Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Activist Parenting: It Will Be Fine

I wish I could tell you how often I have shared my concerns about an issue with someone close to me and have received “it will be fine” in response.

As an oldest child that feels that the whole world is my responsibly and as someone who tends toward anxiety, I believe most of the people who have said this to me did so in love and with good intentions. They were trying to assure me that other people were working on the issues I was passionate about and that I didn’t have to do it all.

The truth of this statement is that there always seem to be people working on issues that matter and that, in general, a working mom realizing that she doesn’t have to do it all is freeing. The bad news is “it will be fine” can also be a way of assuring ourselves out of any personal responsibility for whatever is troubling us.

When I am in a position of privilege, I get to ignore things. The refugee mother with a four and six year old who have lost all semblance of a routine and who have been traumatized by war do not get to ignore their circumstances in the same way that this mother of a four and six year old can ignore them. My privilege gives me the ability to choose whether or not to be impacted. I can say, “it will be fine” because my life is fine even if another’s is not. That’s privilege.

I credit Dr. Carole Counihan’s Gender Race and Class course that I took as a senior at Millersville University with helping me to realize that not everyone else’s life was fine. Thanks to a panel of courageous people with many different life experiences telling their stories, I realized for the first time that not everyone is dealt the same cards. Contrary to what I believed, hard work and being nice wasn’t enough to overcome some of the barriers these people were facing.

Since then, I have become (an imperfect) social justice activist for a variety of causes. At first it felt uncomfortable because white women’s culture promotes passivity and niceness. This obviously does not bode well for women with strong opinions who act. (I like this source about white women’s culture).

Parenting changed my activism in two ways: one, I encountered new injustices by living life with children, and two, I started to hesitate as I wondered whether activism was an appropriate family activity (or how much time I could spend doing activism while away from my family). I deliberated quite a bit about whether my kids should join me on the picket line when I was among the faculty of fourteen public universities who went on strike in October.

I didn’t think twice about involving my children this week, though, when President Trump issued an executive order that was executed in a way that left traumatized refugees and others stranded in airports with nowhere to call home. I didn’t think twice until someone from my own family commended me (after the fact) about how brave this action was given the pushback I might be facing from others close to me. Do my friends and family think I’m crazy?

I am almost certain I have friends and family that believe my activism unfairly indoctrinates my children. To those of you whom I love who may feel this way, you are correct. I unfairly indoctrinate my children with my worldview. As it turns out, every type of parenting results in a child with a worldview. Please don’t blame my activism for this; you likely just disagree with my beliefs. That’s okay to say.

My initial hesitancy to engage my children in social justice has changed to a strong belief that involving my children in activism is really important. Here are a few stories from the week that illustrate my belief.

  • Monday night, as we were making signs for a refugee vigil, my six year old asked, “Mom, what is a refugee?” This question and others came because we were engaged in action. I watched her internalize the idea that “refugee” is a status that is temporary. She said, “so if we had a war here and had to leave, we would be refugees?” Yes we would. She was learning and soaking it in. This likely wouldn't have come up over dinner in the same way it came up over action.

  • Tuesday night, we took the girls with us to the vigil. They didn’t understand everything. That night she asked a friend, “so who are you voting for?” and later to me, “what are we supposed to do here?” However, at one point in the evening, my children linked arms with other children from our church and began to sway. Somehow they internalized that the purpose of going was being together and standing in solidarity.

  • This afternoon, I got home from work and showed E the front page of the local newspaper. She stood looking at a photograph of the vigil for a long time. “That’s us?” she asked. Yes, that’s us and the other 2,000 who think this matters.

I see my actions toward justice as living out my faith, which repeatedly calls believers to action on behalf of orphans, widows, foreigners, and the oppressed. Living this out with my children is a powerful witness. I am now okay with activist parenting. I see it as a radical departure from “it will be fine” to “let’s help make it fine.” I want to raise children who recognize and call out injustice, believe they can make a difference, and know how to do it. So I’ll model it, and we’ll practice together.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

My Remarks to the Hempfield School Board

First, let me thank you for serving our community as school board members. I have never been a school board member and so I don’t assume to understand the impact your service has on areas of your life that none of us will see. Thank you especially for those unseen sacrifices each of you make. 

Last year, a local superintendent said the opt out movement is insignificant unless the majority of parents do it. I take issue with this statement because it excuses him from having any responsibility to stop something (i.e., high-stakes standardized testing) that has created a culture of schooling that is actually detrimental to authentic learning.

I understand that districts are mandated to give tests. However, district school boards and administrators are not prevented from recommending that parents opt out and/or share information with parents in a way that encourages rather than discourages opting out. Jim Scanlin, Superintendent of West Chester Area School District, sent a letter to parents last spring that included the following,

"Teachers have literally sent me hundreds of examples of how students are worried, anxious, and depressed. The rules for taking these exams are crazy, as well...The last three weeks our schools have looked more like prisons than educational institutions…There is no research to support that any of these test environments are helpful, supportive, or represent good pedagogy."

He is correct. And he is speaking out. He still has his job, the district still has funding, and the teachers feel heard and supported by their administration. The public trusts the school district because its leadership advocates for conditions of learning that are best for children and call foul on the ludicrous conditions caused by the high-stakes nature of testing.

 The New Salem/Wendell School Committee recently passed a resolution encouraging all parents in their district to opt their children out of state-mandated tests. I brought a copy of that resolution for each of you. The board took action based on what they knew was happening in their schools. They asked for parents to partner with them, and didn’t expect parents to act on the fine print of a Q&A document from the Department of Education.

As you may know, I co-founded Lancaster County Opt Out in 2014 and have, in the last two years, been mobilizing parents by informing them about both the perils of standardized tests and their rights as parents to refuse the test. Some feel completely betrayed by the leadership of their school districts for not providing this information first. Their children come home believing that they are required to take the test (which isn’t true) and tell tales of all sorts of "rewards" (I call them bribes) they receive once the tests are over.

We administer tests that have such little value that we have to bribe students to take them and aren’t overly forthcoming about their choice not to take the tests. The students aren’t offered the opportunity to consent, and they aren’t the ones benefitting from the test. I fear we are committing abuse. You may feel that is an extreme comparison, but a testing company with a $250 million dollar contract is benefitting from unconsenting children, and are benefitting more than any of us from this testing ridiculousness.

I know from a recent meeting I attended that the board is trying to engage the public in conversation about the budget shortfall. I recommend that one of the primary ways of engaging the public is taking heroic action and standing up for the rights of students and their parents. To gain community trust, be courageous, thoughtful, and transparent. Call the system out for what it’s doing to children, how it’s oppressing teachers, and strangling school boards. I beg you to lead our community not just by making financial decisions, but also by doing the moral and ethical work that is inherent in representing thousands of precious children.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


A concert with an audience of one.
As a brand new mom, I remember hearing presentations at our national art education conference about the intersections of motherhood and academic life. I wasn't quite sure what all the fuss was about. I also wasn't sure what mothering was really about, or how to finish a dissertation when the birth of my first daughter happened before chapters 4 or 5 were even drafted. So in some sense, I knew exactly what the fuss was about. HOW DO YOU WRITE A DISSERTATION WITH SO MUCH FUSSING? All the time. Fussing. 

The value of these conference sessions was really the women I met, who bravely shared their successes and failures of integrating their academic and home lives. In the years that followed, I spoke a few times with other art educator moms who talked about what seems to be the first thing to go once we have children and jobs: our practice as artists. I remember Kristin telling me about an art station she created near her door so she could work for small amounts of time while she was waiting for her kids to find their shoes, get their jackets, etc. before leaving the house. Despite my admiration for her brilliant solution, my children weren't old enough to even need shoes at the time. That wouldn't work for me, at least, not yet.

Now that my children are 3 and 5, I am starting to see the light. They know where their shoes are, can put them on, and if I am okay going into public with whatever they have on, they can get ready to go on their own. My partner supports my practice by agreeing to watch kids while I take creative writing classes every once in a while, and this semester, a book arts class taught by a gracious colleague in my department who is allowing me to sit in on her course. 

"Ready" to go to the grocery store.
The other evening I wanted to work on some art, and decided to return to work after dinner with the family, and to take my girls with me. They entertained themselves for almost three hours in the classroom where I teach. In the picture at the top of the post, they are using markers to play the "drums" (plastic containers) and they are having a concert. The playlist went something like: Itsy Bitsy Spider, ABCs, Zaccheus Was a Wee Little Man, and a few improvised goodies. At one point, a student from the sculpture studio stopped in to see what the noise was about.
Altered Book, Talks on Teaching (1881), accordion style, 2015
Sketchbook, double coptic binding, 2015
Sketchbook for Chris, coptic binding, 2015
In that moment, I realized bringing my kids to work while I made art was perhaps one of the most successful ways I have negotiated my identities as mother and artist thus far. I snapped a picture and sent it to Kristin. I got 29 signatures created for the series of books I'm creating. The girls danced, drew, played, washed tables, ate chocolate, took 2,134 trips to the water fountain, and had a very enjoyable time. My partner got a break and a night to refuel without kids. I have made more work in the last year than I have made in a long time. And I'm starting to feel more like myself, somehow.

Probably 1.5 years ago, on a trip to work with Mommy.

M/otherwork: Grading papers at home

One of E's many drawings on the chalkboard in my classroom.
"Mommy, do you see that pink I made?"
When Daddy drops them off at work so that he can go to work, sometimes I reward them for sitting quietly through meetings. In this case, "take your shoes off and jump in the puddles!" 
On the way into Mommy's building...again.
You mean I have to wear pants?

For more info. about the scholarship about motherhood, academia, and art education:

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pennsylvania's Latest Testing Contract

Surprise! Pennsylvania's Department of Education just signed another $250 million, 5 year contract with a corporation to continue the high-stakes testing of our students. Opt Out Pennsylvania recently posted:
Pennsylvania just signed a $250 million dollar, 5-year contract with Measured Progress for the Common Core Keystone exams and now common core aligned PSSA's under the guise of "college and career readiness".  Colleges and prospective employers DO NOT consider the Keystone Exams in any capacity yet students FORCED to spend 20% or more of their time in a class during the school year on test prep and testing resulting in lost instructional time for a single test.  This is not education.  Our students are unpaid employees to political and corporate interest groups who are making billions of dollars a year on these insidious tests.
So, I decided it was time for me to send John and Carolyn at PDE some mail.

Dear Mr. Weiss and Secretary Dumaresq,

I need to let you know that I am appalled that you continue to sign contracts with Measured Progress to test our children nonsensically. The latest $250 million dollar contract is a ridiculous example of unethical practices of top educational administrators on our children, who are now unpaid employees of political and corporate interest groups. 

I call your decision as a department (and the mandate from the legislature) unethical because these tests are not in the best interests of the children, the teachers, or prospective employers. Despite this contract being signed under the guise of “college and career” readiness, where is the research that demonstrates if/how these tests prepare students for the workforce?

I recently heard you, Secretary Dumaresq on a panel at the EPLC symposium. You and Ron Cowell made it a point to blame the legislature for the problems in public education. I call foul on that whole logic. As educators, it is also your ethical responsibility to “protect the student from conditions which interfere with learning or are harmful to the student’s health and safety.” It is you, the lead administrators in the department of education, who continue to violate Pennsylvania’s Code of Professional Practice for Educators. 

There are parents and taxpayers across this country attempting to work from the bottom up to address this issue in the legislatures in their respective states. However, as an educator, you too have a responsibility based on what you know about children and from educational research. Be bold and make the right choice. Our public schools would be better without the standardized tests that drain educational budgets, lead to corporate profits, and result in the worst deficits that we can imagine - those that directly affect our children. 


Leslie Gates, Ph.D./Angry Parent

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My go-to (online) art education resources

One of my current students asked me for a synthesized list of online resources that I have found valuable for K-12 art teaching. And so, I present to you my go-to online art education resources, in no particular order. Am I missing something? Add it in the comments.

  • Art 21 Educator Guides and Videos. Art 21 is my go-to site for teaching with contemporary art. Check out their educator guides under the "learn" tab for great art-making prompts and questions that correspond to all of their videos.
  • Art 21 Blog's Teaching with Contemporary Art Column by contributor (and high school art educator!) Joe Fusaro. Joe consistently writes about exactly what I'm wondering, or struggling with, or excited about. 
  • Art Educators on Twitter. Nothing like updates in art education in 140 characters at less that you can read while waiting for your next appointment.
  • Art Education 2.0: Connecting Art Educators Around the Globe. An online professional learning community of art educators with sub communities and discussion forums based on student age, media, interest, special topics, etc. Currently over 13,000 members. Did you know - the first two members besides the founder were art educators from Pennsylvania? :)
  • Teaching for Artistic Behavior websiteTeaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) is a nationally recognized choice-based art education approach to teaching art. The Teaching for Artistic Behavior concept enables students to experience the work of the artist through authentic learning opportunities and responsive teaching. Website is full of resources about choice-based approaches to teaching art.
  • Olivia Gude's e-Portfolio. Olivia Gude's articles, presentations, lessons, and ideas all in one place and shared freely. Spend some time here.
  • The National Art Education Association. NAEA is the professional organization of art educators in the United States, and the website is full of books, advocacy information, and news. The NAEA site also includes a monthly mentor blog where various art educators write about various issues (I was the month mentor in July 2009). Make it a point to join and maintain your membership.
  • The "Art Teachers" Facebook page has over 5,000 members that share their successes, struggles, and questions with a community of art teachers. If you're on Facebook, join the group for some serious, some funny, and some enraging (lively) discussions -- all in the name of art education. 
  • The Art of Education is "ridiculously relevant professional development for art educators" and includes a blog, classes, online conferences, and other resources that many art educators I know have found extremely helpful. 
  • Favorite (Art, mostly) Educator blogs: I follow a number of blogs/sites in which educators I respect consistently post their assignments, ideas, and student work. Here are a few: David Miller - Wissahickon HSIan Sands, Apex HS"Teacher Tom," Woodland Park PreschoolDiane Jaquith, Self-directed art blog, and a list of the "top art education blogs of 2013" if that's not enough. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Considering lesson plan quality

My students gave themselves an assignment based on their desire to write "good" lesson plans. They went on a hunt for both the best and worst art lesson plans via the internet in order to analyze the characteristics of both, and asked me to compile our conversation. 

Here is the result. What would you add? What would you change?

 Thoughts about “Good” and “Bad” Lesson Plans
Ideas of ART 325 students Daniel Clarke, Alexandra Fleming, Marie Freiselben, Samantha Gehman, Amber Hile, Kyla Kirby, Katie-Marie McLean, Danielle Noll, Ashley Talamantez. 
Compiled by Leslie Gates, Ph.D., Spring 2014

Is the term lesson plan inclusive of the physical document and the ideas? One student noticed we were initially using the term to describe more than one thing. For instance, some lesson plans are written clearly, have goals, instruction, and assessment that is aligned, and includes necessary components. However, the projects/activities described in the lesson plan may not meet our expectations of quality. So although the lesson plan is written sufficiently, we realized that when we talk about “good” lesson plans, we are often referring to the quality of the activities more so than the technical aspects of the way the lesson was written. As a result of our analysis of lesson plans, we described “good” and “bad” lesson plans in the following ways, fully aware that lesson plans rarely fall neatly into one or two columns:

Good Lesson Plans…
Bad Lesson Plans…
are sufficiently challenging for students. Difficult concepts are scaffolded so that students are not overwhelmed.  are not developmentally appropriate - the most frequent offense within the lesson plans were reviewed were activities that were far too simple and underestimated the abilities of the student to generate their own ideas.
include a final project that provides students with an open-ended prompt that requires them to synthesize and apply knowledge they’ve gained from previous lessons or activities to a new concept. The project is acceptable evidence of both technical and conceptual goals.  include a final project that requires students to complete a step by step process outlined by the teacher, which demonstrates a child’s technical craft and ability to follow directions but fails to demonstrate a child’s understanding of non-technical goals. 
provide students with opportunities to use their diverse ways of knowing and life experiences to interpret prompts in particular and meaningful ways. They allow for authentic explorations of both students’ and others cultures.  assume a homogenous body of students that all celebrate the same holidays, and have similar cultural knowledge and life experiences. Bad lesson plans are conceptualized around one holiday or experience (often with a step by step craft).
present a theme or concept important in the work or one or more artists, and asks students to create their own work about that theme or concept without requiring students to adopt/copy the artist’s formal style/characteristics.  reduce a famous or exemplary artist’s work to purely the formal properties and then ask students to make a work like _____ in look only, and fail to engage students with artist’s concepts and process. 
provide in-depth information about the concept, artist(s), or technique being studied. Good lesson plans demonstrate a well-researched and knowledgeable instructor. provide little or narrow information about the concept, artist(s), or technique being studied. Bad lesson plans can be limited by “creating lesson plans that only go off of what you [currently] know.”
the goals, instruction, and assessment are aligned. The final project or activity demonstrates whether students’ have meet the goals of the lesson. Instruction supports student’s work toward the goals.  the goals, instruction, and assessment do not work together; the students’ final works may not demonstrate whether the students have met the goals of the lesson. 
include opportunities for students to learn information on an as-needed basis.  assume each student requires the same knowledge/demonstration.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ode to My Graduate Students

Dear Graduate Students,

I think it's somewhat unfair that you pay to take classes that I get paid to teach given the the amount of things I learn from/with you. The group of you in our M.Ed. program right now are some of the most generous people I know. You are curious, and eager, and reflective. You work hard. I want to be with you, look forward to our classes, and find myself thinking about our conversations may times over. I wonder about you, and your students. I suspect that our conversations are making a difference. I am delighted by your stories: you tried something new that made a difference for that distant student, you are mentally well despite your taxing schedule and roller coaster personal life, you approached your administrator because you were no longer willing to do something that you knew wasn't the best for students.

I applaud you. I tell everyone who considers our grad program that if they met you, or sat in a class, they would know that there was a place for them around our table.