The Teacher I Want to Be: A Slice of Life

I sometimes imagine that teaching is sort of like playing in a local band. You’re the opening act for some larger performance. As the opener, not everyone is going to like you. Most of the audience didn’t come to see you, and they simply have to tolerate you. They bought a ticket to the show, they’re with their friends, and they’re excited for the headliner, so they stick around. But there are always a few diehard fans who are ecstatic to hear you play. They know the words to every song. They come early and stay late. When everyone else is on their cell phones, the diehard fans are pumping their fists and sharing that moment with you.

I use this analogy not as a way to compare teachers to rock stars (shudder), but as a way to think about the unique connections that can form between teachers and students. What starts out as a fandom built on the superficial aspects of performance (I love his energy! or He’s awkward like me!) can, over time, develop into a meaningful relationship. This is more the exception than the rule.

The analogy speaks to my belief that students will connect with certain teachers for specific and often idiosyncratic reasons. Some teachers might collect more fans than others, but even the quirkiest among us can make a difference in another human being’s life.

Over time, relationships between teachers and students can grow beyond the hierarchical structures common (and somewhat necessary) to schooling. If a student I taught last year stops by after school to talk, I’m able to engage with them holistically. We can interact with each other outside the realm of immediate academic transactions. Discussions of academic progress can still play a role; they just don’t have to be the focus.

Last week I received a Facebook message from a former student asking if he could come visit me at school. Since his high school classes don’t start until later in the morning, I told him to stop by around at the start of my first planning period. The two of us had kept in sporadic contact ever since we first hit it off four years ago when he was a student in one of my 7th grade English classes.

As he left my room and I scurried off to my meeting, I was struck by how joyous it felt to see him and talk to him about his life. To watch a life grow and stretch and push outwards. He is finding his groove, and I am so proud of him.

Although this might reflect poorly on my character, I’ve always looked forward to the possibility of former students reaching out and reconnecting with me. I guess it’s a reminder of what I love about teaching: growth, relationships, knowledge, the dialectical possibilities of minds interacting with one another.

The rest of the day was a fairly typical middle school day. I left the building exhausted, overloaded with work, and saturated with the tiny victories and big defeats that sometimes seem to characterizes my life as a teacher.

After the school day ended, I found myself in a situation inverse to the one described in the beginning of this post. Now, as I’ve written about before, I enjoy emailing people whom I admire. I’ve been lucky, fortunate, and privileged that some of my correspondences have blossomed into mentorships, leadership opportunities, and professional growth.

I’m currently co-writing a piece with Julie Gorlewski, one of my academic idols. We had a productive Google Hangout session yesterday, speaking through video chat about teaching, the state of public education, and our article. Julie is in every way my superior. She has published widely, taught in a variety of settings, and knows infinitely more about education than I probably ever will. But she treats me as an equal. I left our 75-minute conversation feeling valued as a thinker, learner, writer, and person. She took my ideas seriously and validated how I perceive the world. This, to me, is some of the raw power of education. It reminded me of who I want to be as an educator. Of how I want to interact with everyone I come into contact with.

As I reflected on the day, I was struck by the richness of education. By its ability to forge powerful relationships through generations and influence the outcomes of multiple lives. Most of all I felt an almost cosmic connection to those around me. In my former student and my new co-author, I felt my place as an educator and a human being.

The Dangers of Knowing A Little: Pseudo-Journalism and Education Discourse

I recently saw an article from The Atlantic making the rounds on my various social media feeds. After reading a handful of teachers respond positively to the article’s claims, I wanted to offer an alternative perspective. The article in question, “The Writing Revolution”, presents an informal case study of a high school’s writing program. Students at New Dorp High School were struggling to grow as writers and thinkers. Administration and teachers tried multiple strategies to rectify the deficit, but nothing seemed to work. It wasn’t until the school emphasized grammar and sentence construction that the quality of student writing skyrocketed.

Author Peg Tyre suggests that New Dorp’s problems are endemic to American education  (“But the truth is, the problems affecting New Dorp students are common to a large subset of students nationally.”). If only students were taught the basics of grammar and spelling, the article suggests, American students would be at the top of the international report cards.

In my eight years of teaching, I’ve learned how potent this argument is. I’m not entirely certain why, but the rhetoric of “Kids these days can’t write. If only they did X, then we wouldn’t be in such a mess” seems to appeal to a wide audience.

As far as I’m concerned, the article is demonstrative of how America’s media reports on education. First off, it’s written by someone who hasn’t spent time as a classroom teacher. According to her website, Tyre is the “influential” author of “widely praised books” on education such as The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve. Experience as a classroom teacher should be a prerequisite for anyone writing an article about the details of classroom instruction.

“The Writing Revolution” follows a structure recognizable to anyone familiar with the history of American school reform. It begins with an invocation of crisis (today’s children can’t write), relies on superficial statistics (“Other research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades four through 12 write poorly”) and promotes a conservative, back-to-basics program (“The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950”).

The article does contain some useful takeaways. Tyre notes how many teachers of writing are unfamiliar with composition pedagogy. And writing across the content areas receives a shout-out, as does the primacy of writing in the educational enterprise in general. Unfortunately, the positive aspects of the article are buried underneath paragraphs of garbage such as,

Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

I’ve never come across the idea that writing instruction went through some sort of shift 25 years ago. And the notion that teaching the general rules of spelling and sentence structure improves writing is unfounded by research. In fact, Constance Weaver provides compelling evidence that strict adherence to the superficial aspects of writing produces inferior writing. “Some kids mastered it, many did not.” What does that even mean?

Another paragraph states that,

‘At teachers college, you read a lot of theory, like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but don’t learn how to teach writing,’ said Fran Simmons. How could the staff backfill the absent foundational skills their students needed in order to learn to write?

Pedagogy is inherently political. One informs the other, whether you think so or not. Expressivism and process pedagogy, the methods of writing instruction mischaracterized throughout the article as some sort of liberal indulgence, are in reality complex bodies of knowledge, each with their own traditions, political contexts, and historical significances.

Grammar is not an either/or situation. Teachers haven’t forsaken grammar at the altar of student choice. Scholar-practitioners like George Hillocks and Jeff Anderson and Lisa Delpit and Peter Smagorinsky and Constance Weaver have long advocated for contextualized, rigorous, and meaningful grammar instruction. This is an incredibly complex challenge. Creating units of study that engage students in authentic grammar study, teach the concrete building blocks of language, introduce students to real-world genres and audiences, and instill a love of literacy is the highest form of teaching. I am nowhere near mastering it. Not even close. Providing instruction at such a high level can only come from intense reflection, deliberation, and intention.

Asking kids to start sentences with conjunctions is easy, making them care about it is not.

Yes, we want students to be better writers. Yes, we want teachers to be the best they can be. Only a fool would think otherwise. But that doesn’t mean the chicken-little histrionics on display throughout this article are valid. Instead of pointing the finger at incompetent teachers, it’s worth investigating why many of us feel uneasy with grammar and composition pedagogy. Perhaps it’s related to crushing accountability mandates, scripted curriculum, increasingly technocratic teacher preparation programs, market-based professional development, or the utopian demands placed on us.

Lastly, education is a combination of academics, politics, and economics. Any article or pundit promising school improvement without addressing all three factors is peddling snake oil. Teachers, we must make our voices heard. We will disagree, and that’s a good thing. Only good can come from the dialectic of conversation. But we cannot stand by while imposters tell our story.

 

 

 

 

My Mind is a Farm: On Reading and the Cultivation of a Pedagogy

One of my favorite bloggers/thinkers, Benjamin Doxdator, recently wrote a post about reading. On the topic of professional growth, Benjamin notes that “While we will find a strong push for teachers to take risks by blogging or tweeting more, we also need encouragement and support to read more widely.” In that spirit, I wrote this post to share the books that have informed my personal pedagogy. Who I am as a teacher is a direct reflection of what I read, and this post is a celebration of influences. It’s also a chance to flesh out an analogy about how my mind operates.

My evolution as an educator and my life as a reader have always been intertwined. When I worked at a charter school, I positioned myself as a technocrat. Steeped in the language of meritocracy, grit, and strategies, I limited myself to reading only test prep booklets and the works of Doug Lemov and Paul Tough. On the rare occasions I did allow myself to travel outside the literature of quantified pedagogy, I stuck to the books of my teacher training. These include the classic works of scholar-practitioners like Jim Burke, Nancy Atwell, and Lucy Calkins.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was functioning as a closed system. I could only teach as far as my knowledge would let me. This insular pattern didn’t change until the summer of 2015 when Amazon’s algorithm suggested I might be interested in reading Maja Wilson’s amazing book Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. On a lark I purchased it. The book was a revelation. Wilson’s blistering critique singlehandedly changed the way I think about education. Not only did it introduce me to many of the themes that would come to define my pedagogy, standardization, accountability, and composition, it was a blast to read. It was also the first time I emailed an author, a trend that continues to this day.

From that point forward I was hooked on books about education. I yearned to learn everything I could about what I was doing in the classroom, why I was doing it, and whether or not I should continue it. It’s difficult to believe that only two years have passed since I read Wilson’s book. I’ve come to rely on books as my primary vessel for evolution. I’ve come to know the issues that matter to me as an educator and as a human being.

The Mind as a Farm 

I’ve written about education analogies before. But I can’t seem to think of a fitting analogy for my reading process. The analogy of a farm is the closest I’ve come. The contents of my mind represent a gigantic field. The pliable soil seems to be accepting of all seeds. Seeds represent the various concepts, ideas, and facts that I try to cultivate. For every book I read, I toss a seed into the loamy mulch. The contents of the seed determine where I plant it, and every seed has its place. My garden has a plot devoted to education history, to critical pedagogy, to composition pedagogy, and so forth. If you looked at the garden of my mind from a helicopter, you would see small islands of vegetation amidst a sea of brown soil.

My hope is that, over time, as the roots of each plot grow rhizomatically, they become interconnected. The more I read, the farther the roots of that particular plot extend. Right now my garden contains very few connections. But this is starting to change. For instance, when I consider the 80s and the rise of standards and accountability, I also think about the conservative turn of the 1970s. Roots are comingling.

This requires continuous work. I can’t spend too much time tending to a single plot, or the others will become desiccated and perish. After I read a book on composition pedagogy, I scamper to the education history plot before hightailing it to the critical pedagogy plot on the other side of the field. Undergirding this analogy is fear. If I don’t stop moving and dividing my attention among multiple plots of land, parts of my farm will shrivel up and die.

The remainder of this post explores the crops currently growing on the farm of my brain.

The Core

core

Regardless of what I’m writing, reading or speaking about, the above books are never far from my consciousness. The Teacher Wars introduced me to the rich field of education history. Through The Allure of Order, an in-depth analysis of the three major education reform movements of the modern era, I became obsessed with issues of rationalization, reform, and accountability. The Struggle for the American Curriculum and The One Best System opened me up to the wonders of curriculum studies and the interplay between culture and education.

The most influential book from The Core is De-testing and De-grading Schools. I have wonderful memories of the first time I read the essays in the collection. It was electric. I paced back and forth while reading them. I emailed most of the authors, eager to find out more. And, to my amazement, some of them even wrote back. It was like discovering the coolest club ever. I could subsist forever on these books alone. They inform everything I do.

Writing about Writing

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In the summer of 2015 I picked up a battered copy of Peter Elbow’s 1973 landmark text Writing Without Teachers. So enamored was I with Elbow’s notions of freewriting and peer response that I dedicated the 2015-16 school year to putting his ideas into practice. At the time, I didn’t realize that composition pedagogy was a distinct thing. People taught writing differently, but that was about as deep as I got. It wasn’t until a mentor of mine recommended A Guide to Composition Pedagogies that I began to understand the complexity of the field. I inhaled it slowly, but thoroughly. I comprehended few of the book’s references, but I figured you have to start somewhere.

Determined to build this new schema, I trolled through the book’s alluring bibliographies, hunting down cheap copies of anything that seemed interesting. I’ve only read about half of the books pictured above. Like I said in the introduction, I don’t like to spend too long on a single topic. I have some of the basics down (early universities and grammar schools focused more on speaking than writing; writing gained more emphasis during the 19th century as written standardized tests blossomed; the birth of The Writing Project and the process movement in the 70s and 80s pushed a more authentic approach; the 80s-2000s have been a variegated patchwork of back-to-basics instruction and choice-driven workshop models), but that’s about it. Luckily, I’m in no rush.

Critical Pedagogy and Theory

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The more I read about critical pedagogy, the more powerful it becomes. Critical pedagogy is another massive field, combining knowledge from philosophy, critical race theory, feminism, sociology, and economics. For me, critical pedagogy recognizes that education typically functions as a form of cultural domination. The idea that schools celebrate certain dispositions and knowledge bases blew my mind the first time I encountered it. Therefore, I’m hesitant to brand myself as a critical pedagogue. I’m just not there yet in terms of the required scholarship and dispositions.

In terms of theory, the Apple and Biesta books were exhilarating reads. But without the background knowledge of critical theory and philosophy to back them up, it’s tough for me to justify the cost/benefit ratio required of reading more of their books at the current time. So I’ve mainly been sticking to a newer crop of critical pedagogy books. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and Pose, Wobble, Flow combine radical pedagogy with the lived reality of teachers on the ground. They keep the heavy theory in the background, focusing instead on what we can do to dismantle systems of oppression while at the same time keeping our jobs.

Accountability Politics

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In the last couple months, accountability has become one of my favorite topics to read about. It encompasses everything I’m interested in: history, theory, assessment, standardization, and teacher power. Reading about accountability has helped me think about standardized testing beyond the typical opt out rhetoric.

By the time I entered the teaching field in 2008, testing had become entrenched in K-12 schooling. I blamed conservatives. Or, more specifically, I blamed George W. Bush. I naively assumed No Child Left Behind was a partisan creation, and that Republicans had a monopoly on standards-based reform and accountability politics. Now I know that’s just not true. For instance, the Clinton administration pushed Goals 2000, a set of national education goals focused on “high standards” and measurable improvement. I put scare quotes around high standards because my accountability readings have also helped me think through the complex process and history of education standards. There’s so much to learn, and trying to discuss accountability feels like a fish trying to describe the water.

 

What’s Next?

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When the 2016-17 school year started, I vowed to myself that I would only read young adult fiction. Since I teach middle school, it makes sense that I prioritize books that I can recommend to my students. This much-needed course correction has started to pay off in my daily interactions with students. I’m slowly growing my knowledge and getting to a place where I can say, “Liked that book? Then you’ll love this one!” In my mind, middle grades and young adult literature exist on their own farm, separate from everything else. I approach this reading in the same way. I consciously shift genres often, rarely reading sequels or books on similar themes back to back.

The books pictured above are my stockpile for summer, the next time I see myself reading non-fiction with any seriousness. I like to leaf through them in the minutes before I fall asleep at night, allowing myself a brief flirtation with the books to come.

My journal as a reader has altered who I am inside and outside of the classroom. I want to visit museums of education and take tours of old school houses. I feel a sense of connection to the educators who came before me, and a desire to do what’s right.

So, what are you reading? Any good recommendations?

 

Can You Host Our Club This Afternoon? A Slice of Life

As a general rule, I try to stay out of after-school clubs. This is mainly a self-management technique. My dizzying ADHD requires me to keep a pretty rigid schedule if I want to get anything done. For instance, here’s my M-F afternoon routine:

3:00 Arrive home
3:00-4:45 Write, look through books, eat lots of snacks, chew lots of gum, pet my dog
4:45-5:30 Do some form of exercise
5:30-7:00 Hang out with wife, make dinner, clean up, watch news
7:00-8:00 Mess around on the internet
8:00-9:00 Read
9:00-5:00 Zzzz

Pretty intense structure, right? Today I’m ignoring that schedule and helping out one of my colleagues by hosting the Anime Club he normally runs every Tuesday afternoon (his wife just had a kid, so he’s on leave). I figured this would be a good time to get a blog post in. Ever since I started working on a couple of longer projects, I’ve had trouble keeping up with my weekly schedule. Therefore, I decided to write a slice of life post (read more about what these are here). What follows was written off the cuff with minimal editing.

A swarm of seventh-graders just poured into my classroom. I teach nearly half of the kids in here, but I barely recognize some of them. Unshackled by the boundaries of school (adult-child power hierarchies, formal language and behavior guidelines, etc.), the kids seem to be in a near-constant state of excitement. This only lasts for a few minutes, though. It’s funny how quickly the students replicate what happens in a class.

The two leaders of the club are frantically screaming at everyone to put their devices away, to sit still, and to stop talking. The language is more coarse (I quickly gave up trying to count the number of times someone told someone else to ‘shut up’), but there’s a definite method to the madness. There is an objective (pick an anime and watch it), a lesson plan (vote for an anime on Google Classroom, set up the desks, and load up the video), and group norms (try to stay seated and keep side talk to a minimum). It’s just like school! Only louder and with way more libidinal energy.

In the time it took me to write the last two paragraphs, I heard the following words and phrases: semen, nerdgasm, hentai, digs for the booty (?), boobies, and that’s what she said.

While their cultural references are obviously influenced by the current milieux (Netflix, YouTube, the internet in general), they’re also engaging in a form of adolescent identity development that’s been around since at least the 1950s. They’re feeling each other out, comparing themselves, and practicing the complex art of suburban teenagerdom. They make eyes at one another, pick up on or ignore each other’s conversational bids, and perform complex social calculations. It’s all just so interestingI think I need a shower.

At 3:30 the late bus bell rings and the students immediately disappear from my room, scampering off to various forms of transportation.

I think I need a shower.

Write with Them: Narrative Scenes

Katie Kraushaar and I are currently collaborating on an article for hopeful publication in an upcoming issue of Voices from the Middle. The article is about the benefits of English teachers writing alongside their students. In the spirit of the article, I thought I would post my most recent piece of classroom writing. It’s a draft of a narrative scene (a short, self-contained scene of fiction/literary non-fiction with a beginning, middle, and end). We chose to focus on scene-setting, dialogue, participial phrases, and different types of leads. As a wannabe essayist, I’ve never spent much time with fiction. Posting this scene reminds me of the trepidation of viewership and disclosure that many of my students feel when I ask them to “share out.” 

“Attention all teachers. Due to the increased amount of substitutes in the building today, will any and all available teachers please report to the cafeteria to assist with lunch.”

Mr. Samuels ground the heels of his marker-stained palms into his eyes, an oddly pleasurable feeling considering the backs of his eyelids felt like sandpaper. Sighing, he turned his attention to the stacks of notebooks on top of his desk. The ones sitting right next to yesterday’s Lord of the Flies quizzes and behind a pile of random folders from last week’s evaluations. He was in no rush to complete the work. Now that he no longer had to pick up his wife after work, he had the entire afternoon and evening to get things done.

His mind wandered through his memories, stopping to examine the images of his wife he’d stored there. The two of them chatting about their day. Standing next to each other and chopping up vegetables for dinner. They’d walk the dog together, read together, and close their eyes together as they drifted off to sleep every night.

But that was before the heart attack. After his wife collapsed on the floor one night, she had to be rushed to the hospital. The doctors told Mr. Samuels that his wife had a previously unrecognized congenital heart condition and wouldn’t last long. After that, he’d enjoyed stopping by the hospital after work, surprising her with fresh roses and peanut M&Ms, her favorite candy. As the school year went on, however, it became harder for Mr. Samuels to get away. Meetings with administrators, sit-downs with parents, and endless paperwork kept him chained to his desk.

The day before her release, Mr. Samuels received a voicemail. “Mr. Samuels? Hi, yes, this is Dr. Aikan from First Baptist Hospital. Your wife has suffered another heart attack. Please come as soon as you can.” The worst part about all of this was that he didn’t get the voicemail until after her passing. He had been stuck in another meeting when it happened.

Ever since then, everything had changed. Mr. Samuels had started staying at school later and later, throwing himself into his work in order to keep away thoughts of his wife’s death. After a couple of months, he was spending every night in his classroom. Tonight, he realized surveying the paper explosion that was his desk, would be no different.

Later that evening, Mr. Samuels wrapped himself up in the sleeping bag his wife had purchased for him during their final Christmas together. In his dreams, he slowly drowned underneath an endless tide of notebooks, lessons, and a flatline. 

 

 

So, What’d You Think? Asking Students about My Lessons

“Can we have naptime? I think we should have naptime.” 

Ever since September, I’ve been meeting with a select group of students to receive feedback on my classroom instruction. Wooed free 7-11 donuts, five students spend every Monday’s lunch period sitting in a circle and telling me what’s working and what could use some improvement. Nap comment aside, the students take the time seriously and view our weekly meetings as important.

I was first introduced to the idea of meeting with students to discuss instruction in Ira Shor’s books Empowering Education and When Students Have Power. I loved the idea, but I wasn’t entirely sold. Shor’s books deal mainly with higher education, and I had a hard time visualizing what such a meeting would look like at the middle grades.  It wasn’t until I read Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood that I realized I had to create a space for teacher-student dialogue. For Emdin, these “cogenerative dialogues” are an important and powerful step towards building emancipatory classrooms.

The idea is simple. Gather a representative selection of students from your classes. This means students of all ability levels, race, etc. I explained the process and then had interested students fill out a short Google Form. Then, you ask relatively simple questions with easy-to-implement answers. For instance, what are some ways we can do in the opening/closing minutes of class? What are some things I can do more of? Then, depending on everyone’s comfort level and the nature of the class, the questions ramp up. Instruction, discipline, text selection, etc. All topics are fair game. Students then rotate out of the group every six weeks or so. The idea is that students come to see themselves as co-creators of the educational space.

The first few weeks were spotty: kids didn’t show up consistently, I struggled with schedules, and discussions were more dead air than authentic exchange. But after a couple of months, we settled into a groove that’s persisted into the new year.

The C.A.B., or class advisory board (even after saying it for a month, ‘cogenerative dialogue’ felt forced and weird coming out of my mouth. Instead, I embraced my inner bureaucrat and created a sterile acronym-friendly moniker that fits me), hasn’t yet reached Emdin and Shor’s descriptions. The meetings remain fairly teacher-centered. As soon as the kids come in I pepper them with questions. We make sure everyone speaks, and I move the conversation along at a rapid pace, but my questions and presence drive the meetings.

The Limits of Student Feedback

For the last two weeks, I walked the lunch group through the previous week’s lessons. I created lesson summaries and asked them to tell me what worked and what didn’t work. In my mind, the students would be eager to “thin-slice” each lesson, offering me suggestions for better transitions, more engaging mentor texts, etc. Instead, they tended to remember single activities more than a lesson’s nuts and bolts. “This was fun because we got to move around,” or “This was boring because we’d already done it.”

In order to get around that, I ask every class for feedback on the day’s lesson twice a week. This usually takes the form of answering “What worked about today’s lesson? What would you improve?” on a sticky note and plastering it to the wall as they leave.

This week we talked about how to handle our end-of-quarter portfolios. Students responded with,

“You should give us quizzes so you know what we know.”

“Yea! And quizzes tell us what we know, too”

“If you let us pick our grades everyone will give themselves an A.”

Their answers, while certainly authentic to their experiences, reminded me of a quote from Paul Thomas. “Students remain uncritical of their behavior as students as opposed to learners or humans.” I don’t have discussions with my seventh graders about why I stopped use tests, grades, or quizzes for this reason. (It’s also one of the few aspects of my class that is not open to debate or wiggle room.)

Class Advisory Board has become an important part of my pedagogy. As administrators from central office continue their walkthroughs of the schools in my district, the authentic feedback I’m receiving from students who spend every day with me makes for an interesting contrast to the faceless forms following a 2-3 minute classroom visit. Students aren’t yet co-planning parts of a lesson a la Emdin, but it’s a start

 

 

Central Office is Coming

“Today, personnel from state departments of education are about as welcome in public schools as vultures. A wake of vultures seldom attacks healthy animals but prey upon the wounded or sick,” Lawrence Baines and Rhonda Goolsby

“So, how are you differentiating for gifted learners?”

The question was recently raised to me by an administrator during one of my CLT meetings. My school has opened its doors to education consultants from the private sector and administrators from central office. I’m not entirely sure why this is happening, but to be honest the reason doesn’t matter that much to me. As a teacher, I’m used to being told what I’m not doing well enough and what techniques I should employ in order to improve. Just like students.

That said, these sorts of observations and interactions still make my stomach ache. The second the experts walk in, I feel like a kid. I wither under the scrutiny, stumbling over words, and making careless mistakes. It’s like I’m back in school and the teacher has just slapped a pop quiz down onto my desk. My training, my experience, my professional reading and writing all disappear. All that remains is the feeling of not being good enough.

In Eleven, a magnificent short story written by Sandra Cisneros, the protagonist explains how misleading a birthday can be. When you turn eleven, she says, you’re still ten. And nine, and eight, and seven, etc. Just because I turned 35 last November doesn’t mean the difficulties of youth and inexperience are completely behind me. I still carry the emotional residue and muscle memory of three decades’ worth of triumphs, disasters, and everything in between. When it comes to school, I’m used to acquiescing to anyone higher than me on the chain of command.

Returning to the administrator’s question, I had a choice in how I responded. I could have inquired about the question itself. For instance, why are so many children identified as gifted? Why do many of them come from white families with dual-earner incomes? Was that person aware of the larger history of the gifted and talented movement? Of white supremacy and colonialism and class anxiety and the various ways certain funds of knowledge are prioritized while others are denigrated? I could have engaged in a conversation about ability groupings and tracking and heterogeneity. Or about the research on the effects of race, class, gender, and family education level on student achievement. But I didn’t.

I also could have used that time picking the expert’s brain to try and figure how to improve my teaching. Maybe they had advice about finding engaging mentor texts without spending my weekends hunched over my computer. Or how I can use issues of social justice to inform my pedagogy. I could have mentioned my concerns about my district’s new remediation mandate. Or how the absence of grades and tests in my class makes family communication problematic. I didn’t say any of that, either.

Instead, I provided a rote answer to a rote question. Was I differentiating? Yes. Leveled texts, scaffolded support, and differentiated assessments.

Schools socialize. We learn which behaviors get us rewarded and which get us punished. We learn to recognize who is above us on the ladder and who is below us. For teachers and students, identities within a school are demarcated and negotiated along the familiar lines of seniority, content, and job title. As a teacher, I listen to mandates, close my door, and find a way to make it work. I don’t push back and I don’t cause a ruckus. And I don’t expect my administrators to, either. While it’d be nice to hear that the leaders of my school and district are pushing back against irresponsible and unfair mandates, I don’t count on it. It’s not part of the job description.

Maybe they do and I simply don’t hear about it. For the most part, we remain in our boxes, using the tools granted to us by historical precedent and the prevailing discourse of our profession. Administrators wield data, push down initiatives, and support teachers in reaching various technocratic goals. In return, I use the standards, measure learning, and stay up to date on instructional strategies.

This is not an anti-administration post. They’re doing what they’ve always done, and I’m doing the same. We are playing the roles bequeathed to us from the last 100 years of American public education. The central office administrators will be back with their questions, and I’ll be prepared with my answers. We’ll continue doing our jobs as if nothing happened at all.