Right Book. Right Group. Right Time

I’d had my heart set on reading To Kill a Mockingbird to my current eighth graders since last spring. Thanks largely to Nancie Atwell’s influence (see The Reading Zone, 2007), I no longer assign whole class novels. Instead, read-alouds allow for an accessible whole class experience that supplements students’ independent reading. I know I am lucky to teach at a school where I am trusted to make such pedagogical and curricular decisions.

Although it had been a long time since I’d read it, I was confident that To Kill a Mockingbird would be a valuable literary experience. It would also offer opportunities to connect to and discuss current issues of racism and the justice system. When I revisited it, however, I noticed several challenges. There’s the matter of the narrator’s southern accent, which I knew I could not pull off. There is also dialect and the N-word. I prepped the kids for it, gave them a lot of contextual information, and decided to use an audio recording. Despite those efforts, the kids were disengaged. Whenever I paused for discussion, my usually opinionated and insightful students remained silent. After a couple of days, they asked me to abandon the audio recording and read it aloud myself. I tried, but they were still disengaged. At that point, Anisa said, “Jessie, we know this is a book you really like, but do you think you could choose a book that we would like?”

I grappled with that question for the rest of the day. Did we just need to give the book more time, or was it truly not the right book?

I remember the year I used David James Duncan’s The River Why with ninth graders. I had loved that book, and I was certain that everyone in a pre-Advanced Placement English class would love it too.  After all, what adolescents wouldn’t love a coming-of-age story full of humor, self-discovery, and romance? I could not have been more wrong. The kids hated it. They did not connect with the main character; the humor was too sophisticated. There was a near revolt.

My selection of Angela’s Ashes, on the other hand, was transformative for my juniors and seniors, who could both appreciate the humor and empathize with the depictions of extreme poverty. What had been a disconnected, disengaged group of students developed community and confidence. That was when I learned the power of the right book for the right group at the right time.

Are there some books that are universally the right book? Maybe. It seems that every group of seventh graders loves The Outsiders. But most of the time, I have to start with my group of students in mind, and search for the book that will be the right match. I had forgotten to do that when I selected To Kill a Mockingbird, and then, against my better judgment, I continued to put the curriculum ahead of the students. Anisa’s question gave me the jolt I needed to change course. The next morning, I told the kids that I valued To Kill a Mockingbird and hoped they would each choose to read it at some point, but I could see that it was not the right book for the class at this time.

Wanting to get us back into our read-aloud groove, I pivoted to Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It is engaging, but lacks the literary heft I know my students are ready for and need. During a discussion about what makes a book interesting, Yasmin mentioned Of Mice and Men as an example of a book that had a powerful emotional impact. Isaac and Steven agreed. Yasmin then bounced out of her seat, saying Of Mice and Men should be our next read aloud book. I looked at Isaac and Steven who nodded vigorously. I’d been considering Of Mice and Men. The students’ enthusiastic endorsement settled the matter.

I imagine that there are individuals who would see this course of events as a reason not to trust teachers’ professional judgment, and instead to centralize all decisions about instructional materials at the district or school board level. For me it has the opposite effect. It makes me think about the absurdity of individuals far removed from classrooms making decisions about text selections. If I, who know my students deeply, can occasionally make the wrong choice, how could it be alright to leave the decision making to individuals who don’t know my students at all?

In this age of teacher-proofing and mandated curricula, I am curious about other teachers’ experiences. Are you able to make decisions about what will be the right book for the group in front of you? How do top-down decisions about curricula affect your and your students’ experiences?

Oh, and if you have any middle school read-aloud recommendations, please pass those along too.

Studio Teaching: A Luxurious and Effective Practice

Eight teachers and three district instructional coaches cram into the meeting room of a local coffee shop, the table full of laptops, large sticky notes, smelly markers, lattes and cell phones.  They pore over documents: teacher plans, student work, excerpts from educational articles.  The facilitator draws out ideas, pushes back when needed, and propels the conversation forward for more than two hours.  The coffee shop owner, familiar with many of these teachers’ faces, asks, “Are you guys working today?”  Yep. Six of these teachers already met the previous week after school in order to create the plans that this group is now tweaking.  So far: 2370 minutes of brain work in order to plan one 50-minute lesson.  Worth it?  Definitely. 

This past month, my co-teacher, an Exceptional Needs Specialist, and I were the “enactment teachers” for our English department’s “Studio” cycle:  teachers within each department take turns hosting other teachers from the department and district instructional coaches for a process that takes several days.  The enactment teacher begins by meeting with a coach to dissect his or her “problem of practice” or “problem of student learning,” a challenge that is almost always evident in the other teachers’ classrooms.  Later the whole team meets to plan a lesson that will address the stated problem, and finally, over an entire school day, the team finalizes the plan, digs deeper into learning about the problem of practice, observes the enactment teacher teach the lesson to one class, debriefs, watches as the lesson is taught once more, and then, after a long day, shares out in a final debrief. 

For this round of Studio, my co-teacher and I identified a problem of practice concerning students working in their “zone of proximal development,” a term defined by psychologist Lev Vygotsky, where students are appropriately challenged and supported at their current level of understanding. We had found that more struggling students often did not take advantage of the supports that we offered, including modified instruction in small-group settings, graphic organizers, one-on-one support, etc.; for students who needed more challenge, we realized that we didn’t always create opportunities for them to go further and deeper, and when we did, sometimes these students either did not realize they were ready for that level of instruction or they didn’t take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. 

Through the Studio planning cycle, our group of educators planned a lesson where students identified their current level of understanding of our learning target for the day, and then based on that self-assessment, chose from a menu of options of how they wanted to learn that day, including one that was more supported and one that was more independent.  The group also encouraged us to choose a more complex text than the one we had originally planned, arguing that with students being more aware of their current skill level and choosing an appropriate level of support, they could be successful at understanding this level of reading. 

My co-teacher and I stand in front of our classroom with 28 pairs of student eyes on us and 11 pairs of adult eyes on them.  The students start off stone cold – no one cracks a smile at my corny jokes.  But they slowly warm up, forgetting about the adults there with their clipboards, marking down their every comment and our every movement.  They tentatively raise their hands as they catch on to the lesson that these 11 people had a part in planning for them.  I smile, impressed with how my students are taking on this complex text, really understanding the heart of the argument. The adults keep their poker faces on, but they are silently cheering students on as they make sense of the reading before them, and quietly jotting down notes for later as they see us make teacher moves that both help and hinder the lesson.   

Studio feels a bit luxurious to me.  All of these brains helping us with one lesson.  All of this energy – and money! – spent to help our department gain a deeper understanding of a problem of student learning that affects us all.  All of the details in the lesson plan, the stuff that I rarely have time to think about, let alone write into a formal template.  All of the debriefing, refining, and reteaching.   

And yet the luxury is worth it.  Definitely.  That day, 84 students went home after reading a text that I had thought would be too much for them. Those 11 teachers went home with new ideas of what to do – and not do – in their own practice to increase student understanding.  And this one teacher, me, left feeling both challenged and affirmed, with new habits of mind and refined practice to take to the next lesson.   

Creating Coherence

There’s a special kind of efficiency that happens when we’re able to see overlaps and connections. It is very easy to look at all of the demands upon us and see them as discrete and separate elements on a never-ending to-do list, but there is tremendous power in the pursuit of coherence.

One example: Student Growth Goals, Professional Growth Goals and Data.

We know that by law we all have to write and monitor student growth goals. I’m lucky to be in a district and building that gives us as teachers ownership of our goals, so we are empowered to design and implement growth goals that are meaningful to our students…not just for checking a TPEP box or demonstrating our compliance. In addition to student growth goals, we also have our professional growth goals we are expected to develop. If you’re on the comprehensive “all eight” evaluation (like I am), that means a small group student growth goal, a whole class student growth goal, a collaboration goal, and a professional growth goal.

Imagine if all of these things could be focused in a way that any data I gather serves to monitor all of these goals.

Here’s how I’m attempting to achieve this coherence:

I start by observing for a need. Those first weeks are critical for getting to know students as humans and as learners. Through observation and assessment, narrow my focus on a specific, high-leverage skill that I see as a gap in my kids’ academic performance.

Before I write their student growth goal, I consider the skills I want to develop. If I want to improve my students’ skills, I need to be deliberate about the practices I employ. Sure, I have some lessons from years past, but I want to consider what learning I need to do to enhance my practice around teaching this particular skill in a way that helps all students grow and improve. I explore some strategies, extend my own learning, and select a few specific teaching moves to try out. This becomes the seed of my professional growth goal.

Here’s where the unity starts to form: If I am going to change my practice, it should result in a change in student performance. Thus, I craft my professional growth goal and my student growth goal in the same block of text.

The core of my goal set, I nest “inward” for my small group goal. Within this skill, I have a subgroup who needs a bit more intervention. I expand my goal to address them and identify likely interventions.

Finally, I nest “outward” for my collaboration goal. Here’s the dirty little secret about collaboration goals: lots of teachers and administrators misinterpret what it takes to have proficient goals. The assumption is that my team and I have to have the same goals, use the same data, and demonstrate how we walk in lock step toward a common destination. Not so. If you read the actual rubric for 8.1sg, it is more about “playing nicely with others” than it is about everybody having to do the same thing the same way. So, I tag onto my goal how I plan to “play nicely.”

Here’s what my goal might end up looking like…it is long, but it is accomplishing multiple jobs, all the while letting me focus on just one:

By learning about building coherence in writing, I will improve my professional practice by trying at least two different scaffolds that help students achieve more coherent analytical writing. As a result, my students will be able to select and effectively use a pattern evidence to support a claim, as demonstrated in regular journal entries, formal literary analysis papers, and evaluation of informational text. By the end of the quarter, each student will increase by at least one level on the “Argument from Evidence” assessment scale. My subgroup will consist of the students who scored a Level One or lower on the first assessment. I will offer additional interventions (via targeted feedback and small group writing workshops) to assist these students to each increase by two levels on the scale. I will collaborate with my PLC to examine my goals during our every-other-week PLC meetings. I will share my assessments for feedback and we will examine student performance to strategize interventions as needed.

When the assessment data starts to roll in, I can now use the student’s performance not only to examine their growth, but also the impact that changes in my practice had on their growth. To me, that kinda seems like what the point was from the beginning. In the end, I write one comprehensive goal that represents a laser-like focus on improving my practice in order to improve student performance.


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“Hitting the Wall”—Growth Mindset in the Highly Capable Classroom

For gifted students, “smart” can mean all kinds of interesting things:

  • “I already understand that.”
  • “I learned that last year” (or two or three or more years ago).
  • “I can do this without trying.”
  • “I don’t have to work hard.”
  • “Everything is easy.”

“Smart” can actually be crippling because when things get hard—and things get hard for everyone, eventually—then everything isn’t easy anymore. They don’t understand right away. They have to work hard and try. And they don’t know how.

I went to college with friends who had been valedictorians at their high schools. They had cruised through high school, never putting any effort in, acing all their classes.

They arrived at our college, which consistently gets rated one of the top 100 small colleges in the US. Suddenly they were struggling to make Cs. They didn’t know how to study for tests. They didn’t know how to take notes. They didn’t know how to do the work of being students.

I had it a lot easier. I had come from a very difficult high school with very high expectations.

Our college was harder for me than my high school, but I expected to work harder at college than at high school. I put in more time, doing what I had been trained to do. My GPA went down too, but only a tenth of a point. My public school district back home had prepared me for difficult work.

I tell my students that story. I tell them everybody “hits the wall” at some point—they reach the point where learning new things isn’t easy anymore.

It’s a whole lot easier to hit the wall in elementary school than in college!

In elementary school you have teachers and parents who spend all kinds of time meeting with you and helping you and supporting you. We—teachers and parents—work together to teach you and train you and coach you into learning how to tackle the difficult task of thinking hard as you learn new and challenging material.

Be grateful for the adults who are willing to help! And be gracious about accepting their help!

Then I talk to my students about perfectionism. So many of my students are tied up in knots with perfectionist issues. I tell them right up front, “You can’t be perfect in my room. I won’t let you.”

They look at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

“If you can consistently get 100% on your work, chances are you are not in the right placement. You need to be moved up a grade in math. Or you need to be reading more challenging books. Or I need to be holding you to a higher standard on the writing continuum.”

Sometimes a student will ask what that would look like.

“I’ve had students now and then who are so exceptional at writing that they get 4s across the board on nearly everything they write. At that point I sit them down and tell them, ‘Now I’m going to start talking with you the way I would talk with an adult writer in an adult writers group.’ They look a little startled for a minute but take a deep breath and jump right in. There’s always room for improvement.

“If you meet the bar, I will raise it.”

It’s not about being perfect, it’s about pursuing excellence. It’s about getting better. It’s about stretching our abilities. It’s about growth.

Nearly every year after conferences I end up—like last week—having lunch with a student and a parent. We talk about perfectionism and anxiety and staying awake at night not being able to sleep. Sometimes the parent realizes they have the same issues their child does! Sometimes I just need to reiterate that, yes, this is a hard class. And if the child gets confused or frustrated, they can call me at home in the evening. I would rather have them get help and be able to sleep.

So it’s not about being perfect. In fact, it’s not even about “doing your best” all the time. I have to be careful with that misconception, and I have careful conversations with parents about that at conferences. Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to “do their best” in every subject at all times, especially with all the other things my students are involved in. I have students who do two or even more extracurricular events at a time—dance, drama, sports, foreign languages, singing, musical instruments, caring for animals, caring for siblings. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “Do well.”

Not necessarily, “do your best,” but definitely “do well.” The goal is improvement. What can you do to get better?

I tell my students that every student in the school has to work hard. They should too.

Me too. I tell them I should be working hard to improve right alongside them.

For a lot of gifted students, they really hit “the wall” for the first time in higher math courses. With algebra. Or geometry. Or maybe calculus.

The better I can equip my students with the ability to think hard, to work hard, to pursue excellence—to want to grow—the better they will be able to scale any wall that life throws at them.

Extra Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

You know how you don’t know what you don’t know until you realize you don’t know it?

Today I stepped into a role as “instructional coach.” My principal is trying a new thing with several of the leaders in the building—-getting a sub on Wednesdays to cover our classes so that we can support new teachers, conduct informal observations, and provide feedback to any teacher who want an extra set of ears and eyes in their classroom.

Non-evaluative, peer observation are what so many teachers beg for. Yet, with the except of instructional coaches, or a pop-ins by a dept chair there is little time for this type of collaboration. To contend with time constraints, many of the teachers I know are using #ObserveMe as a way to get the peer feedback and informal coaching they crave. This summer, Nate Bowling and I led in-school professional development where we shared the vision behind #ObserveMe. Teachers created their evaluation goals in conjunction with their #ObserveMe goals. I was #stoked.

Fast forward, due to some life stuff, our instructional coach is on hiatus and many of the teacher leaders in our building are stepping in to fill the large hole he left. So there I was, armed with flair pens, a clipboard, a schedule, and an observation tool. I left my students in the capable hands of my student teacher and I marched down to the first classroom.

Over the course of two and a half periods, I observed three full-time teachers and one student teacher. Each teacher had emailed me asking if I could come observe for x, y, and z. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect to feel as emotional as I did through this process.

First, I was honored that these teachers wanted me in their classroom. They wanted to be better. They wanted an extra set of eyes and ears to see what they weren’t seeing and hear what they missed.

Second, I was moved by the passion I saw from these teachers. The love that they have for their students, their content, and our school motivates them to ask for help from a colleague.

Third, I was inspired by each of these teachers who were putting in work to make their classes more engaging, more relevant, and more real for their students.

I honestly struggled to complete my teacher moves/students moves chart because I just wanted to write things like “I love how the kids look at your with respect in their eyes” or “Even though the students were reluctant to do the song in Spanish with you, they all did it–and that’s a sign of respect for you, their peers, or at least resignation that they need to play along”. I tried to stay in the template and write benign questions like “how do you think blah blah blah”.

What stands out the most is my last visit of the morning. I popped into a Science classroom where the teacher is building a program modeled after the GRuB School. I kind of knew that there was a group of “at risk” young men and women working with this highly effective and passionate teacher to develop social/emotional skills that translate into academic skills such as being on time, attending classes, and doing homework. I knew that some of the students in this program were in my English classes. But I hadn’t put two and two together–I didn’t realize just how many of them I knew. I sat on the edge of the circle listening to students giving each other advice on real life issues from dealing with parents to handling annoying teachers or friends, I wanted to burst into tears. Actually, I did…later when I was alone. Although each of those students struggle to control their actions and choices in a world of chaos, I watched them respond each other with thoughtfulness. I saw them respond to the firm but loving redirection from the teacher. I saw my students in a new light.

Later, when they came to class, I felt like we had a secret. They knew that I knew something about them that I hadn’t known before. They also knew (I hope) that I would listen and support them in a way I might not have before.

I left school today unsure if I made a difference for the teachers I observed. I do know however, that these teachers made a difference to me.

Losing Touch with the Classroom

I made it through September.

I may have nearly crested the salary schedule, but I feel a little like a first-year teacher again… In many ways I am: Same district, but a new building, new curriculum, new pace, new students.

After being a classroom teacher for 13 years, I spent the last two years on full-time release building and launching our district’s new-teacher mentoring and induction program (plus a plethora of other teacher professional learning design and facilitation, from training principals on TPEP to supporting PLC collaboration, and other duties as assigned). Those two years were fulfilling, educational, and an important step in my personal professional trajectory. My heart, though, was always in the classroom.

Now I’m teaching again, and it didn’t take me long to realize just how much I had lost touch with the realities of the day to day work of teaching. For me personally two years of shifting into the policy world, system design, and facilitation of staff PD…all without responsibilities to a roster of kids…was enough for my mind to disconnect.

Oh yeah, this is why it sometimes takes teachers a few days to reply to emails: they’re not at their computers all day or “multitasking” around a meeting table. Oh yeah, this is why those teachers who came to my after-school PD sessions dropped into their chairs, sighed, and slowly slid into an exhausted heap. Oh yeah, that theory about pedagogy and practice is fantastic up until you walk around the room and realize that what you’re tasked to teach isn’t actually at all what the students need.

Cognitively, I assured myself I remembered this and everything else. Back in it, though, I realize that there were some realities of teacherlife that my memory had somehow put into soft focus over the course of my two years outside the classroom.

I’ve had a few people ask which job is “harder,” the central-office systems work or the in-the-building work of teaching. For me, it was probably the systems work in no small part because I so rarely had the chance to see the direct results my efforts had on students. That left me in a perpetual state of uncertainty: were my actions working? How did I know?

Now I get to see the impact of my decisions daily as I listen to kids talk or read, or watch them write or create. I can respond in the moment to shift course, try something different, or push just the right way. Nonetheless, I have enduring respect for the complexity and challenge of central-office systems work having seen behind the curtain now for a couple of years. (Example: I hate dealing with budgets and the associated rules, restrictions and reporting… intense, profound hate.) For my skill-set and for what makes me happy? The classroom is the place.

One more thing I can say after two years straddling the line between teacher and administrator: The administrators I was able to work so closely with are not a secret quasi-illuminati set on building one more meeting-that-could-have-been-an-email agenda to ruin a teacher’s life. They genuinely want what is best for both teachers and students. And don’t get me wrong: I’m just sharing my own story… I’m not implying that they have lost touch as I did. I see many administrators working overtime to walk alongside teachers, and in many cases, teach lessons or units to groups of kids, in order to stay connected with the realities of planning, assessment, feedback, and classroom management.

What my experience transitioning into teaching again has reminded me is that it is so important that we teachers find the right way to share the impact of policy decisions…whether they be a change to the hall pass routine or a change to the state testing regime…so that rather than being shrill complainers we are vivid storytellers.

Stories are the most fundamental way that we can communicate our reality to others, especially if those others are like me: whole-hearted for public education, but perhaps just far enough removed to have forgotten what day-to-day teaching is really like.

Equity in Identifying Highly Capable Students

I spent several days this summer at the annual board retreat for WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of Talents and Gifted). Jody Hess, OSPI’s Program Supervisor for Highly Capable Student Programs, came to talk with us about a change to the law: districts must “prioritize equitable identification of low income students.”

Universal Screening

One of the barriers to equity in HC programs is the process districts use to invite students into the identification procedure. I was stunned to learn this year how many districts still use nominations as an initial screening device.

What’s the problem with that?

There is still a great deal of confusion about the nature of the Highly Capable or gifted student. Many people—teachers and parents—nominate only those students who are responsible, high-achieving, engaged, motivated, and well-behaved. They fail to nominate students who never turn in their assignments, resist doing any class work, are distracted, and chronically misbehave, even if those less than stellar scholars meet the state criteria for identification.

Then there’s a thornier issue. It seems that people do a better job at nominating students who are similar to them—the same ethnic background, the same socio-economic background. If a majority of teachers in a district are white and middle class, it’s possible HC minority and lower socio-economic students in that district may be overlooked.

If teachers don’t nominate a student, the parents can always fill out a nomination form, right? Trouble is, relying on parents to nominate their children is always tricky. Some parents are savvier than others. Is it fair to make a child’s chance at identification rest on their parents’ ability to access and maneuver around the system?

The solution is called universal screening. ALL the students in the district are tested for the Highly Capable program. Or at least use a quick screener (it might be test or checklist such as WaKIDS) with all students initially. Then include those students who score well in a pool for more formal identification.

By the way, universal screening also means there is no impediment to the testing. For example, the testing isn’t offered only on Saturday when some families might not be able to bring their child.

At my district we test every student at the end of second grade. The tests are conducted during the school day, and they are administered in the second grade classrooms by the students’ own teachers. There is very little test anxiety in that situation. We’ve been doing our testing this way for about 15 years now. I honestly thought by now it was standard operating procedure around the state.

If you don’t see every student in your district having some screening for your HC program, you should start asking why.

Multiple Points of Data

Another question you want to ask is if your district is relying on a single criterion for identification: a CogAT score, for example.

While a CogAT is a great way to say, “Yes, this child definitely needs services through the Highly Capable Program,” too often a slightly lower score is used as an excuse to say, “No, this child definitely does not need services.”

No district should be using cut off scores—those in the 95%ile and above are eligible and get served, those below aren’t and don’t, and we’re done.

Instead districts should be looking at multiple data points. It’s fine to say that children who score at 130 and above obviously need services. Now it’s time to look more closely at the children who don’t quite make that. How do they score on achievement tests? On their SBA? On report cards?

When the Multi-disciplinary Team at my district meets to work on Highly Capable identifications, we have access to many types of data, including:

  • CogAT scores (broken down so we can see verbal, quantitative, and nonverbal scores),
  • STAR math and reading (we can access STAR scores for the year so we can track the progression of scores),
  • SBA (for grade levels that took the test),
  • parent and teacher nominations (which still get turned in even though they are not required), and
  • HOPE scale scores (from teachers).

Other information we have is ELL status of students. Our district ELL coordinator is a member of the team and keeps us up-to-date about how ELL students on our lists are progressing. We take that information into account when making decisions. We attempt to keep the identification for HC proportional with the demographics of the district.

For students going into grades 3-5, we first look for students whose scores are so high in both verbal and quantitative areas that they belong in the self-contained HC classes. We don’t limit ourselves to just the CogAT scores to determine which students require those advanced services. Then we go through the lists again. If there are students who are strong in math or verbal, we identify them in those particular areas for extra attention in their general education classrooms.

We are looking for reasons TO identify students, not reasons to deny services.

In middle school every fifth grade student’s math scores in the district are analyzed and every student is placed in math according to their abilities. There are sixth graders in middle school this year taking sixth grade math, seventh grade math, algebra, and geometry.

(When I first arrived in my district the math department at the middle schools would not allow a student to take algebra before eighth grade. “They aren’t developmentally ready.” Now we have sixth graders taking geometry!)

Students who were in the self-contained fifth grade class, students who were identified for verbal skills in elementary school, and additional students whose parents or teachers request that they get retested at the end of fifth grade can all move into the HC English/social studies classes at the middle school. We have one full class at one middle school and

two full classes at the other. Then at the high school all students have access to pre-AP and AP starting at ninth grade.

Low Income

The trouble with saying we have to “prioritize equitable identification of low-income students” is that we can’t know which of our students are low-income. Not when

we go into the Multi-disciplinary Team meetings and look at data. After all, we aren’t allowed to have individual students identified as free/reduced lunch.

(Jody Hess from OSPI is working on what indicators of low-income may be useful, without “profiling” students.)

The point it, we have to do the best we can at identifying every student who needs services. And then provide those services.

Smarter Balanced: Celebrating the Scores?

Like many parents across the nation, we received our children’s Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) results a few weeks ago.  The results, printed in color ink, did not largely surprise us. What did, however, was our children’s reaction.

My daughter is now a 6th grader.  She’s been taking this test for a few years, although science was a new component for her last year in 5th grade.  In the past, she’s been worried about the adaptive portion of the exam, nervous about whether she’s moving too slow or too fast and wondering if her screen should look alike or different from her peers.  One year, right before school let out for summer, we received notification that she was invited to attend a summer math program. This invitation was an opportunity for extended math instruction, which I was gladly willing to take her to.  I did, however, have no sense that she was struggling in math.  Her standards based report card always revealed that she was on target.  So when I dug around a bit more and contacted the building assessment coordinator, we discovered that she met standard and that the invitation was an accident.  However, the damage was done.  She was downtrodden about her math skills and entered into the 5th grade believing that her skills weren’t where they needed to be (whatever that means).  After receiving the official score report and looking at the data with her, I saw a noticeable difference in my child and how she thought of herself as a math student.  Even then, it took her months and at least a quarter in 5th grade math before she felt confident about her skills and abilities.  You’d think that I would have learned my lesson.

So this year when the assessment results arrived in the mail, I immediately opened them up. After reviewing the data, I decided to sit down with my children to discuss the results.  My daughter the now 6th grader, looked at her scores and said, “I guess this means I’m pretty smart.”  I was stunned.  I’m thankful that I had enough clarity of thought to respond with, “Uh, this test doesn’t measure whether you’re smart.  It tells you that you can answer specific questions related to certain skills and standards that the testing organization wants to measure. It certainly doesn’t address your ability to learn music.”  My husband, her father, is a middle school band teacher.  My daughter has been playing piano for five years (read:  I’ve been paying for piano lessons for five years.)  She nodded and walked away.  I then sat down with my son to review his first SBA results.  

But I wish I hadn’t.  In fact, I’m done sitting down with my children to talk about these scores. Sadly, I think they, like so many other children, adults, school districts, and states, are defining themselves in relation to a score.  My daughter’s self esteem as a math student was tied to that exam.  This year, she used the exam to confirm a sense of self.  

And that’s scary.

And unhealthy.

And it must stop.  

I want to be clear.  I’m not anti-test.  I’m not anti Common Core.  In fact, I embrace the Common Core, and I’d be happy to address that in another post.  However, I fear that we’re sending a dangerous message to our youth if we oversell the data learned from the test.  My school, like so many others, examined our scores in our back to school meeting.  Thankfully,  I didn’t get a sense that our students and our teachers were being overly celebrated or beat up due to assessment data. Our building elevates a variety of achievements, accomplishments, and talents. However, communities across the country put up gigantic signs on  schools when some percentage of students are meeting a standard.  This isn’t helping.  We award schools for these scores and for the most growth over a year.  I’m not saying it’s negative to give a hard working staff recognition for their efforts, but essentially aren’t we also celebrating the test score?  What false sense does that give us of who our students are and what our students know and can do?  

Do teachers walk around defining themselves by their evaluation score?  I sure hope not. This would be an unhealthy approach to the profession, one that isn’t sustainable, and does not encourage self reflection or growth.  So why do we do this with kids?

Let’s find other things to celebrate.  Shouldn’t we consider exalting our students and our schools as more?

Certification Changes: Pro and Con

When the last minute education legislation passed this summer, it included a provision eliminating the requirement that teachers earn a second tier of certification after our Residency Certificate.

This move was celebrated across the state with teachers unenrolling themselves from ProTeach programs and National Board Cohorts. Now, instead of pursuing one of those two second-tier certification options, a teacher needs only to earn 100 clock hours before the expiration of their certificate in order to remain legal.

From one perspective, it is a win. Earning the second tier certificate required time, money, and no small amount of stress…on top of the work a teacher already had to do. Teachers now might have more time for their families or those second (or third) jobs so many of us hold down. Not having to do ProTeach or National Boards definitely lightens the load for many.

On the other hand, though, it is one more move to de-professionalize our profession. Already, I’ve ranted a little about lowering the bar for teachers. Now that incentives such as the state’s salary schedule rewarding the attainment of higher degrees will be phased out*, there is less and less to extrinsically motivate continued focus on continually improving our practice. Of course, extrinsic motivators are not the “right” motivators (remember, we teachers are supposed to give hours for less pay than similarly-educated professionals in other fields out of the goodness of our hearts, we knew what we signed up for, the internet trolls quickly point out). But, unless compelled to by rule or motivated to by a tangible benefit, most of us choose to focus on the work already heaped on our plates rather than consider ways to examine our practice in the way ProTeach is intended to and National Boards does.

I believe, though, that in giving up a mandatory second-tier certification, we’ve allowed one more blow to the professionalism of our field. Given the dire (and increasing) need for teachers to staff schools properly, further de-professionalizing teaching might net a benefit in the short term, but I believe in looking at the long game: In the long run, it weakens the profession as a whole.

If a key issue with second tier certification is around cost and time, that is a symptom of an issue to be addressed: Why is the cost prohibitive? Perhaps because it is disproportionate to overall compensation. Why is the time prohibitive? Perhaps because the demands on teachers’ time are already too great.

I would have rather seen the state address those two issues in courageous, real ways: properly fund salaries (rather than play the shell game that was played) and fund systems in a way that permits schools to think creatively about how teacher time looks during the work day. For the latter, I’m talking about greater time during a teacher’s day for planning, assessment, collaboration, and the work that has to be done in order to make the time with students more effective.

Like the salary shell game (Top teacher salaries of $90K! Early career teachers get a raise!),  I think we’ve been duped around certification as well (No more hoops to jump through!). Eliminating the second tier certification doesn’t do a single thing to solve the problems we are facing in our system. It is a token move to pacify a subset of the angry masses. We’ve been shown a something shiny and appealing, but consideration for the long term ripple effect is waved off or ignored outright.

Yes, we might not have to put in the same time or money for a second tier certificate, but at what cost to the profession?


*CORRECTION: Previous versions of this post referred to a “sunset” for the National Board bonus/incentive. I had understood that the long-term vision for the National Board incentive was that it was to be phased out as salary schedules shift from state-driven to locally-driven, but I was mistaken. The National Board incentive will continue to be funded in the FY2018 budget, but as always, the long term continuation of this funding will be a key budget point for teachers to pay attention to.

Small Lesson Learned: Raised Hands

On the third day of school, everything kinda stalled.

My 9th grade English class and I had plugging along quite nicely the first two days, and that day was no different. Then it happened: I asked a tough question about the story we’d just read.

No hands went up. Silence.

Nothing new to a teacher. We’re used to that awkwardly long silence when we ask a question to the class. “Think time,” right?

After enough “think time,” I tried my first trick: “I won’t call an anyone until I see five hands.” Usually that works, and a hand or two will shoot up, confident that I won’t call on them right away.

No dice. Continued silence and no hands. I tried a few more tricks: jot down your answer (which they did) and share what you wrote (nope, lips were sealed). I reworded the question at a lower level of abstraction. Nada. Zip. Not defiance, just silence. Before long, my toolbox was empty. I refused, though, to just give the answer to them and move on.

My 2nd period class is a quiet but wonderful group. The high school I now teach in is a smaller school-of-choice in our district. There is but one hallway, a more intimate environment, and the students we serve choose our school for a variety of reasons. For some, they are re-entering public schools from other institutions. Some are in Running Start at the local community college and need a flexible home base. Others face struggles with anxiety, depression, or other personal or family challenges. Still others are like any prototypical teen, but for whatever reason found the smaller environment a better “fit” than the other high school (where I used to work), which has about two thousand* more students than we do.

So instead of waiting out the silence, I asked them this: “When a teacher asks you a question, and you raise your hand, what are you communicating?”

That we know the answer, a student replied (without raising her hand, it is worth noting).

“Then what does it mean when you don’t raise your hand and you stay quiet? What does that communicate to the teacher?”

That we don’t know, a different student replied. No, another interjected, It’s that we don’t want to say the answer. Sometimes I know the answer but don’t want to be called on.

“Makes sense,” I agreed. A hand finally went up, and the young man attached to it said Besides, if we wait long enough, most teachers just tell us the answer anyway and move on.

So I tried this: “Okay, I’m going to ask you all the same question. I want anyone who thinks they might have a response, whether right or wrong, to raise their hands. I promise I will not call on anyone.” I asked the question again, and this time about three-quarters of the students raised their hands.

“So all of you think you have an idea that responds to my question?” I made eye contact with kid after kid, who nodded.

“But sometimes you don’t want to say it?” More nods.

“Alright then… keep your hand up if you are willing to share your answer.” A few hands went down, one by one, but most stayed up…including several students who had yet to speak up at all in class….and by far more that who raised hands the first time I asked the question (if you recall, the number of hands that went up that time was exactly zero).

A new, simple routine was born.

The act of raising your hand as a student in my class no longer means I want to be called on. Now it is a signal: I think I might have an answer. Now instead of asking for answers, I say “show me your hands…” after I ask a question. Then, I say “keep your hands up to share.”

Since adopting this little change, I consistently have more (and different) students keeping their hands up, bringing more voices in to the room than just the ones who have the confidence to throw that hand in the air, end the awkward silence, and give the answer so the rest of us can move on. No longer is the Q-and-A about “getting through it.” Less and less do I sense that students are afraid to make their voices heard.

Later, with a smaller group of kids, we talked about how schools condition students to give right answers. They each talked about how, through their whole academic lives, they’d sat in classes where they were truly listening and learning, but were afraid to risk raising their hand and having the teacher say as they pivot away “no, not quite, does anyone else know the answer?” as the wrong-answer-student is left to stew in embarassment.

I know, maybe they’re just raising their hands…how can I really know whether they are playing the game or actually have an idea in their minds? I’d rather know they’re engaged enough to play the game, even if that’s all they’re doing…something that certainly wasn’t happening when the same three kids were the only ones raising their hands to answer questions while the others just waited us out, watching the clock.

For me the proof of this practice is in the fact that kids who I don’t usually hear from are keeping their hands up and giving us insight that before now they had been reticent to risk sharing.


*Not an exaggeration.