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.

 

 

Talking Back: Refuting False Narratives

To be a teacher is in many ways to be a scapegoat. In America, we expect the impossible from our public schools. Educators toil in the shadow of continuous failure. Anyone who works in the profession is familiar with the attacks. We’re not equipping students with the skills they need to be college and career ready. We’re not training children to be 21st century ready. We’re leaving gifted and talented kids behind. We don’t use technology enough so our kids won’t know how to code. We use technology too often and therefore our kids have lost the art of conversation.

Ours is a cacophony of misdirection from inside and outside the profession. I wrote the following dialogue to help me process through the junk regularly flung at educators. I also wanted to share some of the resources that have nourished me this year.

American students are falling behind their international peers. We need innovation and entrepreneurship to revitalize our public schools. 

Wrong. In Mean Scores in a Mean World, Lawrence Baines and Rhonda Goolsby disaggregate PISA data to demonstrate that “70% of American children are among the highest-scoring students in the world, despite the public schools’ open doors” to students with limited English proficiency and special needs. The claim that we need to reinvent school to compete with the rest of the world is a ruse, a fear mongering statement designed to make schools and elected officials open their doors and coffers to private entities.

What about that other 30%? Schools are failing children of color and children living below the poverty line. 

Yup. Absolutely true. Schools have historically mistreated, marginalized, and underserved communities of color. And since high stakes testing rewards students who come from means, it should be no surprise when poor children perform badly on tests.

So how are you going to fix the achievement gap?

First off, the term achievement gap is problematic. In “Please Stop Using the Phrase ‘Achievement Gap’,” Camika Royal encourages us to watch our mouths around how we discuss the term. It enshrines white knowledge and places blame within families of color. To “eliminate the achievement gap” is to ignore the effects of more than two hundred years of racism, inequitable funding, and marginalization. Wealth gap? Yup. Education gap? Yup. Opportunity gap? For sure. But not an achievement gap.

As for the answer to the question, here’s a start. Pay a living wage. Provide equitable funding for public schools through a centralized mechanism instead of local property taxes. Resist the militarization of schooling and put an end to racist discipline practices. End the school to prison pipeline. Ensure that all children have access to advanced courses and specialized content. Actively recruit and retain teachers of color.

In the midst of all this equity, won’t someone remember the gifted and talented?

The notion that gifted children are being left behind makes me apoplectic. As Megan Erickson notes in Class War: The Privatization of Childhood, “high-achieving” students are regularly separated out from the rest of us. They’re taught to value individual gains more than communal problem solving and empathy and the ability to explain concepts to peers. And efforts to identify “gifted minorities” aren’t an option as they do nothing to “challenge the foundational propositions of giftedness.”

American students are not career ready.

Wrong. In Skills Gap, Skill Shortages, and Skill Mismatches: Evidence and Arguments for the United States, Peter Cappelli destroys the popular notion that public schools fail to prepare students for the workforce. Cappelli traces this idea from its contemporary beginnings in the late 1950s (Sputnik, the 1958 National Defense Act) through the 1990s (America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages?) and into the millennium (the ascension of STEM). It’s an employer’s duty to train their employees. The notion that schools aren’t preparing kids for work is absurd and unfounded.

Cultural competency and diversity training are about developing empathy and understanding. 

As Leigh Patel says in The Irrationality of Antiracist Empathy, “empathy does not require the realignment of social relations.” Spending a few afternoons paying lip service to a whitewashed form of diversity ignores the everyday racism that exists in our society and in our schools. Patel’s essay serves as a fierce reminder that asking white teachers to sit around and discuss our racial identities does nothing to confront racism or decenter white supremacy. She points out that while such discussions are necessary, they are not sufficient in developing a plan of attack to dismantle white domination.

Teaching is a fiercely political act. The classroom is, and has always been, a contested site of meaning. The funds of knowledge we teach, the ways of learning we value, and the subjectivities we help bring into being are all wrapped up in issues of race, class, gender, and power. The potential strength of our profession rests with our ability to rise up and talk back about the issues that matter.

 

So What Do You Do?

At a recent department meeting, the call came down for every teacher to produce spreadsheets for the data from our most recent district-mandated benchmark exam. We were to chart out student performance by standard, strand, score, and subgroup.  This request is nothing new. Administrators have been asking for charts, and teachers have been making them, since at least the nineteenth-century*. Even without the marching orders, many of us would continue to make such spreadsheets. This type of data, after all, plays an important role in how we make sense of the world.

So I spent Monday’s district-mandated collaboration time working on my chart with my teammates. Jumping between my internet browser and Excel, I exported data, color-coded cells to match arbitrary cut scores, and designated which students fit into which subgroups. (When it comes to subgroups, my district uses a fairly common quartet of SWD [students with disabilities], LEP [limited English proficiency], African American, and Hispanic.) The end result looked like this:

scores

To preserve anonymity, every number and X placement on this chart is a complete fabrication.

Crude, but functional. Data charts are seductive. By distilling complex relational forces into “stoplight data,” this scheme offers an illusion of efficiency, a color-coded roadmap that reveals little and obfuscates much.

Regardless of how much critical pedagogy I expose myself to, this sort of testing data makes my inner technocrat drool. It flattens and compresses and whispers in the language of knowable outcomes and cause/effect relationships. Charts of this type proliferate throughout every level of education. This is understandable; the intense bureaucratization of mass scale schooling requires a high level of data transferability.

The data is a few weeks old and relatively meaningless from an instructional standpoint. Even if students just completed the benchmark yesterday, the results from a quarterly exam designed by someone I don’t know covering an arbitrarily circumscribed section of the curriculum using a handful of multiple-choice questions aren’t valuable to me.

The rationale behind making the charts is similarly uninspiring. Pick and choose from the word bank of modern education reform’s empty sloganeering: To maintain high standards for all and ensure that every child receives the support they need. To maximize teacher effectiveness and tailor instruction to suit a child’s needs. To close the achievement gap and provide an empowering snapshot of every student’s ability.

The data is also already accessible via my district’s contracted benchmark provider: PowerSchool Group LLC, a subsidiary of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners. The decision to require every teacher to transfer information from a website to a spreadsheet strikes me as confusing at best and Foucauldian at worst. Understand it is not my intention to scoff at these administrative demands, only to work through the ramifications of what I’m asked to do on a daily basis.

So what do I do? If I disagree with the data chart and the assumptions behind it, how should I proceed?  In “So what do I do?” Paul Thomas describes a number of ways teachers can claim their professionalism and push back. Thomas suggests that teachers identify and evaluate their obligations with care. Brainstorm with colleagues authentic versions of inauthentic mandates. Cultivate communities of empowerment that build professional knowledge and leverage individual strengths. Expand your influence and engagement beyond the walls of the classroom to include parents, fellow educators, and community members.

By keeping one foot firmly planted in lived reality, the post’s seven suggestions illustrate David and Julie Gorlewski’s idea that “Critical educators must enact dual perspectives; they are simultaneously agents of the state and agents of change.” In the past, I would have simply crossed my arms, closed my door, and refused to make the charts. With the Gorlewski’s quote in mind, though, such willful abdication seems petulant.

In the four days it took to write this post, the data chart has come and gone. Additional action items have risen up to take their place. Ours can be a profession of ceaseless demands, a hydra. In the scheme of things this data chart is a minuscule blip. But the blips add up and form the very fabric of the profession.

I struggle to find the time and the energy to engage in the aforementioned suggestions. But I write these blog posts and use social media to expand my professional network and knowledge. For now, this is enough. For now, this is what I do.

*During the Progressive Era, superintendents and top-level administrators cast themselves as data-savvy technicians. By adopting the language of business and social efficiency, the new administrative progressives created an archetype of “effective school leader” that remains influential today. As a side note, this is one of the reasons I enjoy learning about education history. It helps me place administrative demands, and pretty much everything else, in a useful context.