Author Archives: Hope Teague-Bowling

21st Century School Segregation: The Power of Neighborhood Schools

My first two years of teaching, I commuted to work—45 minutes one way, an hour and a half the other. My gas bill was insane and I was constantly stressed out from the traffic. I wanted to move closer to my school, but didn’t really want to live in Kent. Although I loved the staff and the students, I knew I wanted to eventually work in a more urban school. Commuting was the norm for most teachers in our building, and a majority of my colleagues drove in from surrounding cities. We’d joke about the benefits of living out of district—time to plan in the car or going to a bar without worrying about running into parents. But, I always felt the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. I was so exhausted I didn’t feel like I was doing my best teaching. I barely attended after-school activities like dances, football games or musicals. I felt like I wasn’t supporting my students enough and only had a surface level understanding the community’s values.

Deep down, I knew that living so far away from where I taught was counter to my belief system. I grew up as the kind of missionary kid that actually lived in the village my parents worked in. My parents home schooled us so that they could integrate their ministries into our daily lives (that meant at age 8 I was helping deliver babies in the prenatal clinic my mom built in the garage). This is why, after two years at Kentridge High School, I eagerly accepted a job in Clover Park School District just ten minutes from my house. Now, I teach at Lincoln, eat my way up and down 38th street (shout out to Vien Dong, Zocalo, and Dragon Crawsfish!), shop at Cappy’s and the 72nd Fred Meyer, and live on the Eastside of Tacoma. I love it.

I believe in neighborhood schools.

I believe in living and teaching in my neighborhood school.

A strong neighborhood school has the potential to change lives. It can be community-oriented, a center of support for families. It’s the community listening as Clover Park HS seniors describe how they tried to change the world through their senior project. It’s Abe’s Golden Acres providing one ton of food for the Eastside of Tacoma during the summer. It’s the SOMA church donating toiletries and snacks for the Football team. It’s The Grand Cinema sponsoring a Film Club after school. Successful neighborhood schools are thriving hubs that facilitate strong community-school partnerships that promote real world learning experiences for students.

I find myself extremely excited about neighborhood schools that are an integral part of their community and that reflect the racial and cultural makeup of that neighborhood. But the nature of intersectionality prevents me from ignoring the overlapping venn diagrams where race and class meet school and housing policies. Because anyone who doesn’t live under a mushroom can see that the neighborhood school reflects the people living in the ‘hood. So we end up with whiter or browner schools directly reflective of historical housing practices (redlining) and current housing “choice” (aka white families fleeing the urban core).

As a result, our segregated neighborhood schools reveal an increased concentration of the have and have-nots. In my mind, the real issue is the concentration of poverty that accompanies the neighborhood.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about many high-performing charters is that they are neighborhood schools. Many public charters are serving a traditionally marginalized, high poverty population. Programs like KIPP or Greendot are a response to long neglected neighborhoods and communities. And their students are thriving. The anti-charter crowd forgets that segregation already existed in these communities and that the charters went into rejected communities, targeted children that many believe couldn’t learn, and said they were valuable and could achieve. Charters schools don’t promote school segregation. They offer a solution (note: I did not say the solution).

So What?

If we want great public schools for all students then we need to be honest with ourselves about our current conditions. We need to recognize that the current housing and school policies work together for the betterment of some schools and neighborhoods and not others, and with that understanding we can do better. We need to prioritize. Is school choice most important? Does the demographic makeup of the student population really matter? Do we fight to desegregate our schools? Do we work to decentralize concentrated poverty? Do we invest in making amazing neighborhood schools regardless of the makeup of the neighborhood? All of the above?

Now What?

There is so much more to be said or explored. But for now, I want to end with a thought from Korbett Mosesly on my initial post.

“What if we started from the premise that culturally affinity neighborhoods are ok. It is the racial mismatch in educational leadership/teacher and their students that may be an issue if there is a lack of open dialogue and understanding. It’s a lack of equity in resources to provide fully funded educational programs that is an issue. It’s a concentration of intergenerational poverty and a lack of people be willing to have hard conversations about systems of oppression.”

Let’s continue to have those hard conversations.

21st Century School Segregation

baltimore-integrationThis post is the beginning of a series of posts I will write about 21st century school segregation. I want to start by acknowledging a few factors that influence my perspective and shape my writing.

  1. This topic is complicated and multifaceted
  2. Nuance is hard to write in a blog
  3. I’m a white lady without children
  4. My instructional choices and community activism is shaped by my evolving understanding of my role as a white, female educator
  5. I love metaphors and analogies

Recently, I met with two outstanding women—one I consider the “Godmother” of my teaching practice and the other a teacher, community activist, and all-around inspiration. Over a cup of coffee, we grappled with elements of a conversation that started on Facebook then moved to email and finally to Bluebeard Coffee Roasters. As white women, what do we do about increasingly segregated schools? What do we do about the segregated schools in our city? 

Grappling with these questions is like swimming the English channel–it can be done but it’s cold, choppy, and overwhelming. These questions are particularly relevant because I am part of that “interchangeable white lady” teaching force working in a school with a majority of students of color.

As a nation, we were founded on simple truth. “That all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” See that tension there: liberty and equality. At their core those two ideas seem to be at odds with each other. Which has more value? Personal liberty? Equality? Overall, good for the majority of the communities?

As Americans we value choice–what we eat, where we shop, and where we send our kids to school. The policy obsession school choice is undergirded by America’s obsession with exceptionalism. In my freedom, I deserve to have choice because I’m exceptional. We want to be special. We want our kids to be special. And we want to choose an exceptional, special school for our child.

The unacknowledged issue with school choice is that it really isn’t a choice for everyone. School choice is limited by a parent’s employment situation, their transportation costs and access, and the services their child needs. As noted in “Not Everyone Has a Choice”, parents lack access to all the information necessary to even make the best choice for their child. School choice is actually a privilege that is only readily available for middle and upper class Americans. It is these parents that have consistent access the innovative programs across town and can get their students there.

If we’re serious about doing something to stop our segregated school system we have to be honest about the beliefs that undergird the choices we make about where we send our children and why we send them there. We have to decide if we want liberty or if we want equality. As the system now stands, we can’t seem to have both. Due to a myriad of factors–among them underfunding, legislative incompetence, voter apathy, and a skewed sense of social responsibility–current policy conditions we don’t have the resources to make all schools exceptional. You can’t create exceptional schools without the commensurate support from the community.

So where does that leave us? Rationing. People with means use their means to provide themselves with choices and options. People with means in our society are more likely to be white, leading to school segregation.

As a childless, white woman I’m left pondering the way forward from here: Open enrollment? Options for parents in poverty are limited by ineffective and underfunded public transit. Charters? I am skeptical. Vouchers? Results are mixed at best and exacerbate existing underfunding of K-12. I really don’t have an answer, but I am hoping to stumble my way to one in this series.

Home for the Holidays

Winter, particularly the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Years, is especially challenging for many schools located in high poverty rural and urban communities. Teachers wrap up units and collect essays, anticipating days to rest, catch up on grading, and reconnect with their spouses and children. For many of our students, the holidays are not times of joy but rather a reminder of scarcity.

In response to that scarcity, each year my principal pulls a Commissioner Gordon, sending out the bat-signal and asking teachers and community members to collect peanut butter, jelly, and other non-perishables so that we can send home food with our McKinney-Vento students’ families. The McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law, requires that schools provide “educational stability for homeless children and youth.” Like many federal and state mandates, this program is underfunded. McKinney-Vento partially funds “educational needs” such as transportation, school supplies, class fees, and ASB cards (allowing students to participate in clubs, sports, and school activities).

Our McKinney-Vento students aren’t the only ones in need. Many LHS students rely on school breakfast and lunch to give them sustenance for the day. Teenage stomachs are bottomless pits. My students are hungry all the time. It’s difficult to imagine how they survive the winter break when their primary nutritional source is closed. This is why we do what we do at Lincoln—-we pack two weeks worth of easy to prepare groceries in order to offset the driving hunger. In additional to our McKinney-Vento students, my colleagues and I usually identify about forty families who need financial support. It seems that every year our list of families in needs grows longer.

This is why many schools, like my own, desperately rely on strong community involvementtoys.

When we sent out the signal in the beginning of Dec,  we expected some help from our usual supports. We hoped there would be enough to cover the increased number of LHS families in need this year. What we didn’t expect was 3x the aid!

  • Team Backpack gifted 102 backpacks bursting with PJs, toiletries, and a new jacket for each homeless student.
  • A church donated toothpaste, shampoo, feminine products, and other desperately needed toiletries.
  • Someone brought in 40 blankets.
  • The Iron Workers Union supported 70 families with gifts under the tree.
  • Absher Construction supported 74 families with Christmas dinners that included a huge
  • Compassionate individuals organized their workplaces to collect donations to purchase Christmas dinners for more Lincoln families.
  • Businesses like Tacoma’s Best Grooming sponsored specific families on our list.
  • Life Center, East Side Community Church, Soma, and other faith communities sponsored families dinners, and gave generous donations so we could purchase the items we needed to fill boxes to the brim with groceries for over 90 families AND send kids home with gift cards so they could have a Christmas!
  • Ken, a friend from church, connected us with God’s Portion who brought in an hundreds of boxes of Kettle chips & popcorn. There was so much that my ASB students stood outside the entrances to our school handing out bags of chips to each student!
  • Many others–names I don’t know– donated their time to organize, sort, and lovingly pack bags and boxes. You know who you are. Thank you.

I conservatively guess that 200-ish families will have a more joyful holiday because of the kindness of “strangers”. We are grateful for every last dollar or item donated.

We all know schools are grossly under-funded in Washington state. Although economic indicators tell us otherwise, many communities are yet to recover from the Great Recession of 2008. School and community programs that support families are essential, and finding sustainable school funding is critical especially for the most vulnerable children in our society.

When Tragedy Strikes Over & Over & Over Again


Teaching in an urban, high poverty school isn’t like teaching elsewhere. The lack of resources, sporadic community support, systemic inequalities, and high mobility cultivates an environment filled with trauma. In this environment, it necessary to be in a constant state of alert. My kids are on guard. I’m on guard.

Tragedy is around every corner.

Literally. Every few months–it seems–there is an altercation that results in the death of a young man or a young woman. Usually a young man. A young man of color. It was Elijah yesterday.

Having taught in a suburban high school, I know this is not the same experience. Yes, there were deaths and sadness but there wasn’t an air of expectation. An air of resignation to the facts of life–that hardship, struggle, and sorrow are moments away. It’s an air of “we hope this never happens again” combined with a whiff of “we aren’t surprised anymore.”

Our students are constantly faced with loss and death, but are expected to be resilient and move on. They mourn in whatever way they can—through stories of precious moments, through over-sized T-shirts tagged “in loving memory” and through altars of remembrance. The district sends in extra grief counselors and we all pray the day hurries to a close so we can stop pretending to care about Shakespeare, transitive properties, and Government. Tomorrow will be better we tell ourselves. And it will.

But what about the days after the initial event? Who is there to help our students process this grief? How about the next tragic event? And the one after that?  Five counselors, two psychologists, and a few administrators can not carry the psychological and emotional weight of 1400 students and 90 + staff members.

Education administration professor, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, argues that urban youth are undergoing “toxic stress”. He further postulates that,

When we look at national data sets for trauma, the numbers suggest that one in three urban youth display mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. They’re twice as likely as a soldier coming out of live combat to have PTSD. In the veterans’ administration, this is topic number one. But in conversations about urban youth, it almost never registers. All data shows symptoms of PTSD are interruptive to someone trying to perform well in school and more likely to create risk behavior, [yet] the investment is being made on incarceration.

In a classroom of 30, that is one third of my students. Where are the discussions on mental health, toxic stress, or urban PTSD on the local and national level? Are we waiting to see how the Compton Unified class action lawsuit against the district for failure to respond appropriately to student trauma pans out?

I have my suspicions why few want to address these issues.  

Regardless, if our students are coming to school with more PTSD than a soldier, how are the staff in any building prepared to mitigate this? In 2012, the AFT published findings that 93% of teachers never received any bereavement training. The report elaborates that teachers are asking for it. Clearly, teachers want to be better prepared to serve all student needs not just ones related to Common Core. I think it’s just as important for Larry to know how to respond to his triggers as it is for him to read grade level texts.

Alas, when I browse through the catalogues of professional learning opportunities of surrounding districts, I notice I can sign up to learn how to set up a flipped classroom. I can get tips on how to use love and logic for my discipline plan. I can learn the ins and outs of the TPEP evaluation system. What I can’t find is anything on how to manage the grief my students bring with them to the classroom. I don’t see courses on mediating toxic stress for students or colleagues. I can’t seem to find a training on conflict resolution or tips for designing lessons that maintain academic rigour and give alternative activities to lower the affective filter. I can’t find a class to help me understand and respond to the differences between trauma and grief.

It is critical that schools with high percentages of students living with toxic stress receive more short and long term support addressing these conditions. Staff need more than momentary pep talks or a handout on the stages of grief. We need to acknowledge that it’s not enough to cry in the bathroom and then pretend things are fine and go back to teaching Things Fall Apart. We need to stop ignoring that our urban youth and their teachers have unique needs that aren’t being addressed system wide. We need professional learning opportunities that equip our teachers to handle grief—their own and a classroom full of it! If we develop sustainable programs truly addressing the whole child, then both our teachers and our students will be empowered to handle whatever is around the next corner.

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.