In This Issue:
Quotes of the Week
“Young people are dragging themselves to the finish line of a frustrating, depressing, and, for some, unbearably isolating year of school.”
Lisa Damour (see item #7)
“When thinking about how to spend this [ESSER] money, teachers, students, and families should know what will be concretely different and improved in schools both a year from now and when federal dollars end in 2023.”
Will Austin (see item #6)
“Authentic tasks reflect a worthy goal, a target audience, realistic constraints, a tangible product or performance, and success criteria.”
Jay McTighe and Chris Gareis (see item #5)
“Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place. Its very invisibility is what gives it power and longevity.”
Isabel Wilkerson (see item #1)
“America is an old house. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation… We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even.”
Isabel Wilkerson (ibid.)
1. Isabel Wilkerson on America’s Caste System
In this New York Times Magazine article excerpted from her 2020 book, Isabel Wilkerson uses her aging house as a metaphor for the nation’s current troubles. “America is an old house,” she says. “Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation… We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even.”
“Many people may rightly say,” Wilkerson continues: “‘I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.’ And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures in the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars and joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands. Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but rather will spread, leach, and mutate, as they already have.”
Wilkerson then argues that caste is the fundamental issue in the U.S. “Like other old houses,” she says, “America has an unseen skeleton: its caste system, which is as central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical building we call home. Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a 400-year-old social order.”
“A caste system is an artificial construction,” she says, “a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste, whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranks apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”
Changing the metaphor, Wilkerson describes the effect of caste in our daily lives: “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power – which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources – which groups are seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence – who is accorded these and who is not.”
How does caste interact with racial divisions? “Race does the heavy lifting for a caste system that demands a means of human division,” says Wilkerson. “What people look like, or rather, the race they have been assigned or are perceived to belong to, is the visible cue to their caste… Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place. Its very invisibility is what gives it power and longevity.”
“Thus,” Wilkerson continues, “we are all born into a silent war game, centuries old, enlisted in teams not of our choosing. The side to which we are assigned in the American system of categorizing people is proclaimed by the team uniform that each caste wears, signaling our presumed worth and potential. That any of us manages to create abiding connections across these manufactured divisions is a testament to the beauty of the human spirit.”
Shifting the metaphor once more, Wilkerson says, “What we face in our current day is not the classical racism of our ancestors’ era but a mutation of the software that adjusts to the updated needs of the operating system. In the half century since civil rights protests forced the United States to make state-sanctioned discrimination illegal, what Americans consider to be racism has shifted, and now the word is one of the most contentious and misunderstood in American culture. For many in the dominant caste, the word is radioactive – resented, feared, denied, lobbed back toward anyone who dares to suggest it. Resistance to the word often derails any discussion of the underlying behavior it is meant to describe, thus eroding it of meaning.”
What does this look like in everyday terms? “It’s not racism that prompts a white shopper in a clothing store to go up to a random black or brown person who is also shopping and to ask for a sweater in a different size, or for a white guest at a party to ask a black or brown person who is also a guest to fetch a drink, as happened to Barack Obama as a state senator, or even perhaps a judge to sentence a subordinate-caste person for an offense for which a dominant-caste person might not even be charged… It’s the automatic, unconscious, reflexive response to expectations from a thousand imaging inputs and neurological societal downloads that affix people to certain roles based upon what they look like and what they historically have been assigned to or the characteristics and stereotypes by which they have been categorized. No ethnic or racial category is immune to the messaging we all receive about the hierarchy, and thus no one escapes its consequences.”
Lacking a universally agreed-upon definition of racism, Wilkerson says, racism might be seen “as a continuum rather than an absolute. We might release ourselves of the purity test of whether someone is or is not racist and exchange that mindset for one that sees people as existing on a scale based on the toxins they have absorbed from the polluted and inescapable air of social instruction we receive from childhood.”
But caste, she says, “predates the notion of race and has survived the era of formal state-sponsored racism long officially practiced in the mainstream. The modern-day version of easily deniable racism may be able to cloak the invisible structure that created and maintains hierarchy and inequality. But caste does not allow us to ignore structure. Caste is structure. Caste is ranking. Caste is the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignment based upon what people look like. Caste is a living, breathing entity.”
“Caste,” Wilkerson continues, “is the granting and withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy… What race and its precursor, racism, do extraordinarily well is to confuse and distract from the underlying structural and more powerful Sith lord of caste. Like the cast on a broken arm, like the cast in a play, a caste system holds everyone in a fixed place.”
Caste entitlement crosses economic boundaries, says Wilkerson, It’s “not about luxury cars and watches, country clubs and private banks, but knowing without thinking that you are one up from another based on rules not set down on paper but reinforced in commercials, television shows and billboards, from boardrooms to newsrooms to gated subdivisions to who gets killed first in the first half-hour of a movie, and affects everyone up and down the hierarchy. This is the blindsiding banality of caste.”
Wilkerson says that Covid-19 “planted itself in the gaps of disparity, the torn kinships and fraying infrastructure in the country’s caste system, just as it exploited the weakened immune system in the human body. Soon, America had the largest coronavirus outbreak in the world. The virus exposed both the vulnerability of all humans and the layers of hierarchy. While anyone could contract the virus, it was Asian Americans who were scapegoated for it merely because they looked like the people from the part of the world that the virus first struck. As the crisis wore on, it was African Americans and Latinos who began dying at higher rates. Pre-existing conditions, often tied to the stresses of marginalized people, contributed to the divergence. But it was the castelike occupations at the bottom of the hierarchy – grocery clerks, bus drivers, package deliverers, sanitation workers, low-paying jobs with high levels of public contact – that put them at greater risk of contracting the virus in the first place… the jobs less likely to guarantee health coverage or sick days but that sustain the rest of society, allowing others to shelter in place.”
At the end of the article, Wilkerson returns to the corrosion lurking behind the ceiling in her house. “I hadn’t caused this problem,” she says, “hadn’t been there when the leak first crept toward the ceiling. In fact, I had been the one to install the new roof. But it fell to me to fix it or suffer the consequences.” Contractors suggested ways to do partial repairs that would literally plaster over the problem but inevitably lead to bigger issues in the future. The only way to fix it, she realized, “was to tear out the plaster, down to the beams, inspect, and rebuild the rotting lath and replaster the entire ceiling. And so we did. It took days to scrape and inspect, recast and reconstruct. When it was done, it was quietly glorious, as ceilings go.”
“And I could breathe free,” Wilkerson concludes, turning the metaphor to the nation’s dilemmas, “knowing as we now are called up to do in our era, in the house we all live in, that it was sound and secure, not merely patched and papered over, but maybe even better than it was, for ourselves and for the generations that come after us.”
“America’s Enduring Caste System” by Isabel Wilkerson in The New York Times Magazine, July 5, 2020; this article is excerpted from Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020)
2. Teacher Expectations, Assessments, and Reading Achievement
In this Elementary School Journal article, Brandy Gatlin-Nash (University of California/Irvine) and seven colleagues report on their study of teachers’ perceptions of students’ academic competence and how those affect classroom instruction. The researchers suggest the following logic model:
– Teachers use assessments to gauge students’ knowledge and skills.
– Assessment information also influences teachers’ expectations of students.
– So does students’ behavior in school; teachers tend to see students with behavior problems as less academically competent than they actually are.
– Teachers convey their expectations to students in a variety of ways.
– Students who are seen as less academically able often get fewer rich learning experiences.
– Those students tend to make less progress than other students.
– Thus, teachers’ perceptions of students’ abilities can be part of a self-fulfilling prophecy of low achievement.
The researchers explored this dynamic by looking at another factor in teachers’ perceptions: students’ socioeconomic status. In a study of first graders in a diverse Florida district, Gatlin-Nash et al. found that teachers underestimated the academic ability of students who qualified for free or reduced-price meals. This was most pronounced in schools that had a higher percentage of affluent students.
The researchers proceeded to train teachers in using formative reading assessments (Assessment-to-Instruction, or A2i) to personalize reading instruction. They found that with this training, teachers’ perceptions of students’ competence better aligned with students’ actual abilities, regardless of their socioeconomic status. This led to higher expectations, better instruction, and improved student achievement.
“This finding,” conclude Gatlin-Nash et al., “underscores the importance of accuracy in teachers’ ratings of students’ academic competence and the forging of appropriate expectations for all students… Thus, we argue that the judicious use of assessment offers a way to improve student achievement by allowing more-tailored instruction based on students’ constellation of skills, and by improving the accuracy of teachers’ perceptions of their students’ abilities. This is particularly important for children who are typically underserved by schools – children living in poverty.”
“Using Assessment to Improve the Accuracy of Teachers’ Perceptions of Students’ Academic Competence” by Brandy Gatlin-Nash, Jin Kyoung Hwang, Novell Tani, Elham Zargar, Taffeta Star Wood, Dandan Yang, Khamia Powell, and Carol McDonald Connor in Elementary School Journal, June 2021 (Vol. 121, #4, pp. 609-634); Gatlin-Nash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. Improving Reading Comprehension for Struggling Fourth Graders
In this Elementary School Journal article, Erin Washburn (University of North Carolina/Charlotte), Sherri Abdullah (Windsor Central School District), and Candace Mulcahy (Binghamton University/SUNY) note that in the 2017 NAEP assessment, only 36 percent of U.S. fourth graders were reading at or above the proficient level. These disappointing results, say the authors, reflect the fact that learning to read with good comprehension is a “complex and multifaceted process” that involves:
– Using text features;
– Identifying main ideas;
– Locating relevant supporting information;
– In fiction texts, analyzing characters and authors’ craft;
– In nonfiction texts, explaining simple cause-and-effect relationships;
– With multiple texts, locating and analyzing relevant information.
Clearly, in many classrooms, students aren’t learning and applying these skills.
Washburn, Abdullah, and Mulcahy believe there’s a way to bring about improvement. They report on an experiment (carried out by Abdullah) using the TRAP reading comprehension strategy with struggling fourth graders in a rural school. Students were prompted to take four steps as they read each paragraph of a text:
– Think about what I’m about to read.
– Read a paragraph.
– Ask myself, what was the main idea and two details of this paragraph.
– Paraphrase or Put it into my own words.
TRAP is an variation of the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD), which emphasizes shifting the cognitive responsibility for learning to students and gradually releasing responsibility.
The authors report that the TRAP strategy, implemented over six lessons supplementing the ELA block, had an immediate, positive effect on students’ comprehension, especially those who struggled in this area, and also on their self-concept as readers.
“Effects of a Paraphrasing Strategy on the Text Comprehension of Fourth-Grade Striving Readers” by Erin Washburn, Sherri Abdullah, and Candace Mulcahy in Elementary School Journal, June 2021 (Vol. 121, #4, pp. 586-608); the authors can be reached at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.
4. Team Commitments Made by a High-School English Department
Alexis Wiggins and the English department she leads at their Texas school recently agreed on a series of commitments for the coming school year. Here’s a paraphrase:
Curriculum for core courses:
• Students regularly experience, analyze, and create content that spans different genres, time periods, settings, authors, and text types, including:
– Literature (fiction, poetry, memoir, drama);
– Journalism and creative nonfiction;
– Graphic novels, films, print and digital media, advertising, propaganda;
– Interviews, speeches, debates, songs.
• Students have regular exposure to and experience with the following skills:
– Schaffer paragraph method for analytical and rhetorical writing;
– Timed in-class writing;
– Close reading;
– Self-evaluation and reflection;
– Student-led discussions;
– Oral presentations;
– Independent research;
– Learning and analyzing literary, poetic, rhetorical, and cinematic devices;
– Grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and usage;
– MLA in-text citation and works cited.
• All courses begin with a formative benchmark in-class essay to provide a snapshot of students’ writing at the beginning of the year.
• Courses are framed by Essential Questions that get at the heart of the texts, themes, skills, and concepts teachers want students to understand.
Teaming and collaboration:
• Meeting as an English team once per cycle to work on:
– Calibrating every major assessment, with each teacher contributing at least one sample;
– Filling in the course scope and sequence by the end of each quarter, aiming to complete the year’s scope and sequence for core courses by the end of the school year;
– Using a teacher-designed (or chosen) electronic pacing guide to plan lessons, share resources, and keep everyone aligned;
– Sharing teaching resources, materials, and ideas.
• Committing to the “twin philosophy” – namely, that twins in two different classes will experience common:
– Assignments and deadlines;
– Pacing guides;
– Assessments and rubrics;
– Grading procedures;
– Teacher approachability and availability of extra help.
• Communicating openly, honestly, and equally with team members so everyone is an integral part of the team; issues that can’t be resolved at the team level are raised with the department chair, academic dean, and/or principal.
Feedback to students:
• Providing students feedback on their learning and development with these qualities:
– It’s specific, useful, and timely.
– Major and minor assessments are returned within two calendar weeks of completion.
– Student work, including graded work, is accessible to students throughout the course (using Turn-It-In, Teams, or folders in the classroom).
– Grade 11 student writing is kept until December of students’ senior year.
– Students may take photos or ask for scanned copies of their work or feedback at any time.
– Parents are contacted by e-mail whenever there’s a concern about a student.
– Teachers regularly write “kudos” to praise student improvements or breakthroughs.
• All major assessments:
– Will use department-wide rubrics and grade boundaries;
– Will come with a student handout of instructions and the department-wide rubric (or AP rubric) that will be used for grading;
– Won’t be considered “tests” (with the exception of AP practice tests);
– In-class essays will be hand-written, in line with the College Board (with exceptions for pandemic teaching, students with accommodations, etc.);
– Typed assessments must be submitted to Turn-It-In.
• Assessments will follow the department philosophy and be in sync with the team, namely:
– Using department criteria and grade boundaries on rubrics;
– Using identical gradebooks for teammates on assignments, percentage values, criteria;
– Not including behavior, completion, effort, or extra credit in grades;
– Assessing as a team, not individually – for example, the team might decide to drop the lowest grade for all students, but only with team agreement.
• Students are integral to their own learning and assessment, and should partner with teachers to ensure transparency and clarity. This philosophy means:
– Encouraging students to talk with teachers about assessment criteria, expectations, questions, and concerns;
– Scheduling extra help outside of class and during office hours for all students who want more clarity, feedback, or practice;
– Encouraging students to ask about their grade/average at any point;
– Allowing students to request a “re-grade” on a major assessment, on the condition that the whole grade-level team will be involved in the re-grade, and whatever grade they decide will stand, even if it is lower.
“Commitments on Curriculum” at The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, Texas, June 2021; Wiggins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Authentic Performance Tasks to Measure Deeper Learning
(Originally titled “Assessing Deeper Learning After a Year of Change”)
In this ASCD Express article, backwards-design expert Jay McTighe and Chris Gareis (William and Mary School of Education) say the huge disruptions and unfinished learning of the last 15 months have led some educators to advocate for covering more curriculum more rapidly so students will catch up on what they’ve missed. This is the wrong approach, argue McTighe and Gareis. Instead, they say, educators need to slow down and pivot in two important ways: (a) focus on getting students to learn the most important ideas and skills more deeply; and (b) teach so students can apply ideas and skills in new contexts.
One of the best ways to accomplish this, they say, is having students do performance tasks at the end of curriculum units. These have the following characteristics:
– Students are asked to apply their learning, explain their reasoning, justify their decisions, and support their interpretations.
– Students transfer what they’ve learned to a novel situation, different from the one in which initial instruction took place.
– The novel situation is as “real world” as possible.
– Students engage in complex thinking – i.e., at Levels 3 and 4 of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge matrix – analysis, interpretation, investigation, problem solving, argumentation, and design.
“Authentic tasks,” say McTighe and Gareis, “reflect a worthy goal, a target audience, realistic constraints, a tangible product or performance, and success criteria.” A helpful acronym: GRASPS:
– Goal, as real-world as possible;
– Role for the student;
– Audience, authentic or simulated;
– Situation that involves real-world application;
– Product or performance that culminates students’ work;
– Success criteria to assess evidence of learning.
Performance tasks, continue McTighe and Gareis, “can range from conventional essays to open-ended mathematics problems to scientific experiments to a research project to tackling a community-based issue.” Here’s an example: Several exchange students are visiting from another country. You’ve been asked to plan a four-day tour of your state so the visitors will understand the state’s history, geography, economy, and culture. Prepare a written tour itinerary, including why you chose each site. Include a map showing the route and the budget for the trip.
A common pushback on performance tasks is that scoring will be subjective. In fact, human judgment is used in many situations, including state writing assessments, AP art portfolios, and Olympic events. Assessments of performance tasks can be valid and reliable if:
– There’s sufficient evidence to measure how much deep learning occurred for each student.
– Each student’s performance provides evidence that they can effectively apply their learning in new situations.
– Teachers can be sure that each student’s work was not influenced by chance, a faulty assessment instrument, implicit biases, cheating, or inconsistency in teachers’ evaluations.
“Assessing Deeper Learning After a Year of Change” by Jay McTighe and Chris Gareis in ASCD Express, June 10, 2021; the authors can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Ideas for the Effective Use of ESSER Funding
In this article in CommonWealth, Will Austin (Boston Schools Fund) marvels at the amount of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding coming to Massachusetts; Boston’s schools alone will receive $435 million. Adjusted for inflation, ESSER is comparable to what the U.S. spent to rebuild Europe after World War II. Austin suggests five principles to maximize the positive impact on teaching and learning:
• Transparency – “The magnitude and gravity of this investment demands public input,” he says: “Families, students, educators, and taxpayers have a right to know how these funds will be distributed.”
• Proximity – Decisions should be made close to the classroom level, with local budgetary autonomy, coupled with training, to support children’s academic, social, and emotional recovery.
• Equity – The pandemic has hit some children, families, and communities harder than others, and funding should prioritize those who have the greatest needs.
• Innovation – “When thinking about how to spend this money,” says Austin, “teachers, students, and families should know what will be concretely different and improved in schools both a year from now and when federal dollars end in 2023.”
• Boldness – The Covid-19 crisis, for all its associated disruption and trauma, has been a rare opportunity “to rethink systems and structures that haven’t fully served all students,” says Austin. “Funding now exists to test bold theories and ideas for education grounded in research and best practice.” Some possibilities:
– The length of the school day and the school year;
– Schoolwork that happens in the classroom versus remotely;
– Later high-school start times to match teens’ brain development.
“5 Principles That Should Drive Boston’s Enormous Federal School Aid” by Will Austin in CommonWealth, May 12, 2021; Austin can be reached at email@example.com.
7. Teens Need to Chill Out This Summer
In this New York Times article, psychologist/author Lisa Damour says that in her 20 years working with adolescents, “I have never seen teenagers so worn down at the end of an academic year as they are right now…Young people are dragging themselves to the finish line of a frustrating, depressing, and, for some, unbearably isolating year of school.”
Damour suggests the analogy of a vigorous workout with weights: muscles are built by strenuous exertion followed by a period of rest. To put the “psychological workout of their lives” to work, she says, teens “need time for recovery so that they can enjoy increased emotional resilience by fall.” Her suggestions:
• Let grieving run its course. Teens have lost loved ones, friendships, milestone birthday parties, holidays with grandparents, graduations, sports seasons, field days, and other ceremonies and events that can’t be rescheduled. Rather than saying kids should move on to brighter days, it’s wise to let them process what’s happened in the company of friends – or alone. One teen wrote poems reflecting on “how the pandemic sucks, and how things are still going on in the world that are really horrible.” Damour says grieving is a healthy process that will help teens, “over time, savor what remains and embrace what lies ahead.”
• Be open to negotiating the necessities. “Everyone has different emotional settings,” she says. “What energizes one person might leave another spent.” Teens fortunate enough to have choices will hopefully find summer activities that refresh and replenish – an interesting job, travel, learning a new language, an academic enrichment program. Parents may be worried about academic deficits, but if the school hasn’t raised a red flag, Damour advises, “it may be best to let it go.”
• Don’t let guilt ruin restoration. Teens may think that after a year of not doing very much, it’s sinful to relax over the summer. Help them see past this misconception, says Damour. “The point of recovery is not to relax, but to grow. And if downtime is soaked in guilt, that growth is going to suffer.” Kids need to “go through the quiet work of rebuilding themselves.”
“A Pandemic Recovery Period for Teenagers” by Lisa Damour in The New York Times, June 8, 2021
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