Author Archives: Mark Gardner

Differentiation: When Virtue turns Vice

I sincerely believe in the practice of differentiating instruction for the needs of learners. To help learners grow and improve, we need to meet them where they are and craft variations in output, outcome, process, scope or purpose in order to help students move from A to B…so they can eventually get to Z.

But, a heretical wondering has been bouncing around my head lately.

Over my career I have had many students who, when we are tasked with reading a novel or other long work, either by IEP, 504, or personal preference, end up engaging with the audiobook version of the text rather than the printed version. I’ve always considered that a crucial form of differentiation.

As I was preparing to teach the current unit (Romeo and Juliet) to my 9th graders, I was mulling over how to engage them with the intimidating complexities of Shakespeare. It had been a few years since I last taught the play, so on an early morning run I was going over past unit plans, assignments, and ways I had engaged students. I came to this conclusion: I wanted my students to gain confidence when faced with complex or intimidating texts. That, to me, was more important than whether they “got” all of the nuanced details of the play.

It was clear in my head: The act of reading was what I was trying to teach, to some degree, no matter what literary text we were studying. My learning goal wasn’t that kids simply knew who, what, when, where, and how: it was that kids had the skills to decode the written word in order to be able to figure those things out from reading.

My heretical wondering: Might differentiation inadvertently place students on a lower trajectory for success if that differentiation is misapplied? To be blunt: Will listening to the audio book help a teenager learn to process a text visually? Of course, audiobooks are a necessity for students with visual impairments, but if my goal is to help students improve their processing and comprehension of text, might differentiation such as audiobooks actually get in the way of developing that skill?

I did some cursory research, and all of it was consistent: Using audiobooks to augment the reading of a text increases student comprehension of that text. My question, though, is about the enduring skill of being able to read and make meaning. Yes, listening to the text will increase a struggling teen reader’s comprehension of that text…but what does it do for their reading skill when they face a new complex text that isn’t or can’t be accompanied by audio?

I’m seriously rethinking all of the differentiation I plan in my class. If my goal is for my teenage readers to “get through” the text and know what happens, or even be able to interpret the literature to depth, the audiobook will suffice if I am teaching content. If I am teaching skills, though, I must focus on differentiating the learning of the skill (how I help kids strengthen the act of reading) rather than being satisfied that they “got” the content. When I think back over 16 years of teaching various complex texts where audiobooks were a go-to mode of differentiating, I feel confident my kids left knowing content but I wonder if I did a darn thing to cultivate their transferable skills. I wonder if I might have inadvertently flattened their potential trajectory as a reader.

A central theme of Romeo and Juliet is that “virtue turns vice, being misapplied.” In other words, being loving is a virtue, being lustful and misapplying that emotion turns that same sentiment to a vice…and in the case of the play, a tragedy rather than a love story.

I now wonder, too, if differentiation of instruction isn’t subject to that same theme: It is a virtuous idea which, if misapplied, might do more harm than good.

Waiting on Olympia: Bargaining Certificated Salaries

We’re waiting.

Last August, we settled our comprehensive collective bargaining agreement (CBA). For better or worse (I say better), our CBA nearly doubled in scope: A whole new section was added about supporting new-to-career teachers; over a dozen pages detailing evaluation procedures was folded over from experimental year-to-year Memos of Understanding into the durable agreement; much needed language protecting the learning environments of special education students was added…and much more. Our contract, once rumored to be held up as one of the worst in the state, is now much stronger in its service to teaching and learning.

We knew, though, that we were bargaining at a pivotal moment in teacher compensation for our state. Our Superintendent, HR Director, and Finance Director (all of whom our Association has an unusually collaborative relationship with, even when we disagree) are likely more nervous than we are, as ultimately they are the individuals charged with managing the public’s monetary investment in our schools. Thus, the salaries we successfully bargained are a “one-year-deal” of sorts…with a salary re-opener mandated in the final agreement under the assumption that the legislature was going to make major changes.

As this recent article from the Seattle Times points out, and as I tried to articulate before, last year’s actions by the legislature created more problems than solutions. One paragraph from the Times article sums up the one of the key changes concisely:

The changes include scrapping the statewide salary schedule that virtually all school districts have used to set base pay for their teachers. Lawmakers also set a cap on teacher salaries and no longer will funnel more money into schools with more experienced and educated teachers. (Source; emphasis mine)

That part I bolded? That matters. Big time.

The guy who teaches next door to me is in the second year of his career as a teacher. Teaching is his second career, and he transitioned to my building after a successful career in the private sector. Recently, we were talking about a contract issue involving certain additional non-instructional activities that he and other teachers were required to invest time into, but for which they were not compensated. He made the comment that “it will sure be hard to keep people around if this is how it works!” Just the tip of the iceberg, I pointed out.

I’m interpolating here, but my hunch is that his private sector experience taught him something about what it takes to recruit and retain talented employees. Simply: Treat good people well and pay them for their talents, and the whole system benefits. Treat good people poorly and create excuses for not paying them for their experience and talent: Those good people leave your system…leaving behind, well, the less-than-good. As a parent, I don’t want my kids being taught by whomever’s left when all the good teachers move on find better work.

While there are many changes in policy and practice that can effectively recruit and retain the best possible talent, we have to acknowledge that if we want highly-skilled talent, we need to compensate in a way that values experience and training.

This is why my Association is waiting to head back to the bargaining table. I’m holding out hope that this legislative session will fix the hastily devised non-solutions that resulted from last year’s session. I’m hoping that their decisions signal a willingness to invest in doing what it takes to attract and retain the best, not just whoever we can get.

“Teachers are members of learning communities”

Earlier this week, Shari shared the great news about accomplished teaching here in Washington (1,435 teachers earned National Board Certification and 533 teachers renewed their National Board Certification in this last cycle).

When I earned my National Board Certification in 2006, I had no idea what an impact it was going to have on my career.

We often hear about the National Board Certification process: it fosters reflection on and close examination of student needs and our responsive practice. Many teachers who go through the process share how it helped focus their lens on how their knowledge of students informs practice as they move up that “Architecture of Accomplished Teaching.” There are those “Five Core Propositions” around which the process is centered, as well:

(Image source)

For me, earning my certification was a watershed moment around Proposition 5: Teachers are members of learning communities.

Specifically, I realized that my learning community wasn’t limited to the Friday PLC meetings I attended. In fact, my community extended across the whole state of Washington and beyond.

One of the best…and hardest…things about being a teacher is that you can be by yourself in your room, doing what you decide is best for the kids sitting in front of you. There is the opportunity for tremendous autonomy, creativity, and personal choice. That autonomy might be nice, but it might leave us unaware of the opportunities for learning that can occur when we connect our classrooms to others.

After earning my NBPTS certification, I ended upon a few email lists. Usually that is an annoyance, but when I started getting emails from names like Jeanne Harmon, Terese Emry (those names might ring a bell to some of you readers), it didn’t read as the typical spam email that filled my inbox. Instead, it was about connecting teachers, fostering teacher leadership, amplifying teacher voice, and making a difference within and beyond the classroom.

Earning my NBPTS certification connected me with a community of talented, creative and passionate teachers. Those teachers existed before, like me, doing their best work in front of roomfuls of kids. Those extra letters after our names, though, that “NBCT,” instantly built bridges to connect classrooms otherwise isolated by open miles, even whole states.

Since 2006, I’ve met and learned from elementary teachers in tiny districts far flung across our state, middle school specialists from urban districts on the east coast, and NBCT-administrators leading systems change near and far. What I’ve learned has shaped my knowledge and skill as a teacher leader, and as importantly, has added skills and tools to my repertoire as a classroom teacher.

Congratulations to the new and newly-renewed NBCTs across our state, not only for what you’ve accomplished for your students but also for becoming a part of a thriving network of amazing teachers… your learning community just expanded!

Your Salary and Why “Staff Mix” Matters

 

OSPI recently released its response to the EHB 2242 requirement that it provide salary grid recommendations for districts in the legislature’s new plan for funding educator salaries.

As a refresher: At it’s simplest, the legislature required that starting salaries at entry-level must be at least $40,000 per year, maximum salaries can start no higher than $90,000 per year, but regardless of those numbers, the average salary (allocation) per certificated staff member will sit at $64,000. In other words, no matter what a district chooses to pay its teachers, the state will only provide that district $64K per FTE cert staff.

By doling out a flat rate per teacher, the “staff mix” component of how schools were previously funded has been eliminated.

This is something all educators in Washington need to take notice of.

Staff mix is based on the reality that a district with more experienced staff (who receive higher pay on any salary schedule) will need a higher state allocation than a district with less experienced staff placed lower on that schedule. The Olympia School District did a great job of articulating the problem with eliminating staff mix: Districts staffed with experienced teachers will not receive adequate funding to pay teacher salaries. The illustrative scenarios below are drawn directly from the OSD’s communication about the fiscal impact of the loss of staff mix on their district alone:

  • DISTRICT A has 100 teachers, and all 100 are early career teachers. As a result, District A receives more than adequate state funding to staff its schools. In fact, it receives more than it needs.
  • DISTRICT B has 100 teachers, with roughly 50 more experienced than average and 50 less experienced than the state average (not the district average). District B received exactly the right amount of state funding to adequately fund salaries.
  • DISTRICT C has 100 teachers, with roughly 70 on the more-experienced side and 30 on the less-experienced side. Provided only a flat rate per teacher, the district cannot afford to pay salaries for experienced staff.

It’s a mess: When the state funds based on an average (rather than staff mix), those 90K salaries are a smokescreen for the unfortunate reality that such a model basically requires that large numbers of teachers cycle out of the profession well before they achieve that 90K salary in order for the state’s flat-rate model to be sustainable. A compensation model that banks on high rates of teacher turnover in order to even work doesn’t seem like it is addressing the actual problem of compensating teachers in a way that recruits and retains the best. The only other guaranteed option is to simply pay every teacher the exact same salary. That might seem the simple and logical solution, but let’s pause to consider the impact this would have on recruiting and retaining quality teachers who in other work sectors in the real world would expect their pay to increase with added experience, training, and expertise.

(While we’re on the topic, here are my thoughts on why it matters to pay teachers more.) 

The OLD salary allocation model, even with its flaws (including small numbers), at least based salary allocations on who that school actually employed. That allocation, based on actual staff numbers and experience levels, meant that even two districts with the exact same number of teachers, might receive different total allocations from the state because one staff might have a different “mix” of teachers with different levels of experience or advanced credits.

While responding to the legislature’s mandate to produce model salary grids for districts to consider, Superintendent Reykdal makes the point succinctly: “In the absence of a ‘staff mix’ factor that was eliminated by the Legislature beginning next school year, drafting a sample salary grid for districts has little meaning” (Source) If the state only funds $64K per teacher, per year, there is no “prototypical salary grid” that will make sense given that every single district in the state has a different staff mix.

I reiterate, it is a mess. In the coming legislative session, we as educators need to help our leaders understand what a mess they’ve created…and that restoring staff mix to the funding formula is a simple, do-able solution.

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.


Image Source

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.

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.

Small Shifts, Big Difference

One of the simplest lessons I’ll be taking into the new school year came from a small interaction with a student last spring.

I was covering several days of classes for a colleague of mine when this gregarious and clearly outgoing ninth grade student bounded up to me, said their name, then shared “and I prefer the pronoun they.”

I immediately thanked them, saying how appreciative I was that they told me, because I didn’t want to inadvertently be disrespectful. Then, mere moments later as I was calling for the attention of my students…

“Ladies and gentlemen, can I get your faces toward the front please?”

I paused. For all the students knew, I was just waiting for the class to settle. In my head, though, I felt the impact of an important, albeit small, new lesson learned.

Given our political and social climate in this country, matters of gender identity are certainly a hot-button topic. It is easy to fall into an argument about whether alternative pronouns are “okay” or whether gender is a binary or a spectrum. People hold strong opinions on all sides. When I shared this story with a colleague, her reaction was at first “that’s stupid, were ‘they’ a boy or a girl?”

Unfortunately the conversation swiftly devolved, as often happens, down a slippery slope of ridiculousness: “So if a student says they prefer to be called ‘Your Highness’ you’ll just go along with it?”

No, for a simple reason. If a student asks to be called “Your Highness,” they are likely being punchy. It is a bid for some sort of attention. I will not be referring to any student by “Your Highness” unless it is their legal name (which does happen). If a student asks to be referred to with a different pronoun, what sort of asinine power play am I engaging in if I, a grown adult, refuse to comply?

I cannot pretend to imagine what it is like for any person, young or old, to have a pervasive feeling that the identity in their minds somehow is a mismatch with the identity the world expects based on their external, superficial appearances. As we head back to school in the next few weeks, these little but not-so-little things about my teaching are what I am focusing on. I’m at that stage where the lesson planning and delivery could happen on autopilot and kids would still be getting a good enough product. I’m also at that stage where passable practice is no longer permissible… especially if I know better.

We all know that in order for enduring learning to happen, certain needs must be met, not the least of which the need for physical, emotional and intellectual safety. If I turned to that child and said “No, you’re going to have to choose ‘he’ or ‘she,'” what good would it do? What would I actually accomplish other than some purposeless assertion of control? Even if I did for some reason “disagree” with concepts of gender beyond the binary and passive aggressively insist on still referring to them by ‘he’ or ‘she,’ why?

For that gregarious student who introduced themself to me, perhaps me saying “Ladies and gentlemen…” to get the class’s attention wasn’t even a blip on their radar. Or maybe it was. Maybe it was one more little way that they were reminded of being excluded, pushed out, not invited to the conversation we as a class were about to have.

Will anyone notice that instead of “Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention the front” I now say things like “Room 101, thank you for giving me your attention”? Probably not. It is a simple shift that requires next to nothing from me. By week three I’ll have a new habit, and the old “Ladies and gentlemen” will be gone.

Some could call this political correctness run amok. I say nope. It is as simple as this: If it is in my control to do such small things to prevent even one student from feeling excluded, why wouldn’t I?

 

 

Summer Reading: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

I should be reading the new budget and writing about that, I know. That’s for another day.

Instead, I spent my Fourth of July family trip getting sunburned while reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond. A much better choice, as I walked away with far less frustration than a close read of the budget likely would have offered me.

I have to admit that I rarely look forward to my summer “work reading.” Typically, my reading is more of a skim, dipping in when something seems to connect to my work. This book, however, seemed to connect at every turn.

I read this book with a specific purpose: When I and the other thousand-or-so staff return for our August kickoff meetings, we’re taking the idea of culturally responsive practice to scale. Specifically, the district Teaching and Learning team is working to design a common experience for the adults in our system to open us to more frank and meaningful conversations about race, inequity, privilege, and what culturally responsive practice should look like.

The challenge I’m facing, and which this book helped me with, is the reality of being a white male teaching is a largely white (generally affluent) community, and in this context trying to find the right way to communicate with my fellow white teachers that culturally responsive teaching isn’t about using rap music to “connect with kids” or putting up posters of famous nonwhite scientists or changing John to Juan in a story problem and checking the “culturally responsive” box. Further, saying “but I’m not racist” and “I treat every student the same” isn’t an excuse for not learning about and adopting culturally responsive practices (and I think such statements constitute a neon sign pointing at someone who probably needs more than anyone else to read this book).

At the August kickoff, that common experience will help establish that as a district our focus for the 2017-18 school year will be on “seeing and serving every child.” Why? Simply put, the data over the last few years communicates it without question: We’re serving some kids exceptionally well, others well enough, and some not well at all. The dividing line is crystal clear and let’s just say the students on one side of the line are are more linguistically and culturally diverse than those on the other.

But our test scores are high and our graduation rates just fine!

That’s good, of course. However, my assistant superintendent shared with me the field-trip analogy: if we take 100 kids on a field trip and only return with 93% of them, that’s a problem. Yes, we can celebrate our successes, but we as responsible educators must make sure we do all we can for each child, not just most kids. Continue reading