Archive for July, 2010

Leadership Day 2010: From the Ground Up

For the fourth year running, Dr. Scott McLeod out of Iowa State University’s CASTLE program has invited educational bloggers to share their thoughts on topics surrounding educational leadership as it pertains to technology.  In my 2009 entry, I listed four key attributes of someone I considered to be a superlative model of educational leadership in the realm of technology (made even more impressive by the fact that his job description had nothing to do with technology).  For this year’s entry, I’d like to speak a bit about my experiences witnessing and participating in teachers demonstrating leadership initiative.

While undoubtedly many of today’s posts will focus on why and how administrators and supervisors should embrace technology (and don’t get me wrong; I believe they should), I think we first need to differentiate between “administrator” and “leader”.  I hope this doesn’t contribute too much to the “us v. them” mentality to which Gerald alludes in this comment (a valid point, and a problematic issue in any field, to be sure), but I believe it’s important to note that not all administrators (supervisors, headmasters, etc.) are leaders.  Surely, the specific attributes that best describe a leader will vary from person to person, but at the very least, I see that word as describing behavior, not a job title.

Conversely, not all leaders are administrators.  At the risk of sounding nostalgic, there was a very strong grass-roots movement among some of the teachers at my old school to evaluate technology and incorporate it into classroom activities.  A few years prior, in the late 1990s, the then-superintendent sort of put us on the map with regard to technology, but the curricular implementation seemed rather confined to this one project (although it was still pretty cool).  Still, perhaps even more importantly, the series of tubes infrastructure was in place, and steadily improving, from ISDN lines to Wi-Fi blanketing the 72-acre campus.  A few years after that project came to an end, this guy some of you might have heard of took advantage of all those empty Internets tubes and became one of the first to incorporate this easily-accessible technology that would come to be widely known as “Web 2.0” into his classes.  A few years after that, I started investigating the utility of wikis with my English students.  Right around that time, several of my colleagues began using Skype with their World Language students and podcasting in their Social Studies classes.

The beauty of this is that it was not a formal, sanctioned movement, or a directive from on high; rather, some of us just started exploring options and becoming self-taught “experts” in our own rights in certain areas – Will was our blogging guru, I was the wiki guy, Jon and Ray were the people to talk to about Skype, and so on.  When we finally did come together, some of our supervisors and administrators had the foresight and humility to say, “You guys have really gotten this figured out, or are at least on your way, and we absolutely see the value in it – can you help bring this stuff to your colleagues?”  From there, that small core of five or six teachers started running after-school and summer workshops for our colleagues.  Eventually, the core group grew, as did our interests, tools of focus, and – perhaps most importantly – the number of teachers we were able to reach and help identify technological companions for their specific needs.  It was a beautiful, very organic development, thanks mainly to a) teachers who were not afraid to assume leadership roles in relation to their colleagues, and b) administrators who demonstrated true leadership by acknowledging the strengths of their faculty in areas that were largely foreign to them (the administrators) and trusting them to lead.

It should be noted that this approach of “bottom-up” leadership (as opposed to “top-down”) was implemented in many other areas with regard to technology as well.  A core group of teachers volunteered to be the first to be assigned tablet PCs at our school.  Once feedback was collected from this pilot group and the decision was made to roll them out schoolwide, the original cohort ran most of the subsequent training sessions (after all, they were far better suited to speak to the tablet’s impact and utility in the classroom than any administrator).  It’s also interesting to note that in this rollout, faculty & staff were not required to take one if they did not want one (I’ll just leave this there for you to opine upon in the comments…).  The same approach was taken some years later when the school decided to pilot a 1:1 student netbook program.  Teachers, who occupy one of the lower places in the traditional linear hierarchy of school authority, demonstrated multiple times their ability to be leaders in their school community.  This was not only supported, but celebrated and encouraged, by school administrators.

One lesson I’ve learned in the three years or so I’ve been active in online education communities is that there’s a tremendous amount of ego destruction that has to take place in order to really learn and improve one’s professional practice (at least, there was in my case).  Just as the teacher can never presume to be the smartest person in the classroom, the administrator cannot presume to be the best-informed on every single topic.  Mary Beth addressed this quite well in her post “6 Reasons I Surround Myself with People Smarter Than I Am”, and comments by Chris and Deven on that post pretty solidly address the implications for those of us in administrative positions.

I imagine there is a tremendous amount of pressure on school administrators to always have “the right answer” and know exactly what to do in all situations.  That goes with the territory, I suppose, but please remember that you also have an entire faculty of intelligent, dedicated professionals who work with you (you did hire intelligent & dedicated professionals, right?), and whose strengths and knowledge you can draw upon and foster, especially in the realm of educational technology.  Chances are there is a group of teachers in your school who have been tinkering and experimenting just as my colleagues and I did years ago.  Putting your ego aside and drawing upon these resources right under your nose can only benefit the students you serve, and provides a golden opportunity for you to be a leader in deed as well as by title.

The Ick Factor, Part II

The design of the course asked students for their input, their opinions, and their reflections upon reading articles and viewing films that allowed them to move past the stereotypes and deal directly with the issues of intolerance, violence, and double standards applied to one particular group of American citizens.  Just as our pre-unit discussions showed that most students could not give a reason why these issues could or should be studied, they also showed that most students were ignorant as to the issues themselves.  For example, while they all knew that same-sex marriage was a hot-button issue, only a handful of them knew it was legal in one state (Massachusetts, at the time), even fewer knew about the existence of civil unions and domestic partnerships, and I think I could count on one hand the number of students who understood the legal, societal, and economic benefits that marriage affords people in the US.  I say this not to belittle my students, but to illustrate that their apathy was not due to a lack of caring or an active hatred of GLBTQ people, but rather, simple ignorance that the issues even exist.  Once we supplied the basic historical context and facts around issues like same-sex marriage, the students drove the discussions, and while we would step in to probe or re-direct, there were times when the discussion was so genuine and the passions so enflamed, I almost felt like an intruder doing so.

At times like these, I debated internally as to whether I should share my personal opinions on the topic.  On one hand, I certainly didn’t want to influence the discussion and have students “side” with me for brownie points.  On the other hand, I felt hypocritical asking my students to share their opinions so freely without doing so myself.  I decided years ago that I would share my personal feelings on this (and other) topics in the course of discussion, but I frequently reminded the students that these were just my opinions, and not fact, and would frequently tell my students, “I could very well be wrong about this – I would love to hear what you think.”  I think that modeling openness without proselytizing went a long way toward fostering an environment of sharing.  Sometimes, students would even actively seek my opinion – during one debate about the appropriateness of discussing same-sex families in elementary school curriculum, a student asked me, “Mr. B., how would you feel about Dylan [my son] learning about this in elementary school?”  I feel that to deflect the question would have been disingenuous, so I answered honestly: “Yes, I think it’s important that he learn about the various types of families that exist today – not just same-sex and opposite-sex, but nuclear, extended, single-parent, and others.  How many of you come from families that you feel have been underrepresented in the books you’ve read or stuff you’ve studied?”  Without forcing my view on them as the “right” one, I answered honestly, and was able to draw some parallels between a family structure that was unfamiliar to most of my students (same-sex parents) to some that were more familiar.

For a unit of study that focused on a group defined by sexual orientation, I think quite a few of our students were surprised that we spent very little time discussing sex itself.  My response to that was always the same: to do so would be to reduce an entire group of human beings to one personality characteristic.

I preferred crafting the discussion as not a sex issue, but one of human and civil rights (i.e., state-sponsored discrimination against gays, violence and harassment against people who are, or are believed to be, gay, selective enforcement of sodomy laws, issues surrounding rights of marriage).  You might think that talking about sodomy laws in particular would trigger the “ick” response, especially since I used to start that lesson with a request for the definition of sodomy!  After the initial giggles and awkward glances, the class was usually able to cobble together an appropriate definition.  My purpose here was not to shock, but rather to compartmentalize.  As soon as we established a commonly agreed-upon definition, I would ask, “Can gay people perform these acts? Can straight people perform these acts?”  Once we established that yes, both gay and straight people can perform these acts, we could put the sex issue aside and go for the meatier stuff: “In what ways, if any, should these two groups be treated differently under the law?”  Students were then able to think about the legality of enforcing laws with one group of people and not others.  Usually, at least a handful of students would also take the class in the direction of the legislation of sex acts between two consenting adults, and how feasible they are to enforce, as well as their constitutionality.  Again, more often than not, my students could see the social injustice issues a bit more clearly once we effectively removed the so-called “ick factor” that so many people get hung up on.

I was astounded, yet gratified, when students would tell me, “You know, I never thought about gay people as just people before taking this class.” One of the activities that I felt had an enormous impact was when we invited Sharon and Barbara from our local chapter of PFLAG (Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) [ed.: Just realized now that PFLAG actually stands for Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays.  I apologize for the error.] to come speak about their own experiences with their gay and lesbian children.  I always used to smile when they’d say, “Our kids are not drag queens and leather daddies, although that’s usually what you see on TV when you see gay people.  My son is a college student.  Her daughter is a doctor.  They’re regular people, just like everyone in this room.”  Hearing these concrete examples helped our students to see beyond the stereotypes and, as my students said, see gay people as just people.  Once that stigma of “otherness” was removed, or at least reduced, real discussion about human rights and civil rights could take place.

More often than not, by the end of the unit, my students reported feeling much more sensitive to, and better informed about, GLBTQ issues and how they related to their own lives, even if they did not identify as GLBTQ.  In addition to the “they’re just people” comments, the biggest payoff for me was that my students were given access to facts and realistic portrayals of GLBTQ people that did not fall within their very narrow cultural frame of reference.  Regardless of how (or even if) their opinions about GLBTQ issues changed, I was more interested in seeing my students base their opinions on factual information, rather than misinformation.

At the end of the course, long after we had completed this unit and moved on through others, our students were asked to break into small groups, research a topic pertaining to any one of the groups we’d studied, and design a 45-60 minute lesson to be taught to elementary or middle-school age children.  Invariably, at least one or two groups would ask to design a lesson on GLBTQ issues.  As much as my co-teacher and I would have loved to do this, it was not possible.  When we presented our cooperating teachers with the list of groups our students might cover in their classes during our pre-project planning, we were specifically and repeatedly requested to not have students teach on GLBTQ issues.  We reluctantly agreed, but I always made a point of telling the class exactly why the GLBTQ unit was off-limits.

It is easy to discriminate against any group of people perceived to be significantly different from you because as the differences become more significant, there is more room for judgment to come into play: the way those people do x, y, and z is gross/immoral/disgusting/wrong/not in line with what I believe to be right.  From there, even passively turning a blind eye to injustices inflicted by others is easier than fighting for equality.  However, when any marginalized group is humanized, rather than demonized, the differences begin to seem less important than the underlying similarities we all share as human beings.  People are less likely to discriminate or commit acts of violence against those they deem to be “like us.” Keeping GLBTQ issues visible in the public school curriculum is important not only to the students in those classes, but to the country as a whole, for when we decrease homophobic words and actions (along with racist, sexist, and other discriminatory acts), the greater society can only benefit.

The Ick Factor, Part I

Hot on the heels of The Teachable Moment comes another collection of short stories by educators, One Size Does Not Fit All: Diversity in the Classroom.  My offering for this collection draws upon my experience co-teaching a high school (junior & senior-level) course called Multicultural Studies, in which we examined many of the groups that contribute to the cultural fabric of the United States.  Specifically, I recall my experiences teaching a unit that explored the history of and current issues facing the gay community, and contribute my thoughts on the importance of covering such topics.

As with “Alleviating Shakes-fear”, this story will be published here in two parts.  Any differences between this version and the final published version are attributable to the editing process, and all names used herein are pseudonyms.

The Ick Factor

Toward the end of the 1990s, when colleagues at one of my former schools approached high-level administrators regarding a request from students to start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club, the response they got was concise and impossible to misconstrue: “Over my dead body.”  The process to start an extra-curricular club was pretty straightforward, and while clubs had come and gone over the past 40 years due to varying degrees of interest, none of the faculty involved could remember ever hearing of a potential club being told, “You may not exist.”  Essentially, a group of kids was being told,“You do not have the same rights as every other student in this high school” by adults who supposedly had their best educational and social-emotional interests at heart.

If you were a gay student at that time, the shortsighted decision of an administrator might not even appear on your radar amidst the daily verbal barrage of your classmates calling each other “faggot” and referring to everything they didn’t like as “gay.”  And whether or not a club was sanctioned by the school couldn’t possibly mean much to those actively targeted, and in turn bullied, because of their homosexuality, real or perceived.  That being said, eventually the school’s GSA did get approval and remains active a decade after its inception.  Fortunately, the aforementioned administrator did not have to die for this to happen, but his choice of idiom was fairly apt: multiple studies report that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, & questioning (GLBTQ) youth attempt suicide at rates of anywhere from double to quadruple those of their heterosexual peers.  In less severe, but no less significant, terms, GLBTQ people have historically been marginalized, underrepresented, and misrepresented in ways that have made it very easy for people to discriminate against them.

One arena in which GLBTQ people have been most severely underrepresented has been the American school system.  Whether due to disapproval, ignorance, or fear of controversy, the contributions and achievements of GLBTQ individuals have rarely been celebrated or identified as being part of the GLBTQ community.  Representation is important for a number of reasons, especially in schools.  For one, the simple act of acknowledging the existence of GLBTQ people throughout history provides some sense of perspective to people who are too young to realize that being gay is neither new nor a fad.  In addition, there are the caricatures portrayed in the media—the butch, sleeveless-flannel-wearing lesbian and the overly effeminate, impeccably dressed gay man—that can be addressed in school, thus broadening the perceptions of our students.

GSA clubs play a role in this effort, but there is still a lack of visibility, curriculum-wise, in the schools.  I feel privileged that I was able to bring some of these issues to my students for discussion and analysis when I taught a class called Multicultural Studies.  It was an elective course, open to juniors and seniors, and team-taught by an English teacher (me) and a Social Studies teacher.  Over the course of 18 weeks, we examined different ethnic, religious, and social groups within the United States and learned about many different facets of the groups, from historical issues to current events, and how they operate within and contribute to the greater fabric of American society.  One unit of the course focused specifically on issues pertinent to GLBTQ people.

The material covered in this unit varied from year to year, but topics included same-sex marriage (as well as many of the related legal issues), the presence of GLBTQ people throughout American history (for which I recommend the excellent documentary Out of the Past), issues faced by GLBTQ youth and the roles and functions of GSAs.  We also spent time each year discussing the students’ opinions on the appropriateness and necessity of covering different GLBTQ-related issues in a class like ours.

The course was reliant on discussion, but our GLBTQ Studies unit always seemed even more discussion-driven than the others, due in large part to our students’ desire to have an open and honest dialogue about a topic that, for many of them seemed like another world.  In fact, we used to begin by asking the students why they thought this unit appeared in the course curriculum at all.  Responses typically focused around the usual broad themes: reduce prejudice and discriminatory acts, and trying to understand “where they’re coming from.”  When pressed, however, most of our students had difficulty articulating more specific reasons.  It was usually the students who had gay relatives (or, in some cases, identified as gay themselves) who were able to give more insightful, nuanced answers:

“My uncle has been with his partner for ten years, and they want to have a family, but they’re not allowed to adopt.”
“A friend of our family is gay, but he doesn’t act all flamboyant like Jack on
Will & Grace.  He’s just a normal guy.”
“What people don’t get is that we’re just like everyone else in most regards, but we’re seen as these crazy things, and that’s really frustrating!”

During these discussions, my co-teachers and I welcomed any and all questions, even the ones that tended to put us on the spot a bit (e.g., “Why do we have to learn about homosexuality?  Why don’t we do a unit on heterosexuality?”).  Thankfully, those types of questions were few and far between, and most were of a more thoughtful nature.  Since this was an elective course, the students who chose to take it tended to be more sensitive to those issues, even if they didn’t know exactly what they were.  But even among this group of students that skewed toward progressive and open-minded, issues surrounding homosexuality were still a bit more taboo and uncomfortable for many of them to deal with.

In the midst of a research and discussion activity about same-sex marriage laws, one student seemed unusually anxious.  Part of this activity was to designate different areas of the room as representing different opinions, and we asked our students to physically relocate based on their views on what the legal status of same-sex marriage should be.  As most of the students made their way toward the position areas that supported marriage, this student sat still, then reluctantly headed over to one of the “against” areas.

My co-teacher and I began polling the class to find out what reasons the students had for their chosen positions.  When I came to Anna, she immediately jumped on the defensive: “I like gay people! I don’t have anything against them, really! I have friends who are gay!”  As I tried to draw her back to the topic at hand, Anna almost seemed on the verge of tears when she said, “I – I think they should have all the legal rights we talked about, but you just can’t call it marriage, because it’s not.”

My memory of Anna is that she was very progressive overall, and certainly open to considering multiple perspectives on many of the topics we covered in the course.  On this day, however, she drew her own personal line, almost apologetically, as if her “liberal cred” was at risk.  Compared to the general student body, this belief would be considered very progressive (or heretical, depending on who you ask), but in this group, Anna was definitely in the minority; most students in her class came out in favor of full marriage benefits, including the name, for same-sex couples.

As I expected in the ensuing discussion, her classmates asked, “Why would you give them all the rights, but not the name?” and, in this instance, the difference came down to Anna’s personal definition of marriage: “It’s between a man and a woman. If it’s between two men or between two women, it’s something else.”  When pressed for the obvious (“Well, if it’s not marriage, then what is it?”), she answered, “A civil union. A domestic partnership. I… I don’t know…”.  When Anna trailed off at the end, it almost sounded to me like she was struggling with her own definition of marriage.  It may have been an uncomfortable moment for her, but I believe that she was challenged to really think hard about what she believed, and perhaps consider the validity of a viewpoint that contradicted her own.  At any rate, the hugs and friendly shoulder rubs between Anna and the classmates with whom she disagreed reassured her (and me) that there were no hard feelings, and that they were following our class rule of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

As a teacher, I was pleased to see Anna stand up for what she believed in, despite being among the minority in the class.  In this course, rather than simply present facts for memorization and regurgitation, one of our goals was to get kids to think critically about the subject matter and to hash out their thoughts, opinions, and questions with their classmates.  We strove to create a place where students could not only learn about GLBTQ issues (and to these students, almost everything was new information), but, more importantly, discuss them with peers in a non-judgmental, safe environment.

It is important to note that not all discussions came down to taking a “pro-gay” or an “anti-gay” stance. My students seemed to respond most passionately when we talked about issues facing GLBTQ teens, because these were more tangible to them. Our class learned about Harvey Milk High School and the Walt Whitman School, two schools set up specifically to serve the needs of GLBTQ students who are unable to attend their home school due to harassment or violence. After reading about the populations these schools serve, most students seemed pretty on-board with the idea:

“This totally makes sense. There’s no reason gay kids should have to drop out of school just because of bullies.”
“I think it’s great that these kids have a place to go where they’re safe and they can continue their educations in peace.”

The mob mentality would usually take over at that point, with everyone chiming in about how great it was that these schools existed. If we were lucky, though, we’d have at least one or two students who were a bit more savvy about the implications:

“Wait, wait, wait… You’re telling me these kids can’t go to their own schools – where they live – because their principals won’t do anything about the bullying?”
“Why isn’t the school being held accountable for dealing with the harassment instead of pretty much making these kids choose to go somewhere else?”
“This sounds an awful lot like ‘separate but equal’ to me…”

These were the kinds of discussions I relished. In these instances more than any other, I think even my more homophobic students stopped seeing gay people or gay kids and just started seeing kids.  Teenagers have a pretty acute sense of social justice, and even my most conservative students would never say that bullying and harassment are acceptable.  I always felt these were more constructive discussions to have because we weren’t hung up on “gay is OK” and “no it’s not”, but rather, here’s an issue we can all agree is a problem: what is the fairest way to achieve some kind of resolution?

(to be continued)