Digging Deeper into Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming is a middle grade classic and truly a work of art.  A memoir about how the South shaped her life and how she came to dream of being a writer, Jacqueline Woodson beautifully portrays her childhood in a powerful verse novel.  She touches on many relatable themes such as family, friendship, home, change, and education. There are tons of literary devices to notice and enjoy.  While it is specifically a story about her family, the magic of Brown Girl Dreaming is how Woodson captures the fullness of the Black Family Experience – the joy, the resilience, the love – all of it. Her family was nothing like my family and she is of a different generation, yet I found myself connecting to her experiences anyways. 

This book is one I recommend for every home and school library.  However, this year I teach 7th grade English, and honestly, I was surprised to see it on our booklist.  It is typically read in 4th – 6th grade and I wondered if it wasn’t a little young. 7th graders ride a fine line between middle grade and YA, with the tilt depending on the time of year.  However, I also know that once they cross over into YA-land, it is really hard to get them back.  This 7th grade year is the last year they will be interested in many middle school books. We have one last opportunity to squeeze certain books in and the key is to avoid shallow studies.  I wondered how we would deepen the experience for those who had already read it or for students who read above its level. 

Enter The Research Project. 

The other thing that Jacqueline Woodson does masterfully is weave in references to Black History, Art, and Activism.  She is a child of the 60s and 70s and watches both the civil rights movement and Black Power movement unfold around her.  These references are sprinkled in throughout the book. Some are just the drop of a name.  Others are a whole ode, like the poem “Say It Loud”, about the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. 

What our English team brilliantly realized was that these references were flying over the heads of even our best readers. While Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington are generally familiar to all students at our school by this age, other heroes and events are lesser known. Most did not yet have an opportunity to hear stories of The Great Migration or to read James Baldwin. They probably didn’t grow up listening to Sam Cooke. Even modern celebrities like John Lewis and Angela Davis are far more nuanced than they know.  To fully grasp the messages in Brown Girl Dreaming, students needed these names and events to resonate. By the end of this unit they would. 

(Full disclosure – this curriculum idea came from the previous English team at The Maret School in Washington DC. I was just fortunate enough to teach it.  Also I think it would be a great family or summer project.)

First, we compiled a list of references that could become research topic.  We assigned one iconic figure, group, or event to each student.   

Then we partnered with our librarians to create a research portal with suggested sources:

Students used Noodletools to cite sources and make notecards:

Then each student designed a google slide that incorporated important information about their topic:

Then they used Flipgrid to make a screencast where they verbally narrated the story of their icon. As the references appeared in the book, students would watch their classmates’ screencast to learn more about that figure, group, or event:  

Students teaching students (and me!) – it was awesome. 

This Black History Month has been pretty relaxing because we completed this project last quarter and have no need to stuff anything in just because it is February. This truly feels like a best practice because:

1) We are  incorporating Black History into our curriculum in authentic ways.

2) It is very easy to bring any one of these topics up again because we all have the same background knowledge now.

3) We have made it clear that Black history is full of empowered joy and agency, not just trauma. 

My co-teacher said Brown Girl Dreaming was her favorite unit.  I think I will remember it as mine too.

On Art and Empathy: Teaching China

I am very excited to share a project that I have been working on for the last year: Teaching China with the Smithsonian. This website represents a rich collaboration between curators, teachers, museum educators, and web designers. It was an incredible honor to be named a teacher-in-residence by the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art and to have so much access to the Freer Sackler galleries. It was also one of the best professional experiences of my career. On the site you will find a range of (awesome) teaching materials, including object specific lesson plans written by me and my colleagues, like this one about a summer chaofu.

People might be wondering about my interest in working with an Asian art museum. One, my masters degree is actually in museum education, and museum based teaching is originally what I thought I would do. Life being life, I ended up in the classroom and this was a glorious opportunity to check out the road I didn’t travel. Two, I have had a number of opportunities to teach and learn about China throughout my career.

When I taught 4th grade at The Dalton School, we studied the immigration of Chinese workers in the 1800s, as well as the xenophobia, discrimination, and detention they faced when they arrived. We learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the experiences many had on Angel Island. There is a lovely museum in New York City, the Museum of Chinese in America, that I recommend. These were not topics I studied growing up, even in California, and my perspective on the Asian-American experience was greatly widened.

When I taught 4th grade at Sidwell Friends School, we did a year long study of Ancient China. We learned about the dynasties, oracle bones, bronzes, and terracotta warriors. We compared Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism and made a lot of beautiful art that I wish I still had pictures of. Modern language and culture were also taught. Sidwell Friends actually has a tragic story behind its China studies program. Because of the program, I have been to China twice and visited many different parts including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Guangzhou, and Yunnan. An incredible array of landscapes, food, and displays of artistic expression were intertwined with complex histories, politics, and beliefs. What little I understood from teaching was brought alive and made more complex by traveling there.

A highlight was three weeks at Qinghai Lake in Central China where I supervised students partnering with Machik, an organization devoted to social innovation in Tibet. They helped run a summer camp for Tibetan youth from around the country. There were joyful moments with circle dancing and yak butter tea, as well as stories of oppression and discrimination that resonated deeply.

Since those trips, the relationship between China and the US has only grown more complicated, and in the midst of all of that, I joined Whittle School and Studios, which opened campuses this year in both countries. The goal is for students and faculty to freely flow, interact, and exchange ideas, which has already begun to happen. Circumstances keep bringing me closer to China so I keep processing, learning, and trying to understand. As I seek to build that understanding, I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to see things for myself.

People also wonder why billionaire white men like Arthur Sackler (who collected and donated many of the objects we wrote about) and Mansfield Freeman (whose foundation funded the website and teacher education project) focused their attention on Asian artifacts and cultures, specifically those from China. According to Mapping Cultural Philanthropy, “Sackler…sought to promote an understanding of Asian civilizations through analysis of their artistic expression.” Freeman, who lived, taught, and began an insurance company in China, also wanted to nurture a better understanding between the United States and Asian countries. He instructed the foundation to fund projects that would “strengthen the bonds of friendship between this country and those of the Far East…and to stimulate an exchange of ideas in economic and cultural fields which will help create mutual understanding and thus lessen the danger of such frictions and disagreements as lead to war.”  In their own ways, they hoped their vast and valuable assets could be used to make the foreign more familiar. They hoped it would help build empathy. Current events tell us that the mutual understanding and peace they sought to foster still needs that support. This, I believe, makes our work even more relevant.

Art, like books, nurtures empathy. It sparks curiosity, which draws you in for a closer look. You become proximate. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative talks a lot about promixity as a pathway, perhaps first to intellectual understanding, and then, if the heart is open enough, to radical empathy.

It is only by empathy being aroused that we change. ~ Alice Walker

Museums can play a powerful role in facilitating this journey from object to empathy by sparking our curiosity and bringing us into proximity with new objects, places, people, and stories. Both museums and travel have transformed me. I hope our lessons allow teachers and students to go on a journey together and through that journey better understand themselves, each other, and the world.

Relating Objects to Pedagogy: Challenges and Opportunities

This summer I am a Teacher in Residence at the Freer Sackler, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.  I, along with two colleagues, am working on a project to think about how we might best promote the museum’s collection of Chinese Art objects to an audience of teachers, while providing materials that support the objects’ integration into curriculum and instruction.  It has been a wonderful opportunity. First, it is such a luxury to simply be in a museum surrounded by gorgeous, thousands of year old art everyday.  I casually walk by gilt buddhas and jade bi and bronze bells and silver platters served in the courts of Persian kings. Secondly, I began my teaching career as a museum educator and at a particular point decided I could do my best work in schools – how many chances do we get to walk the road not taken? Third, I love standing somewhere in the middle between museums and schools thinking about the needs of both institutions, their relationships, and how they can best serve each other.  The following essay examines trends that present opportunities for museums to engage schools beyond content standards, and in doing so, perhaps make themselves and their objects even more valuable.
Any survey will show that teachers have varying degrees of autonomy in designing curriculum, which can be determined at the classroom, school, district, or state level.  The majority of teachers have guidance on what they should teach from a supervising authority and some control over how they teach it.  Materials should show sensitivity to the many angles from which teachers may approach them.  They may be looking for an exciting way to start a social studies unit or to provide the context for an experience with a specific art medium or to heighten students’ critical thinking skills in preparation for a design project.  Whether a generalist or a specialist, teachers must maximize each minute of instruction.  There is never enough time to complete all that teachers want or are expected to.  Lessons that allow them to achieve multiple goals are very attractive.  In addition to considering current national and state standards there are a few other trends that could, and perhaps should, impact this work.

First, there is increased conversation around culturally responsive teaching and relatedly, the need to educate for global competency.  Culturally Responsive Teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.  Global competence is “the capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development” (OECD).  The cultural distance from which students approach objects varies greatly.  These frameworks might lead to questioning how the collection serves as window and a mirror. How might students recognize themselves in the collections?  How do the collections help them better see and understand the culture of others?  How do objects in the collection relate to the modern issues facing the world’s people and the solutions they will need to create? These frameworks might center the relationship the viewer is making to the object rather than the object itself.  In this case, the objects might be selected for their potential to foster connection or to widen the viewer’s perspective by challenging commonly held assumptions. 

Teachers are also prioritizing tasks that incorporate Social Emotional Learning practices.  In what ways can interacting with objects in the collection help build empathy, self-regulation, communication, and cooperation? When students are asked to listen to one another, to put themselves into the shoes of someone else, or to share a story, they are practicing essential life skills.  How might our objects help students build stronger relationships to one another? To a culture? To the past? How might learning about the struggles and accomplishments of people long ago increase resilience and creativity? How might it inspire inquiry, conflict resolution, or teamwork?   Viewing encounters with objects as opportunities to build these critical competencies means the experience will have lasting effects far beyond the lesson or visit. 

Another impactful trend is Backward Design. This process begins with assessments as opposed to curriculum.  First, the specific skills and knowledge that are being assessed determined and the level of rigor students are required to reach in those areas is defined. Then the most effective way to assess student performance is determined.  Lastly, instruction and learning activities are designed to align with the assessment.  In these cases, teachers will be looking for activities (and objects) that align with predetermined outcomes.  These are more likely to be related to widely applicable skills and understandings rather than specific facts or narrow contexts.  Focusing on the broader implications of an object’s material or cultural nature enhances the likelihood of a teacher making those connections.
A fourth important trend is the ongoing conversation about 21st Century Skills.  Teachers are very focused on delivering an education that is relevant to and prepares students for an unknown future.  A persistent question should be how might educators use objects from the past to meet 21st century objectives?  The objects selected and presented might then be evaluated for their potential to engage teachers and students in experiences that foster the necessary learning, literacy, and life skills.

Overall, there are many opportunities to connect experiences with objects in the collection to the concerns and requirements of today’s teachers.  Centering the experience of the viewer and their ability to connect and extend that experience into various contexts will make it more likely that both teachers and students readily accept an object’s importance.  From a teaching perspective, relevance is in the eye of the beholder.  Teachers and schools are attempting to respond to dynamic changes in the educational landscape.  Museums and their objects can and should choose to be extraordinary resources that support those efforts.