This is the second in a series of posts exploring teaching and learning in the de-graded and de-tested language arts classroom. Read the first post here.
The Limits of Community and the Future of Going Gradeless
Teaching can be a lonely profession. Even though I come into contact with 120 people every day, most of the interactions are asynchronous. The relationships I have with my students are authentic, and I do my best to build reciprocity and trust, but I’m in a different place than them. -To restrict our focus to matters of measurement is to miss an opportunity not just to reimagine education, but to reimagine our place within education. o circumscribed by centuries of hierarchical teacher/student dynamics. On the other hand, my peers and I are on equal footing. But the demands of the job keep a tight leash on what we talk about and when we talk about it. When I meet with my fellow 7th grade English teachers, for instance, we’re expected to follow the district’s meeting template. And when it comes to instruction, the three of us are expected to maintain a certain level of consistency in what we teach and how we assess it. This creates a fixed community, a group of teachers bound by shared purpose, goals, and ideally beliefs.
My coteaching community hummed along until I started changing my beliefs about grades. As soon as I started questioning the role I wanted grades to play in my classroom, I began drifting away from the group. Every question I raised about the purpose of our common assignments sent me farther away from my coworkers. The disintegrating kinship I was experiencing had little to do with conflicts of personality or a lack of professionalism. A series of systems all pointing in the same direction can’t accommodate someone being at cross purposes with the flow. I wasn’t a wrench in the system, just an outcast.
Our biweekly meetings stopped being productive. The three of us came to an unspoken agreement that our time together would be spent on filling out IB unit planners for units we would never teach. The unwieldy and overly complex unit template made it easy to spend 45 minutes working on it without actually accomplishing anything. The unit planners became a way to keep up the facade of being on the same page. By the end of the year, the assistant principal was in every meeting to help make sure we were creating common assessments and focusing on similar skills. The situation wasn’t anyone in particular’s fault; none of us wanted to compromise. I was alone, a prisoner of my dogmatic beliefs.
PLNs, Social Media, and Belonging
Fortunately, the demise of my coteacher community was offset by the discovery of an online network of like-minded educators. Frustrated at having no one to talk to, I began reaching out to the academics I’d been reading: Paul Thomas, Alfie Kohn, Maja Wilson, and Lawrence Baines. I asked all of them if they had ever found themselves on the wrong side of their respective communities. Much to my surprise, each of them responded. It was like shouting into the void and receiving an invitation to a secret club filled with the coolest and smartest people ever. Kohn’s response has stuck with me. With his permission, I’ve reprinted it below.
I can certainly sympathize; taking unpopular stands has a way of making folks, well, unpopular. Naturally it helps to find a kindred spirit if there’s one in your area. Otherwise you have to decide whether to reach out to others — perhaps by sharing books, articles, and videos — in the hope of persuading some of your colleagues to question the conventional wisdom and thereby *creating* some kindred spirits to connect with.
The alternative is to push on alone and connect with colleagues around other stuff so you don’t feel completely isolated. How best to proselytize, or to sustain friendships in spite of divergent views, depends on your personality and values, their personalities and values, and various details of the situation in which you find yourself — all matters on which I can’t advise you, of course.
Taking his advice, I decided to search for kindred spirits on Twitter and Facebook. My first discovery was the Teachers Throwing Out Grades community. I was surprised to see a lot of resources about standards-based grading, proficiency scales, and single-point rubrics. All of the talk seemed to revolve around perfecting the measuring of student learning. For me, this is the least interesting part of education. My brain recoils the second I ask it to focus on learning outcomes or to disaggregate state standards. Rather than offering me a safe space to connect with others, the TTOG community kept my attention trained on the very thing I was escaping. On top of this, a few big names seemed to dominate the discussions. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the group was little more than a chance for the big name members to push their books, consulting services, and brands. I lurked for awhile, but I knew I had to keep looking.
Around this time I attended a standards-based grading seminar led by the outstanding Rick Wormeli. I was ecstatic. These could be my people! Indeed, many of Rick’s points, such as eliminating zeroes, questioning the efficacy of homework, and allowing for retakes, fit easily into the definition of teaching and learning I was developing. I knew by the end of the seminar, however, that the SBG community wasn’t for me. Standards-based grading’s emphasis on content mastery and tracking student progress of state standards was a turn-off. So was what I felt to be an obsession with self-assessment. I value self-reflection, and I spend considerable time every year working with students to build their capacity to accurately and honestly evaluate their work. But I’m not interested in linking their self-reflections to rubrics or asking them to rate themselves. To me, this is another example of the managerialism that I’m trying to avoid. There’s nothing particularly interesting or liberatory in asking students to pick apart everything they do, and the majority of self-assessment practices I read about strike me as extensions of the teacher-led grading.
Becoming Something More
I gave up actively searching for a community that would support who I was becoming as a teacher. Anything that dealt with the removal of grades seemed to focus on other stratified systems of measurement. And websites and Facebook groups devoted to pedagogy and improving instruction always discussed traditional grades. So when my colleague Arthur Chiaravalli told me he was forming a new group with Aaron Blackwelder devoted to teachers going gradeless, I was hesitant. Once the Facebook posts and blog pieces started flowing, I started disengaging. It was just too much. Don’t misunderstand me; the quality of the posts and the nature of the questions were fantastic. I just don’t want to talk about grades. That’s why I stopped using them. I’m done with them. Nor do I care about what to use in place of grades. The whole situation can lead me to endlessly compare myself to others, too, a sort of meta-commentary about grades and competition and our culture’s relentless drive to be the best.
Students should be receiving feedback from teachers and peers. It should help students see what they’ve done well (so they can keep doing it) and what they can improve. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the extent of it. Lots of feedback given by lots of people combined with lots of chances for revision. Feedback comes in many forms, and it’s important to find a method that works, but I think something valuable is lost when a community does nothing but showcase different systems of measurement.
In my own practice, removing grades has given me the opportunity to focus on the stuff that I think matters: building relationships, creating meaningful lessons, and providing a safe space for students to stretch, fail, and grow. For me, this is the work of teaching. This is what I want to talk about and puzzle through. To that end, the gradeless community can function more as a station than a destination, a launching pad for educators to come together before heading off on their own individual paths. The topic of removing grades also feeds into many of the education issues of our time: personalized learning, ESSA, equity, and policy.
I can feel my desire to align with Teachers Going Gradeless and to place the corresponding hashtags on my social media bios. But at the same time, I’m wary of becoming entrenched in any one community. This has more to do with the idiosyncrasies of my personality than it does TG2 (or any community). The relentless drive to connect my heart with my instruction is restless. Perhaps it sees within any community the threat of calcification and the gravity of consensus. I remain confident, however, that restricting our focus to matters of measurement misses an opportunity to rebuild and reimagine who we are as educators.
This is the first in a series of posts exploring teaching and learning in the de-graded and de-tested language arts classroom.
The first thing I tell teachers about removing grades is that it changes everything while simultaneously changing nothing. Students still come to class, complete assignments, and receive feedback. Hyper-students, kids who have successfully mastered the convergent thinking and mimicry of traditional schooling, continue their institutionally and culturally-sanctioned quest to acquire as many points as possible. Students who struggle to play along with the game of school’s idiosyncratic and often artificial demands continue to struggle. Students might report an atmosphere of reduced classroom pressure, but for the most part everything functions as it always has.
From my perspective, the decision to remove grades, quizzes, and tests led to two major changes in how I operate as a teacher. First, I had to learn to manage student behavior without using grades as leverage. No longer could I “remind” a disengaged student that the end of the quarter was coming up and that their parents were expecting honor roll. Without that leverage, I was forced to rethink every assignment. Each lesson needed to serve a specific purpose, something larger than the acquisition or maintenance of a number. This was the second shift. I needed to be able to articulate a convincing and meaningful answer to the ubiquitous student question of “Why do I have to do this?” Authentic learning and grades aren’t mutually exclusive, but the absence of the latter heightens the teacher’s responsibility to foster the former.
The first time I told my students I would no longer be grading any of their assignments, it did not go as I had planned. In my mind, I expected to be greeted as a hero, a classroom revolutionary fighting against punitive systems of assessment. Having just read books and articles by Alfie Kohn, Mark Barnes, and Paul Thomas, I delivered a sermon to my first period class on the tyranny of numbers and letters. No longer would students need to worry about the pressures of report cards or quarterly honor roll lists. Beaming, I faced my students, eager to celebrate what was sure to be a new era of unencumbered learning and intellectual freedom.
Instead, I was greeted by blank stares and barely contained rage.
Some students stood up from their desks and berated me, their small hands balled up at their sides. Others glanced at each other and exchanged looks of “This guy can’t be serious.” Most students, however, responded with indifference. At the time, I didn’t understand. Everything I had read about de-grading the classroom stressed the importance of transparency. Of speaking with your students about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Yet the more I tried to explain myself, the more upset students seemed to become. Stumbling over my words, I attempted to mollify the room by explaining how everyone would be responsible for coming up with their own grade. This didn’t help. Grades rewarded good behavior, many protested, and allowing the kid who rarely turned in work to end up with the same grade as the student who dutifully completed every assignment was unfair. The picture at the top of this piece comes from one such student.
Looking back, I now realize I was experiencing what Paul Thomas described as students’ disconnect between “their behavior as students as opposed to learners” (246). By removing the dominant motivator and purpose of school without warning, many students understandably felt cheated and betrayed. I had done little to foster dialogue around issues of assessment and equity with my classes. If anything, I had gone in the opposite direction; I just wanted everyone to think exactly like I did, an irony lost on me at the time. Rather than encouraging students to discuss issues of assessment, grades, and equity, I was attempting to indoctrinate them with my own ideology. Despite the rocky start, I was able to stumble through my attempts at quarterly portfolios and individual grade conferences.
I took a similar approach with my administration. I decided to wait until I had removed every possible grade, quiz, and test from my classroom before bringing it up to my evaluator, one of the assistant principals. I was terrified. I had no clue what I was doing, and I didn’t want to derail the process before I was able to work some things out for myself. The day I introduced the first quarterly portfolio assessment to the students was also the day I revealed everything to my administration. That morning before classes had started, I shuffled into my administrator’s office. Eyes glued to the carpet, I unloaded a stream of consciousness speech about everything I had been doing. As penance, I begged him to come and observe my portfolio roll-out. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no, either.
With most of my students and administrators cautiously on board, I was set. As the weeks went by, I realized what Paul Thomas meant when he wrote, “Non-traditional practices in any classroom make direct and indirect commentaries on other classrooms, the practices in those classrooms, and the teachers/professors leading those classrooms” (248). Over time, I came to feel like the entire school building was against me. Honor roll lists and admonitions to “do your best on the test!” plastered the halls. Students were routinely told that school was their job and that grades were their paycheck. Parent-teacher conferences were shackled by a language of learning that emphasized measurable progress and little else.
I became known as the easy teacher among some students and even a few colleagues. I don’t blame them. As Karen Surman Paley writes, “Any pedagogy that results in grading students, ranking them in their class, and providing the basis for records…is part of capitalist relations of power and authority” (26). Without points to fight for and assignments to dominate, it’s easy to paint my class as “soft.” I’ve come to accept that regardless of how hard I push my students to read, write, think, and speak critically, a certain segment of the school population will always think my class is easy because students don’t receive marks.
My district does, however, require me to input at least one grade for every quarter. I’ve handled this a few different ways. For instance, students and I have worked together to create criteria that they use to assess themselves during the portfolio process. Most students give themselves B’s. Anything higher risks extra teacher scrutiny, while anything lower has the possibility to cause parental strife. I’ve also tried limiting final grades to only A’s, B’s, and C’s. Most recently, I’ve experimented with giving everyone an A. The less thought I devote to parsing out who deserves what, the more time I can devote to planning meaningful lessons and providing effective feedback.
Now, the only time I discuss my grading policy with students and parents is during back to school night. I explain to families that their students won’t be taking any quizzes or tests, but that they will receive constant feedback about their performance. I hold up a couple of old student portfolios, go over feedback protocols, and try to do everything I can to convince families that their children are in good hands. The only question that continues to stump me is when parents ask how they’ll be able to stay on top of their child’s performance. I have a difficult time answering this question without launching into a diatribe about how traditional grades offer only an illusion of reporting. I want to ask families if they interrogate quiz and test grades with the same level of skepticism. But this is only because I’m self-conscious about my inability to provide a clear and direct answer to the essential and timeless question of “How will I know how my child is doing?” Since dropping grades, I’ve implemented assignments such as Family Dialogue Journals to try and keep parents informed of what’s happening in the classroom, but the situation remains far from perfect. Like everything else, this is a process, and I’m in it for the long haul.
David Foster Wallace once wrote “The vapider the cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.” As far as education bromides go, ‘They don’t care what you know until they know that you care’ is pretty bad. But for the most part, it turns out to be true. A teacher’s ability to form relationships with their students sets the tone for the classroom.
I sometimes like to imagine that every student has a giant padlock on their chest. This is where a student’s motivation, empathy, and trust live. The only way to access these qualities is to find the right key. Some students make it easy, entering the classroom already unlocked. Others keep their key in easy to find places; revealing its location through their words and actions. Some students keep their key hidden away, hesitant to open up for a variety of valid reasons. While this analogy is obviously simplistic, it underscores the importance of trying to understand every child on an individual level.
While this analogy is obviously simplistic, it underscores the importance of trying to understand every child on an individual level. Building relationships with students can be challenging. Our default collection includes our personality traits and hobbies. For me that means hyperactivity, goofy faces and voices, video games, and guitar-based music. Over time I’ve come to fashion crude keys from hip-hop, popular apps, and young adult literature. They’re never a perfect fit, but I know enough to apply pressure to a lock. Having the right key can make a big difference in building a relationship with a student.
I have a student who spent the first two quarters sleep-walking through my class. He’d never enjoyed English, he told me. It just wasn’t his thing. I tried jokes, letter-writing, and music, but nothing seemed to fit. Then, during the brainstorming phase for our last unit (critical reviews), he asked me if he could review For Honor, a recent video game. My face lit up; I had my key.
Lots of students play video games of some sort. A stroll through my school’s cafeteria during lunch reveals plenty of kids glued to their iPads, tapping away at Clash of Clans, Marvel: Avengers Alliance, or whatever app the hive mind has become obsessed with that month. But this kid asked me about For Honor, a brutal, team-based game that requires a decent gaming computer or a current generation Playstation/Xbox to play.
The switch in demeanor was immediate. The kid strutted into class the next day, eager to tell me about For Honor’s DLC and recent patch update. From that point forward, I tried to touch base with him about video games at least once every few days. Sometimes that meant willfully ignoring other students so I could ask him what he thought about the game’s declining popularity.
Now that the relationship has been established, I’ll need to spend the rest of the school year keeping it kindled. Today, for instance, I asked him what games he was looking forward to playing this year. This ends up being quite a bit of work. The nature of my job requires me to allocate every spare minute to a task, so building relationships can take some strategic planning. I’ve been known to call students to my class during other periods in order to secure a few minutes of one on one conversation. Sometimes these go well, and sometimes they end up being exercises in futility.
There are plenty of students with whom I will never form a relationship. During the beginning of the year, a student told me he likes to write fanfiction on Wattpad. As a writer who loves pop culture, I jumped at the student’s admission, demanding to read some of his writing. “Nope. I like to keep those worlds separate. School is school, and outside of school is outside of school,” he said. “No offense.” No matter how hard I tried to convince him otherwise, he wasn’t having any of it. As is his right. We get along in class just fine, but our relationship exists firmly inside the comfortable teacher/producer – student/consumer dynamic.
Plenty of students excel in school regardless of how they feel about their teachers. These hyper-students have internalized the game of formal schooling. They know the language of worksheets, assignments, and points, and simply want to be told what to do and how to do it. As is their right. But these students aren’t as fun. I like kids who make me work for it. Who make me stretch and try new strategies and get outside of my comfort zone. These are the kids who help me evolve as an educator.
I spent the last few weeks co-writing a couple of articles on writing instruction and critical pedagogy. The process was as exhausting as it was exhilarating. I somehow managed to sucker two infinitely more talented educators into letting me write with them, and I didn’t want to disappoint. By the end of the process, I felt hollowed out.
The cognitive demands required to engage in serious reading and writing after a day of teaching took me by surprise. I’m a teacher and a writer. So why was this so hard for me? For sure, writing is complicated, and I’ve spoken about my ADHD before. But my struggle to complete two articles suggested to me that something else was going on, something deeper than just feeling tired or having a hard time focusing.
On a lark, I went through the four recent issues of Voices from the Middle, NCTE’s middle grades journal, and performed a quick tally of the authors. I placed each author into one of three categories: P-12 teachers, academics (professors, think tank/policy people, and education scholars who were not currently working at a P-12 school), or both. Out of the 37 articles I checked, 25 (68%) were written by academics, eight (22%) were collaborations between P-12 teachers and academics, and only four (11%) were written solely by P-12 teachers.
My sample size was small, and my methodology simplistic, but it’s hard to imagine that a more thorough analysis would yield dissimilar results. So what’s up with the under-representation of primary and secondary teachers? I’ve come to the conclusion that the structures comprising P-12 public education actively discourage scholarship. For the sake of this post, I define scholarship as any sort of self-directed intellectual activity existing outside the immediate sphere of P-12 schooling. Publishing, speaking at academic conferences, engaging in intellectual discussions on social media, and maintaining meaningful professional correspondences are all examples. Additionally, for the remainder of this post, I’ll be using “middle school teacher” as a stand in for P-12 teachers.
Structure 1: A Teacher’s Day
The first set of structures working against middle school scholarship are those governing the average teacher’s time. Every day I have two planning periods. One of these planning periods is always eaten up by mandatory meetings with my grade level team or my content level team. The other planning period is by necessity a dumping ground for everything else: administrative work, meetings with students or parents, email, responding to student work, trips to the restroom, and if I’m lucky, actual lesson planning.
The day to day structures governing my behavior leave little time for off the books intellectual activity. Everything I do during my planning periods revolves around the quantitative, rational, and standardized nature of teaching. Discussions about assessments deal with the how, rarely the what or the why. Lesson planning is firmly yoked to standards, assessment data, and measurable skills. While these activities are of course important, they are primarily technical in nature and insular in focus. There is no time for building intellectual networks with colleagues when every moment of collaboration is funneled through corporate models of efficiency and outcomes.
Structure 2: A School’s Expectations
The next structures problematizing teacher scholarship are a school’s expectations. I have never worked at a school where teachers were encouraged to engage in intellectual activity beyond the occasional reading group for admin-approved literature. Or where teachers were celebrated for undertaking scholarly pursuits. In my experience, when teachers are celebrated, it’s for having children or getting married, planning student-teacher conferences, completing various rounds of testing, helping out with after school events, etc. I mention these activities not to disparage them, but to use them as evidence of what is expected and what is celebrated.
In my experience, professional development typically deals with the technical aspects of teaching, as well. In the last few years, I’ve attended trainings on thinking protocols, rubrics, and using technology to support struggling students. I’ve enjoyed many of these sessions, but they’re showcases for technique. Outcomes are already determined, tools are already assigned; all that’s left is to show up and absorb.
Structure 3: The Ontology of the Profession
Growing up, I don’t remember any of my teachers discussing intellectual pursuits or recent publications. Did I see them as good teachers? Yes. Masters of their craft who could make me work harder than I thought possible? Of course. But not intellectuals. Everything my teachers said or did fit into the insular and artificial world of schooling, assignments, metrics, and rankings. Years later when I became a pre-service teacher, I spent most of my time reading articles on various instructional strategies and then pontificating on how I might use each strategy in my imaginary class. There was no talk of reading or writing outside the transactional nature of the assignment.
The situations I’ve outlined are not new. Historically, morality, patriotism, and self-sufficiency have always been more important to American public education than intellectualism or scholarship. Policy elites, philanthrocapitalists, and politicians have been dictating what’s best for teachers and students since at least the late nineteenth-century. Combined, these structures play an essential role in determining who teachers are, what they do, and what is expected of them. Scholarship and critical discourse have never been part of a teacher’s subject position. We are continuously being spoken for.
We function within a set of structures discouraging organic, intellectual pursuit. It’s not that teachers are unintellectual. It’s that our intellectual resources are trained forever inward, focused on the narrow and technical aspects of our craft. These are important issues, but they represent only a sliver of what it means to be an educator. There can be no discussion when outcomes are planned in advance. Productive and informed discourse cannot exist when there is no time to think, read, write, and learn.
Although the structures discussed throughout this post aren’t going away, they can be loosened and expanded. As teachers, let us begin this process by telling our stories and continuing to connecting through social media. Pick one or two academics to follow and communicate with. Link up with other educators and seek out conferences and journals to participate in and write for. Form your own reading groups. Figure out what absolutely must be done and what you have some wiggle room with. Over time, our individual actions will accrete. The structures won’t crack, but they’ll expand.
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.
“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.
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.