In This Issue:
Quotes of the Week
“We have long treated teachers as technicians who need to be fixed or filled up with the right knowledge and dispositions, rather than encouraging them to take a lead role in developing their own expertise.”
Isobel Stevenson and Richard Lemons (see item #2)
“Understanding what students are thinking is one of the greatest challenges for experienced math teachers.”
Bobson Wong and Larisa Bukalov (see item #5)
“A high-quality plan results in everyone understanding change efforts, why they matter, how they will be achieved, and how schools know these efforts are making a difference.”
Coby Meyers and Bryan VanGronigen (see item #3)
“Adults and kids are quick to use terms such as good, troublemaker, or tomboy to make sense of interactions among children, between children and adults, and between children and the curriculum.”
Alexandra Freidus (see item #1)
“If principal supervisors don’t see themselves as coaches, districts are failing to employ a key resource that is already in place in most school systems.”
Candice McQueen in “Follow the Instructional Leader” in Educational Leadership,
April 2021 (Vol. 78, #7, pp. 63-67)
“Third grade was a crucial time for me as a reader. I felt I was coming to a fork in the library aisles, where one path led to the Hardy Boys doing hardy boy things while Nancy Drew did mysteriously girl-coded things down the other.”
David Levithan (see item #6)
1. Race, Gender, and Behavior in a New York City Kindergarten Class
In this Harvard Educational Review article, Alexandra Freidus (Seton Hall University) reports on her 51 days observing a kindergarten class in a New York City elementary school in the early stages of gentrification. Freidus also conducted interviews with the school’s educators, students, and families. She found the school “full of well-intentioned people who saw the work of teaching low-income children of color and promoting school integration as an antiracist endeavor.” The teacher in the kindergarten class was experienced and committed to running a calm, productive classroom, allowing students time for creative play, and meeting curriculum expectations.
Freidus cites research on three frames that are frequently used to size up students’ behavior in classrooms:
– Disposition – A discrete act is taken to represent a child’s essential nature, and then, by a circular logic, is used to interpret future actions.
– Medicalization – A diagnosis of a physical or psychological condition (such as ADHD) frames a child’s behavior and then is formally addressed in an IEP.
– Family and community – Educators’ narrative of a family as indulgent, neglectful, cooperative, or interfering can lead to the conclusion that the family, not the child, bears responsibility for behavioral challenges.
“Reputations harden relatively quickly,” says Freidus, “and become deeply entrenched over the course of the academic year so that children’s behaviors are read through and reinscribe these frames. Adults and kids are quick to use terms such as good, troublemaker, or tomboy to make sense of interactions among children, between children and adults, and between children and the curriculum… Reputations are solidified through the use of classroom artifacts (e.g., rewards charts), public praise and condemnation, and the selective enforcement of rules and consequences.”
Freidus zeroed in on two students whose behavior most frequently disrupted the classroom (pseudonyms are used): Hazel was a white girl from a family of professionals, Marquise an African-American boy living in public housing near the school. Both students were having a familiar problem – making the transition to formal schooling. Freidus describes the quite different classroom experiences of these two students:
• Hazel – Although frequently praised for her compliant behavior and correct answers to teachers’ questions and held up as a model student, she frequently clung to her mother in the morning, and on several occasions she took off running down the hallway and had to be chased and brought back to the classroom. Hazel had “expansive, extended crying jags” almost every day. One day in early October, she refused to enter the classroom and became violent with her teacher, kicking and trying to bite her.
“This defiant behavior did not fit with Hazel’s reputation for goodness,” says Freidus, “and so Hazel’s teachers and parents searched for an alternative explanation.” Hazel was referred to the school psychologist, who made a diagnosis of anxiety and counseled the child, her parents, and her teacher on ways to help Hazel feel more comfortable in the classroom. The teacher “repeatedly returned to Hazel’s diagnosis to make sense of her behavior,” says Freidus. Even when the girl had a series of “wild and wicked temper tantrums” in which she screamed that she hated her teacher and the school and again tried to bite her teacher, she wasn’t reprimanded in the same way as other students.
“Hazel’s diagnosis relieved her of responsibility for her behavior,” continues Freidus, “shaping not only how her teacher responded to Hazel but also how the teacher characterized Hazel’s disposition. This made it possible for Hazel to preserve her reputation for innocence despite exhibiting the same actions that might have tarnished the reputation of her peers.” When Hazel kicked her teacher, a school administrator sat down with the parents to make a plan, not to administer a punishment. Educators had a positive view of Hazel’s parents and their supportive home environment, in contrast to the way they viewed the home lives of most other students. “Nobody felt the need to teach Hazel a lesson,” says Freidus; “they just wanted to help a little girl and her family.”
There is another dimension to this dynamic: the neighborhood’s shifting demographics, “together with the tendency of gentrifying schools to cater to newcomer families, rendered racialized school discipline norms, values, and practices particularly visible.”
• Marquise – This boy, despite his winning smile and the hugs he frequently gave adults and children, quickly acquired a reputation as a problem child (whereas Hazel was viewed as a child with problems). On the very first day of school, the teacher reprimanded Marquise for the way he was moving around the classroom, pulled him aside, and said in no uncertain terms that he needed to obey the adults in the school. When Marquise’s mother picked him up that afternoon, she got the full report and told her son to always say, “Yes, Ma’am!” when the teacher asked him a question.
But Marquise’s behavior got worse, including not going to his assigned rug spot, interrupting class discussions, yelling when he didn’t get his choice for activity time, and sometimes lying on the floor, wailing loudly, and violently kicking his legs. The teacher tried everything: praising him and giving stickers when he followed directions, calling his mother on speaker phone when he misbehaved, keeping him in from recess, letting him have his snack earlier than other students, and having him removed from the classroom when he was especially disruptive. The teacher asked the special education coordinator about having him diagnosed for special needs or ADHD and had her observe Marquise in the classroom, but the coordinator said he showed no signs of having a disability; rather, she said, it was a case of “learned behavior.”
The teacher sat down with the boy’s mother and made a plan that would hold the family responsible for his behavior. But by this time the family, as well as Marquise, had a bad reputation in the school, and the special education coordinator warned the teacher that “Mom is not going to keep her end of the bargain.” Freidus asked the teacher if consideration had been given to referring Marquise to the school psychologist, and she said it had not, although a black male counselor had been enlisted to provide him with occasional classroom support.
In early November, Marquise attempted to kick, hit, and bite his teacher, and a paraprofessional was assigned to the classroom to help with his behavior. But when this extra help was pulled out, Marquise hit another student, the teacher had reached her limit. She filed an incident report and Marquise got a two-day in-school suspension supervised by a black male parent coordinator. This proved to be a turning point; a “changed boy” showed marked improvement in behavior for the rest of the school year. The teacher attributed this to the suspension; Marquise finally got the message that there were consequences for his bad behavior.
But Marquise’s mother and the parent coordinator had a different explanation for the turnaround: love. The parent coordinator spent the two days of the in-school suspension connecting with the boy, recognizing him as a child, and approaching discipline from a caring and protective stance. He remembers telling Marquise, “Hey, I’m concerned about you. When I tell you ‘I love you,’ I really love you. … My love for you runs deep like that. I want to see you excel, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to help that.”
Freidus describes what she learned observing and interviewing students in the class: “Kids clearly demonstrated their understanding that Hazel, white and female, was good, while Marquise, black and male, was not. They knew that students were responsible for making good choices and that Marquise repeatedly failed to do so. They understood that if you made bad choices, there would be no place for you within the classroom community. They believed that you need protection from children like Marquise. And they learned to be patient and flexible with children like Hazel, who required and deserved their protection.”
Freidus concludes: “What might it take to remake these relational categories of innocence and culpability, whiteness and blackness? … To see children excel, we must reconsider the hidden curriculum of school discipline. Rather than locating the problem in children’s behavior, we must examine schools’ norms and practices. We must track when and why we decide to direct additional resources toward some kids and not others, monitoring how we offer access to mental health services to all children. We must ask which kids have access to protective relationships with school staff and which do not. We must reconsider where we locate expertise in schools. How could we support students by drawing on the skills and knowledge of not only psychologists and learning specialists but also parent coordinators and paraprofessionals?… We might be willing to bend or change the rules for more kids if the rules do not serve our goals for learning, safety, and growth. We might refuse to use exclusion as a tool for social control. We might repeatedly demonstrate that all kids belong in the classroom community. We might see them as good.”
“‘Problem Children’ and ‘Children with Problems’: Discipline and Innocence in a Gentrifying Elementary School” by Alexandra Freidus in Harvard Educational Review, Winter 2020 (Vol. 90, #4, pp. 550-572); Freidus can be reached at email@example.com.
2. Improvement Routines That Continuously Strengthen Practice
“We have long treated teachers as technicians who need to be fixed or filled up with the right knowledge and dispositions, rather than encouraging them to take a lead role in developing their own expertise,” say Isobel Stevenson and Richard Lemons (Connecticut Center for School Change) in this Phi Delta Kappan article. They go on to share how each side of the research-practice chasm sees the world:
– University folks complain that front-line educators don’t read, resist research findings that challenge their ideas about teaching and learning, and are too enamored of plug-and-play programs that aren’t backed up by careful studies.
– Practitioners complain that researchers focus on esoteric topics with no relevance to schools, and that their studies are ambiguous, contradictory, and filled with jargon.
“Our experience suggests that there is truth to all of these observations,” say Stevenson and Lemons.
So is the gulf between researchers and front-line educators unbridgeable? No, say the authors, if K-12 educators engage in improvement routines in which they ask research-informed questions, spend time in classrooms, work with teacher teams, look at data, and continuously reflect on teaching and learning. The goal is the same as that of university researchers: more good teaching in more classrooms more of the time.
Four examples of improvement routines are communities of practice, instructional rounds, results-focused teacher teams (a.k.a. PLCs), and instructional coaching. Stevenson and Lemons describe how a Connecticut district used instructional rounds. The superintendent realized from reading research and looking at data that students needed more-challenging mathematics curriculum and instruction to be prepared for post-secondary success. She asked school leaders and instructional coaches to visit math classrooms in all the district’s schools. They developed a shared definition of the kinds of numeric reasoning (not currently taught in most classrooms) that students would need to meet Common Core standards. Teams of teachers made classroom visits and joined the conversation about changes that would be needed, and how to support their colleagues in making them. Teams explored relevant research and analytic frameworks to redesign classroom instruction.
Stevenson and Lemons note the bookending role of research in this story. Rather than having research drive the process, district leaders used it to spark an internal discussion that engaged educators “in an active and ongoing process that involved observing classrooms, collecting and analyzing data, identifying needs and priorities, designing solutions, trying them out, observing the results, and regrouping. In short, while local practitioners were informed by their reading of academic research, they were fully invested in generating new knowledge and applying it to their own practice, right where it matters most – the instructional core.” The result of this multi-year effort was a dramatic improvement in students’ math achievement.
From their experience with efforts like this, Stevenson and Lemons list the key characteristics of well-executed improvement routines:
– They focus on teachers’ instructional practice, the curriculum they teach, and the tasks they assign to students.
– They craft a shared understanding of school improvement and high-quality instruction.
– They enable participants to build their professional knowledge and become better prepared to put what they’ve learned into practice.
– They spread the new insights to educators across the district.
– They collect and analyze evidence in a way that provides actionable information on how things are going.
– The routine happens often enough to become part of a school’s culture.
“It is important that routines run smoothly,” say Stevenson and Lemons, “but this is not the primary goal. Ultimately, the point must be to build educators’ capacity to deliver consistent, high-quality instruction to all students across all classrooms.”
Once again drawing from their experience with school improvement efforts, the authors note three issues that often crop up:
• Problem #1: Educators who are wedded to an “inspirational and transformational” model of leadership are impatient with the “slow, tiresome, procedural, and regressive” pace of an improvement routine. “In our experience,” say Stevenson and Lemons, “the most effective educational leaders pay close attention to detail, have a deep technical background in instruction, understand that it takes time for new professional routines to develop, mature, and show their effects, and are willing to stay the course.”
• Problem #2: District leaders failing to realize that improvement routines have to be localized, bringing school-based educators together to look at their own work and figure out better ways to accomplish broader goals.
• Problem #3: Superintendents who don’t hear and follow up on feedback during the process. “Successful improvement routines rely on feedback loops,” say Stevenson and Lemons. “If teachers and administrators offer constructive feedback only to be ignored or receive a defensive response from their superiors, then they’re likely to view improvement routines as just another set of hoops they have to jump through.”
“Improvement Routines: Research by and for Practitioners” by Isobel Stevenson and Richard Lemons in Phi Delta Kappan, April 2021 (Vol. 102, #7, pp. 34-37); the authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
3. The Benefits of Short-Cycle Planning
(Originally titled “The Best-Laid Plans Can Succeed”)
In this Educational Leadership article, Coby Meyers (University of Virginia) and Bryan VanGronigen (University of Delaware) acknowledge the cynicism that principals often have about mandated school improvement planning – and the fact that many central-office leaders tolerate a bureaucratic process and don’t insist on high-quality planning. The result is “satisficing” behavior: settling for a “good enough” plan that suffices to satisfy the boss’s requirements. Yet another problem with traditional plans is that they frontload activities and budget lines at the beginning of the school year, scheduling very little for subsequent months despite the likelihood that unexpected developments will create the need for mid-course corrections or new planning.
Meyers and VanGronigen believe that short-cycle operational planning is an “empowering departure” from, and a “powerful supplement” to, traditional strategic planning. Quarterly 90-day plans can be “living documents” that are widely visible, involve key stakeholders, inform daily operations, and are constantly tinkered with in light of new data. From their work with school districts over the last five years (and seeing plenty of short-cycle plans that weren’t effective), Meyers and VanGronigen suggest five fundamentals:
• Driving purposes – “The most empowering aspect of any planning process is envisioning what can be,” they say. “Short-cycle planning requires a long-term, ambitious vision that can inspire change.” But short-cycle plans follow up by focusing on a few immediate priorities, signaling what must change quickly – for example, teachers using on-the-spot assessments to measure and respond to students’ daily reading progress – in service of the long-range goal of improving reading instruction.
• Root cause analysis – This is essential “to pinpoint foundational reasons why success has been interrupted or not yet achieved,” say Meyers and VanGronigen. “Without identifying root causes, subsequent stages of the planning process either respond to symptoms or are likely unrelated to what changes need to occur to realize meaningful change.” For example, a principal might bemoan that she is not getting into classrooms; a deeper analysis would reveal that the problem was not getting an assistant principal to take care of certain responsibilities that would free up the principal to observe instruction.
• Action steps – Traditional plans often have lists of “loosely related things that fail to build toward organizational change,” say Meyers and VanGronigen, as well as lists of routine tasks (like holding PLC meetings) without details of how they will be improved. Good short-cycle plans have specific, high-leverage leadership moves that will improve classroom teaching and school culture, the what, how, and why of school improvement – for example, how many classroom visits, using look-fors decided by the faculty, with what kind of follow-up with teachers afterward – and why this will be helpful, rather than being seen as infringing on teachers’ autonomy.
• Measurement – “While measures do not have to be complex or burdensome,” say Meyers and VanGronigen, “they should be continuous, attainable, and understandable. Anyone in a school should be able to track progress with action steps and understand when goals have been met.” Rather than waiting for end-of-year test scores to judge a new curriculum, short-cycle plans would look at initial teacher buy-in, then interim measures of implementation, and benchmark measures of student gains.
• Alignment – Effective plans have a through-line from vision to results: “The driving purposes are clear,” say Meyers and VanGronigen. “Root causes emerge from evidence that strongly suggests addressing those causes will help realize driving purposes. Action steps are coherent and hang together in ways that build toward addressing root causes. Meaningful measures are in place to understand whether action steps are working and highlight the extent to which the school has changed or is changing… A high-quality plan results in everyone understanding change efforts, why they matter, how they will be achieved, and how schools know these efforts are making a difference.”
“The Best-Laid Plans Can Succeed” by Coby Meyers and Bryan VanGronigen in Educational Leadership, April 2021 (Vol. 78, #7, pp. 50-55); the authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
4. Supporting Students As They Emerge from Remote Instruction
In this Phi Delta Kappan column, Phyllis Fagell counsels a third-grade teacher who writes, “These eight- and nine-year-old kids can’t manage little setbacks well, whether it’s a tough worksheet problem or a missed chance to be line leader, and I think it’s because they’re also coping with big disappointments.” Her students hate Zoom and lack the resilience they exhibited in the past. The teacher asks how she can reacclimate next year’s students when they’ve been through so much.
“The pandemic has had a huge impact on children,” Fagell responds, “changing how they learn, live, and play. And no two kids are going to respond exactly the same way, because everyone has a different backstory and risk factors.” Teachers are a vital part of kids’ support system, she says, and quotes two experts with suggestions:
• The 80/20 rule – “Typically, after a disaster, around 80% of kids will be just fine and recover well, and around 20% will struggle,” says Jonathan Wilson, director of OpSAFE International. Adults who focus on the 20% “end up playing whack-a-mole, jumping from crisis to crisis. It’s better to work with the 100% to rebuild community, talk about feelings, and reduce distress. Then the whole group helps you support the 20% and everybody builds resilience.”
• Anticipation and problem-solving – If, for example, students are having problems with new classroom groupings that separate them from friends, the teacher might suggest after-school play dates to keep those connections, suggests Ryan DeLapp, a child psychologist at Montefiore Health Systems in New York City. Problem-solving skills need explicit instruction, followed by praise when students apply them successfully, and when they deal well with disappointments. An important teacher skill: knowing when a student meltdown is coming and putting aside academics for a few minutes of quiet reading, mindfulness, or play.
“Career Confidential: A Teacher Wants to Help Students Manage Disappointment Better” by Phyllis Fagell in Phi Delta Kappan, April 2021 (Vol. 102, #7, pp. 66-67); Fagell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Will Online Whiteboards Be a Lasting Legacy of the Pandemic?
“Understanding what students are thinking is one of the greatest challenges for experienced math teachers,” say New York high-school teachers Bobson Wong and Larisa Bukalov in Edutopia. Dry-erase boards are helpful, with all students displaying their responses simultaneously and building their mathematical confidence. But dry-erase boards have disadvantages: they’re small, making it difficult for the teacher and classmates to see some answers; answers aren’t preserved as the class moves on to the next problem; whiteboards need to be cleaned and replenished; and in remote classes it’s even more difficult to see students’ responses.
A better strategy, say Wong and Bukalov, is online whiteboards. Teachers log on to one of the free websites – GeoGebra, Demos, Google Jamboard, Whiteboard, Whiteboard.chat – and create a session activity. Then students access the content by typing a code in the whiteboard site (or clicking a unique link). Students can give quick responses to questions posed by the teacher – Which answer is correct? What is a ratio? – or mark up content that the teacher sends from the class’s learning management system. In GeoGebra and Desmos, students can create and manipulate animations, type mathematical symbols, and use built-in calculators.
The most helpful feature of online whiteboards is that the teacher can see all students’ whiteboards simultaneously, spot learning problems, and give quick feedback on individuals’ efforts. Additional advantages: fewer handouts and less need for copying. “Even when we resume teaching in person,” say Wong and Bukalov, “we plan to continue using them.”
“Using Online Whiteboards to Boost Student Engagement and Confidence in Math” by Bobson Wong and Larisa Bukalov in Edutopia, March 24, 2021
6. A Writer Pays Tribute to Beverly Cleary
In this New York Times article, David Levithan describes Beverly Cleary’s impact on him in elementary school. “Third grade was a crucial time for me as a reader,” he says. “I felt I was coming to a fork in the library aisles, where one path led to the Hardy Boys doing hardy boy things while Nancy Drew did mysteriously girl-coded things down the other… I was supposed to read for action, not depth… Feelings were not a mystery the Hardy Boys ever needed to solve.”
It was Ralph, the motorcycle-riding mouse, and the connection to Levithan’s Matchhbox cars, that hooked him on another literary pathway. “Claiming a book about a talking mouse as a work of realism might seem like a stretch,” says Levithan, “but Ms. Cleary’s magic was that she placed her flights of fancy so firmly in the lives of her very human characters that reading her stories always feels like soaring through real life.” He read more of her books, which led to Judy Blume and a wide array of literature that he loved and shared with like-minded friends.
“Ms. Cleary spoke the same language as so many kids,” Levithan concludes, “and so naturally. How wise of an author to use a mouse, a motorcycle, and a boy who loves cars to guide me where I needed to go, as a reader, a writer, and a human being.”
“Beverly Cleary Helped Boys to Love Books” by David Levithan in The New York Times, March 31, 2021
7. Recommended Books for 11-14 Year-Olds
In this School Library Journal feature, Monica Cabarcas recommends these books for tweens and young teens (see the link below for cover images and short reviews):
– Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (grade 8-12)
– King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender (grade 6-8)
– Turning Point by Paula Chase (grade 6-8)
– The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert (grade 5-8)
– Rick by Alex Gino (grade 4-7)
– Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha (grade 7-9)
– The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung (grade 5-7)
– Stand up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim (grade 4-7)
– Millionaires for the Month by Stacy McAnulty (grade 5-8)
– Everything Sad is Untrue: (A True Story) by Daniel Nayeri (grade 7-12)
– Free Lunch by Rex Ogle (grade 6-8)
– Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes (grade 5-8)
– Clean Getaway by Nic Stone (grade 5-8)
“Reading in Between” by Monica Cabarcas in School Library Journal, March 2021 (Vol. 67, #3, pp. 60-62)
8. Short Items:
a. An Online Q&A with Jay McTighe on Returning to “Normal” – This Thursday, April 8th at 2:00 p.m. Eastern, Jay McTighe joins Newsela for a conversation on the pitfalls of planning around deficit-oriented language like “learning loss,” and best practices for charting a new way forward that provides students with the right support for meaningful learning.
b. A Video on the Suez Canal Blockage – This YouTube video does a good job capturing the story of one ship blocking the Suez Canal for six days, complete with maps and an explanation of the global supply chain.
“How One Ship Caused a Global Traffic Jam” on YouTube, March 31, 2021
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