Controversial Issues

My Fellow Educators,

The country needs us to be brave. Teaching is, and always has been, a political act. Teachers are an essential part of passing on this country’s values and stories to the next generation. What we decide to bring in and what we decide to leave out tells our students what is important.

Standing up against racism and bigotry is important.

The events in Charlottesville this week can not be left outside the classroom. Our young people need to know that bigotry, racism, and hatred will not be condoned or ignored.

Some of you are starting classes in the next few weeks and these events will be on your students’ minds. Some of you will be starting any day now. Our students need to know that they will be safe in our schools and you can help them.

Your students of color may be concerned for their safety or the safety of loved ones. Your students of color may be angry or sad. Your white students may run a range from frustrated, to embarrassed, to confused, to sympathetic to the white supremacists.  There may be risks in addressing such a charged issue so early in the school year before you have classroom cohesion. These are risks worth taking.

As educators we have a unique and specific opportunity to interrupt cycles of racism and oppression. It’s part of the job and to ignore this national situation only serves to bless it as status quo – too uneventful to even discuss. That is a message that I am unwilling to send to my students.

I don’t pretend that this will be easy and in some communities you may be risking reprimand or angering parents and members of your community. I also recognize my privilege in working for a community that supports, and calls for, educators being involved in antiracist work. That privilege and my role as a district administrator give me even more responsibility to actively support an antiracist agenda.

So what do you do?

I’m going to imagine scenarios where you choose to teach about the events in Charlottesville in the first day or two of the school year. I also want to leave this open-ended enough incase another event occurs between now and the start of school and you are forced to bring that up too.

Secondary – (grades 6-12)

I don’t think it matters if your students are in 6th grade or 12th grade, you should be able to leverage the mainstream news reporting. I argue that your main mission is to ensure your students safety in the school setting and then expose possible misconceptions and misunderstandings about the nature of the events while providing some historical context for events like this.

My first step would be to reassure every single student that you are there to ensure their physical and psychological safety. Ensure them that you condemn white supremacy and every student in your class is equally worthy of love, dignity, and respect.

Instructionally, I would begin with an open ended check of prior knowledge to get your baseline. I would then move on to sources like Reuters that provide extremely factual accounts to set a baseline in case students have not heard much before coming to class. It is likely that many of your students will already have opinions before they come to class.

As a social studies teacher, I also feel an obligation to contextualize this current situation within a history of white nationalism, white supremacy, and racism in this country. My go to here for support is Teaching Tolerance, the educational arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have a huge bank of lessons that will help you structure your investigation and interrogation of bias. It’s worth looking through to see which speak to you. You can also sort this database by grade level and topic to find the one that will fit.

It might take a few days and while there might be a voice in your head questioning your ability to get through the curriculum I argue that taking this time to demonstrate your caring and support for your students’ identities will pay off throughout the school year regardless of your subject area. A student who is afraid for their physical or emotional safety will not learn trigonometry, history, or chemistry.

If you are not a social studies teacher you may want to check in with someone in your social studies department to see if they can give you a bit of a crash course in the history.

Elementary – (grades K-5)

I think teaching about this at K-5 would be much more difficult and I would expect students to come in with more confusion and emotion. I would also expect that any pushback you experience would be magnified with this age group amid cries of ruining children’s innocence and concerns to that effect.

While you might need to tread lightly, I still do not think you can ignore current events with young children. There is plenty of evidence that children’s racial identity and understanding of social hierarchies begin to develop before they reach kindergarten. As such it is just as important to deliver messages of inclusion and equality in the elementary classroom as it is with adolescents. One could even argue that it is more important since patterns are less solidified at earlier ages. That also makes things stickier.

As with the secondary classroom I would focus on beginning with a message of the importance of everyone being valued and loved in the classroom. I would bring the students together with a message of unified community that honors and respects our differences while also identifying the ways in which we are similar.

I would likely bring up the events, but I would refrain from using video of the events themselves. I would summarize based on mainstream reporting. Most of the videos I have watched include images of violence and hateful language that I would not want to expose young children to. That said, I would continue to educate myself as much as possible so that I could empathetically and carefully respond to any questions students may have. It is also possible that even very young children will have seen images from the news and they may come in already upset. The best thing you can do is support yourself with information and support your students with empathy.

If you narrow the Teaching Tolerance database to K-2 and Race&Ethnicity you will find 16 lessons that bring up race in developmentally appropriate ways including examples of anti-racism. There is some overlap with the 3-5 band along with additional options.

On Educational Activism:

I understand that I am specifically calling for an activist teacher and that activism in teaching can be frowned upon. I also argue that there is no neutral here. Teaching itself is active. Simply “calling balls and strikes” is a fallacy in this field. One cannot stand in some safe intellectually removed middle ground in matters of oppression and hatred.

Every single choice is political. Do you include Malcolm X in your Civil Rights unit? That is political. Do you swap out a Shakespeare play for August Wilson? That is political no matter which way you decide. Maintaining the status quo is a political act. Whether you choose to discuss Charlottesville or choose not to discuss Charlottesville you are making an inherently political choice.

I would rather stand on the side of justice and compassion than the side of oppression and hate.

If public educators are charged with protecting and growing every student in their classroom it is therefore critical to adopt an activist stance because your classroom has students who experience oppression.

I also argue that this requires administrators (like myself) to proactively support teachers. Administrators at the building, district, and state levels need to stand arm and arm with their teachers to protect students. There is no alternative. I will say unequivocally that I support educators in promoting social justice in schools. Supporting oppression and hatred, even through silence, is unacceptable and indefensible.

Last fall I had the opportunity to bring racial identity legend Beverly Daniel Tatum to my district and she gave us an important metaphor for understanding the importance of representation. Dr. Tatum urged us to ensure that every student shows up regularly in the class picture and in showing up we need to make sure that our students look good in that picture. We are the adults and it is our responsibility. These events in Charlottesville are an opportunity to remind our students of color that their lives matter in the classroom.

There is no alternative and I have great faith in your capacity for empathy and compassion. Time to activate that power.

Gabriel McCormick
Teacher, Teacher of Teachers, Administrator


Pop quiz, hotshot.

There’s a conversational bomb in the classroom. You have  thirty students and they’re talking about racism. Things might get out of hand. Students might get angry. Students might get offended.

What do you do? What do you do?

Well, if you listen to Judith L. Pace then you lean right into that discomfort and let the students keep talking, providing some guidance here and there to address misconceptions. You let things get messy and difficult. In The Charged Classroom:  Predicaments and Possibilities for Democratic Teaching Pace covers how teachers can effectively let the classroom environment get tense (or charged) in order to promote student learning.

Structurally, Pace segments charged issues into four categories: communicating academic expectations, discussing provocative topics, competing curricular demands, and framing performance. In each chapter Pace summarizes relevant research, relates a series of classroom observations (including effective and ineffective examples) and then discusses the feasibility of moving forward in support of democratic education. This structure works well with Pace’s straightforward writing style and each chapter could also stand on it’s own if so desired. The text is quite slim and Pace doesn’t waste any words in getting her point across. Each section is valuable in its own right and the is very little of the repetition that can plague books about education.

In addition to the basic structure described above Pace also carries a thread of educational equity throughout the text highlighting how traditionally underserved populations (low income, urban, rural, racial minority) also typically experience reduced access to the highest levels of democratic education of which they are likely in the highest need of.  This allows the text to be used effectively alongside other works related to equity or antiracist education, even though from the cover the text is not obviously connected to those issues.

chargedclassroomPace’s background is in examining humanities education and that bias is present in The Charged Classroom. Despite this focus, the text is relevant to any level of education because of how Pace examines universal issues. Every educator has a responsibility to communicate academic expectations in a way that respects students’ emotional state while also communicating honesty. The math teacher handing back exams would benefit from this chapter and educators across all disciplines and grade levels would benefit from Pace’s descriptions of how educators effectively provide very difficult feedback to students while also helping those students save face in the classroom.

Additionally, the chapter on discussing provocative topics focuses on humanities classrooms, but no classroom is exempt from controversy or provocation. Pace’s example is same sex marriage, but could just as easily be evolution, racism, or whether girls can do math. In this chapter in particular Pace makes a strong argument that discussing controversial issues is critical for student learning and educators who take her advice on how to approach these issues will likely be more confident in both intentionally bringing up controversy and when issues arise unexpectedly.

The last two sections are similarly universal as all educators have to balance what they know about high quality education with the demands of standardized testing or curriculum. Pace provides no perfect answer here (spoilers: there isn’t one) but she lays out the challenges with enough clarity that a group of educators could discuss how they want to approach the issues given their specific contexts. I think these two chapters would be very effective if read and discuss with a department or grade level team at a school.

As with most texts about education that I read, the section on solutions is quite slim and offers little in the way of novel solutions. We need Better teacher preparation and more professional development. Conduct fewer initiatives, and give them more time.

One area of novelty though is that Pace acknowledges teaching as an inherently difficult undertaking that becomes even more difficult when we ask teachers to specifically address provocative and controversial issues. This is a fact well known to teachers, yet it is not part of the national dialogue about teaching. In fact in the United States teachers are often subject to shame and lower status.

And so while I long for different solutions, perhaps the solution really is as simple as acknowledging that teaching is difficult and training teachers as if that’s the case instead of pretending that we can create effective teachers in shorter and shorter licensure programs.



Everybody’s Talking About Equity, but Nobody Knows the Meaning of the Word.

A title aptly pulled, by Dr. Ronald Ferguson, from lyrics to Mose Allison’s Everybody’s Crying Mercy.

This particular talk was structured as three mini-talks followed by some panel discussion all linked to a convening of graduates from Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program. Each of the speakers is a graduate of the program and a current urban superintendent. A full video of the talk can be found on the Harvard Askwith Forum website.

The speakers included Dr. Jennifer Cheatham from Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, Dr. Joseph Davis from Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri, and Dr. Steven Zrike the receiver for Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts. Each superintendent in turn outlined their perspective on equity and a description of the work they’re doing to improve equitable experiences for each and every student in their respective districts. The three then convened as a panel to address audience questions.

Madison Metropolitan:
Superintendent Cheatham began by directly linking equity to excellence. Cheatham presented a claim that in order to understand equity we must first develop a common understanding of academic excellence for students, educators, schools, and administration. Once  we define that standard of excellence, equity work then becomes the task of ensuring that each and every person in the system receives what they need to attain excellence. When framed this way, equity can be focused on ensuring success in a tangible way.

In Madison, Cheatham is particularly focused on leveraging discipline disparities by limiting punitive measures and establishing a system of restorative justice in their place. This is a strong example of one way that central administration can lead through explicit policies and her initial results appear very promising.

I resonated strongly with Cheatham’s emphasis on setting a clear focus for equity work based on a foundation of shared vision. Too often I’ve experienced equity work being displaced or put on a back burner because the work is hard or abstract. By establishing a very clear shared vision of the work, participants are increasingly able to engage. Additionally, Cheatham emphasized the importance of a sustained focus citing that work for educational equity requires dedication and it can’t simply be one of a laundry list of initiatives. Everything that schools do must attack disparities in order to make movement.

Superintendent Davis from Ferguson-Florissant School District began by naming what everyone was wondering. He sought out the Ferguson-Florissant superintendency specifically because of the political issues that arose after Michael Brown was killed. Davis focused largely on his transition out of his previous district and into Ferguson-Florissant making sure to note the importance of smooth transition to ensure continuity.

Davis emphasized the importance of taking time to listen to a wide range of stakeholders in an effort to understand the existing issues before making sweeping change. That being said, Davis made clear the importance of taking action and his office is focusing on adjusting policies that create roadblocks to equity and growing leadership capacity for tackling issues of equity.

Davis’ definition of equity was very clear and concise saying that it is: “about where we put our resources, [how we] identify needs, and provide to those in need.”

Dr. Zrike is in a somewhat different situation given that he is a state receiver of a “Level 5” turnaround school district. As such Zrike has the opportunity to move very quickly with a unique degree of freedom. Despite this unique freedom, Zrike also mentioned the importance of listening to the community and cautioned against moving to quickly.

In his remarks Zrike agreed that equity and excellence are inextricably linked to one another, yet he emphasized that it is impossible to fire your way to excellence. As such he is taking responsibility for the current staff and the community with the explicit goal of making Holyoke’s schools the first choice for all members of the community.

As an example of the institutional inequities, Zrike cited that while the district is 80% Latino and 20% white, preparations are already underway (in October) for the St. Patrick’s day parade, while there are no systematic preparations for Latino heritage month.

Like the other two superintendents, Zrike has a clear vision that equity means something specific. In this case he defined it as “all kids engaged in cognitively challenging work,” and it is the school district’s responsibility to ensure that the cognitively challenging work is taking place.

There was a consistent message across all three superintendents that the work of equity is extremely challenging because it involves a distribution of resources and in order to sustain the work strong, courageous, and confident leadership is required. That being said, all three superintendents also cited that in order to effectively address issues of race and racism, school districts need to bring in experts. Davis was the most direct saying that while he has a set of life experiences as a black man, that does not necessarily make him an expert on dismantling racist institutions. He needs additional expertise for that and the other two superintendents immediately echoed his thoughts.

Additionally, each of them expressed a sense of urgency to the work citing local and national issues and the importance of taking direct action. Many districts talk in bold, yet vague, terms about pushing for educational equity and it was encouraging to see three superintendents cite specific examples of work they are doing in order to bring more equity to their respective districts. Cheatham cited the implementation of new restorative justice processes, Davis discussed moving high quality teachers to the neediest schools, and Zrike described programming to re-engage students who have dropped out of schools. Each of these items represents a specific action directly focused on developing a more equitable student experience. Each superintendent is relatively new to their position and I look forward to seeing their progress and sustained focus over time.

Untitled-1Dr. Rich Milner, Helen Faison Professor for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburg, issued a collective call to action Thursday afternoon when he spoke at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Forum. Milner very directly called on educators and school systems to unabashedly confront issues of race in schools. To this end Milner put forth strong claims that educators must reposition responsibility for persistent achievement gaps, acknowledge the power of the null curriculum, and place students’ lived experience at the center of the discussion. Milner’s message was simultaneously critical, honest, and constructive as he pointed out problematic missteps while also offering suggestions for improvement.

Achievement Gaps Opportunity and Funding Gaps

Importantly, Milner repositions issues of achievement away from students and onto schools and districts saying “we do not have an achievement gap” instead we have gaps of opportunity, funding, infrastructure, discipline, support services and a host of other components that disproportionately impact black and brown students. This reminds me of Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings similar repositioning when she rejects the term achievement gap in favor of “educational debt” in her 2006 AERA presidential address. Both Milner and Ladson-Billings shift responsibility away from students (and the implication that students just don’t work hard enough) and places responsibility directly on schools, districts, and governments to address and repay our historic debt that has continually underserved our most vulnerable students citing pragmatic, economic, and moral reasons to do so.

Both authors help us understand that student achievement is consistent with inputs. When we chronically underfund and under-support groups of children we should not be surprised when they under-perform as well. Similarly, we cannot delude ourselves that we will see positive changes in achievement without significantly changing our inputs. During his talk Milner citied the example that students in Columbine still receive increased mental health services sixteen years after the shooting at Columbine High School while children in urban communities receive minimal mental health services despite repeated traumatic experience. Throughout his talk Milner maintained that we have the means and the knowledge to make changes. The will to change is lacking, however. This is an incredibly important mindset for districts to adopt. It will help us all move away from bemoaning that which is outside our control and allow us to take charge of that which is in our control.

The Null Curriculum:

When seeking to understand why race is so seldom discussed in schools, Milner cited Elliot Eisner’s concept of the “Null Curriculum” – that which is not covered by schools. By naming the null curriculum Eisner explicitly calls our attention to those topics that are (invariably) left out of both the explicit and implicit curricula. As an example, a World History course must make choices about what to cover and in doing so could demonstrate preference for European History over African History. These choices then send a message to students and parents about the relative importance of the relative histories to the school or teacher. While these choices are unavoidable, it is essential that we acknowledge the messages they send to both understand their impact, but also to check whether we are sending the messages we’d like to send.

Similarly, Milner argues, we must acknowledge how we make choices about less formal curricular decisions. Our decision whether or not to discuss Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice in class sends a direct message to our students about how we view their relative importance. If we say to our students “we can’t discuss Tamir Rice because I have to teach you how to factor polynomials” we have made a choice to subordinate Tamir Rice’s story to factoring polynomials. This is not a neutral decision and Milner argues that is critical that we be aware of the potential impact on students so we can make informed decisions.

To further illustrate his point, Milner referenced a case study from his book Rac(e)ing to Class in which a local convenience store clerk was murdered during a robbery by high school students, yet the local middle school declined to address the subject. A host of reasons were put forth citing students’ maturity, teachers’ discomfort, and the fact that the topic would not be on the test. At the end of the day however, it became clear to Milner through discussions with students that they were grieving the loss of the clerk because they’d developed a relationship through repeatedly shopping at the store. This is a prime example of the null curriculum in effect because, through omission, the school told students that their grief is not the business of school and that other topics are more important. Fortunately, Milner was able to intervene with the school staff during professional development to help them understand the impact of those curricular decisions and to establish ways to work students’ experience into their curriculum.

Students’ Lived Experience:

While using qualitative evidence of student experience to illustrate his point about the importance of acknowledging the null curriculum, Milner also made a series of important points encouraging us to continually remember to honor the individuality of student experience. We can cite all the disaggregated suspension data we want to help make our point about how suspensions disproportionately impact black and brown students. We can also cite the disproportionality in referrals for special education. We can cite how black and brown students are overwhelmingly cited for subjective disciplinary infractions like disrespect and disobedience while white and Asian students are more typically cited for objective infractions. What those data points miss, however, is the reality of students’ lived experience. According to Mills, we must pair the statistic with the story. Behind each number is an individual human being worthy of respect for the simple fact of being human.

To this same end in his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates challenges us all to remember the individuality of human experience when describing how his friend Prince Jones was murdered by a police officer. Coates charges his reader to:

“think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended. The treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spend regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters. … Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had one into him, sent flowing back to the earth. (pp.81-82)

This is the complexity and reality of human experience that Dr. Milner asked the audience to remember when discussing issues of race and racism in schools. We need to remember that behind each statistic stand fully realized human beings. That even when we discuss how expulsion rates may not be that important because the n is low, we must remember that behind each of those expulsions is a full human being capable of reasoning and thought and deserving of dignity. When we keep the importance of the individual in mind alongside the staggering statistics we are better equipped to understand the importance and the urgency in doing the work.

Milner surprised me with his straightforward approach and it was refreshing to hear issues of race in schools being addressed in such a straightforward manner. It is no surprise that the Harvard Graduate Schools of Education selected Rac(e)ing to Class as their community read and I look forward to reading it in the near future.

“Let us begin by rethinking the position that urban schools are failing.”

(Not failing? Are these guys nuts? How can they possibly think that urban schools are successful?)

“On the one hand, urban schools are producing academic failure at alarming rates; at the same time, they are doing this inside a systematic structural design that essentially predetermines their failure. This is where the urban school reform rhetoric has missed the mark. It has presumed that urban schools are broken. Urban schools aren’t broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.” (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, 2008, p. 1)

art_of_critical_pedagogy_coverSo begins Jeffery Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell’s book, The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. From this powerful opening their position is clear. Urban schools exist within a system of structural oppression and inequity, however, instead of telling the story we all know so well of failing students, underfunded schools, and frustrated adults, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell counter that narrative by providing examples of hope and success in the face of structural oppression. As the title suggests, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell examine how by using a combination of high quality pedagogy and critical theory (deemed critical pedagogy) we can change the dominant narrative and provide a humanizing education to urban youth.

The authors intentionally write directly to the practicing teacher yet acknowledging that while they “have written this text to appeal to practicing teachers as well as teacher educators, [they] recognize that it remains a text that will primarily be accessed by teacher educators and university-based scholars.” The authors also acknowledge the challenge  of writing texts that are theoretically sophisticated and immediately applicable for teachers. With The Art of Critical Pedagogy I think they got close to that mark. The text is definitely theoretically sophisticated and even if it is not immediately applicable to a teachers’ context, there is enough hear that a group of colleagues could draw the appropriate links from the structures Duncan-Andrade and Morrell present to their own curricula. A key component of this text’s accessibility is chapter 2 in which the authors provide a phenomenal summary of key components of critical pedagogy theory. Each pedagogue is presented with enough depth and enough clarity that the distinctions are easily understandable. Chapter 2 alone could be used very effectively as a primer on critical pedagogy before going on to read Freire, Darder, Giroux, or any of the others mentioned in more detail.

The authors place themselves firmly in Paulo Freire’s footsteps stating their book: “reports from a theoretically informed, inquiry-based practice that is a direct response to Freire’s (1997) call for critical and reflective journaling of the pedagogical process.” (preface) In doing this, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell solidify their theoretical roots while engaging in praxis to turn theory into practice. This is what makes The Art of Critical Pedagogy unique. This combined role of researcher and practitioner positions the authors to uniquely straddle academia and urban schools, allowing them to bring academia to the schools and to bring the schools to academia. The authors live and model the reality that they envision for their students.

Beyond the strong theoretical foundation, The Art of Critical Pedagogy is essentially an example of praxis and the heart of the book (chapters 3-6) comprises a series of case examples where the authors used critical pedagogy in order to improve academic outcomes for urban youth in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Each case example has unique characteristics, but in each case the authors are able to actualize their theory by combining access to the traditional academic curriculum while also helping students access culturally relevant content and skills. This allows students success by mainstream values (defined as white and middle class) while maintaining their cultural identities. This is the key of critical pedagogy, students see multiple forms of success and do not have to choose between them.

In addition to helping their students find success while maintaining their own identities, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell see to actively refute the narrative of the failing urban high school student. Throughout the text the authors describe intentionally teaching students to reflect on and understand the structures that act on them, explicitly teaching their students critical theory using Freire, Gramsci, and Solorzano & Delgado-Bernal with “underachieving” high school students. These readings alone would be a refutation of the narrative of failure and apathy that dominates discussions of urban youth.

Another example of how Duncan-Andrade and Morrell look to challenge dominant narratives, increase their students academic skills, and help them maintain their cultural identity is through the use of content relevant to urban youth culture. Thanks to voices like Chris Emdin and his #HipHopEd discussions, it is increasingly less controversial to use hip-hop in the classroom, however, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell situate hip-hop directly next to traditional poetry texts. In doing so they allowed the students to draw comparisons between the texts thus helping close the distance between the students’ culture and the culture of power; without abandoning either. Comparative analysis of Shakespeare, John Donne, The Fugees, and Tupac promotes border crossing and tolerance by “helping students arrive at an implicit understanding of what they have in common with those they have been taught to perceive as different.” (p. 52) By helping their students create connections to the traditional canon through hip-hop, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell provide them with authentic reasons to understand the work which will help them find academic success.

Duncan-Andrade and Morrell could have stopped with their class linking hip-hop and poetry. It had great success. However, they went beyond this by accessing students through sports and their local communities. Most compelling to me is the chapter on engaging students in participatory action research for social change through the Doc Ur Block project. All too often the standard narrative is that research is academically challenging and low performing students need to master the basics before they can do this more challenging work. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell explicitly refute this by engaging students as primary researchers. If our work is to develop a humanizing pedagogy that helps marginalized and oppressed people become knowledge producers (Freire), how better to do it than by putting them front and center in the research process? Instead of their traditional status as research subjects, the authors asked their students to be researchers. This is the same basic premise as gifted education looking for students to “own their learning” and create authentic intellectual work. By structuring the research project within students’ community Duncan-Andrade and Morrell engaged their students in very high levels of academic work in which they conducted community surveys, facilitated class discussions, and presented their work to authentic communities of their classmates, graduate students, practicing teachers, and community members.

Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s claim is the same one John Dewey wrote one hundred years prior in 1907: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” Our most disenfranchised students need the most work with engagement. Remedial drills will not make up the gap. All of Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s structures are paralleled by the Buck Institute’s structure for “Gold Standard Project Based Learning,” a structure often cited for increasing challenge for academically gifted students. Struggling students in urban schools are equally deserving of an academically rigorous, relevant, and authentic school environment.

The authors do not pretend that their work is a panacea to the challenges of urban education. In none of the cases did they fully redefine the schools they taught in. They do, however, have a proof of concept that needs to be taken to scale. Much like Freire’s request for additional work documenting critical pedagogy in action, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell make an explicit call for more work in the area with more writing on the practical components of conducting critical pedagogy that humanizes the oppressed. I wish I’d had this book during my second year of teaching. I had a group of students that I struggled to reach and I think the critical pedagogy described by Duncan-Andrade and Morrell would have served them well. I was experimenting at the edges, asking students to write their own poetry and including examples from hip-hop, but I did not have an awareness of the need to actively empower students and intentionally teach them about the hidden curriculum of schools. I used the techniques as a hook for engagement, but I did not go beyond that into more fundamental learning. Current school systems do not make critical pedagogy easy to implement, but the authors have proved it can be done.  Through collegial support and active coaching currently practicing teachers can make the necessary changes in order to support their students.

The Setting: A first year teacher and mentor meeting during a planning period. The mentor was in to observe earlier in the week, and is back to debrief. It’s late in the year and while the teacher started off with some significant challenges, they’ve improved substantially as the year progressed.

Novice Teacher: Hi thanks for coming. I know we planned to talk about the lesson you observed 3rd period on Tuesday, but I feel like I have to talk about Charleston in class, I can’t figure out what to do about it. All these different race related issues keep coming up and I just don’t know how to bring them up in class.

I want to talk about Charleston and I want to talk about Baltimore. I care about my students and I want them to understand how current events are informed by history. That’s our whole course theme, how events of the past inform current events, but I just don’t know how to do it.

Mentor: We can definitely talk about this. Thanks for letting me know it’s been on your mind. What makes these events hard to bring up in class?

Novice Teacher: I just don’t know how to have this kind of conversation with the kids. It’s hard to talk about this stuff and I don’t just want to pay lip service to it.

Mentor: What might happen if you bring it up?

Novice: Things could get totally out of hand. I don’t want my students calling each other racist. I don’t want them calling me racist! The last thing I need is a parent complaining about my class. What would the principal think if he heard that I’m talking about Charleston instead of teaching the curriculum?

This is a very reasonable concern. Teacher education programs do not spend a lot of time helping pre-service teachers handle controversial issues in class. In some cases the new teacher may have been explicitly instructed to shy away from controversial issues for a variety of reasons: parent concerns, sticking to the curriculum, or the importance of preparing students for their exams. Additionally, teachers don’t want their students to be upset, so it can appear easier to just not bring up hard conversations. A new teacher may also fear for their job security as new teachers are regularly hired on one-year contracts. It can make a lot of sense to keep your head down and just teach the curriculum, but this teacher is having a bit of an identity crisis about that.

In most classes it’s reasonable to expect some controversy, however. Controversial issues can take many forms regardless of the content area, so  it would make sense for the mentor to attempt some connection to areas where the teacher is already working with controversy, and then build a bridge to the new topic.

Mentor: This can be a pretty controversial issue. Do other controversial issues come up in class, and how do you handle those situations?

Novice: Sometimes, like when we cover the Civil Rights Movement. This is different though.

Mentor: What makes this different?

Novice:  It’s one thing when it’s history. The Civil Rights Movement is academic to most of my students. They don’t really feel it, but you can’t just dismiss the church shooting in Charleston as a product of a different time. That happened this week. That’s a lot harder than saying “those old white guys in the south used to be racist, but we have a black president now.” It’s more emotional to talk about current issues. The conversation could get really heated with some of my students and I don’t want them getting out of control.

Conversations about race can definitely get heated and the teacher is reasonable to be concerned, especially if this is their first time bringing the topic to their students. It is also possible that the new teacher does not have many techniques for diffusing difficult situations. The mentor would do well here to reassure the teacher that there are ways to structure class discussion to discourage outburst and keep the conversation measured. There is still more work for the mentor to do before they plan the actual lesson though. The teacher still needs to come to the conclusion that they will bring the topic to the class.

Mentor: What might your students think if you don’t bring these issues up?

Novice: What do you mean?

Mentor: Right now it seems like you have two options. Take some time to discuss Charleston. Or don’t discuss it and keep going with the lessons you have planned. You’ve talked about your concerns with bringing the shooting into your class, what are your concerns about not addressing those topics?

The mentor here changes tactic. It’s very easy for the teacher to imagine their situation going awry from something they did, in this case bringing up issues of race and race-based violence. The teacher imagines that if they do this thing, then it will get out of hand, and they might lose their job. Better to not rock the boat and keep their head down.

When the mentor switches to the other side of the equation by asking “what might your students think if you DON’T bring these issues up?” This is a key benefit to the mentoring relationship, the mentor’s prompting can help the teacher imagine a set of circumstances that they would be unable to imagine on their own. The teacher is now forced to reflect on what happens if they maintain the status quo, something that is easy to ignore without the mentor.

Novice: I’d feel like I’m ignoring important current events. That I’m acting like it didn’t happen.

Mentor: What’s wrong with that?

Novice: That’s like saying it doesn’t matter, but it does matter. Our whole district mission is to prepare students for college, career, and life. And the life part is pretty important. In social studies I want students to be able to read the newspaper, or watch the news and understand what’s going on. Not just by understanding the news itself, but everything else that goes into it. Potential biases, the importance of using multiple sources, and the long historical context that makes current events happen. They need to know that Charleston wasn’t an isolated event. There’s history here. They need to know the history of the 16th Street Baptist Church. They should know that Alberta Williams King was killed while playing the organ at church. There’s a deep history of racism that connects all these events. I mean, what’s the point of history if we don’t connect it to modern issues?

The mentor’s change in approach shifts the conversation dramatically. Now the teacher’s sense of self, and their purpose for teaching are potentially on the line. This is a critical point in a new teacher’s development. In order to be effective in the highly autonomous role of classroom teacher, a teacher must have a sense of identity. Your sense of identity and your values are what you fall back on in difficult situations. When you have to improvise, you do so based on your core values. Thus it is essential that a teacher develops a set of values they can rely on. This teacher clearly values her student’s ability to make sense of current events in a historical context.

Mentor: What is the point?

Novice: There isn’t any.

Mentor: So what are you going to do about it?

At this point it’s a safe bet that the teacher and mentor have come to an agreement that the teacher will be bringing up Charlestown in class. The teacher now likely needs more practical support alongside the previous emotional support the mentor provided. It would make sense for the mentor to work on co-planning the lesson the novice will teach. This could take a number of forms including advice on facilitating challenging conversations, setting discussion norms, and roleplaying particularly difficult situations. It would also be wise for the mentor to encourage the teacher to inform her principal about the class, and possibly even invite the principal in. A possible lesson could include generating students’ questions, providing the students with a few sources on the topic, a mini-lecture on the historical context of racial violence in the U.S., and a discussion about current issues. (Each of these could be done by devoting a couple days to the topic.) The specifics of a lesson would depend greatly on the students’ age, the course, and the students prior knowledge and lived experience with race and racial violence.

Throughout this mentoring conversations it is important to note that the mentor is not dictating what the novice teacher should or should not do. It is not a mentor’s place to create a carbon copy of the mentor’s teaching style, moreover, they are helping the novice create their own identity. The teacher led with their desire to bring up the topic, but wanted guidance on how to make it work. This means that it is essential for the novice teacher to come to her own conclusion about how to address the topic. Once the decision is made, the mentor works to support that choice.

There are issues like Charleston every single year. They are not always as tragic, but there will always be an event that occurs in the world that is off the curriculum. Controversial issues come up in every classroom. It is essential that we find time to help students discuss and process how they experience the world around them. My previous district’s mission was explicitly to prepare students for “success in college career and life.” The Boston Public Schools have the same essential statement. The Los Angeles Unified School District claims their mission is to “educate all students to their maximum potential.” These mission statements require that teachers go beyond the curriculum.

Teachers must be flexible to respond to their students needs and interests, yet this can be challenging for a novice teacher who needs more skills to be effective. With a mentor’s support, guidance, and perspective a novice teacher can take on challenges they would not otherwise take on. The mentor accelerates the novice teacher’s growth.

It’s that time of year again. Students and teachers are anxiously preparing for winter break, a much needed respite from the day in, day out, school routine. Meanwhile, governments, and media are pouring over the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam.

Do a quick search on the PISA exam and you’ll find all kinds of articles wondering “Are American Students Falling Behind the World?” or “Can’t We Do Better?” These aren’t terrible questions necessarily, but they’re misguided.
“Can’t we do better” is not an interesting question to me. Yes. We could do better on the PISA exam, and other international exams. More compelling is figuring out whether we should; whether this is the proper target for our energy.

Assessment informs instruction and you get what you measure. This makes sense. If you measure how far you can run without stopping, that’s what your subject will improve on. Your speed may not improve, but your ability to run long distances without stopping should. If you measure students test scores on an exam, that’s what will improve. Should we improve our scores on an exam? Well, that depends on what the exam measures. What’s most important is to ensure that our measure aligns with our intended outcomes.

Let’s stick with running for a bit. Imagine that Jane is trying to get faster. She wants to run a mile in under six minutes. As a coach, it stands to reason then that I should measure how fast she can complete one mile of running and include interventions that will help her run a faster mile time. Measuring how quickly she completes a 5K run, or measuring how far she can run without stopping do not provide the data that lets me know if she’s progressing toward her goal. Just because I’m capable of collecting these other kinds of data, doesn’t mean I should collect them. In fact if I measure data that does not inform the goal (such as distance without stopping) I may try to implement interventions that hinder the initial goal. Strength training is essential to improving times over shorter distances, less important to increasing a runner’s endurance.

The same holds true in education. I need to set goals for what I want to improve in education and measure accordingly. At every level of education, from the individual classroom, all the way up to Arne Duncan’s office, the first question has to be: “what do we want to improve?” (The follow up question is “how do you know that’s the right choice,” but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Do we really want to improve PISA scores? Does PISA measure the data that we want? Is that the best goal we can come up with? I really hope there’s something more interesting that’s getting discussed at the Department of Education. You want to improve PISA scores? Ok here’s a freebie: figure out what the test measures. Teach it. Go home satisfied.

My challenge to education reform is that we can do better. Measuring changes in test scores is certainly easy, but they tell us little. Learning is an extremely complex system the is influenced by countless variables including, but by no means limited to: parents’ education level, income, age, physical health, mental health, peer group, and class size. Let’s work on developing more complex measures of student learning. I’m much more interested in whether students can create a reasoned argument, if they are curious, if they have the social-emotional ability to sustain effort, if they have a growth mindset, and if they’re interested in developing their community. Ability to take a standardized test does not inspire me.

I’m missing the argument for why PISA is a good assessment. Everywhere you look there’s a push for better scores, but no reflection on the value of those improved scores. We’re making an assumption that improving these scores will tell us that education is solved, and that’s simply untrue.  Shanghai tops the chart regularly, and their students work in an extremely competitive environment centered entirely around improving scores on exams. Singapore also scores well on PISA and their government spends large amounts of money on consultants to help shift focus off of standardized exams in order to build in more time for discussion and student-centered education. There is evidence that some of Japan’s intense bullying in schools is a reaction to extreme academic pressure to succeed. Is this what we want to create?

PISA scores are easy. We can count and stack rank anything we want. I am suspect of an easy solution to a complex problem. Improving our scores on international exams won’t fix our education system. In fact, when controlling for child poverty the United States scores extremely well already. Ability to follow instructions, and do what you’re told is not invaluable, however it is not enough. We need citizens capable of critical thought and if we want our students to improve their critical thinking, we should model it for them by thinking critically about how we measure academic achievement and how we define successful education.

In late January 2011 a student of mine brought a loaded handgun into my sophomore world history class.  I’m thankful every single day that he kept the weapon in his backpack and had no intention of using it at school.  By all accounts the student was difficult.  He had limited English skills, had trouble reading, and generally appeared uninterested in school.  School was not a comfortable place for him, and he was actively looking to join a local gang.

When I heard about the tragedy at Newtown, CT I simply broke down with emotional overload.  Any tragic incident at a school naturally makes me think about my students.  I thought about what things would have looked like if my student had decided to open fire in class on that day two years ago.  I thought of all the things that could have set him off, and the potential for tragedy.  I thought about how I had no idea the student was carrying and how every day a student could have a weapon in my classroom.  Since what a student brings to school is out of my control, I also thought about what aspects of the situation are in my power.

I can control how I treat the young people that enter my classroom on a daily basis.  An enormously high percentage of these incidents of mass shooting (and there are a shockingly high number in recent years) are linked by issues of mental illness, and young men who feel desperate and isolated.

At the most basic level it is in my power to non-judgmentally treat my students like human beings regardless of their circumstance.  It is extremely easy to forget issues that do not directly impact our daily lives.  Those of us who do not feel isolated can quickly overlook how deeply troubling feelings of isolation are.  Sometimes all it takes is saying “hello, it’s good to see you today” to the awkward student in my class.  The one that I know has very few, if any friends.  Saying hello to the student sitting by themselves at lunch matters.

My student was isolated and looking for a place where he could belong.  A local gang was willing to fill that need, when no one else would.  He struggled in school.  He was from a low-income family.  He did not have many friends at school.  He’d recently moved from out of state.  His choice to bring a gun to school was a symptom of his feelings of desperation, and his extreme desire for somewhere to belong.

At a teacher I can help fill those holes.  I take great care to treat every student that enters my classroom as a human being.  Even when they make bad decisions, are having a bad day, and when life gets in the way of their academics.  I know that there are times when I am the only person who asks a student how they are doing, or tells them I’m happy to see them.  It’s such a simple thing, and goes a long way to ease feelings of alienation and isolation.

I have a strong position on the gun control side of the equation.  I enjoyed the one time I went to a firing range and I support hunting.  I also think personal ownership of assault weapons and handguns is ludicrous.  I am completely willing to hold both thoughts in my head at once.  I am not personally capable of controlling that issue.  I can, however, make sure that I treat everyone with respect so that when they are near me they feel safe. People make desperate acts when they’ve run out of options.  By creating a safe environment I can reduce feelings of desperation and help more people make positive choices instead of negative ones.

Calle 13:  La Bala

Teaching is not an easy job.  No teacher I’ve met would refute this, regardless of their situation.  Tony Danza lasted one school year, with significant trouble, and he only had one class and a bigger paycheck than most teachers.  First year teachers constantly report being overwhelmed, underprepared, and roughly a third of all teachers leave the profession within three years.

“But you get all that time off!”  Yes.  I do get substantial breaks for the holidays and summers, but these breaks are unpaid time off.  On top of that a very significant number of teachers spend time on these unpaid breaks planning their next lessons or catching up on grading.  Add to that the fact the not a single teacher I know works only their contracted time (40hours a week) and you have teachers doing considerably more work than they are paid for.  Personally I work in the neighborhood of 65 hours a week and never fewer than 50. (50 would assume I do zero work at home, which simply does not happen.)

Growing class size, cuts in special education budgets, reduced English Language Learning (ELL) support, and the ever rising stakes of standardized testing all serve to exacerbate the already difficult job.  When I assign an essay in my AP World History class I can expect to grade 133 of them.  At 6 minutes per essay (a reasonable estimate) I can expect over 13 hours of grading for this one assignment.  If I want to get essays returned in anything resembling a prompt timeframe I can expect to grade in the evening and on weekends.

OK.  So teaching is tough.  It’s in the newspaper all the time.  The point has been made.  So what?

The difficulty of teaching is not sufficient reason for teachers to abdicate their responsibility to their students.  The students did not create the difficult situation.  The students did not vote down taxes that help provide funding for reduced class size and arts education.  The students are the ones for whom the stakes are greatest.  They get a very limited window for their educational opportunity and it is the responsibility of teachers to make sure their pedagogy is not another barrier placed in a student’s path.

I’ve worked with a wide variety of teachers across four schools.  I’ve taught 6th grade, 12th grade, and most levels in between.  Across the board I’ve seen great teachers doing their absolute best for students, and I’ve seen teachers who could be great making excuses for why they’re not great.  The excuses range from “I don’t offer re-writes or revisions on essays because it becomes too much work,” to “there’s no way we can do a research paper, think of how long it would take to grade,” and “the English department teaches writing.”

I’ve heard variations of these multiple times from multiple sources.  My personal favorite is: “Some days you just need a frozen-waffles lesson.”  I get it.  Life gets in the way of perfection, and our lives should not be completely dominated by our jobs.  At the same time though we need to maintain high standards and integrity.  There is substantial data that when properly motivated, students will rise to meet high standards, and when given the opportunity they will also sink to our low standards.  When we bring out the “frozen-waffles lesson” the students realize and they react accordingly.

If (as per part one of this series) we’re going to expect our students to take responsibility for their education, teachers have to take responsibility for making school worth our students’ time.  I don’t believe that every day should be “fun” but every day in class should definitely be worthwhile.

Teachers should always make sure that students understand why they’re doing a particular assignment or task.  It is of the utmost importance that students understand why their work has value beyond their grade.  (Fred Newmann is great on this subject.)  If we can consistently contextualize assignments in terms of their value beyond school we will go a long way to improving instruction, and it’s frankly not that hard.  Just start every lesson imaging a student asking you “so why do I have to learn this?”  If you cannot answer that question with something better than “it will be on the test,” you need to rethink your lesson.  I assure you that your students have other things they think are more important.

As a teacher it is your responsibility to show students the value of the work you do.  Telling is not enough.  You must show.  Students bear great responsibility for their education.  I’ve never seen a student fail as long as they put in their best effort; however students are not the only ones who bear responsibility for their education.  Teachers are equally responsible for creating a safe and effective learning environment while simultaneously delivering lessons that are of the highest quality.

Every time a student struggles to meet the high standards in my class I feel a bit like a jerk, but every time a notoriously difficult student tells me they can’t skip my class because it’s meaningful to them, I know I’m doing something right.

We ask our students to work hard all the time.  We ask them to balance seven classes, sports, music, and being a well-adjusted human being.  We tell them that they should work hard in school so they can work hard in life.  It’s time for teachers to take some of our own medicine and live what we teach, and it’s time for someone to stand up and support this effort.

When did the stakes get so high for schools? When did we start putting so much responsibility on teachers for the success of our youth and so little responsibility on the youth themselves?

When a student in my classes is unsuccessful, the discussion immediately turns to what I can, as a teacher, do to accommodate the needs of the failing/struggling student, instead of how the student can change their behavior in order to be more successful. By no means should teachers be removed from all responsibility, but students should absolutely be held accountable for their own academic success.

My own high school experience (not all that long ago as I graduated from high school in 2001) did not mirror the above situation at all. Yes, there was absolutely an expectation that my teachers should do a quality job of teaching me, but my parents were also informed enough to send me to a good school, and I recognized that success was completely my responsibility.  The responsibility did not fall solely to my teacher. My freshman year of high school, I learned the hard way that I wasn’t entitled to excellent teachers and only doing interesting and authentic assignments. My transcript suffered, but I learned from that experience and changed my own behavior so as not to repeat the same mistake twice.

It was not the mission of my teachers to make class fun, motivating, or particularly interesting. Those were bonuses of a particularly high quality class. For much of my high school career, class was class, and just like eating your veggies or doing your chores, it was something that you did because you were supposed to. You go to school, and to be successful after school, you need to be successful in school. If I didn’t like math that was my problem; I’d better still pass it regardless. There was no discussion of talking to the teacher about why or how to make things different because I wasn’t interested in the class or didn’t do my work.

When did society lose the value of individual student responsibility? When did a student’s success fall at the feet of the teacher instead of the student (let alone the parents)? I’ve had countless emails, meetings, and discussions with parents, students, and counselors asking me to change my standards by excusing assignments, modifying assignments, or giving extensions because little Joey or Susie is “having a tough time right now, but they’ll do all their work in the future,” only to have the same conversation a month or two later when nothing has changed.

Even more frustrating, is when a student attempts to shed responsibility because “the teacher only told them when it was due once, and they forgot.”  An argument I have heard far too often.

I respect the idea of individual educational advantage. Some students enter the public school system significantly advantaged over other students. There is no doubt about that. At the same time I watch students work diligently to overcome their disadvantages and learn despite significant barriers while students with every advantage fritter away their opportunities. It takes hard work to be successful regardless of your starting point. When did we lose sight of that?

To use a sports analogy if you are trailing someone in a race you have to run faster than the person ahead of you in order to overtake them. If the person in front of you had a head start you may have to run significantly faster, but if you both continue running at the same pace they will always stay ahead of you. The same is true when it comes to educational advantage. If you are a disadvantaged student you have to work harder to overcome the barriers that were placed in your life through no fault of your own.

Is it fair? No. Is it easy? Of course not. Does it work? Yes.

My point, however, is not limited to students who are academically disadvantaged. Those students who are academically advantaged have just as much need to learn the value of hard work and self-control in order to be happy and productive upon graduation, regardless of their goals for college or employment.

When we hold teachers accountable for the success of every student in their class (while continually increasing caseloads without increasing compensation) we’ve removed individual responsibility from the student while constantly increasing the burden on the teacher.  . If I have students who are not engaging with my class it is definitely my responsibility to try and make class work for them, just as they have a responsibility to engage with any material they wish to learn.

No matter how hard I try, no matter how motivating I want to be, I cannot and will not pick up a pen and write an essay for a student. I cannot read a book for them, and I cannot make them think. They have to want it. I can do everything in my power to make a student see the value of their work through transparency and contextualization, but a student who is actively choosing not to learn will not learn. My pedagogical ability is not going to be the deciding factor. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb: teachers open doors, but it is the students’ responsibility to walk through them.

We need to bring individual responsibility back into public education. The consequences are too severe not to. By regularly spoon-feeding assignments to students that are precisely targeted to their academic ability, we teach them that there is no significant challenge to life and we tell them we think they are only capable of progressing by baby steps. We may teach them how to write a structured paragraph, but we forget to teach them to work hard and overcome challenge. A student who doesn’t know how to work hard easily becomes an adult who does not know how to work hard and a country of adults incapable of working hard does not bode well for our cumulative future success.

Dead Prez: They Schools (NSFW – Lots of Swears)