Sharing stories about teaching, engaging
This series was inspired by a desire to give a different response to the Inquirer's "Assualt on Learning" series. We encourage other teachers to share their stories of learning and success. We hope that these stories can help the public re-imagine what makes teaching such an important vocation. It would be wonderful to read snapshots from your classroom that reflect the real work of teaching and learning in the comments section of this series. Let’s hear all about it.
Christina: How did you learn how to teach?
Geoff: I learned through various professional development opportunities, most notably the Philadelphia Writing Project. I was involved in several teacher inquiry groups, and recently two NEH Summer Seminars.
In one teacher research group, Gender Awareness Through Education, we were partnered with educators from Gillespie Middle School, and our group included school secretaries whose kids attended the school. I learned a lot about the lives of kids outside of school.
I also recall that Dr. Deidré Farmbry organized a study group with the ethnographer Elijah Anderson. This taught me a great deal about how many veteran teachers viewed the impact of race and class on schooling. These experiences, along with the expert teachers that I taught with on a daily basis, really helped me understand what it means to be an effective teacher, learn from students, and build on what kids know.
Christina: What happens when you teach culturally relevant texts?
Geoff: I have always been very interested in the impact of gender, race, and class on the lives of students. At Gratz, kids really took to authors that really addressed these issues: memoirists like Nathan McCall and Elaine Brown. Students read their stories and wrote analytical essays. One young man, who had an IEP, articulated his connection to these texts:
"I got something out of both stories, and I hope it will benefit me in the long run. As of now I live the life, and deal with the things that Nathan dealt with. Being a black man is more dangerous than being a white male, or a black female. Because nowadays we as black men get looked upon like criminals. You know, and I know so we both know."
The most important lesson that I learned is that reading levels and other labels could be very subjective. This student, and many others like him, read these and other texts with great excitement.
Presently, I focus on critical analysis of African literature and film, as well as the presence of African culture on American literature. A group that I taught in this manner for the past three years demonstrated dramatic improvement on the PSSA.
Christina: Can you give a specific example of a time when you first identified schools as sites for culturally responsive education?
Geoff: Gratz in the 1990s was a very fascinating school. I am not idealizing it as there were very real, systemic challenges. There was a sense of pride and tradition, yet we were subject to a constant change of leadership – five principals in 13 years during the time I was there. There were, however, dedicated teachers who had radically different visions of teaching and often engaged each other in vigorous debate. Overall, there was a real commitment by the staff and administration to provide a strong learning community.
In those days, the many comprehensive high schools were comprised of “charters,” subsequently Small Learning Communities (SLCs), each offering a focus that could help students prepare for future academic and career plans. It was inspiring to see kids and teachers embrace each other around a common goal.
Christina: Say more about the pedagogical innovations at Gratz. This kind of knowledge, the fresh, local, teacher-made knowledge about schools is hard to find in any of the conversations about reform.
Geoff: One charter was called Crossroads. Crossroads implemented several innovations that really helped students feel both challenged and respected.
Learning was organized through Essential Questions. Most classes were grouped heterogeneously. Older students mentored younger students, and younger students challenged themselves. Teachers were encouraged to design provocative, culturally relevant curricula, while also taking an inquiry stance on their own practices. Most learning was project-based; students kept portfolios and graduated only after completing an interdisciplinary senior project that included a research paper, presentation, and portfolio reflecting four years of learning.
There were other successful SLCs at Gratz (just as there were in many other schools across the city), but two that stand out most were the automotive academy and culinary arts. The teachers in these programs did not sit around blaming parents, nor did they view students’ families as dysfunctional. Rather, they implemented highly effective examples of differentiated instruction.
Christina: What does all of this mean in terms of collaboration?
Geoff: I learned that teaching philosophies didn’t matter as much as teacher agency and that respecting and responding to the community was central, while at the same time providing meaningful choices for students, both in terms of curriculum and other ways of learning.
I don’t understand how you can speak to people if you don’t celebrate their voices. – Henry A. Giroux
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