Archive

Tag Archives: Teaching

Pop quiz, hotshot.

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

What do you do? What do you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Re-visiting a classic is a challenge. I find myself wondering if it will still be relevant or if it will live up to the hype. How much of a universal theme will carry through to an audience many years removed from the original writing.

In education classics age particularly poorly given the rate of research distraction in the field. A ten year old text can feel antiquated and twenty years feels like a lifetime. Educational fads change quickly as the field shoots wildly in hops of finding a silver bullet for student achievement. I’m doubly hesitant when it comes to texts on educational equity. How could a text written before No Child Left Behind and the rise of the education reform movement accurately represent the pressures that teachers feel to educate each child to the highest levels? Equity feels even more tense in a post-Trayvon Martin, post-Michael Brown, post- Eric Garner, America. (And even more pressing in a post-2016 Election America.)

With these thoughts I began to read Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria?” an unquestioned classic that many educators read in preparation programs.“Why Are All the Black Kids…” is coming up on its twentieth year. Published in 1997, the text essentially covers the basics of racial identity development with a particular focus on Black people in the context of schools.
why_are_all_the_black_kidsThe text is still very strong and deserves its status as a classic. Tatum deftly describes and explores the institutional structures that maintain racism and the ways that people of color, specifically Black people, develop their own racial identities as they negotiate those structures throughout their lives. The chapters on youth and adolescence will be particularly salient for educators as they work to understand their students.

Tatum succeeds in creating a classic by focusing on timeless issues. While the title alludes to a text about schooling, and the text itself is routinely assigned in graduate schools of education, “Why Are All the Black Kids…” is not fundamentally about education or schools. The text is about racial identity development in the context of an institutionally racist society. The text covers schools and schooling because they are a fundamental player in a person’s identity development, but Tatum also addresses influences of community, peers, and the work world from birth through the entire life of a person.

“Why Are All the Black Kids…” most obviously shows its age in statistics and discussion of people of color other than Blacks. This makes sense. The book is a product of its time and Tatum can only use the existing 1997 statistics to make her points. If anything many of the statistics that she presents have only become more troubling in the subsequent nineteen years. Schools are increasingly segregated along racial lines despite rapidly growing Asian and LatinX populations across the country.

At the beginning of chapter 8 where Tatum addresses identity development in people of color who are not Black (or not solely Black) she acknowledges her limits wondering how she might “make the experiences of [her] Latino, Asian, and Native students visible without tokenizing them,” drawing the conclusion that she might not be able to but, ” a sincere, though imperfect, attempt to interrupt the oppression of others is usually better than no attempt at all.” To this end Tatum quickly exposes core issues of oppression that exist for LatinX, Asian, and Native communities without trying to claim expertise. When possible, Tatum also acknowledges other scholars who are more deeply involved with these communities. The ever growing Asian, LatinX, and Middle Eastern populations in the United States and the experiences of those populations in schools highlights the need to include races other than Black and white in conversations of educational equity and antiracist education.

The sentiment that a sincere attempt is better than no attempt is a valuable model. As a white educator focusing on anti-racism in schools I am often concerned with how I show up. I work hard to speak my own truth and avoid speaking for others while authentically working to interrupt oppression and I find myself at times second guessing whether I’m “doing it right.” Tatum’s comment frees me of that concern to some extent as long as I am still willing to hear when I make missteps so as to make continuous improvements.

As “Why Are All the Black Kids…” comes up on its twentieth year I hope that Tatum will revisit the text. In some ways Tatum could simply modernize the text with new statistics and new references. A reference to Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice instead of Rodney King. An explanation that the LatinX population is now 16% (up from 12.5% in 2000) and the Asian population continues to grow nationally. It would be fascinating to hear what Tatum has learned about racial identity development in the intervening years as it relates to races other than Blacks.

I wonder if Tatum’s readers would be best served by writing a follow up or companion text – something along the lines of “Why Are All the Black Kids Still Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” In the new context of officer involved shootings of Black youth, Black Lives Matter, Charter Schools, the Obama Presidency, and an upcoming Trump Presidency I imagine identity development is also changing and developing for youth of color.

“Why Are All the Black Kids…” leaves me with more questions than answers. I want to understand the extent to which LatinX, Asian, or Middle Eastern identity development aligns with what Tatum identifies for Black people. I want to understand the variety of ways in which people of color develop their racial identities and how schools support or hinder identity development. I also want to explore more deeply how schools might develop a positive white racial identity that is not rooted in supremacy or exploitation so that white youth can engage the world with an understanding of systematic oppression, a desire to dismantle those systems, and pride in their heritage.

Resolved: Drake is a better rapper than Lil’ Wayne.
Ralph- Pro
Carlos – Con
Thirty seconds – Go!

Ralph: WHAT!? Pro? I can’t argue for a lie!
Carlos: Oh, you’re going down!

That’s that way it goes. First card I draw is pro, second card is con. Get ready Ralph, you’ve got 30 seconds. Go!

Ralph then proceeds to deftly tear down his favorite rapper using every possible negative argument he can come up with off the top of his head in 30 seconds. The class roars their approval. Carlos’ rebuttal in support of Lil’ Wayne doesn’t hold up and Ralph wins the mini-debate to another round of cheers and applause.

Resolved: Soccer is more popular than Football.
Khadija – Pro
Elma – Con
Thirty seconds – Go!

Resolved: Singing is harder than dancing.
Meredith- Pro
Anna – Con
Thirty seconds – Go!

After each 30 second statement for one side or the other students cheer, laugh, and congratulate each other. Expertly delivered lines receive additional cheers mid-statement. Everyone is having a good time and the kids are hooked on public speaking.

Abruptly, the classroom door opens.

Mr. McCormick? My class next door is doing an in-class writing assignment and they need a quiet environment. Your class is disturbing them and they can’t stay focused. Keep it down please.”

A fair point I thought. We had been pretty loud. I tell the class that: “while we’re doing well and I love everyone’s energy, we need to keep it down a bit so the class next door can write.

This lasted for about five minutes before we were shushed by my colleague again. Through the 50 minute period we ended up getting asked to quiet down five or six times so that the class next door could complete their writing assignment. My students made efforts to keep the volume down to 3 or 4, but every time someone did well with a debate or delivered a strong line they shot right back up to 10.

Keep it down!
Were we disturbing the other students and their learning environment? Likely. The school’s walls aren’t that thick and it’s generally pretty easy to hear a loud teacher or movie through the wall, so I’m sure a class full of thirty cheering students carried straight through. Each classroom is one piece of a larger school community so while it is critical that each teacher and each classroom operate in ways that serve their students, they must do so without preventing other classrooms from doing the same.

What happens then when two different learning styles or teaching methodologies rub against each other in conflict?

In this case my 10th grade AVID class was engaged in public speaking practice. Public speaking by its very nature is not a silent activity. In this case we were performing no-prep 30-second debates to work on quick thinking, argument building, and presence in front of the class and the class was into it.

All my students were actively engaged, they listened to their peers, and they provided just-in-time peer feedback. Unfortunately, we were also disturbing our neighbors and disrupting the larger social contract of the school in the process.

An important contextual note: AVID is an elective course that selectively targets students who are traditionally underrepresented in college. There is no single factor to determine eligibility, however, identifying factors often include a student’s race, ethnic background, family history of college attendance, socioeconomic status, test scores, and grades. AVID specifically targets students near the “academic middle” and helps them develop skills and practices to finish high school in a position where they are equipped to enter, and succeed in, college. As a result the population of the AVID class was significantly less white and lower income than the average for this suburban high school and shared many similarities with a more urban classroom comprised of neoindigenous students.

Our neighboring class was 9th grade Gifted English. Students were required to score very high on a district test in order to be eligible to enroll in the gifted program. I was a new teacher at the school and my neighbor was a highly respected veteran. When she entered my classroom and asked me to keep my class quiet my colleague was (intentionally or unintentionally) exercising a power dynamic that prioritized her students’ quiet learning over my students’ loud learning.

Keep it down?
At first glance it would appear that if every class is quiet then all students will learn; no learning will be disturbed. My initial assessment in the moment confirmed this idea.

That concept is only true, however, if every student learns best in a quiet environment. The information before me on that day showed this assumption to be false. My students were interacting directly with their peers’ words and providing high levels of peer feedback in the form of cheers, applause, and other emotive reactions. My class was learning more effectively in a loud environment than I’d previously seen from them in a quiet environment. The speakers were getting more timely feedback on their speaking skills from the class than I could have ever delivered on my own. Every student had multiple chances to debate and practice. By changing the classroom environment to transform that class into a quiet space I was complicit in disrupting my students’ learning in favor of the class next door.

This perpetuated the structure by which those who learn best in a quiet “traditional” school environment receive preferential treatment to those students whose preferred modes of learning do not conform to those “traditional” models. In this specific case wealthier white, South Asian, and East-Asian students were provided preferential treatment over their lower-income Latino/a, black, and Southeast-Asian peers. This particular interaction was a microcosm for the way broader school culture preferentially serves some students more effectively than others.

To further complicate the matter, it is quite possible that teaching exclusively in a “traditional” manner that prioritizes quiet individual work does a disservice to students who prefer that model. The quiet seatwork, lecture, or test-taking model of education is a far cry from the reality of the working world across nearly every field. There is very little of working life that includes listening to lectures or taking tests. In order for our students to be successful when they leave school they need to be able to perform at high levels even when they work day to day in a fast-paced, collaborative, often noisy, work environment.

Complaints are easy young man, solutions are harder.
This interaction had lasting impact on my students’ learning and my own pedagogical decisions. For my students it was an additional cue that their preferred modes of learning exist in conflict with expectation – another example of how they don’t belong. For myself, I intentionally shied away from lesson structures where students would get “too loud” for fear of being reprimanded again. As a result, even though I had the skills and knowledge to replicate the learning environment that created high levels of learning and engagement during the mini-debates, I never repeated that success for the rest of the year because I did not want to rub up against the dominant definition of a good lesson and a well-controlled classroom. I was scared of being reprimanded or judged.

So how do we solve this? How do we create schools and classrooms that accept and value students’ range of learning? Yes, there is plenty of work on multiple intelligences and universal design for learning that highlight the importance of designing learning opportunities that allow all students to leverage their strengths and to shore up their weaknesses. This cannot be reality until the larger structure values that diversity in such a way that one group of students, typically neoindigenous students of color, is no longer asked to continually subordinate their preferred mode of learning to that of other students. These various modes of learning need to be explicitly valued in multiple ways.

One option is to leverage the physical space to allow flexibility. When we design schools we can create spaces that include thicker or soundproof walls so that my loud class doesn’t disturb your quiet class. We can include furniture that moves easily to allow for quicker transitions between seating arrangements from rows, to groups, to a circle. A flexible space would help all teachers and make the creative pedagogy we desire more accessible on a regular basis.

Additionally, school leaders can explicitly validate a range of instructional methods. In my experience with the mini-debates I was immediately concerned that my loud class would reflect poorly on my skills as a new educator. What if my neighbor complained to the principal? Would I be able to keep my job? Would the principal say I had weak classroom management in my review?

The situation could have played out differently if I had more explicit support from my leadership that these methods were valued. In hindsight I think my leadership was supportive, but in the moment I experienced a conflict between my students’ engagement, my neighbor’s sense of disruption, and the power dynamics of the expected learning environment. If we want to fully educate each student that enters our schools we need to create spaces that validate their identities while also creating avenues of access this can be done if educators across all levels of the system are willing to rethink our basic assumptions of how students learn and what that learning looks like.

RashadIsAbsent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achievement Gaps Opportunity and Funding Gaps

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

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

The Null Curriculum:

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

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

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

Students’ Lived Experience:

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

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

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

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

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

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.