). I had good reviewers, and I appreciate the time they put into the manuscript. I know that’s a lot of work.

I’m a researcher and graduate student, and the power of feedback to make your writing and thinking better cannot be overstated, but sometimes you need to put the rough ideas out there anyway, so that’s what I plan to do.

What is this article about? Here is a little hint.

 

Grading for Equity: A Brief History of Grading

Steamer Glass [i.e. class]” in Hancock School, Boston. Immigrant children.
Abstract: Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)
I have a copy of my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary from 1893-1894, which I transcribed. It’s a fascinating window into history for many reasons, one of which is that while Stella was writing the diary, she was a teacher. She married in May 1894, after which she had to quit teaching and keep house.

Her primary concerns as a teacher seem to center around keeping order in her classroom. She remarks very little on what she actually taught her students, but she mentions whether or not class was unruly a few times. I also have a copy of a letter she wrote my great-uncle Alvin, who must have been assigned to write to grandparents and ask what school was like when they were little. Stella’s letter is wonderful (I reproduced it on this blog about 14 years ago).

I think I have always found the history of education, particularly schools, fascinating. I really enjoyed reading Joe Feldman’s chapter on the history of grading in  Grading for Equity. Much of it was material I already knew, as one of his sources, Schneider & Hutt’s (2014) article “Making the Grade: A History of the A-F Marking Scheme” was one my own sources as well. If you can get your hands on this article, I highly recommend you read it (the full citation, including DOI, is at the end of this post). I learned some really interesting things from it, particularly the fact that the A-F grading system is not really that old. It quickly became entrenched in schools, and it seems nearly impossible now to imagine schools with A-F grades, but they actually didn’t become entrenched until about the 1940s. My grandparents were still in school in the 1940s, though my grandfather would have graduated in the very early 1940s. The history of letter grades as a method for communicating learning isn’t that old.

First, yesterday I promised to continue reflecting on Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” for chapter 1 today; however, on reading them more closely, I’m not sure you care over much why I am reading this book or who I’m reading it with, so I’ll skip those, except to say that  I’ll reconsider anything I’m doing if it means my grading practices will be more equitable. Chapter 2 dives into the history of schools and grades a bit more.

How do schools in the first half of the twenty-first century—their design, their purpose, their student—compare with schools in the first half of the twentieth century?

I have actually sat in desks that were bolted to the floor. Have you? I find that the design of classrooms, at least in schools where I have taught, is much more fluid. Desks are mobile, sometimes even on wheels. Students sit in a large circle or square in my classrooms. My classroom looks different from the classrooms I sat in and from the images of vintage classrooms (like the one at the beginning of this post). We also have projectors and computers. My students learn from viewing images and watching videos in addition to reading. Most stakeholders would probably agree that my school’s purpose is to prepare students for college. I don’t think that was the goal of most schools in the early 20th century.

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson was one of the first people to propose schools as we might describe them today? In his Notes on the State of Virginia (which isn’t read enough and is why people don’t realize how complicated and problematic Jefferson’s ideas could sometimes be), he wrote (emphasis my own, spelling his):

This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor, who is annually to chuse the boy, of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of the country, for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go. At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued (from among whom the grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters); and the other half, who are to be chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition, are to be sent and continued three years in the study of such sciences as they shall chuse, at William and Mary college, the plan of which is proposed to be enlarged, as will be hereafter explained, and extended to all the useful sciences. The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the state reading, writing and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to: the furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools, at which their children may be educated at their own expence.

Pardon the long quote, but I find it worth quoting at length because it several ideas come into focus if you read the whole thing:

  1. School was never envisioned to be equitable, not even the mind of the guy who wrote that “all men are created equal.” It was made to sort people, which is why tracking is still so common.
  2. The language Jefferson uses is telling: he describes students as “rubbish.” He didn’t include girls or BIPOC in the calculation at all. It’s a pretty classist idea even if you remove the sexism and racism. You know the boy children of poor farmers weren’t going to college.
  3. If you’re struggling to parse the language, the proposal is as follows:
    • Send one boy per “hundred” to a grammar school. The remaining students would end their schooling after three years in the “hundred” school.
    • Of those boys sent to grammar school, competition for continued education would be fierce: Jefferson suggests one or two years of grammar school to separate the wheat from the chaff, after which one of those grammar school students could continue his education for six more years.
    • Half of those boys lucky enough to continue their education past grammar school would then be able to go to college after that six years of education.

The competition among students was baked into American education early on. My great-great-grandmother Stella describes such competition when she describes spelling class: “We sat on long benches and a class would go up to the teacher to recite and sit on a long bench, only the spelling classes would stand in a row and “turn down”, when one missed a word.”

I would argue school has changed a great deal since the early 1900s but some aspects of school haven’t changed much. I have cited studies ranging from 1888-2019 in my research that document traditional letter grades’ issues with reliability, consistency, motivation, and self-concept. Grades seem to be the one aspect of school we are resistant to changing, in spite of a large body of evidence supporting change.

Once again, I’ve gone on too long and you’re probably not reading anymore. More tomorrow on how I see ideas and beliefs of the early 20th century at work in schools where I have taught.

Citations for further reading:

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Jefferson, T. (1787). Notes on the state of Virginia. Prichard and Hall. https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/jefferson/jefferson.html

Schneider, J. & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A-F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2013.790480

Towards More Equitable Grading

grade photo
Photo by mikefisher821

I’m not sure how many folks know this, but I’m currently entering the dissertation phase in my doctoral program at Northeastern. in fact, I’m hoping to defend my dissertation proposal before the month’s end. One reason this blog has been quiet for so long (until recently) is that I just haven’t made time to write here. I was doing so much writing for graduate school, and coupled with my teaching responsibilities, it was hard to find the time. I should have made the time because documenting my thoughts as I participated in the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge © (created by Dr. Eddie Moore) reminded me of the critical importance of regular reflection, here, for me as a teacher. I attribute most of my growth as a teacher since 2005, when I started this blog, to regular blogging here.

Back in the day, I sometimes reflected on professional reading on this blog, and sometimes, book clubs resulted. Blogging has fallen by the wayside in favor of Twitter, which makes me sad because sometimes the long-form reflection is better than a tweet thread. The UbD Educators wiki grew out of the reflection I did, and until Wikispaces went defunct, it was a promising project, though I confided to Grant Wiggins that it was hard to find teachers to commit to adding to the wiki. He wasn’t surprised because lack of time makes it difficult. I always say that we make time for the things that are important to us, and this blog is pretty important to me, but I hadn’t made a lot of time for it for some years. I’m going to try to change that, and one thing I want to do is document my thinking as I read Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity. I joked to a couple of colleagues that I am finally making time to actually read this book, which has been on my radar for a long time, and I realize I should have made the time to read it as soon as it was released because Feldman is citing much of the same research as I am citing in my dissertation. I could have saved myself a lot of searching through the library database!

First of all, I encourage educators to take the quiz How Equitable is Your Grading? on Feldman’s website. If, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, you are examining your curriculum’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think that’s great. I think it’s great if you are engaged in movements to #DisruptTexts and #TeachLivingPoets. You also need to take a hard look at your grading practices, too. If, as Feldman says, you are implementing some equitable practices, such as “responsive classrooms, alternative disciplinary measures, diverse curriculum—but meanwhile preserve inequitable grading,” you are perpetuating inequity in schools.

I’m going to start by using Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” at the end of chapter 1. I’ll just answer the first two and update tomorrow with responses to the remaining three questions. Otherwise, this post will be way too long. Maybe it already is!

What are some deep beliefs you have about teenagers? What motivates and demotivates them? Are they more concerned with learning or their grade?

After over 20 years of teaching mostly teenagers, I have concluded that a lot of adults expect them to be more “adult” because they tend to look more adult. What I mean is they expect teenagers have developed an internal locus of control. Not even all adults have an internal locus of control. Teenagers tend to still mostly have an external locus of control, which means they are more likely to attribute a poor grade to a teacher’s lack of regard for them instead of a lack of proficiency on their part. I think we need to remember that when we are grading. As such, they might be motivated to earn good grades (carrot) or avoid bad ones (stick), but grades in an of themselves don’t motivate them to learn. I think they do help give students some kind of yardstick they can use to judge their performance, but I didn’t think grades had even this utility until I started doing research. Grades might not communicate what we think or wish they would, but they communicate something. I think students are much more concerned with grades rather than learning when they are in classes in which all high-stakes assessments result in grades that cannot be improved through revision and in which all earned grades are averaged together. If, however, they are in a classroom that encourages revision and focuses on proficiency, they focus a lot more on learning. Teenagers actually love to learn things, but the trick is that teachers need to communicate the relevance, and the wrong answer is “I’m the adult, so I say it’s relevant.” And if what you are teaching isn’t relevant, you need to figure out how to Marie Kondo the curriculum.

What is your vision for grading? What do you wish grading could be for students, particularly the most vulnerable populations? What do you wish grading could be for you? In which ways do current grading practices meet those expectations, and in which ways do they not?

Before I started my research, I wanted to eliminate grades a measure of student learning. There is a movement to do just that, and many schools successfully use other methods for reporting learning, and yes, their students still get into college. I no longer think grades are entirely useless. I think we have just perpetuated inequitable grading for so long that I couldn’t figure out another way aside from burning the whole system down. Now I advocate for proficiency-based grading, and that means that students might revise their work, sometimes several times, in order to reach a level of proficiency in learning content and skills. In almost any aspect of life, we have chances to practice a skill until we master it, and no one says it is unfair. There was a time when every musician we know didn’t know how to play their instrument, when every athlete didn’t know how to play their sport. But we don’t judge their current competence by where they started. I think grading based on reaching proficiency, whenever it happens or however it happens, is much more equitable.

My dissertation is a dissertation in practice, meaning I need to take an action step and evaluate its success. My action step is to create a proficiency-based grading and authentic assessment guide for a pilot group of faculty, to implement the practices therein (along with a focus group), to evaluate the guide’s success and revise it accordingly, and to present the findings to my colleagues. Feldman’s ideas will be invaluable in framing the guide, grounded also in my own research. I am hoping implementing this action step will make grading less of a chore for me, too—I related so much to Feldman’s argument that teachers don’t like grading (p. 5).

What I need to do is figure out a system that is more mathematically sound and use it. I am doing fairly well on most equitable grading practices according to Feldman’s quiz, with the exception of that one. For example, I already:

  • Don’t weigh homework much. Homework is preparation for class, such as reading and writing. I don’t even really use the homework category in my online grade book for graded work.
  • Don’t calculate behavior and executive function skills in my grade.
  • Allow students to revise their work and replace the grade entirely with the new grade.
  • Don’t subscribe to the idea that grades need to fall on a bell curve or that I need a certain distribution of grades.
  • Don’t count participation as a grade category. It is part of the rubric in a Socratic seminar.

I do not have students asking me to create homework assignments, and they mostly do the preparation I ask them to do. Students sometimes turn work in late for me, but it doesn’t bother me. Other than that, I don’t feel I miss anything by excluding executive function skills. Students actually work harder knowing the grade can entirely be replaced if the work improves. I don’t subscribe to fears about grade inflation or worries that students have too many high grades, and I find conversations with others who are still hung up here to be maddeningly frustrating. I have long felt participation was too slippery to calculate, and sometimes students are super engaged but don’t say as much. I still get excellent participation from students without grading it.

More tomorrow on the first chapter reflection questions. Let me know if you want to “book group” this book.

A Reflection on Completing the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge (But Not the Work)

When my colleagues and I started our 21-Day Racial Equity  Habit Building Challenge ©, we watched this poem by Norma Johnson—”A Poem for my White Friends: I Didn’t Tell You.” I wanted to return to it to see how it struck me after three weeks of reflection and learning.

The thing I hear most in Johnson’s voice is her exhaustion, the sense of knowing there is no way her White friends can truly understand and empathize with her. This post on Buzzfeed with photographs of people holding up signs of microaggressions they often hear is a good example of the kind of tired Norma Johnson is talking about. It makes me sad. It makes me want to be a better friend. It makes me want to be a better ally, accomplice, and co-conspirator.

Part of what makes it difficult to talk to White people about racism is that they are not affected by it, certainly not in the same way as BIPOC. Racism definitely harms White people in many ways (honestly Google how racism hurts White people and look at a few things), but it can be hard for many White people to acknowledge and understand there is a system at work because many White people feel like they worked hard and maybe didn’t have certain advantages, so everyone should just be able to do it (whatever “it” is). Honestly, this is an opinion I held in the past because I did have a hard time. I didn’t have a hard time because of my race, though. That’s the difference.

As I have said recently, I believe the path to becoming antiracist is like an asymptote. I will strive toward it for the rest of my life (understanding that I will never be fully antiracist) because I think that kind of love for myself and for my fellow human beings is worth striving for. People are not perfect, but we still strive to be better and to do great work. Since I started working on unlearning racism several years back, I am so much happier. I have deep, rich relationships with wonderful people that I might have missed out on due to fear or prejudice. I am so much less afraid. I feel a greater understanding—not only of the society I live in, but also of my role in it. I’m also frustrated a lot of the time because I know the pain people cling to because of racism. As James Baldwin says in his phenomenal book The Fire Next Time: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” I think Baldwin is right that deep pain lies underneath hatred. We don’t have to live with that hatred, and we don’t have to live with that pain.

If you are interested in learning more about equity and justice, I encourage you to try the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.  The only things you have to lose are ignorance, pain, and fear.

Representation

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” as a metaphor for what media representation means. In case you haven’t encountered the metaphor, watch this quick video in which Dr. Sims Bishop explains the metaphor.

The reason why representation is important is captured so well in this infographic created by David Huyck in collaboration with Sarah Park Dahlen and licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons License. If you click on the picture, you can see a larger version.

This infographic is based on statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. As you can see, if you are an animal, you have a better shot at being represented in a children’s book published in 2018 than if you are American Indian/First Nations/Native, or Latinx, or Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, or African/African American combined. Also, as you can see, if you are a White child, you have lots of representation.

What does it mean not to represented in books? It means you grow up feeling like books are not for you. They are not about you. The same goes for movies and other media. I watched this video in which people of diverse Indigenous backgrounds reacted to Native representations in film.

As you can see, Indigenous people do not have many mirrors in film, either. At one point, one of the people featured in this video remarks on the importance of representation behind the camera in addition to in front of it. He is talking about the film Smoke Signals, based on the work of Sherman Alexie. Brian Young wrote an op-ed in Time that explains why representation is important both for Native viewers (as a mirror) and White viewers (as a window)—otherwise stereotypes persist.

I have personally experienced the level of ignorance that results from one’s only exposure to a culture being what one sees in movies. During my orientation week freshman year in 2006, many of my classmates, when they discovered my Navajo heritage, seemed to think I lived in a teepee and hunted buffalo in the plains on horseback. (For the record, Navajos are primarily farmers and shepherds. Our traditional houses, hogans, are used mainly for ceremonial purposes. We drive cars to get to places. So, no.)

Further, they wanted to know why I didn’t wear any feathers or have long, black hair. I was shocked by how little my fellow students knew about Native Americans, and how much they based their perception of me and my heritage on what they had seen in westerns.

When I asked my students last year if they had ever read any books by Native writers for school, only one student said he had. He had read Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Our class read Tommy Orange’s brilliant novel There There, and I asked them about their reading because Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and I wondered what their previous experience might have been. In addition to this novel, we also viewed the third episode of a documentary called We Shall Remain which is part of PBS’s American Experience series. This episode centers on the Native occupation of Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s and the activism of the members of the American Indian Movement.

This is Tommy Orange’s digital story “Ghost Dance.”

Tommy Orange worked for a time for the Center for Digital Storytelling, now known as StoryCenter. Tommy Orange has said in interviews that his character, Dene Oxendene, is probably most like him. Like Dene, Orange wanted to preserve the stories of Native people through interviews (he has said he never finished this project). Reading the novel, I sensed this storytelling background, and I believe you can see a bit of the beginning of There There in the film, too.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the problem with lack of representation much more eloquently than I can.

My challenge to you is to do a simple audit. Look at the media you consume yourself. Who creates it? Who is represented in it and how? Look at the books your children have. Do they have mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors? If you’re a teacher, look at your curriculum. Make sure the students in your classes have those windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, too.

I asked my AP Lit classes this year when was the first time you remember seeing yourself reflected in a book? When was the first time you read about a character who shared your background, at least? Remember, mostly seniors in high school take AP Lit.

One student thought for a minute, sat back in his chair, rubbed his chin, and said, “I don’t think I have.”

The previous year, I think we were discussing a similar topic, and one student mentioned that she had been able to read a book written by an author from the country where her parents immigrated from, but that the book was “weird,” and she resented the representation of her family’s country of origin. Because her classmates only had a “single story” of people from her background, she felt like reading the book had probably done more damage than if she had read no books written about people from her family’s country of origin.

Representation in media means groups of people are not monoliths. But it’s also driven by capitalism, at least in the United States. I am encouraged by the list of books I’ve seen on the New York Times Bestseller Lists over the last few weeks because it gives me hope that the art of a more diverse group of people may actually be supported by the gatekeepers in film, books, and other media. It’s important for people of all backgrounds to have mirrors in media, but the windows in media can become sliding glass doors that allow consumers to enter a story and gain empathy—a trait sorely lacking at this moment in history (maybe even always sorely lacking). Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors may also be the most powerful weapon against ignorance.

I, Too, Sing America

On this 4th of July, Independence Day in the United States, I wanted to share a few thoughts. First, Langston Hughes’s response to Walt Whitman.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes wrote other poems advocating for America to live up to its stated ideals. James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” He also said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

Frederick Douglass wrote the powerful speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” NPR released a video of his descendants reading excerpts from the speech.

Rapper and Hamilton star Daveed Diggs performed this remix of Douglass’s speech that was created by artists W. Kamau Bell, Safia Elhillo, Idris Goodwin, Nate Marshall, Angel Nafis, Danez Smith, Pharoahe Monche, Carmonghne Felix, and Lauren A. Whitehead.

My husband and I watched Hamilton last night (like a lot of of the rest of the country), and I thought Aja Romano’s article at Vox offered a really nuanced critique of the musical. I definitely encourage you to read this article, whether you’re a fan of the musical or not.

Daveed Diggs plays Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant mind, the architect of some of the United States’ most glorious ideals; he wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as the third President of the United States. He also owned people, and DNA evidence is fairly conclusive on the fact that he fathered children with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved (and who was actually his sister-in-law, as his wife’s father was also her father), and held his own children in slavery until his death. He also wrote the following about Black people (you can read the whole text at this link; spellings are his original):

Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarfskin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? … Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.

He goes on like that at length, but you get the gist. It’s extraordinarily racist. Clint Smith has an excellent poem “Letter to Five of the Presidents Who Owned Slaves While They Were in Office”:

I think many people have difficulty with an expression of patriotism that includes critique. I see a lot of “love it or leave it.” Why can’t you love it and want it to be better, too?

Update, 3:14 PM: My husband made me aware of Drew Gardner’s American Descendants project from Smithsonian Magazine. I found the picture of Shannon LaNier, the descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, really striking. He has his ancestor’s brow. You can see it. I would include the picture here, but I’m not sure if that’s allowable under copyright, so I urge you to check it out on the site I linked. They also have a really interesting video about how Shannon LaNier’s portrait was created and another featuring a conversation between descendants of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass.

 

White Fragility is the Beginning

I want to elevate a really good thread by Dr. Chanequa on Twitter today. You will want to click through and read it all. It’s good.

I have seen a lot of pushback against White Fragility on Twitter quite a bit recently. I read the book some time back and found it helpful. At the same time, I could understand the criticism of elevating a White woman’s voice over those of BIPOC on the topic of racism. So I decided to sit the argument out and just listen. What I appreciated about Dr. Chanequa’s thread is that she understands there is nuance. The book is helpful, but no one should think they can read only one book and understand racism. It’s important for us to read different books. It’s a problem if we stop with Robin DiAngelo or Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. To do so means we adopt one or two people as official spokespeople. Dr. Chanequa says it better:

Jennifer Binis put it like this:

I loved Jennifer’s analogy of reading White Fragility as reaching level 2 on the rubric—and no one should be shooting for level 2.

Honestly? If you are starting to engage in the work of unlearning racism and becoming anti-racist, just understand it’s life’s work. If you are starting to feel like you’ve arrived, it’s probably a good time to do some reflection. I like to use the asymptote analogy for a lot of things I teach. I think working toward becoming anti-racist might be a bit like an asymptote.

Here’s an example for you visual learners (from the Math Blog).

You can see how the curved line gets closer and closer to the asymptote, but it doesn’t ever cross it. It doesn’t ever reach it.

I think asymptotes are a great metaphor for learning in general. There is always more to learn on a given subject. However, I think it’s particularly true of cultural competency of all kinds, including learning about racism.

Don’t be discouraged, however. It’s important work, and I firmly believe one of the reasons we are here in this life is to keep learning.

The Problem with Textbooks

One really interesting activity I did in my Curriculum Theory course last year was to analyze a curriculum artifact. My department doesn’t use textbooks, but I really wanted to analyze a textbook after reading Michael Apple’s 1985 article “The Culture and Commerce of the Textbook.” I highly recommend this article, by the way. I found it fascinating, especially as it seems we are still discussing some of the issues Apple identified 35 years ago. This CBS This Morning segment on textbooks includes a really interesting statement near the end regarding the fact that textbook companies can make changes to texts to make them more accurate, but it’s up to the schools to adopt the standards and texts.

Apple (1985) argues that the textbook is one of the main means through which “legitimate knowledge,” which he defines as “the ‘cultural capital’ of the dominant classes and class segments” (p. 148), is transmitted. This becomes problematic because the market and production methods affect textbook production, and the textbook production industry is decentralized and caught between the tensions of profitable sales and obligations for transmitting knowledge (Apple, 1985). As a result, large markets, particularly in conservative areas of the country, sometimes drive the content of textbooks because these more conservative school districts will not purchase materials that challenge the ideological or political beliefs of those in power in these districts (Apple, 1985).

Textbooks can make things easier for teachers. There are handy questions for discussion in the teacher’s edition. You can assign questions after readings (if that’s your thing). But relying on them means that students often don’t get the whole story because what goes into a textbook is very political. At the time when the article was written, admittedly a long time ago, the top twenty publishers sold the vast majority of textbooks, and most of the people making editorial decisions about the content of textbooks were White men (Apple, 1985). I would imagine that it’s still true, but I’d have to do a bit more research to find out.

In 2015 a student at Pearland High School near Houston found his textbook described enslaved people forcibly removed from Africa as “workers” (Isensee, 2015). Apple (1985) questions “Who determines what this ‘public’ [that publishers respond to] is?” (p. 157), which is a question that I have as well. I would argue that, as Apple (1985) implies, the “public” whose “needs” publishers respond to is probably White, middle- to upper-class, and largely privileged in other ways (such as cis-gender, heterosexual, Christian, etc.) and thus are more likely to see themselves and stories of people like them reflected in textbooks. Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the country, and textbook companies want Texas school systems to adopt their books, as seen in the CBS video.

Apple (1985) suggests that researchers should undertake a “grounded ethnographic investigation that follows a curriculum artifact such as a textbook from its writing to its selling (and then to its use)” (p. 159), and I think this would be well worth our time as educators to do. When I get a chance to do some digging, I’d like to find out if anyone has done it since Apple wrote this article in 1985.

In case you are wondering how my curriculum artifact analysis turned out—the world history textbook I analyzed devotes twenty pages to the history of the entire continent of Africa (Gainty & Ward, 2011). Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) maintains that culturally relevant curriculum, including learning about topics that affirm students’ identities, will help students, particularly students of color, experience more success in school. The small amount of space devoted to learning about African history may communicate to students, particularly African-American students, that this history is not important or not worthy of study.

To be fair, the book is meant to accompany a larger textbook that I didn’t examine, and I also did not analyze the balance of coverage of societies on other continents in the book, mainly because the main crux of the assignment was to examine the curriculum artifact’s strengths and weaknesses, and in order to make the assignment manageable, I zeroed in on one lesson in the book. In my analysis, I found one strength is that the text asked students to analyze images. Students should learn how to analyze images critically, as this form of media is one of the most common communication methods in the age of Instagram and Twitter and is also not often considered important in schools. Another strength of the textbook is the use of storytelling (from the Epic of Sundiata) to capture a culture. As Geneva Gay (2002) explains, many cultures, including African American, Native American, Asian, and Latino cultures, use storytelling in their communication; thus, learning about a culture through its stories contributes to a more culturally responsive learning experience.

In terms of weaknesses, I felt the questions following the image and the passage are somewhat low level. Asking students to “describe [the] structure” (Gainty & Ward, 2011, p. 225) or “wedding ceremony” (Gainty & Ward, 2011, p. 223) are simple comprehension questions that do not ask students to draw inferences, interpret, or analyze or synthesize information. Even most of the comparative questions on p. 223 of the book are fairly low-level questions on Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

The book really does not adequately explore African history. According to Gay (2002) “culturally responsive teaching” involves “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students for teaching them more effectively,” and while she posits that “academic knowledge and skills are situated in the lived experiences and frames of reference of students,” it also stands to reason that the cultural history of those students is as important as their lived experiences (p. 106). Students, particularly African-American students, using this text are not learning much about African history from a text that purports to cover world history. Ladson-Billings (1998) argues that “the official school curriculum [is] a culturally specific artifact designed to maintain a White supremacist master script” (p. 18), and the space devoted to exploring African history in this text certainly supports her argument. This omission is particularly glaring in light of the text’s fairly recent publication date of 2011.

I definitely think teachers who have to use textbooks should do such an analysis of their text. In fact, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to focus narrowly on one issue that you want to make sure students learn thoroughly. For example, it seems to me that a lot of people don’t understand the actual causes of the Civil War, as evidenced in the CBS video, and if you teach American history (or even American literature), see what your textbook says, and if it’s inadequate or misleading, make sure students know that.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet students would be interested to know the textbooks they use are not politically neutral. What if you asked students to analyze the way a topic is presented. Whose point of view is centered? Whose is missing? Why?

References

Anderson, L. W. & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman

Apple, M. W. (1985). The culture and commerce of the textbook. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 17(2), 147-162.

Gainty, D. & Ward, W. D. (2011). Sources of world societies (2nd ed., Vol. I). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(20), 106-116.

Isensee, L. (2015). Why calling slaves ‘workers’ is more than an editing error. NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/10/23/ 450826208/why-calling-slaves-workers-is-more-than-an-editing-error

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.

People Are Not Mascots

This evening I listened to episode 3 of the All My Relations podcast because I was interested in hearing what the hosts and guests had to say on the subject of Native mascots.

I want to be unequivocal: I can’t believe we are still discussing the appropriateness of Native mascots. When we studied Native history and literature in my Social Justice this year, the subject of Native mascots was popular among my students as a writing topic. One of my students used this resource from the American Psychological Association (APA) to reinforce her argument that Native mascots harm the self-esteem of Native children, which is the topic of All My Relations podcast guest Dr. Fryberg’s research. All of my students who wrote on this topic agreed that the name of the Washington football team is offensive, which is made abundantly clear in this podcast. This fact is underscored by the fact that many reporters and news outlets will not use the team’s name in reporting. Including the team’s own home city paper’s editorial board at The Washington Post.

I think the video in this tweet presents the issue from another point of view. If this man’s shirt makes you angry or you find it “disrespectful,” but do not find Native mascots offensive, you should think about why.

I was surprised to learn from my students that the Florida State Seminoles have a relationship with the Seminole Tribe, so even though the issue of Native mascots may seem clear to me, it’s definitely complicated. The National Congress of American Indians opposed the use of Native mascots. The organization’s website includes this video that further supports the reasoning that the podcast’s hosts and guests used:

One important point made in the podcast is that “data gives us power.” The harm caused by Native mascots is clear in the data. Another takeaway from the podcast is the importance of representation among researchers. I appreciate also the emphasis on “utility framing”—explaining why learning is important for the community. I understood this argument as another way to say “relevance.” I also really connected to the goal of making schools “identity-safe places” for all students. Here is a link to guest Amanda Blackhorse’s website No More Native Mascots.

If your school or city team has a Native mascot, what are you doing about it?

Update, 7/2/2020: In a turn of events I couldn’t have predicted, this issue became a hot news story the day after I wrote this post when FedEx, which sponsors the stadium where the Washington football team plays, asked the team to change its name. In addition, Nike has apparently pulled all the Washington football team apparel for sale from its store. Honestly, if this issue starts to hurt the team’s bottom line, I predict we will see a name change. I’m really happy to see companies like FedEx and Nike taking these steps. FedEx’s next step should be to sever ties with the team if they don’t change the name.

Update, 7/14/2020: I am thrilled to update this post with the news that the Washington football team has decided to change its name. The new name has not been announced yet. A side note: journalists don’t have to use the racial slur that used to be the team’s mascot in reporting about the name change. It was very hard to find an article about the update that didn’t use the racial slur.

Intergroup Anxiety

This video about intergroup anxiety was really interesting to me. I have found myself in the position described in the video of trying so hard to be fair that I overcompensate by acting weird. Once when I was at a conference, I was so awkward when placed in a discussion group with two women I didn’t know, I had trouble looking at one of the women. I couldn’t figure out why, and I am still not sure. She called me on it, and I felt awful for days. (I have since learned this is a typical White fragility reaction.) I usually bank on people ignoring my awkwardness. She definitely thought it had to do with her race, but I have reflected on this incident now for some six years, and I don’t think that it was race, but she was right that there was something else about her that did make me anxious, and I don’t know what it was. The only thing I congratulate myself on when I think about it is at least I didn’t cry and make it about my feelings. And I did try harder after that. Maybe too hard, in order to overcompensate.

By the way, I know that avoiding eye-contact isn’t always anxiety. I recently spoke to a teenager on the autism spectrum who said he can either focus on what someone is saying, or he can look them in the eye, but he cannot do both because it takes too much concentration to do both. I have seen this at times in my own daughter, who is also on the autism spectrum.

One of the biggest issues I have with anybody when I’m feeling awkward is maintaining culturally appropriate eye contact, and then I start to become anxious about realizing I’m not maintaining eye contact. I sort of go outside my body and start criticizing myself for being so awkward that I find it even harder to be present in the conversation.

That was a bit of a tangent, but an important one. It isn’t that I disagree with the video’s argument that having difficulty with eye contact can be a sign of intergroup anxiety, but it could also be something else, and we should keep that in mind when reading body language. I don’t think we can assume that everyone naturally feels comfortable in social situations and knows what behaviors are expected. Not that I’m on the “assume good intentions” train because we can’t discount the impact, but maybe we shouldn’t assume bad intentions (although I do understand that impulse, particularly if you have bad experiences). At the end of the video, L. Song Richardson says she likes to give people “more of an opportunity to demonstrate who they are.”

As a follow-up to my last post about implicit bias, I suspect that if you seize opportunities to interact with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, you might come to feel much more comfortable around people who are not like you. This is critical work for teachers, just as understanding implicit bias is. As Richardson says, you might wind up doing harm to your students’ learning.