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Curriculum and Instruction Clinical Associate Professor Haydée Rodriguez takes a group of pre-service bilingual/bicultural education students on community walks near Zavala Elementary School in Austin each semester. The walks help the students learn about the various resources in the neighborhood as well as the history and people that exist in the communities in which their students live. Students visit the local panadería, the bakery, located in the home of a community member and taste various traditional Mexican pastries. They learn about the history of the homes, churches, and other community supports that dot the area.

The community walks give the pre-service teachers the chance to learn more about their students and incorporate their heritage and cultural experiences within the classroom. Research shows that educators’ respect for and incorporation of students’ heritage and background increases students’ engagement and academic motivation. Learn more by watching the video of one such community walk adventure.

Video by Jordan Steyer and Davey Newton, photography and videography interns for the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

Recently, 16 graduate students in Professor Anthony L. Brown’s Teaching and Learning in Urban Context course co-wrote an op-ed about urban education. The following is an edited version of their group essay.  

Students collaborating on the op-ed

Students in Anthony Brown’s class collaborating on the op-ed

Urban farming. Urban outfitters. Urban music. What does “urban” look like, sound like, feel like? What is “urban” code for? Depends on who you ask, and what you’re talking about. Within certain contexts the utterance of “urban” connotes a degree of cache and currency, but it just as easily can be deployed to denote decay and decline.

As an adjective, “urban education” signals a particular set of value-laden and layered assumptions. Historically, and across a range of media, urban schools have been represented as troubled and dangerous spaces. Repeated portrayals effectively spin images of deindustrializing cities into legends of chaos and violence, which then narrowly cast students and whole communities as products of declining schools, while simultaneously standing in as the cause of school decline itself. As with all legends and myths however, the truths believed to be contained within are just as contingent as the word “urban” proves to be.

The Troubling Deficit-Lens Narrative of Urban Education

Urban education is socially constructed and often taken up as a static narrative that serves the private goals of those seeking to exploit “urban” black and brown communities. We [as educators] must recognize this, and we must reject it. This is not the only lens, nor the clearest one.

Racism, oppression and social reproduction [the transmission of inequality from generation to generation] have been embedded within the systemic and daily happenings in schools. But by seeing these oppressions, and fighting them fiercely as communities, we can see and uplift the already existing examples of agency, opportunity, resistance and hope for an “urban” that is less legend, and more life.

The term urban and the frameworks associated with it need be redefined. Rather than being viewed through a deficit lens (seeing ‘less than’ instead of ‘more than’), “urban” must express, value, and sustain previously devalued multi-faceted cultural and linguistic strengths. Deficit thinking places the blame of student failure on deficiencies within students themselves, their families, or generalized beliefs about cultural differences. By tapping the roots of cultural wealth and breaking down the constraints of deficit-based thinking, we can acknowledge how urban education has been framed in theory and reality. We then face a choice in how to move forward. Moving forward, we must turn deficit thinking on its head and focus on assets to highlight, empower, and catalyze change.

Why Should We Fix What Isn’t Broken?

The history of urban education is disproportionately laden with folks attempting to “fix” students for normative success instead of actively dismantling systems that oppress them. Researchers attempt to implement interventions that eradicate [supposed] deficiencies of character. They also attempt to provide psychological uplift to help students overcome the damage inflicted on them as a result of their ability to adapt to the neoliberal economy, rather than make students conscious of deep structural changes that are needed to significantly change their life, chances, and future.

Urban education is steeped in a distorted, trial-and-error method of experimentation, often at the cost of students of color. Over the past half century, educational reforms have cycled through repeated efforts to apply policies that fail to fully attend to the needs of marginalized citizens. For the most part, this is not done by accident.

The history of public education in the United States has been built upon a foundation of fear, ignorance, greed, and a lack of faith in the abilities and knowledge of students of color and their parents. Attempts to resolve these issues and work against technical, impersonal, and alienating curriculum and instruction have been repeatedly buried under racially coded political arguments concerning personal responsibility, color blindness, and meritocracy. As a result, communities of color continue to suffer because of the lack of and incomprehensive educational resources.

They become a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who argue they will never succeed.

However, while some may view this as a case of racist policies pushed through by privileged stakeholders, this is not always the case. Schools often mirror the perceptions of superintendents or other policy makers as opposed to serving the needs of the true stakeholders in the communities: the families, community leaders, teachers, and students who are the most impacted. Several instances of policy decisions have led to negative changes in the school environment, including continued segregation of public schooling and governmental housing policies that accelerate gentrification in cities across America.

Rather than help educational systems, these reforms have expedited the deterioration of these institutions.

Let’s Redefine Urban Education

Teachers and schools are always in a state of process, or becoming. Society is ever-changing, and it is our collective responsibility to reimagine what is possible in schools. Moving forward we must empower educators to adopt a culturally sustaining framework of teaching which seeks to promote students’ cultural and linguistic identities.

We have to fight for anti-oppressive education within the ideological and structural systems that reproduce inequities that free public schools from myopic and deficit perspectives promoted by neoliberal education reforms, and we need to decolonize the process in which we exchange, share and value information. This means centering students and their lived realities in the classroom context and beyond.

Our collective conception of the term urban is steeped in the kinds of values we hope to undo. By redefining the term and its associated assumptions, we hope to resolve our concept of those it affects most. The spaces associated with urban contain more cultural wealth and untapped potential beyond what we could currently imagine.

In illuminating the shadowy origins of urban legends, we hope to redress our past and begin imagining and enacting asset-based, student-centered, and anti-oppressive urban education designed to reverse processes that have dehumanized those educated in urban spaces for too long.

Anthony Brown giving a lecture to a group of graduate students

Anthony Brown and his class working on the op-ed

Authors

Course Instructor: Professor Anthony L. Brown’s work pursues a theoretical argument, which suggests that the examination of the historical and racial constructions of African Americans within the social sciences, educational literature, popular discourse and curriculum is vital to making sense of how questions are raised and how educational and curricular reforms are pursued for African American students in the present.

Students:  Joanna Batt, Rebecca Casteel, Gina E. Tillis, Emma Ensign-Church, William Gross, Emiliano Guajardo, Michael Joseph, William Kiley, Heath Robinson, Tatiana Russo-Tait, Lauren Samuel, Grant Selman, Erica Steinitz, Mariah Swift, James Welty, Alexa Zin.

 

That’s what San Antonio Independent School District is betting on. And the bet is backed by research from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

A team of faculty and doctoral students is redesigning early childhood education through the San Antonio district-initiated collaboration with the College of Education and the Agency and Young Children Research Collaborative, called Dynamic Innovation for Young Children. Team members are restructuring learning so that it’s project-based and fosters children’s agency—or choice—in their activities.

Child-centered learning is a departure from classrooms in which children are compelled to sit at desks and receive information rather than be active participants, and it can challenge the way some educators have been taught to instruct young students. That’s why the district, which completed its first year of collaboration in May, began with professional development of educators.

Says Associate Professor Jennifer Adair, whose work on fostering children’s agency is a foundation of the project, “Teachers have to learn that when kids are noisy and moving around—in pre-k, kinder or a first-grade classroom, that’s where a lot of learning is taking place. And the teachers have to know that their principals and superintendent understand that they need to be hearing noise and seeing movement in the classroom, that it’s OK and supported.”

The initiative is not about a curriculum change, but culture change, says Adair. Engaging principals and teachers is key in transforming campuses. That’s why the first year of the five-year-long project was about working “intently with six schools through professional development that included select teachers, their principals, district leaders, the children and their families,” says Adair.

Alejandra Barraza, Ph.D. ’17, was the catalyst for change in the district. She’s the principal of Henry Carroll Early Childhood Education Center in San Antonio’s East Side neighborhood. She implemented the learning principles in her school during her doctoral studies with Adair. Barraza’s work increased engagement by students and their families, and caught the attention of district leaders, Associate Superintendent Pauline Dow and Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Dow and Adair co-lead the districtwide project, under the supervision of Martinez.

These San Antonio school district leaders, says Adair, “were willing to transform campuses and give them the same dynamic, sophisticated learning you’d find at a private school. They were willing to let their teachers and principals co-construct the experiences without a cookie cutter curriculum. That’s a lot a of trust.”

Eight UT Austin undergraduates and their instructor are sitting in a circle in a classroom. Taryn, the day’s facilitator, introduces the guidelines: “Respect the talking piece, speak from the heart, listen from the heart, what happens in the circle stays in the circle, trust you will know what to say, say just enough.”

Students sitting in a circle with the woman in focus holding an objectShe placed each students’ values, like ‘courage,’ ‘trust,’ and ‘open-mindedness’ around the circle’s center-piece. She explains to the group that the talking piece, a stuffed animal, will signal who has the floor to speak. She chooses one of the values and explains why she honors it. She passes the talking piece to Sofia, who chooses the value of compassion, and on it goes before they start their next round.

The circle is an everyday part of the Restorative Practices in Education class that Assistant Professor of Practice Molly Trinh Wiebe teaches. It’s an education course within the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education, cross-listed with Steve Hicks School of Social Work, and open to any undergraduate and graduate on campus. The majority of students are education majors, but some, like Nicole and Norman, are majoring in subjects such as government and sociology.

According to Wiebe, the course highlights restorative practices’ roots and principles as they can be applied to schools and the larger community. The principles learned emphasize responsibility, accountability, respect, and restoration, and students learn how to facilitate restorative circles to build relationship and trust with youths, parents, peers, and the community.

Though Sofia had never heard of restorative practices or restorative circles before, she said she was encouraged to take the class by her aunt, who is a teacher in Austin. “I’d never really thought of something like this as an option in education,” she says.

D’Jon says the practices are similar to the circles he experienced as huddles on wrestling and basketball teams in high school, though they weren’t named as such. He later recognized similar practices when he was doing prison ministry. “We had 42 residents and six tables and we’d form a circle and get to know each other at the table and check in on each other. The practices teach us to value the whole person.”

The circle plays a comparable community-building role in this classroom. Says Wiebe, “When a student is absent, we all care to know that they are alright. We all know each other’s names and a bit of history about each other. We have built a relationship and trust among us. This is our community and we look out for each other.”

Restorative practices’ indigenous roots

According to Wiebe, restorative practices are rooted in indigenous traditions. Modern communities have used them in the criminal justice system to support individuals who have made the offense repair the harm that was done.A group of students sitting in a circle around a pile of school supplies

The practices also have been used to support those who were incarcerated reintegrate into society. Typically, those practices are called restorative justice. Within school systems they are called restorative practice so that students don’t feel penalized. “Restorative practice can play a role in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon, which zero-tolerance policies can serve to actively perpetuate,” says Wiebe. “Restorative practice is a humanizing approach toward education.”

Beyond classroom circles toward educational policy and practice

Joshua Childs, an assistant professor in Educational Leadership and Policy, adds that all spaces have the potential to be restorative spaces. “Beyond the classroom, the spaces students find as they walk to school and are out in the community can be restorative,” says Childs. He adds that such practices are a two-fold process. “Though it’s often focused on what’s happening with students, the adults or educators also have to be part of the restorative practice element. They should be considering how their practice as educators may be contributing to the school community and to trust.”

“Adults have to shift their practice so that they aren’t always leading with something punitive,” says Childs. “Schools can take into account what’s happening in students’ lives—such as their home life, their walk or commute to school, their physical and mental wellness—and look at how school policy adapts to that. When they institute nonpunitive dress codes and decriminalize attendance, they are using restorative practices rather than punitive, deficit practices,” says Childs. (For more on how school policy can interrupt cycles of chronic absenteeism, see Childs’ Discovery Minute.)

Students concentrating on something to the right of the imageNorman, a student in Wiebe’s restorative circle, agrees. “Whenever a student is doing something that is against school rules, it usually means something is preventing them from doing so. It’s possible that something happened in their family or they got into an accident. There’s always a reason why.”

He adds that restorative practices don’t have to be complex. There are simple things educators can do. “A teacher can allow two to three absences because they understand that life happens. They can give out tokens to use for deadline extensions or revise essays,” says Norman. “Restorative practices build flexibility.”

-Photos by Christina S. Murrey

Young Latinas infuse culture, tradition, and family into their writing

“My students and their families have important stories to share,” says Assistant Professor of Language and Literacy Tracey Flores, “and writing has the power to build community and solidarity.”

That’s why Flores began an afterschool bilingual family writing workshop while she was a second-grade teacher in Arizona. In the workshops, students met in her classroom for 12 weeks to draw, write, and tell stories from their lives.

Tracey Flores works on writing with the students

“At the workshops, I modeled my own writing, we read mentor texts for inspiration, and used writing, drawing, and oral storytelling as tools to share ourselves and connect with one another,” says Flores. “Each week parents sat alongside their children at Con Mi Madre—each penning their own personal stories and working together throughout the entire writing process. In the classroom, students wrote more, began to integrate some of the strategies we practiced at workshops and, for the first time, many infused Spanish into their personal writing.”

Flores continues this work at the University of Texas at Austin. In fact, this summer, young Latinas and their families from across the Austin area participated in a Somos Escritoras writing camp on campus.

The work of infusing the students’ and their families’ culture, traditions, and language into their writing is important, says Flores, because many of the Mexican and Mexican American students in her Arizona classrooms were viewed as deficient and placed in English Language Development classrooms in which they received a different curriculum, a restrictive language and literacy curriculum, than that of their English-speaking peers.

Photo of Fabiola

Fabiola

“As I worked within and against these oppressive and racist structures, I saw how these mandates were silencing and controlling the voices of my students,” says Flores.

Flores says that she’s learned from the girls in this summer’s Somos Escritoras performative space “more about the concerns that are most important in the girls’ lives and the ways that they are defining themselves and naming themselves, through writing, theater, art and other performative acts. This work will inform future workshops for girls and will inform the ways that I plan and facilitate my Language Arts and Community Literacies courses for pre-service teachers.”

Photo of Genevieve

Genevieve

Says Fabiola, a 12-year-old girl who participated in the camp, “I wanted to find a place to fit in. I write a lot of poems in my free time, but I was afraid to share them. I feel more confident in myself as a Chicana and was able to share my stories with everyone. I have been sharing what I do in camp with my family, and they are really proud of me and that makes me proud of myself.”

Genevieve, a 7th grader, appreciated the sense of community the camp provided. “It’s been really nice to have a group that’s so open. I didn’t really get to have that in other places. This place makes me feel comfortable. We are each unique, but we have a lot in common. We were able to talk about both the discrimination we face and our triumph as Latinas. I really like hearing about others’ experiences and relating them to mine.”

Nathaly S. Batista-Morales is a doctoral student who works with Flores. She says that participating in Somos Escritoras fit into her education in the field of Bilingual and Bicultural Education because it offered her a model to see research in a new light. She says, “It showed me how to build relationships in the community, how to conduct research with the girls, and how to design opportunities that benefit my community now rather than later. Additionally, it fit well with my research focus on critical literacy, since the core of the program was reading and writing to speak back to issues of injustice, language, ethnic identity, and sexual orientation as we decentered notions of what young Latina women should look and be like.”

Says Flores, “The end goal is to engage my pre-service teachers in considering the practices of Latina girls and the work of spaces like Somos Escritoras, to privilege marginalized voices specifically, and Latina girls particularly, in their own future classrooms.”

Tracey Flores is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction within the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Tracey Flores with workshop participants and graduate students

Jim Hoffman working with students in Mozambique

An interview with James Hoffman, professor of language and literacy studies, on his collaboration with University of Texas San Antonio Professor of Literacy Education Misty Sailors and their longstanding partnership with educators in Mozambique.

Current work

In 2016, Misty and I became the primary literacy consultants on a seven-year project in Mozambique funded by the Canadian government. We work in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, CODE Canada, and Progresso (our local NGO).

This is our most recent and current project and is closest to what we do in our work at home as literacy teacher educators.  We are working directly with teacher training colleges to improve the quality of teacher preparation for primary schools.

Initially, we focused on designing and gathering baseline data on current practices in teacher preparation. Our work has shifted to focus on work with teacher educators to promote the use of interactive/participatory methodologies that encourage active teaching and active learning in academic courses. Our long-term goal is that the next generation of elementary teachers use these interactive tools and strategies in their own classrooms.

Adapting methods to local context

For the last year, we’ve been engaged in a feasibility study of a mentoring partnership between a teacher training college and their annex elementary schools. Our approach is modeled on the methods we use currently at both UT Austin and UT San Antonio in our tutoring and mentoring.

We have adapted our methods to the local Mozambique context and are working to develop a model that can be used nationally. Throughout our time working in Africa, we have been intentional in conducting research with our colleagues that can inform the international community.

Respect for local expertise

We are careful in our work to respect and use local expertise. We are sometimes positioned as external experts who bring solutions to problems. We are not that. We work hard in building relationships to be supportive of local efforts, local expertise, and local problem-posing.

We work as partners. We worry a great deal that much of international development work comes from a very different model where grand solutions are imported by outside experts to solve problems identified by these same outsiders.

Mostly, these grand solutions are simplistic, wrong, and deflect attention away from the powerful work that is being done by locals. Post-colonial oppression thrives in the form of international aid efforts.

 James Hoffman directs the undergraduate reading specialization program in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin and teaches graduate courses focused on literacy research. He is a professor of Language and Literacy Studies.

 For more than 15 years, he has conducted research and development work in Africa with Misty Sailors, professor of literacy education in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at University of Texas at San Antonio. Their work has taken them to several nations where they have collaborated with local experts and communities to improve literacy instruction in the primary grades.

 

Cervantes-Soon’s Juarez Girls Rising provides a counter-narrative to popular conceptions of Juarez, Mexico, and a guidepost for school communities who want to foster agency and resistance in the face of violence.

Claudia Cervantes-Soon, assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, grew up in the border town of Juarez, Mexico. Described on this side of the border, often sensationalistically, as a drug den and killing field, especially of young girls, Juarez also is a place that Cervantes-Soon understands as so much more. As she says, “to many Mexicans, Juarez  … [was] a land where they could get a chance for survival in the global capitalism that had swallowed their country.”

Claudia Cervantes-SoonCervantes-Soon is a faculty member in the bilingual and bicultural education department within the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education. She’s interested in ethnographic approaches to studying, in part, what’s taught in the classroom and how identities are used, navigated and presented, particularly among culturally and linguistically diverse learners and young Latina/Mexican women.

Her book, Juarez Girls Rising has recently been selected by the Society for the Study of Social Problems as one of five finalists for the 2017 C. Wright Mills Award. In the book, Cervantes-Soon presents narratives of 10 high school girls coming of age within the backdrop of Juarez. Through their stories, the reader gains insight into how the unique educational experience the girls have in their schooling environment offers them tools, agency and voice that they can use for survival, renewal and resistance.

The girls in Juarez Girls Rising attend Prepatoria Altavista, an urban school founded on social justice principles in the late ’60s. The curriculum of the school is guided by a philosophy called autogestión, “a holistic and dialectical approach to individual and collective identity formation rooted in students’ experiences and critical understanding of their social realities.” This “self-authorship” empowers the young women to overcome barriers and develop meaningful identities within an overarching atmosphere of oppression and violence.

One has only to consider the protests against gun violence all across the United States to see how the stories and resiliency of these young girls, who are soon to be women, translates across and beyond the border on which they live. And, says Cervantes-Soon, “the teacher movements going on around the United States ask us to reflect on the meaning of education.” In that light, Juarez Girls Rising provides a guidepost for educators and students in creating transformative and empowering school communities that foster the strengths, identities, and agency of marginalized students in a complex world.

Cervantes-Soon is currently conducting research into black and Latino coalitions in dual-language programs in Austin-area schools. The project has been awarded the National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship. Read more about it on the College of Education website.

 

Photo of Melissa WetzelMelissa Wetzel, associate professor of language and literacy, shares research-based ideas about the literacy “crisis” and how understanding diverse literacies is a stronger educational approach.

Children come into the world with a set of language and literacy practices. Young children are always learning to name their world and discovering how language works. As they grow, they learn the words that are important to their worlds, what Paulo Freire called their “word worlds.”

When they enter school, they are often assessed in terms of their letter and word recognition, their phonemic awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and letter and word writing. These are measures of literacy.

However, there are other aspects of literacy that are not measured because test developers cannot have a window into the world of words that surrounds each child. What we know, for example, is that there is not a word gap, as many researchers have found, between students who speak English as their first language and second language learners.

In fact, the number of words that bilingual and multilingual students know might far exceed the number of words that an English monolingual student knows. In addition, multilingual students have the additional knowledge of how to navigate their social worlds using more than one language!

Line of colored Candies and kid counting

Photo by Patrick Tomasso (@impatrickt) on Unsplash

One thing we are pretty sure of in the field of literacy is that teachers who know how to find out what a student knows and how they are literate—rather than gaps in their literacy—will be much better equipped to build on what the students know and help them to be successful.

Illiteracy is an unscientific concept and very political. Literacy rates were used to document literacy during a politically constructed “crisis of illiteracy” in the latter part of the 20th century. For example, under the Reagan Administration, many organizations began receiving funding from the federal government for programs designed to provide basic literacy education for those people who were identified as illiterate.

Like other “crises,” a crisis of illiteracy is dangerous for many reasons, primarily because it positions some people’s languages and literacies as deficit and narrowly defines what it means to be literate. It positions students who leave school as illiterate, which is often untrue, and shifts responsibility and blame onto the young person who may have been miseducated in many ways.

In a binary of literacy/illiteracy, we have to ask, “what counts/doesn’t count as literacy” and “who benefits from literacy programs and initiatives,” among other important critical questions. In a dynamic society in which what it means to be literate is always changing, it is hard to see how narrow measures of literacy (reading and writing assessments) might be meaningful to public conversations or policymakers in productive ways.

Organizations that are focused on literacy often rely on discourse from the literacy crisis to make claims about literacy rates and why they are a problem. This discourse appeals to those who want to help—through volunteering and monetary support. That can be a good thing. The danger, however, is that each time a literacy crisis discourse is evoked, dominant and narrow views about what counts are reproduced. That means we may move further and further away from understanding diverse literacies, what and how students know, and what literacies will support them most for participation in a changing world.

Wetzel is Judy Spence Fellow for Excellence and Associate Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Her research and teaching focus on how pre-service teachers integrate critical literacy and culturally relevant practices into their field-based literacy teaching experiences. 

-Feature photo of books by Patrick Fore (@patrickian4) on Unsplash

Because of the foundational importance of literacy to education, teachers are increasingly expected to integrate reading across various subjects, including science. But choosing appropriate texts can be a challenge for teachers, who may not be well-versed in how to critically evaluate them.

Headshot of Dr. Petrosino

Anthony Petrosino

Associate Professor Anthony Petrosino of the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin’s STEM Education program and doctoral student Sarah Jenevien have developed a solution that addresses this challenge.

The two collaborated with the college’s Office of Instructional Innovation to develop an online Children’s Science Book Database, where pre-service elementary teachers post reviews of science-related children’s books. The database was created in 2014 and has become part of pre-service teachers’ coursework within their science methods class.

“The review template encourages pre-service teachers to engage critically with the texts in terms of their scientific content, fostering scientific process skills and identifying potential stereotyping or gender bias,” says Petrosino.

Pre-service teachers are asked research-based questions. They must critically assess the literature for processes, content, readability, engagement, and interest. Their reviews provide basic information, such as a summary of the book and the maximum and minimum grade levels it would be appropriate for.

For example, one student wrote of the book Volcanoes, “The book could be considered slightly gender-biased because only images of male geologists are included. However, considering the publishing date, it’s most likely that only men were given credit for the science discoveries at the time.”

Currently, over 130 children’s books have been reviewed for the database, including titles such as Pluto’s Secret, A Butterfly is Patient, What Makes Day and Night? and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which one reviewer noted has many positive aspects, but is not based on sound scientific principles, “as it is impossible for food to fly down from the sky three times a day.”

“By searching the database, pre-service teachers can easily find books that match their grade level and subject area, which decreases the difficulties associated with integrated lesson planning and increases the likelihood that they will use children’s books during their field teaching experiences,” says Petrosino. “This work helps teachers become critical consumers of children’s literature.”

The database is available for educators and the public to view reviews.