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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.

“Hitting the Wall”—Growth Mindset in the Highly Capable Classroom

For gifted students, “smart” can mean all kinds of interesting things:

  • “I already understand that.”
  • “I learned that last year” (or two or three or more years ago).
  • “I can do this without trying.”
  • “I don’t have to work hard.”
  • “Everything is easy.”

“Smart” can actually be crippling because when things get hard—and things get hard for everyone, eventually—then everything isn’t easy anymore. They don’t understand right away. They have to work hard and try. And they don’t know how.

I went to college with friends who had been valedictorians at their high schools. They had cruised through high school, never putting any effort in, acing all their classes.

They arrived at our college, which consistently gets rated one of the top 100 small colleges in the US. Suddenly they were struggling to make Cs. They didn’t know how to study for tests. They didn’t know how to take notes. They didn’t know how to do the work of being students.

I had it a lot easier. I had come from a very difficult high school with very high expectations.

Our college was harder for me than my high school, but I expected to work harder at college than at high school. I put in more time, doing what I had been trained to do. My GPA went down too, but only a tenth of a point. My public school district back home had prepared me for difficult work.

I tell my students that story. I tell them everybody “hits the wall” at some point—they reach the point where learning new things isn’t easy anymore.

It’s a whole lot easier to hit the wall in elementary school than in college!

In elementary school you have teachers and parents who spend all kinds of time meeting with you and helping you and supporting you. We—teachers and parents—work together to teach you and train you and coach you into learning how to tackle the difficult task of thinking hard as you learn new and challenging material.

Be grateful for the adults who are willing to help! And be gracious about accepting their help!

Then I talk to my students about perfectionism. So many of my students are tied up in knots with perfectionist issues. I tell them right up front, “You can’t be perfect in my room. I won’t let you.”

They look at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

“If you can consistently get 100% on your work, chances are you are not in the right placement. You need to be moved up a grade in math. Or you need to be reading more challenging books. Or I need to be holding you to a higher standard on the writing continuum.”

Sometimes a student will ask what that would look like.

“I’ve had students now and then who are so exceptional at writing that they get 4s across the board on nearly everything they write. At that point I sit them down and tell them, ‘Now I’m going to start talking with you the way I would talk with an adult writer in an adult writers group.’ They look a little startled for a minute but take a deep breath and jump right in. There’s always room for improvement.

“If you meet the bar, I will raise it.”

It’s not about being perfect, it’s about pursuing excellence. It’s about getting better. It’s about stretching our abilities. It’s about growth.

Nearly every year after conferences I end up—like last week—having lunch with a student and a parent. We talk about perfectionism and anxiety and staying awake at night not being able to sleep. Sometimes the parent realizes they have the same issues their child does! Sometimes I just need to reiterate that, yes, this is a hard class. And if the child gets confused or frustrated, they can call me at home in the evening. I would rather have them get help and be able to sleep.

So it’s not about being perfect. In fact, it’s not even about “doing your best” all the time. I have to be careful with that misconception, and I have careful conversations with parents about that at conferences. Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to “do their best” in every subject at all times, especially with all the other things my students are involved in. I have students who do two or even more extracurricular events at a time—dance, drama, sports, foreign languages, singing, musical instruments, caring for animals, caring for siblings. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “Do well.”

Not necessarily, “do your best,” but definitely “do well.” The goal is improvement. What can you do to get better?

I tell my students that every student in the school has to work hard. They should too.

Me too. I tell them I should be working hard to improve right alongside them.

For a lot of gifted students, they really hit “the wall” for the first time in higher math courses. With algebra. Or geometry. Or maybe calculus.

The better I can equip my students with the ability to think hard, to work hard, to pursue excellence—to want to grow—the better they will be able to scale any wall that life throws at them.

Share Your Stories

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

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

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

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

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

How to Appreciate a Teacher

For some reason, we had Teachers’ Appreciation Day last week instead of this week. More proof, apparently, that Lynnwood, Washington is ahead of the curve. It was a low-key affair, with a free lunch provided by the Parent Club and a few gifts from some of my students.

But for me, the appreciation came a week earlier. That’s when we had our district-wide STEM Expo. A STEM Expo is essentially a science fair open to fourth through twelfth graders, and it’s completely voluntary on the part of teachers and students. I decided to have my students participate, mostly because I like teaching science, technology, engineering and math.

We did a project involving angles. The students built stomp rockets and found out which angle was best in terms of sending a rocket the greatest distance. (45 degrees won in a decisive victory over 30 degrees and 60 degrees, in case you’re interested.)

The kids had fun building and flying their rockets. They also enjoyed creating their display boards, especially the group that smuggled glitter into my classroom and didn’t quite get all of it onto their project. Grr. They learned a lot about angles, predictions, writing, teamwork, and how scientists control variables during experiments.

And then came the STEM Expo. For context, you need to know that my school serves a fairly high-needs population. Our parents work hard, many in the service industries, and many in multiple jobs. They’re busy. We usually get about 30-40% turnout for evening events, including Curriculum Night. Curriculum Night, the night when you first meet the person with whom your child will spend 35 hours per week for the next ten months.

For STEM Expo, I had 24 of my 26 students show up. It was unprecedented. I put in a lot of extra effort for STEM Expo and almost every family responded by taking their kid to an evening event to share and celebrate their learning.

They didn’t do it for me, of course; they did it for their child. Nonetheless, they were supporting what I do for their kids in the classroom, so I took it personally.

I felt appreciated.

Are We Doing Testing Wrong?

If your school is anything like mine, you’re about to enter Testing Season. We come back from Spring Break, get reorganized and start gearing up for the SBAs. We review important material and have our students take practice tests on their computers. We teach test-taking strategies and emphasize the importance of sleep, diet and attendance.

Then it’s on to May, when the actual testing takes place. We rearrange the schedules, organize the technology and the tech support team and review proctoring guidelines. And we generally freak out as if our reputation is on the line. Because it sort of is.

When June arrives we relax. Maybe too much. The kids get the sense that the main event is over and they act like it. The teachers loosen up a little and roll out the “Fun Projects.” Or they start teaching stuff like science, social studies and art. I’ve actually seen School Improvement Plans that specify holding off on the science units until after the tests. Seriously.

But what if we didn’t have to go through all this? What if we could teach all the way through June and not have to go through all this nonsense?

Here’s what we do: We test in the fall. Early; like the second week of school.

First of all, we could actually use the data throughout the year. As it is now, we give our students a bunch of pretests in the fall so we know who we’re dealing with. Why not use the SBA instead? After all, with the CCSS, our assessments and curriculum are aligned (or should be) and the results come quickly enough that we could access the most useful data possible at the time when it’s most useful.

Furthermore, the testing would be more accurate. Teachers are human. We want our kids to do well, for their sake as well as ours, and sometimes we help more than we should. Or we prepare them for what we think they’re going to need right when they need it, without a thought for the long-term. But with fall testing, we’re testing only the students, not ourselves. Plus, it comes at a time when we haven’t bonded with our students, which would make it easier for us to be more objective, and ultimately, more fair.

And finally, our school year would be effectively longer. We would teach the standards all the way through the last day. There would be no “Garbage Time.” Not only that, we would focus on long-term retention; teaching our students as if we wanted them to remember it forever. Which is actually what we do want.

So yeah; I think we’re doing testing wrong. We should be doing it in the fall when we could use the data, produce more accurate data, and use the rest of the year – all of it – to focus on deep learning.

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.