Fieldwork Reflections: Cliff Lee

The Teaching of English M.A. program at Teachers College offers a bi-weekly workshop series and colloquium for all student teachers in the program. The goal is to connect M.A. students with the work of master teachers and leaders in English education in ways that will inspire them to implement innovative instructional practices in their own classrooms. The “Fieldwork” strand of the blog provides M.A. students with a forum to discuss how the featured presenters’ work might influence their own practices in the field.

Clifford Lee (UCLA): Affirming the Community Cultural Wealth of Urban Youth through their Multiple Literacies

Clifford Lee reminds us that a student’s “home” language is valuable and significant, in itself, and also, as I see it, because language represents shared and communicated possibilities.   Lee recalls an incident in which an English teacher asks the students to call out vocabulary words beginning with “c”.  One student mentions a word in Spanish, “chanclas,” and is told by the teacher, “That is not a word.” Perhaps, “chanclas” is not a word specific to traditional English language practices, but should that impede our responsibility to communicate with the student or affect the student’s efforts to practice English Language Arts?  While the student’s response may not have been what the teacher intended, isn’t it worthwhile, for educators, to at least CONSIDER the value of the response because it was offered, and offered as a response to something we asked?  One way to consider the possible value of a thing is to ask questions about the thing, to inquire and to push the bounds of inquiry, (at least) until a mutual and inclusive connection is reached, on some level, between the inquirer(s) and the objects of inquiry.   This could translate as a dialogic inquiry between the teacher and the student(s), or amongst students themselves.

–       Kate Reilly

I loved that Lee’s presentation not only taught a more democratic teacher-student relationship, but it actually incorporated it into its lesson format: I appreciated the moments in class when we were able to utilize technology in order to have a voice (for instance texting our responses to a question), or when we were instructed to turn and pair share our responses to seemingly simple, but actually very complex questions. I believe it is important to value the different language practices and cultural backgrounds of our students because how we write, talk, and express ourselves is all related to identity. To tell a student that he or she is not writing or speaking properly, without an effort to understand the diversity of cultural backgrounds and language involved in making a speech or written expression, is to deny that student his or her own unique style, or identity. Indeed, our identities are so caught up in our writing voices and speaking voices that we often confuse them to be our own selves.

– Lauren La Torre

The traditional English class encourages students to tell their unique stories through language—our primary medium of communication.  Language, however, is not a static construct.  And for many students, writing in a new or unfamiliar dialect can be both intimidating and jarring.  English teachers impose page limits, strict formats, and rigid prompts that tend to stifle creativity.  Although learning to write is an incredibly important skill that no teacher should ignore, we also want our students to feel comfortable when relaying personal experiences to an audience. So how do we allow those students to critically reflect on their own experiences without limiting their narrative potential?  I believe Cliff Lee has provided us with at least one answer…For this generation of students, stories are no longer primarily transmitted through the written word.  Instead, the image serves as a dominant medium for narrative communication.  As Mr. Lee highlights in his presentation, providing ELL students with an additional access point into literacy, students are encouraged to participate without feeling as though they have to subscribe to an oppressive and rigid linguistic standard.  In the “Digital Storytelling Project,” students are afforded the opportunity to tell their stories using a sort of visual Esperanto.  (I realize this statement may seem a little bombastic, but images appear to have a culturally translatable quality that language simply cannot reproduce.)   Through Mr. Lee’s project, we can see how powerful this medium can be.  And we witness the individual growth of a new generation of storytellers…

– Andy White

I absolutely loved the “American Immigration Digital Storytelling Project.” We are all immigrants in one way or another. Everyone has a story to tell about how and when they got to America. I always have found that the writing that students get most into and are most invested in is pieces where they are writing about themselves in some way. When the students are asked to write about someone else and tell someone else’s story, they seemed to become even more invested. I did a profile last year for Teaching of Writing class where we were responsible for profiling an educator. I chose my mom, who is a mathematics professor. I initially chose her because I thought it would make my life easier in terms of arranging interviews and getting information together. Boy was I wrong! I found it hard to come up with questions to ask her and felt extreme amounts of pressure to paint her in a positive light. Not that my mom needs any padding to be seen in a positive light, but there are personal details that I left out that I normally might not have with a random subject. I wanted to get it just right for her and make her proud of the story I told. I can only imagine that the kids conducting this project with their immigrant families felt even more pressure to tell their family’s story that might not have otherwise been heard.

– Amy Burger

I also love the idea of an oral history summative assessment that involves the scaffolding of important verbal communication and interviewing skills.  As I was listening to Lee’s presentation, the beautiful connections between such dual skills of revising the interview notes and re-reading as a strategy for deeper understanding came to the forefront.  By crafting this meaningful final project, Lee demonstrates his ability to not only increase student engagement, but also to build a framework in which active learning can occur…This presentation was both practical in nature and thought provoking for pre-service teachers in how we might construct similar projects for our own classrooms that help us acquire the crucial “cultural competence” that Noguera references.  After all, diversity enriches the classroom and should be embraced, not discouraged…

– Lindsay McKeever

Having graduated from college fourteen years ago, I am thrilled to be back in school.  “What do you like about it?” my aunt asked me recently. “Writing for an audience,” I replied without hesitation.  Whether it is one of my professors or my classmates, the audience of an academic community not only drives me to invest in my work, but also shapes my thinking . When I sit down to my computer to write papers, I feel like I am contributing to an ongoing discussion about reading, writing, thinking and teaching. This sense is amplified by reading my classmates’ work in class and in forums like ClassWeb and Wikis… As well as its savvy use of technology, meaningful integration of social studies and ELA curricula and essential embrace of students’ culture and linguistic resources, Clifford Lee’s work on the American Immigration Digital Storytelling Project inspired me with its demonstration of the power of an audience in a classroom setting… I also appreciated how this kind of audience celebrating the keystone of student work blurs the boundary between school and life, a division which can sometimes be arbitrarily reinforced by school culture.

– Tanya Krohn