The ever present discussion

As a white person, I lag behind my peers in my understanding of my own cultural and racial identity. In working as an educator in city schools, I have begun to build cultural competencies that I didn’t develop growing up in rural, white Vermont. I am deeply humbled by what I do not know about myself in relation to my own racial identity even as I consciously and constantly endeavor in my public and private lives to communicate effectively and empathetically across difference.

A friend directed me to a post this morning, and the author’s questions, dispositions, and background in many ways mapped directly onto my own. In the quote below she tries to reconcile her anti-racist values and activism with her skin color:

How do I utilize my White body, my White voice, my White privilege? No, but REALLY? Oppressed people did not choose to be oppressed. I choose to go against Whiteness in the ways that I know how and I am still learning, but it will never be enough. Ever. No matter how much I “choose”. Every second of my life I will continue to benefit and no matter how much I try to push up against my Whiteness it will just laugh at me.

I read this passage several times as well as the comments others posted in response. The writing elicited an intensely emotional albeit intellectual response. When it comes to white people and race it is always a choice. Born in this skin, I get to choose when to acknowledge that the rules of the game are fixed in my favor. It was my choice to leave Vermont and live in cities and work with non-white students and colleagues. Working for social justice is my choice, on my terms, whenever I feel inspired or compelled, I choose to engage in anti-racist activities. This is a privilege exclusive to white folks, and I am one of those white folks. No matter how often I choose to engage in anti-racist work, it is still a privileged choice.

It is hard to put the resulting grief of this realization into words. My choices have been just that: choices–active decisions to do something and in this case social justice and anti-racist teaching and advocacy. Those conscious choices are as much foundational to my identity as the food, language, values, and experiences I had growing up white and “country” in Vermont. To complete the thought, the realization of just how white and privileged I am, especially in the way that I engage in social justice or anti-racist work, is devastating. Going back to the blog post referenced above as the author talks about white guilt and white grief:

I also think that grief is a great word to use when talking about Whites relation to our past, present and future. How can we not feel at some level, grief? We have failed so many children in the school system, imprisoned so many men and women, infiltrated drugs into communities tearing apart family structures. On a deeper level I think people DO feel grief although I think others would argue that that isn’t possible since our actions persist. But,grief isn’t a comfortable feeling to sit with or examine either.

AND

I Googled images of slavery to put at top because the root of our guilt comes from slavery, although we should not forget about Native American genocide either. I was surprised how few of the pictures had White people in them, very few illustrated White participation. That struck me. How detached we are from our past. Who lynched Black men? Who tore families apart? Who allowed and at times facilitated their husbands rape of Black women? We did. When we learn/teach about slavery how do we fail to emphasis that? Slavery was not just an event in time. The actions of White people established a foundation that has influenced our past, present and future. It is okay to talk about that. It is okay to be ashamed of that. Vulnerability might be our only option and most valuable tool to destroy what we built.

I can tell you vulnerability is the word of the day for me. Remaining open to this discussion is painful, and while it feels right, it also feels futile. This has to be an ever present discussion (I lifted that phrase from the blog as well; it has profound significance for me today). It seems that I don’t understand the goals or the nature of my work and my life after all, maybe all I can hold on to is the commitment and desire to make this discussion and development ever-present everyday.

I love Rafe Esquith

teachThis book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56, should be on every teacher induction and teacher preparation booklist. I love this book. I love Rafe Esquith as a teacher and as a writer. So many of us thrive in life because of our sense of humor and because of our gut instincts to trust and nurture other human beings–and I don’t just mean teachers. I love the candor and the schtick and the passion:

It is 2:00 P.M. on a Tuesday, which means I am about to endure from one to two hours of torture. NO, not thumbscrews and the rack–worse. It is time for the weekly staff meeting. I have struggled for years to convey to outsiders just how horrible these sessions are… Like many other teachers, I have adopted various measures to ease the pain. My fellow teachers and I have mastered the art of seeming to pay attention while some administrator out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth announces the current misinformation. One day, I almost broke down and had a seizure… You see, the children at our school do not read well. They do not like to read. As of this writing, 78 percent of the Latino children on our campus are not proficient at reading, according to our state’s standardized tests. This means one of tho things: Either we have the stupidest kids on the planet, or we are failing these children. Please believe me when I tell you that the vast majority of our students are perfectly capable of learning to read. No one wants to admit it, but a systemic conspiracy of mediocrity keeps these children on the treadmill of illiteracy (29-30).

Page after page, I’m there with him, slapping my knee at the corny, self-depricating jokes and knowingly nodding with the jabs aimed at hapless malice practiced by educators throughout our educational system. It as if with each page, I learn more about my own passion and practice as an educator. I am learning and remembering at the same time Rafe tells  his own story and passes along his own messages about how to teach truly, ruthlessly bucking at convention and futility.

I’m about a fifth of the way through the book, so I expect to write several more times about this topic before I finish and move onto his second book, but I did want to share a collection of powerful tips I learned in the first few chapters.

First, Rafe raves about the success of working toward teaching your kids to notice and practice a personal code of behavior (or ethics) to follow. He discusses just how difficult it is to explicitly teach. Modeling is one thing, but to get kids to really notice it in others, he had to start actively looking. Here is the list he shares:

  1. In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, he names Phineas as a role model for living by a code.separatepeace
  2. In Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, he names Bernard as a role model.
  3. In High Noon by Gary Cooper, he names Sheriff Will Kane.high_noon
  4. In the film, Shawshank Redemption, he names Red played by Morgan Freeman as role model for living by a code.

I would, of course, add Omar from the television show The Wire.

omarlittleRafe also talks about the power of the right voices reading the right stories to kids, citing CDs of actor Joe Morton reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and actress Winona Ryder reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

And the last tip I’ll share is a website he discusses for great (and affordable!) supplemental resources for literature.

Both parents and teachers can go to a Web site called www.learninglinks.com. this company offers a series of study guides called Novel-ties, which I find to be excellent supplements to reading… As a parent and teacher, my time is incredibly limited. Given my schedule, I cannot possibly prepared dozens of comprehension questions for each chapter I read with students. Novel-ties solve the problem. They are well organized and, most important of all, reach for the highest levels of understanding. They never ‘dumb down’ the material. By using the workbooks, my students become better readers, writers, and thinkers (41).

As if you did need motivating on this point, but I love this quote about how and why adults are such powerful rolemodels when it come to literacy and young people. I love Rafe Esquith!

Children–even very bright ones–need guidance. Whether they are selecting food or literature, kids need our leadership to help them find the right path. I’m not smarter than my students. But I know more than they do because I am older than they are. I know about fabulous books that they might not yet have come across. It is my job as their mentor to put these books in their hands. Because the  kids trust me, they re more likely to try a book I suggest. If one of my students is a Harry Potter fan, it’s easy to introduce him to other wonderful fantasy books. The joy of hearing one of the children laugh out loud while reading The Phantom Tollbooth or ask if she can boor the next installment of The Chronicles of Narnia remains a thrill for me. I get chills watching their minds try to comprehend the layers upon layers of Alice in Wonderland. Sharing the joy of great literature can be a cornerstone of a relationship between an adult and a child. It is through literature that young people first begin to look at the world differently, to open their minds to new ideas, to journey down an avenue of excellence (34-35).

“Understanding dropouts: Statistics, strategies, and high-stakes testing”

CitationNational Research Council. (2001). Understanding dropouts: Statistics, strategies, and high-stakes testing. Committee on Educational Excellence and Testing Equity. Beatty, A., Neisser, U., Trent, W.T., Heubert, J.P. (Eds.) Board on Testing and Assessment, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Photo on 2009-09-12 at 22.32This 2001 report put out by the National Research Council is the most recent collection of data connecting high-stakes testing with high school dropout in America. The study makes five key recommendations for better, more systematic data collection documenting the links between high-stakes graduation testing and high school completion. Those five recommendations are at the bottom of this posts. Preceding these recommendations are the study’s findings on trends among dropouts and the high-stakes tests necessary to graduate from high school.

In terms of answering the question of WHY kids dropout, the study found:

  • There is no one reason for dropping out but rather a group of common factors that often work in concert over time to impact a student’s decision to dropout of school
  • School-related factors include: number of students in a school who are low-achieving, number of less experienced and/or less qualified teachers, lack of access to small group settings with individualized attention;
  • Home/life factors include: single family home, large family home, teen parent, family income in lowest 20% of population, being Latino or African-American;
  • Dropping out of school is a gradual process of disengaging from school over many years and is affected by multiple contributing factors like those listed above.

There are patterns that allow schools to identify students in danger of dropping out but interventions after 9th grade have not proven to be effective. Interventions targeted at students in late elementary and middle school have been shown to be more effective. Early indicators are:

  • absences
  • poor grades
  • poor achievement on tests
  • retention
  • schools with limited resources, and a climate that does not engage students

Research shows that grade retention only hurts students’ chances of graduating on-time:

Given the difficulty and cost of preventing students from dropping out once the process of disengagement from school has begun, it is clear that neither requiring a student a retake the grade nor a promoting a failing student, by itself, a sufficient response to his or her academic difficulty. The value and importance of addressing struggling students’ difficulties directly and specifically as soon as they are apparent are paramount. Moreover, the strong association between retention in grade and dropping out suggests that retention is usually not a beneficial intervention (7).

Do alternative programs and certificates give more students access to a basic high school education?

Alternative programs and certifications have been developed in response to the reality that secondary students’ needs, goals, strengths, and weaknesses differ, and we recognize that these alternatives can offer valuable options for many students. However, the alternatives and their effects on students’ lives need to be better understood… Entering adulthood without a diploma or with a lesser alternative to one is associated with serious economic and other consequences that can be discerned throughout life (23-27).

How are dropouts counted?

  • Event dropout rate = the # of students in a particular category who were enrolled but left school without completing the requirements within a specific period of time;
  • Status dropout rate = % of young people of age to be enrolled in or have completed school but are not attending or have not received a diploma;
  • High school completion rate = proportion of students in a certain age category who have received a diploma or other credential (GED)
  • On-time graduation rate = students who graduate in a given year and were enrolled in 9th grade three years earlier
  • Attrition rate = students who were enrolled in an earlier grade, usually 9th, and are no longer enrolled by 12th grade

The variety of measures for dropout rates causes confusion and miscounting of dropouts across states and jurisdictions.

What data sources are used for measuring dropouts?

  • National-level data comes from the US Census Bureau, the National Center for Educational Statistics.

What about students who are “pushed out”?

Many others have identified categories of students who leave school not entirely of their own volition. Such students, often called ‘pushouts,’ include students who have presented significant discipline problems, students who have been reassigned to special education programs (in some cases because thy are discipline problems rather than because of a diagnosed disability), and students who are discouraged from continuing in school by formal policies or informal practices. The relative dearth of data on these students is another piece of the puzzle observers face when they try to understand the problem of dropouts (34).

In theory, the standards-based reform movement is aimed to help the students most in danger of failure:

By making expectations for all students explicit, reforms have helped many jurisdictions understand the educational needs of the range of students they serve. Well constructed and properly used programs, can assist policy makers, administrators, and teachers in ensuring that all students are offered what they need to meet established goals and to make needed improvements in teaching, curricula, and other program elements (38).

Why standards-based reform does not necessarily translate into practice:

Ensuring that curricula are aligned with standards and tests, ensuring that students have been taught the material and skills for which they are being held responsible, ensuring that needed resources are in place, modifying teaching strategies, and the like can all present challenges much larger than those that come with instituting new testing requirements” (38-39).

Hence, adopting the tests that are aligned with standards is much easier than actually ensuring that each school is poised to actually able to provide the instruction to get students prepared to take the tests. Implementing testing procedures is much more expedient than the difficult work of equipping teachers and schools to meet the challenge of providing rigorous, excellent instruction in all subject areas. Due to conditions on the ground, tests may not even be valid or reliable, but students in many cases are the ones held accountable for low scores:

Test results may penalize students who are the victims of ill-prepared teachers, poorly run schools or districts, or other circumstances beyond their control (40).

The role of grade retention and student success:

Grade retention is pervasive in American schools, and it is more common among black and Hispanic youngsters than among whites. The report also documents the considerable evidence that students who are retained  in grade (even as early as elementary school) preform less well in school (even when results are controlled for age and number of grades completed) and are significantly more likely to drop out of school… Among 15- to 17-year-olds, about 50 percent of black males and 30 percent of white females are at least one grade behind most students their age. Hauser further shows that students who are retained in any grade are significantly more likely to drop out of school than those who are not, even when factors such as sex, race and ethnicity, social background, cognitive ability, and other factors are controlled (43-44).

How will graduation exit exams affect students’ decisions to dropout?

The likelihood is that eh effects of these tests will vary significantly, depending on the ways in which they are constructed and implemented and on the ways in which their results are used. However, there is reason to believe that both exit testing and other high-stakes testing may sometimes be used in way that have unintended harmful effects on students at risk for academic failure because of poverty, lack of proficiency in English, disability, and membership in population subgroups that have been educationally disadvantaged (45).

Hence, despite the efforts of nation-wide movements to standardized instruction through high-stakes testing (think NCLB), the data on the effects (positive or negative) of these tests on improving student outcomes is variable and inconclusive. Many educators are skeptical that the existing accountability schemes are having the intended effect of improving student access to high quality curriculum and instruction, and as a result, it is doubtful that test scores will raise for those populations who have historically had the most limited access to successful schools and teachers.

In the end the data is just not available to really understand the roles that high-statkes testing plays in students’ decision to dropout. This study makes the following recommendations for collecting data:

Data Recommendations

#1: We need to look at key existing data that is desegregated to show statistics for different populations of minority subgroups, ELLs, and students with disabilities; data should include the number of students receiving GEDs or credentials different from standard graduation, the nature of the academic credentials that lead to alternative certificates, the process for allowing students to receive alternative credentials, and the later educational and employment outcomes for students with alternative credentials.

#2 The current data collection practices for alternative programs is insufficient. Schools and districts need to collect data on all types of alternative graduation certification, the knowledge and skills required by these certifications. Further, school completion data for schools and districts should desegregate data of those student who leave with GEDs rather than standard high school diplomas, and this data should be desegregated by race, ELL, and Special Education.

#3 There is an urgent need to collect data on sub populations (race, ELL, SPED) that allows valid comparisons across states and smaller jurisdictions with regard to standard and alternative graduation rates. There needs to be longitudinal data that tracks the increasingly diverse pathways for high school graduation, and that tracks where students go after meeting alternative standards for graduation. Finally, schools and districts should improve their data tracking of students in danger of dropping out during middle school.

#4 The U.S. DOE should take a leadership role in providing oversight of collecting this data on high school completion; they should work closely with the U.S. Department of Labor to track these students.

#5 Jurisdictions with exit exams required for graduation should collect data on students who fail exit exams  in the 12th grade, tracking what happens to them after high school. That data should be desegregated by race, ELL, and SPED status.

What really matters when you’re at work?

Of course, I answer as an educator…

It’s the people in front of you. Those of us who love our jobs as educators constantly put the work of listening and advising first. We do it because as human beings we love to tell stories, to listen to others’ stories, to find humor and humanity in our shared experiences, to probe for the deepest and most adequate answers to our questions, to create opportunities for learning and teaching.

A significant portion of our workload though extends beyond conversation and human-to-human connection and learning. Much of our work is predicated on our individual time spent toiling and twittering away at our computers, copiers, and classroom materials. The actual “work” of our work–or so it seems. When do we have time to create our lessons, find the right reading, assess and sort student work? Or as administrators, when do we have the time to finish the PowerPoint presentation on our school’s data, write and send the reminder letter about classroom expectations to families and students, locate missing student records? For so many of us, what stresses us most is the constant drain of this competition for our attention: human development and learning vs. followthrough on tangible products.

Layer onto that the reality that we increasingly seem to suffer from the attention deficit disorder of internet multitasking at our computer screens and desks. Many of us living in this “Web2.0 World” turn to our email or favorite news sources for one reason but end up gleefully following curiosities and new questions further afield from our original intents. We see the interconnectedness of our interests and needs, and suddenly all information seems to be somehow relevant to our goals. And it is because our interests and our questions expand with the vast array of knowledge and tools at our fingertips. The more we learn, the more we search. Before we know it, instead of “getting work done” and making headway on those all-too-numerous products we so desperately want and need to finish, we have constructed a time and space to advance our own learning. So when does the work get done? When do we shut off the learning?

When you choose to work in education it is because you are good at learning. You learn from communicating with others. You learn from the music you listen to and create, from the art you consume and create, from what you read, from your hobbies. You love learning, so perhaps the work of the educator is ever-expanding and borders between home and work easily penetrated and falsely constructed because of this deep desire and capacity to learn that we have as educators.

What really matters when you’re at work? Learning. Teaching.

Stepping into the role of intern and outsider this fall has allowed me to more easily take on the perspectives of others and compare and contrast them with my own values and actions. Today I observed educators more experienced than I answer this question for me about what really matters when at work. They didn’t answer with their words, and I didn’t even have to ask it. Their actions spoke clearly and convincingly. When you’re at work as an educator, what matters is the learning and the teaching you do with the other human beings around you–students, teachers, interns, administrators, parents, community members. The importance of products and followthrough corresponds to your personal ambition. If you are ambitious, you carve out time of your evenings, your mornings, your weekends to toil away at these products. What you come to work for each day though has nothing to do with making photocopies, organizing binders, or making sure you have speakers for your computer. As an educator you come to work to learn and teach. You will find time to do all (or at least the most essential) of the detail work that marks your reputation as a doer elsewhere. Showing up to work is all about investing in the people that make the organization, the teaching, and the learning excellent and long-lasting.

A conversation between two teachers (IM)

Teacher 1: hey Teacher 2!

Teacher 2: hey!

Teacher 1: teaching my first class in 2 hours. Got any advice?

Teacher 2: wow!

don’t forget the bring the syllabus!

🙂

what kind of class is it

Teacher 1: lol thanks!

11:45 AM

Teacher 2: small, big? intro? advanced?

Teacher 1: [advanced college class] Kinda my dream class. about 10 juniors and seniors

Teacher 2: how long is the class?

meets once a week?

Teacher 1: just shy of 2 hrs

twice a week

Teacher 2: two hours twice a week?

or one hour each session?

Teacher 1: 4 hours total

Teacher 2: wow

Teacher 1: yeah!

11:46 AM

Teacher 2: what students need more than anything is three things. you ready?

Teacher 1: yes

Teacher 2: one: set high expectations for everyone in the class. tell them they are high standards, tell them why you are expecting so much for them

11:47 AM

two: tell them that you know every single student is capable of that work. then in the next week, make sure you touch base with each student and tell them knowingly that you know they individually can do the work.

Teacher 1: ok!

Teacher 2: three: then work your ass off to scaffold their learning (we love this term.. it just means think about each step of the process for doing a complex task and teach students how to do it)

11:48 AM

make sure that each student gets the extra help and practice they need to make up for their deficits

above all else: students want a teacher who believes they are capable of great things and they want to trust that you will support them to get there

11:49 AM

Teacher 1: awesome – i’m gonna copy/paste that!

Teacher 2: and then of course you don’t have to worry about the other things because you’re a natural… things like humor, interesting ideas, etc.

Teacher 1: (it’s been a long time since intro to ed!)

Teacher 2: they’ll go along with you because you’ll treat them right

11:50 AM

and bring them things that are worthy of study

that’s my three-minute speal

11:51 AM

Teacher 1: awesome!

you’ve done more to prepare me than any of the new faculty orientation stuff!

(it’s kind of trial by fire here)

Teacher 2: well, happy to help

11:52 AM

and happy you asked 🙂

your students will be great, and you’ll be great today. it will be a lot of fun!

Teacher 1: thanks!

Differentiating the high school classroom teacher: My own individualized learning plan of sorts

Photo 19This is me giving myself that look: “Really?”

Blogging again when you have two other concrete “actual” things to accomplish in the next 30 minutes?

And like the patient students who had to endure the same slightly perturbed gaze, I heartily reply: “Yeah.” I’ve got some interesting things on my mind. I was on the subway (in Boston) two hours ago realizing how deeply grateful I am for the experiences I have had thus far in my professional career. All of the difficulties I have had as a teacher working in urban schools, experiences that for so long felt like the shackles that held my students, my colleagues, and my own work suspended in the mediocrity endemic to segregated, low-income communities in America, abruptly shifted from chains to cherished blessings. No joke.

Photo 21I was reading a book a friend and colleague, José, introduced to me while we were teaching together last year: Differentiating the high school classroom: Solution strategies for 18 common obstacles. Kathie Nunley, the author, reveals  in the introduction (after listing some of the most common problems teachers face on a daily basis; she starts with 25 but acknowledges there are plenty more) just how creative and intelligent teachers are by virtue of the obstacles we face:

“Teachers are creative people. The tougher the problem, the more creative we must be. When teachers share with me the various difficult situations they are in, I respond, ‘Rejoice–you’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to show your ingenuity and creative genius.’ Struggles build character and intelligence.”

I realized in those moments of processing the sentiment of those words and what I have found to be true this summer and early fall thinking deeply about my practice and about the possible pathways forward just how truly blessed I have been to have encountered so much ridiculosity (I know, not really a word) in my teaching career. All of the blights of the American educational enterprise as we know them and as I in particular have experienced them have made me stronger, smarter, and more direct, agile, creative, and open as both a person and a practitioner. It is in those most confounding of restraints that we create our best work and true, deep learning for ourselves and for those around us. Nunley’s introduction was meant to set the stage for a wonderful, explosively powerful frame for understanding the awesome task of reforming schools, teaching, and learning by understanding the simple yet daunting reality that each learner is unique and that as teachers we must be ready for the spectacular challenge of differentiating instruction for all learners. The work is challenging and it may not call to us all, but damn, for those of us moths drawn to its flame, does it make us intelligent, resourceful, and potent human beings.