I've linked here to the slides from my presentation at the "Gallery of Excellence," part of the 2016 Equity and Diversity breakfast at the University of Minnesota. This ideas presented in these slides draw from my work around Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and its clashes with dominant discourses like the "achievement gap."
Read the article on Star Tribune's website here
Children lash out when they've been hurtOur schools need stronger mechanisms to recognize and heal trauma.
By Annie Mogush Mason
JANUARY 14, 2016 — 6:26PM
In the courses I teach for pre-service teachers, one of the most illuminating assignments is the “Dilemma Case” paper. Students describe a concerning event from their student-teaching experience, and they try out a series of alternative endings to the story before analyzing how the situation unfolded in real life.
Last spring, 16 of 30 students in one class submitted Dilemma Cases involving students whose behavior was vexing to them and from whom available strategies met continual resistance. They described students who became violent or disruptive in class, who wandered the halls without permission, whose social relationships seemed fraught and immature, and who appeared unable or unwilling to attend to academic work.
As a parent to two children whose lives have been shaped by trauma, I recognized the post-traumatic responses in many of these stories. I asked questions and learned that the children involved had been through traumatic experiences such as neglect, abuse, tragic loss, and regular exposure to domestic and/or neighborhood violence. I knew intellectually that these children were experiencing toxic levels of stress and that they were in need of trauma-informed responses from their teachers and other adults.
The Star Tribune’s reporting of events involving students being violent toward their teachers and teachers who describe feeling fearful of their students (for example, “Teacher’s attacker gets probation,” Jan. 6, and “Student charged in assault on principal,” Jan. 14), as well as broad coverage of Sergio Paez’s halted superintendent contract negotiations in Minneapolis, have raised the hackles of many who care about what happens inside our schools.
However, these stories are incomplete when they fail to consider the lives of the children involved.
These stories have provided an opening for public conversation around the growing need for schools that know how to build environments that are healing for children who have experienced trauma. It is past time to acknowledge that schools across the U.S. need stronger mechanisms for supporting children who have been hurt. These mechanisms must include both educating and supporting the adults who work with children.
Students who are resistant or violent often carry toxic levels of stress that they cannot turn off when they enter school. Experiencing this kind of stress can lead children into extended states of “fight, flight or freeze,” in which the outside world is perceived as a series of unpredictable threats. A disproportionate number of these children are marginalized by additional factors, particularly race and social class.
Children who have been hurt often do things that look like lashing out. As Anne Gearity, child mental health expert and regular consultant to the Minneapolis Public Schools, implores us, we will do better by all students if we stop asking questions like “Why did you do that?” and instead ask: “What happened to you that led to this behavior, and what do we need to do to help you learn?”
In other words, we are in a better position to solve problems when we respond to students’ difficult behavior with sensitivity toward their often-complex circumstances. This sensitivity comes through genuine relationships between children and the adults charged with their care.
To build relationships with children who have been hurt, adults first need understanding of the situations that led to their students’ vexing behavior. Without this understanding, we risk unwittingly participating in these children’s maltreatment. Students at Peck School in Holyoke, Mass., ended up hurt in ways that the Massachusetts Disability Law Center considered retraumatizing, abusive and neglectful. At St. Paul’s Central High School and Minneapolis’ Harrison Education Center, teachers and administrators have been hurt.
As Paez has argued, it will be helpful if more teachers and other school adults understand de-escalation tactics that can help to calm a crisis. But our goal should be to avoid escalation in the first place.
We can get closer to this goal when teachers, families and communities have a better understanding of how these children’s behavior can be traced to their traumatizing experiences.
When these children feel safe at school, we see less of their troubling behavior, and they can learn. With their potential unlocked, imagine what we might learn from them.
I was pleased to have my expertise and experiences considered in the coverage of Minneapolis Public Schools' superintendent search in January. Full article here:
As part of their final project in our School and Society class, some of my students wrote this letter and sent it to all Wisconsin legislators who serve on committees related to education decision-making. For good measure, they also mailed copies to President Obama and Secretary Duncan. They've already received one reply from a state representative, and we look forward to more! They would love to see your feedback in the comments section.
Dear Governor Walker,
We are writing this letter to propose a change in the way that educational decisions are made in Wisconsin. As students at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and as future educators, we are saddened by recent decisions that have been made in education. Also as future graduates of a Wisconsin University and as future educators, we feel our voices should be heard. Specifically, we would like to propose that the elected body of a committee on education be required to have a minimum of one year of educational experience. Individuals that have experience teaching and working in the education field have the knowledge necessary to make well-informed decisions directly impacting education.
One decision that has recently impacted public education is budget cuts. These budget cuts have resulted in fewer classroom resources, a decline in specials (e.g., music, physical education, and art) and an increase in the student-teacher ratio. The lack of state-funded monetary support has put school officials in a difficult position when making staffing decisions. The impact of the decisions made at the state level impact the school environment and students’ ability to learn. The repercussions of these budget cuts could be lessened if there were individuals with educational experience involved in the decision making process. Their knowledge of the school and classroom environment would bring a personal connection to their decision about and advocacy for of public education.
Another issue that we have faced in public education is the increase in state academic standards. These standards have placed an alarming amount of importance on student performance. In turn, this leads to increased teacher and student stress as well as an over-emphasis on meeting state standards, which overshadows student learning. Students’ genuine curiosity and desire to learn is being sidelined in order to get through the required content. Having individuals with educational experience would provide background knowledge about authentic learning. Using their experience they could predict the possible effects of proposed standards on future students. Their knowledge and understanding of students’ learning would be a valuable addition to any decision-making body.
These issues have a direct impact on us as future educators. As teachers, our focus is always on our students. These decisions are hindering their achievement by overemphasizing accountability in place of trusting teachers. We want to see a change in how these decisions are made in order to promote student achievement and school success by putting individuals with educational experience in a position where they can impact decisions.
Thank you for your time and we hope you consider these trying issues that are facing Wisconsin’s education system. If you would like to contact us to further discuss the issues addressed in this letter, please contact Hannah Klingfus by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
University of Wisconsin-River Falls Students Vying for a Change
My new piece explores how efforts toward anti-racism in school initiatives can hurt the children they're intended to help. 50 free downloads–get 'em while they're hot! http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/jXC2GE8Js3a3jbNdqpzv/full
Dear Secretary Duncan,
When I was studying to become a teacher, I learned a simple way to describe assessment to young children. Since then, I have uttered this phrase countless times: “This will help me see what you understand now so that I can decide what to teach you next.” Framed in this way, assessment helps teachers determine when a student is ready to move on to 2-digit multiplication or to identify the comprehension strategies that could help her move through reading difficulties. Now that I teach at the University level, approaching assessment in this way helps me to make informed judgments about whether my students are ready to move on from foundational building blocks to key theories in multicultural education.
The sorts of assessments I have described above are certainly not simple, but they can be somewhat smooth and achievable. They address variables that are largely observable and that I can impact within my role as a facilitator of learning. While the proposed federal regulations for teacher preparation miss the mark in many more ways than I can address here (though I look forward to talking with you about some of those ways), they most noticeably represent simply bad assessment.
But I don’t think I have to tell you that.
If teachers and teacher educators were viewed similarly to our colleagues in other professions, then external “accountability” measures would come from a place of trust in the unique blend of art and science that is our daily work. Leaders in the profession would work alongside policymakers to make decisions about what is most important to be assessed and how. So I don’t think this is about an actual belief that your policy could lead to us doing our jobs better. Instead, I think that these proposed regulations reveal how dangerously close you are to succeeding at a grand distraction from the real conversations that might actually lead to ALL of us doing our jobs better.
The conversation we’re not having–and we should be–is about the failure of the federal government to acknowledge that the challenges before public educators are the challenges of U.S. society. Many others have documented the absurdity of trying to measure a relationship among teacher education program, individual teacher, and student learning in a K-12 classroom without untangling the countless mitigating factors coming from all directions. My critique is similar, but I add that we need to push through the noise (statistical and otherwise) to recognize that the very promise of democracy is threatened when one of its institutions is undervalued in this way. Your proposed policy demonstrates a refusal to fight for a fundamental pillar of democracy–our nation’s public schools.
My students are predominately white, working and middle class undergraduate preservice teachers at a regional university in the Midwest. While they are remarkable to me, on paper they look similar to emerging teachers nationwide. My students recognize how the forms of “assessment” being meted out, ultimately, on the backs of poor and working class children of color are not really designed in those children’s interests. They understand the connections between this and the urgent need to address social injustices beyond schools and throughout society. They understand that the rhetoric of “accountability” serves to distract from these realities. I wish that I could congratulate them on understanding this complex set of ideas and then decide what to teach them next.
Secretary Duncan, I can’t decide what to teach my students next until you join us in this complicated conversation. My students want to talk to you. I want to talk to you. We are not distracted. Our ideas will help. I will be waiting by the phone.
Ann Mogush Mason, Ph.D.