This is the latest in a series of blogs by partners of the Fluency work.
By Isabella Droginske
These past few months have been extraordinary. Even as a busy mom of a rowdy one year old and a full-time Google-Meet-teacher of high schoolers, I’ve found more time than ever for reflection in both my personal life and career. Anyone who is present on social media or just socially can see that the country is calling for a time of significant reflection, too. Reflection that is driven by questioning what we know and what we don’t know. Reflection that is questioning the way we normally practice things or have always practiced things. Though I often caution my students not to over-use rhetorical questions, because writers should be working out answers and not relying on the reader, I have one leading question: What can we learn from students reflecting on their education-- while they are still in it? From this question, I argue it is the only way to fix our very clearly broken system.
I saw a viral post that I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on these past few weeks. It asked “How many black teachers have you had?” There was no k-12 limit. No qualifier. My answer was still zero. I grew up in the south hills of Pittsburgh not far from our valley. My upbringing was even more diverse in BIPOC classmates than what our valley currently has, but I did not have black teachers. I did not have black counselors, principals, or even substitutes. I attended Pitt, Point Park and later WVU for my MA. Still no black professors, adjuncts, advisors, etc. Sure, I had BIPOC friends, but is that really the same? As a first year teacher, I gained a black colleague who I now consider a teacher of mine. She has been a teacher for many years in many different roles. She has patience and perspective I hope to achieve one day in the profession. I have always had “liberal” teachers who made me question why we select texts in the cannon and why certain voices are represented in the classroom. I have always consciously made an effort to include not-dead-not-white voices in my classroom. Yet, I have never had the opportunity to formally learn from a black professional. I’ve never even had a black boss. Yet, I have black students. I have students of color that I deeply want to be able to serve. I have turned to my black colleague many times to ask: I want to present this voice or represent this idea or have this conversation the right way. Can you guide me? I never want to make her feel like a cultural spokesperson but I need to check the limitations of my experiences. I need to know if I’m working toward a better way or if I’m wearing my white woman Karen pants again. She has helped me grow so much in my classroom by giving me the confidence to talk about race explicitly and offer a range of BIPOC authors throughout the year. I can only reflect how much more informed I would be if I had opportunities for more black teachers and mentors in my education. My reflection is too late though.
Dre (as I will call him) reluctantly walked through my classroom door in my second year. He was very tall as a young black man, so my theatre seats were a bit of a hazard for him. I sat him on the end of a row by my desk for more leg room which turned out to be quite a blessing. We quickly developed that amazing teacher-student connection when they figure out you’re not a bot and you also enjoy human experiences like music, sports, and oxygen. He would tell me how his day was going and if anything funny was happening. A trend began to develop of Dre telling me little anecdotes, reflections, from the period before our class. He loved history but disagreed with the way the teacher was teaching. He felt things were left out and skipped over. He was reflecting on the curriculum and the holes within the curriculum. I, of course, said the only way to change what you don’t like about the world is to ask for better or do it better yourself. That’s a simple enough thing for me, a white woman, to say. Every time Dre brought up college I would push him to be a history teacher. He always laughed and would say something like “Summers off? I’ll think about it” or “I’m going to be a millionaire instead though!” One day, at the end of class, I pestered him again. I asked “How’s civics?” He replied “A waste of time. My education is being robbed from me.” I heard him. It hurt to hear a young man feel that way. I said “Dre, imagine using the way you feel to make education better for the kids after you.” He said “I couldn’t do it here. I couldn’t be black and a teacher. I would get no respect.” I had nothing to say. That was his perception. I wanted to disagree but how? If he feels that way, then maybe he was in some way right. I didn’t have experience or exposure to encourage him otherwise.
Dre’s in the moment reflection of education showed that BIPOC representations matter. Curriculum choices matter. More than that, he proved to me that students are mature enough to make these assessments or reflections of their education while they are still in it. I have rolled my eyes visibly when students say “I’m not good at English” and have even myself said “I don’t have the math gene.” Just as we know better to encourage growth mindset by including the “yets” or deconstructing those problematic phrases, we can use student reflection to see why “school sucks” or “isn’t fair.” Rather than dismissing their reflections, let’s think about the root of those ideas. Is our discipline system fair? Is zero tolerance the best practice when in the same breath we preach that tolerance is a good thing? Does school suck? Why? Why can’t we have recess in high schools? Some ideas may be irrational but some may encourage real improvements that American school systems haven’t seen for over fifty-years.
Last year, I practiced for the third year analyzing and performing Othello with both race and gender lenses. My first year I realized many students were NOT comfortable with challenging their ideas of race. Many students didn’t want to question representation in literature and entertainment. They wanted to “say the right thing.” I would ask: Does Othello have to be played by a black actor? after exposing them to black face representations and the harrowing stories of Ira Aldrige and Paul Robeson. Many students would respond with the counter-affirmative action rhetoric of their grandparents that the role should go to the best actor and not be based on their race. I knew this response was as problematic as not seeing color. How do I challenge them but still maintain peace and respect their journey to growth? I thought maybe if it became a private writing assignment students would lose the fear of saying the right thing and really react and challenge themselves. I was wrong.
Reflection should be kept simple: Is this the best way I can do this? How do you feel in my classroom? What do you feel you learned? I asked my students last October to give me feedback on the Othello unit (not a unit! A practice? Experience? Inquiry?). Most responses were what skeptics would expect. Short answers that said either “it was fine” or “it was hard” or “it was boring.” There were foam swords so I disagree with the third response, but you can’t win them all. A few responses really showed deep reflection and that’s where the magic happened. The student wrote “I wish we had more time to talk about the articles and videos we watched. I wish you had guided us through them more. I know you don’t want to force race down people’s throats but it’s there and people will be stupid if they want to be anyway.” Another response said, “can you put in some black poetry or music with what you give us? In the same way you use modern poetry with gender?” Reflection, however, is useless without listening to the answers that arise. These two reflections were the catalyst for my majorly redesigned curriculum for this coming year. They gave me homework. They made me further reflect on the goals of the assignments.
First order of reflection, be honest because students see it anyway. I am uncomfortable talking about race. I feel underqualified. I feel fear in pushing against the status quo. Maybe by showing students this and being honest I can support students who feel the same way. I need to have more explicit conversations and do away with coddling in the name of safety. Yes, classrooms are safe spaces in a different way, but learning is about growing from an uncomfortable place.
Second, reflect on why I didn’t do the same practice as I did with a gender lens. Why don’t I offer modern black poetry to look at race? Honestly, I don’t know what poems to include. I’ve had countless feminist teachers to show me poetry for a gender lens. This is the impact of not having black mentors, teachers, role models in place. This summer I have worked to find contemporary black poets and songwriters. I don’t want to pander. I don’t want to be a Freedom Writer-esque white savior. I just want to grow and have resources for my students who often have underrepresented voices. I want to be aware. Morgan Parker, Rudy Francisco, and Porsh Olayiwola will all become voices in my Othello inquiry this coming school year. If you haven’t heard their poetry, you are missing out! I was.
How do we encourage reflection in educational experiences in our classroom?
I teach English 12 “regular” which is anything but regular. It is a hodge-podge of welders, poets, artists, mechanics, businessmen, and athletes. It is daunting to try to figure out how to best serve each of them simultaneously. In the past, I’ve done activities where I ask kids on the first day what they want out of this class. That simply. I’ve given them choices and an open option. I got amazing responses. Each student had to respond on a post-it and add to a paper on the wall. I asked that they put their name on the back so I could see but left the name optional. Analytically, it was so useful seeing how some students responded with a short term goal like the ACT, a long term goal like their career, or something that just gave me a hint of their personality.
This year I’d like to try something else. This is a rough sketch and hasn’t even been practiced yet. I am going to share it with you to encourage you to steal it and tell me how it went for you. I don’t know if I will have to adapt this for an online first day or if I’ll have my kids in-person, but here goes nothing! I’m going to start with a poem by poet Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre titled “Level Up (My Autobiography as a Learner)” from the collection A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry. First day, no syllabus just reading poetry. Maybe we’ll go outside if the weather is nice and I’m feeling extra. This will be broken up over 3-5 days. I’ll read it aloud as poetry should be. I’ll prompt with reflective questions like “What does the phrasing Level Up imply?” “What does it mean to be a learner?” throughout the poem. Then, the students will have to talk in small groups about their best and worst experiences in education. Finally, as a whole group we will share what they discussed about this poem and about their reflections of their education. Students will write a brief version of this poem for their own educational experience. It is nothing ground-breaking in practice but it is a change for me. Pragmatically, I will also use their writing and reading responses as a diagnostic tool for their growth this semester. Most importantly, I will analyze their responses with: What can I learn about how I practice school from their reflections? How can I make changes within my classroom for the better?
My goal for this year is to prioritize formative reflections. I would like to offer my students time to reflect on their education both as we already do with their personal growth and the classroom practices. I want them to think about why these texts were selected as exit slips or, even better, conversation starters. I want them to think about how there is no such thing as an apolitical classroom as we read what we must read or have always read. How did you know my year starts with Beowulf? Why does it? Should it? I may not like some of the reflections but I hope I learn from them.
Isabella Droginske graduated from Point Park University in 2013 with a major in English and a minor in Psychology. She began her career as TESOL teacher in Greece and, later, Russia. Isabella then pursued her MA in Secondary Education, English at West Virginia University graduating in 2017. She currently teaches English, Speech, and Theatre at Wheeling Park High School. Isabella is an assistant coach for the Speech and Debate team and currently is a member Cohort 3 of The Data and Technology Fluency Project with West Liberty University and the CREATE Lab (situated in Carnegie Mellon University). Isabella’s special interests include running to podcasts and after her one year old son.