Monday, May 02, 2005

Making Content Accessible, by any means necessary

[note to readers who aren't enrolled in the teaching credential program I've been in since September: I thought I'd preserve some of my writings here, if I felt it had any meaning beyond the mind-numbing study of pedagogy. So, about all you should need translated is that a TPE is a "Teacher Performance Expectation," of which there are 13! AAVE is short for African American Vernacular English, or by its less popular name, ebonics. If you think this is worth reading, let me know, and I'll see if I have anything else worthwhile.]


By Any Means Necessary

TPE 4 is too wordy to repeat in full here, but the essence is the title: Making Content Accessible. There has been a recent spate of commercials on TV lately for a high-end car that uses a button to start, instead of using a key. The gist of each commercial is that this starter button is hidden and is slowly revealed, in a surrealistic setting. It might be underwater, it might be on a mountaintop, but the goal is to find the button, no matter how far one must go to reach the goal. Once the button is pushed, it just devolves into a routine, forgettable car commercial. The quest for the button is all that remains, at least in my mind.

The button we’re talking about here is the connection between teacher and student. It’s not going to be necessarily something that a teacher parrots out of a manual, and it may lie hidden, but we have to keep searching for it. Because every teacher has a different personality, a different culture, and sometimes different language backgrounds, the connection to the students, who are just as different and unique, will often be an individual one.

When I took my CSET tests, the main test was for Chemistry, but I also passed the general science CSET, which allows me to teach 9th grade integrated science, a course that is being phased out. I figured that most of what I’d be experiencing would be in the chemistry classroom, not in the 9th grade science class, which is somewhat of an afterthought in my teaching goals. But, as the songwriter Robert Hunter once said:
“Once in a while, you get shown the light,
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
As it turns out, my experiences this semester that reflect on TPE 4 have come more often in that 9th grade science class than in the chemistry classes I’ve been observing. The chemistry classes are all pretty much the same, the teacher lectures, works problems out on the board, and I’ve not been very involved, unless it’s a lab where I walk around and try to help the students.

But over in the 9th grade science class, during the last period of the day, I have found myself much more involved, and much more challenged. The class is the only one this teacher has, in addition to his other biology classes. Most of the time it feels like some sort of stepchild. Students are often working on a “dry lab” which is nothing more than a worksheet. There is very little student prep, and sometimes the worksheet is copied from a book the students don’t even use. There is very little ‘observation’ going on, so I just help the kids try and figure it out.

The corner I usually sit in is easily classified as a ‘loser corner.’ Most of the kids just tune out, and do nothing, often wearing headphones to listen to music, as the teacher rarely seems to notice these things. I have tried to make connections with the kids, on different levels, and it would be silly to think I’m always successful. A student named Jay, who is rarely even in class, has been far beyond my attempts so far in establishing a rapport. One of the kids has an iPod like mine, so we talk about that once in a while. I was trying to explain the term ‘epicenter’ to them, and used the analogy that ‘San Francisco is the epicenter of cool,’ which they didn’t seem to get, until one of them half-jokingly said, “you mean, like San Francisco is the epicenter of gay people?” While he finally got the point of what an epicenter was, the conversation couldn’t stop there, as I felt it important to try and disabuse him of this idea that gays only lived in San Francisco.

One of the kids said he’d heard that if you go to prison, you turn gay. Another kid, who usually spends most of his time doodling, said no, that his dad was in prison, and that wasn’t true. I was impressed that he felt he could share this with me. We continued on with the worksheet, and I was able to help them see what they needed to do.

This is only a taste of what I will face as a teacher, and there will always be some sort of bridge I will need to cross to make the content accessible, and maybe with a little trust, the students will walk a little in my direction across that bridge as well.

I think anyone that knows me knows I don’t like to say too many nice things to people, lest they think I’m trying to impress them, but there is something Dr. Cooks said early in the semester that has stuck with me. The class was discussing ebonics, and the whole controversy, and while I don’t think I saw eye to eye with Dr. Cooks on every point, this is a pretty close approximation of what he said:
“Am I saying that you need to learn ebonics to teach? No, but if you find yourself in a classroom in Oakland, and most of the students come from homes where the primary discourse is AAVE, then maybe you ought to become more familiar with AAVE yourself. You’ve got to do whatever you can to help your students.”
This was something I could relate to. The idea wasn’t to just parrot some politically correct designer of curriculum, but to be aware of whatever environment I was in, and use whatever tools I could to reach the students, to make the content more accessible.

On a recent community visit to the Mission District, we visited a community organization called Mission Dignity. They help youth in the community, regardless of whether or not they have documented status. For example, they help a gang member with his schoolwork, and this gang member leaves his schoolbooks at the center, so he doesn’t get in trouble with the gang. The center coordinator, Emilio, gave us a little tour of the facility after he had spent some time talking to us, and proudly took us to the famous poster of Malcolm X, with the words “By any means necessary” boldly printed. I remember when Malcolm X was around, and how in the minds of most white people, those words seemed like threats of violence. But here, the context was love, and a desire to help youth reach their goals, in any possible way.

We all need to make the content accessible to our students “By any means necessary,” and do whatever we can to help our students.

1 comment:

Gazoo said...

< applause >