In This Issue:
Quotes of the Week
“The point of a meeting is to capitalize on the skill, talent, and perspective of the people at the table.”
Dan Rockwell in “Three Ways to Make Meetings Great Again” in Leadership Freak,
March 5, 2020, https://bit.ly/3aDCfXg
“We decided that exit interviews with employees leaving isn’t as helpful as listening to our employees while they are here so they will stay.”
Cindy Zahrte, Wisconsin superintendent, in “Strategic Planning for the Betterment of
All,” quoted in School Administrator, March 2020 (Vol. 77, #3, p. 9)
“Use assessments, not too many, mostly formative.”
Paul Freeman in “In Defense of Assessments: A Food Metaphor” in School
Administrator, March 2020 (Vol. 77, #3, p. 12), riffing on Michael Pollan’s nutrition
advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
“When students haven’t been required to wrestle with difficult writing decisions – and when much of that decision making has been done by the teacher – they lose their sense of agency and their confidence as writers.”
Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher (see item #2)
“Why should it matter that a child represents different political beliefs, wears a hijab, identifies as non-binary, is another color, or wears ‘weird’ hair? It shouldn’t, but it usually does.”
Hedreich Nichols (see item #1)
“Having teachers enact a curriculum that makes them uncomfortable with students who are also uncomfortable is a kind of perfect storm.”
Mara Sapon-Shevin (see item #3)
1. Nine Suggestions for Effective Teaching in Diverse Classrooms
n this Cult of Pedagogy article, Hedreich Nichols says that for much of her life in Switzerland and Texas, she’s been the OBF – One Black Friend – in a circle of white children and adults. “I’m sure my teachers intended to encourage and empower me, and they often did,” she says. “But they also told me in hundreds of little and big ways that I was an anomaly and part of a group that was substandard.”
All this has taught her a lot about what makes students from different backgrounds feel fully included – or not included – in a classroom. “By making small, intentional changes in the way we relate to the world around us,” says Nichols, “we can all improve our practice.” Here are her hard-earned lessons for working with diverse students:
• Read, read, read. Nichols points to books, blogs, articles, and groups that curious educators can access. Just as important is whether the books in a classroom library reflect authors and subjects from diverse backgrounds. Among her favorite authors: Kwame Alexander, Viet Nhan Thien, Sandra Cisneros, Sarah McBride, Samira Ahmed, Jo Harjo, and Maya Angelou.
• Be open to feedback. “Not knowing is not a criminal offense,” says Nichols. “Knowing that you don’t know and not caring, however, is deeply offensive. If you don’t know, ask. If you don’t have someone to ask, expand your circle. You’ll make mistakes, but if you’re sincerely trying to be a better practitioner, people will see that and be generous. If you do make a mistake – and you will – apologize, learn from it, and do better next time.”
• Reach out. This might mean going to a student’s peewee football game, a church musical, a Juneteenth parade, a market, or a restaurant near the school. It might also involve finding a mentor or a friend who can help build bridges to the community you serve.
• Get comfortable being uncomfortable. “Why should it matter that a child represents different political beliefs, wears a hijab, identifies as non-binary, is another color, or wears ‘weird’ hair?” asks Nichols. “It shouldn’t, but it usually does.” Being able to name and deal with that uneasiness “is a sign of personal growth and maturity, and who doesn’t want that?… Jump in, but instead of trying to embrace cultures and ideologies, embrace the child standing before you. Do your best for that one soul. Most of all, realize that you can embrace people who are different without changing who you are.”
• Don’t forget gender. Most teachers are female, and “our classes are more likely to look like Pottery Barn than a man cave,” says Nichols. “Is your classroom space an environment with which all genders can identify?” Dealing with that, and gender-fluid students and parents, may be challenging, she says, but “acceptance and empathy are human and our job is to provide a space for all students to feel welcome so they can learn.”
• Beware of unconscious distancing from some students. “I got beat up in 6th and 7th grade by the mean girls,” says Nichols. “It shaped me and now I have to work hard at seeing them in all their middle-school frailty. They need me as much as the artsy, bookish kindred spirits do, so I work at building relationships with them… Children and young people are incredibly perceptive and they can sense it if you don’t like them, so try.”
• Validate code-switching. Being able to shift back and forth – for Nichols it was Motown, Rappers Delight, and gospel choir at home, Journey and the Madrigal group at school – is “a normal part of growing up a part of two cultures. Just as we are different as spouses than we are as parents, people fulfill different roles in the diverse communities they belong to. There’s an outfit and a language for every setting.” And that means getting students to understand that colloquial English is okay on the playground and standard English is the coin of the realm in classrooms.
• Embrace the elephant in the room. Awkward moments will happen: Why is your skin brown? Why does she always wear a scarf? Can I touch your hair? “If you filter out personal perceptions or opinions about questions that arise and answer factually and calmly,” says Nichols, “a question will just be a learning opportunity.” But if a question is rude or intimidating, that needs to be dealt with: “Tact and kindness sometimes need to be taught, as does empathy… The Big Idea is to create a kinder, accepting society, and that can be your guide.”
• Identify and fight bias. Sometimes it’s hard for a teacher to tell if a student is giving disrespectful “attitude” – which needs to be addressed – or whether “mistrust and fear need to be overcome on both sides,” says Nichols. “That can make an interaction feel bigger than it really is, and that truth alone can help temper your reactions.” A trusted colleague might be recruited to help you and the student talk through what’s going on. “Having bias is human,” she says. “Being biased against certain groups is damaging, to you as a practitioner and to the students you serve.”
“Are Your Diversity Strategies Missing the Mark? Nine Ways to Get It Right” by Hedreich Nichols in Cult of Pedagogy, March 1, 2020, https://bit.ly/39DC9yO, which also has Jennifer Gonzalez’s interview with Nichols
2. Teachable Moments on LGBTQ Issues
In this article in Teachers College Record, Mara Sapon-Shevin (Syracuse University) says the focus on LGBTQ issues in schools is often around preventing bullying and harassment. While these deserve serious attention, Sapon-Shevin believes K-12 educators need to spend more time proactively building students’ and adults’ awareness and sensitivity and addressing root causes of mean behavior. Some productive areas: language arts texts and films that are truly diverse; history lessons that include the contributions of LGBTQ people (for example, Bayard Rustin, a key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr.); and math word problems that push back on stereotypes (Jason and Tyrone are baking cookies…).
But the biggest challenges for educators are incidents that demand an in-the-moment response. Sapon-Shevin relates four true stories:
• A girl says to a cafeteria worker that she doesn’t have a father, she has two mothers. “That’s not possible,” says the adult. “Everyone has a father,” and continues to make that point until the girl is in tears. When the homeroom teacher comes to pick up her class, the cafeteria worker blurts out, “April said she had no father, and I told her that was ridiculous.” The teacher says nothing, awkwardly gathers her students, and walks them back to the classroom with April still in tears.
• A third-grade girl brings a photo to school of herself with her two moms at the zoo, and the teacher refuses to allow the girl to show the photo to classmates. When the girl’s mother confronts the teacher the next day, the teacher says that sharing the photo might lead to awkward questions and she doesn’t think it’s appropriate.
• A seventh-grade girl with short hair, who doesn’t wear dresses, is harassed by other students. They call her an “ugly dyke,” shove her in the hallway, and menace her with rolled-up paper. The student and a friend go to the principal, tell what is happening, and ask for support starting a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The principal says the students are “way too young” for that and suggests that if they ignore the harassment, it will stop.
• A university instructor working with pre-service teachers leads a discussion about a news article describing the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming. One of the teachers-in-training says the issue is inappropriate for young students; another says her host teacher wouldn’t go near that kind of issue because it might upset parents.
It’s been argued, says Sapon-Shevin, that awkward moments can be educative, shifting intolerant attitudes that people may harbor. The problem is that working with groups of students, it’s hard to predict how individuals will react to discomfort, and if teachers themselves are ill at ease, they can communicate unhelpful messages. “Having teachers enact a curriculum that makes them uncomfortable with students who are also uncomfortable, is a kind of perfect storm,” says Sapon-Shevin. Problematic emotions in teachers and students can make it difficult to change deeply established beliefs and practices and move students to being critical thinkers and allies.
Addressing gender and sexual diversity in classrooms can spark three kinds of fear in teachers and students:
– Fear of getting in trouble; in some parts of the U.S., teachers have been fired for revealing that they are gay or reading books to students that were deemed inappropriate.
– Fear of self-revelation and exposure; how “personal” should teachers and students get?
– Fear of getting it wrong; teachers worry about what is age-appropriate and whether teaching might be seen as “promoting” a particular position.
In short, says Sapon-Shevin, “There are many barriers to enacting an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in both teacher education programs and K-12 classrooms,” including seeming too political or pushy on the subject. But by not addressing those issues, there’s often the implicit assumption that all students and teachers are heterosexual and have heterosexual parents. “One is caught between ‘invisibility’ and ‘hypervisibility,’” she says. The language that teachers use and tolerate is often where the rubber meets the road. Here are her suggestions:
• Teachers’ language – “As the authority figure in the classroom, teachers have the opportunity to provide powerful role models for ways of talking about gender and gender diversity,” says Sapon-Shevin. When heterosexual teachers casually speak about “my wife” or “my husband,” they send a clear message about what’s “normal.” Some examples of how teachers can shift students’ perceptions without making a big deal of it:
– Those in a relationship referring to their “partner;”
– A male teacher talking about quilting;
– A female teacher talking about working on her motorcycle;
– Teaching students to do counted cross-stitching, with boys and girls expected to participate;
– Teaching an entire class to build rockets that will be launched on the playground;
– Not assuming that only female students will be interested in women’s history or that LGBTQ history will be of interest only to students who identify with those labels.
All these chip away at unspoken but powerful assumptions of how the world works.
• How teachers respond when students use inappropriate or unkind language – If, for example, a student says, “That’s so gay,” Sapon-Shevin suggests taking an educative versus a punitive approach. If the teacher says, “That’s not a nice thing to say, and we don’t use that kind of language in our classroom,” students will learn not to use the word gayin front of the teacher, driving the behavior underground (often via social media). Better to address the comment in a way that challenges and seeks to change students’ assumptions. Two other examples:
If a student says, “Why does Martin like pink?”:
– Did you know that pink used to be considered a boys’ color and blue a girls’ color?
– Why do you like blue, or green? Why don’t you like pink?
– Do you think it’s wrong for boys to wear pink? Why’s that?
– Colors are colors; all people like different colors.
When a student asks why a girl’s hair is short and says she looks like a boy:
– Hair is hair. That’s how she likes it.
– Girls and women can have hair in many different styles and so can boys and men.
– Why does it matter if a girl’s hair is short or a boy’s hair is long?
Ignoring negative language or addressing it only in a private conversation is a big problem, says Sapon-Shevin. It communicates to the rest of the class that “nothing happened,” or even that the teacher agrees.
But often a comment takes the teacher by surprise, for example, “I think gays are ruining our country.” The teacher might say, “Something just got said that really troubles me. I’m not sure exactly how to respond, but I am going to think about it and get back to you,” and in the next class, addresses it more thoroughly. Of course it’s important to have classroom norms established up front on hurtful or prejudiced comments, providing a starting point for the teacher’s comments.
• What teachers can say when colleagues or parents use problematic language – These situations are trickier, says Sapon-Shevin, and it’s helpful to have an array of possible responses. Some suggestions with several comments:
“Gays are ruining our country, and our children aren’t safe around them.”
– I’m wondering what your experiences have been that would lead you to say that.
– It’s actually a dangerous myth that gays and lesbians are likely child abusers.
– You know, that hasn’t been my experience…
“I don’t think boys should be allowed to play with girls’ toys” or “If we let children cross gender roles, they will grow up very confused.”
– Actually, I think that it’s our role as teachers to let children experience a wide range of activities.
– The research shows that children who are allowed to figure out who they are with support and appreciation grow up with more self-confidence and a better sense of self.
“I don’t want my child being exposed to the Gay Pride movement.”
– Tell me more about your concerns.
– In our history class we study many social movements and how they relate to one another. This includes the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, movements on behalf of people with disabilities, and Gay Pride.
“I shouldn’t have to refer to students using the pronoun ‘they.’ It’s not grammatical, and it’s confusing.”
– I know it will take some getting used to, but students have a right to be referred to by their chosen pronoun.
– Did you know that the singular, gender-neutral ‘they’ has been added to the Associated Press stylebook that’s used by most major news and magazine writers?
“Becoming an ally for social justice takes ongoing, committed practice,” concludes Sapon-Shevin.
“Strategies and Resources for Creating LGBTQ-Inclusive Classrooms by Mara Sapon-Shevin in Teachers College Record, March 2020 (Vol. 121, #13, pp. 1-22), no e-link available; Sapon-Shevin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. How Iceland Dealt with Teen Drinking, Drugs, and Delinquency
In this article in Mosaic, Emma Young reports that two decades ago, Iceland’s teenagers were among the heaviest drinkers in their age group in Europe. On Friday nights, hordes of young drunks staggered around downtown Reykjavik, creating an unsafe climate. Schools implemented drug and alcohol prevention programs, but they were ineffective.
Today, alcohol and drug abuse among young Icelanders is extremely low. Between 1998 and 2017:
– The percentage of 15-16-year-olds who say they have been drunk in the previous month went from 42 percent to 5 percent.
– The percentage who have ever used cannabis fell from 17 to 7 percent.
– Teens who smoke cigarettes every day went from 23 to 3 percent.
What caused these dramatic improvements?
It started in 1991, when American psychologist Harvey Milkman was invited to Iceland to talk about his theory of behavioral addiction. He suggested that kids can be addicted to alcohol, cocaine, sex, money, stealing cars, and a variety of other activities as a way of changing their brain chemistry. They got a rush or sedated themselves, reducing anxiety and trying to cope with life. Milkman knew that programs to counsel or scare young people away from drugs and alcohol weren’t working, and he suggested an alternative: “Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry – because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness – without the deleterious effects of drugs?”
Milkman and his colleagues won a grant and experimented with schooling 14-year-olds who were beginning to show signs of trouble (petty crime, drugs) in music, dance, hip hop, martial arts, and other after-school activities. Kids also engaged in life-skills training to help them think more positively about themselves and the way they interacted with others. The results of this program, dubbed Project Self-Discovery, were very positive.
In 1992, 14-16-year-olds in every school in Iceland filled out a questionnaire asking about binge drinking, cigarettes, drugs, time spent with parents, and other activities they engaged in. Milkman and Icelandic officials were not surprised by the data, but they noticed some interesting exceptions: teens who engaged in organized after-school activities, felt cared about at school, spent more time with their parents, and weren’t out late in the evening made fewer risky choices.
Officials used the questionnaire data to gather support for a set of coordinated initiatives under the banner of Youth in Iceland:
– It became illegal to buy tobacco under the age of 18 and alcohol under 20.
– Tobacco and alcohol advertising was banned.
– State funding was increased for organized sports, music, art, dance, and other clubs, with generous subsidies for poorer families.
– Parent-school links were strengthened through a parent organization in each school.
– Parents were encouraged to attend talks on the importance of spending more time with their children, talking to them about their lives, knowing who their friends were, and keeping their kids home in the evening.
– A youth curfew forbade kids between 13 and 16 from being outside after 10 p.m. in the winter and midnight in summer.
– A national umbrella group for home/school organizations pushed agreements for parents that strengthened the authority of the home: not allowing one’s children to attend unsupervised parties, keeping an eye on children’s wellbeing, and not buying alcohol for minors.
– All schools continued to give the surveys, every year providing an ongoing data stream.
Positive results showed up quite quickly. Between 1997 and 2012, the percentage of 15-16-year-olds who reported that they often or almost always spent time with their parents on weekends went from 23 to 46 percent, the percentage engaging in organized sports at least four times a week went from 24 to 42 percent, and cigarette smoking, drinking, and marijuana use plummeted.
Other European countries have picked up on the idea under the banner of Youth in Europe, sending survey results back to Reykjavik for analysis. There have been improvements on key measures, but no other country has achieved Iceland’s dramatic gains. In one Baltic country, participation in sports showed up as a risk factor. Why? Because sports clubs were run by young ex-military men who were into muscle-building drugs, drinking, and smoking. “Here then,” says Young, “was a well-defined, immediate local problem that could be addressed.”
Would an initiative like this work in the U.S.? Milkman sees problems with “short-termism” and reluctance to have national, state, or even local government so involved in family life. But he believes the basic concept is sound and could work with the right leadership.
“Iceland Knows How to Stop Teen Substance Abuse but the Rest of the World Isn’t Listening” by Emma Young in Mosaic, January 17, 2017, https://bit.ly/2xpAvmb
4. Refraining from Doing Too Much of the Thinking for Young Writers
(Originally titled “The Curse of Helicopter Teaching”)
In this article in Educational Leadership, Penny Kittle (Plymouth State University, NH) and Kelly Gallagher (an ELA teacher at Magnolia High School, CA) describe how middle- and high-school writing classes can leave students “woefully unprepared” for the demands of high-school and college courses. This happens when:
– Teachers accept one draft of essays, with students putting in minimal effort;
– The assignment is too often literary analysis writing, which students do with lots of help from SparkNotes;
– The structure of essays is the same month after month;
– Students rely heavily on templates and rubrics to shape their writing.
“When students haven’t been required to wrestle with difficult writing decisions,” say Kittle and Gallagher, “– and when much of that decision making has been done by the teacher – they lose their sense of agency and their confidence as writers.” They may have been getting B’s on their compliant work, but when these students are asked to write on different topics without extensive scaffolding, they can’t do it.
Teachers who provide this kind of support mean well, but the unspoken message is that students can’t figure things out for themselves. “We believe struggle is necessary in building the capacity to make decisions,” say Kittle and Gallagher. “Completing teacher-generated step-by-step work is not learning; it masquerades as learning.” They suggest several strategies to nurture more independent and creative writers:
• Studying mentor texts – Students see how published authors develop their ideas – the decisions behind each piece.
• Modeling how seasoned writers improve their pieces – “As we talk about our choices and compose in front of our students,” say Kittle and Gallagher, “we reveal our decision making before drafting, while drafting, and in revising… They come to recognize that wrestling with decisions is what writers do. It’s normal.” This process also disabuses students of a common misconception: that writers start with a fully formed essay in their minds. In fact, a lot gets figured out during the writing process.
• Informal writing – Kittle and Gallagher have their students do 10 minutes of, ungraded, low-stakes writing in notebooks every day, inspired by poetry, photographs, or infographics. Students work on revisions and then share a favorite line. “Such free, expressive writing leads students to confidence, fluency, and agency,” they say. Over time, students feel able to develop these fragments into powerful pieces of writing.
• Orchestrating peer feedback – In heterogeneous groups, students respond to each other’s drafts in person and online (using Flipgrid). Kittle and Gallagher have found that peers’ responses spark an inner dialogue in each writer’s mind, “muttering to themselves as they compose.”
• Having students respond to what they read – Students read 60-70 pages of a text and then write and draw their takeaways in a two-page spread in their notebooks (see the article link below for two examples). Some students find this difficult, but that is exactly the kind of difficulty Kittle and Gallagher believe is necessary for them to develop as readers and writers.
They close with a quote from Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt: “Our job is not to prepare the road for the child; our job is to prepare the child for the road.”
“The Curse of Helicopter Teaching” by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher in Educational Leadership, March 2020 (Vol. 676, #6, pp. 14-19), https://bit.ly/2wFkeco; the authors can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Can Teacher-Recorded Videos Be Used for Classroom Evaluations?
In this Education Gadfly article, Amber Northern reports and comments on a study by Thomas Kane and three colleagues. The researchers explored whether teacher-recorded videos of lessons could replace traditional in-person evaluation visits. Teachers in the treatment group were asked to record about two classes a month and choose three videos to submit. Principals watched the videos (usually outside school hours), time-stamped them with comments, and talked with each teacher. Control-group teachers had two or three traditional classroom observations and follow-ups, using the same evaluation rubric as the video group. What did Kane et al. find?
– The two different methods took principals about the same amount of time.
– However, because principals mostly viewed the videos outside of instructional hours, the video method added to after-school work time but saved time during the day.
– Video teachers said the observation process was less adversarial and more fair and supportive than did teachers in the control group.
– Video teachers were also more likely to identify a specific change in their practice, and were more self-critical.
– Video principals were more likely to say that teachers were non-defensive during post-observation meetings.
– However, video principals were significantly less likely to say that teachers improved their understanding of student learning and classroom challenges.
– Video principals were reluctant to replace in-person classroom visits with videos.
– Video teachers were significantly more likely to remain in the same grade, school, and district the following year.
– When students in the two groups were asked about engagement, classroom management, and other aspects of their classes, there were no differences between video and control groups.
– The video evaluations approach had no impact on student achievement.
“The mixed bag of findings – a win for amity and convenience, a wash for self-reflection and student achievement – defies easy explanation,” says Northern.
Kane and his colleagues acknowledge that teachers being able to choose which videos to submit could mean principals don’t see instructional weaknesses in those classrooms. “It could be,” concludes Northern, “that videos would work better as a coaching tool, with video feedback including specific instructional suggestions that teachers practice and then resubmit to their supervisors. That way, the video becomes an invitation to submit your worst lesson, not your best. Learning from one’s mistakes is not only a lesson that teachers should preach to students, but should also practice themselves.”
“Using Classroom Videos to Improve Teacher Evaluations” by Amber Northern in Education Gadfly, March 4, 2020 (Vol. 20, #9), https://bit.ly/2vV7EWi; the full study, “Can Video Technology Improve Teacher Evaluation? An Experimental Study” by Thomas Kane, David Blazar, Hunter Gehlbach, and Miriam Greenberg in Education Finance and Policy, April 30, 2019, is available at https://bit.ly/2VYelBz.
6. Books to Spark Thoughtful Discussions in Elementary Classrooms
“Picturebooks provide a way for students to learn and react to social issues that characters experience,” say Jessica Koltz and Sara Kersten-Parrish (University of Nevada/ Reno) in this article in The Reading Teacher. Well-chosen books can support discussions about what is possible and impossible, positive and negative. Koltz and Kersten-Parrish suggest four books that can be used in classroom discussions or restorative circles:
• We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan Higgins (Disney/Hyperion, 2018), PreK-grade 6 – This book addresses the jitters many students feel when they start school in a new place: Who will be my friend? Will anyone play with me at recess? Will these people let me sit with them at lunch?
• Pink Is for Boys by Robb Pearlman (Running Press Kids, 2018), PreK-grade 6 – This book can be a starting point for discussions about gender stereotypes and conflicts about personal identity – for example, colors often associated with girls and boys.
• I Am Enough by Grace Byers (Balzer + Bray, 2018), grade 1-6 – This book features an African-American girl and her friends singing, doing handstands, climbing a ladder, and competing in track, jump rope, and other games. It’s about loving yourself, respecting others, and using kindness.
• Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal (Candlewick, 2018), K-6 – A girl learns from her father the story behind her six names (Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela), which can be a springboard for discussions about unusual names and family history.
“Using Children’s Picturebooks to Facilitate Restorative Justice Discussion” by Jessica Koltz and Sara Kersten-Parrish in The Reading Teacher, March/April 2020 (Vol. 73, #5, pp. 637-645), https://bit.ly/2PXywM8; the authors can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
7. Lesson Resources Online
The Teaching Better website has a number of new lesson study units and teacher research reports at http://www.teachingbetter.com/case-studies:
– Certamen: Student Legions Learn Latin
– I Remember That! Recognizing and Using Prior Knowledge to Solve Problems
– Act Like a Neuron: Understanding the Bio/Psych Connection
– The Sound of Good Argument: Claim, Evidence, Reasoning
– In the Mood for Advice? Building Confidence with Present Subjunctive
– The Art and Habit of Inspiration
– Pictures Painted in Words: Discovering Imagery in American Literature
– Learning to “See” Symbolism
– Pondering Parabolas
– You’re Free! What’s Your Next Move? A HyFlex Journey Through the Civil War Reconstruction
– Let’s Have S’more Chemistry: Marshmallows, Chocolate, Grams, and Moles
– Beyond Punctuation and Spelling: Students Learn to Rank Revision Commentary
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