by Lorena German, Lawrence, Massachusetts.
In 1998 I walked into high school and that afternoon we were ushered into the auditorium for the freshman assembly. Among the rules and warnings that were announced to us, we were told, “Look to your left. Look to your right. The person next to you might not be here in four years.” And they were right. My freshman class entered Lawrence High School at around 700 students and in 2001 graduated 371 young people. Years later, after much fighting myself and my educational traumas, I walked back into LHS, this time though, as a teacher.
Today I teach young people English Language Arts. The neighborhood I work in is not an easy one to live in. Lawrence has many negative issues; yet because I’m from here, I also know the beauties in Lawrence. I know what it means to be from here and still live here. Therefore, being an effective teacher is a serious task at the top of my priorities. In order for me to meet my own high expectations I have to continually review and reflect on my practice and what sustains me. I think of the young people like myself and the higher development I could have had if I had better teachers in a more functional system. I think of my friends who were and still are highly literate in “non-standard English” ways yet who were ignored, so I work to celebrate student voices. One of the most important ways to be effective, in my eyes, is to be a connected educator.
A connected educator is an educator deeply connected through various means to many sources, but most importantly to his or her students and the community in which they educate. As an educator I am connected in many ways to my students, my colleagues, my city, and other educators throughout the U.S. and abroad. Honoring this human network of connections is the only way I see to be effective in Lawrence. In the digital age we live in, this connectivity is enhanced by our access to technology. I don’t see technology as the “connector”; I see the educator as connected or disconnected. Technology is but an avenue.
In Lawrence, Massachusetts, being disconnected from the city and the students leads to a void that causes many gaps. As a teacher I am connected to my students through their language, culture, and way of life so I have the opportunity to create an environment where student identities are celebrated in a space highly focused on student assessing vs. student expression. Since I am from Lawrence, the city my students are from, there are certain aspects of my students’ experiences that need no translation, interpretation, or explanation. I am connected to my students’ realities and their struggles. I am aware of their feelings and can sincerely relate to their pain.
Being connected, for me, goes beyond a digital space. It actually comes full circle to the very classroom I teach in. In order for me to be effective and connected, I need to allow my students’ lives and realities to find a space in our classroom dialogue and text so that we can have conversations about social justice and social change. Since many of my students’ realities are in dire need of improvement and resolution, I can’t expect these learners to leave their problems at the door and come to my classroom as if these struggles were only on TV. I must allow the life of Lawrence to leak into my classroom as a way to engage my students,. I want to show these young people that learning is connected to life and that our classroom experience is relevant.
The coursework we engage in during the year is another means for me to stay connected. I help students understand that they need to also be connected to their community and to each other. We use poetry in my classroom as a means to stay connected to social justice. There is no way to live in Lawrence and not desire or work towards social change. As a result, we have to discuss social justice in school; if not in my classroom, then where?
In addition to being connected to my students as an educator, I am a writer and this, too, connects me. Being a writer connects me to my city and to the obstacles we face daily as a community. As I write, I write about my students, I write about my profession, my city, and all aspects of my life. This writing–where I express my heart and build my soul–connects me to the voice of my city.
Being a connected educator requires humility because I have to be ready to learn from my students and to work alongside them. We are connected in many ways, and bringing those connections into the classroom space, in my opinion, is the only way to be an effective educator in Lawrence. I would like to say that it’s the only way anywhere else, too.
Online Exchange Practices Deepen Local Work
by Holly Spinelli, New York City
For the past decade, the U.S. media’s reports on our country’s public educational system have been bleak and disheartening. These reports largely focus on the negative agents destroying public education from the top down: slashed budgets, rapidly increasing class sizes that show no signs of slowing, local school boards and other officials closing schools that fail to meet policy makers’ inconsistent criteria, and teacher “performance” relying all too heavily on student test scores. It is obvious that the public education system is under attack on several fronts, but educators across the country have been successfully combating the constant barrage of stifling oppression by participating in innovative and creative professional educational exchanges through the Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN).
Every day, educators are on the front lines fighting for what little is left of their professional rights and for the high quality educational experiences that their students deserve. This sentiment and the vibrant educational opportunities emerging from it have and continue to be the epicenter of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network. BLTN provides a unique online forum for its members to engage their students in educational exchanges both inside and beyond the classroom. The network also serves as a continuous development resource for educators across the country and all over the world. BLTN has been a key component to keeping my teaching practices fresh, meaningful, and most importantly, student-centered and collaborative while I continue to meet those looming state standards. I have participated in several successful projects in the past, and I am eager to begin new collaborations and conversations with other BLTN members for this school year.
This fall, I will participate in a year-long professional dialogue with teachers from the Navajo Nation: Susan Miera, Evelyn Begody, Anissa Shaver, and Crystal Wood. Though I work in a public transfer high school in New York City, we have found that our students face similar obstacles that hinder their performance in school. Many of our students struggle with poverty, violence, and substance abuse in their homes and neighborhoods, teen pregnancy, depression, and the everyday pressures that are often associated with being a teenager. We intend to discuss ways to meet the literacy needs for struggling readers and writers in our respective under-served populations. We hope to identify resources both inside and outside the classroom to help inform our own practices and to better assist our students with getting the resources they need so that we can get them on track to becoming stronger readers and writers. This exchange will also serve as a supportive community to help one another voice our concerns and to celebrate our successes in our classrooms throughout the year. Professional exchanges like this one are essential to keeping me from burning out and getting discouraged. I am lucky to work in a supportive educational environment, but the BLTN exchanges keep me in contact with experienced educators beyond my scope of practice who help keep me motivated with their fresh perspectives.
In addition to the professional exchange, I will also participate in a student-centered educational exchange with BLTN member Christopher Moore. Moore teaches in a public high school in Ohio. (See Digital Learning Partnerships: Transforming the Way Students–and Teachers–Think about 21st Century Learning for an article co-authored by Chris in this issue.) Chris and I plan on having our junior and senior college-bound students share their college application essays with one another. We hope that providing the students with an online writing workshop model with peers outside of their own school will do more than help them enhance their writing skills. We hope it will give students a platform for their voices to be heard, a place for their creativity to flow, and a positive peer environment to boost their confidence in their writing and in themselves. This exchange will benefit the students because sharing their writing with a real outside audience that, unlike college admissions committees, will give them feedback before submitting their applications, will offer students the opportunity to prepare their writing for an audience other than a teacher. The peer exchange will allow students to share helpful tips, ideas, and offer one another encouragement throughout the college application process. The writing, sharing, and editing process among the students is an authentic and un-intimidating way for them to showcase their writing and editing skills in a non-judgmental, supportive, and organic manner. BLTN student exchanges like this one enable students of all backgrounds and skill-levels to communicate and create with one another without the pressures of being graded or “meeting a standard.”
Politicians, school board members, and non-believers can continue to wage their war on public education, but BLTN’s creative, supportive, and well-established online exchange practices have demonstrated time and time again that despite an ever-changing educational climate, authentic learning experiences like those through the BLTN will always prevail.