Category Archives: Life in the Classroom

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.

The Discomfort of Learning—Plagiarism and Consequences

Recently students in a non-English language arts class turned in research papers worth a high percentage of their grade. Scoring the papers, their teacher found rampant plagiarism ranging from improper citing of sources to blatantly copying and pasting paragraphs of text from online sources without any citation at all.

My colleague who I will dub—Attentive-Responsible-Teacher (or Art)—followed our school’s handbook in regards to plagiarism. Art gave each student a zero on their paper, wrote up disciplinary referrals, and set parameters for students to try again. Because no one blatantly took an entire paper from another source and attempted to pass said paper off as their own, this teacher wanted students to learn from their mistake and have a chance to try again (at a 30% reduction).

Some parents and students came unglued.

Around 25% of the class had plagiarized sections in their papers and, according to Art, the responses from students ranged from taking full responsibility; to acknowledging poor note-taking strategies which led to the problem passages; to I never learned this.

After a flurry of emails, meetings, conferences and phone calls Art contacted me, as the English Department Chair, to clarify a few things.

Some students and parents argued their miss-cited papers landed in a gray area. That miss-citing sources is not the same as plagiarism. This is euphemism. Plagiarism, defined, is representing someone else’s words, image, etc. as one’s own. If a student includes a quote verbatim from a text without quote marks, they are graphically indicating those words are their own. Plagiarism.

It might be an honest mistake without mal-intent, but it is nonetheless a serious error deserving consequences. I spoke with a parent who felt the students should get to re-write the paper and still earn 100%, claiming that would make it a learning opportunity and not punishment. This contributed to an over-arching theme emerging from the conversations with parents and administrators: the students didn’t know they were plagiarizing so they can’t be punished for plagiarizing.

Of course they can. Just as I can get a speeding ticket when unaware of how fast I was driving, inadvertent plagiarism is not really a thing, but a rhetorical nicety created by parents and students to avoid the feeling of shame being called out as plagiarizers.  A natural human reaction.

Then it hit me, this situation was less about academic integrity than it was about failure. They failed something in such a way as to tarnish both their academic record (temporarily) and their personal integrity (also temporary, but I suspect it does not feel temporary).

From my teacher’s perspective, the academic learning opportunity is pretty clear. I hope they have a clearer sense of what constitutes academic plagiarism, and acts of academic plagiarism carry serious consequences (here a slight grade reduction, at University expulsion is on the list).

I also understand students and parents reacting to the culturally inherent fear of failure. The fact is, for learning to take place it must be uncomfortable and we must fail. As teachers, our job is not to make it more comfortable, but to respect students enough to walk them into discomfort, and not leave them there completely alone.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever come across for education, or for life, is from Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic story Worstward Ho! where his characters face continual abstract struggle: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This advice applies to teachers and students alike. There are all kinds of failure, and when it comes to learning, it is necessary. The reality is teachers and students (and even parents) sometimes have to sit in discomfort for any development to take place. We all have to try again and continually attempt to fail better.

 

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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Extra Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

You know how you don’t know what you don’t know until you realize you don’t know it?

Today I stepped into a role as “instructional coach.” My principal is trying a new thing with several of the leaders in the building—-getting a sub on Wednesdays to cover our classes so that we can support new teachers, conduct informal observations, and provide feedback to any teacher who want an extra set of ears and eyes in their classroom.

Non-evaluative, peer observation are what so many teachers beg for. Yet, with the except of instructional coaches, or a pop-ins by a dept chair there is little time for this type of collaboration. To contend with time constraints, many of the teachers I know are using #ObserveMe as a way to get the peer feedback and informal coaching they crave. This summer, Nate Bowling and I led in-school professional development where we shared the vision behind #ObserveMe. Teachers created their evaluation goals in conjunction with their #ObserveMe goals. I was #stoked.

Fast forward, due to some life stuff, our instructional coach is on hiatus and many of the teacher leaders in our building are stepping in to fill the large hole he left. So there I was, armed with flair pens, a clipboard, a schedule, and an observation tool. I left my students in the capable hands of my student teacher and I marched down to the first classroom.

Over the course of two and a half periods, I observed three full-time teachers and one student teacher. Each teacher had emailed me asking if I could come observe for x, y, and z. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect to feel as emotional as I did through this process.

First, I was honored that these teachers wanted me in their classroom. They wanted to be better. They wanted an extra set of eyes and ears to see what they weren’t seeing and hear what they missed.

Second, I was moved by the passion I saw from these teachers. The love that they have for their students, their content, and our school motivates them to ask for help from a colleague.

Third, I was inspired by each of these teachers who were putting in work to make their classes more engaging, more relevant, and more real for their students.

I honestly struggled to complete my teacher moves/students moves chart because I just wanted to write things like “I love how the kids look at your with respect in their eyes” or “Even though the students were reluctant to do the song in Spanish with you, they all did it–and that’s a sign of respect for you, their peers, or at least resignation that they need to play along”. I tried to stay in the template and write benign questions like “how do you think blah blah blah”.

What stands out the most is my last visit of the morning. I popped into a Science classroom where the teacher is building a program modeled after the GRuB School. I kind of knew that there was a group of “at risk” young men and women working with this highly effective and passionate teacher to develop social/emotional skills that translate into academic skills such as being on time, attending classes, and doing homework. I knew that some of the students in this program were in my English classes. But I hadn’t put two and two together–I didn’t realize just how many of them I knew. I sat on the edge of the circle listening to students giving each other advice on real life issues from dealing with parents to handling annoying teachers or friends, I wanted to burst into tears. Actually, I did…later when I was alone. Although each of those students struggle to control their actions and choices in a world of chaos, I watched them respond each other with thoughtfulness. I saw them respond to the firm but loving redirection from the teacher. I saw my students in a new light.

Later, when they came to class, I felt like we had a secret. They knew that I knew something about them that I hadn’t known before. They also knew (I hope) that I would listen and support them in a way I might not have before.

I left school today unsure if I made a difference for the teachers I observed. I do know however, that these teachers made a difference to me.

Losing Touch with the Classroom

I made it through September.

I may have nearly crested the salary schedule, but I feel a little like a first-year teacher again… In many ways I am: Same district, but a new building, new curriculum, new pace, new students.

After being a classroom teacher for 13 years, I spent the last two years on full-time release building and launching our district’s new-teacher mentoring and induction program (plus a plethora of other teacher professional learning design and facilitation, from training principals on TPEP to supporting PLC collaboration, and other duties as assigned). Those two years were fulfilling, educational, and an important step in my personal professional trajectory. My heart, though, was always in the classroom.

Now I’m teaching again, and it didn’t take me long to realize just how much I had lost touch with the realities of the day to day work of teaching. For me personally two years of shifting into the policy world, system design, and facilitation of staff PD…all without responsibilities to a roster of kids…was enough for my mind to disconnect.

Oh yeah, this is why it sometimes takes teachers a few days to reply to emails: they’re not at their computers all day or “multitasking” around a meeting table. Oh yeah, this is why those teachers who came to my after-school PD sessions dropped into their chairs, sighed, and slowly slid into an exhausted heap. Oh yeah, that theory about pedagogy and practice is fantastic up until you walk around the room and realize that what you’re tasked to teach isn’t actually at all what the students need.

Cognitively, I assured myself I remembered this and everything else. Back in it, though, I realize that there were some realities of teacherlife that my memory had somehow put into soft focus over the course of my two years outside the classroom.

I’ve had a few people ask which job is “harder,” the central-office systems work or the in-the-building work of teaching. For me, it was probably the systems work in no small part because I so rarely had the chance to see the direct results my efforts had on students. That left me in a perpetual state of uncertainty: were my actions working? How did I know?

Now I get to see the impact of my decisions daily as I listen to kids talk or read, or watch them write or create. I can respond in the moment to shift course, try something different, or push just the right way. Nonetheless, I have enduring respect for the complexity and challenge of central-office systems work having seen behind the curtain now for a couple of years. (Example: I hate dealing with budgets and the associated rules, restrictions and reporting… intense, profound hate.) For my skill-set and for what makes me happy? The classroom is the place.

One more thing I can say after two years straddling the line between teacher and administrator: The administrators I was able to work so closely with are not a secret quasi-illuminati set on building one more meeting-that-could-have-been-an-email agenda to ruin a teacher’s life. They genuinely want what is best for both teachers and students. And don’t get me wrong: I’m just sharing my own story… I’m not implying that they have lost touch as I did. I see many administrators working overtime to walk alongside teachers, and in many cases, teach lessons or units to groups of kids, in order to stay connected with the realities of planning, assessment, feedback, and classroom management.

What my experience transitioning into teaching again has reminded me is that it is so important that we teachers find the right way to share the impact of policy decisions…whether they be a change to the hall pass routine or a change to the state testing regime…so that rather than being shrill complainers we are vivid storytellers.

Stories are the most fundamental way that we can communicate our reality to others, especially if those others are like me: whole-hearted for public education, but perhaps just far enough removed to have forgotten what day-to-day teaching is really like.

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.

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.

Small Shifts, Big Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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