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RashadIsAbsent

The tag screams out at everyone from the school sidewalk in giant blue block letters. #RashadIsAbsentAgainToday. Rashad is absent again today because he was brutally beaten by a police office after being wrongfully accused of shoplifting. Rashad is black. The office is white.

This piece examines the full plot of All-American Boys and implications for teaching with the book in schools. I encourage you to read the book first. It’s excellent.

In All-American Boys, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely explore issues of racialized police violence in the context of a town named Springfield through the eyes of two teenagers: Rashad, the black high school junior who is beaten, and Quinn a white bystander and senior at the same high school. Rashad is an artist and JROTC member. Quinn is a basketball player. Reynolds and Kiely (themselves black and white respectively) tell the story over a period of a week through chapters that alternate between Rashad and Quinn’s perspectives.

The book explores Rashad and Quinn’s personal reactions to the situation, their families, the community, and very specifically, the high school. Each boy experiences a clear developmental arc as they examine racism, what it means to have courage, and the definition of “All-American”. Reynolds and Kiely show great skill in immediately humanizing each character including the boys’ families, their friends, their teachers, and the police officer in question. There is a poignant sense of history in the community that is evidenced without resorting to lengthy exposition.

AllAmericanBoys CoverIf you interact with adolescents in any appreciable way you need to read this book.

If you live in the United States you should read this book.

If you’re in education you need to read this book.

If you’re a teacher, you need to seriously think about teaching this text. I understand the political challenges of adopting a novel in public education. This book is worth fighting for.

The reading level should be comfortable for middle school and my only hesitation (and it’s slight) is that there’s harsh language in the book that could be tough for younger students. The characters are in high school and they speak like they’re in high school. I don’t see any issues with 8th grade and up, but each school is a unique environment and should be considered as such when selecting literature.

Educators I speak to are wrestling with ways to address racialized officer involved killings as they come up in the news. Which ones to address, which ones to not address, how long to spend, what to do when students get riled up, what to do if they think their administration is unsupportive, the questions are endless. These questions are increasingly heightened when the incidents are local. Reynolds and Kiely have the beginning of an answer. They provide an entry point for the conversation.

All-American Boys speaks to me like “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried, where Tim O’Brien posits that fiction can be more true than non-fiction. Reynolds and Kiely strip away the talking heads, media analysis, and theoretical objectivity and instead bring us immediately to a human level that cannot be easily accessed through other means. Reynolds and Kiely do the essential work of novelists by localizing and humanizing essential questions of humanity and providing readers with a set of circumstances against which to examine our lives.

Thankfully, Reynolds and Kiely avoid simple solutions to complex problems. Quinn is not a white savior coming to Rashad’s aid. Quinn is a confused teenage boy who wrestles with competing influences in determining right from wrong. Rashad is equally complex wrestling with his desire to avoid conflict while also feeling strong anger at having his rights violated and a growing commitment to broader social justice. Paul, the police officer who beats Rashad is equally complex seen primarily through Quinn’s eyes and their previous big-brother-type relationship. Each character is fully human and provides a potential platform for discussion and inquiry into motivations and understanding. There is great potential for students to cross identify with characters from a range of backgrounds and circumstances. Springfield is a town full of complexity and nuance.

There are many lessons for students to pick up. There is an obvious lesson about racism’s continued presence in American society and how racist acts can come in many forms including inaction. There are strong lessons about strength and courage and how courage is about doing what is right at all times, particularly when you are afraid to.

There are also more subtle lessons for educators to examine. Throughout the book, the school and the basketball coach barely respond to the incident, encouraging students not to discuss the issue and the basketball coach actively threatens to bench any player who discusses Rashad’s situation on or off the court. The students react to the school’s decision in a very human way, making it clear that the topic is unavoidable. The students’ experience in All-American Boys parallels the real experience that Rich Milner discusses in Rac(e)ing to Class when a school chooses to ignore a local robbery. Local issues always come up in the classroom and we teach students important lessons when we actively close topics of conversation. All-American Boys challenges educators to actively engage in challenging conversations for the benefit of our youth. It is a challenge that education can rise to.

Ultimately the book’s power lies in how the authors complicate humanity. Each character, even small characters like Rashad’s nurse, are fully realized human beings with history and motivation. Each one is complex and that in and of itself is an important lesson for students. There are no obvious stereotypes at play and the reader cannot easily categorize or dismiss any of the characters. This to me is the most important lesson, and the one that can make lasting change in a student’s life. If we can help students understand that each person is a worthy and important human being we can help create a future in which we can treat each other with dignity and compassion. I wanted to dismiss Paul. I wanted him to be a clear villain, not worthy of my consideration. I couldn’t do it. Paul is just as human as Rashad and Quinn.

Reynolds and Kiely close the book with a student lead march that shifts focus from Rashad being absent from school to the student population being present for upcoming hard work. There is no trial. The march is not presented as a panacea. Many questions are appropriately unresolved. Reynolds and Kiely opened a large door with All-American Boys and they’re encouraging us to step inside. I hope that schools and teachers have the courage to do just that.

 

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“Hi daughter/son, what’d you learn about in school today? What are you reading?”

“We’re reading Bitch Planet! It’s a sci-fi comic book about off-planet women’s prisons and repressive institutional patriarchy!”

“I see…”

You have to admit. It’s got a nice ring to it, but the reality of teaching a high school class with Bitch Planet would be challenging at best. Even in the most liberal district in the country you’d be likely told to cease and desist or get fired. It’s a pretty good way to go out though.

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Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet hits all the flashing red buttons for schools. It’s a comic book. It’s got swears. It’s got nudity. It’s got violence. It’s feminist. One of those you could probably get away with, but all five? Goodnight teaching career! The title alone would get you stopped in most districts.

Here’s the thing though. It shouldn’t be that unbelievable as a high school text. If you take this book and the back-matter essays, match them with some additional academic writing, a film, and a novel you’ve got a really strong basis for a study on the impact of institutional patriarchy women in the United States. A study that a high school student can access. And that is something we desperately need.

We don’t teach about women in high school. Women aren’t in the books. Women don’t take center stage. By not teaching explicitly about women, we teach many lessons implicitly about non-participation and low levels of importance. A colleague recently drew my attention to an article that Martin Luther King Junior’s mother, Alberta King, was assassinated while playing the organ in church. I had no idea that was the case. I didn’t even know her name. I’m a history major. I’m a history teacher. I didn’t know her name, let alone the fact that she was assassinated. The only thing I know about Betty Shabazz is that she was Malcolm X’s wife. I couldn’t tell you about her life’s work. I lived in Washington for over twenty years and I can’t tell you anything about senator Patty Murray’s work (in office since 1993). I know more about Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker and I’ve lived here for six months. This ignorance from the west coast raised, Oberlin-educated, child of political activists. There’s something wrong here and Kelly Sue DeConnick is trying to fix it.

39EBADA0-8FAD-4D45-92EF-7D8E2E32611AWith Bitch Planet, DeConnick is doing dangerous work. She’s claiming the women’s prison exploitation film genre and using it to stick a shiv right in the patriarchy’s gut.

It’s important that Educators speak the language of their students. Paulo Freire states that “the only effective instrument is a humanizing pedagogy…. In a humanizing pedagogy the method ceases to be an instrument by which the teachers can manipulate the students, because it epresses the consciousness of the students themselves.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 30th Anniversary Edition, 2000, p. 69) Students are going out to see 50 Shades of Grey. They’re watching Game of Thrones. I had a 6th grader come to school quoting Inglorious Basterds. A casual flip through television and they’ll see more than their fair share of oppressed, abused, and marginalized women. We need to work alongside our students within their context while exposing them to new ideas and broadening that context.

The Hunger Games does a respectable job of putting a young woman in the lead role, but Bitch Planet tells the current dystopian story that The Hunger Games won’t touch. We rarely see the impact of Katniss being a woman. Katniss could be a man and the story would not fundamentally change. Bitch Planet puts gender front and center. Teachers have an obligation to expose their students to new ideas, issues, and values. In the realm of women’s stories we’re underperforming and Bitch Planet can provide some balance.

In terms of media literacy this is the comic book at its underground best: dangerous and subversive. You open the book and think to yourself “only in comics.” While reading it the voice in your head is constantly warning you. It can’t stay this good. No way she’s gonna go THERE. But it stays that good and DeConnick definitely goes THERE. The best part of it all is Bitch Planet isn’t even all that underground. It’s published by Image. You can get it at any comic shop. You can download it from Comixology and Amazon. The only reason you’ll have to hunt for it is if it’s sold out.

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It’s also a really good book. The plot is strong, the characters are meaningful, and the art is fantastic. We’re 3 issues in at this point and the DeConnick’s shiv is honed just as sharp as in the first issue. The plot is ramping up quickly and the characters are deepening. There’s still time to pick up the back issues and get on board before this ship really takes off.

Once you read it you’ll probably decide that it’s not something schools should put in front of kids. (Particularly not the first issue.) But maybe reading Bitch Planet will help you see that we need more stories about women in schools, more stories that explore the woman’s experience. Perhaps you’ll start looking at how women are represented in your curriculum and the messages we send. Perhaps you’ll look for alternatives. That’s definitely worth a few bucks and a trip to the comic shop.

This piece is dedicated to my student Jia Wen (no hyphens). Thank you for pushing me for more women’s stories. You made our class better and you made me a better teacher. Keep the fire burning. 

Austin Texas in March is essentially dominated by the growing suite of South by Southwest conferences: Education, Interactive, Film, and Music. The Education conference (SxSWEdu) serves as the appetizer course, covering four days with roughly two thousand attendants as opposed to the thirty thousand attendants for interactive. The sheer size of the conference creates a fractured atmosphere. There is an attempt to mitigate that by collecting sessions into themes, but there are twenty different themes. This is further exacerbated by the massive number of sessions at each time slot. It is simply impossible to get more than a tiny sliver of the available content, therefore my experience is entirely colored by my selections, and another attendant could come away with a completely different experience.

In selecting sessions I attempted to bridge my interests in equitable access to education, teacher development, and education policy. This diverse set of interests allowed me to see a range of sessions that included multiple panels, research presentations, and an extended workshop. There was some overlap in these sessions, such as using video in teacher evaluation, however for the majority of the sessions, they stuck within a single theme.

Equity and Opportunity:
The two presentations related to improving educational opportunity that I attended, while not explicitly related, had extremely strong synergy. These were titled “Saving America’s Black Boys” and “Understanding Literature Through Hip Hop.” The first was focused on leveraging STEM education and entrepreneurship with young black men as a way to build their engagement in school, close the opportunity gap, and improve the economic viability of disadvantaged communities. The session on Literature through Hip Hop presented a systematic approach to close reads of difficult figurative text while using hip hop as an example of how culturally relevant curriculum improves student engagement and lowers the opportunity gap in poverty impacted urban schools.

In both of these sessions the speakers spoke honestly and directly about issues of equity in public education and steps by which those inequities can be remedied through inclusive economic competitiveness and culturally relevant, high rigor, humanities education. These two sessions combine to create an important, pincer attack on the racial and economic opportunity gap in public education. John Holifield, Mike Green, and Rhea Williams-Bishop are taking a STEM and economics focused approach to including more black youth in economic development, while Sage Salvo operates from a humanities-centered approach linking high level figurative analysis of literature with hip hop. Both groups of presenters operate from providing traditionally disadvantaged students with extremely high level and high quality curriculum as opposed to remediation. They are honoring the spirit of John Adams’ claim that what is best for the wisest in our community is best for all members of the community.

The two sessions provided significant evidence that their methods work, and by combining inclusive STEM and economics with a culturally inclusive, and academically rigorous approach to humanities we could make very substantial progress in closing the opportunity gap. However, before we can make positive change, we need a system that is willing to unpack its racial baggage and actively and intentionally work against institutionalized racism with compassion and respect for human dignity. As was a theme with all of the sessions offering solutions, we need to address the problem from many angles. It will take a multifaceted approach to achieve the kind of changes we need to see. As John Holifield said it very succinctly during the session on inclusive competitiveness: “there is no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot.” As a system, we need to be willing to use a lot of buckshot in order to solve our issues.

Education Policy:
I was not able to go as deep into education policy as I’d hoped at SxSWEdu. There were simply too many scheduling conflicts between sessions, an issue I repeatedly ran into throughout the conference. Despite the limited number of policy sessions I attended, I was able to gain some important affirmations for ideas that I’ve been working with. Most importantly: education policy is extremely complex, yet it is  routinely discussed in oversimplified terms. This is not unique to education. One need only look at political discussions of healthcare or foreign policy. The distinction with education, however, is that a significant portion of the electorate has a self-perception that they are experts because of their experience with public education either as a student, a parent, or through contact with teachers. Compounding this issue is the fact that educating children is a very high stakes endeavor so there are strong emotions wrapped up in the discussion. Lastly, education is a highly diverse special interest. “What’s best for children,” is an extremely vague position to take and is open to a high degree of interpretation. There is no obvious answer, and there are no positions that are as clear as “end the death penalty.” This weakens education as a political platform.

This political weakness is even more extreme at the national level. There was consensus from a few panelists that the Bush and Obama administrations deserve credit for making education a national issue, however there is little for either party to grab onto as a political discussion point and as such there are no clear positions for major parties to argue for. (There was much prediction that this may change with the introduction of Common Core Standards.) This means that education policy easily stalls at the national level, and to a lesser extent at the state level. This political stagnation has the most negative impact for the equity agenda. Our record on improving educational equity occurs almost entirely at the national level because it takes significant federal dollars to put forth the kind of change required and those changes are usually precipitated by the national courts.

I also attended a session evaluating the teacher accountability agenda. The panel did not disagree as much as I would have liked, however they raised valuable points about the complexity of evaluating teacher impact. There is no single measure that will allow us to understand how much impact a teacher has on a student with any sort of reliability. This was confirmed in another session by a data team from the Austin Integrated School District that spent time presenting their evaluation of multiple measures of teacher evaluation, finding all of their measures to be inadequate in isolation. This highlights the importance of understanding the complexity of education at a deep level as opposed to understanding surface level simplifications. If we only understand the evidence gathered from inaccurate, reductive, measures, we will have no way to determine if we are making appropriate changes.

There are an incredible number of variables that impact a student’s ability to learn from their diet, to prior experience, to what happened to them in the five minutes before they walked into class. There are currently no good measures that can completely isolate how a teacher impacts student education, and there was consensus that standardized tests are particularly limited. As such the recommendation is to include a wide variety of measures from student surveys, to peer observation, to administrator evaluation. Each panelist was very keen to emphasize the need for multiple measures, with Randi Weingarten regularly referring to a dashboard of information, yet each was unwilling to nail down specifics of how much each component should impact a teacher’s evaluation. I agree that teacher evaluation is extremely important, however, evaluation and data collection are not ends in themselves, The information we gain from evaluation is most valuable when it use it to improve our teachers through high quality continuing education.

Teacher Development:
This theme is most directly tied to my current work as an instructional mentor, and as such it is not surprising that in these sessions I found the greatest number of practical links. These are the best practices and concepts that I will be immediately bringing back to my district and my day to day work. In particular I attended valuable sessions on using video in teacher evaluation, improving professional development through problem based learning.

The session on using video in teacher evaluation was essentially a presentation of preliminary findings for the Best Foot Forward (BFF, an intentionally referential acronym) Project by Miriam Greenberg of the Harvard Center for Education Policy. The short version of the story is that video is excellent when used properly. Replacing traditional live observations with video (or adding video to the process) can provide solutions for reliability, time usage, feedback quality, and reflective accuracy. All of these benefits are fairly straightforward and Greenberg cited significant evidence for these results. One can easily have multiple observers to increase reliability, watch the video at an advantageous time to improve time usage, improve feedback by recording voice overs or John Madden style diagrams, and reflective accuracy is increased because all the evidence is preserved and there is no need to rely on memory. None of these issues are perfectly solved (remember silver buckshot, not a bullet) but they are definitely eased. It is easier to reflect accurately with accurate evidence, but a teacher still needs to develop the skill of meaningful reflection. While an administrator could watch a video of a class at any time, they still need to make a choice about finding and preserving adequate time to provide meaningful feedback and maintain fidelity in the entire observation process.

Greenberg also made a compelling argument for having teachers self select which lessons to have observed. She countered the “what if teachers put on a dog and pony show for the camera” concern by reframing the dog and pony show, as a positive practice. If a teacher is concerned with making sure they submit the best lesson possible they will continue to rehearse how to provide the best instruction. If anything teachers leverage high quality techniques more often. Additionally, but self-selecting lessons for observation, teachers are essentially inviting the administrator in as a feedback source and collaborator, making it easier for the administrator to act in the role of instructional leader. This was all supported with data from a study in Hillsborough Florida that compared drop in observation with teacher-selected observation, finding that the two methods showed negligible differences in how teachers were evaluated, while self-selection had substantially higher positive reception from teachers. The evidence that Greenberg presented was extremely positive, and I am interested in leveraging more video in my non-evaluative role as the concerns she presented were all linked to the evaluative aspect and high stakes personnel decisions.

The other practical heavy hitter was a workshop on transformative professional development facilitated by members of the Columbia University Teachers College Center for Technology and School Change (CTSC_TC). I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this session as the description, while interesting, was decidedly vague. It boiled down to using problem based learning as a framework for professional development and continuing education. As soon as I made the PBL connection the obviousness of the benefits slapped me in the face and I spent the entire session wishing I’d thought of it first. Simply put, all the research-backed benefits of PBL for young students are equally viable for adult students in professional learning environments. This means authentic problems and meaningful tasks that are relevant beyond the session will increase learning and engagement, and to top it all off the team from CTSC_TC modeled their theory the entire time.

Throughout the two hour session the presenters set up an authentic problem around developing PBL based, interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum in a middle school. We were tasked, as outside consultants, with making a one-minute pitch to the superintendent to bring him on board with the changes the school was making. Throughout the session the presenters alternated presenting their information with time for each table group to spend time exploring and designing solutions to the problem of bringing the superintendent on board. After learning the theory, we immediately switched into application mode. At the end of the session each group had to create the one minute pitch and either present it or record it.  Our group recorded it and my unscripted work is captured below. I’ve never been that deeply engaged in a traditionally formatted professional learning session. I was able to create deep new learning as well as leverage my prior schema. I will absolutely be using what I learned in this session for the next session of professional development that I design.

Closing:
This only partially covers my experience at SxSWEdu. I also attended sessions evaluating teacher preparation programs and building classroom community in graduate education. While there was some inconsistency in sessions, I was able to glean valuable learning from each, even if it was a bit of a lesson in how not to present. The conference has a huge amount of content to offer, and I was able to get into many strong sessions. Despite my personal success at the conference, I am concerned that the SxSWEdu, in its extremely fast growth, has suffered from bloat and loss of direction. There was no sense of overall vision to the conference and as such I found a lack of consistency. I only see this becoming exacerbated if the conference continues to grow.

Despite the inconsistency in actual presentations there was an incredibly consistent desire to improve education that was immediately obvious from everyone involved. There was also an understanding that education is a singularly complex endeavor. I was incredibly impressed by the humility of people like Randi Weingarten and Peter Cunningham, in their admission about how much is unknown with regard to what impacts student learning. There were a lot of good intentions, and there was a lot of discussion about the problems in education.

In general I want more solutions. There is very strong evidence about problems in education. We can point to data about writing ability, unequal educational opportunity, the bloated testing environment, and issues of class size. We can discuss the need to balance national standardization and local control of standards and curricula. It’s time to put in the work to solve some of these problems. The presentations by CTSC_TC and Miriam Greenberg were particularly compelling because they put forth possible solutions. Likewise Sage Salvo, Holifield, Green, and Williams-Bishop added their silver buckshot to the collection of possible solutions. I want to add even more. Education is extremely high stakes and there are very limited resources. This is a deadly combination for political stagnation, and a fear of failure. We solve nothing by maintaining the status quo. High level outcomes require high level inputs. We need to commit to funding possible solutions, try them with fidelity, drop the ones that fail, and keep the ones that work.

Schools teach about African history and schools teach about the difficulties of improving living conditions in Africa. Schools teach about the destruction caused by conflict in Africa and schools teach about lack of healthcare and clean water. Students learn about Africa in the broadest brush strokes, taking very little time to cover extremely nuanced and complex issues. In the service of introductory information we lose humanity.

Ishmael Beah’s The Radiance of Tomorrow provides that humanity. While in the classroom students discuss conflict and how to recover from conflict in a generalized way, at the level of country, Beah examines these issues at the level of the town and the individual. We discuss the moves a government or international organization need to make in order to recover and Beah looks at the compromises a teacher has to make in order to feed and clothe his family. In Radiance, Beah skips right over the broad context and opts instead to focus entirely on the level of individuals without apology or exposition. This small-grain, human level, is an essential piece of understanding that is missing from how we teach modern issues of conflict, development, and what happens when tradition and modernity butt up against each other.

This book is very much a companion to Beah’s first book, A Long Way Gone, his memoir, and I read Radiance with that context as well as substantial background on the civil war in Sierra Leone. However, in Radiance (a novel), beah is freed from the pressure of historical accuracy and in doing so he can write an extremely compelling narrative and he can develop characters to serve a purpose, as opposed to relying on Truth. A novel like Radiance fits in the same category as Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” in that “a true war story does not depend upon [absolute] truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” Beah captures this sentiment excellently, blending the reality of the situation in post-war Sierra Lone with a story of his own fabrication.

Beah’s novel is not driven by plot, but by character and through this we gain an intimate understanding of the cognitive dissonance required to live in post-war Sierra Lenoe. The people are simultaneously traditional and modern, hopeless and hopeful, defeated and determined. Not through any desire to be contradictory, but through necessity as they examine how to put their lives back together after such far-reaching destruction. Beah does an excellent job of avoiding the easy route here. It would be easy to commit to hope or hopelessness. It would be easy to write that Sierra Leone is a lost cause, or to create a hollywood ending of pure hope, but these are inauthentic. Instead, Beah remains committed to humanity and the complexities we love with. There is no simple solution and as a result we have to be willing to take the time for nuanced and complicated solutions that bring opportunity without squashing tradition. Beah opens the can of worms with the understanding that it cannot be easily closed.

Much like A Long Way Gone, Beah does not pull punches. There are brutal descriptions of mining accidents, the impacts of unclean water, and the daily reality of extreme urban poverty. Beah’s characters are continually grounded in a harsh and unforgiving world. These depictions, while graphic, are not gratuitous and are presented with grace and serve to honor the importance of individual people. Beah uses death to honor the value of human life.

From a teaching perspective, this book would be an excellent companion to a social studies course on contemporary modern issues as it brings a sense of humanity to the statistics on poverty and death. One wouldn’t need to be explicitly studying Sierra Leone, or even Africa, as these issues of recovering from conflict would be equally appropriate in Latin America, or Afghanistan. Additionally this book would be extremely valuable in a world literature, or creative writing course as Beah takes an uncommon, and extremely compelling, approach to language. Throughout the book Beah uses non-traditional translation as a way to approximate the imagery present in the multiple languages spoken in Sierra Leone. This is a powerful literary device and when reading I had to bring increased intentionality to my reading so that I could experience the language of the book at face value while also translating phrases like “nest of air” into “ball” for myself. This served to reinforce Beah’s commitment to the story of the individual throughout the book. Characters from different backgrounds leverage language in different ways, and this serves to deepen the human connection I felt between myself and the characters.

I’ve read A Long Way Gone, and I’ve seen the film Bling, in which Beah brings a group of rappers to see the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, and while both were powerful and highly informative, they missed the human connection that is so central to Radiance of Tomorrow. Despite the concrete sense of truth provided by memoir and documentary respectively, A Long Way Gone and Bling suffer from the common issue of being another story of human suffering. Radiance of Tomorrow stands apart due to its complexity and nuance and Beah’s commitment to avoiding simplicity and highlighting the contradictions inherent in human life.

It’s mid-October and the reality of the school year has set in.  The leaves are turning, the weather is getting colder and wetter, and darkness is creeping up around the edges of the day.  School is reestablishing itself as a consistent pattern in students’ lives.  This is when cracks begin to show.  Don’t fear the reset.

Teachers begin the year with the best of intentions: “This is the year that I’ll be planned out a week in advance.”  “This year, I’ll get it will all come together and run smoothly.”  These intentions are even more extreme with new teachers.  The optimistic, excited idealism, while helpful in August preparations, can quickly become battered, and worn by mid-October.  The young teacher easily falls into a repetitive funk, realizing the routines and procedures they established in September are insufficient.  It is a quick step into a swamp of cynicism leading to the laments of Cubs fans the world over: “maybe next year will be better.”

You are not a victim of Cubs’ management.  This is your classroom and you have the autonomy to take matters into your own hands.  Reset the classroom expectations.  Right now.

“Right now?  How do I make the time? I’ve got all this content to cover.”

There is a assumed need to justify time spend on non-curricular topics. We are expected to teach routines at the beginning of the year and there is a perception that once taught, they shouldn’t be revisited.  After all, if it was done correctly, the students should know the expectations.  Right?

It can feel like a step backward to revisit proper bathroom procedure six weeks after you thought you had it established, but we need to remember that anything new takes practice and repetition in order to become habitual. As adults, how often do we need to be reminded to go to the gym or eat healthy before it becomes a normal part of our lives?  Students need time and repetition as well.

Teaching routines, procedures, and expectations is not a deviation from curriculum.  Classroom procedures work in the service of curriculum and help the classroom function more smoothly, allowing for maximum effective use of limited time.  If these routines and procedures break down midway through the year they need to be repaired.  You are not losing time by revisiting routines.  Quite the opposite.

If it is broken: fix it.  A routine that’s slipped from consistent to inconsistent is no longer a routine, and it needs to be reestablished.  Perhaps the routine needs to be modified so that it cam be maintained more easily.  The purpose of a routine for quickly turning in papers is to increase efficiency, and thereby gain more instructional time.  Less time collecting papers equals more time teaching.  If the routine is no longer a time-saver, it needs to be re-taught and the best time to start is right now.  The same goes for any expectations around behavior, respect, quality of work, or using the bathroom.

Starting right away is the best option. You simply go the shortest amount of time with the ineffective routine.  Beyond this, however, beginning to correct issues immediately serves as strong, lifelong, modeling for students.  It is powerful for young people to see an adult take immediate action.  They see that the teacher has high expectations, and the willingness to course-correct.  Having the vulnerability to admit a mistake, and take the actions necessary to fix that mistake is a powerful show of awareness, confidence, and strength.  All virtues we would hope to instill and develop in our students.

It comes down to the central concept of teaching: if you want something done right, you need to teach the right way to do it.  If your students are not performing how you want them to, you need to keep teaching them until they get it right. Regardless of the topic, it takes accountability, persistence, and a willingness to go back and fix issues.  PIck your area for change and start right now.

She leans back in her seat with a look smug self-satisfaction.  Here it comes.  You can hear the question before her hand is all the way up.  In the back row of the class she slowly raises her hand high.  Your nerves start crying out like an over tightened violin string.   There’s no missing that hand.  The class sees your eyes follow her hand and they track your gaze to the back of the room.  They know it’s coming too.  The question.  The big question.  The question they all want an answer to, but only she is brazen enough to ask.

“So… why are we learning this stuff anyway? … What’s the point?  Does this even matter?”

[You Freeze]

OK hotshot new teacher: Pop quiz. Do you:

  1. Tell the kid that they’ll need it for the test.
  2. Tell the kid it will help them in college.
  3. Tell them some words about respecting the classroom environment and asking appropriate questions.
  4. Tell them it is part of the curriculum.

You’ve got one shot to get this right.  Succeed and you’ll have established your authority in the eyes of your students and they’ll begin to trust that you know what you’re doing.  Fail this test and you’ll be battling for credibility all year.

Correct answer?  E: None of the above.

“Ok,” you ask. “You’re so smart: how do I handle that question?”  Simply put: You handle that question by answering it directly.  The kicker is, that you need a better answer than all the answers above.

None of the answers above will satisfy this student.  She wants a real answer.  The first two may work for a lot of students.  These students will be motivated by grades and college entrance.  That’s not necessary a bad thing, but these goals breed strategic compliance instead of engagement.  These are the students who do all the work because of the grade, or because those grades will allow them to get into a good college, and only because of these rewards.  These are relying on extrinsic motivation.  Either of these rewards last only as long as you keep measuring them against that target, but they lose impact as soon as the test is over, or once a student has finished the class.  Grades alone do not necessarily create students who strive to learn.  The student asking the questions need more than just the next test to keep her interest.

Answer C is also problematic because it discredits the students’ desire for meaning.  It tells them that to ask “Why” is disrespectful and inappropriate.  Students are conscripts in public education.  In order to get students on board with the curriculum we need to explain its benefit transparently and concretely.  We also need to make that explanation immediately relevant.  We need to explain why this is so important to them that we force their participation for twelve consecutive years.

Answer D is the weakest of the four.  By giving this answer you’ve immediately abdicated your responsibility for the content of your classroom.  With this response someone else is calling the shots, but they don’t know your students, and you’ve just established yourself as someone who needs to be told what to do as opposed to someone who makes decisions based on professional judgment.  The follow up question to this answer is a gigantic “so what?”  The problem is that the vast majority of students will only ask that follow up silently and it will consequently go unanswered.  This answer does not resolve the initial concern and further reduces your credibility.  Not helpful.

Instead of the four options above, you need an authentic and relevant answer.  You need to be able to tell students how the work they are doing in that moment will be a benefit to them in their lives both inside and outside of school.  The students are trying to make the connection between their schooling and their personal lives; however they often lack the necessary context to make that connection on their own.  You as a teacher can provide that context. This student is craving relevancy and meaning from school and learning to write is just as important as learning why writing matters.

The Schlechty Center defines engagement as learning in which “the student sees the activity as personally meaningful,” and “the student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.”  This is essential because engagement is the catalyst for learning.  It takes thorough mental activity in order to learn new material and student who is merely compliant is not activating the necessary higher brain function. (Medina, 2009)

“What’s the point?” should not be a teacher’s most dreaded question.  Quite the opposite.  This should be the most highly desired question because it indicates that the student needs meaning, and wants meaning for the work they are doing.  This question holds you accountable for the relevancy of your instruction the same way a teacher wants to hold students accountable for achieving intended learning outcomes.  If the students are not aware of the purpose for a lesson it is incumbent on the teacher to explicitly provide that meaning.  After all, the teacher is the one who designed the lesson and understands where everything is coming from.

Lastly if you are thinking to yourself that, as a teacher, you may be unable to adequately answer the question of “why does this lesson matter to my students beyond school?” You may want to reexamine what you are teaching.  If there is no point to teaching it, you probably shouldn’t.

“Yo , what classes you got?”

 “I got retard class, weight training, retard math, science, another retard class, history, and computer skills.”

Retard class….  Straight from the mouth of a special education student at my school discussing his second semester schedule with another student.

This is a good indicator of problems within classes like “study skills,” “targeted academic skills,” and “resource room.”  The students know they’re in the remedial class, and while the classes are billed as a way to support students’ academic skills and bring them up to speed, they often do little of the sort.  To date I’ve only heard of one student in the special education department (SPED) being exited because they’ve acquired the appropriate skills.  I absolutely agree that students qualifying for SPED classes need something that a standard curriculum does not (or cannot) deliver, however I argue that if a student views their support as “retard class” it is unlikely they think the class is working in their best interest.

Let me back up a bit.  The SPED classes I’m referring to are for students who, to a casual observer, would appear to be a normal student.  These are not students with significant developmental disabilities, but students with either a “specific learning disability” or an “emotional/behavioral disability”.  These can manifest in a variety of ways from dyslexia or difficulty processing math, to anger management issues that impact a student’s ability to succeed in a standard class.  These students are tested in a variety of ways, usually after failing many or all their classes.  Then, in conjunction with parents, a doctor, school nurse, school psychologist, and counseling staff the student is diagnosed and an individualized education plan (IEP) is written to provide accommodations and modifications to increase student success.  These may include shortening the length of assignments, allowing late work, increased time on tests, or changing standards for an assignment.  Students with IEPs are often then placed in one or more SPED classes depending on their academic abilities in addition to their general education classes (with the stipulations of their IEP in place).

Back to the “retard class.”  SPED classes can focus on a variety of things ranging from basic math or writing skills to skills around executive function, study habits, and organization.  In these classes, the students do elementary work: basic arithmetic worksheets, introductory grammar and spelling worksheets, and short “what I did this summer” type writing assignments.  The same assignments they’ve been doing since early elementary school.  They haven’t been successful with them yet, and how can they be anything but bored at this point.

On paper the theory makes some sense.  These students lack the basic skills necessary to succeed in a standard class, so we explicitly teach those basic skills in an attempt to remedy that deficiency.  I should also point out that these are difficult students.  They have a history of failure in the school system.  By the time they are in high school they know full well that they are behind, resulting in lower motivation and a tendency to act out in class.  That is precisely why the mind-crushingly boring arithmetic and grammar worksheets should be scrapped in favor of the intellectually stimulating activities often seen in accelerated classes.  If you already hate school and have a history of being unsuccessful, how does continuing to do the kind of work you did in elementary school going to motivate you to be more successful?  We are repeatedly applying the same interventions with the hope of new results.

These classes can be reorganized to better meet the needs of their students.  I argue that Project Based Learning appears to be an ideal choice to change the intervention.  The authenticity of the project should work to hook the interests of students.  As an example: instead of another grammar worksheet students could work as lobbyists making recommendations on controversial legislation (nothing gets some students to perk up like debating legalizing marijuana or lowering the drinking age).  The final deliverable can be easily adjusted to properly align with the skills of the student.  While an AP class may have a final project of a lengthy, fully researched, policy brief, a SPED writing class could have a final product of a letter to the editor or even a short position statement.  The level of skill can be easily modified in PBL, and there is considerable research showing that PBL can increase motivation and learning of content and skills.

We all need to feel challenged or we get bored.  We all want to be more successful in the future than we have been in the past.  We respect students when we give them work that challenges them and makes them push themselves toward an authentic goal.  In AP and IB classes students are motivated by the exams at the end of the course and the possibility of earning college credit.  They are not all intrinsically motivated students who understand the value of a good education.

Similarly with SPED students we cannot expect that they will see the value of basic skills just because we teach them.  We need to create authentic situations in which those skills become necessary.  We need to create a need for learning and proper motivation for success.  Hopefully then, “that retard class” can become something of real value to students.

Calle 13: Preparame la Cena