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The Recess Disconnect

Two things you should know prior to reading this post: 1) I am writing through the lens of both a parent and a secondary educator (meaning I’m far from being an expert), and 2) my child has two amazing Kindergarten teachers. They are passionate and kind, they ensure my son loves school, and I can tell they care deeply about him. This is what every parent wants for their children. With these two admissions, I will proceed. I recently received two unsettling emails from my son’s teachers.

The first email was expected, but still a bit disappointing, as we all want to believe our children are little well-behaved geniuses. So, the hard truth is a bit difficult to swallow. According to the email, my son struggles at times to pay attention, he is easily distracted by his peers, and when he becomes unengaged he is often stubborn and unwilling to reengage, especially when the task is a difficult one. Lack of focus and inability to pay attention sometimes is exactly what I would expect of a five-year-old. He is still learning to be a student, his attention-span is growing, he loves to play with his friends, and he tends to shift focus from more difficult endeavors to easier ones. As far as the stubborn element, well, he is my son. I’ve learned these characteristics are fairly common among the Kindergarten-set, as evidenced by the discussions I’ve had at birthday parties with other parents. Also, in that same email, my son’s teachers had plenty of praise for him. He is helpful, kind, and a good friend, all awesome qualities, so I wasn’t particularly concerned.

The unsettling part came when I received the next email — about recess. In it, my son’s teachers outlined the new plan. After the winter break, they would be cutting lunch recess from 45 minutes to 30 minutes (which includes time to eat). The rationale for this decision was that per district recommendations, the first half of the year, Kindergartners are allotted an extra 15 minutes at lunch to meet their social-emotional needs, but that the time should be cut during the second half of the year. The reasoning for the cut was not explained, nor the implication that Kindergartners somehow no longer need the social-emotional support of a longer recess after only four months of school. The email went on to describe the practice they’d been doing as a class to prepare for the change. They’d implemented a “quiet lunch” in which the kids must be silent during the first 5 to 10 minutes, in order to focus on eating. They could then socialize for the remaining 5 minutes of lunch and 15 minutes of recess.

I’d also recently had some discussion with area elementary teachers about this topic. Along with being a parent and an educator, I am also a teacher leader. I recently took on the role of facilitator for the Washington Education Association’s National Board Teacher Leadership Academy. NBCTs in my region sign up and we work together to develop teacher leadership plans. Through our discussions I have learned a great deal about elementary school recess and have discovered that not all schools are implementing recess in the same ways. Anecdotally speaking, schools with fewer behavior issues have more recess, while schools with more behavior problems, have fewer minutes of recess.

This knowledge in combination with the change in my own child’s recess, got me thinking about the rationale for the cut in recess time. Many of us parents received similar reports from the teachers about inattention and disengagement. This discovery led to more discussion of the consequences for such behavior, which often meant removal of free-time and/or sitting with head down while the other students participated in an activity. It appears to me there is a logical disconnect. Students are losing social-time for poor behavior, but schools with statistically fewer discipline issues have more social-time. To me, that would suggest that increased social-time leads to more positive behaviors. This thought process warranted a bit of research.

I found several studies and articles supporting my hypothesis that increased recess decreases behavior issues in the classroom. One study in particular, by Theresa Phillippo at Hamline University, was a comprehensive overview of the impact of recess on behavior in Kindergarten. This researcher found “evidence that students are able to display more self-control when given more opportunities for movement during the day. Students were also more successful at showing soft skills such as cooperation, problem-solving, negotiation, compromising, and forming new friendships.” The author asserts that “a positive connection was found indicating that recess has a positive effect on classroom behavior. Results indicate that the long-term effects of providing recess may outweigh the short-term effects or reducing recess.”

I am not an expert, and an afternoon of research into recess does not qualify me to give advice to my son’s two amazing Kindergarten teachers. I do believe, though, that our schools need to think more deeply about their strict focus on seat-time and learning, especially in Kindergarten. Free play has such a positive impact on a child’s ability to connect and bond with others, problem-solve, be self-motivated, and is just plain good to get the wiggles out. These qualities and abilities are essential to being ready to learn.

I plan on visiting my school board and giving them my opinion about district policy concerning recess in Kindergarten. I will include the research I did today, but I’d love some additional resources to support my assertion that we should be adding minutes, not subtracting them from recess and that removal of free time is not an effective consequence for misbehavior, if anything it only makes the problem worse. Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comments below. I can definitely use the help.

National Boards: Let Me Tell You Why

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

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

Good questions. I think I have some answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I highly recommend it.

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

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

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

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

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

 

 

Should My Students Go To College?

My art classroom this year is in a giant, sun-lit room surrounded by kitchens along its perimeter. It used to be a home economics room, and we make good use of the storage cabinets and sinks. It also still has ancient potholders and whisks in the depths of some rarely-used drawers! “Home ec” hasn’t been offered as a middle school elective here in many years. Neither has auto shop, or wood shop. Students regularly ask, “What happened to cooking classes?” – I wonder, myself.

The history of schools is long-entwined with industry and capitalism – one purpose of schooling is to prepare young people to be productive workers in society. As labor in the U.S. continues to shift, how are we best preparing students for life after school? Who might be left behind?

I predict that most of my current students will go to colleges and universities – most come from middle- to upper-middle-class families, with many parents in white collar jobs. I’ve taught high-poverty populations for years, as well, and have always taught a significant number of students receiving special ed services. I believe tracking students – moving them into separate educational pathways based on academic performance, can be limiting, at best, for students.

Still, is college for everyone? At a recent College and University Spirit Day, all teachers at my school were expected to talk with their homerooms about their college experiences – the goal was to get students thinking concretely about college visions for themselves. But it didn’t feel honest to me, to talk exclusively about the rewards and joys of my higher education. I shared that I’m still paying off a large amount of student debt, and that I might not get a Masters of Fine Arts again if I had a time machine. A college degree has been a symbol, and sometimes a ticket, for class movement in America. But the rising cost of tuition brings into question, whether a degree offers a worthwhile return on investment. According to Claudio Sanchez with Morning Edition, tuition costs in Washington state have risen 70% in the past few years.

In 2014, a partnership between the U.S. Dept. of Labor and the U.S. Dept. of Education forged the Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act – a law that “places heightened emphasis” on workforce preparation for out-of-school youth (youth aged 16-24 without a high school diploma). Previously, the focus of programs for out-of-school youth was on gaining a GED and getting higher education credits. But the U.S. Dept. of Ed. Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education site has not been updated since January 2017 – it is unclear how this program is supported by our current federal administration. 

Seattle Public Schools has Career and Technical Education department that invites students to apply for courses at schools and regional Skill Centers. There are a number of programs offered, led by workers in those fields, including Aerospace, Automotive, Maritime, and Culinary Science. This offers exciting possibilities for students interested in trades, and is one way we could get closer to Washington’s educational attainment goal of 70% of adults (aged 25-44) having a post-secondary credential by 2030 (currently, about 33% of adults have a post-secondary credential). The use of “credential” versus “degree” reflects a growing emphasis in WA on Career and Technical Education (CTE) as an important option for students, amongst other possible paths. The WA-based foundation Partnership for Learning expands on the definition of “credential” as meaning “college, an apprenticeship, or other training that will prepare (students) for career success.” 

These goals feel particularly relevant to me, as a middle-class worker in a city with a rapidly increasing cost of living. I want my students, and all young people in Seattle and WA state, to transition to adulthood with all that they need to find jobs that are meaningful and sustainable, and to live here long-term (if they want). It’s exciting to see that state superintendent Chris Reykdal sees expansion of CTE as a legislative priority, and one piece of the huge, vital imperative to decrease the opportunity gap.

As I design curriculum in the art room around the development of 21st Century Thinking Skills: collaboration, communication, perseverance, reflective thinking, critical thinking, and creative thinking, I am trying to prioritize practices that students will use in any future workplace. As we use our hands to build, carve, sew, sketch, and design, I hope students think widely about their post-secondary options, regardless of what previous generations held as top-priority. Maybe that means college, and maybe it won’t. 

The Stress Mirror

 

I have been asking questions about this adventure called teaching a lot this year. Why is teaching so different from other professions? What sets teaching apart from all else?

And then, one afternoon, my answer was experienced. I had a momentary swirly eddy of stress that day – the kind that seems to pop up out of nowhere amid the general thrumming of my classroom. In the teaching world, these are much like a bull ride; wild and crazy, but usually much longer than eight seconds. I captured the moment in a conscious stream of thought during my lunch break that day. Here it is:

Five minutes to lunch – a middle schooler is on full meltdown because her PowerPoint did not save and she will JUST DIE if she has to redo it. I begin the search on her very old, very slow computer. All the while, another kid is spitting mad that so-and-so stole his mechanical pencil lead (mechanical pencil lead…the bane of my existence!). Another student tips back and falls out of his chair and hits his head…yet again. He is sent to the office to get an ice pack, only after it is determined through a ro-sham-bo who gets to walk him down so he “doesn’t concuss and stuff” (his words, not mine). I make a note to check his pupils when he returns and to give his mom a call at lunch. PowerPoint girl is still melting down. “I HAVE TO HAVE IT!” Computer is Still. So. Slowly. Searching. An ironic counterpoint to the frenzy. A kid (you know the one) brings up a book that has the last 20 pages missing and the NEED to finish it RIGHT NOW to take a reading test – do I have the same book? (How did you not notice the gaping spot where the pages should have been?)

Teachers teach students far more than just content every single moment of every single day. There is a concept in neuroeducation called mirror neurons. This concept holds that when a person witnesses an action or emotional response to an event, areas of their own brains light up as if they themselves had participated in the action of event. It is one reason why athletes are able to use visualization techniques to perfect a move.

More importantly for educators, it is the reason why students sense our reactions and moods surrounding events and build these into their own schemas of emotional regulation as to how they should respond to such stress in the future. If we get angry and frustrated in dealing with the on-going stresses in our classroom, students learn to get angry and frustrated too when they feel stressed. If we approach stress as simply a part of teaching and can detach ourselves from its grip enough to just witness it as a response to events unfolding, we are far more like to respond calmly. Students “mirror” this calm in their own brains.

Teaching is unlike any other profession in that we must keep our game-face on the entire workday; there is no escape – no cubicle to retreat to, no office door to shut, no water cooler to take a quick walk to just to get some perspective. No, we must stand in our shoes and cope with the constant thinking/decision-making/problem-solving and the constant calling out of our names. There is no retreat.

We handle this all not to just keep our jobs or even to check a box on the Marzano Focused Teacher Evaluation Model. (There is no box for it anyway.) No, we manage our emotions because we have students watching us, learning from us and ultimately becoming us. That is a heavy burden to carry and is one of the things that sets teaching apart from other professions. When my Bored Teachers feed pops up on Facebook with its funny “stressed to the max teacher” memes, it reminds me I am not alone. This burden is carried by many hands.

Yet, there is always a grain of truth in humor. The Bored Teachers memes speak to the stress inherent in teaching that sometimes can be overwhelming. It is this type of stress that was examine in the Quality of Worklife Survey of over 30,000 teachers by the American Federation of Teachers. Some striking findings? Overall, 73% of respondents stated their workday was often stressful. With this high of a percentage of stressed teachers, it is not surprising 26% of respondents say that in the last 30 days, their mental health (stress, depression, emotional challenges) was not good for 9 or more days. Whoa. This is not good for teachers and certainly not good for students.

The world of learning has embraced the importance of teaching social emotional regulation for students. But what about teachers? Bearing in mind the aforementioned survey’s findings, it would be wise on many levels to allocate professional development dollars providing teachers with high-end stress management strategies for regulating in the moment. Imagine a classroom with a teacher at the helm who had learned powerful insights into their own emotional reactions to students’ behaviors alongside strategies for how to stay calm throughout the swirling stress eddies of the day. That is a powerful learning environment.

Phone rings – no more ice packs for chair tipper; sending him back with a Ziplock full of ice. (I know this will be leaking within minutes of the kid’s return and he will be eating the ice, which will irritate the kids around him.) Oh! Blessed relief! Pencil boy found his lead. But, now he refuses to apologize to the accused. Accused is red-faced mad, but sitting in silence, arms crossed. I make another mental note to pull both of them out of the lunch line for a quick chat to resolve this when everyone is a little cooler.And then the magic…THE POWERPOINT IS FOUND! A gush of intense joy! Big hug!

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! Mrs. C, you saved me!”

“You are welcome,” I say as I steal a peek at the rescued PowerPoint.

It consisted of one, single slide with a title on it. “Freinds” -misspelled and all.

*sigh

The lunch bell rings.

 

 

Accessing School Spirit

The email came out on Thursday. Another spirit week is underway. Winter sports is the reason and the theme is the season – winter and holiday cheer, complete with a staff dance based on the “12 Days of Christmas.” The English language department will take on “2 turtle doves” – not sure what that will look like, but we’ve been brainstorming. My first thoughts, though, are always on my students, equity, and access.

My usual questions are: 1) Have the leadership students considered the diversity of our student body? 2) Are multiple student groups being represented? and 3) Do all students have an opportunity to participate? In addition to general cultural responsiveness, I also ask myself can my students, brand new English language learners, participate and will participation be meaningful for them.

The answer to the first question is “no”. Even the staff dance number has a specific cultural lens. If students don’t celebrate Christmas, it will have little meaning. At the very least, it will be amusing for them, watching their teachers and other staff members making fools of themselves in front of the entire student body. There’s merit in that, watching the adults in their lives be silly. Imagine, though, the greater impact it would have should the activity reflect all of the members of the study body, their interests and beliefs.

As for the second and third questions, sports cons (otherwise known as pep rallies) rarely represent multiple student groups. They celebrate the athletes and encourage others to be athletic supporters. I do give our school leadership props in their effort to include as many students as they can through class competitions and the like, but with the multitude of sports teams, it’s difficult to eek out time for the non-athletic. The cons are exuberant and fun, but many students feel left out of the celebration.

Here’s where dress up days come into play. Dress up days are intended to create an in-road for the less involved students. They begin the build up to the big event at the end of the week and are intended to promote school spirit. However, each time I receive the email, I go through the list for the week and must determine which days I will attempt to make meaningful to my English language learners, and during which days I will encourage them to participate. Usually these are few and far between and some weeks I don’t even bother at all for several reasons.

Access is the main issue in determining the importance of tackling dress up days with my class. There are two main access issues. First, many of the days are culturally specific to the U.S., to Spokane, and even to specific neighborhoods. They also have socio-economic implications, meaning they are only accessible and relatable if you grew up in a middle or upper class household.

The second access issue is money. Many of the days require students to purchase items in order to participate. For example, Jersey Thursday, which is a common one for our school. Students either have to have access to their own jersey as members of a sports team, or have the funds to purchase a jersey of their favorite college or professional sports team. This is also true of any day that requires specific elements like flowered shirts or days specific to an era.

The cost is often unattainable for many students. They can choose not to participate in that particular day, but this usually leads to not participating at all. Who wants to admit they simply can’t afford to participate in one dress up day? They may as well choose to sit the whole thing out. At least then their peers will assume they just don’t want to, not that they can’t. It’s easier to pretend school spirit simply isn’t cool than to admit you can’t afford to look spirited.

This week’s dress up days are a little more accessible. I may encourage my kids to participate, particularly in those days based solely on a color. Even twins day isn’t too hard, if you choose something simple. As far as Friday goes, with its ugly sweater theme, I might be able to lend a hand in that area, maybe we’ll make our own. I need to go a step further, though. Instead of checking the list and determining whether I’ll encourage my students to participate, I should instead speak to the leadership class. Ask them to consider culture and cost when planning events in which they want all students to participate.

What have your experiences been with spirit weeks? What are your suggestions in increasing access? Participating in school activities is important to each student’s confidence and success at school. Some simple steps we can take in ensuring access during spirit weeks is to check the demographics of the school. We may be surprised by the diversity we find. Choose days which are easy to accomplish, for example days based on colors (make sure the colors are common and students would likely have them in their closets), pajama days, mismatch days, or any idea that does not require purchasing items in order to pull it off. We might also consider having at least one non-sport assembly which celebrates the other activities and people in the school who do not participate in sports. An example is the culture assembly at Kent Meridian High School in Kent, Washington. It is essential we make every opportunity accessible to all of our students. It is through access that we achieve equity.

 

 

The Worldwide Woes of Rural Education

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

Yunnan Rice Fields

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

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

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

Yamdrok Lake, Tibet, China

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

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

Riffe Lake, Mossyrock WA

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

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

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

Lewis County Blueberry Fields

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

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

Because it is joyous.

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

Why Self-Contained Gifted?

 

Earlier this year a friend of mine, a colleague, a coworker I admire, told me she loved me, she thought I was a great teacher, but she didn’t believe in self-contained gifted classes. She didn’t support what I do as an educator.

She believes my students belong in gen ed classes with everyone else.

At the WAETAG conference some of us on the board overheard attendees talking about differentiation: “This is just good teaching. We can do this in regular classrooms. Why would we need special classrooms for highly capable students?”

Everything I do IS just good teaching. It’s the good teaching every teacher does in their classroom, just meeting the needs of their students.

Here’s the difference. What I do is good teaching at the academic and intellectual depth my students need. It’s good teaching at the pace my students require.

Think about Zones of Proximal Development.

Think of putting fourth graders into first grade classrooms. That would be ludicrous, right? While the teacher is working with the first graders on “What I can do with help,” the fourth graders are well past the “What I can do” and into the “I’m bored and trying to amuse myself” zone.

That example may seem like hyperbole, but in a very real way it is not. Students who test two standard deviations above the norm, who are in the top 2% of the population, who historically received (from the world of psychology) the unfortunate appellation “gifted”—those students are not just bright kids in a gen ed classroom. They are children who, intellectually, belong grade levels above.

One traditional solution is acceleration. It’s well researched and demonstrates good outcomes. It works well with students who are not just academically advanced but socially and emotionally mature as well. Illinois recently signed into law the Accelerated Placement Act which “requires Illinois public school districts to adopt and implement policies on acceleration that, at minimum, provide opportunities for early entrance to kindergarten and first grade, opportunities for accelerating a student in a single subject area, and opportunities for “whole grade” acceleration (sometimes referred to as ‘grade skipping’)” [emphasis mine].

Another solution is self-contained classrooms.

Every year I have several students who are academically advanced but who are socially and emotionally immature. In some cases very immature. One of the defining characteristics of gifted is “asynchronous development.” Gifted students are out of the norm in terms of their development when compared to their age peers. That can mean they are out of the norm in more than just the realm of intellect. Which is why you can have a fifth grader working at the intellectual level of a 15-year-old but acting emotionally like a five-year-old.

Whole grade acceleration would not be appropriate for those immature students.

In the self-contained classroom, we provide academic acceleration within the classroom while students stay at their grade-level school and continue to interact with their grade-level peers. More important, our program allows them “to learn with and make social connections with same aged peers who think and learn in the same ways they do” (National Association for Gifted Children) in ways that can’t be replicated in a gen ed classroom, where there just aren’t enough of them in one place to achieve critical mass.

In my classroom, my students not only find the depth and speed of delivery that meets their intellectual needs, but they also find their tribe. They find peers who understand their advanced vocabulary. Who get their quirky jokes.

Meanwhile they enter a world where they aren’t always the first one done or the one with the right answer or the one with the best grade or the one who leads the group. Instead of being the “best” in the class, they become “normal.” It’s a humbling experience.

So let me share some other conversations, also from this fall.

Early in November I asked my students, “What do you like about this class?” There were lots of specific answers, but about half repeated a single theme: “It’s hard.” “It’s challenging.” “I’ve never been so stretched.” Some students raving about how challenging the class was were new to the program this year.

A couple of weeks later in mid-November I got a connect request on LinkedIn. I didn’t recognize the name or photo. So I went to the profile page.

“Robert” was the CEO of an IT company in Seattle. I was really confused. What did a CEO of an IT company want, connecting with an elementary teacher? I googled the company. It was an awesome company. Oh, what the heck, I thought, and I clicked “accept.”

The next day I got an email, not from “Robert” but from “Bobby,” a former student from 1990. He invited me to a party where I could see him and a bunch more of my former students. Of course I said yes!

At the party there was lots of reminiscing about the class they remembered from 27 years ago. Everyone had a different story to tell. But the one thing they all agreed on: “You made us work hard.” “I’d never worked so hard.” “I learned how to work hard in your class.” “After that, everything was easier—because I knew how to work hard.”

By the way, they just remember me as the one who made them work the hardest because I was the last teacher they had in the self-contained program. Then they went to junior high where they no longer received services all day, every day.

Finally, at the end of November, the mother of a new student in my class came to talk with me. Her husband is in the Navy, so the family moves a lot. She says she’s already dreading their next move because, “I’ve never found a program the caliber of this one. We’ve had our children in cluster groups in regular classes, and we’ve had them in one day a week enrichment programs, but we’ve never had them in self-contained gifted classes. The difference is stunning. This year my kids don’t just get piecemeal support. They get all-day every-day stretching in every subject. It’s amazing! I never want to leave.”

My students, my former students, and my parents all agree on the value of self-contained programs.

Not just this year, but every year.

Teaming to Our Strengths

My first year in education, I worked as a Paraeducator in a Designed Instruction classroom. At the time, I didn’t know how deeply that experience would impact my practice as a classroom teacher. I spent one year in that DI classroom. In that time, I instructed students one-to-one on reading and life-skills, and also worked with the whole class to build a boat, to learn independent living through grocery shopping and cooking, and also coached the Special Olympics basketball team. These were amazing experiences and sparked my initial interest in becoming a certified teacher, but the most important impact came from how the lead teacher worked with our team. I didn’t know how much his actions affected me until I took a position in which I worked in concert with others and realized how much I had learned from him.

Most of us have heard the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.” The same can be said in education. Student success does not happen as the result of one educator’s effort, there is a whole team involved. The way that team works together can make or break a classroom. Thinking back to that first lead teacher I worked with, I learned so much. The most important lesson he taught me, he did not expressly say, but rather he showed me through his interactions with the educational support staff in our classroom and through the respect he showed in both word and action.

As a team we had weekly meetings in which the lead teacher would specifically elicit feedback and suggestions from the entire staff in the classroom as to next steps, what worked and what didn’t work during the week and how we, as a team, could better meet the needs of the students. He recognized that we, as Paraeducators, were the ones working most closely with the kids. We had knowledge of their progress and interests that he did not have, because he mainly taught whole group, while we worked beside the students. He also greatly respected and worked toward each of our strengths, encouraging us to take on roles in the classroom that would have the most benefit to our students and also help us grow in our work. He created an environment in which we all felt empowered and encouraged to work independently and collaboratively. We felt safe and respected and, thus, also treated one another with respect and kindness.

It has only been in the last seven years that these lessons have really come into focus for me. Not only do I work in a team with sign language interpreters and a bilingual specialist, I also act as an advocate through our local education association for my co-workers throughout the district. Most often, when my colleagues come to me for something related to the association, it deals with interpersonal issues with their co-workers and their working environment. Many are Paraeducators, who feel disrespected by the lead teachers with whom they work and consider their environment to be hostile.

Recently, as a board member, I met with the Paraeducator Board to develop Paraeducator Standards and discuss alternative routes to certification. Inevitably our focus always falls on the element of our work that relates to the creation and implementation of training for administrators and teachers on working with Paraeducators. This is a massive element currently missing from teacher preparation programs. Teachers are expected to work with Paraeducators and other support staff, but are given little to no guidance on what that work looks like or how that sounds in a classroom. Plus, lead teachers are often given mixed messages from supervisors as to their role in reference to Paraeducators. In most cases, the teacher’s job is to guide instruction in the classroom and ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities in working with students and within the general structure of the classroom. Often, however, Administrators rely on teachers to provide supervision, which is not a lead teacher’s role. This can create a heirarchy in the classroom, which empowers the lead teacher, but makes the other staff in the room feel they do not have a voice and are not respected.

As I work with the board to plan training, and I also work with my co-workers to help them find resolution, I remember the lead teacher I worked with when I was a Paraeducator. His actions were simple. He created an environment in which every staff member felt ownership. He did this by using inclusive language. There was no such thing as “mine” only “ours.” It was our classroom. The students were our students. Second, he didn’t assign us roles. He directed us toward positions and responsibilities which best matched our skills and took into account our opinions about what we liked and wanted to do. We had four Paraeducators working in that DI room. Some of us worked exclusively one-to-one with particular students, others of us floated around. He also capitalized on our individual training. That’s how I became the basketball coach. I had played in college. Even though he loved coaching the team, he recognized that I might have some skills in this area that would better benefit the kids on the team, and so offered the position to me. That lead teacher had the ability to see the students and their needs first. He did not wield power, but instead shared responsibility.

I have carried these lessons with me throughout my 19 years in the classroom. Even with years of practice, I still have to be cognizant because it’s so easy to fall into language patterns and roles which diminish my classroom partners. When we work as a team, collaborate, capitalize on one another’s strengths, and empower one another, we create the best environment for our students.

What about in your schools? How do you, as an Education Support Professional or Lead Teacher, navigate roles and responsibilities in the classroom? Let’s start a conversation.

Collaboration in the Classroom: Assembling Teams of Future Heroes

I felt like a superhero this week. I taught collaboration to seventh-graders. I taught them to come to a consensus quickly. I taught them to listen to each other’s ideas and incorporate them into the final product of their learning.

It was lovely, and it was dynamic, but let’s not get carried away. The same students, more likely than not, degraded one another’s opinions outside of class. The same students will groan and mutter next time I put them in groups they did not choose. It takes time and direct instruction to overcome what seems like a natural tendency to avoid cooperation, collaboration, and consensus.

And that’s the problem. How well have we been teaching these skills to our students?

Look at the news, read your Twitter feed, listen to the people around you. Has it always been so difficult for people to come to consensus, to make decisions together for the good of the larger group? I wonder how we got to be so divisive, so eager to disagree with one another. And, when did we become so publicly cruel to one another?

Okay, I’m being dramatic. We have always had problems, especially when it comes to working together. Humans tend to shy away from working outside of the group to which they already belong. Enter racism, homophobia, gender issues, classism… every ism.

As a teacher, I often view the students in my small, diverse school as a sort of microcosm of humanity. I watch as my new seventh-graders self-select the students with whom they are willing to work. I also watch as they openly spurn the others, the ones who don’t fit in their closed groups. Is this basic human behavior? Perhaps. But it can be modified, if you are determined, stubborn, and methodical in your approach to teaching communication, empathy, and cooperation.

Our evaluation system requires us to create environments that foster communication, respect, and a culture of learning. How does this look? Like students quietly sitting in rows, listening to a teacher? Well, yeah, sometimes it does. However, a dynamic classroom environment is often buzzing with lively conversations and debate. And yet, I still meet teachers who avoid assigning “group work” or they struggle to assess communication skills at all.

Shouldn’t we be assessing communication skills? The state standards include speaking and listening. In fact, standard SL.K.1 for kindergarten requires “Participation in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about kindergarten topics and texts with peers and adults and small and larger groups.” By their junior year, our students should,”initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.” These standards aren’t assessed on the Smarter Balanced Assessment, but that does not make them less important.

So, we know students should be learning the communication skills necessary to respectfully share their ideas. And, we know that we are better teachers when we foster a learning environment that encourages the participation of our students in rich discussions. More than that, I think we all realize that the world could be a better place if we could help the next generation perfect their teamwork and discussion skills. Still, instructing and evaluating collaborative skills is a struggle for most teachers.

Personally, I pieced together my methods for teaching collaboration and consensus to students over the years, using trial and error. My guess is that very few of us have a curriculum for these essential skills.

However, times are changing. Collaboration is one of the touted “21st Century Skills.” Employers want, they NEED, good team players. I’ve been cruising around the website for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Collaboration is one of their “Four Cs.” It’s part of their Framework. They have some very clear materials explaining the need for teaching collaborative skills, AND for how to do it.

In the meantime, if you are not convinced about the need for collaborative skills, check out this article by Danxi Shen, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, ‘Group and Cooperative Learning: Students as Classroom Leaders.”

After brushing up on what collaboration should look like in the classroom, kick back and watch one of those superhero team movies. Superheroes know the value of teamwork. In Justice League, Batman brings diverse heroes together to defeat a threat to all of mankind. When Aquaman resists him, saying, “A strong man is strongest alone; ever heard that?” Batman replies, “That’s not the saying, that’s like the opposite of what the saying is.” My students often think they are better off on their own. My job is to help them see the power they wield in groups.

I guess that makes me Batman.