Friday, September 20, 2013

Eliminating Racism and Stereotypes in Literature

Bill Bigelow’s “Lord of the Lies” article focuses on the racism inherent in the literature still present in today’s classrooms.  Besides his own thoughts, Bigelow discusses educator Michelle Kenney’s and author Jay Griffiths’s reflections on racism in literature and the effects it has on students – particularly in relation to the novel Lord of the Flies by author William Golding.

Bigelow, Kenney, and Griffiths all believe Lord of the Flies clearly pinpoints the racist stereotypes prevalent in our society.  According to Griffiths, the novel “opens with misadventure, as the children are stranded on the island. An odiously racist text, it describes the group of boys who become the cruel killers as a ‘tribe’ of ‘savages,’ hunting, dancing, chanting, and ‘garlanded,’ with their long hair tied back: ‘a pack of painted Indians.’”

The article ends with Bigelow’s call to action for teachers.  He claims that the last types of books we need in our classrooms are those that offer “a cynical portrait of our inner savage.”  Although humans certainly have tendencies to be violent and greedy, Bigelow believes we as educators must focus on the qualities of cooperation, kindness, intelligence, and solidarity. In order to be effective teachers and minimize the feelings of racism in our society, we need to choose literature that nurtures the aforementioned positive qualities in our students.

In chapter two of Nieto and Bode's Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, the authors discuss the importance of combating racism in the classroom (p. 44). Clearly, if Language Arts teachers incorporate works of literature into their curriculum that promote racism and stereotypes, they are not doing a very good job of combating these negative thoughts. 

Now, I have never read Lord of the Flies, so I'm not sure how much I can say about that particular novel; however, I firmly agree with Bigelow in that educators must pay close attention to the types of literature they teach in their classrooms. Let's say an American Indian student is reading Lord of the Flies as part of his high school study course and comes across Golding's references to "savages" and "a pack of painted Indians." How might that make the student feel? Additionally, how might those phrases affect the other students' views of Indians or other ethnic groups? Nieto and Bode also discuss in their chapter how students' limited backgrounds affect what they learn because they are only learning a fraction of the knowledge available to them (p. 46). As educators, we need to focus on introducing our students to the wide range of knowledge that is out there; we should be careful not to further limit our students by what we teach them. For example, if a social studies teacher is teaching about the American Revolutionary War, he/she should not only teach from the American perspective, but from the British perspective as well. Our goal as teachers should be to expose students to the wide range of perspectives available in society in order to expand student awareness of other ideas and the implications of other points-of-view.

As a middle school Language Arts teacher, I hope to instill these types of principles into my students. I desire for them to see that there will always be another perspective; there will always be a contrasting opinion. Just because two people don't see eye-to-eye does not mean someone is incorrect. Through literature and writing, I hope to move my students along a path of open-mindedness, all the while encouraging critical thinking and intellectual inquiry. If I can help my students "understand and empathize with a wide diversity of people" (p. 48), I will be preparing them for a world that is slowly but surely moving in the direction of multicultural understanding and awareness. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Megan Bomgaars: The Story of a Student with Down Syndrome Challenging Educators to Step Up to the Plate


Energetic, involved, friendly, healthy, cheerful. Many times these words are used to describe students in today's classrooms. Megan Bomgaars is no exception. Although she was diagnosed with Down Syndrome at a young age, Megan was just as involved as her other classmates while in school, participating in cheerleading, striving for good grades, and making friends. Her accomplishments include being the first cheerleader with Down Syndrome in her state of Colorado, winning a sportsmanship award at a national cheerleading competition in Washington, D.C., modeling in a Global Down Syndrome Foundation fashion show, working for the Mile High Down Syndrome Association, and participating in the Bridge Program in Highland Ranch, where she is training to become a public speaker. 

"Don't limit me" is Megan's emphatic cry to educators everywhere. She recently created a YouTube video with the goal of creating teacher awareness about setting high expectations for students - regardless of their abilities. Megan wants teachers to see that she is a person with goals, dreams, and skills, just like everyone else. She wants educators to know that they should raise the bar for their students, teaching them to be independent and fostering life skills they will need once they leave the classroom. 

Independence is the central theme in Megan's message. How can we, as educators, teach all of our students independence? This should be one of the most important considerations that guide our teaching each day. In chapter five of the book "Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education" by authors Nieto and Bode, Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is discussed. Nieto and Bode stress that students will express different elements of these 8-9 intelligences in unique ways (p. 165). As teachers, we can work to develop each of these intelligences in our students' lives (as they support learning, of course) and specifically pinpoint and encourage students to advance their strong suits and work on other areas. By setting high expectations and creating activities and assignments that focus on fostering independence as well as developing intelligence, teachers can work towards leading a community of learners in the right direction - no matter their abilities, strengths, or culture. 

Nieto and Bode also make it a point to discuss appreciating students' strengths in the classroom. They state, "Heeding what children do and say can make a difference in how teachers interact with them and consequently in how well children learn" (p. 174). The message is clear. WAKE UP and pay attention to your students. See them for who they are, not how everyone else sees them. Do not let their behavior define them. Each student has unique abilities and talents no matter who they are and no matter what community they were raised in. Teachers should be willing to continually make adjustments for their students; however, they should be careful not to lower the bar. As Megan states in her video, she wants to learn and she wants to be seen as valuable. She desires respect for her abilities as a learner. She wants her teachers to push her and help develop her skills. Megan doesn't wish to be placed in a category separate from her fellow classmates; she wants to learn with them and from them.

Just as students should be learning from us, we should be learning from them. By making it a point to become involved in students' lives and listen to their concerns, we are opening the doors to higher learning. When we can see into a student's life and into his or her needs, we can focus on making adjustments in our classrooms that support their learning. Willingness is not an option here - it is imperative that educators are enthusiastic about discovering who our students are and what they need from us. When students see that we are willing to accommodate and support their needs, learning will take place. 

Students are the future. Our duty as educators is to our students. If we are not believing in them, who is? If we are not supporting them, where will they turn? Because so many students don't have other positive examples of leadership and love in their lives, our greatest goal should be to simply believe in our students. We can be the greatest influence of positivity and encouragement in their lives, or we can be the greatest influence of insecurity and disparagement.

We can learn a great deal from Megan Bomgaars, just as we can learn a great deal from the students we teach. 

The bottom line is simple: don't limit your students. They deserve more.