Category Archives: Readings for Teachers

The research, articles, and other sources that help teacher leaders grow professionally.

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.

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.

When you leave teaching…

City Championship NMHSWhen you leave teaching, beware. You are more powerful, capable, and resourceful than you could have ever imagined possible. Though we endeavor every day as teachers to be the super human beings who sacrifice sleep, sustenance, and hydration, hurtling ourselves at the massive challenges facing our schools and students, we doubt our own efficacy. Suspended in the motion of moments too intense and important to be anything other than 100% present, we accept the mere feat of making it through each day, each year with dignity, poise, and humor as a tremendous accomplishment. Few of us work in schools or districts organized and run effectively, and we know that every day we are fighting a battle against inequity, racism, classism, otherism–a battle that leaves the students and families we love most vulnerable to the whims and fancies of policy makers and the torrents of the global economy. We love our students, and if we are lucky, we love our colleagues and the communities that support and sustain our schools. We trust somehow, somewhere we are making a difference that will be felt more tangibly than we experience each day in schools. Kalvin & Bakari

One of the things I realized when I stopped teaching was that the relationships I had with “these kids”–the ones I left behind in June–would be “my kids”–the ones whose graduations and weddings I attend, the ones who call me when they need help or are alone.

This afternoon I spent a couple of hours calling some of “these kids,” a select group of my kids: my debate team as well as a group of rising 10th graders I recruited for the debate team for the upcoming school year. My phone call was completely out of the blue on their end. For me, it was a scheduled chunk of emotional and physical energy to call and check in on them, make sure they are committed to attending debate camp at the end of the month, and set up a time and place to see them before I leave while introducing them to their new debate coach. I make these type of calls as part of my work as a teacher. No big deal once I actually set myself up to do it and start calling.

Tournament 5 DebateBut I’ve left teaching. Consciously. On purpose. These phone calls are not part of the work of doctoral students, not part of my move to New York, not part of my job and internship search. But these kids are part of my life, and their belief and trust in me a tremendous source of pride and affirmation. Our identity as teachers is wrapped up in persisting despite encouragement, status, or recognition. Even though we believe we are powerful and teaching is valuable, we are barely able to utter or type the words and sentences that claim that power. We catch glimpses of it in our work with students and colleagues, but as teachers we are so engaged in problem-solving and creation that we can’t see ourselves or our work in their entirety.

We are powerful beyond measure and well beyond the glaring shortcomings of our schools and districts. I left teaching because I felt powerless. I am a doctoral student because I want to study power. I want to be more effective at changing our broken educational system. I want to see that my intelligence and my efforts amount to something measurable and substantial. And it took me leaving teaching to see that they already had.Tournament 3 Debate

In my first years of teaching, I knew I was a good person. Over time, I evolved and knew I was a good teacher. This afternoon, I realized that good people evolving into good teachers say the right thing at the right time more often than not. In doing so, they become the most powerful and positive forces of change imaginable. I am in awe of myself and my profession. I am so proud to be a teacher. I may have left teaching for now, but I can’t help myself. I will always be a teacher, and I realized this afternoon that I will always be blessed with the opportunity to say the right thing at the right time to the students I adore.

Funny that we seem to need to step away from things to see them clearly. I’m appreciating profoundly the new closeness and understanding that distance affords.

Turtle Metaphor

I wonder on days like today just how much capacity human beings have. I think we see ourselves, our abilities, and our output as substantially fixed. Afterall, we all have seen our own limits. We need a certain number of hours sleep, companionship, food, the newspaper, some form of media and entertainment to sustain us as we move forward in this life. In our relationships and in our work, we push boundaries, but ultimately we accept that there are boundaries up against which we continue to push.

Consider these human limits and perceived (and tangible) boundaries as the turtle’s shell. The shell confines almost the entirety of the turtle’s body. For the most part, the turtle is defined by this physical shell and by the perceived and tangible dangers outside the shell. This is natural.
This morning as I was passing through Morningside Park on my walk to school, I noticed this turtle sitting triumphantly on this pond rock boldly sunning himself in the middle of the city. All extremities exposed to the world, the turtle confidently and easily sat atop this city rock in this city park. I had to stop and take notice. This was out of the ordinary. In fact I took a picture to capture the moment.
This afternoon during our final sessions in our School Law Institute, I was so emotionally overwhelmed by the words of one of our speakers that I had to leave my seat. In fact I left the building. A complete stranger came up to me on the street and asked if I was alright and was so concerned she was very reluctant to leave me in such a state to return to her life. I was struck by the intensity of a series of moments where a professor who had dedicated his life’s work to the fight for equity in schools fought through the physical tremors of Parkinson’s to communicate to a group of 70 Teachers College students that it was our moment to take up this work. He could no longer continue. He spoke with humor and through a quivering, weak voice that betrayed the wit and sharpness of his intellect and richness of his experience. He struggled there before us, perched on the uncertain and steep decline of the human condition, and he was so utterly present in that moment, in each of 60 moments that he shared his wisdom and wit with us. He struggled with every inch of his body to reach us, and the intensity of that vulnerability and the tenderness of sharing that with 70 strangers reached deep inside of me. In a month of transformation and intense learning, he took this experience to an entirely new depth.
No one in that room left the same. I am sure of this. I am still struggling to understand the capacity of someone so willing and able to live so much in the present moment even as the simplest functions retreat from the brain’s command. How do you persist and persist with grace and good humor and with purpose even as you reach your most vulnerable state of life? I admire the willingness, the presence of mind, the sense of purpose, and the unyielding commitment to actualizing justice and equity for the most marginalized of people living among us. It is the fight for what is right alongside the fight for the simplest functions of life. I would be so lucky to live as much in this life the amount this professor lived in the 60 minutes he spent with us this

afternoon.
As I walked home tonight through Morningside park, I saw the turtle again. He was out on the same rock. He was there in the sun, hundreds of people about in the park: playing ball, sitting on benches, skateboarding, walking, running, walking dogs. He was still out, head and legs and tail all stretched outside the confines of his shell. I couldn’t help but think of Tom, and think about the audacity to live beyond the confines of the human experience. The shell protects, defines, humanizes the turtle, but the insistence on basking in the sun outside that shell speaks to the kind of human being I hope to become. I can only hope to live so fully.

The Wire

The Wire, in my view, is the Invisible Man of our times—a story whose characters both symbolize and actually live at the fraying edges of our awesome and terrible American society. At once fiction, literature, and entertainment, this moving, breathing, speaking novel deftly crafts a Baltimore where the lives of urban residents unfold believably, at once intertwined and individually distinct. Mirroring our American entertainment culture, The Wire does not entrust its social justice mission to one narrator, one character to which we pin our aspirations, our judgments, our own moral authority. We walk in Snoop’s shoes, see know McNulty’s nose, take in Michael’s burdened breaths. As viewers and readers of the American urban experience, we find the human experience in each of The Wire’s characters—though we crave with an unexplainable hunger those moments when The Wire allows us to live Omar’s code, Stringer’s smarts, or D’Angelo’s vulnerability on screen.

The character Bunny Colvin reappeared last night on the 59th episode of the 60-episode arc of The Wire. We see him as a foster parent sitting in the audience of an Urban Debate League competition in Baltimore. He proudly watches the character Namond argue in favor of the resolution that the U.S. should substantially increase health aid to Sub-Saharan Africa. Namond it appears, once a corner boy and school delinquent, is the only one of a group of four (Michael, Dukey, Randy, and Namond) adolescent Baltimore boys to find a place the city and in the city’s schools. We have seen the other places that the other boys find in the city, and none of us would want our sons and students to settle for long in those places.

I was struck last night by the use of the Urban Debate League; I am a coach in the league, and the pride I felt swelled as my own aspirations and judgments aligned with those of Bunny Colvin. I am Boston Public School teacher, a cultural outsider to American cities, a proponent for social justice, a college educated woman, and a current urban dweller: one of many types of fiercely loyal fans this TV show attracts. I am proud of my affinity for the show; I know that it says something about the way I believe the world is and the way the world should be. The character of Bunny Colvin, in my view, is the moral and the story of this TV show. I see in him my desire to reform, to do right by people—regardless of class, race, and the like—to exercise my professional obligation as a public servant. Next to that, I see the cautionary tale to potential system-wide reformers, to people like me. I see Colvin’s fall and forcible, disgraceful ejection from the system he so passionately sought to fix.

I believe in The Wire. I believe in David Simon and Ed Burns, their experiences, their vision. My friends, my colleagues, and my students all eagerly await episode 60. We crave this fresh, intricately woven re-telling of the great American novel.