A Great Start to Improving Adolescent Reading Outcomes in the 2018/2019 School Year

This year, our school-wide instructional focus at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School is about increasing students’ reading levels. Our Instructional Leadership Team collaborated on the writing of this statement, an important promise to our students – reading at and above grade level.

Educators in all content areas will use benchmark and formative data to plan and implement instruction that deeply engages students in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and creating, moving toward all students reading at and above grade level.

Yesterday, our Summer Literacy Team met after a summer spent reading – we landed on Moat’s Speech to Print and Roe, Burns, and Wade’s Teaching Reading in Today’s Elementary Schools (9th edition).

These photos capture the sharp thinking of our team of Boston Public Schools’ Educators. I am excited to use writingisthinking.org as a platform to document our work throughout the year.

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Paredes Que Hablan: Reading Stations

Why use stations for reading? When we started planning this unit, we had so many texts that we wanted to use and so many activities that we wanted to do with each reading; it was overwhelming. Also, as seventh grade teachers, we confront a few problems pretty consistently when we teach whole-class mini-lessons: 1) the same few students are engaged, and even when using calling sticks, turn-and-talk, or other engagement strategies, all students are not participating to the fullest extent; 2) texts need to be substantially differentiated for different levels of readers, which is difficult to do when the class is reading together, and 3) many of our students rely on us, their teachers, to tell them that their work is acceptable or correct before moving on to the next step. A stations format for classwork, especially when stations can be tailored for the different groups, addresses each of these dilemmas and pushes our seventh graders toward independence and confidence in their academic work.

When structuring station work, especially at the beginning of the year, we scaffold the “how” of stations by going over expectations and directions each day, projecting a timer, delegating student jobs, and, at the end, doing both a small group and a whole class reflection about how well station work went on a particular day. For each set of stations, students receive a packet (which may be differentiated depending on whether students are grouped homogeneously or heterogeneously) with the same four expectations. Right underneath the stations expectations, there is a stations report card. At the end of stations work, students grade themselves on that report card. If the stations go for two days, the second day they grade with a different color. We have found that reviewing the expectations each day supports student success, and, at the end of station work, a teacher circulates as students are reflecting to give warm feedback as well as one thing that a group can work on to improve their “group work grade” for the following day.

 

On the second page of the stations packet are the stations expectations (only four to keep it simple) and station jobs. Students assign jobs within their groups, and the expectation is that the following day, each student has a different job. This allows students to share responsibility, compelling kids to push themselves out of their comfort zones and/or allowing students who would usually be leaders in a group to step back and support the leadership of other students.

**Note: When reviewing station expectations, number 2–plan your time–is the one that we teach into the most. This step forces students to read all the directions, break down the task, and estimate how much time each step will take. Before we added that step, we noticed that students were using their time to do the task, but that they were not moving as quickly through the work as they could have been. This step puts momentum into their group work and, since adding and teaching it, we have observed many more completed station packets.

This set of six stations (with 3-5 kids at each station totalling 5 groups–no one starts at station 2) included the following texts and activities:

    1. “Exile” Reading Station: At this station, students read Julia Alvarez’s “Exile” for comprehension. They did a gist-related stop n jot at designated stopping points (that we had penned in ahead of time) and answered some After Reading Questions.
    2. “Exile” Theme Station: This station had a teacher present to read the text aloud and review the comprehension questions from Station 1 to ensure that understood what they had read as a group at the first station. Then, students were guided through the scaffolded theme-finding process that we had taught whole-class the previous week. This gave us as teachers a better gauge of where students were in their ability to independently find theme and comprehend the text independently.
    3. “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” Symbolism Station: Here, students watched the music video from The Hamilton Mixtape’s “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” by artists Keinan Abdi Warsame, Claudia Alexandra Feliciano, Rizwan Ahmed, Rene Perez Joglar, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Jeffrey Penalva, using printed lyrics to follow along. They then answered four questions related to symbols that they saw in the music video and a fifth question about the video’s overall message.
    4. March Evidence Sort Station: At this station, students read an excerpt of John Lewis’s graphic novel March I. After reading the excerpt, they examined 8 pieces of preselected evidence to determine whether it was relevant to the claim “It is important to break the rules to fight for equality.” Students sorted the evidence into relevant and irrelevant categories, and then noted their choices in the station packet. Then, they put a star by the strongest piece of evidence in the relevant pile before putting their materials away and moving on to station 5.
    5. Gate A-4” Theme Station: Here, students read aloud the short story by Naomi Shihab Nye, answered a few comprehension questions,  and then as a group generated three themes of the text. Independently, each student chose what he/she thought was the best theme and wrote a short paragraph explaining why.
    6. Theme Computer Station: Each of our schools uses computer programs for ELA mini-lessons with the intention that these lessons and the practice that follows can be individually differentiated based on a pre-assessment given by the program, which is then followed up by benchmarks each quarter. These computer programs (MobyMax, Study Island, etc) each have a section on theme, which students completed at this station.

 

**Note: With the exception of station 6, each station ended with the question “What border(s) did ____________ cross in this text? What challenges did _________ face when crossing? Use evidence from the text to justify your answer.” This uniting question allowed us to review the station work together as a whole class, anchoring our discussion in the core questions of the overall unit.

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These stations took two days to complete (21 min/station with 2 min of transition time and a do now at the beginning of the class time). At the end of the first day, each group completed the report card and then we gave written feedback with a plus and a delta (one improvement that they could make) that students reviewed before starting stations the second day. Students also got a grade for their group work each day and an overall grade for their written work (in the packet) after the whole activity was completed.

Because station work is so independent, it is important that teachers “see” students as they are working and deeply look at particular parts of the station packet to monitor the content and skills that students are working on. We chose to focus on the question about border crossing at each station to make sure that students were connecting their work to the greater work of the unit. We also discussed the themes of “Exile” and “Gate A-4,” as well as some of the symbol questions in the music video. These discussions not only validated the students who had completed all the work at stations and had done deep thinking about the text (those scholars got many participation points during the discussion!), but also allowed the kids who had been in different groups to bring their small group discussions to the whole class so that their ideas could be heard, expanded upon, and refined in a bigger group. We created an anchor chart of themes from these different stories that we referenced when beginning our memoir writing unit the following week.

**This post was co-written by Kat Atkins-Pattenson and Alice Laramore

Choosing Texts that Build Understanding and Classroom Community

Reflecting on the curricula we taught last year, we determined that the texts our students read did not provide enough opportunities for students to seem themselves in the literature. As documented in previous posts, we spent a month traveling last summer specifically to learn about resistance murals and the role that these murals played and continue to play in their communities. When we returned from our travels at the end of July, we spent August designing the unit that would launch our 2017-2018 school year. Both of our schools use a backwards planning template, and we combine the two, pulling the best from each, to scaffold our thinking.

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One of the most daunting parts of planning any new unit is finding good mentor texts that are at appropriate reading levels for students, are about the content you want students to learn about, and use the writing skills you want to teach. This deep work was so much easier to do as thought partners. We balanced four different things when we began selecting mentor texts: 1) types of border crossing we wanted our students to be inspired by (physical, cultural, emotional, etc) 2) authors diverse in race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, and sexual orientation 3) engaging text types (e.g. graphic novels, photographs, short stories, poetry, music and children’s books) and 4) texts that we could deconstruct into the components of memoir writing that we would be teaching in the second part of the unit.

We started with texts that were familiar, and then did research to find texts that filled in the gaps. Besides determining our whole-class texts, we also created a supplementary reading list that we could purchase for our classroom libraries. We both have robust independent reading in our classrooms, and we had intentionally set aside a portion of our Fund for Teachers grant budget to purchase mentor texts for our unit, so we loaded our cart with the books listed below:

Unit Texts:

  • “Names/Nombres,” Julia Alvarez
  • “Exile,” Julia Alvarez
  • “Gate A-4,” Naomi Shihab Nye
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang
  • Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario (Chapter: The Dreaded Stop)
  • “Fish Cheeks,” Amy Tan
  • Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie (Chapter:In Like a Lion)
  • March Volumes 1 and 2, John Lewis

Texts for Children’s book activity:

  • The Name Jar, Yangsook Choi
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst
  • Come On, Rain, Karen Hesse
  • A Chair for My Mother,  Vera B. Williams
  • Too Many Tamales, Gary Soto
  • Last Stop on Market Street, Matt de la Pena
  • Amazing Grace, Mary Hoffman

Independent Reading Books

  • Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You, Hanna Jansen
  • Dear Martin, Nic Stone
  • Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea, Sungju Lee
  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez
  • Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey, Ozge Samanci
  • Saving Montgomery Sole, Mariko Tamaki
  • Bystander, James Preller
  • The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, Thi Bui
  • Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team that Changed a Town, Warren St. John
  • Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
  • The Silence of Our Friends: The Civil Rights Struggle Was Never Black and White, Mark Long
  • Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition, Margot Lee Shetterly
  • One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia
  • Good Enough, Paula Yoo
  • A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah
  • A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernandez
  • Piecing Me Together, Renee Watson
  • Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok
  • Enrique’s Journey (The Young Adult Adaptation): The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother, Sonia Nazario
  • Mexican WhiteBoy, Matt de la Pena
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang
  • Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave, Shyima Hall
  • Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Susan Kuklin
  • The Distance Between Us: Young Readers’ Edition, Reyna Grande
  • The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, Wendy Wan-Long Shang
  • Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir, Liz Prince
  • I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers’ Edition), Malala Yousafzai
  • We Were Here, Matt de la Pena
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Meg Medina

It felt like Christmas morning when our big box of books arrived! We each previewed a selection of the texts, pulling chapters or segments that we thought would be most engaging and help us fulfill our learning targets for this unit. We selected 14 mentor texts, including two graphic novels and 5 children’s books. We then turned to asking ourselves: Which text would be the best entryway into our unit for our students? We selected a chapter from Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario because we wanted to ground our students in the concept of border crossing with a literal interpretation. As this was our first unit of the year, we wanted to provide an access point that would help all students feel successful. In hindsight, the excerpt we chose from Enrique’s Journey was long and the vocabulary was challenging. As our unit progressed, we realized that our students had the engagement to tackle the more figurative examples of border crossing. We will likely start with another text–perhaps “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan–next year and build towards the stamina necessary to tackle Enrique’s Journey.

Besides our focus on student engagement and diversity of text, we also focused on selecting texts in which the author’s used moves that we planned for our students to master. This way, students would be able to revisit texts in the second portion of the unit that they had already encountered, allowing them to focus more on the writing moves and less on comprehension. We developed a great formatting strategy to facilitate close reading skills that we have carried through the units we’ve taught this year. In this example of Names/Nombres, it is clear how the texts are structured for students to read multiple times for different purposes. It is also clear how we differentiated texts for our different levels of readers. Students saved all of the texts that they read and annotated in the first portion of the unit (the reading portion) and returned to them in the second portion of the unit (the writing portion) to identify writers’ moves that helped the author effectively convey a story.

After completing the reading portion of the unit, students took a mid-unit assessment that focused on their ability to read a text, find the gist, and answer text-dependent questions. But more than that, it asked students to communicate their new understanding of borders, why people cross them, and how reading other people’s stories and interpreting their themes and messages builds a richer community.

Whole Class Poem: A Publication Celebration

This year, instead of a publishing celebration with food and a stage for students to stand on while reading their writing, I tried out a new approach: the Whole-Class Poem. The gist of the celebration is that each student chooses the best line (best can be defined by the teacher, by a rubric, or by the students) to add to the whole class poem. We begin by sharing the lines. Then we read the poem aloud. Students offer changes to the order of the lines, and we read through it again. We repeat the order-adjusting step until we all feel satisfied with the sound of the work. Then, we do read in unison.

For the first full week of school, my students read “My Name” by Sandra Cisneros.  Together, we analyzed the text for meaning, structure, and style. After, I modeled how to brainstorm ideas for each of the three sections in the piece, and then brainstormed about their own names and drafted a My Name piece with three sections.

Students then draft their pieces based on their brainstorms, and I have writing conferences with each. This gives me a better pre-assessment of where their thinking is and where their writing is, so I can problem-solve around closing the gap between thinking and writing, and push both forward. We revise and edit, using the same structure as Speed Publishing Week. Then, we celebrate!

My goals for the celebration were:

  1. Every student reads aloud at least one sentence.
  2. Every student reads the finished pieces of four other students.
  3. Our class experiences the draft-revise-final writing process in real time, together.

To begin, the desks and chairs, usually situated in groups of four, were rearranged into a large circle. Each student found the desk with their name on it and sat down with their final draft, reading it silently in their heads.

After three minutes of silently reviewing their own drafts, I taught them about the post-it compliments that we use to praise one another’s writing. All students wrote their initials in the corner of five post-its. I introduced students to three sentence stems they could use to comment on one another’s writing.

Community Reading + Compliment Post-its

We practiced writing two compliments together for a selected piece of student writing–I chose one that had a few mistakes, and we practiced pulling out the positive. Then, each student moved three desks to the left. They had four minutes to read work and write their compliments. We rotated through four different drafts. Students could use their fifth post-it to write an extra compliment for a draft when they had extra time. Finally, students returned to their own drafts and read through their compliments.

Whole Class Poem: Drafting

In the second phase of the celebration, we created a whole class poem. The title of the poem was “Our Names” and the byline was the class’s cohort title. First, each student used a colored highlighter to highlight the most descriptive line from their writing. Many students were guided by their peers’ compliments. For example, “The most descriptive part of your writing is…” stem supported students who were not as easily able to choose the best line for themselves.

After highlighting, the whole class stood. I asked students to raise their hands if they thought that their line would be a good start for our whole class poem. That student read her line out loud and I typed it into a google document that was being projected in real time. After reading, that student sat and the student on the left of her read her best line. We repeated this pattern until every student had contributed a line to our whole-class poem.

Whole Class Poem: Revision

Once the poem was drafted, we moved into the revision stage. One student volunteered to read the poem aloud, and other students were prompted to listen for lines that could be moved to make the poem flow more naturally. As the student read, other students were tracking with their eyes and making mental changes based on the projected poem. After the read-aloud, four students suggested changes, and I copied and pasted in the google draft to accommodate their recommendations. We repeated the read aloud and revise process one more time to get a final draft.

Once we had a final draft, we did a choral read of our whole class poem, and the next day it was posted on the bulletin board for the whole student body to read. Each student contributed a piece of their writing to the whole-class work, and each student could proudly explain the content of the board and how the work was created. Not only had students completed one piece of writing in the first two weeks of school, they had contributed to two, framing writing as a large part of the work that we will do together throughout the seventh grade.

At the beginning of each school year, all teachers have the responsibility to build a classroom community that is a safe place to learn and grow, to make mistakes and take risks, to make new friends and try out new sides of oneself. I find that I come to know students better as whole people by engaging them in writing tasks that encourage them to share dimensions of their stories and identities. What’s more, when the time for celebrating finished pieces of writing arrives, students have the opportunity to learn new things about one another, to ask questions, and to find similarities and differences that encourage an empathetic classroom. This sets us up for a year of productive learning and growing as a community.

Los Secretos de La Casa Azul (y Los de Frida Kahlo)

They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality. -Frida Kahlo

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La Casa Azul holds many secretos and juxtapositions, the boldest of which is color. Kahlo’s most famous works, self-portraits such as Autoretrato Las dos Fridas/Selfportrait The two Fridas, Autoretrato Diego y Yo/Selfportrait Diego and I, and Autoretrato Pensando en la Muerte/Selfportrait Thinking about Death, are done in earthy tones, the background often an olive green, steely gray, or rich brown. In contrast, her living space is the brightest blue. Her clothing was reds, yellows, pinks, and greens, leaping from the fabric. She surrounded herself with bold, vibrant color. Kahlo’s extensive biography is available on the web, in books, and in traveling exhibits. Walking through the space that she and Diego created together, however, opens a sensory way of learning about Kahlo’s art, her pain, her relationships, and her eccentricities. Touring La Casa Azul is perhaps the most intimate experience a tourist can have with Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo’s identity is complex. Born to Guillermo Kahlo, of Hungarian-German descent, and Matilde Calderon, of indigenous and Spanish descent, Kahlo’s artwork and fashion show her navigation of two ethnic identities. She also stretched boundaries of gender, sexuality, and ability. When Kahlo was six, she contracted polio which resulted in one of her legs being underdeveloped. She wore three or four socks on that leg, as well as a platform shoe, to even her stance. At eighteen, she was impaled by a railing during a serious bus accident, breaking her spine and resulting in a long hospital stay and a back brace that she wore most of the rest of her life. Her living space, La Casa Azul, illuminates those complexities, celebrating the effects they had and the choices they inspired. As teachers, we want our students to see and understand Kahlo’s ability to negotiate layers of identity and personal relationship through art.

Stepping over the threshold into the four-room art exhibit, a focus on self and individual relationships jumps from the oils and photographs. Kahlo is most famous for self-portraits that exhibit deep pain and reflection, and these first four rooms contain work that is more typical of a Kahlo exhibit, including portraits, self-portraits, and a few stills. These four rooms also contain quotations, photographs, and pages from Kahlo’s diary. The fourth room has a label on each wall, indicating four points of genesis for Kahlo’s creative work: passions, inspirations, family, and photography. (Kahlo’s father was a photographer, and she was surrounded by portrait photography as a young person.)

The fifth room is filled to the edges with Mexican popular and pre-Hispanic glassware and pottery, which Kahlo and Rivera valued for its traditional artistry. The couple loved entertaining, and the volume of dishware proves that they were ready to host tens of guests at a time. This is one of the first rooms where Kahlo’s compartmentalization of her pain is glaring. She jovially hosted artists and political figures including Georgia O’Keefe, Leon Trotsky, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Edward Weston, saving her pain for her art.

After peeking into Diego’s bedroom and the kitchen, we walked up the stairs into Kahlo’s studio. Her wheelchair is parked right in front of the easel, which sits between two work tables. One of the tables holds her paints, brushes, and sparkling stones that she used in her painting. On the other sits the mirror she used when painting her self-portraits. One wall is entirely glass, letting in glorious light and a view of the garden below, while the opposite wall is entirely bookshelf, displaying Kahlo’s collection of books, photographs, and diagrams of the human body used in her work.

Next come Kahlo’s two bedrooms–a day bedroom and a night bedroom. Most obvious in the day bedroom are the mirror affixed to the canopy top that her mother put there after her accident and Kahlo’s death mask. In the night bedroom, affixed above the bed is a panel of butterflies, a gift from an American painter. The room also houses a collection of dolls Kahlo created of herself in different styles including a Chinese doll, a Japanese doll, and a Mexican doll, as well as a pre-Hispanic urn that holds Kahlo’s ashes, which sits on her dressing table. The urn is shaped like a toad, a reference to Diego’s self-assigned nickname, el sapo-rana.

In her private spaces, such as her bedrooms and her studio, we saw evidence of both her physical disability and the mental anguish it caused her. The two beds strongly indicate that Kahlo spent much of her time horizontally, and the wheelchair demonstrates a life-long struggle with mobility. These physical signs of pain are exclusively on the second floor of the house, making them less visible to Kahlo’s friends and guests who frequented La Casa Azul.

After walking through the beautifully curated, lush garden, we arrived at the exhibit behind Kahlo and Rivera’s home, Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe. According to Circe Henestrosa, the exhibition curator, the exhibition “displays these objects for the very first time and is a study of Kahlo’s construction of her own identity. Themed into five rooms, the exhibition focuses on the construction of Kahlo’s style through disability, tradition, fashion and dress, showing the original ensembles and objects drawn from the museum’s collection. It also shows how Kahlo’s personal style remains a source of inspiration for international artists and designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Dai Rees, Comme des Garcons, and Riccardo Tisci.”

When we walked into the exhibit, the first things we saw were Kahlo’s crutches and six different forms of back brace, offset by one of the corsets that she decorated. The next two rooms display what Kahlo’s true wardrobe including long skirts that hid her shrunken leg and the blouses of Tehuana style with elaborate embroidery, drawing the viewer’s eye to the top part of her body away from her legs. On the walls in these rooms are photographs that Kahlo altered with scissors and a page from her diary that elaborates on her feelings about her worsening physical condition. Finally, in the last two rooms, stand several examples of avant-garde fashion pieces inspired by Kahlo’s style, including one top and skirt set belonging to Kahlo herself. She painted the top in great detail, the colors beautifully matching the long green skirt.

Kahlo’s ability to take ownership of a challenge and turn it into art is obvious throughout La Casa Azul. The museum beautifully displays Kahlo’s multiple representations of her identity through painting, diary pages, homemade dolls, quotations, fashion choices, and the items she surrounded herself with day and night. We hope that, as our students progress through the Borders and Identity Unit we are currently building, they can learn from these multiple representations of identity, mimicking Kahlo’s genres of expression and finding their own. Just as Kahlo used her clothing as a tool to empower herself through disability and pain, we want our students to see art and literature as tools to navigate identity, borders, and challenges in their own lives.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

San Diego to Tucson to Santa Fe in Six Days

Now that we’ve left the country, we are having a hard time remembering all that we are thankful for in our last three US stops–we did so much! We visited San Diego, Tucson, and Santa Fe in six days, which was quite a bit of driving and quite a bit of seeing in a short amount of time. As we got closer to the physical border dividing the US and Mexico, we took note of the many ways that the cultures on either side come together to create food, architecture, art, and language that display the richness of synthesis.

In San Diego, the main event was Chicano Park, which we would recommend to anyone visiting the city. A deep sense of community ownership and pride pervades the space, and the art takes on gentrification, displacement, climate change, and so many more social justice issues, connecting the struggles a community has faced in the past forty years with the power that has sustained Chicano culture for the past thousands. We also visited Tourmaline Beach (so many surfers) and La Jolla Beach for some reading and some processing time, and had a fabulous meal at Yakatori Taisho. We stayed in BTR Cohort 9 member BLee’s apartment, though ironically he was in Boston at the time, and the spirit of creativity, teaching, and joy that he brings to his classroom was ever-present in our San Diego learning.

Six hours in our car (dubbed Dusty Rose after so reliably driving through so much desert) and two blog posts later, we arrived in Tucson. The main event was a meeting with Dr. Curtis Acosta, which cannot be described in a single blog post, though we tried valiantly. The ideas that came up in our conversation continue to germinate as we see more and more in our travels. We also saw several murals in Tucson, the most striking of which was Joe Pagac’s mural on the side of the Epic Rides building in downtown Tucson. The mural has so much movement, as if the five characters are going to cycle right off of the wall and burst into the city itself. We also had a delicious dinner with Alice’s Aunt Mary, a long-time Tucson resident and hilarious conversationalist. After our meet up with Dr. Acosta, she added a resident’s perspective on the political climate and happenings, especially around immigration, in Tucson.

Our final US city was Santa Fe. It took us about eight hours to get there, and during our trip, we crossed borders in and out of Native territories. For the last hour or so of our drive and the first evening spent in Santa Fe, it poured. We had dinner at Izanami, and then headed to bed. We started our first full day with a green chile and bacon breakfast burrito at El Chile Toreado, which we ate on the way to hike El Diablo Canyon. The four-mile out-and-back hike took us to the edge of the Rio Grande. While hiking out, we crossed under a green fence with a sign that said “Property of the United States: All persons are prohibited under penalty of the Law from committing damage.” The signs did not tell us to keep out so we kept on the hiking trail, but all the while we wondered whether we were under surveillance of some kind.

The next day we went to Tent Rocks before our visit to the International Folk Art Festival, a three day gathering of more than 150 artists from 53 countries. Not only is the Festival a space in which artists can make money to take home to their communities, but the mission of the festival is one of economic opportunity and social change. Artists who come to the market often go home to “build schools, bridges, wells, and community centers, purchase milking cows and medical supplies, and fight political dislocation, gender inequity, and other forms of social and economic oppression.” Besides the economic benefits of the Festival, its spirit is one of celebration as so many join together to display the most beautiful pieces from their homelands, made with care and tradition. At the festival, the feelings of fellowship, curiosity, and creation surround the crowd, making crossing borders–negotiating language, asking about method, and discovering newness–possible.

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Now, off to enjoy the rest of our time in Mexico City!

In Solidarity,
Kat + Alice

Thank Yous:

To BLee (and Kiana!!), for the generous use of their apartment and the great San Diego recommendations; to Dr. Acosta, for his time,  his wisdom, and his willingness to share–we are keeping track of what is happening to MAS from the road; to Aunt Mary, for the dinner recommendation and the conversation; to Sam Keamy-Minor, for directions to breakfast burritos; and to Luke, our fabulous Air BnB host in Santa Fe.

A Space of Love and Liberation

In our teacher training programs (Donovan Urban Teaching Scholars at Boston College and The Boston Teacher Residency through UMass Boston), we both watched the documentary Precious Knowledge for the first time. We say the first time because, since then, we have each watched the film several more times, sharing it with colleagues, students, family, and friends. The film contains powerful messages about rehumanizing educational spaces for students, teachers, and families, about collaborative and culturally relevant pedagogy, and about the courage to teach emancipatory curricula in a country that fails to legitimize Chicano culture, to accurately and completely share Chicano history.

Precious Knowledge, a Dos Vatos film made by Ari Luis Palos and Eren Isabel McGinnis in 2012, chronicles the experiences of Tucson High School students taking La Raza Studies (also called Mexican American Studies or MAS) classes as the State Superintendent Tom Horne and other conservative lawmakers in Arizona attack the MAS program. These lawmakers claimed that the MAS curricula promoted the overthrowing of the US government and advocated ethnic solidarity rather than treating students as individuals. As HB2281 threatened the future of this innovative social justice program, which yielded gains in student graduation rates, test scores, college matriculation, and student engagement, students, teachers, and community members organized to educate lawmakers and the public about the content of the program’s classes and the value it brought to the Tucson High School community. The legal battle over the ban of the Mexican American Studies program continues today. The case is currently being heard for a second time by U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima in the U.S. District Court in Tucson.

We initially added Tucson to our trip because we hoped to meet with Dr. Curtis Acosta, one of the Mexican American Studies teachers profiled in the film. At the time we were planning our trip, we had no idea that our stop in Tucson would take place during the trial. We were honored that he made time to connect with us and answer our questions about his work.

IMG_4740We scheduled our sit-down for a Wednesday morning and, as the time approached, the two of us talked through all the things that we wanted to learn about Dr. Acosta’s classroom and his experiences agitating across the country. We organized our questions into three categories: background on the documentary and the ongoing legal battle, the pedagogy and curriculum shared by the teachers in the Mexican American Studies program, and resources for our identity and mural unit. We were excited and nervous to meet with someone whose story plays such a big role in our commitment to the work we do as social justice educators.

Dr. Acosta, who resigned his post at Tucson High School after the Mexican American Studies program was banned and is currently an educational consultant with Acosta Latino Learning Partnership, an assistant professor at University of Arizona South, and constantly traveling to organize and attend conferences and meetings that promote socially just classrooms and rehumanizing education systems, has a spirit that fills up the room. Watching Precious Knowledge, it is clear how captivating Dr. Acosta is as a teacher, and at a picnic table outside Exo Coffee, he is just as magnetic. While he could not discuss the details of the ongoing case, his body language and tone of voice made clear how deeply personal the fight is.

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The picnic table where we sat with Curtis Acosta and heard the beginning of his story.

While telling Dr. Acosta about our project and goals, we explained that part of our initial grant proposal acknowledged that for students to thrive, they must see reflections of themselves in our classroom spaces, pedagogy, and curriculum. While the murals that we’ve seen along the way are artifacts that we will use to dig into themes of borders and walls with our students, this meeting with Dr. Acosta was a chance to plant our planning and pedagogy for the unit (and the year) in the culturally-rooted practices that made the Mexican American Studies program so engaging and empowering for Tucson High students.

We talked for two hours and, after hugging Dr. Acosta good-bye, we were consumed by the enormity of his stories and the work that looms ahead of educators and communities across the country. This conversation will continue to inform the way we consume art and artifacts on the rest of our trip, the planning for our Identity and Borders Unit, and the way we build classroom culture in our schools next year and beyond. With one day’s processing time, though, a few themes of our conversation have surfaced and are resonating with us in this moment.

The last question we asked was “What knowledge do you wish students came to you with? What do you wish they had read or interacted with before coming into your classroom?” He gave his answer in three parts.

First, he said, he wants students to come with a sense of self. He elaborated that he hopes that students have previous experience seeing themselves both culturally and ethnically in the curriculum before high school. For example, a queer Chican@ student reading about a queer Chican@ character affirms that such an identity is real, it has history valuable enough to be taught. Second, he wants students to understand that the classroom space is their space, and that their voices are necessary to co-construct the learning environment. Acosta likened himself to Tim Gunn from Project Runaway; his goal is not to tell students exactly how to design, but rather to ask questions that guide students to showcase their knowledge courageously and authentically. Third, he described how students need to feel well-loved and cared for as intellectuals and as community. The more classrooms that nurture young people as intellectuals, the more easily young people can take academic and personal risks and aim for higher academic targets.

While none of these concepts were new, the fierceness with which Dr. Acosta articulated them as foundational to student experience affirmed them all over again. They are indispensable [classroom] environmental factors that produce the deep learning that propels life-long civic engagement and intellectual pursuit. Beyond the Identity and Borders Unit that we are creating, these principles have to live in our Boston classrooms to allow equitable access to content for students of color, and all students.

We also asked about what the collaborative process was like for the MAS teachers as a group. Dr. Acosta used Ludwik Fleck’s concept of a “thought collective” to explain their work. He likened it to having many cooks working on a recipe, each person bringing their own skill set to the table and the end product reflecting all of the talent and perspective of the individual chefs. Every teacher has an individual style and can “nerd out” about content, yet they join in “a space of love and liberation” to learn together. For us, the most striking part of Dr. Acosta’s narrative was his description and examples of the deep trust and personal relationships that still exist within this community of teachers. To sustain this level of dedication to “true north,” their collegial community held them accountable and empowered them to be their best teacher-selves and to maintain the moral high ground when the political environment became toxic.

The most acutely honest part of our whole conversation, the one that got us both in the gut and the heart, was Dr. Acosta’s description of the fear that motivates teachers. He explained that it’s not enough to love and respect the young people in a classroom, that the driving force of effective teaching is the panic over what will happen if a student does not get where s/he needs to be academically. It is that particular fear that keeps us awake at night, that pushes us to continue to learn, and that motivates trips like this one–we make ourselves better so that more and more students get where they deserve to be.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

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