Bright Spots: The Podcast
Anil Oommen and Identity-Safe Classrooms (Ep. 2 Pt. 2)
Guest: Anil Oommen
Hosts: Michelle Hjelm and Cameron Yee
The concept of identity-safe classrooms emerged from Claude Steele’s work and book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. Steele’s research informed Dorothy Steele and Becki Cohn-Vargas’ book, Identity Safe Classrooms K-5: Places to Belong and Learn. There are many other resources that have emerged from this concept at identitysafeclassrooms.com/publications.
Paul Gorski’s work and his Equity Literacy Institute are an important resource and anchor for the Pacific University courses developed and included in the move towards an Equity Literacy Certificate.
Table of Contents
[00:00 - 03:25] (3:25) Introductions and events on the calendar
[03:25 - 09:06] (5:41) Anil’s background as an educator
[09:06 - 10:16] (1:10) Anil’s current role at Pacific
[10:17 - 11:08] (0:51) Joining the Coordinating Body
[11:09 - 16:01] (4:52) Past PD topics and the framework for developing courses
[16:02 - 19:24] (3:22) The idea of an equity literacy certificate
[19:24 - 21:32] (2:08) How WREN-Pacific PD fits into Pacific’s teacher prep program
[21:32 - 24:53] (3:21) Possible future PD topics
[24:53 - 27:47] (2:55) Partnership with WREN and LCC colleagues
[27:47 - 29:21] (1:35) Conclusion
Cameron Yee 0:11
Welcome to Bright Spots: Highlights from the Western Regional Educator Network. I'm Cameron Yee, Communications Coordinator for the WREN. In our previous episode, Professional Development Coordinator Michelle Hjelm and I talked about all things WREN professional development. In this session, Michelle and I are here with Anil Oommen, Associate Director of Clinical Practices and Continuing Education at Pacific University's College of Education. Anil is one of the founding members of the WREN’s Coordinating Body, as well as one of our PD contractors, making possible graduate level courses like Ethnic Studies for Educators, Human Flourishing, and Storytelling for Classroom Teachers, just to name a few. Welcome back, Michelle, and thank you for joining us Anil.
Anil Oommen 0:52
Michelle Hjelm 0:53
Nice to be here.
Cameron Yee 0:54
So Happy Diwali, Anil.
Anil Oommen 0:56
Cameron Yee 0:57
Yeah, kind of circling back to our previous session where we were talking about Google Calendars. I was looking at the Google Calendar and looking at the different holidays that I enabled on there. So I saw Diwali was yesterday, but I know it's a multi-day celebration. So what's your favorite part of the Diwali celebration?
Anil Oommen 1:18
Well, the lights, my favorite part is the lights. And when I was an elementary school teacher, I used to do this, what we call the Festival of Lights Banquet for my second graders – well first and second graders – but mostly in second grade. And so much of it is about cutting through ignorance, good over evil, those kinds of things that resonate really well with young kids. And lots of stories that go around, go along with that, too. So, just the celebration of the lights is really important.
Michell Hjelm 1:54
Cameron Yee 1:55
To clarify it is the South Asian Festival of Lights? Or is it specifically…
Anil Oommen 2:02
Yeah, it specifically originates in the Hindu tradition. But it's definitely celebrated by everyone in India and many people in South Asia. So there may be different terms that people use or even different spellings. You'll see a lot of – also because when you use the Latin-based language, there's going to be different variations on the spelling that comes from South Asian languages.
Michelle Hjelm 2:29
Sure. That's awesome.
Cameron Yee 2:33
Yeah, I have a friend who's invited us to a Diwali celebration in the past. We were fortunate to have her mom in town, so there was a lot of wonderful food and all the kids dressed up in bright colored clothing sort of to represent the lights and the celebration of that brightness. Yeah, so I appreciate getting a little bit of exposure to it. But obviously, there's a lot more to learn and experience.
Anil Oommen 3:00
Cameron Yee 3:01
And then tomorrow is also Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day, which I'll be participating in with my older daughter. It's been a couple of years since we did that. The school she's at didn't really have it together the previous – last year. So we're looking forward to that.
So we can jump into the getting to know Anil section.
Michelle Hjelm 3:25
Yeah. So Anil, what is your background and education or teaching?
Anil Oommen 3:29
My background in education. I'll start with teaching.
I started teaching in the Eugene Springfield area, right around 2001. Well, it was 2001, as a second grade teacher at the Village School, which is a public charter school here in Eugene. And I taught for two years before in California, in an arts integrated school. So it's kind of a running theme in my teaching career, is working in spaces where art was integral to the teaching endeavor.
But in 2001, a few weeks into my teaching, 9-11 took place. And I was biking to school and had some epithets thrown at me from someone and I didn't know what happened until I got to school and one of my colleagues asked, “Did you hear what happened?” and the whole thing unfolded. And so that was the beginning of my teaching, official licensed teaching career. And it impacted me a lot because – I won't go into all of the details, but just kind of that idea of, “Should I shave my beard? You know, I'm not a terrorist, I'm a teacher.” You know, those kinds of things. And also trying to protect my students and my kids from the impact of that, or how that was because I – there's a lot more that could be said, but that was the beginning of my education career.
So I taught second grade that first year, and then first grade, the following year, and in that school setting, we looped, so one-two loops. So it was a really wonderful way to get to know the families and the students. And I always had a hard time letting go of them at the end of second grade, because I was like, “We're not quite done yet!”
Yeah, so it was just a really wonderful place to teach, especially because of bringing the arts in. It was very labor intensive in terms of bringing in the arts and everything from I had to learn how to play the pentatonic flute, for example, and I never played flute before. But just enough to be able to teach, to get first graders started or second graders going. And then things like watercolor painting, it takes a lot of setup and things like that. But it was very, very engaging and fun and have lots of good memories of that.
I taught for two years in California before that in a private school, which was also arts integrated. Really learned a lot from that experience, quite different from the Waldorf-inspired Village School setting. But similar in terms of bringing the arts in and engaging kids to do learning through the arts. And that's what really kind of catapulted me into like, “I really want to do this.”
But the interesting thing too, for me, is before that, my educational career, I was actually in seminary. And I knew that I wanted to work with kids, but not necessarily in a religious context. And then working in the arts-integrated settings, really kind of helped me because I think of art as spiritual technology, which comes from my own roots as a South Asian, because in the South Asian or Indian context, art is spiritual technology. So that's another part of my educational journey.
And then, in 2013, I was asked to apply for a position at Pacific University, after 12 years of teaching at the Village School. And so I applied and got the job and was involved in teaching teachers. And that became quite exciting, and really invigorating to be able to pass on things that I've learned, but also learn a lot from the students that were coming to me in that setting, and to us, in that setting. And then in 2019, I was appointed as the Director of the Eugene Campus. And then of course, COVID happened. And everything got a little topsy turvy. And we managed to make it through that. And then now – this is a long title, right – as the Associate Director of Clinical Practices and Continuing Education, what I do is I have a team of people who helps place teachers in school settings. So we're matching student teachers with mentor teachers. And what we're finding, too, a lot of folks these days are also coming to us already with a teaching job as well. And so
Cameron Yee 8:31
So they're already in service?
Anil Oommen 8:32
Yeah, they're already in service. And so we're, we're helping them. They might be on a restricted license and we're helping them navigate the teaching world, providing coaching, providing mentors and supervisors to kind of help move them along into getting their license. So the landscape has changed a lot since I first got into teaching teachers, and also when I did my own student teaching. So I was a graduate of the MAT program at Pacific as well.
Michelle Hjelm 9:06
That's awesome. Well, you answered my other question, which was tell us about your current role. Sounds awesome and super challenging. Was there anything else you wanted to add about what your most current role is like?
Anil Oommen 9:18
Yeah, it's an interesting role, because the placement part was already there. The continuing ed part was kind of bubbling up with the partnership with the WREN. We were already doing PD and we were offering some other kinds of PD as well for teachers in other ways. So there's the clinical practices, which is really placing teachers in their student teaching settings. There's the continuing education. And then there's the partnerships. So a lot of that intersects as well. But we're also developing partnerships with school districts and with other entities to diversify the teaching workforce through scholarships and things like that. So in the Office of Clinical Practices and Continuing Education, those three buckets are kind of the main areas that we're focusing on.
Michelle Hjelm 10:11
That's really cool. I had no idea about those three different buckets. That makes a lot of sense, though. How did you get involved with WREN’s Coordinating Body? That happened way before my time. I'm just curious, like, how did we find you?
Anil Oommen 10:25
Yeah, actually, Tracy Conaghan used to work at Pacific as our admissions counselor. I don't remember the exact title, but she was our admissions person. She was amazing. She is amazing! And she had told me about the WREN and what's happening here. They were looking for a university representative. And so I said, I'm definitely interested and came on board that way. And then have been on board since. It's good, it's good work.
Michelle Hjelm 11:01
And for those of you who don't know, Conaghan, now Rear, we have Tracy Rear here.
Can you tell our listeners a little bit about past topics that we've partnered on, the WREN and Pacific University. And also your findings on how educators have found those classes?
Anil Oommen 11:20
Yeah, I always like to talk to the educators to see, you know, how it's going. And we have people that, you know, folks who I've never met before that are taking the courses, to folks who were in the MAT program at Pacific and are taking it. And I've heard lots of really good things. And one of the things that I've heard from teachers is just the way it's structured and framed. Oftentimes, I hear them say, “Thank you for treating us like professionals.” That's really nice to hear.
But in terms of some of the courses, like Storytelling for Teachers is one that's coming to mind right now, Storytelling for Classroom Teachers, it was online, mostly and then there was one in-person session that happened at Pacific over at Lane. We're at Lane now. – we moved over the COVID time. And it was just really nice to see everyone together in that space, and how much they really were engaging in the practice of storytelling in a way that could be culturally responsive, right. And so they're coming in and practicing. So I got to peek in and watch some of them and see some of my former students from Pacific engaging in storytelling in such amazing, animated ways. And also talking about how their students were responding, too – hearing how their K through 12 students were responding to the storytelling.
That's one and another that was developed by Kelly Terwilliger, who's a local storyteller and a friend. It was beautiful to see how she brought it forward into this context. And then there are some other courses that we've done too and I think sometimes the WREN has come up with an idea, like the Ethnic Studies for Educators, I think came through the Lane ESD folks and Leah Dunbar and she's worked with Kate on the Ethnic Studies for Educators multiple times. And then before that, she did an implicit bias course. So those are courses that I think came through WREN folks.
And then there are some courses that I've just been generating ideas and working on with some folks, like Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, is a course idea that I got from a book that's the same title from by Paul Gorski. And I reached out to a colleague at LCC, Dr. Lawrence Rasheed, and he was really excited about it. And really, we worked together on it initially, and then he just took it and ran with it. And it's been a well-loved course. There were lots of people that signed up for it. Huge waiting list. And it's like, “How do we deal with the waiting list?”
Michelle Hjelm 14:15
That’s my job, don't worry.
Anil Oommen 14:18
Yeah. So. So that's been a really a good, I think, a meaningful course. And I would like to know more in terms of how teachers are finding implementing some of the ideas from there because it's very much steeped in equity. And that's the idea behind the courses is that it's really centered on equity. And part of that too, is creating these courses that to think – it's not my terminology, but I love it – how do we create and cultivate identity-safe classrooms? And what does that look like? And so I think all of these courses from the Implicit Bias course, the Ethnic Studies for Educators, the Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, forgot to mention the Human Flourishing, Storytelling. All of those courses, I think at the core, in my mind has that sense of like, how are we creating identity-safe classrooms? And what does that look like for the teachers, but more importantly even – or as important – for the students that are coming through those classes?
Michelle Hjelm 15:23
Sure. Is that the lens you tend to use when you're coming up with new ideas that we talk about for future offerings?
Anil Oommen 15:29
The lens I use, if I'm going to help create the course, I really want it to be focused on identity-safe classrooms, because I feel like that's a really nice, broad umbrella that can really open us up to really thinking about any marginalized student in the classroom. So it can't just be serving the dominant – I mean, obviously, we need to serve all of our kids and that's really, really important. But we don't want to forget anyone. So that's really important.
Michell Hjelm 16:00
Cameron Yee 16:01
Early on, was there a notion of like, an equity literacy certificate? I saw that term kind of floating around when I first started. So –
Anil Oommen 16:09
Yes, there was and there still is. The equity literacy certificate is kind of – the idea is, how do we take these courses and in order to take a certificate, there's some nuances, right, of like, you need 12 credits for it to be a certificate, right? And these courses are one credit each. So how do we do this? So it's like, that's a long time for a teacher to take courses to finally get a certificate. So we're still kind of figuring out how to do that. And in the meantime, maybe providing some steps along the way that help recognize, “Yes, you are – you've done something towards that.” So we're still exploring what it might mean to like, have an equity literacy badge, for example. So that might be four credits, because that's do-able. That's a little more doable, right, then the 12 credits, one at a time. So we're still exploring that. And I would really – there's a lot of interest in that. And so I think, I think it'll happen, but it's not happening as quickly as I would like it to.
Michelle Hjelm 17:19
Cameron Yee 17:20
Coming from the IT world where like, badges are a thing, you know, like – I don't know if it's in other industries really – you go through like certifications for different, like networking and network administration, then you earn a little badge as a credential basically. And I think that outside of IT they've tried to make it – badging – become a thing, but I don't know if it's really taken off. I think it's a cool concept and not purely for the sake of collecting badges, you know, but it's a little bit like gamifying…
Anil Oommen 17:54
Like the Boy Scout badge or Girl Scout badges or whatever.
Cameron Yee 17:58
But I think the idea of the equity literacy certificate would be, you know, kind of an initial, you know, foundation of understanding, which I think is usually sort of the challenge. Like of implementing equity training, like, where is everybody at? Like, how do we know where they're at? And at least if there's like, some foundational understanding, then we can know how to move forward together.
Anil Oommen 18:21
Yeah. Yeah. And that equity literacy concept also comes from what I consider the core course of this, is that Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty. And so Paul Gorski's work is all around equity literacy. And so that's where I actually had a conversation with him. I called him and he called me back and had a conversation about this. And he thought, “Yeah, go for it,” you know. And so, like that equity literacy piece, I've had some pushback from different people about it, and not using that term “literacy” for it. But I feel like, that's really important, because it is a type of literacy. It's really kind of understanding what's the terminology we're using, and what does it mean, and what does this look like, in real time? Like, how do you actually – what does this look like in terms of the kids that you're working with? And what does it look like for them to be in a space where they feel like they belong and their identity is intact and they don't have to hide some part of who they are?
Michelle Hjelm 19:22
Yeah, yeah. In terms of the courses we collaborate on, I'm just curious how do those courses fit into Pacific University's teacher prep program or do they?
Anil Oommen 19:33
Yeah, I'm really glad you mentioned that. When I first started at Pacific, I came to the university world as an elementary school teacher and a comprehensive sex ed trainer and facilitator. So one of the courses that we created when I first started here, my mentor helped me get it going to kind of help me understand what does it take to create courses, right? So sort of the things that you have to go through. But it's a course called Sexuality and Identity in the Classroom. And that has also been a part of the PD options. It's actually an official course in the array of courses that students, MAT or Bachelor students can take. Any one of these courses could be – I mean, there's a lot of interest in these courses. But it's also – we've kind of kept it – because we have a special structure for this – we've kind of kept it within this Lane County region, but as you know, Pacific is also in Forest Grove, and my colleagues there are like, “When can the rest of us have access to these?” So there's definitely interest in the courses. Yeah, eventually, it'll become open. But right now it's special for the Lane Region or –
Michelle Hjelm 20:57
Lane, Linn, Benton, and Lincoln. Yeah, yes. Before we had been doing I remember, we'd been doing kind of the three WREN uplifts, and then it becomes kind of a Pacific University lift. Is that still kind of the case?
Anil Oommen 21:12
Yeah, yeah. Kind of in our technical world in the university, you know, after a course has been offered three times, then it gets an official number. You've been teaching it three times. It's time to make it official. Yeah.
Michelle Hjelm 21:25
We test it out for you and then you take it and run. That's awesome.
Anil Oommen 21:28
That's great. Yeah, it's like field testing.
Michelle Hjelm 21:32
What other offerings do you see as potential for the future?
Anil Oommen 21:35
Yeah, I mentioned to you before that I was a, that I went to seminary. But even before I went to seminary, I was a religious studies major, going back to Diwali again. My first experience of Diwali was in India at a big event there – well, that's a whole other story, but I'll leave that there. So I was a religious studies major and I really think in this day and time, it's really important. I had a course that I wanted to bring forward, it was a course on religious literacy for post-9-11. And there's a lot of really good information out there. Drexel University has an incredible PD around religious literacy for educators. And so I think that's really important, because I think a lot of our teachers, educators, a lot of our population is pretty illiterate when it comes to religion. And I don't mean that in a way of like trying to promote a particular religion, right, but really understand religion and the kids that might be in your class that are of different religions or of no religion, right. So I think that's a really important course that I'd like to see eventually, because, I mean, think about what's going on in the world right now. There's a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of just ignorance. And so that's another piece of PD or any kind of educational course is how do we help cut through the ignorance, right? How do we bring the light forward?
Michelle Hjelm 23:19
That'd be really cool. I'm looking forward to having that conversation with you for sure. Yeah. Any other courses you have in mind?
Anil Oommen 23:26
Yeah, I have another course that I'm exploring and it was inspired by, Dr. Lawrence brought a – Dr. Lawrence Rasheed – brought a speaker from Harvard University to speak. And it was a course on fugitive pedagogy. And it's about Black teaching. And then there's another book that I've been reading on Black leadership. And I want to have something around leadership that is both for administrators and for teachers and really looks – again centering equity and sense of belonging and identity-safe, identity safety in the classroom – but yeah, so leadership. But looking at leadership from a different lens than what we might see as the dominant lens right now. Yeah.
Michelle Hjelm 24:17
That's another great conversation I'm looking forward to having with you. Maybe after this baby comes.
Anil Oommen 24:23
That'd be great. I welcome it. I love talking about this.
Michelle Hjelm 24:26
Oh, good. Good, good. Good.
Cameron Yee 24:27
Yeah and just for clarification, when you talk about conversation between the two of you, that's like, the whole planning process that you went into detail previously.
Michelle Hjelm 24:35
Yes, yes. Yeah. The whole planning process which starts at Anil having a great idea and then me figuring out how we can make that work. So yeah, I'm thrilled. The new ideas are great. I mean, the current ideas are great, too. But I'm always excited for the new ones because something new.
Cameron Yee 24:53
Do you think if you…I guess I'm trying to sort of put together like your joining the Coordinating Body and then becoming a partner with the WREN. Not that one was necessary for the other, but I'm wondering if you didn't join the Coordinating Body do you think the WREN partnership would have happened? Or how do you think that would have played out?
Anil Oommen 25:16
Yeah, I don't know if it would have, but I think being a part of the Coordinating Body kind of helped make those connections, right? And, and, of course, I'm always, I'm a little, like, I don't want to do anything that would be…what's the word – conflict of interest, right? Like I didn't want, I'm always very cautious about that. And I don't want to, I don't want anybody to play favorites or anything like that. But I – but at the same time, like, I want to be able to bring forward ideas that could potentially be of use for our, you know, our community and our teachers and our students. So I don't want to shy away from doing that. But at the same time, I'm also, you know, I want to be clear like this is, if there's a conflict of interest for me, I'll step away and let someone else step in.
Michelle Hjelm 26:06
Cameron Yee 26:07
Well, you've seen the response in terms of signup to every one of those Pacific courses. And the titles themselves are just super intriguing. And I hear about it after the fact like how, how popular and well received they are. So it's a beautiful partnership and I do hope it continues.
Anil Oommen 26:28
Yeah, I hope so too. It's been really fun. It's one of the highlights of my time at Pacific and the WREN, so it’s good.
Cameron Yee 26:36
The other thought I had around partnerships, because you brought up Dr. Rasheed a couple of times, do you think anything would be different if you weren't located at the LCC Campus, like were you making those connections beforehand when you were at a different location?
Anil Oommen 26:50
Well, the connection with Dr. Rasheed and I don't think that would have happened as easily, maybe it would have eventually. But we're just down the hall from each other. We just see each other and others that are there too. Jim, who teaches ethnic studies at LCC as well. It's been really nice to be on location. We're all going through our COVID, reemerging from COVID, and whatever that looks like, but at least we see each other in the hallway. And we can say hello and remind each other of things that are happening. So.
Cameron Yee 27:27
I just remember, I think the last time I was at LCC, I was with Tracy and said, “Oh, we should go see Anil upstairs.” I didn't even know you were upstairs. But Dr. Rasheed was downstairs with another activity and like, there's all these people here that know each other! It seems like a great collaboration opportunity.
Anil Oommen 27:45
Cameron Yee 27:47
Is there anything else you want to talk about? Or bring up today?
Anil Oommen 27:51
No,thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk more about it. I love talking about this because I like generating new ideas. And I like working with people who want to explore new things and new ways of trying to, really to help our kids to feel anchored and connected in who they are and our teachers to feel solid in the work they're doing.
Michelle Hjelm 28:20
Cameron Yee 28:22
Well, thank you for being here, taking the time. I know I'm gonna see you later because there's a task force meeting tonight. But that will be online. But I appreciate all the time that you're spending with the WREN today.
Anil Oommen 28:33
Yeah, thank you. Thank you so much.
Cameron Yee 28:36
If you enjoyed this episode, please like subscribe or follow us on whatever podcast platform you're hearing this on. For more information about our equity-based professional learning, follow the links in the episode description which go to our website at WesternREN.org. Thanks again for listening and we hope you can join us for the next episode of the Bright Spots Podcast: Highlights from the Western Regional Educator Network.
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