May 29, 2015

Taking on the Color of Our Surroundings, Part 2

Continuing with the process I started on May 22, the next few posts are from Chapter 4 of my dissertation. This project is a qualitative/ phenomenological study of teachers at an urban charter school, about how they make shared meanings of the phenomena around them (particularly aspects of contemporary school reform) and make meanings for themselves as teachers in the era of accountability. The first posting in this series is here.

Chapter 4: Taking on the color of our surroundings, part 2

My starting point for the research was an analysis of the visual culture of Pence, which incorporates how Pence presents itself as an entity and which, when found in classrooms, can also reflect teachers’ individual expressions of their professional selves. Visual culture critic Paul Duncum explains that visual culture is a generalized term for postmodern everyday aesthetics, what we encounter visually in schools, stores, “city streetscapes, and tourist attractions as well as mass media images” along with images streamed to us over the internet – all of which are now part of ordinary daily life, and part of the daily life of a school (Duncum 1999, p.296).

Duncum describes the comprehension of such visual contexts as a psychological counterweight, and a balancing of self-identity, against the “aestheticization of everyday life [which] involves…how we all construct our appearance for ourselves and for others” (Duncum 2007, p.288). The function of visual culture is to transmit values and beliefs, and to do so in an unconscious manner; “[i]deology works because it is unconscious,” Duncum notes, “it operates behind our backs. Hegemony…works its way through ordinary social exchanges [and] establishes the parameters for thinking and feeling outside of which it is not possible to think or feel or act alone” (Duncum 1999, p.299). And as educator Patricia Amburgy describes this, with respect to the interpretation of visual culture, “viewers may actively and critically interpret what they see but viewers may also passively accept dominant constructed meanings” (Amburgy 2011, p.6). And in her work, Lipman suggests that the educator, particularly in contemporary urban education, must ask whom this passivity benefits.

Signs, lists, and messages for a range of audiences are on almost every wall at Pence. The school’s visual culture content reiterates ideas about and the ideals of the school in a pervasive and direct manner, primarily with text. Each classroom and hallway contains bilingual postings of the school mission statement along with a list of directives for expected student behavior at the beginning of each class (called the “First Five Minutes” list). There are also additional posters, in two languages, directing students to follow three key rules when in hallways and on stairwells, and other posters identifying the five aspects of being a Pence citizen, which include “using Pence actions” and “being a team player” and “making everyone feel welcome.”

On the staff room bulletin board, several lists are tacked up including one outlining the acceptable student behaviors at recess (students are to stay away from cars, slide one at a time on the recess yard slide, no playing tag on the mulched areas). Other notices remind teachers of the school’s maternity leave policy, announce job openings and teacher awards, list when students should or should not see the school nurse, and detail the appropriate responses to bullying behavior or anti-LGBT language used by students. Also posted in the staff room, and above the lockers in several hallways, are glossy laminated signs that list what one teacher laughingly referred to as the “global citizenship proverbs” – Pence’s version of employee workplace motivational posters that have questions for teachers to ponder, such as “Did you know that when you make students responsible for their belongings you are nurturing global citizenship?”

Along the main hallway on the ground floor, near the front door to the school, there is a large wall space used as a display area for projects that promote the culture of Pence. For one week in March the wall was covered with notices about acts of kindness which students in all grades had engaged in; each act was printed onto award which was then posted. The awards listed “Lining up for recess quietly so that other classes could focus” and “Deciding to read a book while his classmates watch a movie he could not watch due to family beliefs” as examples of acts of kindness. A small poster on construction paper, with words in magic marker written by a second grader, was also attached to the wall next to the awards. It read “Don’t act up. Help out.”

From April through June this same wall was gradually covered with a growing number of black and white copied photos of K-3 graders. Each photo was of an individual student holding up a card that stated what they wanted to be when they grew up. Their aspirations ranged from artist to soccer star to doctor to biologist to judge to police officer to President. One happily grinning student wanted to be a “ninja y maestro.” The display was in the most visible area of the school, near the front door and right next to the main office, right down the hall from the cafeteria, where everyone – all Pence students, teachers, staff, parents, visitors – could see. The concept and placement seemed a heartfelt reflection of school pride. But the images were also visually evocative of something else: each image contained just the head and shoulders of a child, facing the camera, each one holding an 8 x 10 card with writing on it, directly in front of their chest, much like mug shots.

On the wall across from the display area is a permanent mural, created years ago by Pence students and still bursting with color, which states in Spanish that the school is all about global citizenship. Next to this mural are the emblems from the Pennsylvania Department of Education that certify Pence has achieved AYP in consecutive years. And near those emblems are notifications of awards to the school, including a plaque from a prominent international investment bank’s foundation, given to Pence in 2008 for its focus on promoting global cultural awareness. There are also wall-sized maps by the stairwell on each floor of the school.

Pence has no art program in grades 6-8, and only one period of art class per student per week for students in grades K-5, so older students’ classroom projects (on geography, literature, math) make up much of the school’s artwork. Multiple map projects, designed by students, line the hallway near the 7th and 8th grade classrooms, including one outlining how resources and populations are dispersed around the globe. The question “How do maps affect your thoughts about the world?” is printed on white paper and posted near a cluster of these resources maps. I found myself re-reading that almost every day that I was at Pence. This was one of the few questions I saw posted in a public area of the school that did not refer to actions and behaviors, but rather to critical thinking and intellectual engagement.

Listings of the “right” behaviors, school guidelines, “proverbs” about citizenship, posters on human rights and global religions, Pence’s achievements on State tests, the images and statements presented on the display wall, and status recognition from an investment bank and student- work-as-art all intermingle in the space inside Pence, and teachers are saturated by this all, every day.

As part of her research, Lipman examined the focus on testing in school reform policies in Chicago and how this pacified both pedagogy and the actual language of teaching and learning. “As accountability measures exert real authority over student, teachers, and school administrators and permeate instruction,” she found, content and context become dis-embedded; a “staff development session on ‘critical thinking skills’…was about teaching children how to think about test questions…[an] example of ‘making students part of the educational process’ was students making up their own multiple choice test questions” like those on a State test (Lipman 2004, p.80). These examples reveal acquiescence to the accountability mindset that can permeate educational settings. But this type of acquiescence is not limited to how textual information is formally structured or delivered within the classroom.

The aspects of visual culture that Duncum critiques are typically dis-embedded symbols, but they can also include physical environments, and images of those environments. An example of this is photographer Richard Ross’ Architecture of Authority, a collection of images of specific public places that were designed for constraint: jails, the lobby of a Secret Service office, border crossings. But the book opens with a photograph of the Montessori circle at his children’s school, a reminder “that coercion starts young and wears many disguises…The legendary open-classroom approach of the Montessori method is curiously contradicted by the big white circle on the floor…Does the circle have to be literally drawn to make the point about fitting into a system?” (Ross 2007, p.10) Lipman addresses this idea as well, by noting how urban spaces in our globalized society often become both a visual fetish and an element of social control, explaining that as “global economic processes make gentrification ‘the cutting edge of urban change’…education policies become a material force supporting the displacement of working-class and low-income communities, the transformation of others into urban ethnic theme parks, and the consolidation of the city as a space of corporate culture” (Lipman, p.179).

Pence is part of that corporate culture space in marginal ways, via small visual reminders, such as the colorful sign attached to its entrance gates listing the corporate sponsors who helped to pay for and build the school’s playground. But in terms of the organization as a whole, the school has never been part of a charter management organization, is situated in an extant 100-year-old public school building (as opposed to an office building), and was founded by a group of community parents (not an outside organization or business group). The examples of the visual culture in the wide Pence hallways capture the visible features the school wishes to promote. They also echo aspects of the more subtle, sometimes invisible features of the school that can impact teachers’ professional identities.

Since Pence is not part a chain of urban charter schools, it does not have on display consistent, pre-packaged marketing messages framed by a larger corporate entity. But Pence does use its visual culture to present the ethics of the organization – both the educational ethics, represented by the school’s curricular focus and policies, and also Pence’s business ethics, as represented by those organizational structures, actions, and messages to employees that promote adherence to actions and values that best ensure this school’s longevity. When asked about the case for charters in Philadelphia from a business ethics standpoint, a former member of the School Reform Commission explained to me that the best case is when charters are viewed as “a repair and recovery strategy” for the city, “a response to a crisis” and a means of finding best practices to implement in traditional schools, rather than as a long-term or stand-alone solution (J. Dworetzky, personal communication, February 7, 2014). Pence does not present as a temporary solution, a test case, a laboratory for best practices, or a means to recovery for the School District of Philadelphia; it presents as a stand-alone solution.

You come to know about how Pence views discipline and self-discipline (of teachers and of students), expectations of interpersonal relations within the space, and the value it places on the cultural capital of global citizenship when you read what is posted on the hallway walls. But alongside the school mission statements, guidelines posters, and examples of student work, the school’s classrooms also contain teacher-generated visual discourses. Such in-classroom examples of visual culture express to others something about that teacher’s sense of values and purpose. But these also reiterate to that teacher who they are as professionals within the school culture, and how they make meaning of themselves within this setting.

In Teacher Rob’s 7th grade social studies classroom, for example, he shares a personal creed on posters in the front of the classroom, written in both English and Spanish: “I believe that you are all capable of doing great things. I believe everyone is smart in his or her own way, and we all deserve respect. I believe that hard works leads to success. I believe there are no shortcuts on the road to success. I believe we were all meant to love and be loved. Life is hard, and I believe true success lies in making this world an easier place to live in.”

Rob, who is in his third year teaching at Pence after teaching at another charter for one year, describes his professional identity as an educator rather than as a teacher. “I mean, for me, when I think of a teacher I think of someone specifically in a classroom that is up in front of the room talking to people” he explains, “and when I think of ‘educator,’ I think of it being a little bit more well-rounded, and that it addresses more elements of the students and their lives. So not just, you know, their academic growth, but also social emotional, you know, their self-confidence, their self-image, and I feel like that…that’s probably for me the more important part of my job…if they leave and feeling good about themselves and having a positive self-imagine, and believing that they’re smart, and believing that they’re capable, and interacting with their peers, and believing that their voice is worth hearing then those are the things that are really important to me…and I think that the academic learning comes as a result of the other things that we do, making kids feel comfortable, making them feel like they’re listened to, that kind of thing”(Teacher Rob, personal communication, May 6,2014).

Rob’s choice of visual content, so prominently displayed at the front of the room, aligns with both his self-description and with his view of the values of Pence. Like every other teacher in the building, he must teach to the standards, but he sees his key role as an educator as aiding in the development of emotional maturity and confidence in his students.

I observed Teacher Ella, who has been at Pence for four years, discussing (in Spanish and English) constitutional amendments and what an ACLU “bust card” is with her 8th grade social studies class. On one of her classroom walls was a large poster with a quote from the writer David Foster Wallace: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people, and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” Ella says she teaches best through connecting content to students’ experiences and by encouraging their participation, rather than through direct instruction. She views herself “first and foremost as a teacher” and explains that “[t]he longer I’m in the position the more I…think about teaching as encompassing…relationships with my students and less about what specifically I teach them. So I’d say that [my role] is ‘in progress,’ or that it’s like ‘in motion.’”

Ella also believes that “the kids have to really care about what I’m trying to get them to learn. And if there’s no reason for them to care then there’s no reason for them to learn it, and there’s no reason for me to be teaching it…So I would say that’s key, like [content] has to really be directly meaningful. They have to want to know about it. So relevance is huge for me. And I would say the other thing, although I struggle with it…is like them being able to have a community of learning with each other. So the idea that they want to ask each other questions and help each other find the answers. And they want to work together and tackle something together…I want very much to have a classroom where like, you know, when someone has a question they don’t just ask me. They’re asking each other, and they want to help each other, and they want to learn together, and they want to figure out what things mean, and like tackle issues together. So that’s a big part of like my dream of how teaching and learning works”(Teacher Ella, personal communication, April 20, 2014). Teacher Nia is in her first year at Pence, and she self-describes as both an educator and an advocate. She says her primary responsibility is “to educate my children to be successful in the world that they live in…but also to be able to advocate for them and with them or at least teach them the ability to advocate for themselves when necessary.” For her this approach to pedagogy aligns with her philosophy about the profession: “I’ve always been told that a teacher can never be ordinary, because if a teacher is ordinary that means your students are ordinary. And the purpose of teaching is to help mold the minds of these young children who will then go onto shape the world. So as a result you’re responsible as a teacher is to shape the future…I truly think that my role as an educator is to help these children develop into good and progressive human beings…When I first started teaching I wanted to give them the skills they need to be successful in life. And now I have learned to differentiate between the two. That being progressive includes the skills that you need to be successful in life, but that it can’t be limited to that…to be a progressive human being you have to have the skills to hold down a good job. You have to have the skills to be able communicate with your peers. You have to have the skills to be able to navigate the information that you’re getting. So it’s a part of it. But the big picture here is to help them become progressive human beings”(Teacher Nia, personal communication, March 26, 2014).

Nia attributes part of her understanding of the purposes and meanings of teaching to the Moral Sciences classes she attended as a child in school in India, classes which stressed both religious and secular moral actions (be polite, be respectful of elders, obey your parents, be truthful). This is similar to what U.S. educators call character education, which emphasizes, among other things, student docility, dependence on adult approval, respect for authority, and the acceptance of hierarchical structures of power as natural (Halstead 2010, p. 305).

At the charter school where she taught previously (before moving to Pennsylvania), they had a specific curricular focus on character education, which Nia describes as particularly relevant when teaching a population where many students are “from a divided household where parents are working hard to make ends meet or sometimes there is no adult in the picture that is actually taking care of the child. The child is basically raising themselves…the values that they need to become good human beings aren’t coming from home, so they have to be taught somewhere. And so they had decided that school is the place that that needs to be taken up, and to a very greater extent I agree with that”(Teacher Nia, personal communication, March 26, 2014).

The visual culture content in Nia’s classroom is consistent with her perceived role as a conveyor of values, ethics, and morals. Posted in Nia’s 5th grade classroom there is a large sign across the back wall, next to the Pence behavioral guidelines, which reads “Remember, we all have choices. Choices have consequences. So be smart and make the right choice.” And near the front door there is a large poster reminding students of the ways they can show character – through wisdom, forgiveness, accountability, patience, and cooperation.

Teacher Tina studied visual communications in her home country, worked for some years as a graphic designer, and taught design at the high school and college levels before moving to the United States and getting a job teaching K-3 at Pence four years ago. She feels her visual arts background helps her when teaching young kids with low literacy skills. Her self-definition is that she is a “teacher and entertainer who performs each day” and her pedagogical approach aligns with her view of Pence’s teaching model: the responsibility for the learning process is on the students, and for them to learn, they have to be in control of themselves and know what consequences are. She tries to “encourage exploration with self-control, so that their brains can work better in two languages” through “a combination of toughness and high expectations and a creative and hopeful and positive attitude” (Teacher Tina, personal communication, April 28, 2014). Her current Kindergarten classroom is covered with images – of animals, plants, colors, etc. – all posted at the height of an average 5-year old. The classroom rules are posted high up on the wall, above the whiteboard, which you would not find if you were not looking for them.

In Teacher Hannah’s 4th grade classroom the space is divided into the working area (shared student work tables) and the reading/group seating area, which is a typical Pence classroom setup. The room is bright and very organized, particularly in the reading area and around the badge board by the classroom door; the badges are for students to quietly excuse themselves and take a badge when they need a hall pass to the restroom. All the posters listing class rules, school guidelines, class goals, etc. in the classroom are in Spanish, as is the day’s agenda, which is listed on the whiteboard at the front of the room.

Above her desk in the back corner of the room, however, is a poster in English, with a quote on it attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Hannah’s view of her professional self is that she is a guide more than a traditional teacher, particularly because the students she teaches are at an age where they are starting to become independent people and independent learners. This is her third year teaching at Pence.

When it comes to her pedagogical practice and her perspective on the philosophy of teaching, Hannah explains, “[My approach] is focused around student voice. So trying to let students have as much power in the classroom as possible and giving them as much responsibility as possible... like the way we run the school with responsive classroom, it puts a lot of responsibility on the students, and they create their own classroom rules as part of the design, and they create their own school rules as part of the design too. So it’s kind of a little bit of both... I usually find whenever I teach something new it’s hard for me to think about it through that lens. Like we were teaching protractors, for example, in Math, and so those couple days of lessons were very like teacher-driven, direct instruction, ‘this is how we do it, now you practice, now we do it together, now we check.’ And classroom management-wise it’s never very successful for me, like it’s not the way I want to be teaching, and it’s not the way that they’re used to learning in this room. It’s always a little more frustrating, and then I get frustrated with them. So it’s the kind of thing where I have to remember that part of it when I’m teaching”(Teacher Hannah, personal communication, March 21, 2014).

The Pence school guidelines and mission statement are posted prominently in Teacher Leah’s classroom, just above where students’ daily writing workbooks are stored, and the mission statement poster has also been signed by each student in the class. At the front of the classroom, on one portion of the whiteboard, directions for expected student behavior are listed. And on the other end of the whiteboard there is another poster, connected with a recent content unit Leah taught, which reads “What are Civil Rights? What are ways to prevent conflict? Who has the power?”

Leah has been at Pence for four years, and describes herself as a teacher and a guide who enjoys that part of teaching where “I can kind of come along side and listen in and kind of advise from the side and find the thing that I need to teach.” This is a self-perception she has evolved into after over a dozen years in the profession, teaching first in a Christian school and then in the Philadelphia public schools before coming to Pence four years ago. She explains “When I first started teaching I didn’t have any teaching background. I was an English major and kind of fell into teaching. And I was strictly by the book…as I got more comfortable and took more classes I would say that I kind of have taken bits and pieces of everything. And so I think I want to see where kids are at, and I want to help them get to the next place. I really love books, and I love writing, and so I want them to love books and writing too, and I think I’m way more interested in that than figuring out what the Common Core [new national education standards] says right now. I’ve read the Common Core, and I’ve tried to think how that fits in, and sometimes I don’t quite understand what it’s asking me to do, and I much more want kids to love books and reading and writing…to me that’s introducing them to great things, sharing great things with them, encourage them in their writing, writing a lot. And to see their power in it, their choice, what they can do with it, that they can explore the world more, that they can make an impact on the world”(Teacher Leah, personal communication, April 7, 2014).

Teacher Audrey has been in the profession for almost 30 years, and at Pence almost since it opened. She views herself as a teacher, a resource for students and for her teaching team, and, because of her tenure here, as an informal school historian. Her role includes modeling emotional responsibility and truthfulness to her students so that they can “learn a confidence about their own abilities” which for Audrey “involves not just math but speaking, writing, articulating how you feel, communication…how to be responsible…how to speak to one another respectfully…just being civil, learning to take care of one another in a way that’s nice” (Teacher Audrey, personal communication, February 24, 2014). And in her classroom, the walls are almost entirely covered with student math projects, which are organized and lined up neatly, as are all the books and other materials in the room. The only messy space in the room is her desk, which is so laden with books and papers you cannot see its surface.

One coordinated example of how Pence shares its school culture visually (and socially) is through the end of year global citizenship concert. For the 2013-14 school year, the concert theme was identity, and student drumming, dancing, and singing performances were each linked to this theme. To publicly signal cohesive school identity to the students, teachers, and parents in attendance, the students wore a rainbow of Pence school t-shirts, each grade level in a different vibrant color. Events like this obviously have visual elements (and motivations or aims) that are far harder to ignore than posters or maps on hallway walls that one passes by every day. Through my role as researcher I noted every aspect of Pence visual culture incessantly, and individual responses to (or participation in) the visual culture context varied widely. Yet I observed that every teacher in the school was very aware of it at least once: when they had to block it out. For testing week during spring semester, teachers spent hours taping up construction paper in their rooms, as all text and every image on every classroom wall had to be completely covered for testing periods, per Pennsylvania’s state mandate.

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Creative Commons License Invisible features: hidden aspects of teacher identity in an urban charter school by Martha Hope Carey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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