During testing week at my school, students show up dressed in their finest sleeping apparel and rocking their favorite bedtime accessories. In an endearing trend I began noticing two years ago, students walk into their testing rooms loaded down with blankets and pillows of various sizes, shapes, and patterns. They use them to turn their desks into pop-up sleeping quarters when they’re finished testing. Since they can’t go anywhere, speak to anyone, or listen to anything during exams, many have taken to curling up beneath the room’s glaring fluorescence in order to nab a few Zs.
Although I suspect comfort is the primary reason for the bedtime theme, I can’t help but wonder if ornate sleeping masks and emoji pillows are also a quiet form of rebellion. When it comes to the do’s and don’t’s of testing season, student apparel is just about the only area Pearson and the state have yet to dictate.
During testing week, children and teachers are subjected to a draconian set of restrictions. Students spend roughly four hours every morning hunkered down in front of dusty laptops, clicking through absurdly boring reading passages and math problems. The monotony is crushing. They aren’t allowed to chew gum or eat food, and any trip to the restroom or a water fountain requires waiting outside the room until a hall monitor is available to escort them to a restroom. This can take a while because during testing only one student is allowed in each bathroom at a time. For teachers, our four hours are spent tracing and retracing serpentine paths up and down rows of desks. Just like the students, we aren’t allowed any distractions. There can be no reading, writing, or planning. Just continuous motion. So today, for the third day in a row, I walk and they click.
There’s something disarming about watching a student in an Eyore onesie focus intently on a high-stakes exam.
My group starts off strong. Except for an unfortunate bout of hiccups, the first two hours glide by in silence. Every kid is in the zone. Students who are allowed to use bilingual and English dictionaries during the exam put them to work, flipping between page and screen for what seems like every question.
Cracks begin to form during the third hour. Feet start to tap. Exaggerated sighs and poorly muffled coughs ping pong around the room. Students begin squirming in their chairs as if the hunks of faded plastic were covered in ants. At this age, students are 95% arms and legs, and it’s charming to watch them contort their ungainly limbs in an endless (and futile) quest for comfort.
When a kid drops his calculator and everyone whips their heads around to stare at him, I know students have hit the wall. From that point forward, sounds that would have been ignored earlier become the subject of intense scrutiny from everyone in the room. All it takes is a single automatic pencil click to cause half of the room’s heads to whip around and glare at the source. Kids are now raising their hands to go to the restroom at a fever pace.
A girl in the back of the room takes off her oversized sweatshirt and drapes it over her testing shield (a cardboard trifold blocking a student’s primary lines of sight). I watch as she tries to push herself into the plush cave. A boy in the back of the room is about to make a farting noise on his arm, but I glare him down.
With only twenty minutes until lunch, kids who haven’t finished yet begin speeding through the remaining test questions. They don’t want to consult any dictionaries or highlight any evidence, they just want to go to lunch with their friends. Because when you’re in 7th grade, the possibility of missing out on treasured, unfettered social time easily outweighs some test.
I’m not allowed to make any comments other than “Please click on the ‘submit test’ button” or “Be sure to use the pointer tool to select the correct answer,” so I simply continue pacing. Finally, the bell rings. I collect everyone’s materials (any scratch paper is collected and shredded) and dismiss them to lunch. I’m exhausted. I cannot imagine what this feels like for the kids.
And just like that, the moment is gone. Although test results begin rolling in immediately, we refrain from telling the students their scores for a few days. And even then, we only reveal whether they passed or failed (versus the common performance categories of below basic/basic/proficient/advanced).
After lunch, the schedule goes back to normal. I tell the students in my three afternoon classes that they can do pretty much whatever they want. They play Uno, take silly Snapchat pictures, and write on the whiteboards. I play a few hands with them and photobomb their snaps.
Next week we’ll be back to academic content, so on these days I try to give them as much space as possible. The summer itch is real, and I’ll need my strength to lead them through one final (and short) unit. So for now I sit on top of my desk and laugh with them, marveling at the hyperbolic existence that is life as a middle schooler.
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 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.
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
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.
“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.
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:
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.
The internet is filled with teachers talking about what works in their classrooms. I’m grateful for this; many of the lessons, strategies, and book recommendations I’ve employed in my class come from edublogs. I’ve tried to write my own success story blog posts, but they never feel authentic. When it comes to chronicling my own professional life, I’m more interested in exploring what hasn’t worked. And there’s no time for failure like the beginning of the school year.
So when I read Rebekah O’Dell’s post on MovingWriters.org about the importance of moving beyond classroom blunders, I was overjoyed. I’ve returned to O’Dell’s post a multiple times throughout the last month. No matter how badly I feel after a botched lesson or parent conference, I leave the article knowing I’m not alone. On an abstract level I understand the stupefying complexity of educating children. I know that mistakes are how we learn and no one is perfect. That can be tough to remember however in a culture that casts teachers as missionaries and expects education to rectify poverty and inequality. Rebekah’s post reminds me that it’s okay to be human and screw up.
What follows is a highly truncated list of recent mistakes. The purpose of this post is neither to make light of my pedagogical blunders nor rake myself needlessly over the coals. Simply to share my own classroom disasters.
-After spending significant time in class reading memoir mentor texts, every period created a list of noticings about the genre. Students made observations such as “authors build memoirs around a single important event” and “authors of memoirs use inner dialogue to convey their thoughts and feelings to the reader.” We took days hammering out our final list of memoir characteristics. Every period voted, cross referenced, etc. The final list was going to be a key component to my genre instruction. Except after displaying it in the room I immediately forgot about it. And so did the students. Students wrote almost their entire memoirs without consulting the list a single time (thankfully I remembered to shoe-horn it in after brainstorming for this post).
-The beginning of the school year is filled with book talks galore. My students responded well this year, asking when they would get a turn to tell the class about their favorite books. So I created a Google spreadsheet for every class period to help students schedule their book talks. I mentioned it to the kids, showed them the form, and then forgot to bring it up again. I’m not sure if anyone ever signed up; I’m afraid to look.
-After reading Empowering Education by Ira Shor and For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin this summer, I was determined to meet with my students once a week to discuss what was happening in the classroom. I selected a diverse group of students, bought donuts, and arranged our first meeting time. My head was crammed with visions of critical student feedback and contentious debates about power sharing. But when it came time to meet, only half of the kids showed. They ate their donuts in relative silence as I struggled to move the conversation in a productive manner. What was I doing that I should continue doing? Activities. What did they think about the memoir texts I selected for our genre study? They were okay. What recommendations did they have for increasing engagement in class? Devote class time to asking students about their weekends. After a few minutes of awkward one-sided banter, I let the students know they could leave. I hadn’t done anything to prepare the students for critical talk except ply them with sugar.
-The beginning of any piece of writing is such an exciting time. When preparing my students to write their memoirs, I worked hard to make sure everyone had details to write about. We crafted our significant moments with art supplies, created lists of memorable first times/last times, interviewed each other about our lives, and drew inspiration from mentor texts. Pretty much everything except, you know, actually writing. So when I wanted students to share their drafts with each other, they just sat there. “What’s wrong?” I inquired, “share!”
“What are we supposed to share? We haven’t actually written anything yet” a boy replied.
Tomorrow we begin our first round of quarterly portfolios. If the past is any indicator, the next couple of weeks will be fraught with instructional mistakes big and small, enough to fill a blog’s worth of disaster posts. I’m glad I have posts like Rebekah’s to remind me to treat myself with the same patience and compassion I try (and routinely fail) to show my students. The ability to start again is one of my absolute favorite things about teaching. To find joy within the recursive loops of practice, collaboration, and uncertainty.