Continuing to See Ourselves and Our Communities on Sesame Street

I, like many other kids, grew up watching Sesame Street. The brightly coloured characters with distinctly different personalities has made the television show a staple in households across the world for decades. What I recently learned is that a large part of their success is due to their approach. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to the show; rather, the show reflects the current needs and issues of the period and context. Several co-production teams have been put together to first understand the context of a nation and then tailor the show based on the country in which  they will be broadcasted. For example, in the Bangladesh production, called Sisimpur, the show depicts village life and is  physically centred around a Banyan tree surrounded by familiar shops (e.g., sweet shops) rather than the street lined with North American version with brownstone townhouses. Further, a key focus of the show is to promote girls’ education; Tuktuki is a 5-year old character who has a deep love for learning.

sisimpur
Sisimpur

Most recently, Sesame Street North America has introduced a character Julia who is their first character with Autism. In a CBC article, the puppeteer for Julia commented on her hopes Julia’s character:

My hope is that kids will understand some autistic behaviours a little bit better and they won’t be at all concerned or worried about them, that they won’t be scared of them, that they’ll see a child in their own community who might behave like Julia, or have some of the characteristics that Julia has, and they’ll see that as just another kid.

And they’ll be able to go up to that child and go, “Oh! That kid might be a little bit like Julia, and Abby [another Sesame Street character] plays with Julia and I can play with this kid too.”

Julia
Sesame Street’s new character: Julia

I applaud Sesame Street for continuing to reflect our communities and approach issues head on.

Link to CBC article: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-friday-edition-1.4039714/sesame-street-puppeteer-hopes-new-muppet-with-autism-will-help-kids-understand-each-other-1.4039728

 

The Racial Achievement Gap in Literacy

When I was enrolled in Clare’s graduate course on literacy teaching, our class was assigned a reading from Alfred Tatum’s 2005 book Teaching reading to black adolescent males: Closing the achievement gap. It was one of my favorite readings and the class discussion was so engaging; many of my peers, myself included, were overcome with emotion. I will never forget reading the introduction, which felt like a Hollywood script until I realized that this is many people’s reality and that the incident he describes is representative of a large problem that needs to be addressed. Simply put, the role of literacy in the lives of young black men must be reconceptualized.

According to Alfred, the book is his attempt “to speak on behalf of all those young black males who yearn for understanding as they journey through rough terrain. Many of these young men want educators to respond to their needs and so help release them from a poverty-ridden paralysis that stiffens dreams” (p. 3).  Check out the introduction/the book here!

On a similar note, I came across this uplifting article a few days ago. An 11- year old boy started a book club, Book N Bros, that celebrates black books and African-American literature that shies away from the typically negative urban stories. With an emphasis on black protagonists, a new book every month, and meetings to discuss themes and complete worksheets, the aim is to improve the literacy rate among boys 8-10 years old. Some of the books that have already been read include Hidden Figures, The Supadupa Kid and A Song for Harlem: Scraps of Time.       Awesome!BlackProtagonistBook

Poet and Philosopher Vera Korfioti

During my time in Cyprus I (Yiola) had the pleasure of visiting with renown author and dear friend, Vera Korfioti.

Vera has published a number of collections of poetry, as well as books in Greek literature, Education and on the works of Greek Philosophers.  Her most recent publication is on Pythagoreanism.

Vera Korfioti holds degrees in History and Archeology from the University of Athens. She also studied Journalism in Athens. Her greatest love of study is Philosophy and this can be seen throughout her poetry.

I share here one of her short poems of the place where I stayed during my time in Cyprus:

  

There is a tenderness in her poetry; and yet its intensity towards precision and detail gives it such power.

A highlight of my trip was talking about life and the nature of people in today’s age with Vera. While we live on opposite end of the world we share similar understandings on the philosophy of life.  Perhaps what connects me to Vera is not only the beauty of her poetry but her love of teaching.  Vera worked as a teacher of Philosophy in Secondary Education in Cyprus. She also studied in the area of children with special needs in England and the United States.  And, for several years she has been teaching at the Philosophy School of Cyprus.

Language, literacy and teaching brought together for the world to enjoy!

Vera Korfioti, myself and my son Gallaway.

Literacy/English Teacher Educators — Goals for Their Courses

Along with my research team we have been studying literacy/English teacher educators. Through this work I became very fascinated with a notion of a pedagogy of literacy teacher education. In the second interview we asked  them to define the goals for their courses. We then categorized and tabulated the results. As the table below show not surprisingly building knowledge of literacy was their first goal.

Goals for course Number who identified this goal
Build knowledge of literacy 28
Build knowledge of pedagogical strategies 25
Student teachers adopt a professional role 18
Student teachers develop a critical stance 16
Build knowledge of government initiatives 13
Build knowledge of digital technology 11
Focus on student teacher growth 10

When the specific goals for their courses were analyzed using NVivo a more nuanced picture emerged. Their vision for literacy varied tremendously. Regarding literacy although learning about literacy and acquiring pedagogical strategies were common goals, interpretations of what student teachers need to know about literacy theory and teaching strategies varied.

Some like Melissa, Dominique, and Maya (pseudonyms used img_1030.jpgthroughout) focused on critical literacy while Amelia and Jessie had multiliteracies as the framework for their courses. Jane and Lance focused on children’s literature, while Sharon and Margie had the writing process as their priority. One LTE focused her course totally on phonics and phonological awareness.  Justin commented: “I see our work as being about the development of teachers as public intellectuals …  not simply to prepare beginning teachers for whatever the particular curricular or pedagogic demands of policy here now are but for a lifetime in teaching and this involves them being able to be both critical of initiatives that are thrust on them and creative in their approaches.”

It also became apparent the teacher educators’ broader goals for teacher education were quite different.  For example Justin believed that he should “prepare student teachers for a lifetime of teaching; prepare them to be public intellectuals; see schools as an emancipatory space. Caterina aims to have her student teachers “themselves as professionals not college students.” Emma has very specific goals: “understand current curriculum …  develop skills to plan and asses … be independent thinkers who are not just teaching for the schools we have.” Bob by contrast has broader goals “student teachers learn to focus on the students … to unpack their beliefs  [about schooling] … and to develop an identity as a professional.” While Martha Ann focuses on the individual’s development “develop a sense of self-efficacy … learn to take initiative … …. know children’s literature … empower students.” The lack of consistency in literacy methods courses (content and pedagogy) in teacher education is a concern because student teachers may graduate with markedly different understandings of literacy and may have been exposed to a particular set of literacy theories and pedagogies.

In my next blog post I will present the framework for a pedagogy of literacy teacher education.

Respecting Teachers’ Professionalism in Reading Instruction

booksIncreasing the reading ability of young people is a major focus of critics of schooling, and prescribed remedies constantly rain down upon us. It is refreshing, then, to re-visit Richard Allington’s What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (2006, 2nd edn.), as I (Clive) have recently done.

According to Allington, the remedies mandated at a system level typically have two flaws: (1) prescribing a single method for all students, and (2) not placing enough emphasis on the amount students read (including re-reading the same favorite works). With respect to the first, he says:

“Expecting any single method, material, or program to work equally well with every kid in every classroom is nonsensical. And yet we see increasing pressure for a standardization of reading curriculum and lessons…. The substantial research evidence that such plans have not produced the desired effects is routinely ignored in the latest quest for a cheap, quick fix.” (p. 34)

Regarding the second flaw in system mandates, Allington says:

“If I were required to select a single aspect of the instructional environment to change, my first choice would be creating a schedule that supported dramatically increased quantities of reading during the school day” (p. 35)

Unfortunately, federally funded Title I remedial reading and special education programs (in the US) have not increased the amount of reading children do. According to one study:

“[C]hildren who received reading instructional support from either program often had the volume of reading reduced rather than expanded as remedial and resource room lessons focused on other activities” (p. 43)

These “other activities” – such as extra phonics teaching, correcting pronunciation, asking comprehension questions – mean that children are interrupted in their reading. Apart from reducing reading time, this means children become used to being interrupted and read in a slow, hesitant manner, with half a mind on when the next interruption will come.

While attempting to support teachers in their reading instruction, then, it is essential to respect their professionalism so they are free to adapt to what works for individual students and give students abundant opportunities to read in peace.

 

A Letter From 30 Scholars on Learning Styles

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In recent days there have been a flurry of news articles revisiting the legitimacy of learning styles in the classroom. Thirty scholars from the areas of education, psychology, and neuroscience crafted a letter to The Guardian newspaper  asserting that there is a severe lack of evidence to back the idea of learning styles (see link below). The notion of learning styles is commonplace in many K-12 classrooms, as well as teacher education programs. The premise of learning styles is that an individual can learn better when presented information in a certain format (e.g., visual, kinaesthetic, auditory). However, there has been a lack of sufficient evidence, which would indicate that tailoring content delivery in a one particular format would result in deeper learning. The letter explains:

There are, however, a number of problems with the learning styles approach. First, there is no coherent framework of preferred learning styles. Usually, individuals are categorised into one of three preferred styles of auditory, visual or kinesthetic learners based on self-reports. One study found that there were more than 70 different models of learning styles including among others, “left v right brain,” “holistic v serialists,” “verbalisers v visualisers” and so on. The second problem is that categorising individuals can lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt.

Finally, and most damning, is that there have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or “meshing” material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment. Students will improve if they think about how they learn but not because material is matched to their supposed learning style. The Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK has concluded that learning styles is “Low impact for very low cost, based on limited evidence”.

Adhering strictly to learning styles can be reductive; however, they continue to appear in educational settings. The notion of learning styles have been repeatedly debunked over the year, yet why do you think learning styles still are still used so widely?

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/12/no-evidence-to-back-idea-of-learning-styles

The University of Toronto turns 190!

I (Said) have been part of the University of Toronto system since I began my undergraduate degree in 2009. It has been quite the ride considering I was born in Lebanon & immigrated to Canada in 2003! This year, the University of Toronto is celebrating turning 190 & one of its satellite campuses in Mississauga, Ontario, is turning 50. The history teacher/student in me became curious and wanted to learn a little more about the school I attend and the community I belong to.

It all began on March 15, 1827, when a royal charter was formally issued by King George IV, proclaiming “from this time one College, with the style and privileges of a University … for the education of youth in the principles of the Christian Religion, and for their instruction in the various branches of Science and Literature … to continue for ever, to be called King’s College [before it was renamed University of Toronto on Jan. 1, 1850].”

Established in 1878, the School of Practical Science (now the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering) offered students instruction in mining, engineering, mechanics and manufacturing. New faculties were soon added, among them home economics (1906), education (1907), forestry (1907), social work (1914), nursing (1920), graduate studies (1922), hygiene (1926) and the School of Architecture (1948). There is definitely a rich history to explore if you are interested in the social, political, and religious influences on the development of post-secondary institutions in Ontario/Toronto. Isn’t it amazing how a once denominational college is now a collegiate university with over 85,000 students from at least 160 countries, over 500,000 alumni, and 2 satellite campuses?

More interestingly, new courses and disciplines will certainly continue to emerge in response to developments in our globalized society and contemporary culture. I wondered if there were courses that weren’t as predictable as “Introduction to Eco/Chem/Math/Psych” and here are two that stood out to me:

Feminism, Zombies and Survivalism (WGS334H1S)

  • In this course, we interrogate the gender, racial, and generational politics of survivalist fantasies while, at the same time, re-reading them for the alternative ethical frameworks and possible futures that they suppress.

The Beatles (MUS321H1)

  • The class tackles two main questions: Why were The Beatles so popular, and how did they become the soundtrack to the 1960s (with a little help from their friends, of course). This class has no prerequisites.

I definitely wish I could have written an academic paper discussing the context and influence of the song lyric, “All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.” 

In any case, happy birthday UofT. Here are a few pictures, taken from Student Life @ UofT.

HartHouseSoccer
An intramural soccer game in 1951.
UC-Steps-1024x680
Nursing students in 1920/1921 on the steps of University College.
University College Tank
A tank on campus in 1950.

UofTBday

Greetings from Limassol, Cyprus

“Yeia Sou! Kalo sorises.”  Hello! Welcome.

I (Yiola) am writing to you from the beautiful island of Cyprus. A small Mediterranean island so strategically placed its location is ironic.

Caught between European and Middle Eastern influence (and a long history of varied occupation) I dare to claim that Cyprus is one of the most unique places on earth.

Last week’s blog about language as culture and language as power came to you from my short time in Vienna. This week I find myself in a country where I speak the language (Greek). I can communicate (sort of) and can identify with the culture (sort of). As a visitor, I feel welcomed and because I have some knowledge of the language I have a sense of knowing, of so many things, and a sense of belonging.  Language is power.

Of course, it is not so simple. The nuances and complexities of culture and its constant evolution make it challenging for anyone not living in its place to fully understand. The beauty of travel is that we can experience and through our experiences learn something new and refreshing about the world and ourselves.

Some images of Cyprus:

17203221_10158519375885121_7027915947110758556_nA map of Cyprus — my father pointing to Limassol (which is where most of the images below were taken)

17309424_10158519375725121_8451982945569193760_n
a city view from the Limassol castle

yermasoyiasmall villages in Limassol

17201024_10158512793775121_7776979033193949503_n
a historical Cypriot home in one of the villages

17190912_10158524077520121_6422749005511709267_nThe island’s most popular attraction: beautiful beaches.

My daughter Sylvia Clare and I sending warm greetings from Cyprus!

How can we make professional development more useful?

I (Clare) was recently doing a Meet and Greet for our newly admitted student teachers to Image_PDcartoonour Master of Arts in Child Study teacher education program. I talked about how teaching is a journey and that you never stop learning. From our longitudinal study of teachers we know that teachers learn a great deal from each other and from reflecting on their teaching. I believe there is a place for formal professional development; however, many teachers (myself included) have found formal PD to be of little use. It is often so removed from daily practice, tends to be top-down, and is a one-off. Teachers need time and place for conversations about their teaching. There is a place for formal structured PD but the way it is so often delivered it is not effective. In previous blogs I have written about my teacher-researcher group which has been a very powerful form of PD because all of the teachers are working on a topic/question that is important to them. One of the students in my grad course sent me this cartoon about PD. Although I chuckled when I read it, I feel that is sums up the sentiments of many.

Building a Genuinely Social Class Community

This term I (Clive) have two wonderful graduate classes, each with 25 students. One is on Foundations of Curriculum Studies and the other Reflective Professional Development. As part of the community building effort we go to the pub after class three times during the twelve week term (that evening we finish the class half an hour early). This week we had our second pub visit in both classes.

As always, I was impressed with how enjoyable it was and how much we got to know about each other. Only about half the students came, due to the frigid weather, family responsibilities, and school classes early the next day. But it was nevertheless entirely worthwhile.

Other strategies to build a social culture include: sitting in a large circle for most of the evening; having the students say each other’s names around the room each time we meet; chatting and joking at the beginning of the class and at other times; each student giving a brief presentation on their emerging essay topic (2 or 3 presentations a week) with responses from the 3 students sitting to their left or right; small-group discussions on interesting topics, with everyone in each group reporting back. All this leaves less time for me to talk, but I find the students say at least 90% of what I would have said; and anyway, I get to choose the weekly topics and readings.

It is only a 36 hour course, shorter than most school courses, yet a real bond is formed. The social atmosphere adds greatly to the enjoyment of the course and the discussions are deepened. It may not seem very “academic,” but I wouldn’t do it any other way!