Honoring Diversity


Here in California, our teachers have been asked to adapt almost overnight to the new CAL TPA 2.0. As we prepare our interns and student teachers to master the new tasks, it has been challenging to be part of the initial rollout. The new TPA has two cycles rather than four tasks. While it’s been difficult to keep up as the Commission comes out with policies on the fly, we’ve been pretty successful in our first iteration of the seminar courses. Our university has high pass rates for Cycle 1 and we anticipate the same for Cycle 2.

Despite the chaos of rapid implementation, I’m especially happy about the new TPA. It has been well thought out and it demands critical thinking from teachers as well as students. I happen to think it’s a vast improvement over the 1.0. Teacher candidates have to begin by carefully understanding their students. They have to think about contextual information, including demographics, learning abilities, language learners, and what’s an especially useful addition to the usual categories of EL and SPED. Teachers now have to consider three focus students rather than two. The third category is a student whose learning is affected by life circumstances. This can be poverty, it can be violence or abuse, it can be neglect, or migrant status. I am thrilled that this category is finally being recognized as legitimate, since it does deeply affect learning.

In the next few weeks, I plan to write more about how this set of tasks helps build good teachers.

Student Voice


I can’t stress enough how important it is to encourage student voice. When students are allowed to speak and to write their truth, they begin the process of introspection, inquiry and critical thinking.  While this process may be rudimentary at first, and the words may seem to be reactive rather than reflective, it is crucial that the words come before real reflection can begin.  Below is an essay by one of my former high school students, a young man with dreams of being an artist, torn by the need to maintain street cred, survive in the neighborhood, struggle with lack of finances, and still pursue his art. His words, while  they may seem on the surface to be juvenile rantings about life being unfair, when examined more closely, show a deep commitment to his art, a will to survive and succeed, and a rage born of frustration and lack of real guidance. By fostering student voice, we create an opportunity as teachers to understand, to intervene and to guide our students as they go forward.

Just the Beginning


My dream for the future is that someone can help me show my life, my expression, through art. I would like to be an artist. My skill is in play now but I want to go to the Academy   of Art in San Francisco. First I need to graduate from high school. I don’t know how to make my way out there. Life is full of obstacles and I am just a Mexican that lives in a messed up town with the worst people in it. I know I’m with the wrong people, and if they say I can make it, that doesn’t mean I can. The only way I can come up with them is if I start making my money the way I used to make it. But I don’t want to do that anymore, not unless I really have to. In this freakin’ town we cannot even get a waiver to go to college. I was rejected once all ready and that was just because I didn’t have the hundred dollar application fee. What would it take to actually go there or even spend one day there? Imagine that!

In this life we have to learn how make it on our own. Maybe teachers will help a little, but they don’t know what we go through all day just to find out that we can’t go to a high quality school. That still isn’t going to stop me. I do my art now when I want, at the time I want. People say that we can do a lot around here to display my art and attract the eyes of the world. But that’s just an American dream. People like me know how to learn off people’s mistakes. My cousin helped me see that. He told me to see how the world works before I play it. He’s an art teacher. He had a tough time getting to where he is. His life was similar to mine. He also did drugs. For people like us it’s very hard to get somewhere. My cousin had a hard time and so will I, but I might get farther than him. This is just the beginning.

Bathina (2007) Dreams are for Others: Voices of the Children Left Behind.

Honoring Diversity


Many years ago, when I was teaching at a small liberal arts college, and suggested introducing a course on literacy and diversity, I was immediately encouraged. Although this was a good thing, and my chair meant well, it was the term she used that bothered me. “I’m so glad you are doing this. Any efforts we can make to help our teachers manage diversity are more than welcome.” It’s the word manage that I took issue with then and continue to find disturbing today.

I see it in schools, as well as in universities, this effort to manage diversity, as if it were some unwieldy negative force that needed to be quelled and streamlined in order for us to make progress. While we have definitely moved forward from the old days when diversity was a thing to be either submerged or ignored, we still have a long way to go in moving from merely managing it to fully honoring the multiplicity of languages, cultures, religions, socioeconomic levels, and backgrounds that exist in our classrooms today.

So how can a teacher honor the diversity in his or her classroom with something more than the usual show and tell, or international food day? There are several immediate ways in which we can honor the richness our students bring and at the same time provide them with more material for honoring their own identity.

Acknowledging Students’ Funds of Knowledge

Too often, we tend to push our content, with no regard for the contents already within our students’ minds. I tend to repeat this often, but it’s an important point. Our children do not come into the classroom as blank slates. They have a wealth of knowledge, a unique perspective on the world, informed by both their circumstances and their experiences. While this perspective or knowledge may not always be positive, it is a rich soil in which to sow the seeds of further learning. When we ignore what our students bring to the table, good or bad or mixed, we are dumping more manure on a well-tilled field that is open for sowing, rather than using that opportunity to plant new ideas that can flourish.

 Choosing Materials that Reflect our Students’ Lives

In our eagerness to present curriculum, we forget to take into account the individuals we have in our classroom. An effective teacher plans carefully for the specific population they are dealing with and chooses materials accordingly. True, they may be limited in their choice of textbook, but bringing in articles on female scientists, or African American inventors, or Hmong athletes, or Latino political leaders is easy to do. If some students are interested in sports, or others obsessed with music, art or fashion, a little planning will yield plenty of materials that tie content to those specific arenas. When we tie our content to what students care about and at the same time bring in cultural references, we increase engagement and provide role models for our students, enabling them to see themselves as capable of success in their chosen field.

Honestly Discussing Stereotypes, Racism and Violence

We tend to think that such topics are taboo in the classroom. Yet, these very topics are relevant, urgent and necessary for the well being of our students. Those who feel that we need to stick to our content and leave such topics to counselors, are missing an incredible opportunity to reach and to teach their students. After all, what happens outside the classroom doors immediately impacts what happens inside. For real learning to occur, students need to feel safe and respected. How can they, when their teacher does not even acknowledge issues that affect their lives on a daily basis?

The classroom is often the only place where students, led by a skilled and sensitive teacher, can discuss such topics in a balanced and safe manner. Such discussions allow them to see multiple perspectives on the same issue and to realize that others may be going through similar experiences.

I am sure there are amazing teachers out there who continue to find other ways to include, encourage and honor students from every background within their classrooms. Unless we take the time to be mindful of who our students are, we may manage them, but we can never fully honor them.

Literate Voices Media Coverage

Book Launch in India


Television Interview in the Bay Area

Beyond the Fields Release- Sanger

Left to right: Jyothi Bathina, Seth Gardner, Aaron Galbraith and Stacy Lazzari (Photo contributed)

Published: Thursday, May 20, 2010 8:23 AM PDTSanger Herald

A wonderful project is nearing completion at a local school in Sanger. The students at Fairmont School have been working on building literacy through using personal narrative, a unit designed by Dr. Jyothi Bathina, Director of Literate Voices, and a faculty member at Fresno State.With her guidance, English teacher Stacy Lazzari, Bathina’s student in the credential program and a former Fairmont student herself, has been working to implement the project in her eighth grade classroom. The project has proven to have amazing success at motivating, encouraging and inspiring students to read and write and engage in the literacy process.The student work will soon be published in book form as a Literate Voices anthology entitled “Beyond the Fields: Sanger Stories.”

The unit is designed to meet ELA standards while at the same time providing incredible opportunities for authentic learning. As they read and write, students are being guided through the process of Personal Action Research, through which students learn not only to voice their opinions but to analyze their world and effect positive change.

Students are applying grammar, syntax and literary devices in their writing and editing, knowing that they will soon be published authors. Students are also learning other relevant cross-curricular life skills such as designing their covers, marketing their book, creating promotional materials and calculating royalties.

The Literate Voices project is founded on the belief that all students learn best through finding and expressing their personal voice. The project resulted in a previous anthology “Dreams Are for Others,” written by students in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Bathina is currently guiding the process in a high school in Visalia as well, where students are working on an anthology called “Against the Odds: Visalia Voices.” For more information on current and previous publications and the mission of the project itself, see www.literatevoices.org.

The culminating event for all this hard work is a grand joint book launch to be held on May 27 from 6-9 p.m. at the Satellite Student Union at Fresno State. The budding authors from both Fairmont School in Sanger and Sequoia will attend.

Book Launch at Fresno State
Fresno State project publishes Visalia, Sanger narrative anthologies

The Literate Voices project will celebrate the coming publication of two books of Sanger middle school and Visalia high school students’ narratives at a launch party 6-9 p.m. Thursday, May 27, at the California State University, Fresno Satellite Student Union.

The project director is Dr. Jyothi Bathina, an assistant professor of literacy and early education in the Kremen School of Education and Human Development.

“The project has proven to have amazing success at motivating, encouraging and inspiring students to read and write and engage in the literacy process,” said Bathina, who worked with students at Sequoia High School in Visalia and Fairmont School in Sanger.

In June, “Against the Odds: Visalia Voices” and “Beyond the Fields: Sanger Stories” will be published.

At the May 27 event, budding authors from both schools will present their work and sign books. The event is free and open to the public, and will include live entertainment and refreshments.

The unit is designed to meet English Language Arts standards, while providing students opportunities to learn to voice their opinions and to analyze their world and effect positive change, Bathina said.

“Students learned to apply grammar, syntax and literary devices in their writing and editing, knowing they would soon be published authors,” she added. “Students also learned other relevant cross-curricular life skills such as designing their covers, marketing their book, creating promotional materials, and calculating royalties.

The Literate Voices project is founded on the belief that all students learn best through finding and expressing their personal voice. The project resulted in a previous anthology “Dreams Are for Others,” written by students in East Palo Alto.

Classroom Management 101: Relevance


I’ve said this many times in many ways but I believe it bears repeating. The inescapable truth is that students don’t care for content the way teachers care for content. That is, they aren’t exhilarated by the thought of a perfectly formed sentence or a flawless mathematical proof. They don’t find excitement in uncovering a new primary source for a historical event, or thrill to the discovery of a new element. Students in most classrooms aren’t passionate about delivering the perfect volley using the right stance, nor are they intense in their pursuit of musical accuracy or artistic aptitude.
Simply put, most kids could care less about what teachers have spent what seem to be the best years of their lives studying, absorbing and hoping to pass along to eager students.
In order to get students to even begin paying attention much less share a passion for the subject, teachers need to begin by demonstrating the relevance of what they are teaching, not only to real life, but in particular to students’ lives. Why should a student who is overburdened with adolescent angst and all the drama that goes with it, along with home, work, school and a series of classes that seek to impart a series of facts that seemingly have no connection to his or her life whatsoever, bother to pay attention?
Yes, it’s possible to regiment a classroom, bully, threaten and punish students into putting on a semblance of attention, but that is not the way to create genuine interest in a subject, nor encourage lasting learning that they can apply outside the classroom.
Genuine interest comes from excitement born of the clear knowledge that what I am learning will benefit me directly. For adolescents and to be honest for most adults, “what’s in it for me?” is the most pressing question when it comes to doing something. Teachers need to answer that question every day in ways that make sense to their classes. “We are learning this because it helps you in the following ways:____________________ “ should be a sentence that precedes every single lesson. By respecting students enough to take the time to explain how your content is useful to them other than in passing the class or the test, you allow them to question and you are forced as well to think of how your content is valuable and relevant in the real world. Thinking deeply about how each facet of your curriculum and your content connects to the big picture and to practical and functional purposes, may in fact, not only spark your students’ interest, but serve to rekindle your own.

Classroom Management 101: Respect


How is it that we expect to command respect from a group of strangers who have never met us, know nothing about us, and very often want nothing to do with us or our content? And yet, teachers everywhere walk into classrooms on that first day, read out a syllabus and a list of rules, attempt to impose order, and are bewildered that they are not being respected.

Respect needs to be earned. We all know that. Yet we don’t seem to apply that self-evident truth in a classroom environment. Kathleen Cushman’s book Fires in the Bathroom (2005) points out that in a survey of hundreds of high school students across the United States, the number one quality kids look for in a good teacher is that he or she respects their students.

Why is this is such a high priority? Especially in challenging environments, where students grow up never receiving the respect all human beings deserve, never having the opportunity to voice their opinions or be heard, where violent wars are fought everyday over turf and respect, it is crucial that students are both respected and teachers earn their respect.

How do we respect students?

By acknowledging their funds of knowledge. Students are not blank canvasses waiting to be filled with the masterly strokes of our brilliant pedagogy, they are works of art already in the making, each a masterpiece crafted by their own experiences. If we as teachers allow them to express their views, to share their experiences, to voice their opinions, then we open the door to sharing knowledge. When we understand that teaching is not a one way flow but that true learning happens in a back and forth dialogue between students and teacher, where each understands and values the contributions of the other, then we are showing respect.

So how does a teacher earn respect?

When a teacher begins by respecting the voices and experiences of the students, then he or she begins to earn their respect. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s messy and at times a bit scary. Students don’t sit in neat rows, eagerly soaking up knowledge. They will challenge you, resist you, defy you and ignore you. At first. Keep in mind that they have spent years viewing the teacher as the enemy, the one who shuts them down, ignores their voice and imposes their will, forcing them to plod through a dead and dry curriculum in which they have no interest.

Mastery of content is not enough. A teacher earns respect by taking the time to explain to students why the content is important and how it will be useful to student lives.

A teacher earns respect by simply showing up every day ready to teach and to learn and demonstrating an unwavering commitment to helping students gain the skills they need to succeed.

As I explained to my credential students, the teacher is often the only reliable adult in many students’ lives, the only one who shows up everyday, who is willing to share information, who is willing to guide and motivate, who is a role model whether or not they realize it. While they may begin by resisting, most students appreciate this and when allowed voice and given respect, will return that respect tenfold.

Classroom Management 101: Being Human


Yesterday as I was wrapping up a class on content literacy writing strategies, one of my credential students raised his hand. I was in a great mood, having waxed eloquent on ways to build writing into the curriculum and had them all practice implementing the strategies in their content area groups. It had been a good class, a productive class, where I felt I had actually offered meaningful instruction and my students had gained valuable insight and practical skills.
My student’s question however was not related to my topic at all. “Dr. Bathina,” he exclaimed, a look of frustration on his face. “ What you’re doing here is great and everything, but how the heck am I supposed to do any of this when my students don’t listen? None of this can happen unless the class is actually listening!”
The other students murmured in agreement and when I asked them if they wanted to learn more about classroom management, they agreed enthusiastically.
I was surprised to hear that my students felt so underprepared for the crucial task of managing their classrooms, much less delivering effective content.
So I volunteered to provide basic pointers. The next day when I shared the experience with my other class, they were equally eager to hear ways in which they could build an effective classroom environment, voicing their own concerns at being able to implement strategies without proper management techniques.
It was time for me to put content literacy aside for the moment and begin at the beginning. I am constantly telling my students to pre-assess and gauge their students needs before instruction, and clearly it was time for me to fulfill my own students needs as well.
To be honest, I do emphasize good classroom environments from the very start. However I don’t call it classroom management because that sounds too much like a power structure, where the teacher manages her students so that they will do as they are told and then learn what is taught. This goes against all my principles as an educator and what’s more simply does not work.
After seeing how hungry my students are for tips on this subject, I’ve decided to post a series of entries that will be dealing with the different aspects of creating an effective classroom where teaching and learning are possible and will actually flourish. I’m hoping they will be useful for a wider audience.
Today I want to talk about the first requirement for an effective classroom, being human.
Forget everything you’ve heard about maintaining your authority. Teachers need to be human. That is, they cannot enter a classroom at the beginning of the year encased in the armor of education, authority and privilege. They cannot present a façade of perfection and professionalism which never falters. They simply cannot follow the dictates of not smiling before Christmas, lest their students take advantage of them.
Teachers need to share their personal side with students. They need to share their background, their experiences, their flaws, their vulnerabilities. They need to explain that they have also faced challenges and overcome them, fought bad habits and discarded them, persisted in order to succeed. They need to admit that they don’t know everything, that they too are constantly learning and correcting their own belief systems. Too often teachers, especially those who are young and new to the profession, believe that they need to maintain a severe and authoritarian façade in order to command respect from their students. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, nothing will turn off students to learning faster than the standoffish, condescending approach that results from this false belief.
Each semester, I begin my classes by sharing my life story. I show my class a powerpoint with the ups and downs of my learning life map. There are ups, when I excel academically, and downs, where I flounder and nearly drown under the weight of disabilities, personal tragedy, cultural dissonance, rigid beliefs, bullying, all the outside factors that can affect our lives as learners.
By sharing this personal life map, I reach out to my students as an imperfect human being, one who has not always been a professor in the ivory tower, but a struggling, failing, overwhelmed individual who used her education and her persistence to overcome odds and succeed.
My students share their own life maps. We each begin to see the other as human, and therefore worthy of our respect and our empathy.
In our eagerness to establish our position as teachers, we forget that our students find the gap between where they are as struggling confused individuals and where we seem to be as enlightened, confident and powerful beings, much too wide and impossible to cross. If instead, we come across as people, who followed an often painstaking and challenge ridden path ourselves to get where we are, we show them there is hope and that we can help them get there as well.
If teachers begin by acknowledging their humanity, students can no longer dismiss them as other, as the enemy, as the oppressor. If teachers are willing to share even a small part of themselves, and are equally willing to acknowledge even a small part of their students, then that initial connection becomes possible.