Wednesday, October 2, 2013

the CCNY Student-Teachers Play Rayuela

"I do not get my hands dirty”said the young man, and he followed his statement with a refusal to carry out the requested playing house activity. His tone and mannerisms reminded me of those instances when my personal group of gay friends would use a “gender fucking” tone and discourse style with each other at home or in private social functions.

My friends, some of them quite involved poltically, comunity activism and "claritos de conciencia"  would have never dared to respond to a professor in such a manner; and since we were quite political about gay issues, much less to someone who most probably was in a vulnerable position. Due to a sense of solidarity with those who had or were experiencing some form of discrimination, to embarrass a gay man or lesbian was out of the picture. We were politically correct. This was not the case with this young man, one of those students that had been recruited by the NYC Board of Edcuation to work in the inner city schools. As I recall very clearly today, he came from the world of fashion and did not have an undergraduate degree in education.

Twenty some years earlier, a similar class at the Workshop Center explored and explained a different game: a didactical version in Spanish of hopscotch (In Spanish this game is called rayuela). Instead of numbers on the spaces formed by the pattern of rectangles outlined on the ground, there were Spanish language syllables that required the students, as they threw the token on the square, to read and form words with the target syllables. Lillian Weber, as she often did,  saw the students playing the game and joined the discussion afterwards. Due to the Workshop Center’s space and philosophy, this freedom to participate wherein other educators and students joined the educational happening was only possible at such a legendary place.

In addition to playing rayuela, the students in the course on curricula, language, culture and educational materials played other games and studied diverse educational materials: commercially produced materials as well as resources from the ludic, playful world of children. Playing house, board and circle games from different cultures were actively explored, studied, and reflected upon using related academic literature. These activities and related readings covered the relationship between educational materials and their functions with regards to children's intellectual development, particularly children in multilingual-multicultural elementary schools.

Structural, procedural and content characteristics of diverse educational materials: commercially produced as well as those of particular cultures were studied within the context of different approaches to curriculum implementations: from traditional methods to more progressive ways of teaching were used to link the future teachers' experiences to what the academic literature argued. Among the topics covered were how children organize, structure, conceptualize, and symbolize what they know or are in the process of knowing; and the relationship of these topics and materials to the standards in traditional curricula.

The course’s content and its active approach to teaching and learning were shaped by several sources: the standards required by the field, the School of Education and the State, as well as Lillian Weber’s ideas and practices on primary education, the Center itself, and my own studies on educational media and curriculum design, educational theater, photography film and television (an early group of students in that course had won a NYC prize on educational films, another group organized and participated in setting up a Latin American children’s theater program). Since these activities took place at the Center, the possibilities to extend what was being studied beyond the limits of traditional objectives were endless. The Center’swell organized open space, resembling a primary school, and underlying philosophy allowed for very dynamic teaching and learning experiences.

At the Center it was a given that whoever wanted to join in the activities was welcomed to participate; and Lillian Weber would make sure that those using the Center did not forget this condition. She was always joining the activities or would bring visitors to participate. Unfortunately, the class was not longer allowed to be taught at the Center when the previously mentioned student took it, thus limiting the teaching and learning possibilities. At that point the course was limited by the physical conditions of a typical CCNY classroom. During the second session, in addition to the previously mentioned student's refusal to carry out the activities, other students recruited by the BED also got up and left the room to come back when class was almost over; while the regular Latino students remianed in class. In some of the other classes these suburban students had the reputation as being excellent, methodical, and diligent students; but not in this class.

Since another Spanish speaking professor, an adjunct,  and another, a visiting African professor complained about the same group of students, I knew it was not completely my doing, and having to teach a class on elementary bilingual multicultural curricula in a dreadful, bared walls room did not help. What had been my prized course became my worst nightmare. In addition to the poor teaching conditions, other questions bothered me for a long time. And one of these questions brought back a statement that was made by Dr. Antonia Pantoja at a conference where she was the keynote speaker. Dr. Pantojas said,  "Do not listen to my accent, listen to me." Were the suburban students listening to my thick accent and not my ideas? There are many individuals who respond to the color of the skin, gender, ethnicity or presumed background but not to the message.

This class shook me deeply but since I had a solid reputation and very good evaluations as a teacher and colleague, I was able to conclude that were many factors beyond my work that led to a pedagogical failure. This group of young adults at that course was so disruptive, that for the first time in my career as an educator I had to call the Dean into class to discuss their behavior; and documented the situation with several letters to the class and to the Dean.

It was my last semester at the College and if there was any possibility of reconsidering my retirement, this class and other events taking place at the Program where I taught led me to “enganchar los guantes”. After forty years as an educator* - in the CCNY Bilingual Education Program and as an elementary and secondary school teacher in Puerto Rico and the Bronx - it was time to move on. I did not mind studying children’s games but was not willing to engage in games with arrogant middle class "wanabes" who "intend"  to save the peoples of color but are not capable of listening to them.

The young teacher did not get his hands dirty, but as an old colleague in Puerto Rico used to say, "teachers do not retire, they die on the job", I will continue trying to keep my educational games clean while playing didactical “rayuelas’, and this blog is one of them.

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