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The Supreme Court Speaks

Not the Washington State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States of America.

On March 22, 2017—in a unanimous decision—the Supreme Court supported high standards for special education. According to Chief Justice Roberts, the law requires a student’s educational program to be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances,” depending on the “unique circumstances” of each child.

The case involved an autistic student. The parents sued for his rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires “free and appropriate public education” for disabled students. I teach Highly Capable (HC) students. Why am I so excited about this Supreme Court decision?

Remember, the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) draws a clear parallel between several groups of students “with specific learning needs, particularly children with disabilities, English learners, students who are gifted and talented, and students with low literacy levels.” By the way, similar to this court case, ESSA says schools “have to provide instruction based on the needs of such students” (page 328, lines 12-17).

In addition, as I’ve mentioned before, in many states, Gifted Education falls under Special Education. In those states, any staff who work with gifted students would automatically apply the wording from this new ruling to their students.

Try this on for size:

The law requires that the Highly Capable students in the state of Washington receive an educational program reasonably calculated to enable each of them to make progress appropriate in light of their circumstances—in this case, their abilities.

Of course, that requirement would apply to all 6-10% of the students identified as HC, not just the 2.314 that are currently funded under the antiquated formula now in use in our state.

The Chief Justice went on to say, “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than de minimis (minimal) progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.” He said, “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

Oh my gosh. I can say the same thing. Let me put it this way:

A Highly Capable student offered an educational program providing opportunities for merely minimal progress—or no real progress—from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with high abilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.

Very often HC children come into school already knowing much of the curriculum the district says they should learn that year. Every year I give the sixth grade math placement test to fifth grade students. I’ve found that students who score a 45% or above don’t belong in fifth grade math. They go into sixth. (Those who score over 65%? I give them the seventh grade placement test.)

Even high school or college students can know a majority of the class’s material before the first day of school begins. In an enlightened school, students are given the opportunity to test out of classes. They take the final exam, pass, and they have officially met the requirement for the class. They can take something else instead. Done!

So what happens if they don’t have the option to test out of boring, unnecessary coursework? Gifted students will drop out. Now imagine. If those students were pretested, put into the proper course level, and presented with exciting, challenging, jaw-dropping, brandnew stuff at school every day, how many would be compelled to stay and graduate?

Just like the rest of our students, we want our HC students to excel. We want them to become leaders and contributing members of our communities. They can’t excel without being stretched and pushed.

My students just finished their Classroom Based Assessments for social studies. With my fifth graders I use the “Causes of Conflict CBA” recommended for seventh grade, and I design the project after National History Day (HD).  One of my guys had beat his head on his desk, “I hate writing, I hate writing, I hate writing.” His CBA website is now the sample “Junior” HD Project on my website. (Go to Kragen.net. Look at the links on the right side of the home page. Scroll almost to the bottom.)

Stretch. Push.

He is SO PROUD.

There is tremendous pressure on teachers to move students up to passing scores on tests, to having students demonstrate basic competency. What pressure is there to take students who are already performing at well above grade level and move them even further?

I was in a meeting this last week. There were at least eight adults in the room. We were discussing no more than a dozen kids and brainstorming how to move each of them from “a one to a two” or “a two to a three” in reading or math. We talked for half an hour or more.

Since 1989 I have NEVER been in a similar meeting to talk with a team of adults about how to meet the needs of students who need to go from “a four to a (mythical) five.” Not. Even. Once.

I have had individual teachers ask for advice. Or parents. At middle school even the occasional student.

But we don’t have big group meetings like that, to brainstorm ways to enable our HC children make progress that is appropriate in light of their circumstances—their abilities.

In the next few days I’ll be meeting with parents for conferences. We’ll review fall goals and talk about the move toward middle school and beyond. We’ll celebrate successes and pinpoint an area or two that could still use some growth.

It’s my job, to figure out where my students are and then move them as far forward as I can.

It’s nothing new. It’s what I’ve always believed.

But it’s nice to have the Supremes at my back.

All Politics Are Local

Last week I had coffee with my local senator.  Okay, to be fair, I had water but nonetheless, we sat down and met for an extended time.  I walked away better understanding her position on issues of interest to me and I hope she felt the same.  

It all began with a fifteen minute meeting.  I scheduled a meeting with my senator in her office on Presidents Day. It was a busy day, lobbyists filled the hill, and sev
eral bills were being heard.  She squeezed me in at 8:45.  Our meeting was short but she offered to meet a few days later when she was in her home district.  I was grateful she was willing to extend her personal time and I took her up on that offer.

Five days later I was at her house talking one on one about everything from meeting the teaching shortage to TRI (time, responsibility, incentive) pay.  We even discussed the elephant in the room- education funding.  Here’s the thing- I felt heard.  I felt engaged.  I felt powerful.  I felt like I was able to share my experience as a teacher leader with my senator and I believe that she understood my work and passion.   Most importantly, I told her about my kids: 100 students and 2 biological.  We discussed assessment, CTE and Running Start, and the real trauma faced by students every day.  And when the meeting was over, I didn’t feel dismissed. Instead I felt like I’d built a bridge.

Being a teacher and a coach, I build infrastructure all day long.  I scaffold learning for my students.  I help teachers seek out new ideas and create new platforms so they can dive into deeper learning.  Yet, it didn’t occur to me until recently to build a bridge.  Perhaps that’s what my work is now.  I’m an engineer–creating bridges between my classroom and my state policymakers.

President’s Day

Today is president’s day, the day we celebrate Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday.

As it happens, I am currently reading Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. And, as it happens, today I read this excerpt from a letter he wrote on October 5, 1863:

“We are in civil war. In such cases there always is a main question; but in this case that question is a perplexing compound—Union and Slavery. It thus becomes a question not of two sides merely, but of at least four sides, even among those who are for the Union, saying nothing of those who are against it. Thus, those who are for the Union with, but not without slavery—those for it without but not with—those for it with or without, but prefer it with—and those for it with or without, but prefer it without. Among these again is a subdivision of those who are for gradual but not for immediate, and those who are for immediate, but not for gradual extinction of slavery.”

First of all, I marveled at his understanding of the complexity of the issue facing him and the nation, at the shades of loyalty to one cause or the other that he could parse out in a few phrases.

In those days people didn’t use bullets or charts. I put the ideas into slightly simpler language and into a diagram that I could use in my classroom.

But Lincoln didn’t stop there. He went on. “It is easy to conceive that all these shades of opinion, and even more, may be sincerely entertained by honest and truthful men.”

As I’ve been reading his biography I’ve been struck by how vilified Lincoln was while he was in office, not just by the South but by the North as well. We hear his name now and immediately think of the Lincoln Memorial. The Gettysburg Address. The national holiday. But while he was alive I think he felt he was fighting his own side almost as much as the Confederacy.

Instead of lashing out or complaining bitterly about all the groups opposing him, Lincoln makes this extraordinary statement. A wide range of opinions can be sincere. The people who have them can be honest and truthful even while they disagree.

That’s the best civics lesson I can bring back to school tomorrow.

Sometimes issues are complex.

People will disagree.

The ways they disagree may be complex too.

Even when people disagree with you, assume the best motives. Assume sincerity. Assume integrity. Carry on a conversation from there.

Thank you, Mr. Lincoln.

My Post-Election Lesson

220px-us_marshals_with_young_ruby_bridges_on_school_stepsI had plans for last Wednesday.

We’ve been studying historical fiction and I was planning to teach my fourth graders about Ruby Bridges. I was going to have them write an historical fiction piece about her first day at school. But as I was getting ready for school, my voice of reason reconsidered. Somehow the idea of telling my diverse group of students about a six-year-old girl who endured a storm of racial epithets didn’t seem appropriate after what happened Tuesday night.

But another part of my mind pushed back. I could have pointed out that Ruby had every right to be at that school even though she didn’t feel welcome. I could have explained that American citizenship doesn’t have degrees; the Muslim kid in my class who was born two months after his parents fled Libya is just as American as his 55-year-old teacher who’s a direct descendant from a Jamestown settler.

I could have pointed out that Ruby had her classroom to herself. None of the other families wanted their children to study with her. Many of them left the school altogether, not unlike what will happen when the Department of Education begins to push for “School Choice,” a thin veil for a voucher system, sold as way for poor families to enroll their children in private schools. In reality, of course, the only beneficiaries are those families who are not only able to transport their kids to private schools, but affluent enough to make up the difference between their vouchers and private school tuition.

I could have pointed out that only one teacher in Ruby’s new school would agree to teach her. I could have shared how teachers aren’t perfect. Like most humans, they can be petulant and small. Even now, we can sometimes dispense with restraint and politesse and gripe about the amount of resources we pour into our ELL programs or the lack of Christmas carols during the Winter Concert. And while it’s one thing to notice that our Hi-Cap programs, honors classes and high school orchestras are dominated by Asian Americans, it’s another thing altogether to complain about it. I could have warned my students that restraint and politesse will probably be in decline throughout the near future, even in their teachers.

I could have done all these things, but I didn’t. On Wednesday my kids were stunned. Some were terrified. Their families came from virtually everywhere: Mexico, El Salvador, Columbia, Ukraine, Libya, Eretria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and Korea. They may have come to America for economic opportunity, but they came to our community because they feel welcome. Now they aren’t so sure.

I didn’t teach them about Ruby Bridges. I couldn’t. Instead I taught them about the Pig War and let them write historical fiction pieces about that. The Pig War, I explained, was a stupid little event in which American and English settlers on San Juan Island weren’t getting along very well and nearly took up arms after an American farmer shot an English pig that wandered into his yard. (In an irony lost on my students, it was President James Buchanan that smoothed things over and prevented the actual war.)

They had fun with their stories and it was just the distraction we needed. And although I told them the Pig War happened in 1859, I didn’t tell them it happened one year before an election that was more divisive than one we just endured.

Nor did I tell them what happened after that election, which was way worse than anything Ruby Bridges endured.

National Board Policy Summit: A Salary Proposal

butterI’ve been on more committees, task forces and planning teams than I care to remember. Many of them were productive and well worth my time. One particular team produced this, which was awesome. If that experience represents the apex of my career as a committee member, then the low point – the nadir, if you will – came when I led a task force charged with choosing the interior color of our school. After 45 minutes listening to a debate on the relative merits of “Warm Butter” vs “Morning Lemon,” I fled. I can’t even remember which name for yellow we chose.

I’m sure everyone has a “committee story.” In fact, turn to the person next to you and share an experience you’ve had, positive or negative, which entailed working on a committee.

OK, eyes back up here.

If there is one committee whose work I respect more than any other, and whose final product received far less fanfare than it deserved, it would have to be the Washington State Compensation Technical Working Group of 2012. Yes, that is a mouthful, but those people, all sixteen of them, came up with this report. Read it if you want, but the part I want to focus on is this:

cwg-model

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is their proposal for a teacher salary schedule. For our purposes, we’re going to ignore the actual dollar amounts; that’s a topic for another time. What’s more important are the numbers below the dollar amounts. Those are the factors by which the base salary is multiplied to arrive at each of the ten salary figures.

I also want you to notice the columns. This model provides a salary increase for teachers who complete their ProCert, a feature that’s sorely lacking in our current schedule. The whole point of ProCert, as I understand it, is for teachers to prove that they’ve reached the second tier of their professional growth. In other words, they’ve shown that they are more valuable than they were when they started. Compelling teachers to fork over upward of $600 to complete an assessment proving their increased value, and not paying them more after they’ve done that just doesn’t seem fair. This model corrects that.

It also adds a column for National Board Certification, instead of our current practice of adding a bonus on top of a regular salary. I like that for two reasons. First of all, it bakes the bonus into the salary schedule, making it more permanent and less subject to the ebb and flow of the economy. It also implies that every teacher should aspire to NB certification as a career goal; there it is: on the bottom right corner of the table, waiting for and calling out to everyone.

As I’ve shared recently, about 100 teachers will gather later this month to focus on two issues: the future of second-tier teacher certification in our state, and a sustainable model for rewarding National Board Certification.

In my view, the salary model above – the one pounded out by the Technical Working Group of 2012 – serves as a good starting point for the discussion. I have a few qualms with it; like the fact that there’s no yearly raise, only big jumps ever four or five years, or the fact that there’s no raise at all after year 10; but like I said, it could certainly serve as a starting point in the discussion.

And what a discussion it’ll be. The policy summit is on November 19th. Stay tuned to this blog for more information before, during and after the event. And if you made plans to attend, I’ll see you there!

And I promise we won’t talk about yellow paint.

Tell Your NBCT Story

imageEvery National Board Certified Teacher has a story. This is mine.

As an elementary teacher I’m responsible for teaching every subject, which includes social studies. And in fourth grade social studies focuses on Washington State. One of the concepts that my students have always struggled with is the Rainshadow Effect. Over the years I’ve tried everything: different videos, different texts, relief maps, you name it. The results have been discouraging. When I assess my students, they generally don’t understand the Rainshadow Effect.

There was a time in my career when I would have simply let it go. After all, the Rainshadow Effect will never show up on anyone’s standardized test. It’s only social studies, for crying out loud; give it a shot and move on. If they get it, great; if they don’t, they don’t.

But I couldn’t let it go. The Rainshadow Effect isn’t just a random meteorological phenomenon covered in chapter three of our textbook. It explains the major differences in the regions of our state, which is what chapter four is all about. It also explains the main differences between the Plateau Indian tribes and the Coastal tribes, which is the essence of chapter five. Not only that, but the Rainshadow Effect is one of the main reasons for all the dams along the Columbia River, not to mention the fact that Central Washington is a major producer of fruit, which largely explains its large Hispanic population. Chapters eight, nine and twelve.

The Rainshadow Effect is a big deal and I’ve been determined to get it right.

This year I tried something different. I put a fan on one end of a table in the front of the room. I asked five volunteers to place their backpacks in a large pile on the middle of the table. Then I took a wet sponge. “The prevailing wind, represented by this fan, blows wet air toward the Cascade Mountains, represented by these backpacks. When the air hits the mountains, it has to go up. When air rises, it gets cold, and cold air can’t hold water very well. That’s why I’m squeezing this sponge and that’s why these backpacks are getting wet. As the air passes over the mountains, it goes back down and warms up. Warm air hold water better. That’s why I’m not squeezing the sponge anymore, and that’s why there’s less rain in Eastern Washington. That’s the Rainshadow Effect.”

I discovered the same thing Annie Sullivan discovered 119 years ago: pouring cold water on something increasing student achievement. For some reason, my students loved watching the backpacks get wet. And they now understand the Rainshadow Effect. All of them.

Washington State spends $50 million on stipends for NBCTs. That number could nearly double in a few years, and with education funding moving to the front burner this Legislative Season, some people in Olympia (where it rains a lot) are going to be asking whether we’re getting our money’s worth.

There are different ways to answer that question. Some people prefer data, and the data certainly looks good. My problem with the data is that it’s too limiting: it focuses too much on test scores. Teaching kids the Rainshadow Effect will never show up in that data.

I prefer to justify our National Board stipend by telling stories. Because every National Board Certified Teacher has a story illustrating how the process made them a better teacher. When I went through the process I became a better teacher, a teacher committed to student learning. A teacher who knows the subject matter and how to teach it to kids. A teacher who is responsible for managing and monitoring student learning. A teacher who learns from experience and a teacher who is a member of a learning community.

What’s your story?

NBCT Policy Summit

imageIn 1999 I was a relatively young National Board candidate. There were about 30 of us going through the process in our state, aspiring to join the seven or so Washington State NBCTs. Someone sponsored a reception in Seattle and then-governor Gary Locke was the featured speaker. While explaining his proposed 15% NBCT bonus, he remarked that someone in the Legislature asked him, “What if all of these candidates pass? How will we afford those bonuses?”

To which he replied, “What a wonderful problem to have.”

Well, here we are, seventeen years later, and it’s still a wonderful problem to have. The 15% bonus never really caught fire, but we do get an annual $5150, double for those who teach in high-needs schools. The wonderful problem, of course, is that there’s so many of us. Those seven NBCTs have swelled to over eight thousand, which is wonderful, but the price tag for those bonuses has swelled to over $50 million, which is kind of a problem.

To solve this wonderful problem we’ve decided to have our third NBCT Policy Summit, an event which brings NBCTs together, along with stakeholders from the Legislature and various state boards. It’s scheduled for November 19th in SeaTac.

Why a Policy Summit and why now? Three reasons:

First of all, you’re probably aware that Washington’s education funding situation is a work in progress. If our students are lucky, this could be the year when our legislature finally figures out how to provide an equitable way to fund all schools. But that’s going to involve a close look by those people at everything we spend on education in this state. Including the National Board bonus, which has become a serious amount of money.

Furthermore, that amount has hit something of a false plateau. That’s because the NatIonal Board revised its assessment process two years ago, so there’s been virtually no new NBCTs for the past two years and won’t be for another year, when candidates are finally able complete the whole process. However, we’ve got over 2,000 candidates in the pipeline and if most of them certify and a lot of them teach in high-needs schools, that $50 million could nearly double, resulting in some serious sticker-shock.

Finally, ProTeach, the default second-tier certification in our state, has been taking some heat of late. Teachers who have gone through it seem to have a dim view of the whole process, to the point where representatives at the most recent WEA RA voted to have the union look into getting rid of ProTeach. That would leave National Board Certification as our only second tier certification, something it was never designed to be.

So there’s some serious problems to solve. And we need your help. By now, if you’re an NBCT in Washington you’ve receive multiple emails inviting you to the summit.

Answer one of them.

We need your help figuring out what the future of National Board certification in Washington – including the bonus – will look like.

We’ve got a wonderful problem to solve.

Teacher Dreams

imageIt always starts with a dream. A real dream; not an aspiration or goal, but the kind you have when you sleep. One year it was a poorly-executed field trip to Manhattan (with fourth graders) and another year I had a class of forty but no classroom. I was expected to teach them out on the lawn.

In this year’s late-summer teacher dream I was giving a practice spelling test to my kiddos and the third word on the list was “sh*t.” It was a difficult situation, especially trying to come up with an appropriate context sentence. I remember silently cursing the publishers from whom we adopted the curriculum.

My annual awkward teacher dream is how I know my summer is winding down. The next phase involves completely going over my plans for the year. Then there’s the “Leadership Team Retreat” where we revisit our School Improvement Plan and chart out corresponding Professional Development. After that there’s a few days of moving furniture and putting up bulletin boards, some whole-staff meetings, a slew of online, state-mandated health trainings and before I know it, kids.

But let me back up a bit, to the part where I go over my plans for the year. One thing I’ve noticed is that as the years go by, I find myself changing things less and less. Back in the day, I would practically reinvent myself every summer. Different homework plans, new classroom management programs, alternative seating plans, you name it. But now, thirty-three years in, I find myself merely tweaking.

When I first noticed this trend I felt lazy. Is this what it feels like to be burned-out old-timer? Perhaps. But maybe it’s what it feels like to be a competent veteran. I think about the major changes I used to make – classroom management, for example – and I honestly don’t feel compelled to make any major changes. Not because I’m afraid of the effort, but because it worked last year. And the year before that.

Change is good. But so is repeating something that still works. I guess the challenge is trying to figure out what to keep and what to tweak.

And believe it or not, the only thing I’m going to totally overhaul this year is my spelling curriculum.

I wonder why.

The First Day of School

Like so many teachers, I nervously plan, re-plan, and then overplan the first few days of school.  I want my students to feel like this is their class, not my class.  This helps create a positive learning environment that is based on mutual respect and trust.  However, for most of my teaching career I’ve started the first day of school with the course syllabus.  When I left student teaching and landed my first high school teaching job I was told, “Don’t smile until November,” and “Set the rules on the first day so that there is no question as to who is in charge.”  Admittedly, I thought that I could do that.  I could easily tackle the rules part but the whole not smiling axiom just didn’t work for me.  A smile communicates warmth and I certainly didn’t want to create a classroom where students felt that I was cold and uninterested in them as individuals.  So I smiled and then went through the rules.  And I’ve continued to do just that for sixteen years of my teaching career.  Until this week…

On Wednesday, I’m changing it up.  Instead, we’re going to do some relationship building.  If our classroom is going to be focused on teaching and learning, then we’re going to have to build a classroom community based on trust and respect.  So instead of going through the rules immediately,  we’re going to focus less on the “how “ of this class and more on the “who” is in this class.  My high school students are going to be diagnosing their learning styles and committing to habits that support those styles.  The juniors in U.S. HIstory will be creating infographs that demonstrate key events in their lives and word clouds that depict who they are and the things they hold dear.  My goal is that together we will work to create products that depict who we are so that we can create the foundation to our classroom relationship.

If ever you’re in a job interview and you’re asked, “What is your greatest strength?” and you don’t answer, “My connection with students,” then it is entirely likely that you will not get the job.  I’ve sat on many interview committees over the years and admittedly, if I don’t hear that sometime during the interview, I’m not likely to recommend a candidate to be hired.  It’s not that I have a script that I want a prospective teacher to follow or that I am willing to overlook other issues with an interview once I hear that magic phrase, but ultimately, I believe that our connection with students is what allows teachers to access and activate student learning.  Teachers who focus on relationship building first, content, second will inherently find more success in helping that content stick.

 

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Best Teachers Ever

The first teacher I really remember was Mrs. Hester. She was absolutely rigorous, absolutely strict, and one of the most fun teachers I ever had. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. She was the first person who inspired me to be a teacher. I think I’m still channeling her.

The thing is, I was super lucky. I had multiple memorable teachers.

read_over_shoulder

Mrs. Garland in sixth grade not only taught me math but she read the most incredibly vivid stories, stories I still remember. Mr. Spivey in seventh grade made grammar and writing both comprehensible and fun. Besides teaching us how to speak Spanish, Sr. Isidro Jesus Maytorena y Robinson shared with us what it was like to grow up in rural Mexico. Our junior high librarian took us to the Stanford library and let us tour the rare book section.

Then came high school. Mr. Meredith and Mr. Rigley demanded higher and higher levels of writing. (When I got to college I tested out of most of the required composition classes because of what they taught me.) Mr. Bradburn taught my whole sophomore English class how to speak in public without fear. An amazing feat! Mr. Barley and the other geometry teachers team-taught a fluid set of three classes we could move up and down within; meanwhile the teachers wrote their own geometry textbook. M. Keplinger had us speaking French from the first day of school. Miss Allshouse ran the Model UN and the Asian History Club and let us make dinner at her house. Mr. Viera would NOT let me leave the room until I understood each day’s physics lesson.

Sir Isaac Newton said he saw further as a scientist because he stood on the shoulders of giants. I feel like I had a similar experience. I am a better teacher because I grew up in the classrooms of giants.

As I start school next week, I won’t begin the year alone. I will be accompanied by all the great teachers who laid the foundation for my own education.

Now seems like an ideal time to remember and thank them.