Dec 30, 2011

Education Week: More Districts Sending Teachers Into Students' Homes

Image Credit: Flickr/The Voice of Eye

Would you welcome your child's teacher into your home? 

To be honest, I have extremely mixed feelings about the whole home visit thing. A recent article made me think even more critically about my misgivings. Here is a quote from the article that caught my attention:
"There is a gold mine of information in that home—whether it's fully furnished or whether they don't have electricity," said Karen Kalish, a philanthropist based in St. Louis who has led the creation of teacher home-visit programs in several Missouri districts.
For example, just one visit home can help a teacher understand that a particular student doesn't have a desk or a place to do homework. "The teacher can now do something different with the child, instead of sending homework home and getting mad when it's not done," Ms. Kalish said.  --from Education Week: More Districts Sending Teachers Into Students' Homes

Is it just me? or is this an extremely insensitive comment? I work primarily with kids who are on the lower end of the income spectrum. Some of their families may invite me to their homes for social events; but I don't know any of them who would want me to visit as part of a school program. Most of my students' families wouldn't enjoy having someone witness their struggles. Their pride would be hurt if I saw that they had no electricity or no table to sit at to do their work. Many of my students come to school to escape their home situations. They like to have a part of every day where they don't have to worry about the struggles of home life, and they want the freedom to choose whether or not to share those struggles with me. I talk with them and listen to them whenever they want to share, but it is their choice to share. If they choose to share details with me at school, they still might not want me to visit them in their homes (just like I wouldn't necessarily want my students to visit me in my home.) There is a separation between our personal and professional relationships. I have close relationships with my students, but there are boundaries. Home visits cross those boundaries, but only in one direction: teachers visit student's homes but not vice versa.

The whole situation seems like it sets teachers up to be scientists observing lab rats. 

What bothers me even more is the fact that there is also the complex issue of diversity to consider. The U.S. Department of Education's report entitled Increasing Teacher Diversity states that, "Nationally, minority students make up 40.7 percent of the public school population. Although many schools (both urban and rural) are increasingly made up of a majority of black and Latino students, black and Latino teachers represent only about 14.6 percent of the teaching workforce."

Did you get that? Over 40% of the nation's students are not white, while more than 75% of the teachers are white. Following Ms. Kalisha's comments in Education week, it would appear that many schools are sending their white teachers into the homes of non-white students in order to witness their poverty. This is supposed to make them less angry at students when they don't have their homework completed.

Again...this sounds a lot like scientists observing lab rats. This does not describe not socially equal human beings interacting with one another.

There has got to be a better way to get teachers to become more aware of their students' backgrounds. There has got to be a better way of getting parents involved--one that doesn't potentially cause families shame or make them feel objectified.

There are several research studies out demonstrating the connection between parental involvement and student success (see the Harvard Family Research Project or the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education websites for research summaries.) But there isn't really any research saying that home visits are the best way to make that increase happen. I personally think school district dollars would be better spent trying to get parents into schools, rather than getting teachers into student's homes.

What do you think? How would you feel if school staff visited your home?

Dec 11, 2011

Being African-American in Iowa: Politics

Iowa Pubic Radio (IPR) correspondent Rob Dillard (@IPRDillard) has been working on a year-long assignment on diversity. In March-April 2011, IPR ran series of stories on Being Latino in Iowa that highlighted the Latino experience in my home state. Dillard covered stories on the effect of Latino populations on small towns and the importance of Latino food and culture. The series returned to focus on a different population in our state--African-Americans.  According to IPR, U.S. Census data show there are now 90,000 African-American adults living in Iowa. According to state department of education enrollment figures, there are almost as many African-American children enrolled in our public schools. My husband and his family have lived in the state since the 1960's and I found it interesting to hear what Rob Dillard learned about Being African-American in Iowa in 2011. His series was divided into five parts: education, economy, politics, health, and spirituality. I have written about my family's experiences with education and economy.

Last night I was watching the Republicans verbally duke it out at the Iowa Debate (thanks Ezzy, for reminding me to watch) and decided to watch the Twitter response. Besides all of the commentary about what $10,000 can buy and Newt's statement that Palestine is "an invented state", several tweeps noted that the audience was overwhelmingly white. They questioned why this debate was held in Iowa, a state that is 95% white and mostly rural.

The reason the debate is held in Iowa is simple: we are the first in the nation to caucus (i.e. elect) a candidate in any political party. According to the Iowa Caucus Project, a move by our state legislature in the 1970s to improve the delegation process led us to be first in the nation. Our government wanted more people to be able to take part in the political process, so they pushed for election reform and required a minimum of 30 business days between precinct caucuses and the county, district and state conventions.  During those 30 days, the caucuses are advertised so that more people know about them and can participate. In 1972 the State Convention was slated for May 20. Allowing for 60 business days to occur before the State Convention made the Iowa Caucus date January 24--first in the nation. It has been that way since 1972. (See Slate magazine's great article about the Caucus here.)

What tweeps watching the Iowa Debate may not know is that we do have some diversity in Iowa: I am sitting in a house where I am the only white person, and my children attend a school that is over half non-white. There are pockets of extreme diversity in our state. Those pockets of diversity have greatly influenced our politics, and as I've written in the past, Iowa has a history of doing what is right instead of what is popular when it comes to some political issues--especially Civil Rights.

The Iowa Public Radio podcast, Being African-American in Iowa: Politics, was aired in July of 2011. It taught me a lot of about the history of African-American involvement in Iowa politics at the state-level. It is an impressive history to me because for African-Americans to be elected, they need to cross the so-called "color line" and gain the votes of whites in their districts. The African-Americans interviewed in the IPR podcast did that--they went door to door, they hosted events, they communicated their concerns and interests. A repeated theme in those interviews is this: "We need to focus on what we have in common vs. what we don't have in common." Those who were elected got there by focusing on the issues, but not necessarily by talking about race. The podcast talks about Helen Miller, an African-American woman who currently serves in the Iowa House. Miller is the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, which is not a committee dealing with a traditionally African-American issue. She states that she got there by really communicating and focusing on the issues. There seems to be a significant amount of "colorblindness" in campaigning that leads to African-American success in politics.

In my mind, the notion of focusing on the issues to get elected is one that is very idealistic. It can happen in a state like Iowa because there isn't much diversity in the state as a whole. But there are definitely issues that need to be addressed without a "colorblind" lens. These issues are human rights issues, and it is my hope that eventually a candidate--of any color--will begin to discuss them.

These statistics are from the Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans:
  • The poverty rate in 2008 for African Americans was 35.6%. The corresponding rate for Iowa is 11.5%
  • 70.9% of African-Americans rent, as opposed to owning, their own home. The corresponding rate for the state as a whole is 27.1 %.
  • The unemployment rate for African-Americans in 2008 was 8.9%. For Iowa as a whole, it was 3.9%
  • Median earnings for African-Americans was $19,174. For Iowa, it was $26,959. 
Then there is also a considerable achievement gap for all people of color in Iowa. According to the Iowa Department of Education's "Gap Paper,"
Gaps exist in the achievement of Iowa students. In 2010, the percent of all students in grade four enrolled for full academic year (FAY) scoring proficient, as measured by the Iowa Tests, was 78.5 percent. The percent of Black (54.5 percent), Hispanic (61.2 percent), free or reduced lunch eligible (66.6 percent), or English Language Learner (ELL) (51.3 percent) students was considerably less.
Interestingly enough, these Iowa issues are also issues we face as a nation. Yet none of them were mentioned in last night's Republican debate. In my mind, these are human rights and social justice issues that concern us all. Politicians, no matter what their color, can no longer afford to be colorblind.

I am interested to see when, if ever, the 2012 candidates will really and truly discuss issues of poverty, unemployment and achievement.

What issues do you think politicians should be discussing? What was your reaction to the Iowa Debate?

Nov 27, 2011

Inspiration vs. Appropriation

Earlier this week my family was packing up to head out of town for Thanksgiving. My kids were being goofy (a regular occurrence) and somehow the word pelvis came up. My youngest giggled wildly about the word pelvis and asked if there was anything that rhymed with it. "Elvis used to be called 'Elvis the Pelvis' " I told her.

"Why?" she asked. And so I found her a YouTube video of Elvis performing on the Milton Berle show in 1956. While she watched and imitated Elvis' famous pelvic moves, I scrolled down the list of videos to see if there were any other good examples of Elvis the Pelvis. In with the Elvis footage was a video of Big Mama Thornton singing "Hound Dog." I played it for my kids who asked, "Which one came first: Elvis' version or Big Mama Thornton's?" My husband and I gave an impromptu little lesson about the history of black music, explaining that a lot of popular music has roots in black culture but didn't become popular until a white, mainstream artist performed it.

Then at my parents house over the holiday, a similar conversation occurred. My mom and dad recently watched a documentary about famed songwriters Leiber & Stoller, who incidentally wrote the song "Hound Dog." Leiber grew up surrounded by black folks in Baltimore. He was not just influenced by black culture, he was in it. He went to schools that were predominantly black, and helped his mom run a store that was in a black neighborhood. He said it was his experiences in black culture that allowed him to write music for black artists. Leiber and Stoller's first big hit was "Hound Dog," which they originally wrote  for Big Mama Thornton; but it didn't become popular until Elvis sang it.

Were Leiber and Stoller inspired by black culture? Or did they appropriate a style of music from black culture that didn't belong to them? Were they paying homage to a culture by popularizing black music? or were they profiting from a culture that wasn't theirs to profit from?

I've been thinking about the notion of inspiration vs. appropriation for several months. Conversations about the movie The Help over the summer, an interesting read on Racialicious, a spirited chat on the podcast Is That Your Child? about Halloween costumes, and an interview on the Mixed Chicks Chat podcast all left me thinking about the difference between honoring a culture and stealing/profiting from it. How do we decide the difference between inspiration and appropriation?

Image Credit: Flickr/brittany0177
The book and movie The Help stirred up a lot of controversy because of the fact that it is a story about the black experience written by a white woman. Many negative responses to both the book and the movie centered on the question, "When do people of color get to tell their own story?" The author, Kathryn Stockett, states that her story is based on memories from her own life. Is she inspired by the black women from her past? Or is she appropriating the story of black women, telling a story that isn't necessarily hers to tell?

Mixed Chicks Chat (a live weekly podcast about the mixed experience)  episode 225 featured a man by the name of Phil Wilkes Fixico (read a story about him here.) His mixed experience involved an amazing story: at age 52, Fixico discovered through research that he is a descendant of the Seminole Maroons-- slaves who escaped in the 18th and 19th century to live in Spanish Florida near the Seminole Indians. Their cultures intermixed, creating an African-Seminole cultural experience. Fixico discussed the fact that Seminole Maroon experience is a story that needs to be told, that more people should learn about this intersection of African and Native American history. His mission is to share this history, and he suggested that the best way to spread the word is to get someone from the dominant culture (i.e. someone white, European-American) to write about it. He argued that more people will listen if the story is told by a member of the dominant culture.

Image Credit: Flickr/ronocdh
Since that episode aired, I have been thinking about his statement.

Will the dominant culture only pay attention to a story if it is told  by one of their own?  

Both Leiber & Stoller and Elvis brought a lot of attention to black music. Without their inspiration/appropriation of black culture, what would music sound like today? The Help started a lot of conversations about race that weren't happening prior to its release. Many white women in particular who read the book/saw the movie are seeing issues of race from a perspective they had never before considered. Without that inspiration/appropriation, would those conversations have occurred? Will more people learn about the story Phil Wilkes Fixico wants to share, the story of Black Seminole Maroons, if it is told by a white/European-American?

I don't have answers here, just questions. In fact, the more I think about it the more questions I have. When I talked to my husband about the concept of cultural appropriation he told me a story about walking to work and seeing a group of Japanese college students dressed in hip hop attire. He asked: are they appropriating black culture? Or is their expression of hip hop culture not considered cultural appropriation because they aren't members of the dominant European-American culture?

What do you think? What constitutes cultural appropriation? What is the difference between inspiration and appropriation? 

Will the dominant culture listen to a story that comes straight from the source? or does it need that inspiration/appropriation to happen before it can learn to appreciate other cultures?

Nov 15, 2011

In Your Dreams: Whoopi Goldberg Stand-Up Routine Remixed

Long before she was on The View, Whoopi Goldberg was an amazing stand-up comedian whose work always made me laugh and THINK. She somehow always had a way of using humor to stop me in my tracks and see things from another perspective. I admire the way she uses humor to make people stop and think, to question the status quo.

In her original Broadway show Whoopi Goldberg: Live on Broadway, she did a piece that really challenges people's perceptions about external appearances. Here is a young man's version of that piece that I found to be very powerful (thanks to my mom for sending it to me!)

If you never had the chance to see Whoopi's stand-up, you can check out one routine here from the revival of her 1985 Broadway show, Back to Broadway (warning: some swear words are used in this routine.)

Nov 13, 2011

Un Meme: Sólo por Diversión | A Meme: Just for Fun

Why I love octubre/October!
¡Que divertido! Mi amiga, Ezzy de EzzyLanguzzi, compartio este meme con migo a semana. Gracias! Me que me ayudó a practicar un poco más español. 

Aquí les dejo mis respuestas:

What fun! My friend, Ezzy from EzzyLanguzzi, shared this meme with me last week. Thank you! You helped me practice a little more Spanish.

Here are my responses:

¿Qué fue lo primero que le viste a tu pareja cuando se conocieron?
What was the first thing I noticed of my husband's when I met him?
Sus ojos
His eyes

¿A dónde te gustaría ir de luna de miel?
Where would I like to go on a honeymoon?
Venice (before it sinks!)

¿Te consideras una persona aventurera?
Do I consider myself an adventurous person?
No es tan aventurero como yo de tener hijos.
Not as adventurous since I had kids.

¿Tienes algún secreto tuyo que nuca le hayas contado a nadie?
Do you have a secret you've never shared with anybody?
No. Al menos una persona lo sabe todo.
No. At least one person knows everything.

¿Playa o piscina?
Beach or pool?

¿Verano o invierno?
Summer or winter?

¿Besos of abrazos?
Kisses or hugs?

¿Dulce o saldado?
Sweet or salty?
Dulce y salado! ... cubiertas de chocolate pretzels
Sweet and salty! ... chocolate-covered pretzels

¿Fresa o chocolate?
Strawberry or chocolate?
¿Qué hay de fresas cubiertas de chocolate?
How about chocolate-covered strawberries?

¿Blanco o negro?
Black or white?

¿Color favorito?
Favorite color?

¿Cuál es tu película favorita?
Your favorite movie?

¿Juego de mesa favorito?
Your favorite table game?
Euchre (un juego de cartas)
Euchre (a card game)

¿Cuál es tu bebida favorita?
What's your favorite drink?

¿Cual es tu trago favorito?
What is your favorite [alcoholic] beverage?

¿Cuál es tu mes favorito?
Your favorite month?

¿Qué es lo primero que piensas al despertar?
What's the first thing you think about when you wake up?
lavar la ropa y las tareas del mañana
doing laundry and morning chores

¿Perdonarías una infidelidad de tu pareja?
Would you forgive infidelity on the part of your spouse?

¿Cuántos timbrazos antes de contestar el telefono?
How many rings before you answer the phone?

¿Sabes guardar secretos?
Do you know how to keep secrets?
I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you ;-) (Spy humor that I have no idea how to say in español!)

¿Dices tu edad verdadera?
Do you tell your honest age?

¿Te consideras timida o extrovertida?
Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
An introvert

¿Que hay debajo de tu cama?
What's under your bed?
Fuera de temporada la ropa
Off-season clothing (and maybe a lot of other stuff I don't want to look at what kids have hidden under there!)

¿Has faltado a clases/al trabajo sólo por el clima?
Have you missed school or work due to the weather?

¿Cuánto tiempo tienes con este blog?
How long have you had this blog?
Casi un año
Almost one year

I apologize for any errors in español here...ha sido durante muchos años since I studied, and I never really got that far in my studies! Gracias a Dios por my Spanish-English dictionary and traductor Google :D

Le paso este juegito a unas amigas queridas, gracias por todo su apoyo ... I'm passing this little game to a few of my dear friends, some of them are the same friends Ezzy listed (I hope that's not cheating!)  The Lifestory of a Bookworm (Jessica), Bicultural Mom(Chantilly), Motherhood in Mexico (Leslie), Me and the Mexican (Tara), and  Growing Up Blackxican (Ruby)

Nov 8, 2011

A Letter to the 2012 Presidential Candidates: #BlogIn2011

Not all families are the same. What the government has referred to as "family values" does not represent the values of most diverse and multicultural families. Those "family values"are not shared by my family, my friends, or my neighbors. Something needs to change. Please join me in speaking out about the family values that really matter in today's world.
Dear 2012 Presidential Candidates, We are your future constituents and we are parents. We are American mothers and fathers and grandparents and guardians. Our families might be the most diverse in the world. Blended and combined in endless permutations, we represent every major religion, political ideology and ethnic culture that exists. We are made from equal parts biology and choice. Our children come to us in every way possible—including fertility miracles, adoption, and remarriage.
Our very modern families embody the freedom that defines America. We embody America. We are rich in diversity, but we are united in our family values. We come together today, with one voice, to express our grave disappointment in the national political discourse.
The 2012 countdown has barely begun and we are already being bombarded with the warmed-over, hypocritical rhetoric of 2008. We are living in a time where 25% of Americans now live in poverty, the unemployment rate stands at 16%, and we are spending close to $170 billion annually between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Given the current state of affairs we would expect every candidate to focus on the issues that truly matter: job creation, debt-relief, taxes, education, poverty, and ending the war(s). Instead, it is already clear to us that the conversation has been hijacked, with the goal of further polarizing our nation into a politically motivated and falsely created class-war. We will not stand for another campaign year in which politicians presume to know what our family values are as they relate to the nation. To be clear, here are our family values:
  • Access to education, and the ability to actually use it. We want quality, affordable, federally-funded pre-K programs made available in every State, in order to provide an even starting point for all children enrolled in public schools— regardless of the wealth of the district or town they live in.
  • A reinstatement of regulations for banks issuing mortgages and full prosecution for those who engaged in fraudulent lending practices. We want full accountability —investigation, indictment and prosecution— of those individuals and institutions who engaged in fraudulent lending practices and who helped create the massive foreclosures that left many families homeless or struggling to keep their homes.
  • Affordable health care, including family planning, for all Americans. We will not tolerate any candidate using the shield of “Choice” to blind us from the issues that really matter. When funding is stripped from organizations like Planned Parenthood, access to sliding-scale health care (including yearly pap smears & mammograms), comprehensive sex education, and family planning is blocked from the poorest of the population.
  • A return of strict environmental regulations protecting water, air, food, and land that were removed in the last two decades. We want our children to grow up in a world not weighed down by the strains of pollution and global warming. Between BPA in our products, sky-rocketing rates of asthma in kids, questionable hormones in our over-processed food, and more, we need leaders who will put our needs and safety over the desires and profits of large corporations.
Family planning, healthcare, education, economic solvency and environmental safety: these are our national family values. Candidates who demonstrate the ability to understand the gravity of these issues, and their impact on our families, and who can provide actual, viable solutions to these problems will garner our support and our votes.
We believe in this democratic system of ours, and we will continue to use our voices and our votes to see that it reaches its fullest potential. Sincerely, Your future constituents, The mothers & fathers of America
If you would like to forward this letter to your elected officials, you can find their contact info at the following links:

The #BlogIn2011 campaign originated with Avital Norman Nathman ( @TheMamaFesto & Lisa Duggan ( @motherhoodmag. Their goal was to have at least 100 bloggers participate. Check out the hashtag #BlogIn2011 to follow the conversation/reaction on Twitter. Visit other blogs participating in #BlogIn2011 by clicking this link.

Nov 6, 2011

A Day in the Life of an Alternative H.S. Program

Last week I spent a day with traditional school teachers from my county at a county-wide in-service. We heard 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling talk about student-centered classroom practices, exchanged ideas with colleagues who teach in our subject area, and in general had a day to re-charge.  At these in-services, I rarely feel like I fit in anywhere because my alternative high school program is so different from a traditional classroom. In years past, I have not felt comfortable about sharing what happens in my classroom because of those differences-- it's scary to be the only alternative educator in a room full of hundreds of traditional educators! This time was different though. I wasn't afraid to share. I shared some ideas and details about what happens in my classroom and was shocked by the fact that many of the colleagues I have worked with for a decade or more have no idea what goes on in our alternative high school program. I also read this post by Larry Cuban, who recommends that teachers speak out about their practice. So here it is... a play by play of a typical day in my classroom.

Students working independently: yes, the floor is a workspace!
Students arrive at 9:00 AM. (Research suggests that adolescents are more capable of attending regularly and being successful with a later school start time. See this article from the Sleep Foundation for links to research studies.)

9:00AM to 10:00 AM and 10:10 AM to 11:10 AM Independent/self-guided study time. Students choose what subject they want to work on and what course they want to work on. They have options not only in what course they want to study, but how they study it. They can use a traditional textbook to read, answer questions, take quizzes and tests. They can use an Internet-based curriculum (this year we are trying e2020.) They can design their own research project. Currently four students are working to create an aquatic ecosystem in a 29-gallon aquarium tank with the help of a community college Biology professor. (I recently read this post  about the need for traditional classrooms to offer Independent Work Time and found it very interesting.)

While they work, my aide and I are available to help them one-on-one if they need it. Kids can listen to music during class if it helps them focus, and they are allowed to eat/drink (as long as they clean up after themselves.) They work at their own pace, so if they miss a day of school they come back and pick up exactly where they left off. They each have a goal regarding work completion for a nine-week period of time. They each know how much work it will take to complete a course from the first day. They can discuss with us a personalized plan for progress or decide for themselves how much work should be done each day in order to complete a class.  

In any given hour, there are kids working on English, Biology, Consumer Math, World History, or Health. It is rare that two kids are working on the same thing at the same time. Most kids work on the same subject every day during Independent Work time so that they don't have to switch gears from Math to English. They can focus on one subject until it's done. They don't have to switch gears, but my aide and I do. We bounce from student to student to help with every subject area in a short period of time. There is never a dull moment!

In between 1-hour class periods, there is a 10-minute break where kids can text, get on Facebook, walk around, hacky-sack in the yard or just hang out. 

11:20 - 12:20 Whole group instruction. This is optional--students who do not feel comfortable working in a group setting do not have to participate; they can continue working on Independent Study credit. Each 9-weeks I look to see what subject-area kids are lacking credit in, and plan a course to help them. The curriculum can be challenging for me because I am a certified Language Arts teacher and kids often need credit in classes like U.S. Government or Math. In those cases, I must choose to either use our district-approved textbook to present curriculum straight from the book (I read the chapter to them, we discuss the questions together, they take the test) or I must get my curriculum approved by collaborating with a Highly Qualified Teacher. I can also use approved curriculum, but change the way it is presented. For example, this quarter we are working on an Algebra class together. Instead of teaching Algebra traditionally, we are learning traditional Algebraic concepts with Algebra Tiles. It is a hands-on way to illustrate algebraic thinking. Students are working at their own pace through the algebra curriculum and can help each other or wait for me to help them. I spend all hour walking around my classroom, looking over shoulders to check for understanding and helping kids who need help. 
Image via EIA Education

12:20 - 12:40 Closed-campus lunch. School lunch is delivered from the cafeteria at the traditional high school in town. Kids eat, surf the 'net, get on Facebook, throw a football in the yard, and hang out.

12:40 - 1:40 Another hour of optional whole-group instruction. This quarter we are reading the John Grisham book A Time to Kill together. Everyone takes turns reading aloud, but no one has to read more than they are comfortable reading. They must read at least one sentence, but can read as many pages as they want (the goal is to improve their oral literacy skills, not give them panic attacks!) We will analyze characters, talk about the criminal justice system, and examine race issues. They will complete reading comprehension quizzes and finish the course with a self-designed project of some sort that relates to the book. The options are endless for their project, they just need to have a vision of what it will be and let me know about that vision before they start working on it. Projects will be presented to the class when they are completed. In this class, my role as a teacher is to pick the book and come up with the reading comprehension questions. On an every day basis, I am just like the kids: I take my turn reading aloud, chip in on the discussions, and help if someone gets stuck on word pronunciation. 

Our ceiling is filled w/student art
Football in the yard

1:50 - 2:50 Activity hour. We don't have a gym in our building so this is the time of day we use for adapted PE, Art, and social interaction time. When the weather is nice we either walk to the local park to play basketball, frisbee golf, or to walk the track. When it's not so nice we play board games, card games or do art projects. We also use this time for community service projects: our annual Thanksgiving Feast for the Community, home-made valentines for the residents of our local nursing home, and raking leaves or shoveling snow for the home-bound are some of our regular projects.

We dismiss at 2:50. We do not give out any homework (Interesting post here about the homework debate.) When a student leaves for the day, they leave school behind them and go on to their lives outside of school--for many this includes working a job, taking care of children (their own or younger siblings), and a lot of responsibility. Similarly, I work hard to leave my work at work. It is nice as an adult to be able to come home and devote my time to my family; why not give that same respect for personal time to my students?

I take the time to interact regularly with my students. They are my friends on Facebook, they have my cell phone number, and can contact me in any way they feel comfortable doing so. I send a weekly letter home to parents along with an hour-by-hour attendance report and a handwritten note about their student's progress. Many parents are also Facebook friends, have my cell number, and can text or email me any time (some of them are probably reading this blog right now! THANK YOU for your continued support! ) We collaborate as much as possible to help kids graduate from high school. 

Not every alternative h.s. program is the same as mine. Some are much bigger; some are full-fledged alternative schools with a full faculty; some are even smaller than mine and exist as a "school within a school." Some things all alternative schools should have in common are: a student-centered approach to teaching and learning, use of a wide variety of teaching and learning strategies, community involvement, and most importantly an emphasis on building relationships with students. 

I hope you have a better idea about what alternative high school programs are all about. We actually do more than I mentioned in this post (job shadows, worksite tours, college visits, mediation, counseling, etc.) but this gives you a good idea of what a typical day looks like. 

Feel free to ask questions or offer tips on how you think we can improve! 

Oct 30, 2011

One Size Never Fits All

Image Credit: Flickr/Akbar Sim (voorheen Meneer de Braker)

This week a struggling high school student visited my alternative program asking about how to enroll himself. In a nutshell, here is what he said:
  • I am a senior and I really want to graduate this year.
  • I struggle with reading and writing, but when I ask for additional help from my English teacher she tells me that she's already explained things to the whole class and she doesn't have time to explain it to me again.
  • I am really, really good at math. My teachers just need to show me how to do a problem once and then I can do it in my head. But I've flunked almost all of my math classes because I don't show my work; or when I do, I don't do the problems the same way as the teacher wants them.
  • My school seems to think that one size fits all when it comes to learning...but their ways of teaching don't fit me! I wish I could go somewhere where I could test out of math classes and get extra help in English. I wish I could go somewhere that offered more hands-on learning because I learn better when things are hands-on.
I was so impressed with this student's self-awareness and motivation! He wants to graduate, he knows his academic areas of weakness and his academic strengths, and he knows how he learns best. These are all qualities that will benefit him greatly in the world of work. But in a traditional school setting, those same qualities are forcing him to consider dropping out or getting a GED. There is something very wrong with this picture!

This student is exactly the kind of student I recommend for enrollment in my alternative program---but due to constraints of the educational system, he cannot enroll.  Why? 

The student who visited me does not attend one of our partnering schools.  We are an alternative program not an alternative high school. This means that we do not offer our own high school diploma; instead, we partner with traditional high schools in our area. They dictate the graduation requirements for their students and provide funding to support our offsite program. When students have met all graduation requirements, they receive a traditional high school diploma from their home school.  If this student attended our program, any work completed in our program would be worthless because it would not count toward a high school diploma from a partnering school. 

Why doesn't the school just partner with our alternative program so that this student can earn a diploma? In this case there is one main reason: the school the student is enrolled in has its own alternative program. They don't want to send someone to another district when they have their own alternative classroom. The problem is that their alternative program only offers computer-based instruction for at-risk students. Their alternative program adopts a "one size fits all strategy" that is different from the traditional school's strategy, but still only offers one style of learning for all of the kids enrolled.

It is frustrating for this student to know that there is a program like mine that would offer him choices when it comes to learning, that would offer him more one-on-one assistance if he needs it, and that would allow him to graduate on time with his class--but he can't enroll because he doesn't live in the right district. It is frustrating for me to see a kid who so clearly exhibits qualities that will make him a successful adult, who is motivated to do what it takes, but might not graduate because of school finance and residency issues.

A lot of people talk about school reform. A lot of people talk about issues relating to teachers and how they are paid, about standardized testing and failing schools. But what about the kids? Where is the ed reform plan that focuses on the kids? The student who visited me is one of many, many kids who want to learn, but feel lost in the system. No amount of standardized testing or teacher salary-adjustments will help him be successful in our current educational system. At what point do we stop trying to fix the small stuff and realize that it's time for a system-wide change? 

In my dream world, that student would walk into our school building and be welcomed with open arms. Home address and financial partnerships between districts wouldn't matter. A kid wants to learn and a school wants to help him--that's all that should matter. How can we make that dream come true?

Akbar Sim (voorheen Meneer de Braker)Akbar Sim (voorheen Meneer de Braker

Oct 26, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Consequences of Motherhood

Image via Zazzle

What we lose in memory, we seem to gain in shoe size....

Image Credit: lFlickr/lauratitian

and there is proportionate loss and gain for each additional child.

(Since becoming a mom, I have a smaller memory, bigger feet...and a LOT of love!)

Oct 23, 2011

The Liebster Blog Award

Earlier this week, Anituke from Yes We'reTogether -- a great blog sharing stories and thoughts meant to challenge people's perceptions of interracial romance -- left a comment on my post Being African-American in Iowa:Economy. She wrote that I'd won the Liebster Award! After doing some searching to see what that award means, I discovered that it is legit, and is a way to showcase blogs that are worthy, but have less than 200 followers. 

Thanks much to Yes We're Together for linking empatheia with your excellent blog! It is totally an honor to be listed with the other blogs you chose--you named some of my faves. And I'm happy to find two new blogs to follow, too! 
The purpose of the award is to give visibility to worthy, lesser known blogs with fewer followers.

The rules of accepting and receiving The Liebster Blog Award are:
1. Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog.
2. Link back to the blogger who awarded you.
3. Copy & paste the blog award on your blog
4. Reveal your 5 blog picks.
5. Let them know you choose them by leaving a comment on their blog.

It is very hard to narrow this down to 5 blog picks...I subscribe to many, many blogs in my Reader feed. These are some of my favorites. A couple of them are written by people that I consider friends because of connections we've made through our blogs; others I am still getting to know, but I greatly admire. Please give them a visit and consider following their wonderful worlds.

1. Is That Your Child? is a blog that accompanies the podcast of the same name. Both the podcast and the blog teach me something new each week about the world we live in.
2. De Su Mama is filled with the beauty of a mixed family who inspire me. Besides the wonderful photography and beautiful love letters to the author's daughter, I am also inspired by Vanessa's Personal Identity Project.
3. Ezzy Languzzi is a true friend who is teaching me Spanish, sharing unique images captured through photography, and inspiring me to read and re-read books that broaden my  horizons.
4. The Lifestory of a Bookworm is filled with stories that challenge me to think about "otherness"--supernatural beings, unexplained cultural phenomena from Chicano culture, and the personal stories of the beautiful spirit who writes them.
5. Life Behind the Wall fascinates me. A black woman living in China? I am learning so much about how cultures can intermix and about courage. 

Oct 16, 2011

Being African-American in Iowa: Economy

Iowa Pubic Radio (IPR) correspondent Rob Dillard (@IPRDillard) has been working on a year-long assignment on diversity. In March-April 2011, IPR ran series of stories on Being Latino in Iowa that highlighted the Latino experience in my home state. Dillard covered stories on the effect of Latino populations on small towns and the importance of Latino food and culture. The series returned in September 2011 to focus on a different population in our state--African-Americans.  According to IPR, U.S. Census data show there are now 90,000 African-American adults living in Iowa. According to state department of education enrollment figures, there are almost as many African-American children enrolled in our public schools. My husband and his family have lived in the state since the 1960's and I found it interesting to hear what Rob Dillard learned about Being African-American in Iowa in 2011. His series was divided into five parts: education, economy, politics, health, and spirituality.  I plan to blog about my thoughts on each of these issues and how they relate to my family's experiences in Iowa.

Image via Davenport NAACP
According to the Iowa Public Radio podcast Being African-American in Iowa: Economy, 2,200 African-Americans in Iowa own their own businesses. Most African Americans in Iowa do not own their own businesses, though; instead they try to work for other people. Overall unemployment rate in Iowa is 6%. However, the unemployment rate for blacks in our state is more than twice that, at 13%.

The average income for a white family in Iowa is $61,000. The average income for a black family in Iowa is $27,000 (source: Status of African Americans in Iowa report). The poverty rate in 2008 for the African American population was 35.6%. The corresponding rate for Iowa as a whole is 11.5%.  These numbers echo a national trend. Using the demographics tool at the National Center for Children in Poverty's website you can select from a list of factors and compare poverty rates among the 50 states. In EVERY state, half or more of the African-American population lives in poverty.  Considerably less than half of white people in every state live in poverty.

Many families are trying to make ends meet, trying to go to college and live the American Dream...but they are finding it hard to make that dream become a reality. A mother on the podcast tells the story of her lost faith in the American Dream, and her story echoes the story of many people--especially young mothers--in my own neighborhood.  Many of the parents in my neighborhood came to Iowa from Chicago trying to make a better life for their children. Neighborhoods here are safer, housing is more affordable, and (for a while) decent jobs were available. Our community is home to an excellent community college and a state university, so there are opportunities for residents who aspire to better themselves through higher education.  A lot of young mothers who move to Iowa from Chicago enroll in school, work part-time jobs, and strive to achieve the American Dream. And like the mother interviewed for the podcast, they struggle.  Fast food restaurants and motels seem to be the top employers for those new to our community, and the average pay at such places is not enough to support a family.

Why are the numbers representing economic status of African-Americans so disproportionate when compared to the numbers representing the economic status of European-Americans? How do we improve the quality of life for African American families, both in Iowa and in the nation? How can we revive the American Dream? Like the founders of our nation, most people today are trying to make a better life for their families. Why is it so much harder to achieve that dream for African American families than others? The Iowa Commission on the Status of African Americans is trying to answer those questions, and to provide resources for African Americans in Iowa, such as listings of grant opportunities and employment opportunities.

What can others do to help? First and foremost, consider your own perceptions of African Americans in your community. Do you make assumptions about the abilities of African Americans? about their education? about their interests? Do you look black people in the eye when you walk by? Do you speak to them with the same respect you speak to other people? In every day situations, do you approach African Americans without fear?

Consider your perceptions, and if you see a difference in the way you treat African Americans from the way you treat the people from other cultures, please investigate why that is. True change begins within. Offer yourself the opportunity to experience a shift in perception. I believe that seeing all people as worthy human beings is the starting point for helping all people to achieve economic equality.

If you see people as equal to yourself,  you will begin to treat people as equal to yourself. 

Oct 8, 2011

Imagine: White Students Suspended Disproportionately More than Blacks

Imagine this headline in your local paper:

Report: White Students Suspended 59% More than Blacks

Imagine the response of a typical American  community to this article:
White students in the City School District tend to get suspended at a higher rate than students from other ethnic groups, according a recent report from district officials.  
According to the report, white students accounted for about 59 percent of the 929 suspensions school administrators handed down during the 2010-11 school year, even though they make up only 16 percent of the district's 12,000 students. 
District administrators denied it is a case of racially profiling white students even though the district's teaching staff is overwhelmingly black, with only 13 whites among the district's 918 teachers, said the district human resources director.  
A successful white student athlete in the district says that most white kids he knows don’t feel singled out for being white. Kids who behave poorly receive their due consequences. “White kids just need to realize that they can still be white! They just have to act more professional and try to fit in."

Imagine if you looked at the comments online for this article and saw many comments like this:

If you were a white parent who had white children in this school district, would you be concerned? Would you worry about how your children are being treated? Would you want the school to invest in programming and training to help teachers become more culturally aware of white behaviors?

Would you fear for your children because of the comments? Would you wonder if those who comment using the anonymous login or a pseudonym would ever take the next step and do something in the real world that targets your children--just because they are white?

The headline above did appear in an Iowa newspaper this week. The article above is a paraphrase with only racial categories changed from the original. The comments are real. 

To white people in Iowa and in many other parts of the country where you are still the majority race, I ask you to think about these questions:
  • How would you respond if you read that your kids are being disciplined more than any other group in school?
  • How would you feel, knowing that you are powerless to do anything about that disproportionate punishment of white students because the same statistics about whites that occur in schools, also are the norm in our judicial system? 
  • What lessons would you teach your children about how to survive in a world where brown people are the majority? 
  • How would you feel about having to teach your white children survival skills so that they can exist in a brown world?
  • What would be important to you? If your children were surrounded by brown people all day, every day, and rarely saw other white people, what would you want them to learn about white culture?
The questions I ask above are the questions that parents of brown children have to ask every day. Stop and think for just a moment. Read any story in your local paper that deals with race. Substitute "white" for "black" or "hispanic" while you're reading, and imagine how you'd feel.

Think about it.


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