All posts by Lu Ann McNabb

avatar

About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

No Homework…Beneficial?

This is a guest post written by Katie Cassavaugh. 

katiecassavaughHomework as defined by Merriam-Webster means “preparatory reading or research (as for a discussion or a debate).” When I was a student, it meant hours of stress and hair pulling after having having already spent eight hours cramming knowledge into my head. It was also a point of tension in my house as I who lacked math skills tried to get help from my parents who were not hip to the new methods. And my brother didn’t want to read anything other than sports magazines. Not only was homework a painful time for me, it was more than exhausting for my parents, who had a full work day followed by making dinner only to then battle us for homework.

That is why when I started this year as a student teacher in a fifth-grade classroom at Orchard Elementary, I was overjoyed to learn that the school had instituted a no-homework policy. I, along with some of the other teachers, immediately became worried that our already jammed schedules would become more cramped, but after the first two or three weeks, that concern faded away and we got into a steady rhythm. We found ways to fit all the subjects into the school day and knew that whatever we did not finish, we could do tomorrow.

Now, no homework does not mean no reading; the stipulation is that students are still always working on becoming lifelong readers. We expect them to read their “just right books” for 20–30 minutes a night and do not consider a book they are choosing to read out of interest to be homework. This is learning to enjoy reading rather than dreading it,  which would have been perfect for my brother who only read magazines. And, along with choice reading, we expect students to spend more time playing and not sitting in front of a screen!

As a student teacher, I was excited to see this policy in play. Earlier in my school career, I had interned in a first-grade classroom. The students there had only one math sheet for homework every night, but this was enough to cause them stress. Not getting it done and missing morning meeting to complete it made them sad. The school and students were great, but if one worksheet made children this stressed, I could only imagine what 30 to 60 minutes of work would do!

Of course, we cannot forget the benefits of homework, such as helping those who struggle to get extra practice and holding students accountable for all their work. One drawback to to  a no-homework policy is that students do not have any accountability for their work. Before, if students fooled around and did not finish their work, they would have to finish it at home. Now with the new policy, teachers either let go of the assignment and move on or have to carve out more time during the school day for the students to finish.

Overall, I support a no-homework policy. Students are so scheduled between school, sports, musical instruments, and other extracurricular activities and chores. Taking away one thing such as homework can free the students to be kids again. It can give them an extra one to three hours to play and be free. They already spend so much time studying and learning new information; they should have the opportunity to leave their work behind for the day and relax. When kids hit sixth grade and beyond, they will once again have homework. From age 5 to 10, they need to focus on being kids, growing their creativity, and learning through play!

Katie Cassavaugh is a senior at Champlain College. She currently interns at Orchard Elementary and works at Kids and Fitness in Burlington, Vermont.

Part 2: How I Stayed in Teaching

This post (the second of two parts) is written by member Lorena Germán. You can read the first part here

lorena-german-2-2-2After teaching at my alma mater for several years, I was exhausted. I was exhausted with the oppressive structure and the feeling of powerlessness as I watched mistreatment of students occur at the hands of teachers, administrators, and the overall system. I saw teachers abuse students verbally and even straddle the “physical abuse” fence. I saw decisions made that were not at all in the best interests of the student. I saw adults blindly follow rules and policies because we all felt powerless to a certain extent. There were days when I felt a part of the problem and not a part of the solution. I watched co-workers leave year after year; the turnover was probably the only constant considering new trends, new curricula, new school leaders, and new projects.

In my last year at that school, I learned about NCTE’s Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award, but I hesitated to apply. I was unsure if I would get it and if it would be beneficial. Ultimately, I applied and then forgot about it until June, when I was at graduate school and received a notice that I was one of the six cohort members that year. Beyond being excited, I felt acknowledged and respected. Acceptance into this program was an affirmation that my passion was being recognized and appreciated.

My mentor, Anna J. Roseboro, was a great mentor and she helped me that year when I was home and pregnant and strongly reconsidering returning to the classroom. I couldn’t go back and deal with that intensity or the oppressive system anymore. Through our conversations and her support, she helped me remember my passion for teaching. She didn’t know what I was thinking or feeling, but her comments kept reminding me of my love for the craft.

The project I took on with my cohort was meaningful, and I really enjoyed synthesizing all of our research and ideas. We presented at the 2015 NCTE Annual Convention in Minneapolis on redefining texts and identifying multicultural texts for use in the classroom. Our presentation was strong and our work was important. It was such a powerful experience for me, and it came at the right time. I’ll always be grateful to the people I met through this experience who continue to be mentors in some way: Anna J. Roseboro, Dr. Mila Fuller, Dr. Isabel Baca, Dr. Tonya Perry, and my cohort members. Through this award, I have expanded my professional network, found a sustained motivation for my career, and acquired the drive to grow and think big.

Lorena Germán is a twelfth-year Dominican American educator working with young people in Austin, Texas. She has been published by NCTE, ASCD, EdWeek, and others and is an active member of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network. An NCTE Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award recipient, Lorena is a wife, mami, teacher, and writer.   Follow her on Twitter @nenagerman.  

Part I: How I Marched into Teaching

This post is written by member Lorena Germán. This is the first of two parts. 

lorena-german-2-2-2Sometimes we fall into careers as we search for ourselves. Other times we fall into careers in search of answers. I was drawn to teaching against my will, I say, because of racist and oppressive educational experiences.

I was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a seven-square-mile immigrant city bustling with people from Caribbean and Central American nations. While the majority of the student population is Latinx, immigrant, and Spanish speaking, most teachers are white women. This imbalance caused cultural and language tensions in the classroom.

Here is an example: I can remember sitting in class while one of my peers read a paragraph aloud. He was moving slowly, I guess, but I cannot say I had noticed. The teacher, from the front of the room, said, “My goodness, Jose. If you could only read as fast as you move on the court!” Bravely, Jose finished that paragraph. That was in seventh grade, but I still remember that moment. I cannot imagine that Jose does not. I also cannot remember if Jose ever read aloud again. The teacher’s reference to the basketball court, in concert with other remarks like those directed at other boys of color, demonstrated a pattern. Most of those boys of color either did not pass her class or were consistently struggling with discipline issues.

I remember another teacher, in high school, who stopped speaking to me for about a semester, because I was vocal about my concerns and disapproval of the city’s school committee practices. I remember getting dirty looks from teachers and under-their-breath mumbled remarks while I was walking past them. I was ready to graduate, leave Lawrence for college, and never set foot in those schools again.

It impossible to think about my educational experience and not notice the ethnic and cultural disconnect between the teachers and the students and cite that as one of the roots of the problem. It is also impossible for me to blame students for a system they do not control or have a say in, to this day. My anger was deep and my frustration with education was wide. However, as a first-generation immigrant, I was determined to go to college, take full advantage of our family’s sacrifice, and achieve the American Dream everyone was talking about.

While at college, I discovered I had a passion for working with young people like others and myself who reminded me of my neglected peers. I thought I would dedicate myself to working in nonprofits and extracurricular youth work. I did that for several years and always noticed that my role incorporated teaching and/or education somehow. One year, when I was working as a sales representative at a women’s gym, a co-worker asked me to tutor her daughter in Spanish. This student exclaimed how well I was teaching her and how she was finally understanding Spanish. So one Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m., while sitting with this girl, I realized I was indeed going to be a teacher.

I packed up all of my belongings and headed back to Massachusetts. I had some healing to do—for both my future students and myself. I was not returning to be anyone’s savior. I was not returning with big dreams of massive impact. I was realistic and very clear on the fact that I was willingly taking on institutionalized racism. My goal was simple: I would work hard to be the teacher I never had.

Lorena Germán is a twelfth-year Dominican American educator working with young people in Austin, Texas. She has been published by NCTE, ASCD, EdWeek, and others and is an active member of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network. An NCTE Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award recipient, Lorena is a wife, mami, teacher, and writer.   Follow her on Twitter @nenagerman.  

Let’s Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

This post, written by member Danielle Ambrosia, is a reprint

danielleambrosiaI was in sixth grade when the Columbine shooting happened. I remember vividly because my mom couldn’t even speak about it without tearing up at the dinner table. My father kept repeating how he didn’t know why people kept guns in their houses. I remember not knowing how to react in front of my parents; my dinner table (regarding this topic) was not a safe space.

I remember, perhaps more vividly, the next day at school. All the teachers were sad. I was 12 and noticed; everyone spoke quietly. I got through 5th period and made the trek from the trailers outside to math class with Mr. Thompson. And Mr. Thompson did what no one else did that day: Mr. Thompson spent the entire class period talking to us about Columbine.

He told us that it was okay to be scared. He emphasized the importance of telling an adult when you think another student is struggling or in trouble. And he used those words, too: “struggling, in trouble.” He never once slapped judgement on the shooters and I honestly believed by the end of the 47 minute period that if I knew someone was planning to hurt me, or someone else, I could tell Mr. Thompson and he could help. What was most remarkable about that class period was he let the students talk. He didn’t tell anyone their opinion was wrong, or their feelings were misguided. He simply let us talk. He also kept it respectful; he explained before calling on anyone that this classroom was our classroom and we “owned it.” He discussed having respect for others because we only know what we know; we cannot definitively say what we would or would not do in situations we are not directly in. Because he led the conversation with honesty and a high level of expectations of respect, students started talking.

Almost 20 years later I still recall that specific class period because it was honest. It was possibly the first time an adult treated me like a young adult rather than a middle school child.  I still think of his discussion with us when I speak to my 9th graders about Intruder Drills, or the game plan when there is an “active threat.” His kind tone echoes in my ears; I remind myself to stay calm, even if I don’t like the subject matter because it will resonate better with my students. I remind myself to emphasize that our classroom is owned by us and the tone we set is one of respect, and kindness, even when we disagree.

As a teacher, I understand how uncomfortable Mr. Thompson must have been. Maybe the night of the shooting he was watching the news with his wife and said, “I’m going to talk to my kids tomorrow about this.” Maybe she reacted negatively because we know as teachers it’s tricky to talk about controversial issues and remain totally neutral. Perhaps he sat down with the principal later in the day and had to have a conversation to rationalize his choice to have this frank discussion with a bunch of 6th graders. But here’s the deal, folks: we must have these hard conversations.

Currently in our country there are a plethora of issues going on, both political and social. And some of it is extremely frightening, even for adults. I challenge you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s positive for students to be able to have classroom environments that tackle tough issues. It’s positive to listen to those they disagree with. It’s positive for them to see you, as their teacher, discern the difference between strongly-worded tactical rhetoric and the facts of arguments based on data.

I’m not sure which news outlet you’re tuning into lately, but it’s entirely possible students are not seeing enough respectful interactions between opposing sides. They maybe aren’t able to articulate the difference between ethical journalism and cheap reporting yet. It is possible that YouTube comments may be their main source of discussion. While all of the previous examples are “at least something” as some will point out–isn’t it part of our job to help them critically think, examine, and evaluate the world they live in? As English and Language Arts teachers we have a unique opportunity to provide a safe space where students can ask questions, research facts, speak intelligently, and walk out feeling like they contributed to something in a meaningful way.

I spoke with some students regarding this topic, as we spent a portion of the previous year discussing gender and racial social issues through the texts Speak and A Raisin In The Sun. Below are student responses to the question: What are the benefits of classroom discussions regarding social (racial and gender) and political issues?

The biggest benefit of having open discussions regarding sensitive topics in our classroom was how it brought our class together as a whole, and helped us to open up with each other and feel comfortable sharing our thoughts. There was this reality and truthfulness that I didn’t feel I got from other classes. It helped me to understand different sides of things, whereas at home I am only taught to believe in one side of things.

Having discussions in the classroom on topics such as race and gender allows us to see that these things are worth learning about. Some people our age have interest in activism or are already seeking out more information for themselves, but others have only really seen these types of discussions in social media comment sections – with varying levels of legitimate fact. Discussions such as these are very important for the growth of understanding in high school aged students, and having them in the classroom lets us give our full focus to the topic. If subjects such as these are brought up in a classroom, where we have access to texts and the minds of our peers and teachers, we can benefit from it far more than if we were solely scrolling through comments of teenagers on the Internet trying to pioneer a social movement through their Instagram pages. Having classroom discussions helps us to constantly formulate our own opinions and gain insight from other students that we may not otherwise talk with about gender or race issues.

I feel like in a classroom there is no wrong answer, and other students know that they are expected to not necessarily agree with, but respect the person sharing their opinions. It’s nerve racking talking about something so sensitive such as race and gender being one-on-one with someone because saying something possibly offensive could make the situation very awkward. I’ve grown so much this past year because of the way we discussed mature topics in English, and I truly hope I’ll have more opportunities to share my opinions in a classroom and not have to worry about judgments from others.

…I still can’t talk to my mom about Columbine. I’m a teacher and she still freaks out. But I bet you anything I could talk to Mr. Thompson about it to this day.

I challenge you to tackle one social or political issue in your classroom this year. It doesn’t have to be through discussion; maybe you have students journal, or research and analyze a YouTube video, or a speech. Start small; collaborate with other teachers and compare notes. These discussions have the potential to build community and trust if we hold ourselves and students to high expectations. We must remain vigilant in our cause to educate and promote intellectual conversations; demonstrating that even when we disagree, we can be kind and respectful to our fellow citizens. We must lead by example and show students that there is more than political circus rat-racing and that when ethical people stand together we can achieve things.

Danielle teaches English to 9th graders at State College Area High School. She enjoys cooking, organizing, and spending time with her family.

The Essential Work of English Language Arts—and ELA Teachers—in Our Democracy

This post is written by member Dana Maloney. 

“We must awaken in order to continue our efforts to build a just, compassionate, and meaningful democracy.”Maxine Greene

danamaloneyThe longer I have taught English Language Arts (ELA)—28 years now—the more I have come to understand that what we do is not trivial or incidental; it is essential.

We can start with two reasons why our work is so important:

  1. Literature is life. When we read imaginative literature—whether prose, poetry or drama—we explore what it means to be alive and to be human. As one of my students remarked years ago, “Literature humanizes us.” We help students understand themselves, others, and the world. We help students crisscross the globe, step into other people’s shoes to see the world through their eyes, and more. Through all of this, we also help students deepen understandings of themselves and of their lives.
  2. We teach the most essential human skills: how to receive information from others and how to transmit information. This is literacy. Through reading and listening, we receive information; through writing and speaking, we transmit information.

Those reasons are so important in the lives of each of our students. However, they are not the only reasons why I think our work is so essential—and why I would posit that it is perhaps the most essential work within the school.

Here is why our work is absolutely essential: What we do in our classrooms protects and perpetuates democracy. John Dewey taught us this long ago, but we need to remind ourselves of this ultimate purpose and context of education.

In ELA classes, we empower students to use their voices and to be able to use the tools of literacy, including digital tools, to contribute to our democracy and to the world. Democracy is a system of government in which people use their literacy skills in order to run a country “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as President Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address.

The discourse in our democracy today, continuing even after the inauguration of the new president, illustrates the need for strong literacy skills. I believe that the following ideas help us cultivate strong literacy skills in our students:

  • Critical thinking is the essential filter through which we process information so that we do not simply believe everything we read or hear and so that we think before we speak or write. We encourage thinking when we give students hard questions, when we allow students to craft their own questions, and when we allow them to own the answers. We have to encourage students to ask good, open-ended questions—not leading ones. We have to offer students opportunities to exercise high-level critical thinking.
  • We can also ask students to synthesize across texts—including texts that offer different points of view (as many news sources do today). Our curriculum can reach for the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, including synthesis and creation that is informed by the consideration of multiple texts that present opposing information or perspectives.
  • We should not read texts for our students. As teachers, we have to be careful not to own the interpretations of texts. We should not present the text as a mystery for which the teacher has all the answers (e.g., a list of themes and symbols). Instead, we should offer texts to our students and ask students for their engaged readings of them. Of course, we want students to back up their readings with textual evidence and with strong reasoning. Great literature is ambiguous and thus allows for multiple ways of reading. This is one reason why high-merit, classic texts should have a strong place in our classrooms, even as we also embrace student choice in reading selections. Students need to own their questions; we need to create room for students to read texts through their own inquiry lenses.
  • We need to create opportunities for student exchange of readings and ideas via active listening and speaking. We need to require them to listen to each other—and to respond to each other. Discourse is a means through which we strengthen our thinking and our articulation of perspective.

To go one step further, I believe that not only is the discipline of ELA essential to the world today but we ELA teachers are as well.

As ELA teachers, we are in a unique position to help moderate readings of the news and of the world—and we can help cultivate healthy dialogue via spoken and written word. There are many ways in which this might happen, including via school and community events and via social media.

I have started to explore how we can view social media—not just the public forum of Twitter but also the “private” world of Facebook—as a form of digital classroom, with ourselves as moderators of civil discourse or even as discussion leaders (AKA teachers). I believe we can be creative in the ways in which we might do this.

I have been prompted by election and inauguration discourse to attempt to create some impact even in Facebook. This means some risk—moving beyond the easy, friendly discourse that characterized Facebook communication for me before. I am working on a book focused on “reading the text to read the world,” and I have started to transfer some of the content of the book to my Facebook posts.

I will leave off by sharing some of my posts from January 22, 2017. Through these, I also want to share with you some additional thoughts about how we can see the power of our work—and the potential impact all of us can make in our classrooms as well as outside of them:

As a teacher of reading, I would just encourage everyone to read well: Read the whole book, not just one page, and not just the Cliff Notes version. The book here is, of course, the one we are living in today—our world. We have a beautiful democracy which many men and women—including our ancestors—sacrificed their lives to build and to defend. At this moment, many people have their lives on the line for all of us–for our liberty, for justice, for all our rights. Therefore, I encourage everyone to defend our country by seeking the actual truth, not just a limited or false perception of it. Beware of blatant lies. Be aware that lying is an actual strategy, to manipulate people; diversionary tactics are also intentional strategies. Whether you are conservative or liberal, please do not give away our democratic ideals, which include those expressed in the First Amendment—including freedom of the press and the right to peaceful protest. Do not just believe all that you are told—all that you might want to believe. Seek the truth.

In response to this post, I received a comment, which prompted me to write:

Great literature may be fiction, but it is about truth: truth of human experience and more. Moreover, in true literature there are always multiple perspectives offered. Propaganda is one-sided; a true story has many sides, many points of view, and many voices—like democracy. I think we all have to LISTEN to and READ many perspectives to maintain our healthy democracy and to avoid losing it.

After the Facebook friend replied again to me and as we moved closer to agreement, I added:

Another thing I would add is that we have to be careful what we “say” in the social media world—with regard to selecting and sharing information. An English classroom can be a good analogy and training ground for discourse—if we encourage students to speak what they think (after time is given for thoughtful reflection) and if students also respond to each other, to challenge (civilly) each other’s’ statements—and thus to push every person’s separate thinking. We don’t push particular beliefs or interpretations (because literature, like life, is ambiguous), but we encourage thought—not just fast or shallow thought but careful thought that has processed perspectives and that continues to do so. This is also how public schools help nurture democratic citizens who not only tolerate but also embrace diversity of perspectives— not bullying of perspective, not control of truth.

Dana H. Maloney is the chair of the NCTE Achievement Awards in Writing Advisory Committee, the 2012 winner of the CEE James Moffett Award, and an Executive Board member of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English. She teaches English at Tenafly High School in New Jersey. Her Twitter handle is @danahmaloney.