Author Archives: Hope Teague-Bowling

WWHD (What Would Harry Do)?

This post is dedicated to all the teachers in the final countdown before students arrive. Solidarity.

“What would Harry do?” I whisper under my breathe. For nearly ten years, I’ve asked myself this question every day during the month of August.

My well-worn copy of First Days of School lies limply on the coffee table offering me support and guidance for my insecurities about the new school year.

Every year the routine is the same. Each night, for weeks leading up to the start of the new year, just when I begin to drift off to sleep, my mind fires up reminders of all the little things I haven’t finished preparing for my classes.  My syllabi aren’t finished. My gradebook isn’t set up. My bulletin boards are bare. Heck, I have a new classroom and the boxes are everywhere! How will I have time to implement all my Pinterest bulletin boards ideas, laminate new classroom management tools, and design highly engaging, culturally relevant curriculum–not to mention pickle cucumbers, finish that book I started this summer, and cross stitch that doilie that’s been on my to-do list for three years– with barely one week before kids show up?!

By far, this was the busiest summer of my career, filled with family events, professional trainings, leadership camps, and teaching in China. Furthermore, my new co-teaching role as ASB and Leadership adviser has consumed much of my summer planning time. Wanting to start the year strong, has lead to countless hours, emails and text messages theorizing and planning a servant-leadership program. My excitement for this new opportunity is only tempered by one tiny detail: the desire to be prepared. This manifests itself in an obsession to be over-prepared.

Yes, I admit it. I’m a perfectionist. Hence, my regular school nightmares.

However, just when I feel the wave about to overtake me, I hear a still, small voice.

Smile. Set high expectations. Be firm but warm. Build relationships.

Of course Harry is right! All this worry is for naught!

Are the essential things done to make my room an inviting, safe space for learning to happen? Do I have an opening lesson that puts relationships and rigor at the center of learning?

Then I’m ready. And so are you.












On Equity, Privilege, and Testing

equality_vs_equityI believe that annual testing can be a tool of equity, revealing critical data that teachers, administrators, and districts can use to improve their instruction for all students, but especially marginalized populations. Moreover, I assert that we cannot separate issues of race and class from our discussion about education policy around standardized tests.

After fifeteen days of SBAC, my post-testing student reflections revealed a delightful surprise. The biggest complaint was not the lack of breakfast, the poor sleep from a loud, crowded apartment, the fact that many read below grade-level, or even the 81° classroom. It was the lack of time to finish the multiple choice section. One student even wrote a hilarious note to the test scorers saying, “if you want me to pass this, give me more time”. So, despite my irritation with lost instructional time, I look forward to the data because I know my students tried their best.

Since Brown v. Board, our country has struggled to provide fair, equitable access to education for all students. In attempts to “even the playing field”, local government created committees like the Equity and Civil Rights Office to ensure that all students have “equal access to public education without discrimination” (OSPI). Their definition of discrimination includes the usual “race, sex, etc.” but nothing is mentioned about inequitable opportunities resulting from teacher biases that only favor students of privilege. Nothing is noted about the dehumanizing effect of low expectations on students of color.

My current concern is regarding the equity of testing data and the privilege it is to “opt-out”. Shortly after my post, a handful of civil rights groups declared opting out was hurting kids The following day a rebuttal appeared arguing these groups are wrong. Reading both articles, one gets a sense that–no surprise–we need more nuance in our discussions about standardized testing. For every “pro” news article, a similar “cons” source will pop up. All stakeholders provide evidence to support their point of view–most of which are insulated by their own beliefs on race and class in America. Few, it seems, acknowledge these limitations. I am certainly no expert on the topic. However, through my research, I am learning the following:

1) Annual testing is a critical component to holding politicians and education accountable to students and their families (see my new fav blogger– Citizen Stewart). Enough said?

2) Despite some effort to enlist people of color in the movement through advocacy and multi-lingual documents, privilege remains a significant and unexplored component of the opt out movement.

I’m certainly not saying that taking a standardized test is a privilege. But the people who opt out have a certain societal privilege. Privilege is what makes opting out a low-stakes exercise in civil disobedience rather than the “academic death” it can be for families and students of color (Stewart).

3) Concealing data gleaned from standardized testing is a civil rights issue.

While all don’t exactly agree, communities of color are writing about the opt out movement as a civil rights issue because standardized tests provide data to measure inequalities (check out recent article and this piece “The Civil Wrongs Movement” ). On the one hand, critics argue that the ranking and sorting of students is detrimental to the learning. On the other, data gives teachers and schools an opportunity–and this is what we’ve termed the “opportunity gap”.
If we remove data we are erasing information (again see Stewart, episode 9).

4) Just because it makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t mean we have the right to erase the data.

I was heartbroken (and angry) when 2/3rds of my 4th period were failing English at semester. I had to accept it and find ways to change the numbers–not by ignoring them but by changing what I did in the classroom. I asked a trusted colleague to map classroom discourse, switched up my routines, and intentionally problem solved. Although it’s not perfect, more kids are passing and excelling this semester. To me, that’s a win.

While I doubt very few opt-out advocates actually want to erase data, their movement has perhaps unintended consequences. Who is the population that is least harmed by this “erasing” of data? Families with economic power and white. We need data to hold ourselves accountable. We can’t have an honest conversation about who we are leaving behind without the data. Using common assessments is a way to reveal gaps for all students, especially traditionally marginalized or underserved. We could spend hours analyzing the ways students are discriminated against on a system wide level, yet once again I will say that discrimination via low expectations for students in poverty or students of color by teachers and other adults remains a primary barrier. Hence, my next point.

5) The way we talk about data reveals our personal biases, privileges and internalized racism.

Notoriously, low test scores get attributed to innate cultural differences and inadequacies, “absent fathers”, and apathetic communities. This is dangerous logic. If I say things like “these kids can’t do that kind of work” or “this just shows they aren’t really Honors kids”, I reveal hidden prejudices in my practice few are willing to call me out on. My experiences with certain educators–many but not all who are white–exposes a need. I heard one opt-outer say in regards to the SBAC that, “We know they [the students of color] will be viewed as failing”. First, “we know” indicates her confidence. Second, “will be viewed as failing” implies this is the only way one can view student scores. I can’t help but think this person has low expectations of students of color. We haven’t seen the data from the SBAC. We don’t know which students will pass or fail. We don’t yet know to what extent the data will be useful. We need to examine how we talk about or represent students of color in our conversations about data. Are we assuming results before they happen? Are we blaming outside factors rather than trying to find the solutions to equipping these students better? Are we masking our own biases, hiding behind a movement?

6) We need more data. More data does not mean more testing. See Nathan Bowling’s post “On Having One’s Cake and Eating it Too”.

To conclude, I don’t have all the answers. I am growing in my process and thinking but I ask you do as well. I want to end on a final thought by Citizen Stewart, “Civil rights groups are right to push for annual testing and to keep the racially unequal results of those tests front and center. They should continue to fight even when friends oppose them. Let’s not be confused: disabling and sabotaging data mechanisms is usually a strategy of people opposed to civil rights, not those who claim to support social progress.”

Opt Out? Widen the Gap

It’s testing season. Each year I administer whatever Language Arts assessment is currently required by law. I glance over the Pearson booklet at the rows of earnest faces nervously listening to the directions of their state assessment. They know results will be used to determine whether or not their receive a diploma. Their eyes communicate “we will do you proud” while their scrunched up noses say, “you’d better have taught us what we need to be successful on this thing.”

Walking the rows, I think about how 78.6% of the students in my building qualify for free and reduced lunch. At least 8% are ELL and 13.4% are in Special Education programs. More than anything, my students need education opportunities that will set them on a trajectory out of poverty and in pursuit of their version of the “American Dream”. Yet we know that this dream is guarded by a variety of gatekeepers, most vital of which is access to quality post-secondary education. One such gatekeeper is the ominous standardized test.

mindthegapI understand the urge of parents and teachers to want to resist this system and opt out. Yet, every time the topic of standardized testing is brought up I can’t help but wonder….Does the opt-out movement actually widen the opportunity gap???

I’m hard pressed to find research on this topic and I have no time for a PhD. Yet, the continued presence of a culture of low expectations for low-income students and students of color leads me to believe there is a relationship between low expectations, low performance results, and opting out of testing.

One of the primary arguments for standardized testing is that it produces data teachers can use. Standardized testing provides apples to apples comparisons for conversations about learning and growth. At the high school level, it is a key– opening doors to post secondary options. In contrast, crusaders against testing declare that it is racist, irrelevant, a waste of time and money, a ploy by the corporate education reformers, etc. The bifurcated debate tends to be simplistic and I’m glad some are writing that the issue is more complex than for/against language we use.

Meanwhile, the result of this debate is a solo message that to fight over-testing we just need to “opt out”. Although I I am critical of many things about our culture of over-testing, I discern three major problems with opt-out rhetoric. First, it gives only one solution to the issues of over-testing. Second, the language of opting out is inaccessible to low-income communities, especially those of color.  The third and most poignant reason opt out language is disconcerting to me is that it doesn’t address the implied privilege of opt-outers (yes, I made up that word!).

Time and again the people who are most outspoken about opting out of testing look the same. They are white. They sit in a middle/upper class income bracket. They know how to make noise and not be punished for it. They can get the information, fill out the paperwork and navigate bureaucracy in their primary language. Take Nathan Hale for example. It’s striking to me that OSPI reports they are predominantly white, middle class, and English-speaking. Would a browner, poorer, more linguistically diverse school be able to do the same thing? Perhaps.

The parents and communities that can and do opt-out are advantaged in another way. They can choose when it is and isn’t convenient to opt out. They can enroll their kids in AP classes and take the corresponding test. They can take college entrance exams. They can provide their students with tutoring to be successful on any test they want. Again, these families choose.

Theoretically, anyone can join with the Nathan Hale families, the Obamas, and Tom Cruise. But I’m skeptical. Those families are even more elite than we are lead to believe. Even if student test scores were poor, these parents they buy admission into a four-year university through measures (generational wealth and networking) not available to families in impoverished communities.

Opting out does not impact all students equally. It especially does not positively benefit the students at my school. I postulate, it is actually widening the opportunity gap for them. It widens the gap because in our current system a high score on a standardized test results in essential financial resources to pay for college. This gap exacerbates the system of have and have-nots giving, what one writer refers to, an “edge” to the wealthy.

Rather than an opt-out form, I’d argue that my students benefit more from the rigorous instruction that sets them up for passing any AP, SAT, ACT or SBA, and equips them to beat the legacy of low scores associated with their socio-economic status or skin color. They blossom from the positive attitude of teachers who believe they are and will be successful in Honors and AP courses. They are empowered by a narrative that says they are more than a test score but recognizes they need a strong academic foundation to overcome certain academic hurdles. Finally, if all the other elements are in place, students will one day grasp their version of the “American Dream”  because of the scholarships and grants they earned and the access they now have to higher ed.

“Teach More, Test Less”. Yes. But let’s develop a more comprehensive approach to over-testing. More than opt out paperwork distributed in multiple languages, I’d like to see solutions that maintain high standards yet transform the system for all students. Here are a few ideas tossed around in the lunch room:

  • Stop penalizing the highest need schools for low test scores.
  • Give us fewer, more meaningful tests.
  • Focus on well-written assessments that produce data points for immediate use.
  • Use assessments as ONE of many measures of achievement and growth for schools.
  • Remove the punitive, high stakes label from summative tests.
  • Provide high-needs schools with more resources to mediate student learning gaps so they can perform at the level of wealthier counterparts.

The Stories We Tell and the Stories They Hear

Teachers love telling stories.

These stories fit into three categories.

1) the “checkout-how-AHMAZING-my students-are-because-they-did/said/produced-this.”

See this incredible comic of the Great Depression? But did you READ this analysis of Hamlet by one of my IEP students?

2) the “listen-to-this-incredible-issue/idea- [insert name of awesome colleague]-and-I-had to-address-the-problem-with _____ [insert problem that keeps you awake at night].”

So I tried that strategy you suggested and increased my homework turn in rate from 75% to 95%!

3) the “OMG-you-won’t-believe-what-this-student/parent/admin said/did!”

I woke up to this email…

Assessment data loves to tell stories too. The stories are a meaningful way to bring numbers and facts to life. Generally, there are three stories the data communicates. First, it tells us how students are meeting established standards. Second, it tells us how students are growing. Third, it tells us where instruction needs to be changed or modified.

In our current educational climate, the primary storytellers are politicians, ed reform groups, or other “experts” who want fixate on the first kind of story. They want to focus on high stakes summative, standardized assessments like End of Course Assessments and the Smarter Balanced Assessment. They want the data to tell us how students are meeting established standards. This story is what many stakeholders are using to drive federal and state policy, particularly changes in teacher evaluations. This is the second consecutive legislative term where significant effort has been made to include standardized test scores in teacher evaluations through legislation (SB 5748). While that bill is dead, the idea of using testing data as a part of teacher evals was a recently added to a professional learning bill being reviewed (HB 1345). It seems WA legislators are determined to include summative assessment data in the teacher quality discussion.

I believe that this fixation on just one type of data story (particularly spinning it to say “gotcha”) is why many teachers are up in arms. This is the concern that my fellow blogger, Spencer, addressed in his piece “How to Take An Arrow to Your Head”. Spencer captured this well by voicing how many teachers, myself included, recoil at the thought of using student test scores in their evals because it appears we are getting punished for factors beyond our control, such as systemic poverty, chronic absenteeism, and a host of other societal ills that negatively impact student achievement. Many teachers are fearful because the voices that dominate the discussion on assessments and “accountability” seem to have a myopic view that testing will remove bad teachers from classroom and focus the discussion on student achievement rather than student growth. In fact, last year I compared The Department of Education to the pigs in Animal Farm when I wrote about why teachers in this state could not accept the inclusion of test scores in their evals in order to save our NCLB waiver.

Another year of learning, reading, and thinking changed the way the legislature and some of my colleagues think and talk about assessment data. Examining the language of HB 1345’s amendment reveals this change. First, the idea of statewide assessments as being one of multiple measures. This means that there is more than one story being told and heard. From multiple viewpoints, we can truly get an accurate picture of how our students are growing in the classroom under the guidance of an effective teacher. The next important detail in the amendment is that “assessments must meet standards for being a valid and reliable tool for measuring student growth”. Standardized assessment have long been critiqued as invalid and unreliable. However, with the new CCSS assessment there is promise of rigorous testing that asks students to perform at a level necessary to be career and college ready. My friend Joe refers to it as the first “high-quality standardized tests” he has witnessed as far back as when he was in high school piloting the WASL. His hope, like mine, is that the current SBA assessment suite, although not by any means perfect, can provide one source (out of many) of data that can be used in meaningful conversations about teacher effectiveness, classroom instruction, and student growth.

Teaching Canned Curriculum

WANTED: Highly-qualified teacher to implement district purchased curriculum. Must attend trainings. Must follow pacing guide. Must give students consumables. Must move quickly. Must ignore reteaching. Must trust the model. Must regularly update online assessment collection tool.  Must share results with building data team. Must not question the process.

I had completely forgotten the existence of this wanted ad when I clicked on the email attachment with excitement, nervous about the courses I would teach in the fall. I’d requested Sophomores and AP Language. Four sections of Sophomores glowed on the screen. That meant I’d have roughly 120 fifteen year olds to guide through the themes of Sophomore year. I love 10th graders because they sort of know how to play high school. They think they are better than the freshmen. They consistently under or over-estimate how much time it actually takes to accomplish an academic task.

They think they know everything.

This is the year that many high school students transition from thinking about themselves to thinking about others. Throughout the nation, tenth graders are learning to “think globally”. Sophomore year a student could read texts like Siddhartha, Things Fall Apart, and Macbeth. They learn about the cellular makeup of the world in Biology, discover that Geometry is simply argumentative writing with numbers, and explore how civilizations rose and fell through World History.

Following the lead of others, my own district adopted Springboard, a College Board developed, Common Core aligned, “culturally responsive” curriculum that prepares students for rigorous, Advanced Placement courses. I was certainly excited about  these qualities when I attended the district workshop last year. Nonetheless, after five months of implementation what I’ve found is that this curriculum—much like most outsourced programming—is problematic. Instead of concentrating this post on an analysis of the issues, I want to emphasize what teaching Springboard curriculum has illuminated for me.

My classroom isn’t more rigorous, engaged, or common core aligned because of Springboard—those qualities already existed. What Springboard has done is remind me that teachers still need the flexibility and autonomy to modify any curriculum to meet the needs of the diverse students in their classrooms.

Furthermore, the following is more true now than ever:

  • Students need their classroom teachers to pre-assess their knowledge.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to develop engaging hooks.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to differentiate learning tasks.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to scaffold complex readings.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to create a safe place for all learners.
  • Students need their classroom  teachers to not be “good soldiers” rotely teaching curriculum developed by someone many states away from their school.

Above all,

  • Students need their classroom teachers to advocate for them when policies don’t.

Class Size: Put Student Needs First

The need for relationship4thPeriod

I work in a diverse, high poverty high school of 1400 students on the Eastside of Tacoma. My students listen to Kendrick Lamar, Miley Cyrus, and Rascal Flatts. They claim daily meals of pho, collard greens, and hot pockets. Many come from chaotic homes where they are often raising themselves and their siblings. Others have parents or guardians who attend conferences, send regular emails and volunteer on picture day. All have the human need to connect. Each one has a desire for relationship—to be known and accepted as they are.

Effective teaching requires meaningful relationships. This is especially true in high poverty communities where the only sure thing is instability. Balancing content standards and relationships is challenging enough without the added layers of systemic racism, economic hardships, and over crowded classrooms.  I must learn to navigate, relate to, and design individualized lessons for anywhere between 140-150 students each day.

I’m good at what I do. But the more students I see throughout the day the less individualized instruction becomes.

This year I have two classes of 31 students. With my smaller classes later in the day, I’m not over contract limit. That said, I would give many a precious thing for those classes to be reduced. I only have room for 30 desks so everyday “Mike” (the last kid scheduled in) shows up and grabs a spot by the printer. He waits until someone is absent (which isn’t that often) and then takes their spot. I try to remind him daily that he is welcome in class and a part of our community but physical space sends a different message.

That class is also filled with large personalities, each heart hoping to be accepted and each voice longing to be heard. Which means it’s loud. I teach in a way that riles kids up. When kids start arguing about whether Jing Mei’s mom should’ve slapped her earlier or was forcing unrealistic and harmful expectations on her nine year old in The Joy Luck Club,  it’s tough to enforce discussion norms and get students to respect wait time. Every child is looking to be heard.

The need to be heard

We are told that class size doesn’t matter or isn’t a high priority. I can’t help but notice that every elite private school and four year university publishes their sub 20 class sizes on page 2 of their brochure.

Meanwhile, in Washington K-12 we live a different reality. For two days last year, I had 41 students enrolled in my first period English class. That’s FORTY ONE 15 1/2 year olds in a room trying to learn how to read, write, and think. Imagine how this would have influenced student-teacher relationships. Consider the impact on student discourse. In a 55 min period that gives each kid about 1.34 minutes to speak IF a teacher doesn’t use any of the airtime. If a teacher has a 20 minute lesson then that decreases student talk to roughly a minute per child.

Students of all ages desire to be heard. They want to know they exist in the world and others validate their existence. In an academic context, students, although sometimes nervous at first, want to share their ideas with a classroom and want affirmation that their thoughts are accepted and show understanding of the lesson. Furthermore, academic student talk is the primary way students learn and stay engaged with content. Strategies abound from the common “turn and talk” to whole class seminars. Yet, when a classroom is bursting with students, there is little time for student talk.

So when 6’3″ football and basketball players start hollering about what is and isn’t a textual evidence supported theme in Siddhartha, I have little choice but to step back, ride out the discussion. In crowded classrooms, some students will fight to be heard while others will float through a class period without ever sharing a single idea.

The need for meaningful feedback

Students want meaningful feedback. They want to know that their effort on homework was well spent and that they are making strides towards academic goals. Certainly, strategies exist for peer to peer feedback sessions but often it is not taken as seriously as teacher feedback. Why? I believe it’s because I’m the professional. I’m the one trained in my content and can see both potential and possibility in a student’s work. They want to hear from me.

That’s why this weekend (and most Fridays) I pack up my Kia with between 100-130 journals. I use these composition notebooks to inform the next week’s instruction, while giving kids immediate feedback on their learning. The math is stark. I spend between 3-5 minutes reading and commenting on the journals. That task creates roughly 7.5 hours of grading. There are fewer than five hours of scheduled planning time in a teacher’s week. I almost always take work home because meaningful feedback takes time and I know my students need the feedback.

The crowded nature of classrooms across the state is real. I know each teacher is doing their best with the conditions they have. I want to see these conditions improve. Yet, no matter how many kids are in my care, I will still work to develop trusting relationships with each, support academic discourse, and give them meaningful feedback whenever possible.