Snapshots of Co-Teaching

When I returned to classroom teaching after five years at home, there was a lot of newness for me. New building, new Common Core standards, new SMART boards. But perhaps the biggest “new” was the teaching model I’d be using: co-teaching.   My high school, like buildings throughout my district and country, are using co-teaching as the means to support inclusion of students with IEPs in general education courses. This means that a certificated specialist (sometimes an ELL teacher, sometimes a Special Education teacher) is paired with a general education teacher; the two teachers work together to support the needs of all students in the classroom, ideally using a mixture of the six approaches outlined by Dr. Marilyn Friend, one of the leading advocates of the co-teaching movement.

Fortunately for me, I was paired with an incredible educator last year, Monique LeTourneau, and we continue our partnership together this year. There are many resources out there to explain what co-teaching is and advice on how to make it work for teachers and administrators. But for the purpose of this post, I’d like to give you some snapshots of what co-teaching is like, a glimpse into what the policy looks like in practice in one classroom in one school in one city. With two teachers.

I.

It’s Wednesday night and I cram in a few last minutes of planning for the next week before my weekly planning meeting with Monique the following morning.   I type in the plans for each day, referring back to our co-planned scope and sequence, making notes on what we need to discuss.   Should we try station teaching with 5th period? Does she know of a more complex text we could offer students as an optional extension? How can we make sure 6th period can access the texts we’ve planned? Could we offer a “huddle” for students who want more support during our writing workshop?

II.

With seven and a half hours of arena-style conferences ahead of us, I shove a table in next to Monique’s. I leave a note by the “Hs” that Ms. Hanawalt can be found by Ms. LeTourneau.   A student comes in with his mother and we both lean in, active and equal partners in supporting this student.   The student mentions he is struggling with his independent reading; Monique informs him that because he has an IEP, he has access to an audiobook service through the district. He seems relieved. We all stand to shake hands.

III.

During third period, I stand at the door, fist-bumping students on their way in. Monique is inside, helping students get settled and started on their “Do Now.” I see one student walking slowly towards the door, tears in her eyes. I am scheduled to be the lead teacher for the opening activity, but I peek in, whisper a few words to Monique, and the student and I head out for a walk and talk. Monique takes over the teaching without hesitation.

IV.

We are reading a challenging James Baldwin essay. I give students two options for their learning for the day: if they want to read it out loud and dissect each paragraph, they will stay in my classroom; if they feel ready to dive into discussion, they will walk across the hall to Ms. LeTourneau’s room. Students make a choice and some pack up their stuff and walk to the other room.  The learning continues.

V.

I’m sitting with a student, listening to her concerns about balancing her academics with sports. She is concerned about her academic eligibility and wonders if her IEP allows her to have lower grades and still be eligible. I respond that I don’t think that it does, but that she should check with Ms. LeTourneau because she knows all about IEPs. The student looks at me with raised eyebrows: “She’s a Special Ed teacher? I didn’t even know.”

 

Co-teaching doesn’t feel so new to me anymore, but it definitely is not easy. As in any relationship, Monique and I must invest energy to make our partnership effective.   And sometimes, even though two minds might be better than one, putting those minds together takes extra time and communication. But this collaborative and trusting relationship allows us to serve the needs of our collective classroom community more effectively, while also giving us the flexibility and space to respond to the needs of individual students.

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.

“Teachers are members of learning communities”

Earlier this week, Shari shared the great news about accomplished teaching here in Washington (1,435 teachers earned National Board Certification and 533 teachers renewed their National Board Certification in this last cycle).

When I earned my National Board Certification in 2006, I had no idea what an impact it was going to have on my career.

We often hear about the National Board Certification process: it fosters reflection on and close examination of student needs and our responsive practice. Many teachers who go through the process share how it helped focus their lens on how their knowledge of students informs practice as they move up that “Architecture of Accomplished Teaching.” There are those “Five Core Propositions” around which the process is centered, as well:

(Image source)

For me, earning my certification was a watershed moment around Proposition 5: Teachers are members of learning communities.

Specifically, I realized that my learning community wasn’t limited to the Friday PLC meetings I attended. In fact, my community extended across the whole state of Washington and beyond.

One of the best…and hardest…things about being a teacher is that you can be by yourself in your room, doing what you decide is best for the kids sitting in front of you. There is the opportunity for tremendous autonomy, creativity, and personal choice. That autonomy might be nice, but it might leave us unaware of the opportunities for learning that can occur when we connect our classrooms to others.

After earning my NBPTS certification, I ended upon a few email lists. Usually that is an annoyance, but when I started getting emails from names like Jeanne Harmon, Terese Emry (those names might ring a bell to some of you readers), it didn’t read as the typical spam email that filled my inbox. Instead, it was about connecting teachers, fostering teacher leadership, amplifying teacher voice, and making a difference within and beyond the classroom.

Earning my NBPTS certification connected me with a community of talented, creative and passionate teachers. Those teachers existed before, like me, doing their best work in front of roomfuls of kids. Those extra letters after our names, though, that “NBCT,” instantly built bridges to connect classrooms otherwise isolated by open miles, even whole states.

Since 2006, I’ve met and learned from elementary teachers in tiny districts far flung across our state, middle school specialists from urban districts on the east coast, and NBCT-administrators leading systems change near and far. What I’ve learned has shaped my knowledge and skill as a teacher leader, and as importantly, has added skills and tools to my repertoire as a classroom teacher.

Congratulations to the new and newly-renewed NBCTs across our state, not only for what you’ve accomplished for your students but also for becoming a part of a thriving network of amazing teachers… your learning community just expanded!

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. 

 

 

Wish List for WACs for 2018

In November of 2017 several groups banded together to present comments to the legislature regarding the WAC revision of Section 412 of EHB 2242. That’s the section of the WAC that requires districts to prioritize identification of low-income students for participation in the Highly Capable (HC) Program.

The Washington State Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG) was involved in writing the letter. So was the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education, The Northwest Gifted Child Association, and the National Association for Gifted Children. But the letter didn’t just include voices from gifted-land. The Washington State PTA and the Washington Education Association added comments as well.

So what did we ask for? What was our wish list for the New Year?

Our number one, first priority, was universal screening.

Universal screening eliminates the reliance on nominations/referrals (which eliminates any potential of bias or problems of access skewing the identification process).

By the way, we also want people to stop using the term “nomination” for HC students. After all, a nomination sounds like you think people deserve something extraordinary—an award, an election. The correct term would be a “referral” for services, just like any other service a student might need. Districts could continue to collect referrals from parents, teachers, community members, and even students who self-referred, but that more subjective input would be used as supplemental data after the universal screening.

There were other items, including:

  • Report card grades or teacher recommendations should not be used as “gatekeeper” screening devices. Use objective tools to screen. Subjective tools can be used for additional information, but nothing more.
  • All screening needs to be done at the student’s home school, during normal school hours.

We also asked the legislators to clarify a couple of points. The phrase “multiple measures” means there are different ways to identify students, not that students need to score highly on every measure in order to qualify for services. The 5% funding formula is not a limit on enrollment. Districts are supposed to identify and serve all students who qualify for services, no matter what the percent.

There was a section in the letter on using local norms to identify HC students. You can read the Seattle Times article, “The Push to Find More Gifted Kids,” to see how Miami’s school district uses local norms.

Here are the things I loved about Miami’s success story (and the Florida law that drove it):

  • They acknowledge that students who have less exposure to vocabulary, books, museums, and so on—or students who deal with Adverse Childhood Experiences Syndrome (ACES)—can score lower on IQ tests. They need a safe and rich environment to expand their potential.
  • Those students who are brought into a HC class who scored lower and had fewer rich experiences or had more ACES—those kids will require tutoring in order to catch up. (That tutoring costs extra money.)
  • Miami spent additional money in other ways too—more “psychologists, teachers, administrators and a battery of nonverbal intelligence tests for kids not yet fluent in English.”
  • “Florida law mandates that all teachers of the gifted complete 300 hours of study on the temperament of highly intelligent kids, as well as the best ways to instruct, counsel and draw out their creativity.” That would be great if we had a similar requirement in Washington!
  • They spent about $1850 more per gifted student beyond the cost of basic education.

What did they gain? Miami is a front-runner in finding and developing ELL gifted students. Their gifted program demographics closely reflect their overall district population percentages.

Here’s what I wasn’t so excited about:

“In Miami, middle-class and affluent kids need IQ scores of at least 130, while low-income children or those whose first language is not English can get in with scores 13 points lower—provided they rate highly in measures of creativity and academic achievement.” That 130 cut-off seems really dated and wrong to me. I don’t know anyone who uses a 130 test score as a cut-off anymore. (How last century!)

Here’s a simple solution for those of us in our state.

We are supposed to look at multiple measures. So you go into your Multidisciplinary Selection Committee. You have a spreadsheet with data, student numbers (not names) down the left and labeled columns along the top, for example: CogAT verbal, CogAT quantitative, CogAT nonverbal, verbal achievement, quantitative achievement, HOPE scale (read the instructions first!), and so on.

You should have other things easily available on file for supplemental information, like a parent referral form or a teacher referral form or report card grades.

Next add a couple of other columns to your spreadsheet:

  • One should be for any demographic data you might have on each student.
  • One should be for free/reduced lunch data. As long as you identify students by number instead of name, there is no problem with sharing that data for the team to use.

Now as you use multiple measures to identify students for HC services, consider demographic and F/R lunch data as measures so you can make your best effort to maintain diversity in your HC program.

Do you want to make sure you are being fair? When you think you are done, do a sort by each demographic group to see how they compare with each other. Then do a sort by F/R. How well do your results align with your over-all district demographics?

Over time, you should see a more balanced HC program!

And happy new year to all!

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.

 

 

Not Neutral on Net Neutrality

Last week my eighth graders presented their independent, interest-based projects, the culmination of two months of research and applied learning. Elizabeth showed us her original comic, which she published online. Maisy displayed her handmade quilt and told us about the history of quilting in America. Sam presented his Claymation short film. Dana taught us about installation art and demonstrated the infinity mirror she had made.

These projects were impressive examples of what students can do when they have access to the right resources. For Elizabeth, Maisy, Sam, and Dana, that meant high-speed access to specialized websites, including the publishing platform Webtoons.com, the Emporia State University archives, and the Seattle Art Museum’s website.

If the school’s broadband provider had blocked access to some of these sites because they don’t bring in money, if it had slowed the connection speed in order to provide other users with faster service, or if it had required the school district to pay extra for access to less lucrative sites, these and the other student projects would never have happened. And that bleak scenario is exactly what schools across the country are likely to face in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) recent repeal of the practice known as Net Neutrality. Teachers and students will have fewer opportunities, and those with the fewest resources will, of course, suffer disproportionately.

What is Net Neutrality?

Since the internet’s inception, internet service providers have treated all content equally. They do not restrict, discriminate, or charge differently based on content, user, or type of device. This is the concept of net neutrality. In 2014 President Obama sought to ensure the continuation of net neutrality, and to that end asked the FCC to recategorize internet broadband service as a utility. The FCC followed this recommendation in February 2015, instituting regulations that prevented broadband companies such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, from slowing or blocking access to legal websites, artificially slowing access for some customers while speeding it up for others, and charging customers extra for access to certain websites.

Net Neutrality in Schools

According to the 2017 State of the States report from the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, 97% of Washington State’s school districts had the necessary fiber optic connectivity to meet the FCC minimum goal of 100 kpbs per student. At my school that means my colleagues and I can stream videos and download resources from YouCubed to help our students develop mathematical mindsets. This amazing website is helping us transform our practice. And we are not the only ones. As of this writing, YouCubed has received 22,895,390 visits. But what will happen if we can no longer freely access YouCubed or the countless other sites that support our teaching and our students’ learning? According to Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, “when carriers can choose to prioritize paid content over freely available content, schools really are at risk.”

In high-poverty schools such as mine, the risk is especially great. The internet provides access to experiences that our schools could not otherwise provide, such as authentic science investigations and contact with project mentors. Many of our students also live in homes without reliable internet access; they depend on having it at school not only for their assignments, but to develop the technological literacy that all students need and deserve.

Net neutrality has helped to reduce inequities between well-funded and under-funded schools, between students of privilege and students of poverty. If such access disappears, the equity gap will increase.

Broadband service providers argue that net neutrality stifles the free market. Other opponents fear that regulation allows the government to invade our privacy. Those arguments do not persuade me. There is no financial incentive for broadband companies to provide unrestricted, high-speed access to consumers, including schools. If they have the opportunity to make money by restricting access to certain websites, or by charging consumers for access or faster service, they will do that in order to satisfy shareholders. We may well find ourselves living in a world that our students will recognize from their favorite dystopian novels: a world where access to information and expression exists only for individuals with the most power and the most money.

I asked my district’s chief technology officer if the district has a plan for how to respond to the effects of the repeal of net neutrality. He replied, “We had no impact before the change and from what I’m reading/seeing/hearing, the impact back may be just as little. This is a move to free market service, not the end of access. It’s high on my radar. I deal with the FCC almost monthly. I’m watching it.”

We all need to do more than watch. While there was no impact on schools before the net neutrality regulations, that does not mean broadband companies would not have moved in the direction of restricting access and speed.  If we remain passive, if we wait to react until there is a change that harms schools, our students will lose.

For information on the efforts of various state leaders to ensure net neutrality in Washington State, go here.

Oh Pioneers!

 

 

When I think of a pioneer, I think of nineteenth century people willing to take chances by moving west, astronauts empowered by mathematicians and scientists that sought space exploration, and characters in a Willa Cather novel.  In the past, I hadn’t really thought to apply that word to teachers. Yet, in so many ways, teachers are pioneers, seeking to open up a new activity, a new line of thinking, or a new development in the education world.

Look around on Amazon and you’ll see teacher authors selling books on new engagement methods and strategies. On Twitter, teachers are organizing, leading, and participating in chats. I read the books from my teacherpreneur friends and participate in weekly chats on Twitter.  I’ve learned a lot over the past few years about education and how to help my students engage within the classroom.  Yet, some pioneers seek to create a bridge to engage the outside policymaking world with the needs of students and teachers within the classroom.  Enter WATAC. Taken from their website, “The Washington Teacher Advisory Council or WATAC is the voice of accomplished teachers advocating for student success.  We inform education decisions and influence policy, promoting equity, and excellence for all.”  WATAC is functioning on a new line of thinking– open up the lines of communication between those education decision makers and teachers who are impacted by policy.  Pioneering, right?  So maybe on paper, this doesn’t sound like a new development in the education world. But talk with teachers and you’ll soon find that we are rarely consulted about how an educational policy is impacting our kids and our work.  While there are some opportunities for work groups to flush out policy implementation (I participated in one for TPEP analyzing the first few districts to pilot the new evaluation system), educator voice is needed at all steps in the policy process, not just at the work group implementation stage. Much less, we’re even less likely to be approached with what legislative or policy needs we have. Until you’ve established a line of communication between yourself and your local legislator, it’s unlikely you’ll be consulted about potential legislation (although to be clear, I’m a huge fan of talking to my legislators and I’ve had a positive experience with this over the past year).  So, to take up the cause, WATAC seeks to do this work and to help teachers learn how to advocate for their students and their classrooms, too.  Basically, WATAC wants to ensure that there is teacher voice involved in creating policy and evaluating policy.  Because who better to know what a policy can do to a classroom, than the teachers who work with students who are impacted by the law?  

How do we create and curate teacher voice in education policy decisions?  What systems need to be in place to ensure that teachers have a voice?  What systems need to be in place to ensure sustainability regardless of who the education policymakers are? Clearly, I have more questions than answers. WATAC is still new and this is pioneering work that these educators have taken on. Engaging in education policy advocacy isn’t something teachers have a lot of training in how to do and frankly, it’s hard to find the time to eat lunch, much less read up on laws moving through the state legislature (by the way, save yourself some time and consider signing up for weekly legislative updates here: http://cstp-wa.org/policy-dialogue/legislative-updates/.   You can also sign up to receive updates from OSPI (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) and PESB (Professional Educator Standards Board) here:  https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/WAOSPI/subscriber/new.)   Creating systems that partner teachers with policy makers is going to take time, some careful planning, and serious assessment.  We need clear deliverables in statutes that require practitioner voice.  We need systems in place for how to do this.  

I have faith.  WATAC’s work has just begun but the foundation’s laid.  A network of award winning teachers has been established and a leadership team of teachers assembled.  Last Spring, WATAC held its first conference, engaging educators in policy advocacy at the local, regional, state, and national levels. The result? 75 educators came together to learn how policy is constructed, and how to ask for change in their schools, their districts, and at the state level. Educators learned about ESSA and had a chance to talk with legislators and policy makers from OSPI and the Governor’s Office.  The network is growing. Like pioneers, the pathway may not always be clear as to how to get to the goal, but the vision is there.  Planning is key for a journey like this.  But promoting educator voice is worth the expedition.