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Sharing stories about teaching, engaging

This guest blog post is the next in a series from Christina Puntel and Geoffrey Winikur. In this installment, Christina interviews Geoff.


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


The guest blog section is a place for people, other than our regular cast of bloggers, to share their views. (See our "About Our Blog" note at the top, right.) Got something you'd like to write about? Email us with a pitch, idea, or a completed post.

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Comments (10)

Submitted by Dan Rhoton (not verified) on April 15, 2011 10:31 pm

When I read about teaching -- and others experience with teaching -- I am always surprised about the ways that people talk about it.

In my experience, teaching is not a process of finding the "right" technique, no matter what the current buzzwords might be. Service learning, culturally relevant texts, differentiated instruction, direct instruction, student centered instruction, indiviudalized instruction -- the list of names and acronyms for what goes on in a classroom goes on and on. These names not only represent artifically isolated techniques, but each also carries with ridiculous political baggage. "Progressive" teachers teach one way. "Conservative" teachers teach another.

Teaching is a craft. Like all crafts, the master craftsman uses the best tool for the job. Excellent teachers are masters of the techiques that they need to teach effectively at a given moment, with a given group of students. A carpenter does not choose his lathe based on philosophy or politics. He uses the best one for the job. A teacher should not choose a technique except through the lens of thekids sitting on front of him or her.

Often, I find myself thinking that teachers need to get out of THEIR heads and spend some more time trying to get in their STUDENT'S heads. That, I think, is how to learn to teach.

Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on April 16, 2011 9:22 am

Dan - Thank you for raising so many interesting questions.

I would suggest that culturally relevant pedagogy is a lens that helps me learn with and from my students, and also allows them to learn from a more engaging (for them) perspective. Most of the students that I teach are African American or Afro-Carribean, so it makes sense to study literature, film and music that analyzes how people like them lived and live history. So we "read" artists like Achebe, Wilson, Sembene, Morrison, Kingsolver, Billie Holiday, Walker among others. Is that a political stance? Absolutely. But so is a standardized curriculum, a scope-and-sequence, even the mandated implementation of the Do Now. These ideas suggest that all students can and should learn in the same way.

For me, the effective teacher is able to integrate all of the strategies you describe as "buzzwords" in a very fluid manner. That said, I think you are right to suggest that these ideas are often viewed as discrete strategies.

We invite all educators to weigh in on this dialogue. The future is distressing, but there are ways of maintaing sanity.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 16, 2011 2:11 pm

I agree with the comment about teachers needing to get into the students heads, rather than inside their own heads.

I also think it's very dangerous for educators to decide what material is "like" the students. That often translates "people with the same skin color." Our students are living in Philadelphia in 2011. That is a unique time and place, just as all others. To make assumptions that certain authors, genres, etc. are "more relevant" to urban minorities is very dangerous, I think. I am also generally uncomfortable with the idea that the substance of a student's education should be substantially modified based on their cultural background. To me, that perspective comes dangerously close arguments put forth by school segregationists.

Submitted by Christina (not verified) on April 16, 2011 8:14 pm

Some teachers use texts that engage students in dialog about the nuances of race, culture, access, disabilities... In essence, these texts are a way to "get into" the student, allowing content and curriculum to form bridges from the student to the teacher to the wider class community to the school to Philadelphia in 2011 to something much larger than Philadelphia and beyond 2011.

For me, and maybe for others, text books have themselves been substantially modified by someone and exclude others. What happens when teachers seek out professional development in order to re-imagine a 21st century curriculum, all about making connections and building bridges? What happens to student engagement? What happens to community? What happens to achievement?

What are some other ways we hone our craft, improve our "trade" skills as Dan talked about, in order to develop academic connections with our students, get into their heads, build those bridges?

Submitted by Cindy (not verified) on April 17, 2011 6:27 pm

I teach reading to kids through 8th grade, a group very mixed
racially, economically, culturally. I've been watching what happens
when I teach Maniac Magee by Spinelli, a kind of funny and sad, silly
and serious book that has a lot to do with race. The responses are
extremely varied. Some i think have to do with the racial outlook and
background of the student. Some don't. I feel like all kids need
the opportunity to imagine through literature lives other than the
ones they are living, and they need ways to analyze and examine the
one they see in front of them.

Different kids choose to take different opportunities for this. Few
books are necessarily about race, or primarily about race anyways,
until the discussion/imagination of the readers go that way. A good
book has a lot going on, and so do kids who are engaging with it. I
always prepare (well, ok, almost always), but I'm regularly surprised
at the important topics that become central that I hadn't expected.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 17, 2011 8:22 pm

Always loved Maniac McGee because it was one of the few books not afraid to deal with race relations. Not to mention it takes place in nearby Norristown. The Ear, The Eye and the Arm is another good one that deals with race in the 21st century, but more as a product of colonialism.

Submitted by Geoffrey Winikur (not verified) on April 17, 2011 8:59 pm

It would very interesting to hear what other experiences teachers have with texts that deal with race and other complex issues. I know of a science teacher who critically examined images in textbooks. For example, scientists are almost uniformly white, whereas the recipients of medical advances or other innovations are often people of color. This teacher suggests that this dynamic subliminally creates the perception of white person as more knowledgable, more advanced and people of color as dependent. I don't know if the books have been changed, but this teacher is a very reliable source.

Submitted by Anne (not verified) on April 18, 2011 8:17 pm

While I agree with Dan that culturally relevant pedagogy can be used as a buzzword, I completely disagree that it is being used as such here. It is rare to find teachers engaged in conversation about their craft, about the decisions that they make about what, how and why to teach because in the current reform context, teachers are being positioned as interchangeable parts. This series is important for the window that it offers into the profession of teaching and the ways that teaching can be constructed as building knowledge with students. I teach future teachers about culturally relevant pedagogy and about knowing your students and knowing yourself. My students are eager to be in relationship with their students, but too often, they lack the knowledge about how curriculum can be enacted through a relationship. I will share these pieces with them and hope that they take away inspired, hopeful visions of being a teacher. What a gift!

Submitted by Ted (not verified) on April 19, 2011 8:41 am

I appreciate the dual focus of this conversation exploring not only student learning, but also on the frameworks and techniques teachers bring to this goal. Learning - for students and teachers - is a very complex process that cannot occur through a quick fix. It will not occur without relationships, and as we are discussing, these relationships must also occur with the content our students study. Culturally-relevant pedagogy becomes a hollow buzzword when we lose sight of this complexity by assuming surface level connections will suffice to engage students. In my mind, CRP becomes transformative when students are able to see deeply into their own lives and the lives of others. This allows students to understand themselves in different ways and to develop empathy and tolerance for other people. As Geoff pointed out earlier, this is certainly a political stance; nevertheless, it is one that I believe leads to a more just and democratic future, yet I am not sure this type of socialization can be measured on a standardized test.

One text I used in my high school social studies classroom to bring this practice to life was A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. In this text, Beah describes his experience in war-torn Sierra Leone. Out of this book, my students and I had some very rich discussions about violence, peer pressure, loss of innocence, drugs, gender roles, discipline, rehabilitation, the prison system, juvenile justice, love, family, nature, grief, and rap music. The text was used to allow the students to see a different perspective, and as a class community, we inquired into how these realities played out for Beah as well as in their own lives. I welcomed their stories and experiences into our room to better understand the text we were reading. All of this was done because the students were reading independently every night as well as writing response papers. There was an intensity and rigor to the reading, writing, and class discussions, so as not to limit their academic development or their social growth.

I believe this learning shows the essence of Giroux's quote that understanding comes through celebrating voices. I look forward to hearing from others and reading more about the ways in which we celebrate our collective voices as educators and the voices of our students.

Submitted by Anne T (not verified) on April 23, 2011 7:07 pm

As a teacher of 35 years, I can honestly say that each group of students that sits in front of me during the year, has been different from the last group. Although I teach the same content each year, how I teach it becomes the more important thing. Groups respond very differently to the same books and ways of learning.

One of the more interesting observations I've made over the past four years teaching 5th graders is that they will respond best when you allow discussion in the room. They love discussing historical happenings as well as current events. The year before last I witnessed the most amazing discussion about Bud, Not Buddy. They covered race relations, unions, the Depression, Dust Bowl, and compared it to now. I could not have planned that discussion, but had a grand time steering it into a learning opportunity. Many times you just have to be open to hearing the buds of a valuable lesson coming out in answers or questions.

I've seen it all during my 35 years - the circle has come around several times regarding methods and all I can say is, you have to go with what works for you and your students, no matter what is in fashion. For 10 years, up till a month ago, I had a marvelous principal who understood this. I am very tenacious about how long I will be able to do what I think is right, since the current atmosphere in the Region is an adversarial one between teachers and administration. My former principal had enough of the crap she endured supporting us teachers. The administration at the Region killed her spirit and is trying to kill ours. I hope the pervasive mood of negativity leaves soon. Or more good people will be gone.

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