Combating Racism in the Christian Classroom

I am always disappointed when I hear negative comments about the Christian community ignoring social issues such as racism. It happens in our churches, but we ignore it. It happens in our culture and in our world, yet we do not necessarily equip our youth to see it for what it is and do something about it.

Christian school teachers, in my opinion, are even more called to train their students to understand racism in all of its ugly forms, not as an outside entity (It happens “over there” to “some people” in “other places”), but as a continuous process of stereotyping, negative attitudes and discriminatory perceptions. Why is this part of our mission? It is an issue that it NOT political; it is a matter of ethics. Whether we are Democrats or Republicans, we can appreciate the fact that a black American has finally made it to the Presidency and celebrate that fact by encouraging our youth to take advantage of education opportunities. We can take it upon ourselves to motivate our students to develop positive identities and role models within the African American community.

As a little white girl from rural Western NY, it is difficult for me at times to believe that I have a voice in helping to stop racism. I’m tempted to just say, “What do I know about racism? I’m one of the privileged majority. What right do I have to draw the attention of my multicultural students to the dangerous mindsets that perpetuate racism? Don’t they already know more than I do about these issues?” In this sense, it is not about white or black–we all have a part and a duty to train students to see clearly. Yes, my students may have had more personal experiences concerning racism. But it doesn’t necessarily make them mature thinkers in terms of how to react to these experiences and how to pinpoint how they affected their identity and their responses to society.

The interesting part is that in one of my very multicultural classrooms, where each student comes from a different ethnic/regional background, I found my students making blanket statements such as, “Black people create their own stereotypes” or “If they don’t receive a quality education, it is their own fault.” Now that my students have opened the can of worms dialogue, how can I guide them toward appreciating African American culture? These discussions came as a result of reading Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God and I found myself growing discouraged. What is the point of introducing such a beautiful, lyrical, important multicultural text if my students just aren’t “getting” it?

The solution to this problem that I am pondering right now is to get together some of the variety of women from the U.S., Panama and other Latin American countries who have successfully established themselves in a career field. My preference would be to choose a variety of women who come from different economic brackets, who can not only speak on the African-American female experience in a way that is relevant to the novel, but can also open up dialogue from personal experience concerning racism and how it has affected them. Will this work? I certainly hope so. Feel free to respond with your own ideas or comments.

One thing is for sure in my mind. Whenever students believe that racism is dead in their particular area of the world, or that it is someone else’s problem and not their problem, we cannot in good conscience permit that mindset to go unanswered. The danger lies in pretending that simply because we do not perceive aspects of racism or that it is not as visible in certain regions as in others that it has simply erased itself from society. How can we motivate students in the black community to rise above racism and believe in their own achievement? How can we encourage students to take advantage of educational opportunities offered to them instead of thinking, “That’s not for someone like me.” How can we show that we believe in our students, regardless of their racial background?

Let’s make our Christian school students aware of the issues around them, instead of just ignoring them because we believe they might be outside of their personal experience. We don’t stop teaching the Holocaust simply because we don’t happen to have any Jewish students in the classroom, so let’s not take teaching multicultural literature for granted.

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Obama and McCain on Education: What Is In Store for Christian Education?

I must say that the election between Obama and McCain is storing up to be a very close race. And why shouldn’t it be? This is democracy at work, a moment that very well may be historical–either by the election of our first female VP, or by the election of our first black President. And on that level, I am very happy to be an American citizen where leadership is not necessarily limited by race or gender in our governmental system. However, both candidates have certain pros and cons to their stance on the issue of education, which I would like to attempt to deal with on this blog (at the possible expense of combining the interests of both Christian schooling and politics, which very well may get me drawn and quartered, depending on the level of tact involved).

The topic of this blog concerns ONLY the issue of the future of Christian schooling, and does not necessarily address the myriad of other issues at stake in this election. I am simply discussing the differences between McCain’s campaign on education and Obama’s campaign on education and what that means for those of us who working in Christian education. Obviously, a vote should depend on a wide variety of philosophical ideals, not necessarily just on one pet issue that a voter feels strongly about.

Today I looked through McCain and Obama’s official websites. Since I found myself so divided, I thought it might help to check out what they, in their own words (or rather in the words of their speechwriters), have decided to stand for should they be elected into office. Today’s Christian voters, it seems to me, have more diverse party affiliations than in year’s past, and are now choosing to vote based upon the quality and quantity of information that they can gather about both candidates. In my efforts to be an informed voter, I thought that I should check it out and decide for myself which candidate appeals to me.

In terms of education, John McCain’s official website states, “Public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child’s education follows that child into the school the parent chooses. The school is charged with the responsibility of educating the child, and must have the resources and management authority to deliver on that responsibility. They must also report to the parents and the public on their progress” (Issues, Education). McCain follows that idea with the concept that “If a school will not change, the students should be able to change schools . . . parents should be empowered with school choice to send their children to the school that can best educate them just as many members of Congress do with their own children” (Issues, Education). 

In terms of Christian schooling, private schools other than charter schools usually start out as fledgling academies using the best possible resources available until they have room and money to grow. I do not hold that all public schools are bad places for students, as some Christian conservatives do, but it is clear that we are at the point where we should finally acknowledge not only the inevitable inequities of school funding and school quality, but we should also acknowledge the fact that each student as an individual is different and education does not necessarily have to be a cookie-cutter base of knowledge. I myself went to a small 25-student Christian school until my senior year of high school, and I found that my gifts and abilities allowed me to make the switch quite fluidly. It’s not the size of the school or the availability of things like baseball fields, football teams and swimming pools that make a child’s education great. Otherwise, why would we have so many successfully homeschooled children? A parent who chooses to homeschool their child is a parent who is going to be the most caring and concerned teacher that their child would ever find in any school. Trust me, those parents feel a strong sense of responsibility toward their child’s education, and are not doing it out of a whim. On that level, the rights of parents to homeschool and the rights of parents to choose a Christian school should be honored. Particularly since all of the original schools and universities in the U.S., including good ole Yale, were seminaries at one time, and literacy once meant that you could read and interpret the Bible. (I especially liked the dig that Congress people are already making the choice to send their kids to outside schools. What would happen if all of Congress were required to send their kids to their local public school?) 

Obama’s website also contains some good information about what he plans to do, such as making math and science education a priority by recruiting strong teachers in those subject areas. He also plans on expanding middle school intervention support to lower the dropout rate and expanding afterschool and summer programs. According to his website, “Obama will address the dropout crisis by passing his legislation to provide funding to school districts to invest in intervention strategies in middle school – strategies such as personal academic plans, teaching teams, parent involvement, mentoring, intensive reading and math instruction, and extended learning time” (Issues, Education). Obama has also promised on his website to “double funding for the main federal support for afterschool programs, the 21st Century Learning Centers program, to serve one million more children” (Issues, Education). Perhaps the most exciting initiative for me, as a teacher is to see that “Obama supports transitional bilingual education” as a means of providing support for English Language Learners.

Although McCain is an advocate for school choice, his targets for public education do not seem clear or specific. It seems as though he is “fixing” the problem by not fixing it. Instead, he is simply giving parents to the freedom to go elsewhere if they are disgruntled with their local public schools. He does believe that “our schools can and should compete to be the most innovative, flexible and student-centered – not safe havens for the uninspired and unaccountable. He believes we should let them compete for the most effective, character-building teachers, hire them, and reward them” (Issues, Education). But other than asking schools to compete for teachers and leaving it up to the free enterprise system of supply and demand, McCain’s policies offer no real answers for public school funding or teacher recruitment problems. However, McCain’s choice stance does work out well for those schools who are working to be recognized and are trying to avoid discrimination in their local communities. Homeschoolers and small Christian schools may want to vote for McCain’s stance on education for this reason.

However, assuming that Obama’s promises to fund programs and carry out the well-intentioned by poorly-organized NCLB into the 21st century hold water, he is the more logical candidate to support when it comes to working within our public schools for change. We certainly should be concerned that many students do not have a choice to homeschool or go to a charter school, and are left with only the option of public school. Are we willing to sacrifice the needs of all of those students in order to make a statement about our right to choose? By the way, Obama never mentions in his website about whether he will pass legislation limiting a parent’s right to choose a private or charter school. It might be a good question to ask. He does, however, promise to also provide teacher scholarships to aid in teacher recruitment and create Teacher Residency Programs in order to provide teachers with the preparation they need to succeed. In addition, he is going to campaign for teachers to have “paid common planning time” so that they are better capable of working in collaboration (Issues, Education).

So does this answer all of my questions? Not really. It does, however, give me a good idea of which questions to ask. Do you happen to have any questions concerning McCain and Obama and their views of education? Feel free to comment and we can all try to answer them together.    

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Up To Your Ears in Paperwork?

You’re not alone. At least 50% (if not more) of teaching requires ugly, nasty, boring, time-consuming paperwork. Where does all this paperwork come from? From my experience, it comes from the following:

  • lesson planning and grading
  • communicating with parents via email/notes
  • writing and modifying assessments
  • documenting missing work from students
  • working with the resource department (and by this, I mean REALLY working with them, not just checking the boxes.)
  • printing and copying
  • professional development work
  • writing out detentions/disciplinary forms or reports

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list.

So many college students decide upon a teaching profession because it seems like simple solution to getting a job once they graduate. Some are also under the mistaken notion that teaching is easy. It usually takes about a few months in the profession to quash that concept.

But before we get frustrated and negative about paperwork, let’s think about all the wonderful things that the paperwork actually does, assuming that we are filling it out in a disciplined, thoughtful way.

  • It allows us to grow as teachers and create more exciting activities for our students.
  • It allows us to help parents become better at their jobs and us to become better at reaching the student before they get to the point of giving up.
  • It allows us to treat all students fairly and meet their different needs in a more effective way.
  • It allows us to keep track of student work before they get so far behind that they can’t catch up.
  • It allows us to work more effectively with LD and ED students and reflect caring by making stronger connections with the Resource professionals.
  • Printing and copying are two functions that we can sometimes take for granted. I know of many school districts who impose very strict printing and copying restrictions on their teachers or even block off the copier with impossible codes! This function allows us to take advantage of so much from giving students typewritten tests and quizzes to including visuals and manipulatives in our classroom activities.
  • It allows us to achieve our credits and maintain active and up-to-date in our profession.
  • It helps us train students how to be self-disciplined and choose appropriate social behavior, taking learning beyond the academic aspect of the classroom to a level of life enrichment.

Thus, paperwork, unfortunately, is a necessary evil. (I know, it was hard to reconcile myself to it also.) Try to remember that next time you’re sitting next to a stack of essays, or trying to grade a constructed project sitting on your classroom floor. Try to remember that next time you get annoyed at having to keep paper records of your grades. Try to remember that when you get to the point of wondering why on earth you became a teacher in the first place. And also remember: We’re all in the same boat.

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Rubric Grading: Uses and Benefits

Grading can be a time-consuming enterprise. Yesterday and today I stayed at school until 5:30pm grading papers and essays. Especially for the English teacher, grading writing assignments can be a daunting task. For elementary and secondary teachers, the temptation is to spend plenty of time nit-picking on each grammar and spelling error, commenting on all of the transitions and rewording sentence structures for students. Unfortunately, doing the editing work for students we all know is something that we should avoid as teachers. How do we address these problem areas in a way that is conducive to the student’s learning and yet efficient with our time as teachers?

Rubric grading can provide a number of benefits to the writing instructor. Not only can rubrics help the teacher approach the “6 Traits of Good Writing,” a current trend in writing instruction, it can also help teachers provide specific feedback to students without editing their work for them. Using an online rubric generator, such as that offered by Rubistar (http://www.rubistar.4teachers.org/), teachers can choose the criteria that best fits their writing assignment. For example, if students are writing a personal narrative, the teacher can choose the criteria of 6 Traits that best applies, such as “Word Choice” and “Voice.” Or if the assignment is a persuasive essay, you can choose areas of “Organization” and “Content.” If the pre-written criteria doesn’t suit, you can certainly go in and type in your own personalized criteria for the assignment.

Best yet, rubric grading is less time-consuming. Students can easily use it for peer reviewing, and teachers discover that determining that writing project grade to be less subjective and easier to define into letter format.  

However, rubrics are helpful for assignments other than writing projects. Projects of any kind can be given a rubric grade. Digital media projects, for example, are perfect for rubric grading. If students create a blog portfolio or create a Powerpoint presentation, you can grade it using a rubric. If you need criteria for a participation grade, a rubric can help you define your criteria between an A, B or C grade. I use a rubric for grading online bulletin board assignments, which requires students to post responses or comment on another student’s project. (http://www.nicenet.org) Perhaps your students are constructing a model of something; a rubric is an excellent way to give specific feedback on accuracy and appearance of the model. Certainly a rubric keeps you from looking at a student’s work and giving an offhand, cursory, “Um…I think it’s about a…B+… or maybe a B.” It isn’t fair to the students and it isn’t really helping them achieve results.

Finally, a rubric grade assists you with modifying your grading systems to accomodate all learners. Students receive feedback on the areas that need work, but you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s say that you have a student who happens to have a processing disorder or a form of dyslexia. The essay may be strong in ideas and organization, but be weak in spelling and grammar. The student can feel good about their strengths without being considered failures because of their weaknesses. With a rubric grade, a student earns an F by not doing anything to work toward their grade, either by not turning in the assignment or turning it in incomplete. Effort is always rewarded. Since rubrics are given to students before they begin the project, gifted students are able to work more strategically toward earning a higher grade. It motivates them to see exactly what they have to do to earn an A.

Because of rubrics, teachers can widen their methods of assessment and actually save more time grading them! If you, as a teacher, have never used a rubric before, I suggest you try it at various points during the year. Think of the projects, journal entries, written papers, etc. that you demand of your students and imagine the improvement that you will see in their achievement. To save even more time, google search for rubric generator websites and take advantage of the work that others have already created. Some sites, such as Rubistar, actually allow you to save your rubrics in an account where you can access them at any time. Once you print them out, you can make copies and save them for use next year.  Teachers who used rubrics will be pleasantly surprised at how easy they are to make and use.

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Classroom Management

As a first-year teacher just out of college, I didn’t have a clue. My students appeared to be well-behaved, interested individuals. I thought that if I had enough interesting lesson plans and assignments that all would be well and they wouldn’t want to interrupt, impede their own education and basically disrupt the class. Yeah, right. THAT turned out well.

Regardless of all of the theories that you have heard about classroom management and the philosophical base for each one, the theories pale in the face of actual practice. So let me tell you what REALLY works. First of all, consider your own prevention methods–things that you can do yourself to have better control over the attention span of the kids. When they enter the room, do they have something to do? Is there something on their desk or a routine activity that puts them in their seats? Do you usually have your lesson plans clearly defined? How much of your lesson plan requires “busy work,” “worksheets,” or “seat work” to fill up time? Are you using every minute of your class time, or do you have periods of time that are left for students to “talk amongst themselves”? Have you found yourself breaking frequently one of the “rules” for appropriate behavior that you expect your students to obey?

If you are not appropriately planning your time or directing your students through your expectations and classroom routines on a daily basis, you cannot expect your kids to fit into your idea of appropriate behavior. Also, if students are not allowed to have cell phones, but you pick yours up during class to ask your husband to pick up the dry cleaning, you are not earning their respect. Students learn from modeling, and you are their biggest role model.

Once your own end of the deal is upheld, students can then be presented with the discipline plan and procedures. The discipline plan presents easy, positively-worded rules in a short, simple-to-memorize list. Why? Because students forget! Narrow it down! The discipline plan sometimes allows students to take responsibility by creating their own rules, based on what they feel is appropriate classroom behavior. The discipline plan requires the teacher to set up contracts for classroom behavior with the student and with the parent by requiring signatures. The rules of the class must then be posted and frequently referred to during the year. Finally, all of that work does nothing if the rules are not consistently enforced. Follow your discipline plan all year long, without making little exceptions here and there.

“But what do I do?” you may ask. “Do I just give them a detention?” Students fight detentions that are given to them without warning. For upper level students in middle school and high school, give them a step-by-step process. 1 time = verbal warning.  2nd time = the student fills out a form explaining their infraction and what they will do to correct the problem. 3rd time = detention. Staple the form to the detention slip after making a copy. If the student “accidentally” misplaces the detention slip and doesn’t return it signed, take the student to the office and have them call their parents in your presence. When the parent hears about the infraction from the student’s mouth and sees the written documentation that you have talked with the student about it prior to giving the detention, neither the parent nor the student can complain about a lack of warnings.

Elementary teachers will many times use the “color system.” Small envelopes with the students names are hung on the wall and contain slips of construction paper. Students may start on “Green” with a verbal warning. The card is switched to “Yellow” for second warning. “Red” is the final warning and may warrant a “Time-out” or a missed recess. The cards can be sent home to parents at the end of the week or at the end of every day when the student takes home a folder of their homework/classwork. Set very specific routines set to key words from the first day of class. I knew a teacher who could make students sit in one place very easily just by saying “Criss-Cross Applesauce!” The kindergarten students would gather around and sit down while crossing their legs. They would stop talking and look up expectantly at the teacher.

Want to avoid chaos? The best solution is to have a plan. Now that you have read this article, contribute some classroom management tips of your own! What routines do you have? What is your “plan”? Share your personal classroom management disaster or first-year horror story (To be sure, we all have them!).

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Why Teach in a Christian School?

For some of us, teaching in a Christian school inspired a variety of reactions from friends and family. Some accepted it and supported us in our decisions. Others thought we were crazy and trying to brainwash children. For those of us who traveled overseas, the responses were even more varied. Believe it or not, an African-American man in a bi-racial relationship actually told me that he didn’t believe in American teachers going overseas because “we had plenty of kids that needed teachers in the U.S.” It definitely made me think of the values of a multicultural and international education. I will clarify that this site is for supporting ALL Christian teachers, including those who do teach in the public school arenas. There is, indeed, a need for Christian teachers in our public schools, and it is a calling in an of itself that deserves respect. However, it wasn’t necessarily the answer for all of us.

So why did you make the choice to become a Christian school teacher? And why do you continue teaching in a Christian school? What is the draw? What are the pros and cons? Feel free to share your thoughts here to inspire others who may be thinking about a career in Christian school education.

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School Department Communication Online

Our school is in the process of writing curriculum, and I have been chosen “Department Head” by default. I have been at the school the longest, and am the one with the English degree who has taught the most amount of “English” classes, so somehow I am supposed to lead the rest of the English crew into curriculum alignment.

This year our school will undergo accreditation, and one of the recommendations of the accreditation team that came two years ago was to communicate within the department. So far no time has really been allocated for department meetings, and I’m not even sure what I would say within the department that would make people willing to stay after school. So here is my solution: Create a WordPress blog specifically for accessing standards, asking questions, interacting as a whole school unit. We can make it a fun place and include pictures of people I “caught” doing something cool in the English department. I could talk with teachers about how they use the new textbooks that we bought for this year, and give ideas for the other teachers to use.

So will it work? Stay tuned.

If you’ve ever attempted something like this in your small school for teacher-teacher interaction, let me know, and let me know if it was a success or a complete failure.

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