Category Archives: Education Policy

National Boards: Let Me Tell You Why

Washington State just welcomed 1,434 new National Board Certified Teachers. That makes 10,135 statewide. The popularity and support of National Board Certification indicates an emphasis on quality education for the students of our state. We are fortunate to have support at a level that teachers in other states can only imagine.

Suddenly, all around me, teachers are taking notice and asking about National Boards. What is it like? Should they do it? Is it worth it?

Good questions. I think I have some answers.

I am a National Board Certified Teacher. And that matters. Now let me tell you why.

NBCTs demonstrate a new levels of dedication to their students. Certainly, I was thoroughly dedicated before I certified, as are the majority of teachers. I was the sort of teacher that was always looking for ways to improve my practice. I wanted to be the teacher my students deserved. And I was willing to work for it. This is just the sort of teacher that decides to pursue certification.

It takes a certain work ethic to pursue certification, but the extra work is worth it if students benefit. When it’s all said and done, certification is a badge of honor, proof of dedication.

NBCTs take increasing pride in their work. And yet there is a certain humility that we cultivate as well. We know that everything we do is grounded in our knowledge of our students and their needs.

I was the first in my small, rural district to certify. Hardly anyone seemed to notice at the time. Despite that, I was overflowing with pride in my achievement and a new level of confidence.

That newfound confidence led me to do something bold on that very day. I was looking for my name on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards website. I just wanted to make sure it was there, that I really was an NBCT. An announcement on the webpage caught my eye. The NBPTS was looking for applicants for its English Language Arts Standards Committee.

I had just certified…just that day. But did that keep me from filling out an application? No, it did not. And, by some miracle, I ended up on that committee.

With the NBPTS ELA Standards Committee, I had the experience of working with passionate and talented educators from around the country, creating standards that made us all very proud. The experience left me with a weird mixture of humble gratitude and elevated confidence in my abilities.

My certificate- A student’s reflection is visible, if you look closely. It has a place of honor in my classroom, as a reminder to keep my students at the forefront of my practice.

For many NBCTs, the journey doesn’t end at certification. NBCTs don’t retreat from the work. They know that we have to continue growing and improving as professionals, just as we want our students to grow and improve.

My professional journey has made me a much better learner alongside my students. I have learned to adjust on the fly, and to tweak activities and instructional tools to work for individuals, small groups, and whole classes. And, most of all, I know that we are all works in progress. My students and myself, we have a lot of growing to do. My NBCT journey gave me the confidence to always be in the middle of it, never just coasting on what I have always done before.

NBCTs develop the courage to look back and ask hard questions about their practice. We know what it is like to be judged by our peers, and, as unnerving as it is, the growth we achieve through the process propels us, perpetually looking back in order to move forward. The NBCTs I talk to always say that the certification process forces them to increase their ability to reflect and seek feedback. There is always something that can improve.

If you are trying something new, if you are pushing yourself to improve, you will find yourself in uncomfortable territory, where failure is possible. Not everyone is up to this, but NBCTs are ready to reflect and to adjust their practice as needed.

NBCTs seek opportunities to collaborate with others to provide the best experiences for their students. That means reaching out to their colleagues, their communities, their online resources and beyond. Our access to ideas and support is virtually limitless. For years, this pursuit of a network of support has bolstered my practice, increasing my confidence and filling my toolbox full of instructional tricks of the trade.

With the new interest in National Board Certification in my rural region, it became part of my journey to become a cohort facilitator and help others on their path to certification.  Local cohorts like ours are making it possible to get rural educators on board.

This year, two of my colleagues certified; so there are three NBCTs in my district now, and five more candidates in the process. The fire that has been lit across the state has ignited in rural Lewis County after all.

So, if you or someone you know is considering National Board Certification, if you are wondering what all the fuss is about, let me tell you:

Through National Board Certification teachers validate their practice and gain confidence to take it to the next level. Certification begins a journey of professional development that can be richly rewarding.

I highly recommend it.

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

With the recent news that 1,435 teachers recently earned National Board Certification and 533 teachers renewed National Board Certification, the State of Washington has much to celebrate. This achievement means a great deal to the teachers, districts, cohorts, and our state education system, including a variety of agencies and organizations that provide supports to those seeking certification. However, for those who’ve just earned certification, your race to the finish line might feel it’s over, but In fact, it’s just beginning.

Thirteen years ago I began my National Board Certification journey. I was a fourth year teacher, both new to Washington and my district.  I was the first in my district to attempt certification much less complete the process.  I remember trying to explain it to my students–many had never seen a video camera in the classroom before. Most people in my district hadn’t heard of this certification, much less how to support it. I struggled through the certification process without the supports that exist in the system today, but with the mindset that I would finish what I started.  And I did. In all transparency, I barely made it and certified by one point. That one point might have made the difference between certifying in 2005 versus 2006 but the process involved created more growth for me than just arriving at the destination.  After certifying, I took on a challenge.  I wanted to open the doors for other teachers to deeply analyze their practice using the structure and framework provided by the National Board process. This is where my leadership began. I wanted to be the person who helped clear the pathways so that others who wanted to, could travel with a bit more ease. Thirteen years later, I’m proud to say that my district has many National Board Certified Teachers and an effective cohort system that supports teachers and counselors as they journey down this road.

I oftentimes share with candidates that the process of earning National Board Certification is more of a marathon and less of a sprint.  Figuring out when to start the race depends on the individual teacher/counselor. There is no perfect time to start. I started the process at a critical time in my career. I was just past the triage stage–you know, when you’re staying up until midnight planning for tomorrow’s lesson, unsure of where you’re going or how to get there.  Now, I could see the big picture and better understand my pacing, skill development, and how to write assessments.  But I certainly didn’t feel settled. I needed National Board Certification to push me, to develop me, and to help me find more rhythm. I questioned the triage strategies and routines I’d already established. I needed this, like a runner needs fuel.  Analyzing my work fed my soul and honed my skills to make me a reflective practitioner.   

The growth didn’t just come from the process.  Certification was a pivotal turning point in my teaching career. Who knows, perhaps it was the one point differential that activated change in me.  Perhaps it was the adrenaline rush that comes from finding out that I certified.  But after learning that I certified, I began to see myself as a teacher leader.  I became more involved in organizations that promote and support highly effective teaching practices. I began advocating for students at a building and district level. I understood that my voice could be heard and that my personal struggle through the process brought validation and credibility to the table when I talked with administrators about the needs of students.  I took on more leadership roles, participated in building decision making, and felt inspired to be a change agent for my community.  I took risks–used cutting edge resources, created new lessons, developed new strategies and all the while, reflected upon each change to determine what worked, what didn’t, and why (a process I practiced through National Board and continue to use today).  And while many of my colleagues who aren’t NBCTs may be doing these things too, this certification caused me to go down this path.  The best part is, that my journey into teacher leadership is still ongoing. Like so many other NBCTs, my race isn’t over yet. Heck, we’re just now picking up speed. 

 

 

Wish List for WACs for 2018

In November of 2017 several groups banded together to present comments to the legislature regarding the WAC revision of Section 412 of EHB 2242. That’s the section of the WAC that requires districts to prioritize identification of low-income students for participation in the Highly Capable (HC) Program.

The Washington State Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG) was involved in writing the letter. So was the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education, The Northwest Gifted Child Association, and the National Association for Gifted Children. But the letter didn’t just include voices from gifted-land. The Washington State PTA and the Washington Education Association added comments as well.

So what did we ask for? What was our wish list for the New Year?

Our number one, first priority, was universal screening.

Universal screening eliminates the reliance on nominations/referrals (which eliminates any potential of bias or problems of access skewing the identification process).

By the way, we also want people to stop using the term “nomination” for HC students. After all, a nomination sounds like you think people deserve something extraordinary—an award, an election. The correct term would be a “referral” for services, just like any other service a student might need. Districts could continue to collect referrals from parents, teachers, community members, and even students who self-referred, but that more subjective input would be used as supplemental data after the universal screening.

There were other items, including:

  • Report card grades or teacher recommendations should not be used as “gatekeeper” screening devices. Use objective tools to screen. Subjective tools can be used for additional information, but nothing more.
  • All screening needs to be done at the student’s home school, during normal school hours.

We also asked the legislators to clarify a couple of points. The phrase “multiple measures” means there are different ways to identify students, not that students need to score highly on every measure in order to qualify for services. The 5% funding formula is not a limit on enrollment. Districts are supposed to identify and serve all students who qualify for services, no matter what the percent.

There was a section in the letter on using local norms to identify HC students. You can read the Seattle Times article, “The Push to Find More Gifted Kids,” to see how Miami’s school district uses local norms.

Here are the things I loved about Miami’s success story (and the Florida law that drove it):

  • They acknowledge that students who have less exposure to vocabulary, books, museums, and so on—or students who deal with Adverse Childhood Experiences Syndrome (ACES)—can score lower on IQ tests. They need a safe and rich environment to expand their potential.
  • Those students who are brought into a HC class who scored lower and had fewer rich experiences or had more ACES—those kids will require tutoring in order to catch up. (That tutoring costs extra money.)
  • Miami spent additional money in other ways too—more “psychologists, teachers, administrators and a battery of nonverbal intelligence tests for kids not yet fluent in English.”
  • “Florida law mandates that all teachers of the gifted complete 300 hours of study on the temperament of highly intelligent kids, as well as the best ways to instruct, counsel and draw out their creativity.” That would be great if we had a similar requirement in Washington!
  • They spent about $1850 more per gifted student beyond the cost of basic education.

What did they gain? Miami is a front-runner in finding and developing ELL gifted students. Their gifted program demographics closely reflect their overall district population percentages.

Here’s what I wasn’t so excited about:

“In Miami, middle-class and affluent kids need IQ scores of at least 130, while low-income children or those whose first language is not English can get in with scores 13 points lower—provided they rate highly in measures of creativity and academic achievement.” That 130 cut-off seems really dated and wrong to me. I don’t know anyone who uses a 130 test score as a cut-off anymore. (How last century!)

Here’s a simple solution for those of us in our state.

We are supposed to look at multiple measures. So you go into your Multidisciplinary Selection Committee. You have a spreadsheet with data, student numbers (not names) down the left and labeled columns along the top, for example: CogAT verbal, CogAT quantitative, CogAT nonverbal, verbal achievement, quantitative achievement, HOPE scale (read the instructions first!), and so on.

You should have other things easily available on file for supplemental information, like a parent referral form or a teacher referral form or report card grades.

Next add a couple of other columns to your spreadsheet:

  • One should be for any demographic data you might have on each student.
  • One should be for free/reduced lunch data. As long as you identify students by number instead of name, there is no problem with sharing that data for the team to use.

Now as you use multiple measures to identify students for HC services, consider demographic and F/R lunch data as measures so you can make your best effort to maintain diversity in your HC program.

Do you want to make sure you are being fair? When you think you are done, do a sort by each demographic group to see how they compare with each other. Then do a sort by F/R. How well do your results align with your over-all district demographics?

Over time, you should see a more balanced HC program!

And happy new year to all!

Oh Pioneers!

 

 

When I think of a pioneer, I think of nineteenth century people willing to take chances by moving west, astronauts empowered by mathematicians and scientists that sought space exploration, and characters in a Willa Cather novel.  In the past, I hadn’t really thought to apply that word to teachers. Yet, in so many ways, teachers are pioneers, seeking to open up a new activity, a new line of thinking, or a new development in the education world.

Look around on Amazon and you’ll see teacher authors selling books on new engagement methods and strategies. On Twitter, teachers are organizing, leading, and participating in chats. I read the books from my teacherpreneur friends and participate in weekly chats on Twitter.  I’ve learned a lot over the past few years about education and how to help my students engage within the classroom.  Yet, some pioneers seek to create a bridge to engage the outside policymaking world with the needs of students and teachers within the classroom.  Enter WATAC. Taken from their website, “The Washington Teacher Advisory Council or WATAC is the voice of accomplished teachers advocating for student success.  We inform education decisions and influence policy, promoting equity, and excellence for all.”  WATAC is functioning on a new line of thinking– open up the lines of communication between those education decision makers and teachers who are impacted by policy.  Pioneering, right?  So maybe on paper, this doesn’t sound like a new development in the education world. But talk with teachers and you’ll soon find that we are rarely consulted about how an educational policy is impacting our kids and our work.  While there are some opportunities for work groups to flush out policy implementation (I participated in one for TPEP analyzing the first few districts to pilot the new evaluation system), educator voice is needed at all steps in the policy process, not just at the work group implementation stage. Much less, we’re even less likely to be approached with what legislative or policy needs we have. Until you’ve established a line of communication between yourself and your local legislator, it’s unlikely you’ll be consulted about potential legislation (although to be clear, I’m a huge fan of talking to my legislators and I’ve had a positive experience with this over the past year).  So, to take up the cause, WATAC seeks to do this work and to help teachers learn how to advocate for their students and their classrooms, too.  Basically, WATAC wants to ensure that there is teacher voice involved in creating policy and evaluating policy.  Because who better to know what a policy can do to a classroom, than the teachers who work with students who are impacted by the law?  

How do we create and curate teacher voice in education policy decisions?  What systems need to be in place to ensure that teachers have a voice?  What systems need to be in place to ensure sustainability regardless of who the education policymakers are? Clearly, I have more questions than answers. WATAC is still new and this is pioneering work that these educators have taken on. Engaging in education policy advocacy isn’t something teachers have a lot of training in how to do and frankly, it’s hard to find the time to eat lunch, much less read up on laws moving through the state legislature (by the way, save yourself some time and consider signing up for weekly legislative updates here: http://cstp-wa.org/policy-dialogue/legislative-updates/.   You can also sign up to receive updates from OSPI (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) and PESB (Professional Educator Standards Board) here:  https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/WAOSPI/subscriber/new.)   Creating systems that partner teachers with policy makers is going to take time, some careful planning, and serious assessment.  We need clear deliverables in statutes that require practitioner voice.  We need systems in place for how to do this.  

I have faith.  WATAC’s work has just begun but the foundation’s laid.  A network of award winning teachers has been established and a leadership team of teachers assembled.  Last Spring, WATAC held its first conference, engaging educators in policy advocacy at the local, regional, state, and national levels. The result? 75 educators came together to learn how policy is constructed, and how to ask for change in their schools, their districts, and at the state level. Educators learned about ESSA and had a chance to talk with legislators and policy makers from OSPI and the Governor’s Office.  The network is growing. Like pioneers, the pathway may not always be clear as to how to get to the goal, but the vision is there.  Planning is key for a journey like this.  But promoting educator voice is worth the expedition.  

The Worldwide Woes of Rural Education

It’s no secret that there is a shortage of teachers entering the workforce in Washington (OSPI has a page on this). But have you seen the news from rural China? Recent articles explain how education in rural China is in a crisis. Due to the developmental divide between urban and rural areas, and the low wages for teachers, young Chinese teachers entering the profession have little incentive to work in rural areas, far from the conveniences of the larger towns and cities. Likewise, wealthier rural families send their children to schools in more urban areas for better opportunities. Meanwhile, the students who remain in rural schools suffer from ever-decreasing quality of education, high teacher turnover, and limited programs of instruction.

Yunnan Rice Fields

I wish these articles were as exotic and foreign to me as the locale would suggest, but, line after line, I kept seeing a parallel to my own teaching context.

First of all, Chinese villages are inconvenient, with transportation issues for students and teachers. Transportation is a problem in rural Lewis County, too. Some students who attend my small, rural school in Southwest Washington, ride the bus for more than an hour from their remote homes. And, teachers who want to eat at a nice restaurant, shop at a large store, or get the oil changed in their car will have to drive at least forty minutes from our little neighborhood. Okay, it is probably worse in rural China, but who wants to drive forty minutes for fast food?

Another parallel? Rural Chinese teachers have little or no social life. Likewise, although many young teachers take rural teaching jobs in our region, it takes very little time before they realize that these remote, depressed areas are not exactly conducive to meeting other young singles. They have to travel for socialization, and, let’s face it, first-year teachers don’t have the time or money for the traveling.

Yamdrok Lake, Tibet, China

Other Chinese programs have cropped up to create incentives for teachers and young college graduates, even if they have no long-term wish to teach at all. These young people are encouraged to “volunteer” to perform a service for less privileged populations. They often start out enthusiastic and effective, but rarely last as teachers. They are a temporary fix that leaves needy rural students feeling abandoned after a short time.

This is a problem in our school, too. We have several positions filled by people who would not normally qualify for the jobs. For instance, our secondary special education teacher is a long-term substitute without prior experience in special ed. This is her second year. That would be especially terrible, but we are lucky, and she is doing a super job. But how fair is it that someone is doing a job they were not trained to do, without receiving benefits? She doesn’t plan to stay in the job.

Riffe Lake, Mossyrock WA

Another program that China is developing is a pipeline for rural educators, starting with high school students. They are incentivizing young people, getting them to promise to work in rural areas in exchange for their college education. This is where the parallel ends. I wish we had incentives for young people in rural communities to go into teaching. Our rural county is lacking in high school programs for future educators (such as Recruiting Washington Teachers), and that is especially frustrating.

Look, it takes a certain kind of educator to work in a poor, rural area. We are remote. We lack conveniences. Plus, we have kids that need us desperately due to poverty, homelessness, and domestic issues. We have diverse populations with needs that are sometimes hard to meet with limited resources and staff. It is hard to come from somewhere else and fall in love with this community, despite its beauty and the charm of the people who live here. Candidates for teaching jobs need to be up to the challenge.

My idea of a solid solution is our own local pipeline. I can imagine some of my current students as future teachers in rural Washington. They would know what they were getting into. They would understand the rhythm of the place. They would know the people. They would speak the languages. They wouldn’t mind the drive “out town,” which is our particular colloquialism for the big cities of Chehalis and Centralia. These kids would be perfect for the jobs. And we need them- desperately.

Lewis County Blueberry Fields

But this is not China, and no one is offering them money to become teachers and come back home to teach. In fact, we struggle to get programs for these promising students to earn college credit in high school. Unlike most urban schools who can attract teachers with advanced degrees to teach college courses in a high school setting, our teachers are often teaching several subjects, some of them far removed from their original major. Like rural China, our best students leave us for the better offerings of larger towns, such as Running Start or schools that offer more AP courses, clubs, or arts programs.

So, despite having students who would be excellent future teachers, we are losing the opportunity to give them an early start on that journey, to win them over to the joys of rural education.

Because it is joyous.

It would take so little to solve so much. Before it is worse, before we seem even more like rural China, we need to get our policy leaders to incentivize the education of future rural teachers.

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.

Making a safer classroom for students’ gender identities

On the first day of school this year, I asked my students – 6th graders – to write down their personal preferred pronouns on an index card, along with other info about themselves. I demonstrated writing mine (she/her) on the document camera, and gave other pronoun examples: he/him, they/theirs.

I got a few blank stares, and a few clarifying questions. Mostly I saw expressions that belied the feeling, “Uh, why are you asking me this?” (Or so I assume.)

I was posing this question to them because asking about others’ preferred pronouns has become common practice in more and more of the other spheres of my life. Why wouldn’t I introduce this practice in an art room, where I want to foster trust, and create a safe space for sharing essential aspects of ourselves?

As a cisgender woman (I identify as the same gender that I was assigned at birth), sometimes telling my pronouns feels tedious (“Nothing surprising here…”). But I agree with the idea that our society is a safer, better place for everyone when we all define and redefine our gender expression throughout our lives. 

My students are young – eleven years old, mostly. They are growing up in a world that has categories for gender expression that certainly weren’t available to me in my small town in the 90’s, when I was in 6th grade. Language is continually evolving and shifting as our collective understanding of gender shifts: labels like “gender-non-conforming,” “non-binary,” even “transgender,” are relatively new. The term “intersex” might not be new, but understanding of it as an identity is changing.

When I read students’ index cards later, I was touched by the fact that they simply did it – they wrote down their preferred pronouns, even if it felt like a “No duh,” and maybe that act, alone, got them thinking about gender in new ways. I regretted not having them share their pronouns with others in their table groups – that’s at least as important as telling me. I made a note to myself to do that part differently on the first day of school next year.

A few weeks later, we were watching a short video interview with the artist Louie Gong – he talks about his identities. This idea, that we all have many identities, was new to many of them. I used some examples, “Maybe you identify as a young person, as a Muslim, as a boy, as a skateboarder, as an East African.” The concept that identities are overlapping, and not necessarily fixed, connects to their understanding of their gender. You might be “he/him” today, and “they/them” next September.

I haven’t yet seen examples of students explicitly exploring their gender identities in their artwork, but then again: when was the last time I made artwork directly about my own identity as “female”? Maybe it’s creeping in, in their sketchbooks, or in questions I hear about whether the people in their drawings look “like a girl” or “like a boy”?

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction outlines the rights of WA state students around Gender Identity and Expression. “Students have the right to express their gender at school – within the constraints of the school’s dress code – without discrimination or harassment.” But how do we prevent discrimination and harassment?

Students also have a right to use restrooms and locker rooms “consistent with their gender identity.” A federal decision in 2016 requires all states to commit to these policies to protect transgender youth, or risk losing federal funding. 

My school has a single gender-neutral, single-occupancy bathroom available to students – it’s near the main office, and I used it one day last week. I noticed some discreet graffiti along the doorframe inside. “Hey queers.” “If you’re cis and straight, don’t use this bathroom.” I moved in to look closely and saw more. “I want to die” was followed by a suicide hotline number in different handwriting.

How do we develop students’ empathy and understanding for others’ gender expression, and for their own? A gender-neutral bathroom is a great start, institutionally, for protecting the needs of transgender students. I’m also heartened by the ways that queer students are showing up for each other – through sharpie messages on the walls, and otherwise. But we need classrooms, and hallways, and locker rooms that are safer and more welcoming of all of our unique gender expressions and bodies.

I’m looking for more ways to expand students’ understanding of their own gender identities, and I hope that creates more appreciation for others’ evolving selves.  

Two Chairs

Two chairs always sit outside my classroom door. Sometimes more; never one. It is my “office” where much of the real impact of being present with students happens. Here is where I meet, knee-to-knee, to talk with students about the worries and troubles of their lives; the things making them late for class, dull-eyed and even duller-spirited. Words between us are sometimes whispered, sometimes cried out in anguish and sometimes only said with the slow body language of a slight nod and downcast eyes.To write this blog, I flipped through my now two-decades-old book. In nice, quiet, rural America…

“Someone I love was raped last night at a party at our house. I want to beat up my father because he was too drunk to help her.”

“That guy my mom is dating? He keeps coming into my room at night.”

“I can’t breath when I am taking a test.”

“Those are cat scratches, I promise.”

As their teacher, I can help with the test anxiety issue. That I can do. Let’s talk about anxiety management.

The other “Big Three” sexual, physical and mental abuses. CPS calls made, perhaps an investigation. And then often nothing….Rarely do I see a child removed from their home. Far more often, the child’s world is disrupted for a moment and then it is back to life as normal.

It is obvious my students need a counselor for the trauma. But wait. We do not have one. Being a K-8 school, we are not required to even have one. Levy dollars would have to be spent to hire a counselor. Levy dollars in high poverty, rural schools are hard to come by. They are reserved for things like collapsing roofs and cracking foundations. These are things people understand and know how to fix. Mental health issues? Collapsing children with cracked foundations? Not so easy to understand. Or fix.

According to Washington State law, high schools are required to have at least one counselor. Apparently suicidal feelings, deep depressions, and good old garden-variety panic attacks are only for whose main concerns are dating and driver licenses. If only that were true. These issues, sadly, are in my book too.

There is not a lot of room for jealousy by the K-8 schools of high school counselors. According to the RCWs (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=28A.410.043), the role of a school counselor is defined by our state is “a professional educator who holds a valid school counselor certification as defined by the professional educator standards board. The purpose and role of the school counselor is to plan, organize, and deliver a comprehensive school guidance and counseling program that personalizes education and supports, promotes, and enhances the academic, personal, social, and career development of all students…” (emphasis added).

I just got the first of my own five children through high school and launched into college. I know what goes into that process. The job description of a school counselor? That is a tall order for ONE person to accomplish for sometimes over a thousand students. How could each student’s personal development be supported, promoted or even enhanced? How can they help those that are struggling the most when counselors are being asked to do all of the other tasks on their plate? What will be the result if they can’t?

Beginning in 1995, a long-term study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html) or ACE, explores just that question. It is composed of a simple questionnaire about negative incidents that may have occurred in childhood. The results showed that the higher the participant’s score on the ACE, the greater the risk of experiencing poor physical and mental health, and negative social consequences later in life, higher blood pressure, depression, and more prison time, just to name a few. Children who live in poverty are drowning in ACE. They do not even begin to have the resources they need to get to the surface of the water.

Back to my chairs. I am not a counselor. I cannot speak as a counselor. I can refer my students and their families to one. The nearest full time counselor is 31 miles away – about $36.00 a month just in gas to get there and back once a week. Life choices are often calculated in the cost of gas money, when every dollar is precious. The nearest counselor specializing in childhood trauma is 102 miles away.

It is often the same students sitting knee-to-knee with me. I speak with them. I tell them how their brains work, that the neuronal tracks they lay down now through the thoughts they CHOSE to think are what they will have to rely on throughout their lives. They must chose wisely, even when those around them may seemingly not be. I speak to them of their inherent worth simply because they exist, their strengths and the power that is theirs if they decide to claim it. I tell them they are NEVER at fault for what has happened to them. They are not the trauma they have experienced, but the survivor sitting in front of me. I speak with them, but not as a counselor.

Our rural children of poverty are facing issues that would pull many a well-adjusted adult under water. These are big things, painful things, things that are forming their lives and the world as they will forever see it. These are things over which they have no control and are drowning in. There must be better help for them beyond the life preserver of two little chairs outside a classroom.

Right Book. Right Group. Right Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Coherence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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