Category Archives: Education

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.

The Kids without Lug Nuts

I live in a rural area. I have been teaching here for many years—same classroom, same job assignment. In July I left my teaching job, and started a new job—still in education, but out of the classroom.

I have been in my new job about two months, and am definitely enjoying it! However, last week I had the first serious tug at the heart I have felt since leaving my longtime school.

My two sons and I were running down the road, enjoying the summer. On the way back home, not too far from my house, I see a car pulled over. Two people get out, look at their tires, and just kind of stand there. My younger son notes a cat in the car. I note the car is full of items, mostly packed in trash bags.

As we came up to the car, one of the people says, “It’s Ms. Johnson!” I see that it is two former students, a young man and a young woman, who left school a handful of years ago. They are now in their early twenties, and they look incredibly relieved to see me.

The girl says, “The tire just came off my car–I think someone stole my lug nuts!” I don’t know a lot about cars, but even I could see the rear wheel hanging off at an odd angle. I leaned over to look—where lug nuts should be, there were none.

She said they were camping last night, and there were some unsavory characters at the campsite next to them. The young woman suspects her car was vandalized.

Someone had removed the lug nuts from the car of my former students–this is not something that would happen by accident. In addition, the boy doesn’t have a cell phone, and the girl’s phone battery had died.

I offer to run back to my house, get my phone, and then run back so they can use my phone to call for some assistance. I also spend more time talking to my two former students.

The girl tells me that she is feeling lucky. She says just a few minutes ago she felt unlucky–their lug nuts had been stolen, and they broke down in the middle of nowhere. Now she says she feels fortunate: they didn’t get into a major accident when the wheel came off, and then I came by.

More phone calls. It becomes clear they need a ride somewhere. The plan is I will drive the girl into town, and the boy will stay with the car and the cat. The girl will get her friend’s mom to come back and bring some lug nuts.

I go get my car and come back to pick up the girl. She said they lost their apartment and had been homeless since June, living out of their car in local campgrounds and in the woods.

She said it hadn’t been a good week. She recently started a new job, but then had gotten food poisoning, likely from something she ate while camping. Given their lack of access to refrigerator, this seemed a good possibility. She called in sick, but her new boss had said she couldn’t call in sick so soon after starting a new job, so then she lost her job.

The girl told me this morning her boyfriend had become very frustrated. He had tried to go fishing at the lake they were camping at, but he only had a handline. A handline, for those of you not familiar, is literally just that—a hook on a line. No pole—you just throw the line out with your arm. Usually her boyfriend had good success, but this morning he had been stymied. Another person had come along, fishing close to him with a pole, and that person got all the fish.

Being outfished by someone because they have a pole and you don’t? That is rural poverty.

I drop the girl off at her friend’s place. Thinking about what their breakfast must have been like without any fish or much other food, I head to the grocery store. I buy sandwiches, cat food, and a few other groceries.

I drive back down the road, and bring the food to the young man, who is very appreciative. I tell him I will be back in a while to check on how things are going with getting the lug nuts on once they get them.

These young people were already living on the edge, and I wanted to do what I could to make sure they didn’t go completely off a precipice.

I was pretty shaken up by the day’s events. These two former students had only left school a few years ago, and now they had almost nothing. I felt as though we may have failed them in school, yet I remember numerous care teams, interventions, and services provided for both.

There were a number of issues here: paid sick leave, low income housing, unemployment.

Education was also an issue. One of these young people had graduated from high school, and one had not.

Teachers are at their best when they care individually for students. That is something that is difficult for us to measure with our certification and evaluation systems, but it doesn’t make it any less important. I do remember caring for these students in school, and I know my colleagues did as well.

My former students did not have the money for a tow, and if their car were to be impounded, along with everything they own in it, they would not be able to afford to release it. It would be devastating for them. Setbacks have a disproportionate impact when you are poor.

As educators we work to support every student, and sometimes we do not succeed. Efforts that combine caring for individual students with systems that support families and communities should continue and expand. We can do more.

After some time, their friend’s mom shows up with the girl…and lug nuts! My former students introduce me.

“She’s our teacher,” they say. I never felt so proud.

I bring tools and more water to drink. Soon my former students are off. They were going to make it into town.

On this day, they were both very gracious and appreciative for the little I provided: some food, the loan of some tools, and a bit of human kindness.

Maren Johnson, NBCT, is a longtime high school science teacher who recently left the classroom. She now works for a state agency on policy related to educator certification. She lives in a beautiful area of rural Washington state with her husband and children.

What I’ve learned about the first day

Tuesday marked the beginning of my eighteenth year of teaching. While the school year is filled with a variety of excitement and wonder, the first day of school seems almost magical.  Yet, having done the “first day” eighteen times, I’ve started to develop some observations about this special day of school.  Some of these observations are more like advice while others are basically predictions.

1.No matter how many extra copies I think I’ve made I will inevitably be short by at least 1 copy.  I might count them ahead of time.  I may have made sure that I added together all of my students scheduled for 1st and 3rd period but nonetheless, I will be short on copies.

2.I have to retrain my stomach and my bladder.  No longer do I have free reign of when I can eat nor when I can leave my room.  Welcome to monitoring liquid intake over the next ten months.

3. The technology application I’ve practiced 10 times will not work or will crash when I need it. Naturally my lesson is based all around the use of this app. However, here’s the good news– because I’m a teacher, I know how to punt and create a workaround.

4. A senior who knows his/her way around our building (he/she’s been attending for years) will suddenly forget how to navigate the hallway and will be late to 2nd period.  Somehow they’ve figured out that we don’t count tardies on the first day of school.

5. The day is best spent getting to know your students instead of teaching content.  Save that content for the next 179 days of the year.  Building the foundation for a positive class climate will make teaching the content far more manageable and enjoyable.

6. Those heels I thought I could pull off- nope. One of these days running shoes will be fashionable with dresses.  I’m patiently waiting on this fashion trend.

7. No feeling can ever match how it feels to look out at your room right before the students walk in.  Teachers spend days, even weeks, preparing for the first day.  It’s exciting to think of all of the learning that is going to happen in our classroom over the next ten months.

8. Students want to feel successful from the very start.  The first day is the silver lined cloud. Our relationship with students helps determine how long that lining remains.

9.  I have a better afternoon when I’ve had lunch with my colleagues. Spending some time talking about topics unrelated to our work helps shift my brain and allows me the opportunity to have a break in my day.  I am more effective when I take a break in the middle of my day– even if it’s for just thirty minutes.

10. I can never have enough pens and pencils.  The 40 Ticonderogas I bought before school started and placed in the extra pencil cup will be gone within two weeks.

11. I have to retrain my hand on the size of an Expo versus a Sharpie. I am incredibly thankful for those newly formulated white board cleaners.

12. Meeting students at the door generates a sense of hospitality.  This is their classroom, not mine. I just happen to spend more time in it than they do.  

13. I create opportunities so students can laugh. This is a big one, folks.  If we can laugh on day one we’ve begun to build a positive environment where students can let down their guard. I know that my students see me as an expert.  I have degrees and awards on the wall.  They’ve heard stories about me.  But I also want them to see me as approachable.  We inherently feel more comfortable working with people with whom we can share a laugh or two (or many).

What observations have you made about the first day?

 

Building Relationships With Legislators – Sharing My Stories and Changing the Message

The year I graduated from high school, 1994, marked the introduction of the phrase “failing public schools.” This phrase grabbed hold of society and took off, leading to twenty-plus years of rhetoric on “bad” teachers, union thugs who protect “bad” teachers, and schools which are not meeting the needs of our children. This led to the standardization of classrooms, curriculum, and teaching via governmental regulations. Today, in 2017, we still hear this phrase, and continue to feel the destructive consequences left in its wake, most importantly the increasing lack of respect for educators.

Most recently, over the past several years and particularly with this new federal administration, we’ve seen a huge push for privatization and independent charter schools. The message is that public schools are failing our children and that private and charter schools can provide students with more attention and individual instruction. As an educator and a parent with children in both public and charter schools, I can honestly say that public schools have the ability to offer much more than charter schools, provide more diverse learning opportunities, and are far better at differentiating instruction. Imagine for a moment if all schools had to fight for local funding, via fundraisers and other money-making endeavors. Which schools would have the most money? Which schools would be able to offer the most opportunities? Which schools would your child be able to attend? Which children and which zip codes would be left behind?

The key to changing the rhetoric on public schools is to take charge of the messaging. For far too long, private corporations, government officials, and the media, who by and large have no experience in education, have controlled what the public sees and hears about public schools, and therefore, control the mindset of the masses. It is time for us educators to take that influence back and teach our communities how great our public schools really are, and that with their support, they could be even better.

Over the past two years I have worked to communicate with the state legislators in both the district in which I work, and also the district in which I live. I would periodically contact them via email and phone, and would invite them to my classroom. Repeatedly, I did not hear back. During that time, I puzzled over this problem. How could I be a better messenger and get these decision-makers into my school and into my classroom to actually see and experience what we do? It was at a National Board Hill Day in February 2017, that my ideas finally came together. As I visited many senators and representatives throughout the day, I realized that much of what they hear focuses on what public schools lack, not on what makes us succeed. That’s when I decided to start a letter writing campaign.

After some planning, I sent my first newsletter – “April Update – The Great Things Happening in Our Public Schools.” In it I outlined some incredible activities and experiences educators in my school and in my district were providing their students. I was specific. I told stories. I painted a picture of the everyday in our schools and I immediately got a response. Mostly, our state leaders thanked me for the update and encouraged me to continue to reach out. It was much more than I’d received in two whole years. I had begun to build real relationships with the individuals directly responsible for creating laws for funding our schools.

It was after my second update in May that there was real movement. Two legislators, Republican Senator Baumgartner, and Republican Representative Volz, agreed to come to my classroom. We immediately set up dates and times for June, as they were between special sessions. With it being such a contentious time, as legislators were working to meet the demands of the McLeary decision, I was shocked and so excited. My focus on success was working.

Both visits happened within a week of one another and at a time when the testing season was coming to a close and the school year was wrapping up, but things had not slowed down in my classroom. Both legislators had the opportunity to meet my diverse student group (I teach Newcomer English Language Learners), to learn about what we do in our classroom, and to help my students, new to our nation and our school system, practice their math skills. Watching the interactions and answering the questions that followed was exhilarating. Both Senator Baumgartner and Representative Volz asked insightful questions and showed genuine interest in my class and in my students. Both agreed to visit again in the fall when they would have more time. Since then, I have had commitments from both Senator Billig and Representative Riccelli to also visit in the fall and Representative Volz and I are collaborating on bringing my class over to Olympia for a tour and to meet with the House Education Committee.

It’s a simple thing. Each month I gather stories about what’s awesome about our schools and send an email to my elected officials. It’s not hard. Our schools are great and I have a lot to share about the good work we’re doing! By focusing on our success, it is easy to convince decision-makers to continue and expand their support for our public schools. We live education every day. We must control the messages our communities receive about what we do and how much we care about their children.

Join me in this effort. Write up a story about your classroom or work with your colleagues. Find out who your legislators are that represent where you live and where you work. Push send and see what happens.

This will make all the difference.

Mandy Manning experiences learning with English language learners in the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington. Nearing 20 years in education and as a teacher-leader, she endeavors to spread Cultural Competency to students, educators, administrators, and the community at large. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in English as a new language and the 2018 ESD 101 Regional Teacher of the Year.

We Need to Be About The Work: NNSTOY 2017

Educators are hungry for real professional learning opportunities. For fresh, relevant, and timely content. For ideas that can be applied tomorrow. For a community of professionals, like-minded educators who cause us to shout “amen” and to suck in our breath with an “oh snap”.

This is why I concluded my summer conference tour with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) event. You don’t need to be a state teacher of the year or finalist to attend (my review from last year Professional Interloper) so I recruited two teachers from my school and joined the WATAC representatives. I spent five days in sweaty DC because this is a conference that doesn’t just talk about the work—NNSTOY tries to be about the work. A member driven organization, NNSTOY focuses their programming around issues of social justice and equity.

This year the conference focused on four strands; each with a guiding question. It was strand 1 “Elevating Our Voices for Educational Equity” and the essential question “how can we support the type of schooling (and society) that values, rather than marginalizes” that stayed with me all week. It followed me like campfire smoke I couldn’t wash out of my clothes.

In the last few years we are seeing more and more programs slap on the word “equity” (it’s the new “diversity”) but many groups don’t actually know what it means or make effort to try to understand what it means. This conference actively seeks to include a variety of perspectives and voices from the planning team down to the sessions offered. While last year’s program was solid, I noticed several changes this year. First, I noticed that more people of color were presenting as keynotes and in sessions. Second, I noticed there were more people of color attending. In fact, there was a concerted effort to include Black male educators as participants and as presenters in a way I’ve never seen at an education conference. Third, I noticed more folks engaged in conversations about race and equity (and it wasn’t only the people of color).

What’s the big deal, you may be asking. I’ve attended countless professional development opportunities where the presenters and participants were all white. In the same way I have concerns about a conference where mostly men present their ideas to a roomful of women in a profession dominated by women (yes, both of these really happen), I’m troubled by the lack of effort to counter homogeneous professional settings that lead to groupthink and spread of a dominant culture that isn’t reflective of the diversity within our classrooms. Understanding equity starts with intentional organizational reflection about what creates inequity.

We can create and support the type of schooling and society that values equity.

It starts with the teachers. Don’t be afraid to interrogate the demographics of our school and professional learning communities. NNSTOY is by no means perfect. It was still full of interchangeable white women (as is the profession), but it’s trying to be a model for what true inclusion might look like. It’s intentionally creating a professional learning space where white, black, and brown educators come together to wrestle with what it means to teach for social justice, racial justice, and equity. Get in the habit of looking around the room–who’s at the table? Who’s even invited to participate in the conversation? What’s the ratio of men to women, young & old, black/white/brown? These details matter. We need to learn from people who have lived a different life than we have. We need to learn with others who don’t live where we do, dress like we do, speak like we might, or racially identify as we do, but who are working on behalf of all our students.

It flows into our classrooms. We continually need to examine our curriculum. Do your students see themselves in the texts? Are they reading about experiences other than their own? Wesley Williams, II (watch the video on his home page) framed the entire conference he asked us to consider “And How Are the Children?” If we frame the work we do with this question in mind, our student would actually be at the center of the choices we make. I have to ask myself how are the children in room 200? I want to answer–they’re good. The children are talented. The children are brilliant. The children are beautiful. Concurrently, I have to face the less comfortable answer. The children are homeless. The children underfed. The children are hurting. Dang it. I’m back to the question.

It moves through our system. When was the last time you looked around your school? How is the leadership structured? Who gets hired? Who influences the decision making? What do we believe about our students? How do we talk about our students? For more on this point, listen to Nate Bowling’s interview with Jose Vilson “A Conversation Worth Having,”

One of the most significant takeaways from NNSTOY 2017 was that it doesn’t really matter if you’ve earned a teaching award or other recognition– we all have the power and the responsibility to lift our voices about educational equity and support that type of schooling and society that values equitable access and opportunity for all our students.

Share Your Stories

“Oh you’re a teacher!  You guys have it made.  Paid summers off where you sleep in every day–what a cushy life.”  These words, uttered by my dentist while his hands were in my mouth drilling a tooth, caused far more discomfort than the actual dental procedure.  So after he was done (and yes, the novocaine still had half of my face numb) I shared with him that I spent most of my summer at conferences and in classes. I also explained how the pay structure works.  And, as these conversations typically go, it ended up with, “I really had no idea.”  

A year ago I felt a fire light inside me. I can’t remember what started it all to build, but the result has been an overwhelming desire to advocate for the teaching profession.  Maybe it was the need to address the misconceptions that people have about this lifestyle (I consider teaching a lifestyle, it’s far too encompassing to just be a job) or perhaps it was the oversimplification of this work by the media, tv shows, and movies that show burned out teachers, but either way, that fire started and it keeps burning brighter.  

So last week, when the airplane pilot standing next to me on the shuttle to our plane started asking me questions about my work, I was happy to share the dynamic nature of teaching. I also made sure to note that I was flying back from a week long class on constitutional law.  The pilot didn’t realize that teachers participate in summer coursework to strengthen their knowledge and skills in the classroom.  He was curious about this and we had a great conversation (our shuttle was stuck on the tarmac for 30 minutes) about professional development for teachers and pilots, thus shedding light on both of our professions.

I have spent the past eight months talking to policymakers and stakeholders about the impact of legislation in the classroom.  While I go in with a game plan, inevitably the conversation always turns when I tell a story about my students, my colleagues, and my own children.  Last month I met with my US Congresswoman in Washington D.C., and while my ask was to retain Title II funding in the budget, my story was specific to how we use that funding in our schools.  This story provides insight into policy impact and also constituent needs. Her job is dynamic, too, and I do not expect my representative to be an expert in all facets of life.  So if I can be a resource and share my experience with her, then perhaps that experience can shape her thinking on an issue.

I’ve come to see these interactions as opportunities to educate and advocate for this work. We can control the narrative.  It’s easy to sell an anti-teacher message when the public doesn’t have a deep understanding of what our work looks like.  Worse, if people rely upon their varied past experiences as students without recognizing how that skews their vision of what schools look like today, the picture that’s created may likely be inconsistent in practice and unrecognizable to those of us who do teach.  So instead of dismissing ignorant remarks about our work,  it is imperative that we seize the moment as an opportunity to teach.  We must teach others about our work so that they can see the intricacies of this lifestyle.  We must share our stories, our experiences, our successes, and our struggles. Only then will the larger public begin to see who we really are.

Rethinking our Assessment System Statewide

On May 24th, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal outlined a series of phases that addressed his long term vision for K-12 education in the State of Washington.  Included in
that vision is a differentiated assessment model that allows students pathways to demonstrate proficiency and mastery.  The plan calls for an immediate suspension of all test based graduation requirements for the Classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019, a policy that some legislators can get behind.  (See the June 4, 2017
Seattle Times Op-Ed piece by Rep. Monica Stonier and Rep. Laurie Dolan)  This agenda item isn’t necessarily as visionary as others but is more triage in nature.  Asking for these assessments to be waived now is a pressing concern for our potential graduates waiting in the wings (including the 7 students at my high school who are hoping that the state legislature acts immediately since graduation is on Friday, June 9th).  However, other components of this assessment system provide more opportunity and greater steering towards a student’s plans for high school and beyond.

One of the key takeaways from this plan is the use of assessment data for high school planning.  Superintendent Reykdal proposes that the 8th grade assessment (assuming this will still be mandated by the U.S. Department of Education) be used to determine what courses and in what sequence students need to take.  A 10th grade assessment (the Standards Based Assessment, or SBA, also mandated by the U.S. Department of Education) would further clarify what students need in order to be career and college ready.  That exam, while not necessary as a graduation requirement, would be a baseline for which other decisions would be made. The assessment would help stakeholders update a student’s high school and beyond plan (commonly referred to as a HSBP), either demonstrating that is student is now proficient in the required basic knowledge and skills needed to earn a diploma or highlighting what specific skills students need to further develop in order to achieve proficiency.  The plan suggests that alternatives such as the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement exams, International Baccalaureate exams, Running Start, College in the High School, and other options be used to demonstrate proficiency.  All students after 10th grade must work towards a pathway that includes immediate entrance into the workforce, technical college, community college, apprenticeships, four year colleges/university, or the military.

This new assessment system may just help us combat the apathy that emerges junior and senior year from students wondering why they are enrolled in certain courses that don’t remotely relate to their post secondary education plans.  Such a plan opens the door to exciting new classes tailored to meet the needs of the 21st century learner on whatever pathway he/she may be on.  High schools will be able to utilize the flexibility and creativity that this system promotes and adjust current course offerings, tapping into the talents and expertise of their staff.  The idea that students can select pathways and prepare for those future careers allows students more buy in on their secondary education, potentially impacting overall attendance, number of failed classes, and eventually graduation rates.  Specific training and coursework geared towards a pathway will indeed result in a better worker or stronger college student thus largely impacting the state’s post secondary education system and the local workforce.  Superintendent Reykdal’s proposal directly impacts students allowing them to tap into their talents and interests at an earlier age so that they may develop as stronger, more effective and more efficient contributors to our communities and overall economy.

Fakes, Facts, and the Hardest Lessons to Teach

I was numbly scrolling through Facebook a recent morning when one of those infographic-ish memes appeared. Of course, since it was in my feed, it aligned with the political leanings that my clicks and likes had already communicated to the Facebook algorithms, and in my pre-coffee state I found myself hovering over the “share” button.

I had to pause, though. Even though I wanted (desperately) to believe that the political statement being made in the meme was true (hint: it had to do with golf trips and certain federal budget items), I wasn’t sure. I didn’t see any sources linked, I didn’t know who the creator of the meme was, and I didn’t want to spend a ton of time researching its veracity. I did anyway, and after about three minutes of research it turned out that this particular meme had its number off by about 100 times and misrepresented the nature of the budget in question. Darn those pesky alternative facts.

While I didn’t click “share,” that nugget of information, despite being proven false, is now lodged in the schema that I bring to political conversations in the near future. I will have to very intentionally not use it as I form my arguments to support my political positions. That will be hard, because meme-depth facts are what it seems most political conversations resort to anymore.

We hear plenty about Fake News nowadays. Fake News is to critical thinking what super-sized fast food is to our diet: It is convenient, appears to look more or less like it’s authentic counterpart, and satisfies a need. Yes, a flawed analogy if extended completely, but there are valid parallels about the long term health of both individuals and the community. In particular, a good parallel is that the amount of comparable effort it takes to systematically deconstruct and discount Fake News is as seemingly insurmountable as making seismic shifts to unhealthy diet habits. If the latter were easy, we’d all be fit and healthy; if the former were easy, Fake News would be a nonissue.

How do we teach “quick” critical thinking? How do we teach students to resist the temptation of our confirmation biases? How do we teach that facts aren’t established by clicks, shares, or re-tweets…and that our own opinions don’t trump facts just because our opinions are our own?

Forget Common Core. This is the great pedagogical challenge of the next phase of my career.


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What Actually Works

According to a report on The Huffington Post, the money spent on the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) didn’t accomplish anything. That’s $7 billion dollars spent on failed efforts. The final report from the Mathematica Policy Associates said the “SIG grants made essentially no difference in the achievement of the students in schools that received them.”

SIG grants offered low-achieving schools just four choices:

  • close the school
  • convert the school to a charter school
  • replace the principal and half the staff
  • or replace the principal, use achievement growth to evaluate teachers, use data to inform instruction, and lengthen the school day or year.

Wow, those sound like popular choices being floated right about now, don’t they? How many legislators at the state and federal level like the idea of converting public schools to charter schools? Or maybe they think replacing staff or using achievement growth to evaluate teachers or using data to inform instruction or lengthening the school day or year—or some combination of the above—is the magic bullet to cure the ills of schools in America.

But none of those solutions worked.

None of them improved student achievement.

Of course, not one of the four choices has a strong research base to support using it. There is no compelling reason, based on actual science or statistical study, to choose any one of them.

So all that money went down the drain.

(It makes my stomach hurt just to think about all that wasted money. What we could have done with $7 billion dollars!)

Now for the good news.

There are, in fact, four whole-school reform models that the Department of Education has approved as being evidenced-based:

The fourth model, by the way, is the only one that is not proprietary. Small Schools of Choice are organized around smaller units of adults and children. Three core principles provide the framework: “academic rigor, personalized relationships, and relevance to the world of work.” As I looked over the SSC plan I noticed items like thematic units, longer instructional blocks, common planning time, adults acting as advisers to 10-15 students, partnerships with the community and parents. Those are all good things that we KNOW work.

Now for the really good news!

The Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University has a brand new website called Evidence for ESSA. Their staff has reviewed every math and reading program for grades K to 12 to determine which meet the strong, moderate, or promising levels of evidence defined in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As they say, “It’s long been said that education needs its own version of Consumer Reports—authoritative, well researched, and incredibly easy to use and interpret. We hope Evidence for ESSA will be just that.”

  • A program is ranked strong if it has a significant positive effect with at least one randomized study.
  • A program is ranked moderate if it has a significant positive effect with at least one study that is classified as “quasi-experimental”—a matched study, say.
  • A program is ranked promising if it has a significant positive effect but the study was classified as “correlational.”

Notice that even for moderate and promising programs, the effects are still good—the program shows a significant positive effect. The reason those programs get a lower rating isn’t that they have poorer results. It’s because the controls of the studies were not as rigorous.

Ah, reading these standards take me back to my MA class on statistics. (Which I passed by the skin of my teeth.)

As soon as I found out about the CRRE site, I sent the information to my district administrator in charge of curriculum. He says this site will be very useful.

No kidding.

There’s not an endless amount of money to spend on education. We all know that. Let’s spend it where we know it will work.

 

 

 

 

 

HB 1319: National Board Certification and Washington State’s Comprehensive Evaluation System

What does accomplished teaching look like?  Does being accomplished mean that you are also distinguished? Are these terms synonymous with one another?

I will admit it- I don’t mind our new state teacher evaluation system TPEP.  In fact, I jumped on the TPEP bandwagon fairly early. Analyzing my teaching and reflecting upon my effectiveness has been a part of my practice for many years.  I certified as a National Board Certified Teacher in 2005 and renewed two years ago.  Having facilitated several cohorts of teachers through the process, I can attest to the planning, engagement, and reflection involved in seeking National Board Certification.  Those same skills and practices are echoed and assessed in the TPEP process.

With the amount of work and documentation involved in TPEP, it seems like a no brainier to support HB 1319, a bill, if enacted, would allow National Board Certified Teachers the ability to complete the comprehensive evaluation once every six years if the teacher received a rating of 3–Proficient on his/her last comprehensive evaluation, and once every eight years if the teacher received a rating of 4-Distinguished on his/her last comprehensive evaluation.  The time is right for this piece of legislation.  Now that the National Board Certification renewal process is every five years instead of ten, it strikes me that attainment of renewal will clearly demonstrate that the National Board Certified Teacher is, at the very least, proficient, if not distinguished.  Last year, a similar bill was introduced into the House and ended up in the “x” file.   I still can’t understand how this happened as the bill had no cost associated with it, but I am glad to see a similar version this year as it will balance the logistical challenges associated with the teacher evaluation system by supporting focused, more meaningful conversations on one area of teaching and learning versus eight.

When TPEP was rolled out to teachers and administrators, we all knew that the evaluation system was going to change.  What we didn’t know was just how much work it would be.  Again, I like TPEP.  I enjoy the conversations that I am having with my administrators about what teaching and learning looks like in my room.  I’ve been on the focused evaluation form for the past three years.  Admittedly, I enjoy the focused reflective and analytical conversations about what is going on in my room. I am thankful that the workload is reduced to evidencing one criterion and collecting evidence for one student growth goal (sub group or large group). When I was on the comprehensive form I needed 24 artifacts (eight criteria and a minimum of three artifacts per criteria) and had to write and collect evidence for two student growth goals. I work at a relatively small high school with a principal and an assistant principal.  We have around 40 teachers in our school, which means that each administrator is responsible for roughly 20 evaluations.  We embraced TPEP with a growth model mindset–teachers on Comprehensive meet every 2-3 weeks with our administrators to discuss artifacts and document evidence/progress towards the evaluations.  Teachers on Focused meet, at minimum, every 6-8 weeks to do the same.  These meetings take 30-50 minutes each time if both parties are well prepared.  While I know that not all schools and administrators use this model, I also see the value in this process.

For the past two years, I’ve also worked as a part time instructional coach–largely working collaboratively with teachers to provide evidence of the criterion and develop high quality, measurable student growth goals.  Now there are three of us (my principal, assistant principal, and me) doing routine observations, meeting with teachers to reflect, and working on evidencing the criterion.  My work as a coach has cut down on their work but admittedly, the position was created from a need of helping both teachers and administrators manage TPEP.  However, with more teachers on Focused, my coaching has been less about evidencing a TPEP criterion and more about analyzing and reflecting upon quality teaching and learning.  This is where I’ve seen leaps and bounds in our professional development as a staff.  Teachers on Focused are now visiting one another’s  classrooms both through the use of the Observe Me signs and through the use of a Pineapple Calendar (Pineapple Calendar’s are a way to invite colleagues into your room to observe a specific lesson).  With the vast majority of our staff on Focused, teachers are participating in book studies of choice, engaging in criterion centered PLCs, and spending lunch periods talking about teaching and learning.   Our culture grows organically because teachers have more agency in their evaluation system and can therefore dig deeper into areas of interest and need.

The passage of HB 1319 demonstrates continued support and value for second tier certifications such as National Board Certification.  National Board Certified Teachers have already demonstrated that they are accomplished, now let them engage in thoughtful, purposeful analysis centered on one area of teaching, instead of eight.  This bill helps administrators with the log jam that the comprehensive evaluation creates.  Washington currently has over 6000 NBCTs. Passage of this bill directly impacts how and when administrators schedule comprehensive evaluations.  HB 1319 allows administrators to spread out the number of comprehensive evaluations over a longer time period. I hear from other admin in neighboring districts that they simply don’t have the time to manage TPEP, all of its artifacts, and regularly scheduled face to face meetings with all of their teacher.  HB 1319’s commonsense approach offers an opportunity for teachers to deeply engage in the evaluation criterion while clearing up the evaluation congestion for administrators.