Posts Tagged 'Education'

Reflecting on Research, or Why I Miss Reflecting through Research

I’ve been thinking about my time at the jail a lot recently. I don’t know if it’s because I’m working with a new group of students – more of who are young, black men, a population overrepresented in our jails and prisons – or if it’s because I’m flashing back to that space from some tweets I’ve seen about mental illness in prison. Either way, I’m wondering what to do with that research I poured my heart into last year. I can’t believe it’s been almost an entire year since I wracked my brain day in and day out to revise, edit, write, synthesize, apply, and repeat.

Perhaps I’m reflecting on research because I miss it. I miss how it forced me to perceive my actions from a different perspective. I miss how it challenged me to act. I miss how it made me feel uncomfortable, but in a way that I considered productive.

As an observant educator who has a capacity to overthink, I believe I do this to a certain extent everyday, but not in the thorough, ritualized way that ethnography compelled me to do.

Random research thoughts brought to you by an exhausted adult educator on a Friday night.


A Different Tower of Babel

My media, literacy, and culture class was recently asked to listen to Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel acceptance lecture. [If you have 33 minutes to spare, I highly recommend you listen. Both the audio & transcript are available here:]
This was my first experience with Toni Morrison, and it was an emotional one. I used to read more poetry, and hearing Morrison’s poetic storytelling reminded me of what I have been missing. I hurt a little. Overall, it reminded me of the many joyful and oppressive personas language can embody. I found myself nearly transcribing the entire lecture while listening for the first time – so many brilliant images and word choices – as well as so much relative to the teaching and learning of language for those in the criminal justice system.
Morrison’s story begins with an old blind woman being approached and asked by some children: “Is the bird we have in our hands living or dead?” The old woman replies, “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.” Morrison goes on to use the bird as a metaphor for the dying and living language that surrounds us.
Those who are incarcerated seem, more often than not, to experience the dying language…
Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. 
Morrison even uses language of oppression and criminal justice in this description of dominant language. This is the “official language” many who participate in under-funded schools, as well as, prison education systems deal with. They deal with language purposefully used against them. The word “felon” is attached to their being – it literally can define a range of actions, but to those who are ignorant it only means “unemployable”, “dangerous”, “stupid”, “not worthy of our democracy”. The way Morrison discusses the violent use of language as a way to uphold singular view of people and ideas was amazing.
 The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. 
Yet, there is hope to revive this dead language, for there is agency and there is a living language found in those who demand change, and those who tell stories. If we peel back the dead layer of language, we see there are thriving languages waiting to breath and be heard. This is the beauty of language if we as educators and as speakers and listeners let it happen. For when you listen or see the language of someone who’s first identity is “felon” or “inmate”, you are changed, they are changed. Identities shift from felon to writer to teacher. Your ignorance is diminished and their voice is placed as equal to yours. Morrison reminds us that there is yearning to learn in everyone, no matter their youthfulness, their supposed naïveté or hardness. I think of the children, after hearing the old woman’s words, demanding that their curious voices be heard, that they be given an education suitable to their lives and needs.
Is there no speech,” they ask her, “no words you can give us that helps us break through your dossier of failures? Through the education you have just given us that is no education at all because we are paying close attention to what you have done as well as to what you have said? To the barrier you have erected between generosity and wisdom? 
(The children ask for warmth and understanding and actions to live by, not distant adult lectures and riddles.)
I think of Morrison’s wonderful recasting of the story of Babel:
Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.
Whose language is being upheld as “heaven” and how can we change language learning so that multiple voices – including those who are incarcerated – are valued and thus make “heaven as life” possible?
Most importantly, that hope does not lie only with the student, but with the teacher and student dialogue. Morrison’s wise old woman masterfully incites agency, curiosity, and humility from the children. The children demand knowledge, respect, and shared responsibility – they demand a teacher to fight for the students’ right to language, their right to learn and to dialogue as equals. This is what I hope can be implemented in schools and classrooms found in areas where language is being employed violently – the criminal justice system, as well as, urban and rural schools that focus on the test, not the brilliance of the living language found everywhere but in the test prep. Through a dialogue of mutual respect, storytelling, curiosity, language, and the learning of language, can thrive.

Finally, she says, I trust you now. I trust you…because you have truly caught it. How lovely it is this thing we have done together.

The Danger of a Single Story, Education, & Inmates

A couple months ago, I watched, and was moved by, Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story”, and had been meaning to write about it. Coincidentally, the first assignment for my Literacy, Culture, and New Media class was to respond to the video. Here it be!

I was excited to see that watching this video was our first assignment. It’s apropos to the course’s theme of technology that I first stumbled across this video from a twitter feed I follow a few months back. I was struck by Chimamanda Adichie’s powerful message that encapsulates many of my thoughts on power, education, literacy identities, and how they all intertwine. I could write a lot on her talk, but I want to touch on two themes I think about a lot in regards to education: multiple literacies/identities that we and our students possess, and power’s relation to literacy and language.

I believe an educator must consider the multiple literacies and identities that a student brings to a learning environment and how those literacies will interact with the dominant discourse found in the learning environment. Adichie’s early literary experiences included British and American novels. Like Adichie, many students may find what they read clashes with what they experience every day, causing them to feel as though their stories aren’t worth mentioning. Instead, the dominant discourse in power should be looked at critically. By acknowledging and integrating students’ identities into literacy instruction, we empower them to discover, as well as teach others, the many stories that make up their lives. I think educators need to remember that literacy is imbued with social experience, cultural connections, and power, and thus work harder to provide access to a diversity of texts and open space for multiple literacies and discourses to emerge.

Too often, those in power co-opt the story of the less powerful, as Adichie points out when describing the single “catastrophic” story of Africans who were “unable to speak for themselves”. It reminded me of a tale told by the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In a talk at the University of California–Santa Barbara, Thiong’o speaks of the man who finds his hut overtaken by a lion. Soon, the lion is the one telling the story of this man’s hut. He replaces the man as the storyteller because people want to hear this lion’s language – it seems more rational, less emotional, and credible (Thiong’o jokes that the lion “has even footnotes sometimes”). [You can watch him telling the brief story here: ] We see the danger of the single story throughout history – “Orientalism” is another prime example – when a story is perpetuated by outside perspectives placing their cultural knowledge and backgrounds onto the people and places they encounter, silencing the voices of those people and places. It is a danger that needs to be acknowledged as we educate and learn from students. What perspectives do they bring? How do our perspectives interact with their perspectives? How can we help students think critically about the stories they take in, as well as seek multiple perspectives to a story to make it more complete – even if they seem contradictory?

Her thoughts on power and storytelling are important when considering the voices lost or stifled in our classrooms and in our American society, as well. If you do not have power, you are not privileged in having multiple stories, she purports. While she mentions that she knew many stories of America because of America’s power, I thought, who within America suffers from a single story? Before I started my full time job in Bloomington, I worked part time as a teacher’s assistant in the GED program at the Monroe County Jail. While there I heard the voices of inmates who are virtually silenced by the media storytellers. They had stories beyond the stories of their crimes, identities in addition to the label of “criminal”. Since then I have been interested in educational opportunities within prisons and juvenile correctional facilities, having focused much of my research on ways educators can recognize and empower prisoners and their multiple identities. Her talk related with an inmate’s plea in the movie Shakespeare Behind Bars, a documentary on a prison drama group that performs The Tempest. He yearns to be able to write a different story of himself, to be seen as someone other than a criminal, and through literature and the safe space provided by the drama group, he is able to express another story.

Lastly, Adichie states: “[t]he consequence of a single story…is it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.” I think about this a lot as I read of the multiple experiences within prisons and juvenile correctional facilities. By providing a space for student voices to be heard and recognized, “stories can be used to empower and to humanize”

A bit of what’s kept me away…

This past semester hurt. It was stressful – full of reading, reading, some writing, working,  more reading, more working, and then an excruciating amount of writing. I attempted to immerse myself in researching the criminal justice system, its inequalities, and the educational opportunities found in the system. So I took a break. I went bowling and played skee-ball and drank beer. I read fiction! Well, I think I’m ready to try to get back to it…and I feel I need to get back to it.

As an exercise in returning to the thinking and writing that exhausted, but impassioned me, I’m going to start posting parts of my final paper and then use those posts to (hopefully) expand on the research and writing I began.

Here’s the introduction to my final paper from my spring seminar. Every student took the semester to research and write on a topic of their choice. It was a history of social issues class experiment, so the professor said. I enjoyed him and the class very much, even while it left me a bit confused and tired. I’m looking at this paper as an extension of my first paper on the topic of literacy education in juvenile justice facilities that first sparked my interest in all things criminal justice and prison reform. The research found in that paper will need to be re-examined and dug into again as well.

This paper takes a broader and deeper look at the criminal justice system itself and how education intersects with the system. Since I currently live in Indiana, I grounded the introduction in the recent failed efforts for sentencing and prison reform in Indiana. The paper takes a different turn, but luckily conclusions are for tying things together (no matter how far-fetched it may seem). Anyway, here’s this:

 Mass Incarceration & Education: Investigating Intersections


            Throughout the United States, as the recession continues to deplete state budgets, state legislatures are reevaluating their expensive incarceration practices. Indiana is one state being lauded for their proposed reforms (“Fewer Prisoners, Safer Hoosiers”, Indianapolis Star, Jan. 14, 2011; “Indiana’s Answer to Prison Costs”, New York Times, Jan. 17, 2011) to reduce prison populations and recidivism in an effort to curb costs. Interestingly, there is no mention of education programs as a means to decrease recidivism rates within the Indiana reform proposal (Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSGJC), 2010), despite research claiming education’s ability to do so (Steurer & Smith, 2003; Vacca, 2004). The need for education programs in prison is apparent when one looks at the literacy rates of incarcerated adults. The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy test showed that the prison population generally scored lower on the test than adults in the general population (Greenberg, Dunleavy, & Kutner, 2007, p.29). In addition, minorities in the prison populations scored lower than Caucasian prison populations (p.30). As 730,000 prisoners were released in 2009 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010), it is important to consider the literacy levels of those entering the work force, along with the multitude of additional factors impeding their ability to gain employment and avoid prison.

Investigating the underlying issues of mass incarceration, one sees that the reasons for the increase in prison population are muddied. Every state has different sentencing laws and different ways of utilizing their prisons and prison populations (CSGJC, 2010). For example, the minimum sentence for someone charged in Indiana for selling three grams of cocaine is 20 years; in Texas, the minimum sentence is two years (CSGJC, 2010). Because of the great variance among state laws and institutions, I will attempt to use Indiana as a focal point in the debate going on across the country, while also using examples from other states for comparison. Many questions are asked throughout this paper and many issues cannot be addressed as thoroughly as I would have liked due to the limited scope of the paper. These issues include the nuances found in different facilities – federal and state institutions, juvenile correctional facilities, minimum and maximum facilities. Issues of gender, age, and mental health are also beyond the scope of this paper, but important to recognize when investigating prison education.  Yet, I hope that the unanswered inquiries in this paper will provide opportunities for further research as educators, policy makers, and those in criminal justice seek solutions to the problem of mass incarceration in the United States.

This  paper will discuss the problem of mass incarceration, how education has been lauded as a way to decrease recidivism that furthers mass incarceration, as well as question current educational programs in prisons. Given its current state, this paper will then examine potential ways that, through the use of student voices and different pedagogical theories focused on literacy, most notably Paulo Freire, the prison institution can reform its educational practices in a way that could potentially further decrease recidivism.

$131,000 Teacher’s Salary

Michelle Rhee, the latest in a string of superintendents in the D.C. schools wants to make this possible – by linking teacher pay to student performance. Well, I hope to be moving to D.C. in a few years, this making it even more appealing, but anyone who has ever taught knows that the teacher is not the sole contributer to student performance. This is especially the case in poor, urban schools where students have a lot more to worry about (violence, lack of basic needs, lack of involvement from parents, etc) than their grades and making their teacher proud. Rhee also supports using test scores as a means of assessing student performance. Of course the unions are up in arms, as they should be. Though I believe that a good teacher can get students to test well without “teaching to the test”, such accountability is unfair to students (and teachers of those students) who don’t test well, are behind in basic skills, or have external forces distracting their learning.

Full AP Story:

UPDATE: Here is the Washington Post story, focusing on Rhee’s expansion of social services, considering the student holistically.

Rhee is putting the smack down:
“The direction of the nearly 50,000-student system could be determined less by the problems she inherited after decades of dysfunction than by decisions she made in her first year: closing 23 underenrolled schools; finalizing overhauls at 26 academically ailing schools; and firing 150 people she considered poor performers.”

And putting people where they are needed most:
“Wilkinson used to have a part-time librarian; it’s getting a full-time librarian. The school had one social worker, an “itinerant” speech pathologist (shared with other schools) and no psychologist. This year, it has two social workers, a speech pathologist and two psychologists and shares an itinerant speech pathologist and an itinerant psychologist. Literacy and math coaches and an intervention specialist have been hired to help lagging students.”

Obama & Education

It is often assumed that the Democratic presidential nominee is privy to more spending on education. Obama is no different, but where he spends it is what is encouraging. Education News has a great synopsis of his plans, including 10 billion for 0-5 education, providing more money for Pre-K grants and childcare tax credits. What I found most interesting was this:

Additionally Obama has proposed quadrupling the funding for Early Head Start which provides close social and nursing service support for very young children and their mothers. Were this 0-2 program successfully set up, it would be one of the most singular positive events in U.S. education history.

While the author is a bit grandiose in stating it as “one of the most singular positive events…”, the notion of providing early childhood development care for not only the children, but the mothers (and perhaps fathers?), is worth the money.  Shirley Brice-Heath'”No Bedtime Story Means: Narrative Skills at Home and School” (ed. Levinson, Schooling the Symbolic Animal, 2000) discusses the discrepancies between three home environments – not claiming any as superior – but noting how middle-class, white students are often prepped by parents and preschools to fit into the framework of “school.”  It is a fascinating study in what is valued in American schools and how those priorities often shut out students whose home lives provided them with a different set of skills.  So while funding early education to all students is important, adopting new priorities in the curriculum is imperative in aiding students (and their parents – because their interest in schools is just as relevant) in their transition from home to school.

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