Wednesday, March 23, 2016

If I Ran for President Posters: 2016 Presidential Primaries

 I worked very hard creating and cultivating a lesson where I stayed neutral but taught about the current Presidential election.  I taught this "If I Ran for President" poster in 2008 but under very different circumstances and a very different election. I asked students to discuss with each other about social issues important to them. I teach middle school art at a Title 1 school. The majority of my students are Hispanic, but I also have students who are Muslim, refugees from Iraq, Syria, Myanmar. I have students from Nepal and Vietnam and China. I have African American students and Caucasian students.

 One of my students from Iraq used to wear a hijab. A few days after the Paris attacks, she stopped wearing it and she told me her Mother made her take it off because her Mother was afraid she would get killed. She said she still wanted to wear it. This made me cry.

My students are who inspired me to teach this lesson again. I debated it a lot in my mind and did some soul searching beforehand. Am I opening a can of worms? Will our posters be censored? Should we talk about or avoid religion and politics? But isn't the personal the political? I take very seriously not imposing my own beliefs on them and not being specific, but I do work very hard to create a classroom culture of respect, safety, and responsibility. We engage in Socratic dialogue daily and I overheard students talking about the election, in particular their concerns regarding comments made by Donald Trump. I am so proud that they have been able to discuss in a mature manner and respect each other's opinions.

 For our project, we explored the history of political art and graphic design, looked at Shepard Fairey's Obama "Hope" poster, and students created their own posters based on their issues "If I Ran For President." We held a mock election in class. I turned one of my closets into a voting booth and had the students paint the butcher paper covering the door. I had students create and paint a ballot box.  Some of them got really into it and offered to work "security" to help make sure only one person at a time was allowed in the booth.

 I took photos documenting my own voting journey during the Presidential primary, how I waited in line 2 hours but it was worth every minute, how I was in between two other educators and got to know them, how I did a lot of research on the other things on my ballot but there was still some information I didn't know. I shared with them that it takes time to be an informed citizen. The people working the polls were kind and let me keep a couple dozen stickers to share with students and gave me flyers for both the Democratic and Republican county conventions.

I worked very hard to remain neutral when they asked me questions since they really want to know who I voted for but I explained that as their teacher I am in a position of power and do not want to influence their opinion. I strongly encouraged them to use time inside and outside of class to research the candidates themselves and make up their own minds. The closest answer I gave them was to say "I think you know me pretty well by now to figure out where I stand. How much emphasis have I put on respect this year? personal accountability?  kindness? Reflect on the variety of cultures and countries we have "visited" and learned about and created artwork inspired by. Look around at your fellow students in the classroom and reflect on their backgrounds. Am I not their teacher, too?"

I was so very moved at the issues that kept coming up over and over again: immigration and not separating families with deportation, equal rights for all genders, a high amount of LGBTQ rights and freedom to marry, ending racism, stopping war and world peace, stopping bullying, helping the homeless: this is their reality. They have passion and compassion and conviction.

I strongly urged them that if they are still living here when they are 18, are citizens, they should register to vote. I told them they could use class time to research how to become a citizen as well.

The facts are that they overwhelmingly voted Democratically with about 75 votes for Hillary Clinton and 55 votes for Bernie Sanders. Trump and Cruz were a tie at 8 votes each Rubio had a few, and Kasich had none.

Here are some samples of the posters they came up with. I had no idea some of these thoughts were going on in their head and in their hearts. I am grateful I got to learn more about them through their art.

This one with the women's shelter, made me cry. There is a story there.

This girl is very quiet, but apparently does have a lot to say.

Friday, March 18, 2016

How does one respond to being nominated Teacher of the Year?

I was recently nominated by my peers at my new school as Teacher of the Year for my campus. I literally teared up in my Principal's office upon hearing the news for so many reasons as it was a long and hard road towards obtaining my own degree and I know there are many dedicated, passionate teachers at my school. Also, considering it is my first year at this school and I am an Electives teacher and rarely get to see the other staff since I teach when they have their team meetings, I guess they have noticed what we've been up to in Art class!

Part of accepting the nomination means applying for teacher of the year at the district and state level and completing an application that asked the following. My response is below. I only hope it does my students' justice. I don't really care about winning.

Education Issues and Trends 

            A.  What do you consider to be the major public education issues today?
                  Address one in depth, outlining possible causes, effects and resolutions.

I believe that the major issue facing public education today is the fact that 16 million children in America, one of the richest nations in the world, live in poverty.  In addition, there is a growing disparity of equal opportunity and equity between various races and socio-economic statuses. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 22% of children in the U.S. live in families that are considered poor. Child poverty rates are disproportionately higher among African American, Latino, and Native American children.

My public teaching career has consisted of working in Title 1 schools where the majority of my students are of color and also happen to qualify for free or reduced lunch. Bearing daily witness to the devastating effects of poverty on my students, has only further impassioned me to continue working with youth who have been labeled at risk, underprivileged, and underserved. Sometimes I worry that these kinds of labels only pigeonhole the students and cause them to wonder why they should even bother if it is presumed they will fail academically and likely drop out before graduating.

During my student teaching at a school in Northeast Austin, I more fully understood the need for programs such as “Coats for Kids” and “Blue Santa” when one little boy’s coat was filthy and full of holes. He frequently fell asleep in the morning because he did not get there in time for the free breakfast. At another position in Southeast Austin during the colder months, we would often hold our activity time indoors as a hoodie was the only outwear the majority of students were able to wear as so few of them had coats. Even at my current school in the colder weather, students often come underdressed and wear the same clothes over and over again. When families are struggling so hard just to survive, education often takes a back seat. I understand it can be hard for a child to focus academically when they are not getting enough to eat, when they may move frequently and be living with multiple other families, and when there may be familial instability and dysfunction at home. It can be hard to focus when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.

I know I cannot solve this issue alone or the effects of poverty such as the higher likelihood of mental and behavioral problems, feelings of instability, addiction, divorce, and other health problems. The only thing I do have any power over on a daily basis is to show compassion for each one of my students and do what I can each day to give them a safe and stable environment. All too often school is the only safe and structured place students have to go to and sometimes we, as teachers are the only reliable adults present in their lives. There is a great sense of hopelessness and isolation that can come with the effects of poverty, and it is vital that administration, staff, teachers, students, and families are given the time and opportunity to come together to create a network and community of support.

We as teachers have the ability and duty and honor to relate to our students on a personal level, provide them with a classroom culture of respect and personal responsibility, delegate power and leadership opportunities, and give them a sense of purpose to help them become successful citizens as they grow older despite their circumstances. The most powerful tool to success in my experience is not to underestimate their need just to have an adult simply listen to them.

As an art teacher I have particularly seen my students’ desperate need for self-expression and creativity, to be able to have and share their unique voice in a room where there isn’t just one right standardized answer to bubble in on a scantron, and have been told more than once that the only class that keeps them coming to school is mine or their other courses in the arts. The arts help nurture the imagination and soul in ways that are immeasurable by standardized testing. When I was hired as a teaching artist to create community murals at schools in Southeast Austin, I gave students their own sketchbooks to help generate ideas. Towards the end of one session, I heard a small, tenderly incredulous voice say “You mean, we get to KEEP these journals, Ms. Gray?” and I said “Of course you get to keep them. I brought these here for you.”