In This Issue:
Quotes of the Week
“I can’t change the color of my skin or where I come from or what the teacher workforce looks like at this moment, but I can change the way I teach.”
Emily Smith-Buster, an award-winning white teacher in Texas who had an epiphany
when a student of color challenged the relevance of her teaching, quoted in “Engaging
in Meaningful Conversations” by Deborah Rivas-Drake and Adriana Umaña-Taylor in
American Educator, Fall 2019 (Vol. 43, #3, pp. 18-22), https://bit.ly/2IvXlv5
“Why do we believe that speed reflects intelligence?”
Alden Blodget (see item #3)
“Obviously every American child should leave us after thirteen years of education on the public dime with the ability to read and do math. But they should also be invested in their community and country.
Robert Pondiscio in “The Metric That Matters Most: Ask Kids, ‘Are you in?’”,
The Education Gadfly, October 2, 2019, https://bit.ly/35dKl7e
“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
Robert F. Kennedy (quoted in ibid.)
1. Teaching Doesn’t Get Easier, But You Get Better At It
In this Education Week article, Arkansas second-grade teacher Justin Minkel says he used to think the job would get easier “at some point on a shimmering horizon – five or 15 or 25 years into teaching… Once that distant day arrived, my face would no longer flush with awkwardness and self-doubt each time my principal walked into my room to observe a lesson. I would never again see glazed boredom settle over each student’s face like a limp rubber mask. I wouldn’t once lose my temper, no matter how many times my students refused to listen or work quietly at their desks.”
Now he realizes that teaching doesn’t get easier for anyone; these and other struggles persist. But he knows the job gets better, because teachers keep learning and growing. How?
– Looking at your class and seeing each individual;
– Balancing responsibility with delight, with students working hard every day but also laughing;
– Learning when to follow your instincts and when to question long-held beliefs, “when to trust yourself and when to ask for help, when to give your methods time to work and when to try something different;”
– Bringing your hard-earned experience to bear on each new dilemma, “whether it’s a child who still can’t read or a child who won’t stop crying and come out from under her desk;”
– Being less negative about tests, rubrics, and standards, seeing them as important tools for teaching and learning;
– Teaching little brothers and sisters of former students and reconnecting with families that love you.
– Learning, “like Odysseus does in Homer’s Odyssey, that the trials of a day, year, or an entire career can become sweet in the telling – that the absurd situation that made you gnash your teeth this morning is kind of hilarious as you tell your loved ones about it over a glass of wine tonight.”
“A new school year will arrive in your fifth or 15th or 25th year,” concludes Minkel, “when you realize that the answer is not to try to make the job any easier, but to open your heart even wider.”
“Teaching Never Gets Easier. But It Does Get Better” by Justin Minkel in Education Week, September 25, 2019 (Vol. 39, #6, p. 17), https://bit.ly/2Iw7PdO
2. Working Toward a Safe Classroom Space
In this article in American Educator, Philadelphia teacher/author Matthew Kay says that among progressive educators, a top priority is making their classroom a “safe space” – bullying is prevented, sensitive topics (including race) are discussed, students feel they can take risks, and introverts speak. This kind of culture won’t magically happen as the result of good intentions and a bold proclamation at the beginning of the year (“My name is Mr. Kay, and I want you to consider this classroom a safe space”). Rather, it requires several weeks of patient instruction and modeling of three discussion guidelines, and keeping on it for the whole year:
• Listen patiently. “The more we care about a topic of conversation, the more we rush to speak,” says Kay. “The less we care, the less we feel obligated to pay attention to conversational partners who do.” Kay makes a point of teaching his students how to act while a classmate is speaking, starting with:
– Hands are not to be raised while someone is still talking; waving one’s hand in the air at this point rushes the speaker and says, “I wish you would shut up! I have my own thing to say!”
– No interruptions. Wanting to share a eureka moment, even show agreement, is a healthy sign of engagement, but students must learn to restrain themselves and wait their turn (and must feel confident that their turn will come).
Working within these nonnegotiable rules, students learn to use other approaches – eye contact, nodding, smiling, pursing their lips in thought – which they’ll appreciate classmates using when it’s their turn to have the floor.
• Listen actively. Kay suggests having students jot in their notebooks to capture the thread of a discussion, or having someone write the sequence on the board. He teaches students to start their comments with a connector (“Building on her point…”) and praises those who listen to and follow up on a peer’s ideas as much as the initiator: “Joe said —, which inspired Mike to tell this story, which Marcia thought related to this character in the play. After she made this connection Tanya told us about this book she read that seems to back up Joe’s thesis. I love the way you all are building.”
• Keep the conversation balanced. “Early in the school year, I constantly nudge my students to turn their faces away from me when answering a question,” says Kay, “looking instead at peers. The reminder is gentle, and often excited, as if I am trying to say, What you are saying is too good for just me to hear. Let’s get everyone else in on this stuff!” It’s also important for students to speak succinctly, not repeat themselves, and avoid sermonettes. Of course that goes for the teacher as well.
Kay concludes by reflecting on “house talk.” As a kid, he understood this term to mean that certain topics shouldn’t be discussed outside the family. As an adult, he’s noticed that there’s a tendency for groups dealing with an emotionally fraught incident or history to believe that outsiders can’t understand what they are going through and avoid discussing it outside the “house.” Kay gives three examples:
• In the wake of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, African-American students at Kay’s school were reluctant to discuss the incident with white teachers and classmates, believing they simply could not understand the depths of their anger and fear.
• Apropos the street harassment many of his female students experience on a daily basis, Kay says, “It would be hubris for me to expect every girl to feel comfortable sharing her anger, embarrassment, or shame with me. What is academic to me is visceral to them… It’s equally understandable if these girls don’t want to deal with the annoyance of reassuring male classmates who might answer ‘Not all men’ to their protestations.”
• In the middle of a meticulously planned unit on the Holocaust, Kay managed to get a copy of a book of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda that would make dramatically clear the evil of the German war machine. Full of history-nerd enthusiasm, he said to his students, “This is a beautiful thing!” “Beautiful?” said a Jewish student whose great-grandparents had escaped the Holocaust. Kay was mortified that he was “capable of such a terrific blunder, one that I would be considerably less likely to make if I were Jewish, and not merely a well-meaning black ally.”
Kay cautions that teachers who have created a safe space in their classrooms, holding open discussions with patient, active listening and balanced voices, may be lulled into believing they can venture into topics that some students believe are house talk. “We must, if we value our students’ right to determine healthy relationships, never accept invitations unless they are proffered,” he says. “We must, through earnest humility, earn our seats. Just as we cannot conjure safe spaces from midair, we should not expect the familial intimacy, vulnerability, and forgiveness needed for meaningful race conversations to emerge from traditional classroom relationships… We may not always be invited to engage in house talk, but our odds increase once we create an environment of humility and genuine interest in each other’s lives and passions. This is the sort of real safe space I try to build in my classroom, a not-so-magical notion that has opened the door to rich and meaningful race conversations – and deep, empathetic learning.”
“Demystifying the ‘Safe Space’” by Matthew Kay in American Educator, Fall 2019 (Vol. 43, #3, pp. 31-34), https://www.aft.org/ae/fall2019/kay; Kay’s 2018 book is Not Light, but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (Stenhouse)
3. An Argument For Untimed Tests
In this article in Education Week, Alden Blodget says that in his years as a school administrator, he noticed that some of the accommodations that gave students extra time on high-stakes tests were not authentic. Parents seemed to be gaming the system to give their children a competitive advantage, and it happened more often with financially advantaged families.
This led Blodget to question the need for timed tests. “Why do we believe that speed reflects intelligence?” he asks. “As teachers we see all sorts of students who work at different speeds, which produce both intelligent and not-so-intelligent results.” He remembers students in his English classes who dashed off brilliant essays in no time, and others who took much longer to gather and organize their thoughts and also produced excellent work.
In addition, the stress of a timed test can lead students to lose recently acquired concepts and skills that haven’t yet been integrated into long-term memory, and stress can make it difficult for students to apply new learning in novel situations. “Our emphasis on speed in school,” says Blodget, “is antithetical to stimulating meaningful learning, the sort of learning that we claim is the goal of education.”
He sums up the many variables that are in play as different students take timed assessments:
– How complex the student finds the problem;
– How much experience the student has with this kind of problem;
– The student’s skill level in this area;
– How methodical the student tends to be with problems;
– To what degree stress leads to the collapse of fragile knowledge and skills;
– How stressed the student is when taking the test.
“Researchers have helped us understand that all brains are different,” says Blodget. “A normal brain or an average brain is a myth. Yet some school practices continue to reflect the myth. Some vague notion of an average brain sets the expectations for the speed with which students ‘ought’ to complete a task.”
The wide variation in results from timed tests shines a spotlight on the problem with this practice. The results are unfair to some students, often the least advantaged, and the pressure leads to cheating, which heightens the unfairness. The solution is obvious: extend the time for classroom and high-stakes tests for everyone.
“Don’t Stop, Don’t Put Down Your Pencils: It’s Time to End Timed Tests” by Alden Blodget in Education Week, October 2, 2019 (Vol. 39, #7, p. 16), https://bit.ly/35jq3t5
4. An Uphill Battle Implementing Grading Reforms in High Schools
In this American Educational Research Journal article, Brad Olsen (University of California/Santa Cruz) and Rebecca Buchanan (University of Maine/Orono) say that grading began when North American students were first grouped by age in the mid-1800s. Today, student grades serve a variety of purposes:
– An objective measure of a student’s academic achievement or mastery;
– A teacher’s subjective estimation of the quality of a student’s work;
– A teacher’s appraisal of a student’s effort, ability, or willingness to follow directions;
– A way of comparing students with one another;
– A tool to inspire;
– A tool to control;
– A source of power for teachers;
– A way to handle student disrespect;
– An area in which teachers required to use a scripted curriculum still have some autonomy.
“Grading is, depending on whom you ask or what day you ask it, all these things,” say Olsen and Buchanan, “and, yet, it cannot do all this work simultaneously.” They lament the lack of systematic, consistent practices in schools – and the unfortunate consequences this can produce for students.
The authors report on their work with teachers in two New York high schools implementing new grading practices. The reforms:
– Giving a clear description of what students need to do to get a specific grade;
– Including only evidence of achievement in students’ grades;
– Not penalizing late work by reducing grades;
– Not giving points for extra work;
– Not punishing copying or cheating with lower grades;
– Not including group scores in students’ grades;
– Using a four-or-five point scale in place of 100 points;
– Not giving zeroes for missed work;
– Not giving points for homework, pretests, and classroom activities that don’t show achievement;
– Not assigning grades based on comparisons with other students;
– Not using information from formative assessments or practice to determine grades;
– Including students in the grading process.
Most of these changes were new to teachers who volunteered to take part, and implementation was uneven. Olsen and Buchanan report that “productive teacher change” did occur in both schools, with teachers developing new views and practices about grading. But change “was not straightforward [and] it was recursive, partial, tentative, and contingent on schoolwide support.” The authors have the following recommendations for schools promoting grading reform:
• First, they believe it’s important to offer teachers “some kind of mock setting or low-stakes practice with grading fixes before they implement them in classroom settings.” Otherwise inevitable glitches can have negative consequences for vulnerable students.
• Second, teachers should be given some flexibility implementing reforms. “It is better for a stick to bend than break,” say Olsen and Buchanan, noting that most of the teachers would have pulled out of the pilot if implementation had been all-or-nothing. “Incremental learning, seed-planting, and raising provocative questions seem to have worked better than imposing a rigid system on teachers to accept or reject in toto,” they say.
• Third, one year of professional development and support was not enough to overcome teachers’ prior beliefs and practices. Contacted a year later, some of the teachers had abandoned or scaled back many of the reform practices. Why? Student resistance, the fact that implementing the new ideas took additional teacher time, lack of support from school administrators, and teachers not being fully convinced of the need for change.
• Fourth, there must be whole-school support for changes like these to take hold. “We recommend that schools wishing to reform their grading approaches find ways to incentivize all teachers to participate,” say Olsen and Buchanan, “offer substantial release-time for this difficult work, and make it part of an extended commitment to whole-school improvement.”
• Finally, the authors believe grading reform must be front and center in schools, districts, and teacher training programs. This is the only way schools will “finally retire inaccurate, inequitable, antiquated paradigms of student assessment.”
“An Investigation of Teachers Encouraged to Reform Grading Practices in Secondary Schools” by Brad Olsen and Rebecca Buchanan in American Educational Research Journal, October 2019 (Vol. 56, #5, pp. 2004-2039), available for AERA members or for purchase at
https://bit.ly/31XtwLM; Olsen can be reached at email@example.com, Buchanan at
5. The Impact of Detracking on International Baccalaureate Achievement
In this Teachers College Record article, Allison Atteberry, Sarah Lacour, and Kevin Welner (University of Colorado), Carol Burris (Network for Public Education), and John Murphy (South Side High School) report on their study of a Long Island, New York district (Rockville Centre) that detracked grades 6-10 and opened enrollment for International Baccalaureate courses in grades 11 and 12. Their findings:
– Detracking opened IB coursework to many students who were historically denied access based on previous achievement.
– These newly incorporated students succeeded in the more-challenging curriculum without lowering the average school scores on IB assessments.
– The reforms were associated with higher scores on the math IB exams across all these levels of prior achievement.
– Detracking was not associated with a decreased likelihood of taking the more-challenging math IB course, across all levels of prior achievement.
The authors believe this study challenges two widespread beliefs: that high achievers will do less well in heterogeneous IB classes, and that detracking will pull down overall scores. “In short,” they conclude, “this case study documents the potential for not rationing the enriched, world-class curriculum of the International Baccalaureate.” They believe these conclusions also apply to schools that use non-IB curriculum and assessments.
“Opening the Gates: Detracking and the International Baccalaureate” by Allison Atteberry, Sarah Lacour, Carol Burris, Kevin Welner, and John Murphy in Teachers College Record, September 2019 (Vol. 121, #9, pp. 1-63), https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1225419; Atteberry can be reached at Allison.Atteberry@Colorado.edu.
6. New Principles for World Language Instruction
In this Cult of Pedagogy article, Jennifer Gonzalez interviews teacher Rebecca Blouwolff on the evolution of world language teaching from conjugations, scripted dialogues, textbook vocabulary work, and culture tidbits to a much greater emphasis on using the language to communicate. Blouwolff identifies six major shifts in the field:
• Students learn to use the language versus learning about the language. ACTFL (the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) recommends that teachers and students use the target language for 90 percent of class time. But this has to be strategic, says Blouwolff: “It can’t just be that I get up there and yap on in French and maybe the kids are listening and maybe they’re not. It has to be what we call comprehensible input. I’m providing meaningful messages in a way that they can digest them, and I am designing lessons so that I’m getting tons of feedback on which parts they’re able to process and understand. I’m scaffolding for them so that from the very first days, they know enough French to be able to respond to me either nonverbally or with very, very simple words.”
• Communicative activities take priority. The shift is from students being evaluated on answering teachers’ questions correctly (the IRE dynamic: initiate/respond/evaluate), to extended teacher-student and student-student interactions in the target language. To orchestrate a language-speaking community, says Blouwolff, “we really need to quell the desire to give that evaluative answer and try to be more interactive, like, Oh really? Tell me more about that. You’re going to the movies this weekend? Are you going to go to this movie theater? This shows that we’re curious about what our students have to say, so we’re encouraging them to keep talking in the language.”
• Grammar is taught in the context of meaningful activities. The old theory of action was that students needed to learn all the rules before they could use a language. Now teachers focus on small chunks of functional communication with the grammar needed in that context. “I think the fact that we don’t tell them it’s tricky grammar makes it go down easier,” says Blouwolff. “The focus now is really on, do you know enough so that you can convey a message, and who would understand your message?… If we insist on perfection from the get-go, most people just drop out, because that’s not how we’re built to communicate.”
• Students examine authentic cultural resources. The new emphasis is on using well-chosen children’s books, YouTube videos, pop songs, advertisements, tweets, and finger plays. Blouwolff sometimes plays French real estate videos, and students notice interesting cultural and architectural differences as well as hearing native speakers in action.
• Instruction is backwards designed. Following a textbook covered the curriculum (“a ridiculous amount of vocabulary and grammar,” says Blouwolff), but often with negative results. She advocates starting with questions like: What do we hope our students will be able to write at the end of this unit? What do we hope they will be able to talk about? What would that sound like with their language level? Then the teacher designs assessments, telling students up front what they’ll be expected to do, and then plans lessons with the end in mind.
• Teachers regularly provide appropriate feedback. This doesn’t mean correcting every error as students speak, says Blouwolff: “Number one, it’ll just shut them down. Number Two, they’re never going to remember the correction and reuse it in all likelihood. They’re too busy thinking of what they’re going to try to say.” Better to look for patterns of errors and think about strategic feedback that will build confidence and leverage improvement. ACTFL’s proficiency levels give very specific characteristics of language proficiency at each step.
“How World Language Teaching Has Evolved” by Jennifer Gonzalez and Rebecca Blouwolff in Cult of Pedagogy, September 29, 2019, https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/world-language/
7. What Makes a Book Talk Effective?
In this article in The Reading Teacher, Katherine Batchelor and Rebecca Cassidy (Miami University/Ohio) report on fifth and sixth graders’ opinions on good book talks by teachers or librarians as they “sold” books to students. Here’s what students recommended:
• Show sincerity, enthusiasm, and spirit. “Say it like you enjoyed the book,” said a fifth grader. “Don’t be a robot,” said another. A big smile and animated expressions were also important.
• Avoid giving away too much. Giving a summary of the book’s basics was important (the cover, author, awards the book has won, what’s inside, any special features), but students wanted to be left on the edge of their seats, as with a good movie trailer.
• Tantalize students with a well-chosen excerpt. “Reading a passage was overwhelmingly the most noted positive feature of the book talks,” say Batchelor and Cassidy. “Read from the book. Let students hear the beauty of the prose, the intrigue of the plot, the conflict of the characters, the voice of the protagonist.” And when reading, get into accents, intonation, and characters. Ham it up!
• Make it matter. “Students want to hear how this particular book connects to their lives or what lessons they can glean from the text,” say Batchelor and Cassidy. This might happen when the book-talker makes a personal connection to the book.
• Prepare. Students were critical when the book talker injected a lot of ums, likes, and pauses. Flow and a conversational tone were important, as was keeping students engaged and not making them feel “talked at.”
• Keep it short and sweet. This was partly a matter of editing the presentation, but also of not “babbling,” as students put it. Presentations of the same length seemed shorter or longer based on the way they were presented and the book talker’s affect.
“The Lost Art of the Book Talk: What Students Want” by Katherine Batchelor and Rebecca Cassidy in The Reading Teacher, September/October 2019 (Vol. 73, #2, pp. 230-234),
https://bit.ly/2ASQk3j; the authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
8. Young Adult Novels on Immigration, Gender Identity, and Adolescence
In this article in Literacy Today, Rachelle Savitz (Clement University) suggest young adult literature that can open the door to productive classroom discussions on topics of importance to students. Her recommendations in three areas:
– The Border by Steve Schafer (Sourcebooks Fire) – Four teenagers escape from their gang-terrorized Central American hometown and travel through the desert in search of a better life.
– The Good Braider by Terry Rarish (Skyscape) – One girl’s journey from war-torn Sudan to the U.S. and her struggle to decide if she is American, Sudanese, or both.
– The Radius of Us by Marie Marquardt (St. Martin’s Griffin) – A girl finds love with a boy facing deportation while his young brother sits alone in a deportation center.
• Gender identity and sexual orientation:
– If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (Algonquin Young Readers) – A young couple falls in love in Iran, where same-sex love is forbidden and illegal.
– Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (Balzer + Bray) – Simon is bullied and humiliated when his friends out him without his permission.
– Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown (HarperTeen) – Joanna’s father, who had been supportive, moves to a conservative town and asks her to keep her sexuality a secret.
– The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray) – Starr Carter shows how one voice can empower a community to advocate for change.
– This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijamp (Sourcebooks Fire) – Four high-school students are held captive in their school by a classmate who is intent on ending it all.
– Property of the Rebel Librarian by Allison Varnes (Random House Books for Young Readers) – What happens when June Harper’s school bans books and starts purging the library.
“Space for Conversation” by Rachelle Savitz in Literacy Today, September/October 2019 (Vol. 37, #2, pp. 14-16), https://issuu.com/daniellez9/docs/ila_sep_-_oct_2019; Savitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
9. Online Lessons on Combatting Bias and Prejudice
This article in American Educator https://www.aft.org/ae/fall2019/sml has links to lessons and podcasts on:
– Patterns and Perceptions Breaking Down Implicit Bias
– Empowering Young People in the Aftermath of Hate: A Guide for Educators and Families
– Addressing Racism and Stereotyping with Students
– Helping Students Make Sense of News Stories About Bias and Injustice
– When Hate Is in the Headlines
– Today’s News, Tomorrow’s Lesson
“Confronting Bias and Addressing Issues of Prejudice” by the Share My Lesson Team, American Educator, Fall 2019 (Vol. 43, #3, p. 38)
10. Short Items:
a. Free mathematics materials – Check out this collection of secondary math problem sets from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire: https://www.exeter.edu/mathproblems. The school recently shifted to a problem-based approach to teaching math.
b. A dramatic video on the Oxford comma debate – This video is an over-the-top battle between the pro and con sides: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGPT623b_Gc
“The Oxford Comma Wars Are Over” in Quartz, April 9, 2017, https://bit.ly/2AT5nK4
c. A cartoon history of world temperature – This graphic https://xkcd.com/1732/ (keep scrolling down) shows variations in our planet’s temperature over time.
“A Timeline of Earth’s Average Temperature Since the Last Ice Age Glaciation” by Randall Munroe in XKCD, 2019
d. Tools for promoting emotional intelligence – This free toolkit from the Ashoka Foundation https://startempathy.org/resources/toolkit/ has a series of lesson plans, including how to create a class charter on emotional intelligence.
“This Is What Empathy Looks Like: A Toolkit for Promoting Empathy in Schools” by Naomi Thiers in Educational Leadership, October 2019 (Vol. 77, #2, p. 13)
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