Bending The Arc January 2023
A Social Justice Newsletter for Educators
“Curiosity always climbs as high as it can - to the top of a tree, a roof or a chimney.
Joy bounces on a trampoline.
Imagination wanders down an unbeaten path.”
- from What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking
Welcome to 2023!
I hope this newsletter finds you well and that your arrival in a new calendar year was a smooth one. Whether you spent time looking back, ahead, or both, please know that I am rooting for you and your wishes for the future. Thank you for continuing to show up here for the variety of topics that demand our empathy, care and openness.
Given the exhaustion I carried into the break, I was particularly proud of myself for identifying a reasonable antidote: when my family and I took off for a week in the mountains, I left my laptop behind. The laptop that in many ways serves as my intellectual security blanket. It’s my writing tool of choice and, yes, my sole Twitter access point. The decision proved easier than I imagined. The result: a genuine sense of recovery and renewal. Yay!
I journaled often. I had time to read voraciously. I enjoyed outdoor time: skating, hiking, strolling. I hung out with friends, ate and drank with abandon. I had a chance to remind myself that I am so much more than the words I put out for others to find. The surprise lay in discovering how urgently I needed the reminder plus a viable opportunity to unplug.
I wonder what you discovered about yourself in the last several days and nights. Which insights are you sitting with in the new year? How have you been good to yourself recently?
Returning to school after an extended break demands a special kind of energy. While we may be eager to pick up where we left off, without a conscious transition phase we and our students may end up frustrated if our plans don’t easily fall into place. For many, the time away will have been fun and full of excitement. That said, let's also be careful in our assumptions when asking students (and colleagues) to share news from the break. Next to fun and joy some among us may have also experienced loss and sadness. How do we ensure that we welcome each other back with a high level of care and sensitivity?
“We can never know without a doubt which of our students have experienced trauma and which haven’t. Some have experienced trauma but not told anyone, or had an experience they won’t label as trauma until years later. Some students are living in traumatic situations and can’t or won’t share this for their own safety. When we use trauma-informed strategies with all students, we ensure that the students who can’t ask for support are still getting it.”
Along the same lines, I was thinking about ways we can invite student voices into the room which do not rely on sharing details about their break. Consider some of these options:
Share a song that’s stuck in your head
What are you watching or listening to these days?
Share a (school-appropriate) meme that describes how you’re feeling right now.
Name a favorite flavor or food you can’t get enough of.
Describe something you read that you would recommend to others.
Beginning again with students can also give us a fresh boost of energy as we notice the progress from where we started in the Fall. We and our students have learned some things. Let’s remember to celebrate our gains so far even as we dive into the next interval of active learning.
In this edition of Bending The Arc, there’s a strong focus on digital realities which may seem primarily applicable to older students. Trust me, we all need to keep current on the tech trends at large, regardless of which students we have in front of us. The same technical capabilities that make a chatbot seem miraculous are also connected to a host of services that we enjoy or barely notice in other domains. Consider this next section a friendly heads up.
Keeping it real in the digital now
Not gonna lie, I struggle to stay abreast of digital developments as a consumer and educator. That said, I've become keenly aware of ChatGPT’s swift appearance on ed-tech’s center stage this past month. The AI-powered chatbot which produces fluid, grammatically flawless text in response to surprisingly complex questions and prompts has already called forth countless op-eds and essays describing both the dangers and possible delights of this brave new tool. Especially among educators, fresh concerns around student cheating on writing assignments are raging across social media platforms.
To help us all take a few deep breaths and decide to learn first and then panic, I offer a few recent articles and resources about ChatGPT (link to the actual tool) and what may change or not about the way we teach and assess student (and other) writing:
John Warner, @biblioracle, offers a measured take on rethinking which writing we are asking students to do and suggests that when we focus on assignments that are personally relevant and the process animates our assessments, the chatbot’s output shrinks in usefulness.
In a NYT op-ed, sociologist Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom points out where this advanced-seeming AI falls short. It produces smooth sounding copy, but lacks original voice. She writes:
“I read some of the impressive essays written with ChatGPT. They don’t make much of an argument. But neither do all writers, especially students. That’s not a tell. A ChatGPT essay is grammatically correct. Writers and students often aren’t. That’s the tell.” (Link courtesy of Bonni Stachowiak)
Other Digital Concerns
Alongside this specific development I want to also direct our attention to other resources for improving digital literacy among ourselves and our wider communities. Above all, one message that feels urgent is that our approaches to digital citizenship must be broader and more nuanced than separating fact from fiction.
“If we rely exclusively on a simple true-false measure of content, we lose out on the nuance,” says Dr. Alison Trope, the founder and director of Critical Media Project. “[We] potentially dilute or obfuscate the importance of unpacking and understanding the complexities of the media we consume, the ideologies they embody, and the way those ideologies are normalized and perpetuated in culture and society.” - from “Reimagining Digital Literacy Education to Save Ourselves” by Cory Collins, Learning for Justice.
The rise in political extremism across the globe is inextricably linked with targeted messaging on numerous online platforms. Young people, particularly young males, make up a coveted audience for radical groups seeking to advance their causes. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a guide for caregivers to help adults recognize and counteract signs of online radicalization among youth.
Many of us work in institutions deeply invested in the idea of raising and educating “good kids.” I think it can be easy to minimize the possibility that our kids, our students could be susceptible to radicalized messaging or fall into harmful behavior patterns as a result of online engagements. Consider this recent example documenting the astounding appeal of a world famous misogynist among teen boys. The caregivers’ guide lists some of the drivers which lead young people to respond positively to radical messaging: “trauma, disruption and loss; confusion and uncertainty; anger and betrayal; rebellion and status.”
Our young people live in the world! They are witnesses to systemic failures on a massive scale and they, too, are looking for answers and antidotes. Memes, videos, chat groups - these can be very effective avenues for young folks to locate responses that allow them to feel seen and empowered in ways that may be deeply harmful to others.
Of course, this is also the never ending challenge of our times: How do we cultivate communities of belonging and action that affirm the dignity of all? Words are nice but students and children are reading our actions. Telling only goes so far. We need to remain in dialogue: listening to our students and colleagues even if it means opening cans full of worms; even if it means acknowledging that we don’t know something; even if it means admitting that we were wrong.
In closing and changing the topic, I want to share a book that I purchased spur of the moment and that has since given me much joy and satisfaction. What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking (2022) by Tina Oziewicz and Aleksandra Zajac (quoted above) is an absolutely gorgeous exploration of emotions through evocative creature illustrations and spare, poignant text. Invite this furry cast of characters to your next read aloud!
Thank you for reading this far! I want to believe that 2023 will be better in several different ways but even more so I’m betting on the fact that we will be better: more alert, more determined, more generous, more action- and community oriented!
I look forward to pursuing these pathways with all of you.
Be well, friends, and let’s get it!