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Thinking Outside the Box Part II: How One School Is Doing Things Differently| Laurie Grassi-Redmond

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Laurie Grassi-Redmond earned her Masters in Education at Mills College in 2002. While there she was asked to work as the head teacher of the combined fourth and fifth grade classroom at the Mills College Children’s School.

Laurie Grassi-Redmond earned her Masters in Education at Mills College in 2002. She was also the head teacher of the combined fourth and fifth grade classroom at the Mills College Children’s School.

I wrote a post for this blog back in February, when I was planning to open a new school in Freedom, Maine. Shortly after writing the post, I held some informational sessions at local public libraries in the area. I wanted to see how many families might be interested in this type of school. It’s really outside of the box: three days a week, half of every school day spent outside, a truly multi-age setting of 5-10 year-colds all together, two full-time teachers, preparing and eating meals together made from local, organic foods… I just didn’t know if there would be enough interest to make a go of it.

At the first information session, one person showed up.

Students documenting what they learn.

Students documenting what they learn.

Three came to the second, and three came to the third. I paused to reconsider the idea. I thought deeply, talked to all my people, and decided in the end to go ahead with it. Even if I could get ten children, I figured, at least I would have a wonderful school environment for my own two daughters, and I would be able to provide what I feel is the best that education has to offer to another eight local children.

Students at the Mill School working in their classroom during a lesson.

Students at the Mill School working in their classroom during a lesson.

Well, The Mill School opened its doors on September 10th, fully enrolled with twenty local children, ages five to ten, and another eighteen on the waiting list. As it turns out, a lot of people are interested in exactly this kind of school. And so far, things are going as smoothly as can be expected at a brand new school. My colleague and I have changed the daily schedule about five times already. But the children are relaxed and happy, the parents are so supportive, and we have time to really get to know the children, as people, and as learners. Our first place-based curricular unit has begun, our food is delicious, and we are spending a lot of time outside, building strong bodies and connecting to the natural environment. The children are learning the daily routines. It feels to me as if this outside-of-the-box school is blossoming. As one student said to me yesterday, “It’s so weird. At my old school, the teacher was the enemy. But here, you’re just not. You two, like, seem to really care about us.” I smiled, and she paused before she added, “And the food here is so good too!”

I am always interested in hearing about other schools where things are being done differently; please let me know if you have a story to share. You can contact me, and learn more about The Mill School, at

Written by collegialconnections

October 10, 2013 at 10:51 am

School Gardens | Elizabeth Baker

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Elizabeth Baker is the Associate Professor of Practice TTS/Math-Science 4 + 1 Program Director at the School of Education at Mills College.

A “Stumpery” in an English Garden.

“What we observe is not nature itself but nature observed to our method of questioning.” –Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy

In 1995, California launched the “Garden in Every School” program, and since then the Department of   Education has provided standards, curriculum, and evaluative research for school gardens. In addition, the legislature has enacted several bills that promote and (partially) fund school gardens. In 2003, when I was hired to work on an NSF grant using a garden-based mathematics curriculum, there were 3,000 public edible school gardens in California. By 2008 when our grant ended, there were 6,000 schools participating in the edible school garden movement ( Currently, the California School Garden Network reckons that there are close to 10,000 schools participating.

Our state continues to emphasize nutrition education and health through the CA Nutrition Services Department, which now manages the Garden in Every School program. Consequently, we see many raised bed vegetable boxes on typically asphalt-covered or flat green space. School gardens in public urban areas generally do not contain intimate spaces, wild spaces, or even much digging room. Often there is no place to sit or gather a group of students together. There are exceptions, most notably The Edible School Yard at the MLK garden in Berkeley, and two of my favorite spaces: Franklin Elementary and Joaquin Miller in Oakland.  Although there are detractors, the most incendiary being Caitlin Flanagan (Cultivating Failure in the January 1, 2010 issue of the Atlantic Monthly), incorporating a school garden into elementary and some secondary schools continues to be on the side of the angels, and research backs up the academic and social/behavioral merits. (See, for example, Lieberman and Hoody, Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning, a 1992 paper presented at the State Education and Environmental Roundtable San Diego; D. Blair, The Child in the Garden: An Evaluative review of the Benefits of School Gardening, in the Journal of Environmental Education, Winter, Vol. 40, issue 2 in 2009.)

Another example of a “Stumpery” in England.

I recently returned from an inspiring trip to England that included visits to gardens, including school gardens. I was struck by the diversity and creative use of small school garden spaces for academic use. Perhaps because there has been a long history of gardening as a national pastime, of small home gardens, and of community vegetable allotments, the educational use focused more on creating interesting, diverse, and/or beautiful spots for students to be in –in other words, the emphasis was more on wonder and less on fava beans.For example, some schools, taking their lead from the British Natural History Museum, and perhaps less worried about bee stings or law suits from bee stings, kept bee houses if they found bees near the school. If there was a source of unwanted timber, typically tree stumps, schools made “stumperies”. When I asked what were the best kind of stumps for stumperies, I was told “the ones available!” These are seeded with ferns and soil then left to be; as they decompose, they become a great habitat. Schools emphasize increasing wildlife and diversity, and the students are counting, year after year. Counting the rain, the sun, the clouds, the insects, the arachnids, the birds, the ferns, and the plants that appear. The students use data from past years’ classes, and as the years add up so do the questions and evidence about what new has arrived and in what quantities, what the climate is up to, and what change is happening. Elementary gardens don’t look so elementary. They are intensely local just as the students are.

A home for bees made out of a tree.

I know that some of our schools are doing these kinds of things too: creating habitat gardens for butterflies; bee- and pollinator-friendly plantings that may include vegetables too, and other naturalized and native plant areas. But even though we live in a place where we can harvest strawberries in November, it is hard work and most of the work falls on the shoulders of teachers. I can attest to the community building and wonderful things that can happen on “community garden days” (a euphuism for weeding) in our local public schools, but I am hoping we can opt for a certain spaciousness of thinking and planning in our school garden spaces that allow for things to emerge –a constructivist approach to school gardens, if you will. Let’s resist the pressing urge to align all of the garden work to the standards, guidelines, and benchmarks, and justify it with the test scores. Resist imposing specific questions with correct answers. Resist imposing order to the planter boxes. Let’s instead create spaces that invite paying close attention, welcoming places for students to be idle and just observe and develop their own method for questions.


Written by collegialconnections

August 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm

OUSD & Transitional Kindergarten

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EDD student, Krishen Laetsch
Board Member and Youth & Education co-chair         at Oakland Rotary

Recently, the Oakland Unified School District  was pleased to announce that  it had established a relationship with Oakland Rotary to adopt Transitional Kindergarten (TK) classes at ten schools (eleven classrooms) throughout the city. OUSD wrote, “The group will compensate for gaps in state funding of Transitional Kindergarten by providing the funds needed to create nurturing and stimulating learning environments for young children.” OUSD further wrote, “While the state provides funding for TK teacher salaries, virtually no money is offered for classroom modifications, furniture, equipment, books and toys designed to optimize the learning experience for these younger students.” Oakland Rotary and its partners have pledged to help fill that gap. So far they have award $22,000 for the eleven teachers to spend as they deem necessary; $15,000 worth of books; and hundreds of dollars in toys. This is just the beginning.

We wrote to EdD student Krishen Arvind Laetsch, Board Member at Oakland Rotary and its Youth and Education co-chair, and asked him to tell us a bit more. He wrote,

“Several years ago with support from Oakland Rotary, I helped to create ‘Oakland Reads’, a program that gives three books to every third grader in Oakland traditional and charter schools, to promote literacy. In addition to providing $45,000 each year in books, and reaching more than 4,000 students, the program broke socio-economic barriers by putting 100 Rotarians into schools that otherwise they would most probably not visit; many returned to provide additional support. One member decided to give each student a book bag and we donated classroom sets of books too.

“The program operated for four years then transitioned to Family Reading Nights. In this program, Oakland Rotarians brought books to schools in the evenings, and then read with kids, provided dinners and literacy activities for families. Unfortunately, this program generated less excitement. When Transitional Kindergarten was created (the first new grade created in more than eight decades), we saw an opportunity. I proposed that the Oakland Rotary build on its record of success and adopt all ten schools that had TK, eleven classrooms in all throughout the city. With Oakland’s Rotary motto of Service above Self, it was an easy sell. We call it KinderPrep because few understand “Transitional Kindergarten.

“I have the privilege of co-chairing the Oakland Rotary Youth & Education Committee. Oakland Rotary is the third oldest Rotary Club in the world. It has been in Oakland for more than 100 years and is the largest service organization in the city. It has contributed a great deal to education, including books, equipment, mentors, scholarships, tutors, etc. For more on Oakland Rotary and its KinderPrep program, visit

“On a personal note, this type of program would not have been possible were it not for the support and training I have received from the Mills College School of Education. I’m a fortunate man…but am still waiting for my ‘Pearl M.’”

OUSD notes that other Oakland Rotary KinderPrep activities planned for 2012-13 include:

* purchasing and assembling furniture

* planting gardens

* building play structures

* supporting “Emergency Prep” classes for educators and guardians

* providing classroom assistance to teachers, particularly in the areas of math and science

* launching book and toy drives

* supporting literacy in ten schools with books, curricula and reading projects

*orchestrating two field trips for all of the Transitional Kindergarten students to Children’s Fairyland for art and literacy and to the Oakland Zoo for art and biology


Written by collegialconnections

November 28, 2012 at 9:34 am

Teaching Pre-college Math to Incarcerated Adults | Regina Guerra

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Mills Alumna, Regina Guerra ’00
Developmental Mathematics Coordinator
at the Prison University Project

When I was a classroom teacher I had a poster in my room that said, “The highest fences we need to climb are those we’ve built within our minds.” I have always found this statement to be true for my students, and when I became the math coordinator for the Prison University Project I found that it was true for me as a teacher as well.

When it comes to learning math, many students enter the classroom with an internal narrative about who they are as students and what they are able to accomplish in a math class. We all know the power a good teacher can have on the success of a student. For adult learners, a good teacher can affect not only how well a student learns the material, but also how they see themselves as students. Working with incarcerated adults who are returning to the classroom I witness the change in their internal narrative. Many students have been away from school for many years or didn’t see themselves as “college material” when they were growing up. What makes my work so enjoyable is watching the transformation that takes place when adults are finally able to have the success in math that they didn’t have before.

The pre-college program at the Prison University Project works with students to build basic skills in English and Math and prepare them to enroll in college courses. But below the surface there are other changes happening as well. Students are learning study skills, critical thinking, and how to participate in class. And the dedication the students have towards their learning is exciting to watch. Having worked as a teacher in public schools, I witnessed students who took their education for granted. The students at PUP are in many ways the “dream” students for teachers because they are engaged, dedicated, and set high standards for themselves. I am continually impressed by how PUP students connect their education goals to their larger life goals and continue to persevere even when it’s difficult. Watching them overcome their past struggles in math inspired me to think about my own internal narrative.

Before working in a prison I imagined prisoners as one-dimensional, defined by their capacity to commit crime. However, the conversations I have with students, the issues that come up in classes, the skills that students struggle with, are the same as in my other teaching experiences. Very quickly after taking my job I realized I had my own narrative about prisoners to overcome. In this static environment they are taking advantage of the opportunity to change. Working with the Prison University Project is seeing teaching that changes lives in its purest sense.

The College Program at San Quentin State Prison is currently recruiting teachers to co-teach pre-college Math and English classes (Math 50 and English 99) this coming spring semester. Teachers with these classes typically work in teams, with each set of instructors covering one evening per week. 

Math 50 has several sections that are held on some combination of Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings from 6-8:30pm. This course covers math from about first grade level (place value) to eighth grade level (pre-algebra) and is geared toward students needing review before moving on to a college algebra course.

All sections of English 99 meet on Sunday, Tuesday and/or Thursday evenings.  This pre-college composition course prepares students to write college level essays. 

The Prison University Project provides incarcerated men at San Quentin with higher education opportunities through our College Program in partnership with Patten University. Our teachers are volunteers from universities around the Bay Area including UC Berkeley, Stanford, and University of San Francisco. There is no minimum education requirement to be an instructor for the pre-college classes, but those with an education background or previous teaching experience are strongly encouraged to apply. We receive no state or federal funding, so major expenses like textbooks and supplies are funded entirely by donations. 

If you are interested in working with the pre-college program, please contact Regina Guerra at for more information.

Written by collegialconnections

November 9, 2012 at 10:17 am

The Incarceration of Human Capital: The School to Prison Pipeline | Diane Ketelle

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Diane Ketelle, Associate Professor, Education
Director of the Educational Leadership
and Administrative Service Credential Programs

As a white, middle class, single mother, there was never a time during my son’s childhood when I worried that his behavior would result in incarceration. While building a life for us did not come easily, the burden borne by the mothers of African American, Latino, Native American and South East Asian youth in the school to prison pipeline overshadows any challenges I faced raising my son. From a young age Lucas had access to multiple forms of capital: cultural, aspirational, linguistic, familial, social, and navigational. This web of capital and privilege made it possible for him to bypass the trauma and barriers placed upon young boys and men of color that have become an almost seamless path to incarceration. How our schools became the conduit for this pipeline demonstrates multiple levels of social and economic failure.

In my role as a writing instructor from 2008-2011 at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California, introduced me to the lives of young and old men as they spread their rage, frustration and indignation across pages. There were also times that the most tender words imaginable and loving ideas possible flooded those pages as well. In 2011, I taught violent male offenders in weekly life writing and reading class at the Alameda County Juvenile Hall. Earlier in my career as public school teacher I had been prepared as a Reading Recovery teacher which profoundly shaped my understanding of how reading and writing growth occur. My former experience informed how I assessed my student’s needs while working to keep the curriculum responsive to their needs and relevant to their interests. Currently, I am teaching a life writing class at Ralph Bunch Alternative Academy, part of the Oakland Unified School District. That class is comprised of students who have been expelled or failed out of comprehensive high schools in the district.

Through my varied experiences teaching in correctional and alternative settings, I have found much of the writing produced to be evocative and transformational. The efforts of my students to restory their lives drew my attention to the need to create a new narrative around prisons and the pipeline to prison in our society and the need to work to create social justice instead of imprisonment.

Many public schools have become pathways to incarceration rather than opportunities to educate and empower. The economic reality of the school to prison pipeline has extraordinary implications for school leaders, as it affects everything from what we teach to how we build community in our classrooms. We need to alter how we deal with conflicts within and among students, how we build coalitions and what demands and values we identify as central to fight for social justice. The school to prison pipeline undermines the possibility for our country to truly become great because of the way we treat a certain demographic in our human capital.

The way school leaders and teachers respond to the behaviors children bring to school is one way the pipeline is fed. It is important to recognize the role that harsh discipline policies play is sustaining disparities in incarceration. California leads the way in suspensions and expulsions from public schools. In 2009-2010, California school districts expelled roughly 21,000 students and handed out more than 75,000 suspensions. In a recent study from the Council of State Governments, California’s annual suspension rate exceeds the national average.

Zero-tolerance policies are another way the pipeline is perpetuated. Such policies impose severe discipline on students without regard to individual circumstances. Even the American Bar Association has condemned zero-tolerance policies as inherently unjust. There is no evidence that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer or in any way improve student behavior. On the contrary, research suggests that the overuse of suspensions and expulsions may actually increase the likelihood of later criminal misconduct.

Decker Walker and Jonas Soltis, esteemed scholars in the area of curriculum studies, note, “Even one mismatch or denial of opportunity for a person to grow in one direction rather than another would be a moral transgression against an individual that might change a whole life.”  Advocating for and implementing practices that guard against such moral transgressions is imperative to ending the school to prison pipeline. Empowering learners to take responsibility for their learning while scaffolding positive social interaction in a democratic learning environment should be the sort of schooling experience every school age child in America can access.

Written by collegialconnections

November 5, 2012 at 11:22 am

Learning from History | Annie Hatch

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Writer and Holocaust survivor, Dora Sorell & teacher & current student, Annie Hatch

During the course of the year, my English and World History class explores some heavy subjects— the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, the rise of dictators like Stalin, the apathetic reactions of various countries to our climate change problem. I am conscious of focusing on how we can learn from history in order to make the future better. As we go through the Holocaust unit, we explore indifference and how inaction can be more deadly than we think, even today.

Most of my students have not heard of the Holocaust, so one of my central goals is simply to make sure each student has a firm grasp on this important part of our history. But I also want them to interact with this history in a way that humanizes people rather than desensitizes the atrocities. So, I want students to know that 6 million Jews were killed. But then we read Elie Wiesel’s Night in order to learn about the actual people who were affected. I asked Dora Sorell to be a guest lecturer as part of that same idea. When the students see her, a holocaust survivor, mother, doctor, and author, they listen to her story, ask her questions, hug her, and realize what she survived and how resilient she is. The students get to be truly empathetic, rather than voyeurs of a gruesome and horrific tragedy.

My students have seen horrific things too—all before the age of 15—and many of them look to Wiesel and Sorell as role models, people who made something truly amazing out of their lives despite all the obstacles and trauma. I also want my students to start thinking as historians—to collect evidence, be critical of what they read and form their own opinions. As we study, they realize how many alternate stories there are about Hitler, and how “doing history” is putting these pieces together to make sense of it. History is an active, malleable, subjective process. It is full of life and stories and connection to today, not some dull, unconnected lesson in a textbook.

As sophomores, my students are already becoming cynical about this country and world and I have to fight against that because I think cynicism breeds apathy and indifference. As adults we often get cynical but being a teacher and encouraging young people to make a difference, I have to try hard not to be that way. I got a lot of positive feedback for the letter Elie Wiesel wrote to my students two years ago, and for organizing Dora Sorell to speak last year, but really all I did was try. There are millions of causes we can fight for today, but the important thing is that we choose to fight for something. I hope my students learn that.

Written by collegialconnections

October 16, 2012 at 10:32 am

Creating Community and Encouraging Academic Achievement through Art and Craft

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Lisa Holmes, Math Teacher and 2007 - Teachers for Tomorrow's Schools Alum

Lisa Holmes, Math Teacher
2007 - TTS Alum and
current Mills Teacher Scholar

Richmond High School is an urban school in a city that has one of the highest crime rates in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like several urban high schools throughout the country, educators continue to look for new ways to enable students to improve their academic performance, especially in mathematics. At the beginning of each year, teachers and administrators discuss the California Standards Test (CST) results from the previous year. The CST is not the SAT, so it does not get a student into the college of his or her choice. It is not the Exit Exam, so students don’t need it to graduate. It doesn’t affect their grades. Although it affects a school’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and its Academic Performance Index (API) and consequently its funding, there are very few teenagers who actually give these matters much thought. As a result, our students don’t necessarily put forth their best effort on the CST. Getting our students to achieve in mathematics is especially challenging.

Schools typically address this problem by compelling teachers to spend additional hours in professional development and to volunteer their time in tutoring programs. This occurs after long days of planning, faculty meetings, doing adjunct duties, correcting assignments and working in overcrowded classrooms. Math coaches are hired; special programs abound; all in an effort to improve the students’ academic performance. After all is said and done, there is still one problem. None of these programs necessarily motivate the students to take mathematics more seriously, do their homework, or to put forth any real effort on the Mathematics CST. All of the teachers and administrators are working harder, but what about the students? What would actually motivate a teenager to make the effort to score proficient or higher on this test? I got bored of the same types of strategies year after year, and wanted to come up with a new and different solution, one that would get the students on board. I thought about this constantly. I’ve always felt that a large part of the achievement gap has to do with academic and social disconnects between the students and the school itself. Sometimes it is hard to feel like a community in an institutional setting. Somehow, there had to be a way to bring humanity back into the entire educational process.

One day, I was on my way to class wearing my crazy fish hat just for fun. I ran into a couple of soccer players who declared, “Wow! That’s raw!” One of them asked me to make him one. I told him that it takes a lot of time to knit a fish hat. “But I’ll pay you!” he said. At that point, I told him that a hat like this is not for sale. He would have to win one by scoring proficient or higher on the Mathematics CST. My hours knitting a fish hat would cost him some hours studying for this exam. That seemed like a fair exchange.

I told the story to my knitting group, the East Bay Knitters, who declared, “What a great idea!” and proceeded to turn what was once just an isolated challenge into a full blown project. They wanted to knit hats for everyone who scored proficient or higher on the Math CST. Before I knew it, these fabulous women had offered to knit some of these hats with me so that I would not be overwhelmed with too much of a good thing! We initially estimated that we could produce 30 hats. Since we were just trying something out, we would limit our prizes to geometry students. I planned to have students color in a fish pattern and write something about themselves on a form. I would then take these forms to my knitting group. Knitters could select one of the student’s colored patterns and fill out a response form stating, “_______________ has decided to knit this fish hat for you with the understanding that you will put in the same amount of time in your studies of math.” The knitter could also write encouragement or share something about her career with her student. This suddenly became a way to bring communities together and to show Richmond High School students that we’re interested in their success.

Later that evening, I received an email from Ellen Graves, the owner of K2tog in Albany, California, where we knit. Her support was invaluable. She proceeded to expand the project to the knitting community at large. She even put one of her employees in charge of creating a fish hat display. The pro-FISH-iency campaign was up and running. I went to my school administrator to see how many students scored proficient last year so we could figure out how many hats we’d need. I found out that 84 people scored proficient last year –and that became our new goal. Ellen got the word out in her K2tog newsletter. The knitting community really got into this; the hats started rolling in! We kept a “Fish Count” in the shop window. Things became really colorful. At first, fish hats were hanging from the ceiling and were placed on walls throughout the shop. As the number of fish hats increased, the K2tog people became even more innovative and created the wall of fish.

One day, a knitter came by to show her friend this amazing wall display. Understanding the implications of this project, she volunteered her time, effort, and resources to plan and ensure the success of Richmond High School’s first Math CST ProFISHiency Celebration. Gayle McLaughlin, the Mayor of Richmond was one of my honored guests. Benjamin Steinberg, founder of also attended. This organization sponsors students who need funding for a college education. Dale Ogar and several members of the knitting community met with our students. On the day of the celebration, Helen Sesser and I played a taiko drum selection entitled “Takinabori” –a song about a fish who struggles up a waterfall known as the Dragon Gate and thus becomes a dragon. It was a tribute to all of the students who struggled and successfully scored proficient on the Mathematics CST, and an expression of gratitude to all of the people who contributed their time and energy to make the event successful.

The students were very excited about receiving their fish hats. As we called their names, you could see the anticipation on their faces as they eagerly awaited their turn to select their unique awards. The following day was fun. Several “fishes” were spotted on campus. In the afterMATH (get it?), students contacted me to find out how they could “score” one of these hats. They are a hot commodity (which is what I had hoped for). Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors all know they have a chance to win a fish hat this spring. Its message of perseverance, strength, and community touches both students and knitters in a way that only arts and crafts can. Thanks to the creativity of all those who participated in the celebration this year and to those planning to participate in the next one, I expect to see even greater numbers of students achieving a score of proficient or higher on the next Mathematics CST.

Written by collegialconnections

December 6, 2011 at 11:32 am

Responses to Bin Laden’s Death: Reflections for Teachers and Parents

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On Monday morning, classroom teachers were confronted by a set of competing priorities. On one hand, most are immersed in testing and test preparation. Teachers and schools are focused on preparing students to do well in a high stakes and uncertain process. At the same time, the world was humming with the discussion about one of the most important events in recent years: the killing of Osama Bin Laden. How do teachers decide what to teach in this context? Can teachers truly avoid incorporating such a historic event in their teaching in the face of testing and curricular demands? Current events constitute a background curriculum, the experiences from which teachers must draw to make content relevant and interesting for students. They are also a part of the content of students’ daily lives. As caring teachers, we are responsible for our students’ healthy socio-emotional development. Students need us to help them process and understand what often are confusing, scary, or upsetting adult actions or events. Even from a practical perspective, students will likely be distracted by the images and stories prompted by President Obama’s late-night announcement, the celebrating crowds outside the White House and Ground Zero, and the myriad pundits jockeying for attention. In order to think about these decisions and strategies, we turned to our colleagues at the Mills College School of Education gather some initial reflections on how to respond to this historical moment. We invite you to add your own reflections or classroom experiences.

Priya Shimpi – Yesterday, as the wait for the press conference went from curiosity, to fear, to speculation, to the announcement of Bin Laden’s death, we found ourselves as a family, interrupting bedtime in order to attend to the details of the historic event, as they were made available. My 2 1/2-year-old son sat on my lap and watched our president make his brief speech confirming the earlier news reports. While we were watching, he asked, “Why is Barack Obama on TV?” I replied, “He is on TV because something important happened.” My son did not ask any further questions, but as a parent and Early Childhood professional, I wonder what I would have said if he had pressed for more information. How much do you talk to very young children about war and the celebration of the killing of a man whose actions led to thousands of civilian deaths? How much is a young child capable of understanding, and what would such a young child do with this information? For other children who have been more directly impacted by the events of 9/11 or who have older siblings, the weight of the event will be revealed by the emotional and behavioral changes in conversation and social cues—and toddlers will pick up on these differences. My choice was to honestly, yet broadly, approach the topic, but to be mindful that for a toddler, words like “war” are incredibly abstract; he (thankfully) has not had the opportunity to link this word to a concrete referent in the world. I am more relieved than happy to wait for the time when such a learning opportunity will arise.

Betty Lin – Today, young children—ages 0 through 9—do not have the same context as adults about Osama Bin Laden. Even though the images of 9-11 are fresh in my mind as if it occurred only yesterday, it happened 10 years ago. As early childhood educators, we must keep context in mind when the topic of Osama comes up amongst the young children in our care. Take the stance of wondering with the children. What have you heard about Osama? What have you noticed about the adults’ reactions when they talk about him? Help children frame their observations into questions. They may not understand the magnitude of this event, but they also don’t need the trauma from it. What they can relate to is what’s concrete in their lives. Ultimately, the question of defining good and bad comes up. I prefer to discuss the values of good and bad around human compassion and the ability to empathize. Why would someone NOT want to engage in acts of kindness? I have had many forms of this same question asked. My most recent answer is such: Because no one has shown him how to be kind. My message to the young children is that it is important for all of us to be kind and to show our friends how to engage in acts of kindness.

Anna Richert – It feels to me a bit surreal to know Osama Bin Laden was found, caught, and killed. A ten-year search is a long time—and as Dave Donahue and I were saying while walking across campus earlier today—even longer for the high school students our students teach. For them, ten years is a big chunk of their lives. Most probably don’t remember much about life before this search began. I wonder what they are thinking now. Were I teaching them, I’d ask. Though surreal, it’s also a relief to know that this chapter of our “war against terror” is over. At the same time, while the war on terror is a step further towards resolution, I feel a bit terrorized by the response of “my fellow Americans” dancing in the street, waving the American flag and shouting with joy. Buried not so deep in me are my recollections of Bin Laden’s followers dancing in the streets when the twin towers and all in them fell to the ground. Granted the circumstances are profoundly different, but our response tempers my hope that as a nation we can bring about real change that moves towards compassion and peace. Osama’s capture and death warrant carefully planned discussion time in school. If not there, where will our students have the opportunity to make sense of the world in which they live?

Rick Ayers – I find myself at a bit of a loss and, as usual, caught up in an uncomfortable observation of the national culture, at least as reported in the media. We can agree that Osama Bin Laden was a horrible, dangerous, unspeakable man. But I would want my students to think of some other things as well. First, the idea of Al Qaeda as a coherent, unitary, functioning organization with Bin Laden at the head has been put forward by some US government sources but this has always been in doubt. Second, that the number of people eager to carry out suicide attacks has proliferated since the US incursions. But most importantly, I would want to chip away at the sports metaphor that seems to control our thinking about world politics. The celebrations of his death were like Super Bowl victory parties. Some students outside the white house had big “We’re #1” foam hands. Many of my students have been raised in a world of superheroes, video games, sports—all projects that simplify life into bad guys and good guys. I would perhaps try to use something from Joel Westheimer’s “Pledging Allegiance – The politics of patriotism in America’s schools,” such as Debbie Meier’s piece, “On Patriotism and the Yankees – Lessons Learned from being a Fan.” (See also for example: Cheering a Monster’s Death Is Not the Same as Patriotism)

Vicki Van Steenberg – With the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death, the topic of terrorism and “combating” it are headlines everywhere. I think about the efforts to protect and provide security this last decade in the United States. The lenses of Intelligence and an Afghani father in California come to mind—the tension for both parties seems related to the circumstances of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden that created and continue to put question marks around individuals’ movements and actions.

A CNN producer, Chuck Afflerbach, brought an actual court transcript to a play-reading group I am in, a court case he was covering at the time. This case involved the interrogation of a father and son from Lodi who had immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan. The young Hamid Hayat, an American citizen, had traveled to Afghanistan to visit relatives. He was detained upon returning to the U.S., on an FBI tip that he had studied at a terrorist camp while away. After 20 straight hours of interrogation in separate rooms, the father Umer Hayat and son Hamid Hayat were saying anything to sleep it seemed, the father misunderstanding English and attempting to protect his son by going to jail himself, instead of his youthful son. The statements of the two men contradicted each other. The FBI questions were tricky ones, especially for English language learners.

Quoting Chuck:

Umer were arrested in 2005 and put on trial in 2006. There is a lengthy article available on Wikipedia. What I liked about the transcript/play is that it allowed the readers to draw their own conclusion. Either they were innocent dupes who were entrapped by the FBI, or they were sneaky characters exposed by the investigative skill of the FBI.

Both men were jailed and their guilt was not so clear. If anyone would like the transcript as a play to be used in a classroom, to see through different lenses on the topic of terrorism, Chuck can be contacted for this script at his e-mail:

Ruth Cossey – Our teaching and our learning are impacted by many events and emotional experiences that take place outside of our classrooms.  For you or your students, acts of violence may spark such classroom intrusion. You may be aware of your students’ experiences – a local, national or international “incident” blasted by the media, or you may learn of the emotional disruption only after a student discloses it to you.  Know that violent events often evoke values related to justice, fairness, religion, or national and personal identity. We have a responsibility to support our students’ moral development and listen carefully to them as they sort out their feelings; however, we need to take care not to allow our own sense of outrage, of sorrow, of despair or jubilation overwhelm student views during in-school discussions.  Instead we need to find places and colleagues where we are free to process the impact of the world on our wellbeing as teachers and fellow travelers on this planet.  In the case of recent events surrounding 9-11, I have seen our students at Mills pushed to silent retreat or rage as classmates expressed strong values in professor sanctioned discussions.

Kathy Schultz – I learned about the death of Osama Bin Laden Sunday evening from my daughter who texted me: “Are you watching the news on T.V?” My immediate reaction was to write back to ask whether something new was happening in Syria. My son is living in Damascus and studying Arabic. What was foremost on my mind, and the lens through which I heard this news, was my own child’s safety at that moment. We all understand events like this one through our own lived experiences and beliefs, whether we had a loved one who died on 9/11, a relative harassed after 9/11 because of her Arab heritage, or a son living in the Middle East during a time of uprisings and change. As teachers, leaders, parents and citizens, we bring these experiences and ways of understanding the world into our classrooms, homes, and communities. Our students and the young people in our lives also bring their own perspectives and daily experiences. As teachers, our most important response is to listen carefully to our students. Listen to what they say and also to their silences. Create time and space for response that is individual and communal. Find opportunities for young people to articulate questions and reflections through words and also through other media such as art and music. We live in times filled with complexity and as teachers, mentors and parents we can find ways to hold onto that complexity rather than seeking the simple solutions of praise or condemnation. We can work to insure that we recognize and point to what is being said and what is omitted from the public discourse and the conversations in our own classrooms.

Tomás Galguera – I’ve been thinking about the relative meaning we as humans attach to lives and deaths, the significance and apparent justification behind each act, and how we deal with the aftermath as we go on living. I suppose that few people on this planet don’t know who Osama Bin Laden is. I also guess that everyone can form an opinion about his death, from the detached, calculated analysis of pundits who imagine likely discussions between President Obama and advisors about the practicality of not capturing Bin Laden alive, to the raw sadness of relatives and Al Qaeda members who mourn his loss. I have no doubt that even young students might have something to say about the news of his death, which is likely to be shaped by their developing sense of justice and morality. Ultimately, this one man’s death, a murder, justified homicide, war casualty, martyrdom, or killing is a significant event, a milestone set in the collective memory like the World Trade Center Towers’ collapse, the Challenger disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or even Obama’s election. These are events that punctuate our experiences and, eventually, history. They soon are codified as “official” and worth learning; academic content. Quite likely, new history textbooks are being revised to include Osama Bin Laden’s death in them. Of course social sciences teachers are discussing and will discuss with students not only his death but also its historical significance.

But there is also a local dimension to how students process violent deaths, one that unfortunately is all too familiar to them: murders that take place around us often, but in much greater anonymity. The current homicide count in Oakland is 34, with the last two killings taking place on April 25, near Jack London Square. Despite the tragic loss these deaths represent, the murders barely registered in the collective consciousness. And yet these deaths will be a reference point for Oakland students, perhaps as they participate in a discussion of Bin Laden’s death in some classroom.

This year’s murder rate for Oakland is higher than last year’s, a statistic that trivializes the loss of lives and their impact on those left behind and that dulls the rest of us into acceptance. Strangely, a single killing, thousands of miles away is more present in my mind than two others nearby. I wonder what knowing about humans killing other humans prompts in children’s minds.

Edna Mitchell – I find myself feeling a bit as I did when the Challenger exploded with Krista McCaulliff aboard, being touted as the teacher in space with children tuned in watching with lesson pages in hand as the space craft exploded. What a terrible and unnecessary tragedy to which to expose children.

And, now what to say about another terrible thing… a government sanctioned search and murder. It is complicated, of course, by his complete commitment to the destruction of the US and those complicit with US and Western governments. He was by all assessments our enemy…. we should be celebrating. But to teach children and students to celebrate a politically sanctioned murder seems to contradict other values about the sanctity of life that we hold dear. Is this justice as our President proclaimed?

Having lived and worked in Afghanistan for a significant portion of time since 9/ll I have some personal basis for weighing reactions to this event as will be felt by Afghans, Pakistanis, and Muslims in countries who may have been shocked and sympathetic when 9/11 occurred ten years ago, but whose views about American power and American intentions have taken a sour turn in recent years.

Bin Laden will emerge a hero in death, a martyr for Islam. He will be revered in history by many who teach children.

For teachers, our responsibility in handling controversial issues (and I do think this is controversial) in the classroom is to maintain the role of the reflective adult. Teachers need to keep their personal opinions out of the discussion, but can encourage expression of divergent views without approving or disapproving; with acceptance and questions or comments that enable students to consider alternative viewpoints and their implications if broadly applied. Teachers should attempt to understand what the students comprehend—what do they know, believe, understand about the reason for the President’s speech. The topic now is, and in the future will be, one that inspires debate and that has the likelihood of being divisive within a class. What needs to be kept in mind is that this American action need not be embraced as “RIGHT” in order to show one’s patriotism. Right and wrong are not black and white in this instance. The complexity of it is what is most challenging and attractive as a discussion topic. But, care must be taken. Attitudes and beliefs are at stake. Even teachers may be judged by comments made with good intentions.

The world is not safer with Osama Bin Laden buried at sea. Students at some levels may be able to understand that this is not the wild West with the Sheriff at High Noon as much as we would like to join in the celebration of the climax and the success of the right side. This political drama has ramifications that can divide the world into “us” and “them” and can even divide US as Americans. Let the debate continue, but find ways to help students, and adults, listen to and respect the views of others while also trying to understand what lies behind and is shaping those views.

Afghans are wondering, “Does this mean the Americans can now go home since they have found their target?” I predict the answer to that will be, “No….” for a variety of complex reasons but few that will have the best interests of the Afghans truly in the center.

Off my chest but still in my heart!

Written by collegialconnections

May 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Is the Virtual World Good for the “Real” One?

with 2 comments

Joe Kahne, Professor
School of Education

In a cartoon depicting the evolution of Good Samaritanism (see cartoon below) in the digital age, a man walks by a homeless person lying on the street and does nothing. In the next frame, he is at his computer — “What’s this?!! Sally needs a bag of fertilizer for her Farmville farm? I better get right on it!”

Many are struck by the amount of time some people spend in online communities — and concerns have been raised that our attention to virtual communities may be distracting us from the tangible needs of those around us.

Frankly, when it comes to youth civic and political engagement, there is reason for concern. Just 23 percent of 18-29-year-olds voted in the 2010 election. And even in 2008, the recent high point of youth engagement, 55 percent of those 18-29 were judged both civically and politically disengaged on the nationally representative Civic Health of America study.

Is time spent online part of the problem? During the 2008 campaign, many talked about how the

Internet was creating digital citizens and expanding youth engagement. Now, we’re back to talking about youth “slacktivists” whose “activism” consists of “friending” a cause on Facebook. Many also worry that the ability to choose our online communities leads youth and adults into echo chambers where they hear only those views they agree with or interact in disrespectful ways with those who hold different perspectives.

For the past several years, my colleagues and I have been examining these issues. In the first large longitudinal study of youth with this focus, we surveyed more than 2,500 high school students from 19 different districts in California and we were able to follow more than 400 for up to three and half years. We looked at how their online activities related to their civic engagement. We were able to control for their initial levels of engagement — giving us a better sense of digital media’s actual influence.

What we found calls conventional wisdom into question.

Cartoon-The Evolution of Good Samaritanism

Online communities are not the problem — in fact, they may be part of the solution. Many worry that youth who spend significant time on fan sites or in online communities tied to hobbies, sports or other interests will become socially isolated — or, as in the digital age Good Samaritanism cartoon, they may focus more on needs of those in virtual communities than on the needs of those right next to them. We found the opposite to be true. Controlling for their prior level of engagement with civic life, when youth were highly involved in interest-driven online communities they increased their volunteer and charity work in the offline world and increased their work with others on community issues. In addition, online communities are generally more politically diverse than offline neighborhoods. We found that participation in these communities increased youth’s overall exposure to divergent views on societal issues.

More youth are in empty chambers than echo chambers: Contrary to popular belief, when online, it turns out that few individuals are only exposed to perspectives with which they agree. We found that youth tend either to see many different perspectives or none. Few youth, 5 percent, reported exposure only to political views with which they agree. But, 34 percent said that they didn’t encounter any perspectives at all. Online or not, many youth are disengaged.

Digital Media Literacy education can help. Many think of youth as knowing all they need to know about the Internet and that adults have little or no role to play. But youth are not all digital natives. Our surveys indicated, that digital media literacy education dramatically increased students’ exposure to diverse perspectives and boosted the likelihood of youth online engagement with civic and political issues. Students who were required by their teachers to go online and get information about political issues or to find different points of view became more likely to use the Internet in these ways during their discretionary time. By supporting digital media literacy education at home, in school, and in after school programs, we can foster more online engagement with civic and political life and greater exposure to a wide range of perspectives.

These findings are consistent with what Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova and colleagues have found in their research. While online, many youth learn skills, find out about issues, become part of vibrant and diverse social networks, and come to recognize the power of collective action. Some have even tapped the power of social networks and youth’s nonpolitical online interests in ways that lead directly to action. The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), for example, has connected to more than 100,000 fans and has mobilized many of these fans to form a kind of “Dumbledore’s Army” for the real world that addresses issues ranging from poverty, to human rights, to responses to natural disasters. As one youth explained, “[Before joining HPA], I had absolutely no volunteer time for anything… I didn’t care about social activism… But when it came to Harry Potter… I was like, well, I like all these people I met online through Harry Potter, it would be cool help the world this way…”

Of course, not all online activities produce benefits. We found that while being part of online communities tied to specific interests was strongly related to civic engagement, socializing with friends on Facebook was not.

And this finding highlights a big problem with the way we often talk about the impact of media practices. Lumping all activities together, we ask: How much time do kids spend with media? The answer is shocking — something close to 7.5 hours a day if you include T.V. — but that’s the wrong question. We need to focus on what are youth doing when they engage with media. We should be asking: How can we help youth make the most of digital opportunities?

Fortunately, some reformers are beginning to test out varied answers to this question. For example, a team headed by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has created iCivics, an online game designed to foster civic understanding and engagement. Taking a different tact, groups like Common Sense Media have developed digital literacy and citizenship curriculum to support the consumption and production of online content. Others have created digital resources like or platforms like the Black Youth Project, for youth to create, share perspectives, and access information about the topics that matter to them. In addition, out-of-school programs like YOUmedia enable youth to pursue their passions in a media rich environment where they create, share, learn, and teach. The societal issues youth care about are often front and center in this effort.

In short, the virtual world can be good for the “real” one. There are forms of online activity that can give youth civic and political engagement a much needed boost. We need to fully tap this potential.

This post was also published on February 23, 2011 on the Impact section of the Huffington Post.

Written by collegialconnections

February 28, 2011 at 5:20 pm


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