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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.

November Learning’s Building Learning Communities conference (BLC) offers participants the opportunity to “join colleagues from around the world who care deeply about bringing the best innovative and practical learning resources to our students,” saying that the conference will “provide [participants] with inspiration, practical skills and expand your professional network with educators from around the world.” BLC does exactly what it says it does. The conference offers a fully stocked smorgasbord of new ideas, resources, and possibilities. After three straight days at BLC, my OneNote pages and Twitter mentions runneth over.

This is not the worst problem to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless. In the face of overwhelming information I have a strong instinct to hole up with my prior knowledge instead of opening myself to new ideas.

The three days are absolutely packed and each day offers a full-conference keynote followed by 5 sessions of 90 minutes each with no substantial breaks. There’s a sense of great value (540 minutes of structured learning time per day is a lot) but, with three straight 9 hour days I didn’t make it through a full program on any day. Instead I chose to take one session off each day to network, eat lunch, or process my learning, and I’m glad I did.

Logistical concerns aside the conference had a stated goal, so to what extent did BLC live up to its mission to provide inspiration, practical skills, and an expanding professional network?

INSPIRATION:

I’m definitely inspired as a result of the conference, most directly as a result of the keynote addresses. Keynotes exist to provide some thematic framing to a conference and to inspire so it makes sense that I found them inspiring. It was particularly encouraging to see a theme of continuous educator growth emerge from the six keynote presenters. Dylan Wiliam was the most extreme saying that teachers who do not believe they can continue growing should be fired, but each presenter shared a message that we need to honor teachers’ continuous growth, highlighting that evaluating teachers is not the same as growing them. This aligned directly with my own perspective that while teacher evaluation is important, it is meaningless if we do not take actions to improve all our teachers’ abilities.

I was also inspired by Jennie Magiera’s statement that every educator should have an IEP. Wilian echoed this by saying that every educator should have something specific that they’re working on in addition to any district goals or initiatives. I like the idea of explicitly naming what an educator is working on so that we can encourage collaboration, and as a way to help remove the stigma of working for improvement. I hope to find a way to authentically incorporate a practice like this into the professional learning structure in my district.

Beyond the keynote addresses, I was also inspired by a session highlighting the work of students in the Model UN class at Thomas Edison CTE High School in Jamaica Queens, New York. These students, fed up with simply talking about the world’s problems as “constant redundant tragedy”, choose to do work to change create positive change. Through three years of this class they’ve connected with a girl’s school in Pakistan helping them to raise money for walls and to construct working solar panels in order to provide more reliable power to the school. One student went so far as to say “Model UN made [him] want to be a mechanical engineer,” how many students leave their senior year social studies class saying that?

This is not an AP class. This is not a gifted and talented class. This is a regular class of seniors where their teachers got out of the way enough so the students can find their own path to creating impact. Most inspiring was the student who, described the importance of a class where “you can state your opinion and [there’s] not a teacher telling you ‘no you can’t do that’, but a bunch of students saying ‘yes we can do this.” This was a powerful reminder that our students want to engage with meaningful work and that by getting out of their way adults can help facilitate excellence. We won’t find excellence by limiting students to drill and kill worksheets. If we open doors for them and let them cut their own path they will walk through those doors and blaze that trail. We can help them remember that we have their backs while letting them lead.

PRACTICAL RESOURCES:

If this segment is measured in the number of online tools I was introduced to than this conference goes to 11. In session after session presenters flew through a mind blowing arsenal of possible tools ranging from the broad (Twitter, WordPress, Google+, Paper by 53) to the specific (Verso, Prism, HitRecord, 5 Card Flickr); not to mention a host of links to thought leaders, videos, blogs, and MOOCs. The online resources are legion.

I do not, however, measure practical success by the number of tools I am exposed to. I measure it by the number of resources I’m likely to use, and that number is fairly low. The number is not low due to a lack of quality. I expect that many of the tools that presenters recommended are quite excellent, but I didn’t work with any of them long enough to find out if they fit my style. I found more value in the sessions that explored one or two resources instead of the resource samplers. One session in particular provided an overview of the Influencer Framework and while it was only an introduction to the work, I feel like I know enough to do something with it. By contrast, another session introduced me to Re.vu for all of thirty seconds before moving on to the next resource. I don’t know very much about the tool and I am frankly unlikely to go back and vet each resource I was exposed to.

The resource dump sessions feel a lot like being sprayed with an information hose (credit to Walter Parker for the metaphor) and by the end of three days of getting hosed, I’m feeling rather wet and I just want to change into dry clothes and curl up on the couch. It can be frustrating to unexpectedly attend a resource dump session and I left a few feeling a bit ambushed. Though this session format is rather inefficient, I see potential benefit to these sessions and it would be great if they could be identified in the schedule, allowing participants to make more informed decisions. One or two like this would have been fine. Five was far too many.

EXPANDING PROFESSIONAL NETWORK:

Despite the packed schedule, the conference did well here, or perhaps, I did well. There was little about the conference that actively pushed or encouraged me to network with others and it would have been very easy for me to go through the conference session by session without any meaningful human interaction. Similarly, few presenters encouraged dialogue during their sessions and there were minimal opportunities for personal interaction in the interstitial moments between sessions.

Despite these constraints, I made a choice to actively pursue networking throughout the three days. To this end I actively tweeted during sessions and I’m coming away with 20-30 new followers on Twitter and while it’s not a huge number, it’s more than I would have if I’d simply taken notes silently.

This active Twitter presence paid off a couple more times. On the third day, while tweeting Jamie Magiera’s keynote, I received a direct message from Chris Davis asking me if I wanted to be interviewed for his podcast. He specifically asked because he’d seen me tweeting and liked what he read on my blog. It would have been easy to decline, saying I had a session to go to, one I was excited to attend no less, but I chose the interview over the session. This interview then led to another opportunity when Chris connected me with Bob Greenberg and I did a short video for the Brainwaves Video Anthology. (I’ll embed my video when it goes live.) None of these opportunities would have come up just by taking notes and attending the sessions one after the other. I had to actively pursue networking in order to make it happen. It was a good reminder about the importance of planning and intentionality.

SUMMARY:

BLC definitely has it’s own feel. It’s a bit like stepping directly into Alan November’s brain. There are tons of ideas bouncing around at light speed and some of them are bound to slam into you. The conference is not without its faults, yet from within the chaos patterns emerged when I allowed them to. There were consistent messages about the value of students owning their own learning and the importance of continuous growth. It’s a shame, however, that most of these stories of authentic student learning and continuous growth were delivered in a fairly straightforward lecture format. Keynote speaker Jennie Magiera went so far as to let us all know that she was self aware of the problematic nature of communicating with nothing but her voice and some slides, but continued using the dominant form nonetheless. I look forward to when we use what we know about best practices for students with adults as well. This takes a level of intentionality on behalf of presenters to treat their sessions like a classroom or a learning experience, and not just an overview of what they do. Are we interested in exposing educators to new ideas, or do we want to help facilitate a more substantial change in practice? The conference had the former in spades and left me looking for the latter.

I fully expect that the conference will have more impact on me than I can name at this moment. It’s very likely that I will keep revisiting my notes from the various sessions to explore the ideas presented to me. For example, I know that Amy Burvall’s presentation on remix and mashup has me thinking about concepts of blending and appropriation in education. I’m not leaving with specific, named, or explicit pieces of learning that I plan to implement. The learning is more abstract and ethereal at the moment, but perhaps it will coalesce over the next few months.

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.

In the world of education new state and federal guidelines are typically met with large helpings of skepticism, resistance, and resentment. This has been the case with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, and a majority of other policy roll outs in recent years. With this pattern in mind, I was understandably wary when the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced new state standards for mentoring and induction that will go live for the 2015-16 school year.

The new guidelines were finalized in April and now that I’ve had a chance to review them in detail, I’m happy to say that I’m excited for the potential impacts. DESE put together a strong set of program guidelines that move Massachusetts closer to standards of best practice that the New Teacher Center supports, without creating an unreasonable financial burden for school districts. The new guidelines primarily improve alignment to educator evaluation standards, increase support for mentors and beginning educators, and require districts to report their program details to DESE. Within each of these categories are meaningful program minimums that still allow for substantial local control when it comes to program specifics. This has the potential to ensure a broad and substantial level of beginning educator support without being overly restrictive.

Improved Alignment to Evaluation Standards:

The previous mentoring and induction guidelines were created before Massachusetts’ switch to new methods of evaluating teachers and the revised mentoring standards bring mentoring in line with evaluation. There are numerous changes in the 2015 guidelines that make explicit connections to the new evaluation standards, improving clarity all around. These alignments focus on the role of mentoring in educator preparation, evaluation, and ongoing professional development.

For educator preparation the guidelines define the relationship between a student teacher and their supervising practitioner to be similar to mentor/mentee relationship. This sets some implicit (and explicit) guidelines for the kind of support a student teacher should expect from their supervising practitioner. This is helpful because at the moment the support a student teacher receives is dependent on their paired practitioner and the guidelines established by their specific teacher preparation program, leading to very different results from person to person. The new mentoring guidelines also establish protocols for performance assessments for pre-service teachers based on the standards they will experience in their first years of teaching. This is an important step to increasing the reliability and validity of pre-service assessments and districts hiring beginning teachers should not have a clearer picture of their incoming staff.

In terms of evaluation and professional development, the new mentoring guidelines make a brief, but important mention that a teacher’s professional development should be linked to areas identified in their evaluation. Additionally the guidelines define mentoring as a form of ongoing professional development thereby creating a formal link between mentoring and goals for improving an educator’s effectiveness. This is a powerful statement that was missing from previous versions of the guidelines and it should serve to further validate the mentor’s work.

Increased Support for Mentors and Educators:

The biggest change here for districts are the requirements that mentors receive ongoing training and support for mentoring as well as a requirement that both new educators and mentors receive release time in order to conduct observations and other core mentoring work.

The requirement for ongoing training and support for mentors is crucial. I know that in my own experience as a mentor I needed to develop a very new skillset for working with adults. Many of my teaching skills carried over to mentoring, but there are unique skills and competencies that one needs to work with adults in a mentoring capacity. I remember a time when describing my work as a mentor and a colleague said, “that sounds great, you just tell people what to do all day!” That could not be further from the truth. I would have been a terrible mentor with that attitude. A strong mentor needs to be seen as a collaborative partner in the beginning teacher’s development. Since the mentor holds no evaluative authority, the work must be done with both parties’ consent. The mentor does not have the same authority with their beginning teacher as a teacher does with their students. Therefore a mentor needs to cultivate a new mindset for how to approach their work. This takes dedicated time and practice. It is encouraging to see the guidelines recognize this need.

The release time for both parties is equally critical. One of the most powerful ways for a mentor to support a new teacher is through observing the teacher’s practice and debriefing the experience. This cannot be accomplished when the mentor works full time in another capacity. The mentoring will always take a back seat to the mentor’s primary job. Additionally it is critical to a new teacher’s development that they are able to observe other teachers and broaden their set of experiences. Both of these activities require that the mentoring experience be given dedicated time. The mentor must have the flexibility to work with a teacher’s highly restrictive schedule and the new teacher needs time to put aside other priorities and focus on their own development. Without that sacred time the work will always be supplanted by other responsibilities like teaching, lesson planning, or grading.

It is important to note that while the new mentoring guidelines specify release time, they do not specify the nature or amount of that time. This is a key area where districts could invest heavily in their mentoring programs to ensure robust support for their beginning educators. A superficial amount of release time could technically fulfill the requirement without significantly improving the level of support a mentor or educator receives. I am hopeful that districts see this as an opportunity to make meaningful improvements to their mentoring programs.

Mandated Reporting:

In reality the component for mandatory reporting is quite small. The report itself is fairly superficial and only asks districts to submit basic statistics on their programs such as the number of teachers served, the number of mentors, who receives mentoring, and similar numerical or yes/no data. The reporting is interesting, however, when situated in the New Teacher Center’s model for evaluating a mentoring program’s impact. The data that DESE is asking for now fall squarely in the “Counting” category but those data provide the foundation for accessing the more detailed information on program quality and teacher retention in the future. I hypothesize that after a few years of requiring this counting data, DESE will expand their reporting requirements to include measures of program quality and teacher retention. This is a very positive change from the current situation where no reporting is required and districts typically do not evaluate their mentoring and induction programs.

DESE also added a bit of accountability to the reporting by providing the option for DESE to delay review for a district’s Title II Part A application until DESE receives the district’s mentoring report. This is a strong sign of support for the value of mentoring. Title II Part A typically represents a large portion of a district’s funding for professional learning and improvements in teacher quality. In Washington State, my mentor department was funded largely by Title II Part A funds. These funds are generally critical to a district’s professional development plan, and by linking them to the mentoring report, DESE is further strengthening the link between mentoring and professional development. This may be a bit of a rude awakening for some districts that are not in the habit of collecting these data, but the report is by no means onerous and the data should be fairly straightforward to collect.

Analysis:

I see these new guidelines as overwhelmingly positive for improving support to beginning teachers. Some of the changes are small, however, the guidelines move Massachusetts closer to the New Teacher Center’s standards for high quality induction and they show a thoughtful approach by allowing for a large degree of local discretion.

Personally I wish the guidelines went even further to require more robust new teacher support, but I respect that many districts may not be able to financially implement the kinds of changes it would take to hire and support full time mentors in their district. The current guidelines strike a reasonable balance while moving the program minimums in the proper direction. This is an encouraging move from DESE and perhaps in a few years DESE will be in a position to move the guidelines even closer to the New Teacher Center Standards.

I hope that with these new guidelines requiring mentor training, release time, and annual reporting, that districts will find ways to invest more heavily in their mentoring programs. The guidelines bring Massachusetts quite close to the New Teacher Center’s model of full-time mentors with a 1:15 mentor:mentee ratio and this seems like an excellent opportunity to make the additional investments to get there in full. Many districts will already be making significant investment to bring their programs in line with the new guidelines and with a little more investment they could offer a truly robust level of support for their beginning educators. Hopefully these new mentoring and induction guidelines will also lead to greater new teacher quality and retention across the state.

In the winter of 2013 I was presented with an opportunity: I could become an instructional mentor (IM) at 0.4 FTE but to do so I’d have to give up two of my classes and work the reminder of the year in a split mentor/teacher position. I was excited to mentor new teachers because of how influential my own mentor had been, but I wasn’t sure about the timing. That year I had four sections of AP World History and a pilot class that I was designing combining 11th grade AVID and IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK). I was not eager to leave any of my students, but I knew that I couldn’t leave the AVID/TOK class due to the unique relationships involved as well as the pilot nature of the new course. I was also afraid of betraying my AP World History students by leaving them with a long-term substitute only three months before their exam.

Despite my concerns, I knew this would be a foot in the door for a possible full time mentor position the following year, which I was definitely interested in. I was additionally concerned that, due to the split position, I wouldn’t be an effective teacher or mentor, thereby letting down the students I left, the students I retained, and the new teachers I would be mentoring. In the end I agreed to take the position, aware of the potential challenges. We don’t get to pick when opportunity knocks.

The split position was immediately challenging. Because of my insistence on keeping the AVID/TOK class, I taught AP World History periods 1, 2, and AVID/TOK 7th period at my high school while doing IM work during the middle of the day. This meant that I could only meet teachers between 2nd and 7th periods (essentially 9:15AM-1:30PM) and I had novice teachers across the district at four other schools, not to mention continuing responsibilities at the high school. If a teacher needed me to observe a particularly difficult 7th period class, I simply couldn’t do it. I had one teacher with 1st and 2nd periods as planning, so we always had to meet after school which was inconvenient for her and limited my ability to provide appropriate support. As a result, the mentoring relationship never fully developed. I often had to artificially end meetings to return to school and more than once I returned late to my 7th period AVID/TOK class because of traffic in town, leaving my AVID students frustrated and underserved. You can’t simply be five minutes late to a class of students the way you might be able to with a meeting of adults.

In addition to the scheduling challenges, I found it difficult to find time to work with the rest of the IM team. I couldn’t always make team meetings, or they had to be scheduled around my own highly restrictive schedule. I missed out on the micro-moments of interaction where you informally ask a team member for advice, or help them problem solve a particularly challenging situation and I never felt like part of the team even though everyone was extremely welcoming. There simply was not enough contact time.

My attention was continually divided and I could never do my best work as either teacher or mentor. Both roles are intellectually demanding and I was always swapping from one mindset to the other. The cost is too high in both time and focus to be constantly switching back and forth. I found myself regularly eating lunch in the car on the way to a meeting, and doing most of my lesson planning and grading at night because my planning time turned into travel time. I felt disconnected from my school, my students, and the other mentors.

The semester of the split position made the choice to move completely out of the classroom easier. The experience helped me realized that in order to do my best work I needed to fully commit to either mentoring or teaching. I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to mentor a 0.8FTE while continuing to teach the AVID/TOK class but this was simply out of the question as each role demands full attention for quality performance.

Districts often make split positions for teachers due to cost or enrollment, hiring a teacher at two schools to help them work full time. To a certain extent we are helping the teacher by getting them greater FTE (and consequently more pay) when we wouldn’t be able to otherwise,  but when we hire a teacher at 0.4 FTE at once school and 0.6 at another we neglect the significant cost incurred by travel and switching roles. Reimbursing a teacher financially for travel, does not refund their lost time for planning and building relationships. When I was split between mentoring and teaching it required more then 1.0FTE to do both roles properly.

That experience is exacerbated by the rigidity of the teaching schedule and the multiple responsibilities that teachers have beyond their standard workday. You can’t be flexible and meet a student or parent before school if you’re physically teaching at a different location in the mornings.  You can’t integrate into a staff culture at two buildings then their staff meetings are scheduled at the same time. You make a choice to be more involved with one building and your relationships at the other suffer for it. When a district sets times for parent/teacher conferences you simply have to choose a school. This negatively impacts everyone in the equation.

To make matters even more problematic, novice teachers are typically assigned the lion’s share of split positions. To an extent this is understandable; as teachers gain seniority we want to honor that commitment by assigning them more desirable positions, but this means that novice teachers who already need more support are put in a more challenging position than the veteran. Additionally, novice teachers are unlikely to be in a financial position that allows them to refuse the additional FTE at a second school and work part time in favor of developing their practice. In an extreme case I supported a teacher with 0.5  total FTE who worked at three different buildings spanning students from 1st grade to 12th grade. She is an extremely strong educator and made the experience work, but only by working far above and beyond her assigned FTE for no additional compensation. She worked beyond full time hours for half time pay. Her professional growth and her sense of accomplishment would have been much accelerated in a more supportive teaching assignment at a single school.

A better option than the split position would be to find other ways to fill out a teacher’s FTE  at a single school. I appreciate that finances and a given teacher’s endorsement can make this challenging, but it would go a long way to showing support for a new teacher. The current structure of compensating teachers solely by the number of sections they teach allows for little flexibility in work assignments.

It would be particularly supportive for a school or district to commit to hiring beginning teachers in a full time capacity even when they teach fewer classes. The additional time could be then spent in collaboration, observing peers, co-teaching, or working with a mentor or coach. This built in time would also respect that beginning teachers need additional support to do the same level of work of the veteran teacher. It is unreasonable to expect the beginner to operate at the same standard as the veteran, however, that is precisely the environment that a beginning teacher finds when they begin work. I respect that this is a challenging and expensive solution, however, rates of teacher attrition, particularly in large, urban, poverty-impacted districts are simply unsustainable. Providing a more inviting initial experience would help teachers remain in the profession longer to build their skills. It would also go a long way to building loyalty with a district or an individual school.

I appreciate that the split position really is the only option at times and I had the luxury of choosing my split position for career advancement as opposed to ensuring that I could pay rent, but we need to know up front to expect reduced effectiveness. I’m glad that my evaluation at the time was not linked to my students’ test scores. How can we reasonably provide the same evaluation for a teacher who is full time at a single school and a teacher split between multiple locations? The split teacher simply cannot provide the same level of focused attention. The split position should be explicitly noted in a teacher’s evaluation, or they should receive an additional stipend to acknowledge the particularly challenging assignment. Splitting a teacher’s FTE should be a last resort and not standard practice.

For all the exploration of the learning process from understanding the impact of students’ past experience, to conducting brain scans during learning, to exploring the concept of the zone of proximal development, there is remarkably little work on what it means to teach.

We can explain teachingbrainwhat it means to give a lecture, or facilitate an experience, but are those activities explicitly teaching? Is it teaching when a child helps their younger sibling understand the rules of a game? Is it teaching when an adolescent helps their grandparent use Skype for the first time? Is there a difference between the child helping their sibling and what occurs in the classroom of a trained professional teacher? In The Teaching Brain Vanessa Rodriguez answers yes to all four questions. Those are all teaching interactions, however, they are each teaching at varied levels of complexity and development.

Rodriguez’s core claim is that classroom teaching is substantially more complex than we imagine it to be. Teaching, unlike learning, is inherently an interaction between teacher and learner. One can learn independently, but you can never teach in isolation. Teaching, like other skills, also has varying degrees of complexity from the reflexive level that primarily uses the midbrain, to high levels of conceptual abstraction requiring a strong understanding of intersectional relationships. This could explain the difference between teaching someone rote memorization of capitol cities and teaching someone the complex power relationships between black citizens of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department.

This explanation of teaching as a complex interaction represents an important shift from only examining the cognitive demands of the learner to examining the relationship between the cognitive demands on both learner and teacher simultaneously.

In addition to the complexity scale, Rodriguez lays out five areas of awareness that a teacher can grow in order to become more effective as helping others learn new concepts. Each area of awareness can be developed from a very basic level to a highly nuanced and complex level.

  • Awareness of Learner: This is most commonly discussed as a teacher’s knowledge of their students. If I understand that my student loves skateboarding, I can potentially serve them better by making explicit connections between the content in class and their love of skateboarding.  If I do not have this knowledge, I may miss opportunities to engage them in the class.
  • Awareness of Teaching Practice: This awareness is also commonly discussed. This would be a teacher’s understanding of their own pedagogical abilities. This could be thought of as the teacher’s toolbox of techniques and their ability to self-assess their pedagogical skill or classroom management. An example could be that I am aware that I like to facilitate discussion in my social studies classes and I’ve developed particular methods for engaging students in discussion of relevant topics. This area is commonly seen in teacher evaluations.
  • Awareness of Context: The awareness of context is often where we begin to differentiate good teachers from more average teachers. This would be the idea that a teacher may adapt their plans in light of an event or respond to student experience. For example a teacher may abandon their lesson plan when a particularly important current event occurs so that they can help their students explore it. This would be a teacher that takes advantage of “teachable moments” to provide highly relevant instruction.
  • Awareness of Self as Teacher: In my experience this is an undervalued awareness and I only found it actively mentioned in mentoring scenarios. This awareness is understanding how your individual nature impacts your teaching. This means an understanding that my race, gender identity, and cultural background all have an impact on my teaching. This was explicitly brought to my attention in my first year of teaching when a Jewish student specifically asked for my advice on a sensitive topic because I’d identified my Jewish background to the class. It is possible she may have not felt as comfortable coming to me otherwise. Additionally that same piece of my identity may have negatively impacted other students, but regardless of my desires, it has an impact on my teaching that I need to be aware off. My ability to speak Spanish has other unique impacts that I can be aware of.
  • Awareness of Interaction: This last awareness is where Rodriguez introduces particularly new ideas. She claims that it is not sufficient to understand the learner and understand the self, but we must be aware of the unique interaction that occurs when the teacher interacts with a given learner or group of learners. The challenge here is that each interaction is unique and can be highly impacted by the other four categories. My interaction with a given student may change dramatically in a new context and in order to be effective I need to understand that awareness. My interaction with a group of students can also be impacted by my knowledge of their backgrounds and by my awareness of my self as a teacher. This is a highly nuanced awareness and depends significant exploration to fully understand.

Beyond simply naming these categories of awareness, Rodriguez posits that each one has varying degrees of complexity and a given teacher can develop their skill and level of awareness through practice. This is where her research becomes particularly useful to me and my interest in developing new teachers.

As a mentor, I struggled at times to help teachers find a clear way to develop their practice. Many districts use Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, however, the framework highly emphasizes Awareness of Learner and Awareness of Teaching Practice without significant mention of the Awareness of Context, Self, or Interaction. Additionally, Danielson makes the assumption that the highest degree of teaching skill is for students to be independent yet does not allow for varied contexts where it may be desirable for the teacher to take a more active role, for example during the introduction of new concepts or content. With some additional work to flesh out descriptors and examples for the five areas of awareness at varying levels of complexity, one could have a powerful structure for understanding various pathways to teacher development.

That being said, I would caution against handing such a structure to a teacher, particularly a beginning teacher, and ask them to go develop their awareness. Developing Awareness of Self as a Teacher may include significant introspective work that is best facilitated by a coach or mentor. Additionally the Awareness of Interaction would require extensive reflection and analysis of teaching moments, likely best captured on video and collaboratively analyzed. As such, the five areas of awareness, and their levels of complexity, would be a powerful structure for a new teacher mentor, principal, or an instructional coach. This would provide the person assisting the teacher’s growth with a vocabulary and guidance beyond their own personal experience and as the mentor/mentee role is in many ways a teaching interaction this framework could guide the mentor or coach as well in their own development.

Often in my work as a mentor I found myself searching for meaningful vocabulary to describe the importance of awareness of self. The structure outlined in The Teaching Brain would be helpful to better categorize and explain how to develop. Additionally, the concept of varying cognitive complexity allows for discussions of teacher development even when the classroom appears to be running smoothly. I’ve seen evaluators struggle to discuss improvement when teachers are doing well, and the awareness of self as teacher and awareness of interaction can be continually developed because we change, our students change, and there are always new interactions when we encounter new people in new contexts. This is also not limited to the teacher/student interaction and could be explored as interactions between peers or supervisors in the appropriate context.

I had the opportunity to speak with Rodriguez to explore her ideas further and she is in the process of examining how the brain reacts during the teaching interaction for both teacher and learner. Humans can teach and learn by instinct, and we are continually teaching each other, yet we have little understanding of teaching itself, or what differentiates the highly skilled master teacher in the classroom from the untrained lay person.

We each have an experience with “that one great teacher” who moved us in a particular way, and we can say with confidence that there was something that made the teacher stand above the other teachers, yet we can seldom put that experience into words. My high school English teacher Nancy Jones held me accountable for the quality of my work, but there were also innumerable other interactions we had and decisions she made that are intangible or invisible to me. Something she did put me in a place to be ready to hear her feedback and the integrate that feedback into my own practice. It would be incredible to be able to name and identify those intangible components to better learn from her example and other master teachers.

Teaching in the United States suffers from a powerful lack of credibility. Providing teachers with scripted lessons, fast tracking certification with minimal training, and evaluating teachers based on compliance undermine the concept that a teacher is a highly trained professional. Perhaps through further development of Rodriguez’s initial work we can better understand teaching as a complex interaction between teacher and learner that is highly tailored to the individual’s needs. Perhaps by better understanding that interaction, we can more effectively name the qualities of excellent teaching and, more clearly honor and praise teachers for the work they do.

Excellent teaching should not be magical or random. Excellent teaching must come from training, reflective practice, and dedication to the craft. In order for that to occur we need to better understand teaching itself. With The Teaching Brain, Rodriguez has made an excellent beginning and opened the door for many years of additional research.

“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. 

Education reform is overflowing with suggestions for what to do. It’s easy to find new ways to differentiate, new ways to incorporate student response, and improved methods for increasing student engagement. Suggestions, recommendations, tips, and tricks abound each one adding to an educator’s tool box, knapsack, and quiver. The implication being that the more robust your repertoire, the more capable you are to meet student needs. Sensible.

A quick scan of Edutopia alone will return more options than a single educator could implement in five years of practice. Randomized student response and cold calling students both improve student participation substantially. Project Based Learning is a fantastic change in practice that requires a lot of work and preparation that can improve outcomes for students. Sometimes, however, it’s what you don’t do that has the most impact.

I’ve written about “Andy” before. He was a student in my AP World History class and I’ve continued to work with him during his time as a running start student. In particular I’ve been working with him on writing for the college application process.

He was asked to respond to the following prompt as part of an application: [Our] students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (100 to 250 words)

Andy was initially a bit perplexed about how to respond so I encouraged him to just write a bunch of ideas and then we’d come back to it and sort out the mess. This was part of our general pattern of working together. Write a bunch of rough stuff and we’ll work it out later. He came back with the following two paragraphs. I’m including them with his permission:

When I was just a bit younger, I was apathetic to education. Tell a kid to give up on his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might. The ceaseless snorts and guffaws that erupted from my math teacher did little to improve my feelings about algebra. In the midst of this rather bleak time, I met Mr. McCormick. Mr. McCormick taught AP world history. As much as I disliked math, it was still leagues ahead of my disdain for history.

However, Mr. McCormick introduced something new. He brought a human element. He showed me to the idea that a teacher could care, and in doing so was the first person in years to tell me that if I wanted to build rockets, I should try. While seeing the stars reaffirmed my desire to work in the space industry, I would have never been using the telescope had Mr. McCormick not shifted my attitude to what it is now. I believe that I have intellectual vitality, I have the hunger to learn and the need to improve the world. I’m not sure I would, had it not been for Gabe Mccormick.

I don’t remember the interaction. Andy’s statement that he wanted to go to space didn’t impact me. To me it was one in a series of things kids say: “I want to be an astronaut.” “I want to be a senator.” “I really need to pass this class.” There’s a huge category of things kids say that begin to just wash over you as an educator. My response was likely automatic.

“Mr. McCormick, I want to be an astrophysicist.”

“Cool, go for it.” And then I’d move on.

To me I was acknowledging his participation without making a big deal out of it. To him I was validating his dream.

“Tell a kid to give up on his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might.”

What if we reverse the pattern? Tell a kid to pursue his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might.

As educators what we say carries weight. Often far more weight than we imagine. In the way that every one of an artist’s brush strokes are intentional, so should an educator be intentional with their language. In education we talk a lot about how to encourage kids and the danger of negative interaction, but it was never real to me until Andy described it this way. My sentence impacted his life. I gave an automatic response. How much more impact would I have made if my response had been deliberate? In conversation with him about it I asked him what made the difference. He said simply, “You didn’t laugh at me.”

How many other people did laugh at him? How many times does a student offer up a desire to be president, or a scientist, or a rock star and get laughed at? Some students are resilient enough to keep going, or they have support at home, or from peers, but not all of them.

When a student becomes vulnerable and shares their desires our responsibility as educators is to help them see the possibility. I don’t encourage lying to students or misleading them about realities, but far be it from me to shut the door for them. Some of our students only have their teachers for guidance.

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.

Willpower. Not necessarily a new concept. I’ve been thinking of willpower primarily as the ability to activate self control. When one has high willpower they are better able to resist temptation, restrict behavior, and work through the push to act impulsively. I also thought that willpower was fixed. Some people have a lot, some people have a little bit, and that’s all you get. After spending six hours with Kelly McGonigal as part of the New Teacher Center Symposium, I’ve learned that I held an incredibly impoverished view of willpower, how to activate it, and how to grow my own capacity for willpower. After one day, her work on willpower has completely invaded my life.

For McGonigal (a psychologist) willpower encompasses the regulation of three primary impulses: I won’t, I want, and I will. These three components work as a unit to create a willpower system that we activate differently. We may activate willpower to decline dessert, to encourage ourselves to jump off a high dive, or to maintain focus on a long term goal.  All three of these impulses require the work of the prefrontal cortex in different ways and based on our experiences and our neural pathways we are more or less adept at activating different aspects of our willpower.

With a base definition out of the way McGonigal proceeded to add her own definition for willpower layered on top of that three part system, framing issues of willpower as a competition between different versions of our self. These different selves exist concurrently and it is through our willpower that we balance their competing influences in order to create the best version of ourself. The version of ourself that best aligns with our values. By recognizing and accepting this duality we can best leverage and grow our willpower. This is an incredibly empowering concept of willpower as it honors one’s current status and expects growth and change will occur.

Willpower with a Growth Mindset

Central to the entire framework that McGonigal established is the assumption that willpower is a growable skill. In short that Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mindset for intelligence is immediately applicable to one’s willpower. There’s been research lately around willpower that we have a finite amount of it, and once depleted it needs to be restored. McGonigal did not refute this, however, she made it very clear that this store of willpower, while finite in the short term, is expandable in the long term. This is an extremely important distinction because it means we can get better at leveraging willpower and McGonigal used a muscular model to explain the concept.

In the muscle model of willpower we have to work our willpower much in the same way we develop physically. This means that we can begin to develop our willpower now. It’s an easy misconception to think that we need to fix something before we work on a difficult task, but part of the point of developing willpower is that difficult actions get easier when we take action. It’s the whole point of the growth mindset. Jumping off that high dive looks extremely intimidating until you do it the first time. Do it once, and it’s immediately much easier to do again. The other key component is that we need to see failure as progress. When you’re weightlifting, you regularly push your muscles to the point of fatigue and the recovery day is where your body rebuilds itself you get stronger. You only know your max deadlift by hitting your max, and then failing the next rep. The same goes for willpower. You need to get to the fatigue point in order to know where your limits are, then you recover, recharge your energy, and come back stronger. This can be easily leveraged by setting up willpower challenges for yourself in the same way you’d design a muscular or cardiovascular workout. It’s absolutely fantastic to think that this will work for my willpower in the same way that it works for my posterior muscle chain.

The last important piece of the growth mindset framework for willpower is that the feedback loop has to focus on effort and growth. You improved your ability to resist refined sugar by 10%? Fantastic! Honor that growth and keep growing. Set the next benchmark. You worked really hard to avoid that cigarette, but finally gave in? Honor the effort you put in. You probably resisted longer than you did last time. Respect that you tried, and try again next time. Beating yourself up for failure won’t help. In fact, beating yourself up over failure or relapse completely undermines the growth mindset and often encourages us to double down on the coping mechanisms or behaviors we’re trying so hard to change. We need to act from a place of compassion and forgiveness for ourselves.

Willpower Requires Self-Connection and Compassion

This is where McGonigal’s talk seriously opened a crack in my reality. I could easily accept that willpower is potentially infinite and we can develop it through practice. That concept fits for me right next to my thinking about a growth mindset, but when I hit the failure wall with willpower I’m pretty quick to apply some guilt and try to shame myself into correcting the behavior. The theory goes like this: I hate that I procrastinate, so if I give myself the third degree when I procrastinate then I’ll be motivated to stop procrastinating. Right? Wrong.

Turns out that doesn’t work. When we apply shame or guilt to an action (or lack of action) we encourage ourselves to apply the coping mechanism that we already use and we run back to familiar neural pathways. When I berate myself for procrastinating I make it more likely that I will continue to procrastinate because I want to avoid the feelings associated with thinking about procrastination. Simply put, you can’t shame or guilt yourself into improvement. You need to honor the fact that the self that wants to procrastinate and the self that wants to change that behavior coexist in you. This may be frustrating to think about the self that procrastinates, but it also means that your best self already exists. You just have to activate it.

In order to facilitate this process McGonigal claims that self compassion and forgiveness is the proper path forward. By practicing self-compassion we can be mindful of our stress, suffering, and failure, without perseverating on them. This allows us to act from a position of non-attachment and without judgment. (McGonigal definitely has some semi-covert Buddhism going on in her work.) By doing that we can perform what she calls “self-mentoring,” meaning that we can advise ourselves as a mentor or coach would: maintaining big picture perspective, and encouraging corrective action instead of perseverating on our failures. This is extremely important because it’s so easy to spiral in on ourselves and dwell in our perceived failure without performing the necessary actions to correct for that failure. By removing our self-attachment, while still acting from a position of self-compassion we can remove judgment, which can be paralytic, and act.

Know Yourself

The cherry on top of the self-compassion sundae is self-connection. If willpower is making decisions that align with our long term goals when those goals conflict with short term rewards, then we can only properly exercise our willpower if we understand our long term goals. Similarly, if willpower helps us maintain a personal agenda when other try to hijack it, we need to be sure enough of our personal agenda that we are confident that the agenda of others is inappropriate. Therefore in order to use our willpower effectively we need to know ourselves and understand our goals.

I did not initially expect this, however, it became immediately clear when McGonigal explained it by saying that when we feel a weak connection to our future self we are more likely to make decisions that benefit our current self, while if we feel a strong connection to our future self we are more likely to make decisions that benefit our future self. Said another way, if we don’t know what we want in the future, we ignore it, and focus on the present. This immediately highlighted the importance of self-reflection to our ability to grow our willpower. If I want to stop eating sugar, and eat some celery instead, I need to have a very clear image of the long term benefit of eating less sugar. Without that clear image I’m weighing an immediate, concrete, desire to eat sugar against a vague image of “I want to be healthy.” This vague goal simply cannot compete against the concrete desire for sweet things.

To this end McGonigal introduced a practice of vividly imagining self defining future moments from a self-compassionate perspective. She described it as creating future memory. Want to get fit? Create the most detailed image of yourself being fit as you possibly can. What will you look like? Where will you exercise? What will you eat? How will it taste? What will it smell like? What does it feel like to be covered in sweat? What’s it going to feel like when you do push-ups until you fatigue? The more completely you can create that future memory, the more clear your target is for your willpower. By concretizing (new vocab word!) your long term goal, you make it easier to make decisions that lead you do that goal and you begin thinking about the process by which you can achieve it. You’re building pathways that support your willpower to replace your current neural pathways.

Conclusion

Willpower is about control. Physiologically, It’s about using your prefrontal cortex to rationally control your midbrain urges. In more everyday terms it’s about subordinating your immediate urges in favor of your more long-term goals for yourself.

It turns out this is pretty difficult. Those immediate impulses are strong, and there are a myriad of internal and environmental factors that encourage us to act on impulse. We are well trained to listen to our midbrain In order to more reliably act in support of our long-term goals we need to practice and grow our willpower. This includes creating a concrete image of our future self, thus allowing more equal competition between long-term goal, and immediate impulse. We also need to reframe willpower and failure within the framework of a growth mindset. This allows challenge to become a growth opportunity, and failure becomes a learning experience. Lastly we need to practice a mindful acceptance of our failures as observation without judgment. This will allow us to understand the influences that cause us to submit to impulse while viewing ourselves with compassion, thus helping us to stop perseverating on failure, and encouraging positive action.

This five hour talk has seriously invaded my life. It’s only been a couple days and I already know that I will continue to reorganize and apply the information to my work as an instructional mentor, my work as a spouse, and my work as a human being. There are significant portions of McGonigal’s work that I’ve omitted (like her excellent presentation technique and her focus on the role of the physical in developing willpower) for the sake of space, and I’m sure, as with Mindset, I will be continually revisiting these concepts.