Editor’s note: The application window for the 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching will be open through December 15, 2015. To give educators more insight into the awardee experience, we’ll be featuring Q&As with four previous awardees on the TT blog throughout the application window. This spotlight on Darnell Fine is the second post in the series. Find the first post here.
Tell us about yourself, including what you teach.
I'm a seventh-grade English teacher. At times, my dreadlocked appearance doesn't jibe with what people expect an English teacher to look like. I sometimes "march by the beat of my own drum," as a student’s parent once put it. I'm often pushing my students to find connections between canonical texts like Romeo and Juliet and their favorite pop songs. I challenge them to read print texts and analyze the rhetoric of TV-show monologues and the political messages in cartoons. When I teach, I strive for students to have thoughtful dialogue and to foster a deeper awareness of themselves and their identities.
What about the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching made you want to apply?
Since my first year in the classroom, I've used materials from Teaching Tolerance. It started off with a film kit about the civil rights movement to help me teach Georgia history. I later used TT materials about Loving v. Virginia to relate miscegenation laws to current-event topics about gay marriage. After accepting a position as a humanities teacher, I found myself using even more resources from TT's toolbox of anti-bias and critical literacy activities. As my classroom became a site where students were doing wonderful work in critical literacy, I wanted to share my students’ stories and insights with a wider audience. This led me to submit my application.
What types of relationships did you build with fellow awardees, Teaching Tolerance staff, etc.?
When I first met my fellow awardees, I remember thinking that Anna East Baldwin is an absolute genius, and the way she incorporates multicultural literature in her classroom humbled me. Laurence Tan's dedication to social justice and teaching students to be activists inspired me to make curricula more meaningful. Lhisa Almashy's passion for creating school policy on a national level challenged me to widen my scope to broader U.S. reforms. And the care that Robert Sautter shows his kindergartners pushed me to foster an environment that considers not just what students should know and be able to do, but also how they should feel in the classroom.
Additionally, the Teaching Tolerance staff provided me with the best professional development of my career. I'm grateful for the sessions on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, critical classroom practices, making my English curriculum culturally relevant with Perspectives and much more. Beyond my development as a teacher, I will always consider my fellow awardees and the TT staff family. They are some of the most thoughtful, kind and caring individuals I've ever met.
What has the award meant for your practice (and, perhaps, your life)?
This award has opened up a number of opportunities for me to travel across the United States and lead workshops in culturally responsive teaching and cultural competency. I've counseled dozens of educational organizations on how to design and implement anti-bias, culturally responsive programming. Moreover, this award has pushed me to reflect thoughtfully on my own teaching. Whenever TT broadcasts new learning theories or instructional strategies, I attempt to incorporate them into my practice.
What recommendations do you have for people who are considering applying for the award?
Your students and your teaching experiences are multi-dimensional, so bring them to life in your application. Describe the moments that make you proud and why they’re so meaningful. Keep students at the forefront by describing their personalities and giving them voice, and let them exhibit what is so powerful about your interactions with them. Make explicit the relationship between your practice and anti-bias education. Share your realizations and reflect on how your stories will be significant and inspirational to other critical educators.
And last but not least, what tips do you have for how teachers can stay fresh and inspired in their teaching?
- Engage your students. If you aren’t interested in what you are teaching, then why should your students be? If your state-mandated standards seem a bit dull, how can you create enduring understandings and essential questions that are culturally relevant to you and your students? Ask students what they are curious about, and think about how you can tap into their trans-disciplinary skillsets, interests and knowledge that extend beyond the classroom.
- Teach critical literacy skills no matter your discipline. Students should read, write, speak and listen EVERY DAY in your classroom. If you work with students, you teach literacy in some shape or form. Through literacy, make sure students are critically thinking and problem solving. Your calling as an educator is greater than simply asking students to memorize and recall facts. Ask your students to analyze the world around them, evaluate information, and propose and communicate alternative solutions.
- Encourage students to become advocates of their learning. Make space for students to reflect on their own thinking. Teach them how to self-assess and evaluate their work. Teach them how to teach themselves, so even when no one is watching, their learning continues. Tell your students to hold you accountable by continuously asking, “Why are we doing this?” “Who cares?” and “Why does this matter?”
Thinking about applying? Learn more here!
As my creative writing class settled in, the dean’s voice came on over the speakers announcing that all students were to stand so that faculty could check that everyone was adhering to the dress code.
I quickly scanned the room, filled with students who I had taught repeatedly over the last two years, and I attempted to break the tension that dress-code checks often create. I have always been a little uncomfortable with a policy that forces my attention to the bodies of my students, and like so many of my students, I use humor to hide my discomfort. I directed a joke at Danielle, a senior who frequently had difficulties following the dress code when she had arrived as a new sophomore: “Danielle, thank you for being in dress code, as opposed to sophomore year, when you were perpetually out of dress.”
Laughter broke out, but Laura jumped in, defending Danielle somewhat jokingly, “What? Mr. Elliott, are you slut-shaming her?”
I was stunned at the accusation as I stammered a response of, “I’m just enforcing the rules, and no, I would never judge Danielle or any student for the way they dress.” As I quickly moved on to the lesson at hand, I thought through the moments in class when we discussed the feminism of Taylor Swift, the threat of sexual assault and sexism. No, I couldn’t be slut-shaming her, could I?
I kept repeating this moment over the coming days, eventually accepting that I was just attempting to connect with a student who’d had a bad experience with the dress code, a dress code that prioritizes women’s “modesty.” But my joke didn’t challenge the power of the male gaze, which is inherently sexist and contributes to a culture of objectification of our female students.
The male gaze refers to how images in society and media are often constructed from the perspective of the heterosexual male emphasizing the female body as an object for the pleasure and desire of the man. When enforcement of the dress code consists solely of discussions of skirt lengths, cleavage, tight clothes or exposed midriffs, then the rules have been constructed and are implemented so as to reinforce the position and power of the male gaze. We are contributing to a culture of objectification, a culture that continues to sexualize women at younger and younger ages.
This objectification, in turn, leads to a culture of slut-shaming—in this case, judging a woman’s assumed sexuality based on the clothing she wears. A culture of sexual objectification is a foundation for a culture of sexual violence, a phenomenon that has consumed college campuses and other educational settings. The power of the male gaze also reinforces a double standard for male students—they must be heterosexual, they must be sexual, they must view women in this manner.
Last spring, throughout social media, various young women expressed their frustration with or disdain for school policies that required them to “modestly” cover themselves while never addressing the responsibility that the young men have. Most recently in Maine, a sophomore led a protest at the start of the school year due to the unfair treatment she feels from her high school’s policy banning girls from having exposed midriffs.
Students are speaking out and educating themselves. We have a responsibility to follow their lead and engage them in meaningful dialogue about the cultures of our schools. Schools should consider revising dress code policies, possibly adopting gender-neutral statements: Consider that “No undergarments should be exposed” is an effective statement for all students to maintain “appropriateness” and dignity without being objectified. Beyond changing policies, schools need to examine how they implement and enforce the rules. How do they explicitly educate students about sexuality? Is this relegated just to a health class? Where does media literacy fall into the curriculum? What training exists for teachers and administrators across the school?
For myself, it meant apologizing to Danielle and promising her that I would work to ensure that my classroom would be a space where young women would never be objectified and never be judged for the way they dress. I owe it to her, and I owe it to all of my students.
Elliott teaches high school English and creative writing at an independent, college preparatory school.
The Atlantic: "The reality is that Baltimore can be a crushing place to be a black child. A sober picture emerged following Freddie Gray’s death. Black youth in West Baltimore are almost just as likely to get arrested as they are to graduate from high school; the area’s juvenile-arrest rate is the highest in Baltimore City."
Crawling Out of the Classroom: "The best way for me to learn the things that I do not and cannot know, about what it is like to be a race other than white, is to learn from the stories of others. And I can do that same thing for my students. By using the stories that others so bravely are willing to share, I can help my students to learn about the lives of other people while we learn to be better and more careful readers."
Edutopia: "Community meets the basic human needs of safety and belonging. Daily classroom morning meetings, weekly assemblies, and use of common language for expectations and rules are mandated practices at Symonds [Elementary School]."
Rethinking Schools: "Although immigration is passionately debated in the media, it is an issue often ignored in schools, even though it’s central to the lived experiences of Latina/o children—even those born in the United States. This was something I didn’t realize until I created space for students’ lives in the curriculum."
The Jose Vilson: "I fear, with proof, that should all of the current public education blueprint be resolved without a critical race lens, the rabble rousers who are supposedly colorblind and not racist will go back to their segregated neighborhoods with their segregated schools, segregated funding, segregated class sizes, segregated teaching force, and segregated policies, content that they won for their child and not for other people’s children. I fight against the continuance of crap for policy."
Twincities.com: "Our data doesn't suggest that we have a problem suspending kids. Our data suggests that there are disparities in how we're doing that."
Homeroom: "Growing up in a family of immigrants is a special experience shared by many Americans. As a child of Costa Rican and Jamaican immigrants, I learned firsthand how important it is for schools and community organizations to build bridges to new American families."
U.S. Uncut: "In the past two months, eight cities got rid of Columbus Day in favor of adopting Indigenous Peoples’ Day."
WABE: "At the start of the Great Depression, Horace Mann Bond [...] journeyed into the rural South to document the condition of African-American schools. The photos he brought back show what some at the time refused to believe--that Southern black children wanted an education."
Wisconsin State Journal: "Madison West High School is switching to a gender-neutral homecoming court this year, one of only a few in the country to do so and possibly the first in Wisconsin."
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com , and put "What We’re Reading This Week" in the subject line.
This Sunday, I’m lucky enough to be hosting an all-day camp for girls in grades 5 though 8. We will be discussing and doing activities about relational aggression and bullying, body image and careers—all in honor of the United Nations’ Day of the Girl Child, an annual observance on October 11 also known as Day of the Girl.
While you probably don’t have an entire day to devote to celebrating Day of the Girl, you might have some time in your classes to do one or more of the following activities. The best part is that all students, not just girls, can participate in any of them. It’s important to build awareness of the issues facing girls so that their peers can stand with them against these issues. Also, many students, including boys, are facing these issues, too.
Relational Aggression and Bullying
Relational aggression is “emotional violence and bullying behaviors focused on damaging an individual’s social connections within the peer group.” It’s most often observed among middle- and high-school-aged girls—if it’s observed at all. Because relational aggression is not physical, it is often difficult for teachers to see.
Ending relational aggression has to start with students. They need to be made aware of the problem and given solutions for how to fix it. Discuss the problem of bullying with your students. You will probably discover that, more often than not, many students you work with are torn bystanders. Show them what happens when people don’t speak up against bullying. Unfortunately, since bullying is such a huge problem, they might already know what this feels like.
Then, give students ways to encourage each other rather than break each other down. At the camp, I will have the girls line up and hold hands. I will then have them pass a hula-hoop from one person to the next, all the way down the line without letting go of each other’s hands. As the facilitator, I will encourage them to empower each other by giving them ideas of what to say and do. This activity will help show them ways to lift each other up instead of tear each other down. It will also show them how good it feels to accomplish something together.
The thing I hear most often from students—regardless of gender identity—is that having a good body image is really difficult with all of the media attention that is paid to having a “great” body. Kids know that these bodies are not representative of most people’s bodies, but that doesn’t help much when it comes to actually looking in the mirror and seeing what’s there after being barraged with images of “perfect” bodies all day.
The best you can do is to discuss body image with your students. While there is no quick fix for body-image issues, it does help to unpack the reasons we don’t see ourselves as beautiful or handsome. I find that showing videos like Dove’s “Evolution” or “Choose Beautiful” really gets discussion flowing. If you feel it is appropriate for your students, the trailer for Miss Representation—or the whole film—is also a great discussion starter. You can also critically analyze magazine ads and covers with students. Teaching them to critically analyze media will go a long way toward erasing negative self-talk in their lives.
But don’t end the discussion there. Rather, end with something empowering and positive, like a compliment wall. Here’s how it works: One student sits facing away from a whiteboard or chalkboard. All of the other students then go up to the board and write positive things about the seated student. When the seated student turns around, he or she will see a wall full of compliments. It’s hard to say negative things about yourself after such a positive experience.
As teachers, we talk a lot about making sure students are college and career ready. But what about discussing how students choose careers to begin with? The vast majority of my female students want to become chefs, teachers or nurses. There is absolutely nothing wrong with those professions, of course—I chose one of them for myself—but there are a million other options out there that they might not even know of yet.
A great way to get the community involved in students’ career selections is to have them come in to discuss their careers with the kids. At my camp, I am going to have a panel of women—some from STEM fields, some who are administrators in hospitals and some who oversee entire college programs—come in to talk to the girls. Hopefully, these students will be able to make some connections and see new options unfold for them.
These are just three of many ways to celebrate Day of the Girl, raise awareness of gender inequality and help students work toward empowering themselves and each other. How will you celebrate Day of the Girl?
Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.
One thing that makes Mix It Up at Lunch Day so great is that it takes a light-hearted approach to a serious problem. Switching seats and having a chat with someone new is a pretty simple way to reduce the number of painful experiences caused by exclusion, prejudice and bullying.
When preparing for the event, try to keep it light, especially when you get pushback from students. For example, a student might say, “I don’t want to sit with someone else. I want to sit with my friends.” You might have the impulse to tell the student that Mix is mandatory. But, in fact, student pushback can be a perfect teaching opportunity. Explain to the student that Mix It Up was created to reduce the tension he or she is feeling.
Here are some ways you can respond:
- “That’s exactly why we’re doing it. So you can get to know someone you’d otherwise never talk to.”
- “It may feel uncomfortable to break out of your normal social circle, but by doing it once, there’s one more person in the world you never have to feel uncomfortable around in the future.”
There are ways your team can prepare for the possible pushback. Just gather your core organizers and role-play possible situations. You can practice your responses and fine-tune your answers. It’s never too early to start, and then you’ll be prepared as October 27 approaches.
Keep the Mix It Up spirit alive. The big day is just around the corner!
Mix It Up at Lunch Day is October 27!
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