Thursday, August 27, 2009

Language Policy for the Oppressed

“The more you can increase fear of drugs and crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all the people.”

~Noam Chomsky

During this section we studied the political implications of Language Policy in the United States. As you may have guessed, I was not pleased.

This section was really difficult to sit through. Wishing to remain respectful to the class, I did not get out of my chair and yell out in frustration listening to the litany of injustices that have taken place during our country’s history. These injustices seemed to be based on fear, motivated by profit or simply to maintain the unbalanced control of power in this culture. This section helped clarify and solidify my understandings of the political aspects of language. Language policy is one tool used by the powerful to control, manipulate and institutionalize racism within our culture.

As painful as it was to listen to, I was pleased that we took time in class to document the consistent efforts that have taken place in regards to our language policy during our short and fearful history of the United States. When our corporations needed access to inexpensive labor (with non-existent labor rights provided), we allowed Chinese people to build our railroads. When these laborers asked for fair pay or wanted to extend their stay after the completion of the railroad, we developed laws to push them out. German was the protected language of this land because the people who stole this land descended from central Europe. But when Germany was viewed as our enemy, any associations with that culture, or its language, were viewed as unpatriotic and no longer enjoyed its lofty status. As our fear percolated into a crescendo of mistrust for anything foreign during the 1950's we created the Immigration and Nationality Act that limits access to our country simply based on associations with any country that was outside the Western Hemisphere. Here in California, if the price of food reflected its fair and ethical price, taking into account fair wages for workers who enjoy the minimal standards of safety recognized throughout the world (not to mention access to proper health care), most people could not afford it. Instead, we rely on access to inexpensive labor to maximize profits for the elite few. Our powerful corporations are working hard to carefully manufacture access to cheap labor while at the same time, continue to limit access to any social services for the people who work these farms.

One exception to that rule is access to education. Here in California we provide access to education for all people living here, regardless of legal status. However, we have constructed a language policy that severely limits the affects of any education offered. This policy ignores the vast array of data and the experiences of other countries that illustrate that providing bilingual education is by far the most effective way to insure that academic achievement is maximized, that respect and understanding for the culture of origin lay intact and, perhaps most importantly, the student's relationship with school, education and self worth is left to flourish.

As teachers who work in the public sector it is imperative that we understand how racism is in the culture has been institutionalized. Furthermore, it is our responsibility is to utilize this understanding as we provide equitable education system to a diverse group of students.

Friday, August 21, 2009

None of us are free until we are all free

During the short write exercise in class I wrote the following statement: "I have experienced oppression living in a time where war and fear are the underlying prescription for the economic expression throughout the world. I am oppressed by the limited understanding of love and compassion manifested in my world community."

The words seem to come flying out of my hand and I put my pen down, somewhat shocked at the honesty that had come from me.

I feel blessed at my background, which I reflected on my short write about privilege: "I have experienced privilege in my life by being born as healthy, white, male, to educated, loving parents who saw me as someone who is both lovable and important. I was born during a time that was free of war and disease (for me), and where access to information and wisdom have been readily available." I know how much has been offered to me, which is why I was surprised at my writing about oppression.

All of us have developed a strategy to deal with the inequities that exist in our world. Some become bitter or hateful while others are able to find a level of acceptance. Members of the ruling class must come to grips with that fact they have much more than others. It seems unfair to say that their burden is greater than those in the minority, but the point is that we all have some pain associated with the unfair fact that some are born in to wealth and others into poverty. These questions of what it means to feel privileged and or what it means to be oppressed is relevant to all people of our global village, even our children.

The emotions that I became aware of during these practices all surrounded interdependence (empathy, oneness, understanding, acceptance and community). The insights that I can take from these exercises into my classroom all have to do with the idea of fairness and that we all cope with inequality and unfairness differently, given our diverse background. Sexual orientation, race, wealth, gender and political background all play critical roles in developing a framework through which we see the world. As important as the physical traits of the individual, the emotional capacity and wisdom of a person also helps to create one's relationship with their surroundings. For example, someone with a high degree of empathy will have a different reaction to injustice in the world than someone who may share those person’s same physical traits, but differs in their emotional intelligence. Regardless of our personal construct of the world, as teachers, we should encourage the constant examination of students and the world around them. Using the discussions of Labels or what it means to be oppressed is to encourage self-examination and the ideas surrounding equity and fairness. I see these discussions, and the wisdom behind them as part of the set of tools that I am developing to help others empower themselves.

Reconsidering Homework

Information Guide and Homework Policy

Dear Parents,

Any homework given to your child will reflect our intentions to promote two goals: high quality learning and the desire to keep learning. When homework is given it will reflect activities that are naturally suited for home. For example, we encourage reading together from a book of your children’s choice every day. Cooking, board games and puzzles are all activities that can be done together at home that can act as a compliment to the work we do during school hours.

Homework is a chance for your child to learn by making mistakes. The point of good homework is to learn, not to prove that they have already learned. Therefore, when homework is given, it will not be graded. However great care will be given for proper feedback about what the student is learning.

Any homework given will be offered with the following qualification:
If homework ever interferes with any family activities or extracurricular activities such as music or sports, simply make a note of it on the homework and we will waive it. The same note should be made if any student is struggling with the homework.

All of us want our children to be successful and happy. As teachers, it is our intention to work with you to find the balance of school, play and home life. We look forward to (and need!) your feedback. You are your child’s best teacher and often times only you can help us understand your child and what is best for him or her. We encourage you to find out more about the affects of homework (both negative and positive) and look forward to any suggestions or comments you may have so that we can work together to help form the best learning environment for your child.

Information Guide and Homework Policy

Please take a moment to find out what current research has shown about the effectiveness of homework in Elementary schools.

The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing
Kohn, Alfie. (2006) First Da Capo Press.

“There is no evidence of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school.”(p38)

“Correlation doesn’t prove causation. At best, most homework studies show only an association, not a causal relationship.” (p. 28)

“The conclusions of more than a dozen reviews of the homework literature conducted between 1960 and 1989 varied greatly. Their assessments ranged from homework having positive effects, no effects or complex effects to the suggestion that the research was too sparse or poorly conducted to allow trustworthy conclusions.”(p.25)

“The proportion of six- to eight-year-olds who are assigned homework is now almost the same as that for nine- to twelve-year-olds.” (p.7)

Negative impacts of homework: Burden on parents, Stress on children, Family Conflict, Less time for other activities, Less interest in learning. (p.10-17)
American School Board Journal, (v183 n10 p48-51 Oct 1996)

Researcher Harris Cooper examined studies on homework and student achievement and found that homework substantially raises high school students' achievement; in junior high, homework raises students' achievement only about half as much; and in elementary grades, homework has no discernible effect on students' achievement.

National Foundation for Educational Research

* There is a positive relationship between time spent on homework and achievement at secondary school level (especially for older secondary students). Evidence at primary school level is inconclusive, because fewer studies have been carried out at primary level and results have been inconsistent.

* Time spent on homework explains only a small amount of the variance in pupils' achievement scores, even at secondary level.

* There is a disappointing lack of reliable evidence on 'what works' in terms of homework assignments, procedures, marking and feedback.

Sounds that make me smile

After 100 hours of classroom attendance and writing about 10,000 words, my school deemed me fit enough to work with kids. The State of California requires many other benchmarks including two tests, which took me about 16 hours to take and other smaller requirements, including fingerprints and a LIVESCAN. Livescans and fingerprints are now standard procedure for anyone interested in working with the public, especially with children. During this process you admit any violations of law taken place since one's birth. So after months of preparation I have been placed with in an elementary school as a student teacher.

Do I feel prepared? In some ways, yes and in another way - I am scared out of my mind! I am guessing that's an appropriate reaction to student teaching. My tension was greatly reduced when I met my Cooperating Teacher (CT).

If your goal is to be properly trained as a profoundly great teacher, my CT is everything you could hope for. For proper training I am guessing (since I am just starting this process) you need three things: A great school to train you, a great school to practice in and about 10,000 hours of practice. The fact that I have two of them is not lost on me. [Picture Sean staring at a big box with a giant red ribbon on it].

But wait, it gets better.

Rejoice if you interview your cooperating teacher and she talks like this: "Why do I teach and take on student teachers every year? I know I have a lot to offer and I love the interaction with the younger teachers. It keeps me current and I love the interaction with them. I don't mind being called out if I am wrong and I expect that you will engage me if you think I can do something better."

I pointed out the irony that the degree to which one is secure in their understanding of something, is the degree to which they able to question it and grow their understanding. It's clear that she is very secure with herself as a teacher and her understanding of how children should be treated and encouraged to grow.

Also rejoice if your cooperating teacher says that the most important thing a teacher (at any level) can develop is to continually search for the balance of finding empathy or compassion for a child while setting high expectations for them.

Today, I am rejoicing.

Breathing in, I am aware of my joy.
Breathing out, I am taking care of my excitement.

Monday, August 3, 2009

First Language Acquisition

What I hear is who I am.

First Language acquisition refers to the process in which we form our ability to communicate with others. In the past sixty years biologists, behaviorists and linguists have developed theories that help explain the learned and innate abilities humans may share and the role culture may play in the development of first language acquisition. Although each theorist has their merits, it seems logical that the truth of how we develop language falls somewhere between the idea that we have an innate predisposition to absorb certain language properties and the idea that we are solely shaped by the personal and cultural influences.

Watching my children acquire language had an important and lasting impact on me. Any person who has spent time closely interacting with an infant can tell you that from day one they are ready to learn. The children’s ability to know their parents’ voice and respond to them after birth tells us that they have already been listening before birth. The children’s ability to mimic also happens within the first few days. Although human vocal chords do not fully develop until age two, studies show that infants of only a few days are ready and able to attempt repeating what is said to them. This ability, though limited, and the desire to communicate with the people around them is the first step in the child’s acquisition of language. Similarly, the holophrastic and telegraphic phrases young learners use also indicates an early ability (and deep desire) to effectively communicate with those around them.

My experience teaching sign language to my children also influenced my opinion that humans have an amazing ability to communicate, even when they lack the physical functions of voice. By the age of nine months (we started signing at six months) my son was able to start repeating signs and within 6 months knew over twenty-five signs. The first sign he repeated was “more”, as in “Dad, please toss me in the air again. More!”
After many times repeating the sequence of throwing, catching, signing “more”, pausing for his response, he mimicked my hand motion. The notion that he could do something that directly influenced his surroundings was not lost on him. He knew, perhaps for the first time, that what he did affected others.

Reflecting back on the experience of seeing the joy on his face and sharing in his communication, I realize that first language acquisition has two functions; to be able to communicate with others and secondly, to develop a relationship with oneself. If we examine the experiences of learning a first language compared to learning subsequent ones, we see many more shared experiences (comprehension, grammar, repetition, imitation) but the one that stands out with first language acquisition is the idea of the development of the self or sub-conscious. When we learn our first language we learn about our world and this becomes the first and most important framework we use to construct our own self-image.
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