Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Letter to Adrienne Gagnon

Dear Ms. Gagnon,

I wanted to thank you again for your workshop on Saturday at the Promising Practices Conference.
I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation. It was both informative and interesting.  As I stated to you on Saturday, I am a middle school science teacher in an urban school. Next year the new Science Standards will be rolled out for the state. STEM will be a part of our new curriculum. Your presentation gave me a few good ideas as to how I could implement small STEM projects into my curriculum right away. I am also interested in the "Tool Kit" that you are creating. I would love for my school to have access to one when they are available. 

 Student lead projects that can benefit the community is an awesome idea. However I also liked the idea of building a community within a school. Communication skills and collaborating with others are being honed in this program but I was excited that you are teaching persistence as well. Students are learning to "fail forward" to learn from their mistakes and make it better. This is what science is all about. Students that can work through this in an environment where they feel safe and supported is key.

I was wondering about your students. Do they ever come into other schools to speak with  students about the work they are doing? If they do I would be interested in arranging for them to come a speak in my classroom.

I was inspired by what I heard on Saturday and since then I have gone on your website. I appreciate the work that you are doing with urban youth. I am especially happy to see how many girls that are participating in your program. I am very interested in volunteering my time. You had said that you were looking for ad visors. I would be  happy to work in any capacity with your organization.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Mary Colannino
Hugh B. Bain Middle School
Cranston RI 02911

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Danger of Being "Color-Blind"

 The Danger of Becoming "Color-Blind"

Nakkula writes about the effects that color-blindness has is our schools. He writes that "Research has indicated that endorsement of "color-blind" racial attitudes is significantly associated with greater levels of racial prejudice and a mistaken belief that society is just and fair." (p.125) He goes on to stress the importance of cultivating alliances with our students. Last week I witnessed this first hand because of a situation involving three of my students. On Thursday, some of my students stayed after school to help me with a project that I am running for the school. After they were finished, three of the boys ( who are all friends), wound up getting in a fist fight in the front of the building. Friday, I was was asked to come to the principals' office. Before I was even in the office, I could hear my principal screaming at the boys. I could tell that they were very glad to see me. I asked the principal what had happened and she told me it had been reported that the boys had been fighting on the front lawn after school. I explained to her that the boys had stayed after school because they had volunteered to help out with the school wide project. I told her that they were good boys and that they had made a mistake. The boys were not being forth coming with details of the fight so my principal threatened to call the police and press charges. One of my students is from Syria. He immediately became very upset. He was actually in a panic. Luckily my principal left her office. I told him that I would try to handle the situation. I have had many conversations with this boy and he has told me of the violence that he has experienced in Syria. He has a mistrust and real fear of police and military.
My principal was an ESL student herself and taught ESL students for ten years. However her mantra is that all students are treated the same. She has said that she "does not see color." I disagree with this way of thinking.  My principal believes that what is fair for one is fair for all. This is not seeing each student as individuals. I agree with Nakkula, we need to acknowledge the differences of our students so that we can teach them more effectively. I went to my principal and explained to her the situation and where my student was coming from. She backed off. She realized that she could not treat this boy in the same manner. I told the boy that he was going to have to take the consequences for fighting,but there would be no police involvement. He was upset but no longer in a panic. He knew that his father was going to be mad. I don't know what the outcome was ...I am sure I will find out on Monday.

Nakkula (p. 122) also states that "If we work with adolescents and wish to meet them where they are , we must go there, to where they live racially, even when - and perhaps particularly when - going there takes us beyond our educator comfort zones." I think this is a very important lesson for me as a white middle class teacher to learn. I will never fully understand the hardships that go along with race and to some extent ethnicity that many of my students have had to endure because I have never experienced them. Therefore it is essential that I learn all that I can about my students. I know that it is a big undertaking and I will not ever succeed in knowing all my students, but I hope to know most of them. When I read about the conflict between Antwone and Ms. Petersen, I would like to think that could never happen to me, that I would be better than Ms Petersen. The fact is Ms Petersen is a good teacher and these things are going to happen. I think that if we are reflective in our relationships with our students, we can minimize the conflict. As a white teacher teaching a team full of non-white children, I might not know exactly where my students are coming from but I can provide a classroom where both realness and relationships can abound.

"Could a greater miracle take place
               than for us to look through each other's eyes
                                                                for an instant"?

                                                                                              Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Creating an Inner Sanctum


 Creating an Inner Sanctum

When many people think of "home" we think of a place where  we feel safe and accepted. We have the freedom to be ourselves. There are others who can only wish that home was such a place. Nakkula p. 108 writes about the correlation between identity development and  strong family support.

If kids cannot receive this support at home, it is essential that students have a place at school where they know that their thoughts and opinions are heard and valued. As teachers we can create an "inner sanctum" (p. 108), where our students can grow both emotionally and intellectually. I want my classroom to be a place where we can try to break down the so called"norms" of masculine and feminine behavior that society has deemed acceptable. Pastor, McCormick, and Fine (p.107) define and describe "homeplaces." These are places within the school where kids can feel safe to express their ideas and voice their frustrations. As teachers, we have all witnessed how effective this can be.

Through out the chapter, Nakkula writes about the expectations that society puts upon males and females and how schools themselves are gendered spaces. Skiba (p. 105), found that by high school, there are many more boys that are taking advanced math and science classes. I found this to be true in my own life as a student. When I was in college, there were many more males than females in the more advanced science classes. Only a few years ago I also experienced this when I was assisting a friend in a nearby public high school. I was helping out in an AP chemistry class. One of the guidance councilors came in to speak with the seniors that were in the class. He told them that an admissions officer from a certain college would be coming in to speak with any students who were interested in pre-med. I was pleased to see that most students raised their hands. The councilor then addressed only the girls and said that an advisor from a nursing school would also be coming soon. I couldn't believe what I was witnessing! After the councilor left, I made sure that all students knew that they were all welcome and capable of looking into pre-med or nursing whether they were male or female!


An interesting thing happened in my class this week while I was reading this chapter. I have been meeting after school with some of my students who are contributing to my comic book. My little group has become quite close to one another. It has been a wonderful thing to watch unfold. One of the boys is a very good artist. He once told me that he wanted to be a fashion designer. Last week I complimented him on his drawings for the lab that were were doing. I told him that he would turn out to be a great fashion designer one day. He told me that he had "turned his back on his dream." Apparently his father did not approve and he had destroyed all of his designs. His father did not think that this was a career for a man. I told him not to give up on his dream. The next week my little group was hard at work. He came up and showed me his comic. It was about a girl not giving up on her dream. I asked him if the girl represented him. He said that it was him. Nakkula (p. 115)  expresses how important it is as educators it is our job "to promote learning through safe and enriching experiences." (p. 115) We can accomplish this by creating safespaces for our students. Nakkula also goes on to say that "It is the fight to help our students be fully present as learners, as classmates, as the people they see themselves to be." 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Importance of Building Relationships

 I will admit that I had to read chapters 4 and 5 a few times each. There is so much information in both of them. However, I see one reoccurring theme through out them both. There is a direct correlation between the success of a student and the positive relationships he or she develops within the community.

Although I know that this is true for all students, I do feel that it is particularly important for students from poor urban communities.Nakkula p.66 explains how students, "simply feel depleted by the relentless challenges of urban poverty."

A few years back I had a student. CP was a very shy girl. She really didn't have any friends. Her grades were fair to poor. She was the student who came into your class and did her very best not to get noticed. Her younger brother on the other hand was in trouble constantly. He was suspended on a regular basis. They were also both in truancy court because of frequent absences. Their mom was a drug addict and their father was in jail. One day I noticed bruises on CP's leg. I asked her how she got the bruises and she told me that she got them from dance. I started to keep an eye on CP. I started a little homework club and asked her to join. She started to stay the days that she didn't have dance. One day CP came to school and told me that her mom's boyfriend was abusing her and her brother. The people in my school immediately took action. The team work that is described through out chapter four was in my opinion what saved CP.

That same year, CP's mom died. Our principal, social workers, and teachers worked very hard to place CP and her brother in their grandmothers' care. We met with the truancy judge and informed her of the home situation. Sullivan emphasizs the connection between school environment and students who have tough home lives. He states that "Schooling provides the best opportunities for healing the warps of childhood." This could not be more true in this case. CP went on to high school. She came to Bain, (because of my principal) every week to my class after school for extra help and to talk. Her dance teacher also gave her a job after school at the dance studio. Things were
still very bad at home. During CP's senior year, the Truancy Judge place CP in a foster home. She actually collaborated with the dance teacher to find her a home within the dance community!!

Today CP has graduated from high school, the first one in her family to do so. She still lives with that family and she is going to a technical to become a medical technician. Dance continues to be a big part of her life an CP is now a paid teacher at the dance studio. Nakkula p.83 affirms Sullivan when he writes " We all carry the possibility of transcending or substantially modifying our family histories through extrafamilial relationships, starting with those forged at school with teachers and peers." The strong relationships which CP has forged throughout has helped to change the direction that her life was going in.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Making a Difference

                      Making a Difference

I think that most of us can remember (hopefully)  at least one teacher that has touched our lives in a positive way. I know that it might sound corny but the teacher that has had the biggest influence in my life is my father. My father has made a lasting impression on me as both a student and a teacher.
I had the privilege of having my dad as a teacher. He was such a positive teacher. He touched the lives of so many children. Through the years I have had conversations with some of his previous students who tell me how much they loved my dad. He was a Phys. ed. teacher and he was ahead of his time. His goal was to get all kids to reach their personal best. One of his previous students  told me once that he was never the athletic type and that he had a hard time time in gym. However gym class became one of his favorite classes because of my dad. I know that when I had my father as a teacher, I wanted to reach my personal best and I was proud when I did.  His energy and enthusiasm were contagious.
He taught half of the school population every year, but he knew each kid. When I went to Henry Barnard,there were some pretty tough kids that I went to school with. They had the  utmost respect for my father because he had respect for them. Nakkula p26. states that as teachers we "are often reminded of our own adolescence, and the decisions we made," and how we resolved those challenges. My dad had a pretty hard childhood. I don't think that he forgot that and he used his own experiences to relate to his students on a more personal level.
I also had the opportunity to observe and work with my father many times when I was studying to be a teacher. I learned so much from this experience. I have never met a person that had such a love of children and a joy for teaching.


I have had a pretty good life. I have been lucky to be supported buy family, friends, I have had the privilege of a good education, and I have a good job. In spite of all of that, I have had to deal with some incredibly hard things in my life. It is those experiences that I bring when I am trying to relate to my students. Nakkula p49. explains that "Thinking is modeled for us, we connect with it, and we learn from it." We create our own thinking through the connections that we make with others. Too many students do not have good role models in their lives. They are connecting to the wrong people.  I want to be a good role model for my students. I want to show them that even when things are hard there is always a way to overcome adversity. We might not come from the same backgrounds, but I think that it is possible for us to relate on some level.

I agree with Lightfoot when she argues that adolescents must must challenge adult authority  to develop autonomy, and I also agree that they do not need to engage in risky behavior to do so. I am proud of all the after school activities that Bain provides. Teachers and administration have worked together to find money to keep as many kids involved in activities after school as we can. It was easier a few years ago when we had after school sports the arts, and other clubs, however the city cut the budget and all those programs went away. They only clubs they have not cut are Student Council and Science Olympiad. The examples of Janine and Julian can be found in every school. It enrages me both as a parent and an educator that too many of the programs that would provide a perfect opportunity for students to challenge themselves are being cut.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

To Reach out Beyond the Classroom


       To Reach Out Beyond the Classroom

 In chapter one of Understanding Youth, authors Nakkula and Toshalis introduce us to the relationship between Ms. Peterson and Antwon. Unfortunately that is a story that I have heard all too often. Also I am ashamed to admit, I have been a part of. I have always taught kids that come from difficult circumstances. When I first started teaching, my ideas of good classroom management were very different from how I run my classroom now. I thought that because I was teaching some pretty tough students, I had to be tough too. I could control a classroom, but was it a place where kids wanted to be? Were they learning anything? Sure, my honors classes were learning but that is the easy class, what about the others? As I look back I think that I was a little afraid of them. My first year at Bain some of my students broke in to a house in the neighborhood, robbed the family, tied them up in the basement and set fire to the house. Their world was one that I knew nothing about. 

I had a professor in college that offered some good advise. He told us when we got a job, we should drive around the neighborhood and get to know where our students come from. I decided to do just that. I also got to know my students by asking better questions and really listening to their answers. Relationships began to form with my students. Many of them would stay after school for extra help or many times just to talk. In addition to the empathy that I had for my students and their situations, I also formed a new sense of respect for both them and their families (or sometimes not their families).

Nakkula and Toshalis note that both teachers and students learn from one another and I agree. I know that my students are responsible for helping to shape me into the teacher that I am today. We all have been influenced by at least one teacher in our lives, good or bad. Through out my career there have been many many students who have influenced my life.

 I realized that because of the type of job I have and especially the population that I teach, goes way beyond the classroom. I have made meals for families, visited them at home, I have gone to students' houses when they have not shown up to class. I gone to court, to funerals, hospitals, graduations and weddings. I am not patting myself on the back nor do I think that I am doing anything out of the ordinary. There are many teachers in my school and in other schools all over the world who do the same thing and more. Nakkula and Toshalis question if educators should go beyond the curriculum and form relationships. They also ask if this is possible with all students. I know that it is a difficult task but I absolutely believe that it is important to do the best we can.

Rita Pierson is the type of educator that I strive to be. She believes that it is essential for teachers to connect with their students on a personal level. Pierson states that "Kids don't learn from people they don't like." I agree, if we fail to engage our students they will not learn.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Community of Learners


 A Community of Learners

Through out the book Ayers gives examples of the achievements of children through inquiry. When I read about the project on the bridge building project for Bingo the turtle it reminded me of a similar project that my students worked on a few years ago. Our school is located on a very busy street. Cars would drive by the school without slowing down on a regular basis even at the busy times when our students were arriving in the morning and leaving in the afternoon. One of my students came to me and asked me if we could conduct an experiment. He wanted to see if  cars would slow down if  orange cones were place on each side of the crosswalk. As a class we discussed the reason why this would or would not be effective. The students formed their own hypothesis. We got permission from our Principal and from the Mayor's office to conduct the experiment. The Phys. Ed. dept. loaned us the cones. We place two orange cones on either side of the of the crosswalk on both sides of the street. We also had a speed gun loaned to us by one of the high school baseball coaches. Students took turns recording the data. We conducted the experiment for one month. The outcome of this project was amazing. The result of the experiment was that cars did slow down significantly when the cones were  placed at the crosswalks. My students did not want to stop there. Now they wanted to make the cones a permanent fixture. I spoke with my Principal and he called the local newspaper. A reporter came to the school and interviewed the class. They were so psyched!! Their picture was in the paper along with the results of their experiment. Most importantly the reporter stressed that the class wanted the cones to be permanently placed in front of the school. They got more than they asked for. The cones were placed in front of the school along with.....a crossing guard!! The kids couldn't believe it. They were so proud of what they had accomplished. The crossing guard as well as the cones have been permanent fixtures in front of the school ever since.
 My Final point that I would like to make on this story is that the boy who initiated this whole inquiry project was barely passing my class. He was the leader on this project and he did an outstanding job. Andora Svitak, the inspirational TED speaker states that kids are up for challenges. She also states that "If expectations are low, trust me we will sink to them." This was an important reminder for me never to lower my expectations of all my students.

                                                                    Albert Einstein

One of the other points that Ayers discusses is about standardized testing. On page 85 Ayers states that he grew up in a home where the same language was spoken as on the test, but that is  not true for everyone in the room taking the test along with Ayers. The other day my kids were learning about abiotic (non-living) and biotic (living) factors. I had put up a list of items on the board and they were taking turns checking off if the item was biotic or abiotic. One of the items was thermometer.  I have a student from Belarus who speaks Russian. It was his turn, finally he said to me "What is thermometer?" I showed him a thermometer and he immediately got the answer right and was able to give me the reasons why. Another science teacher happened to be walking through my room and he asked me how are these kids ever going to take the science NECAP test in May? This boy is very advanced in science. He is really at a high school level. Are the tests really going to measure what he knows? I think not. So many of my students are very bright and have a great deal of content knowledge. I can see it so clearly. They get concepts very quickly. It is the language barrier that we need to overcome and we will I have no doubt about that. However, what is going to happen when NECAP time arrives? 

                                        “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”                                                                                        Stephen R. Covey

 One of the goals of our team this year is to try to involve the families of our students as much as possible. Last spring we met with the families to welcome them to their new school. We also had our own open house which was in a more intimate setting. Here we were, five different languages being interpreted but we were all there for one common goal. I think that there is potential there to incorporate the parents more . I think they want to be included. Strong parent involvement will improve the education of the children.  Our team was even talking about helping the parents to learn English. I loved the part in the book , pages 100-112 concerning community action. Ayers states the importance of  the relationship between school and community. My school actually does the neighborhood walk every summer to meet all new incoming families. It is a very positive and eye opening  experience. Most parents appreciate the visit and it always gives me a different perspective on my students.