Looking Closely at My School District

I’ve barely begun the research and processing of the data I’ve collected about this so keep that in mind. I get a weekly email from my school district. I believe this is information that goes out to parents and others across the county. Typically I skim through the email and move on. Today I was struck by two bits and followed the links to more information.

One was a list of 44 students in my district who were named scholarship winners from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (which I didn’t realize was a corporation, but that’s a whole other line of thought). I was curious to see which schools have winners. My district has 25 high schools as well as two alternative high schools. Nine of those high schools have winners. One, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (a magnet high school) has 34 of the winners. Two other schools have two winners each. I was curious to look at the demographics of these schools, specifically at the percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunches and the percentage of students who are learning English.

TJ Rotunda

A new addition to the magnet high school in our district.

 

The magnet high school, with so many of the winners, has 2% of students receiving free or reduced price lunches and under 1% of students who are limited English proficient. The other schools percentages of students receiving free or reduced price lunches are 2, 9, 10, 11, 13, 16, 26, and 40%. (That 40% is pretty impressive and is the high school I attended many years ago.) The limited English proficient percentages are 1, 4, 5 (three schools), 6, 9, and 20%.

In comparison, the high school my current students will attend has 55% of students receiving free or reduced price lunches and 22% of students who are limited English proficient. The students at my former school will attend a high school with 57% receiving free or reduced price lunches and 22% of students who are limited English proficient.

I’m not sure what I’m taking from this, but it’s been fascinating to look at schools across my district. I may need to take some time to graph data from all our high schools and compare those with winners. We’ll see.

The other bit I clicked on was about the 52 schools (out of just over 200) in my district that won Virginia Index of Performance awards. Fifty-two different schools means I will have to take a bit more time to figure out what I think I can learn from that data. One thing I did learn is that there are multiple schools in my district with fewer than one percent of students receiving free and reduced price lunches. Given that I work at a school in which 88% of students do, I found that quite surprising.

Winning the Cranky Teacher Award

I was a super cranky teacher yesterday. I’m not sleeping well and my back is bothering me. My kinders are not being kind to each other (lots of bad names being said to others and exclusionary behaviors). One kiddo drew all over a table with a crayon. Kids are climbing on things in our classroom. They aren’t listening. It’s testing season. The big kids are taking our state standardized tests and I’m in the midst of reading and math assessments with my kinders. It all adds up to a seriously cranky teacher.

Cranky

from Sue Globensky’s flickr

 

Being cranky is a bit self-fulfilling, at least for me. I feel cranky, for any or all of the reasons above. Feeling cranky annoys me because I don’t treat others around me well and that makes me crankier. The cycle just goes on.

The last thing I did yesterday with my kinders was read What Are You So Grumpy About? It made us all laugh which was a far better way to wrap up our day than me biting kids’ heads off. I left school knowing that I couldn’t come back this morning like this.

I woke up, after not sleeping well again, and realized I couldn’t meet a friend at the gym because my back was in too much pain. That did not start my day off well. I’m sitting in my dark, quiet classroom trying to figure out how to turn myself around.

That’s the key, I think. I need to turn MYSELF around. The kids may come in still saying mean things and coloring on tables and climbing on chairs. I can’t control them. I can control me. The question is, what am I going to do today to make this a day that works for me? If I can do that it may positively impact my kids and their behaviors might change.

Smile

from Rob Lee’s flickr

 

Research shows that smiling, even if one doesn’t feel happy, makes one feel better. That’s my first step, keep smiling. No matter what. Second step, look for the positives and celebrate them. When the kids are all looking out the window at the birds on our birdfeeder, I want to stop and enjoy it all together. When the kids are laughing and getting out of control because they’ve found something hilarious that I, as an adult, totally don’t get, I’m going to try and share their joy rather than stomp on it.

I’m going to remember that we are a community, practically a family at this point, with all the good and bad that entails. It’s far more good than bad. I just need to see it, notice it, recognize it, and enjoy it.

Constructing Definitions for Shapes

In kindergarten in my state our kiddos need to be able to identify and describe rectangles, squares, triangles, and circles. We’re using the Frayer model to explore each shape. Rectangle was first. The kids were great with sorting shapes and pretty quickly identified that rectangles have four sides and four angles. They couldn’t determine what made rectangles different from the other shapes here with four sides and angles.

Shape Defining 4

I decided to walk away for the day. The next day we started off with a Which One Doesn’t Belong. (I love, love, love the Which One Doesn’t Belong activities. I’ve shared them with multiple teachers with whom I’ve worked and the love is growing.)

Shape Defining 3

We had some great conversations about these shapes and it helped us think in some new ways. (Also, it’s wonderful to do an activity like this in which there is no wrong answer.)

I then added some new four-sided, four-angled shapes to help us identify what makes rectangles special.

Shape Defining 5

We were able to recognize that the sides of the rectangle are special in some way. It took some great conversation to narrow it down. Right angles was a bit more challenging but we got there too.

This was tough for me. Stopping, breathing, and thinking about how to help students without just telling them the characteristics of a rectangle. I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how to decide when to keep waiting for students, when to push them, and when to back off. How do you know when to tell students something and when do you give them more opportunity to work on it on their own?

Deficit Model, Part Two

Several days ago I vented my frustrations with people, especially educators, viewing students through a lens of deficits rather than strengths. In that post I was focused on issues of racism and classism, issues that are significantly impacting the education of far too many children in our country.

The deficit model is not limited to these concerns, however. I believe it is ingrained in our system for all children in many ways. Recently our kindergarten team, including me, was creating a strategy ladder*. One of the importance pieces of this process is to list what students are doing. I noticed we were listing what students were not able to do. It wasn’t conscious or intentional. It was, very clearly, the lens we were using to look at our students’ thinking and work. We were noticing what they were not or could not do rather than what they were doing. I don’t think this was a unique situation. I believe it was happening because that is the typical lens teachers use when looking at their students. It’s the way the system works at the moment. We notice what students can not yet do in order to teach them how to do it.

About the same time, Mike Thayer tweeted this:

Tweet

I responded, “I think viewing students’ mistakes as misconceptions helps us see what they do understand rather than focus on what they don’t.” Mike followed up with, “To some extent, I agree. Some mistakes are due to misconceptions – flawed ideas about reality. But others are just…mistakes.”

Mike and I are both doing some serious thinking here, but quite possibly along different paths. (I’m okay with that. I think we were both moving forward in our thinking even if it wasn’t in the same direction.) I think saying ‘misconception’ helps me to look at what it is the student does understand or is able to do. In that way I can build on that knowledge or those skills. Saying ‘mistake’ pushes me to focus on the error alone. To some extent it’s an issue of semantics, but I think semantics often matter far more than we care to admit.

I love creating strategy ladders with my team because it helps me focus on what my students are already able to do. Sometimes I’m amazed at how much we identify that our kindergartners already know and can do. And then I wonder how much more they know and can do that I’m missing because I’m focused on what they don’t know and can’t do yet. I have to shift my lens away from deficits. I need to see their strengths and skills and build from there.

 

 

Strategy Ladder

Based on a common assessment (this time we read The Three Little Pigs and had students retell the story to us) we create a strategy ladder to determine what students are able to do at different levels and then how to help them move from one level to the next.

 

 

West Point, Racism, and Microagressions

I’ve been mulling the hullabaloo over the photo of West Point cadets. In case you’ve missed this, sixteen women of color posed for a photo with fists raised and it has drawn much criticism. It has been suggested that these women are striking a Black Panther salute or that they are in some way advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement.

from CNN

John Burk, a (white) blogger who writes about health and fitness and, frequently, military issues was clearly offended by this. He wrote that this picture was inappropriate because these women “have been making their voices heard more and more behind closed doors to senior ranking officers, until now” and he wrapped up by saying:

Are these the type of “leaders” you want moving down to the line and leading your sons and daughters, graduates with an agenda?

The end result, it seems, is that these women are not going to be punished in any way as they did not violate any regulations. I’m sure this will follow them for some time however. Given what it takes to get to West Point and succeed, these women have worked hard. They deserve better than this.

This highlights a bigger issue for me. White people have read so much into this picture. Assumptions have been made about what this picture meant to these women and what it communicated to others. They are Black Panthers. They are supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. I can only imagine what other, completely wacky assumptions have been made from this photo.

These same people, the ones assuming they completely understand what these young women were saying, are the ones who think the idea of microaggressions is ridiculous. These people who were so confident they understood this picture are the same ones who can not understand how others might be offended by anything they say and do. They will strongly assert that they meant no harm by comments they made or by flying the Confederate battle flag or by touching someone’s hair or any one of so many possibilities. But they have no trouble stating, in no uncertain terms, what these young women intended.

Words and actions can easily be misinterpreted. These young women at West Point are seeing that in action. Unlike many racist acts, overt or unconscious, this picture was created by women of color, people who face racism and sexism on a regular basis. The folks reacting negatively to this picture, the ones reading into it so many messages, have not faced such challenges. That’s one reason it can be so hard for them to recognize or accept the messages they send.

Deficit Model, Part One

For quite some time now I’ve been frustrated when I hear others talking about all that children can’t do. This may be especially true because I teach kindergartners in a high poverty school. That’s a double whammy for many. “These kids can’t do this because they’re kindergartners.” and/or “These kids can’t do this because of their world outside of school.” I don’t buy either of those statements most of the time.

Deficit

from Stephen Hampshire’s flickr

 

I am certain however, that if we believe kids can’t do something we’ve made it significantly less likely that they will. A belief that children can do something is surprisingly powerful. It is, whether intentionally or not, conveyed to students. (If you think kindergartners don’t know if you think they can or can’t do something, you have wildly underestimated them.) If students see that we believe they can do something they are more likely to believe it themselves. We, the teachers, are also more likely to make an effort when we believe kids can do something. If we think they can’t do it, why should we work hard to help them?

This is a far bigger problem for children of color and children living in poverty than most folks want to admit. Systemic racism and classism mean that teachers, like everyone else, tend to have lower expectations for students of color or students living in poverty. The great majority of the time these lower expectations are subconscious. We must step back and carefully inspect and analyze our expectations and beliefs about our students or we will fall prey to society’s beliefs.

Far too often, we make these beliefs in children’s deficits official.

The disproportionate placement of some minority groups in special education continues to be a central problem in the field. As noted in a report by the National Research Council (2002), the categories with the highest incidence of disproportionate minority-group placement are also those categories whose criteria are based on clinical judgment: Educable Mental Retardation, Emotional/Behavioral Disorders, and Learning Disability. The categories whose criteria are based on biologically verifiable conditions—such as deafness or visual impairment—do not show disproportionality by ethnicity.

Across the United States, African American students are represented in the category of Educable Mental Retardation at twice the rate of their white peers; in the category of Emotional/Behavioral Disorders, they are represented at one and one-half times the rate of their white peers. In some states, Native American and Hispanic students are overrepresented in the Learning Disability category (National Research Council, 2002).

From Discarding the Deficit Model in Educational Leadership, February 2007 (Seriously, nearly 10 years ago?!? We’re not farther along than this?)

Slightly more recent, from Paul Gorski at George Mason University:

Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities— standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example—by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on “fixing” disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).

emphasis mine

I don’t believe I can fix the world. I don’t believe I can fix my community. I’m not even sure I know what fixing would look like.

I do know I can walk into my school each and every day with the complete and firm belief that my students can do anything and everything they want to do. I can make sure they know that too. I can give my heart and soul to helping them do that. And that’s worth doing.

Modifications

I’m trying to get back in the habit of going to the gym (it’s been a rough few months for this). Luckily a colleague has recently joined the same gym so we’ve attended some classes together. I’m far more motivated to get out of bed and go when I’m meeting someone.

100 Day Exercises 5

My kinders exercise with great joy and enthusiasm. I could learn from them.

 

One recent morning we did a boot camp. Multiple times during the class our instructor said things along the lines of, “I love the way you’re modifying.” and “You know your body. Modify when you need to, just keep moving.”

It got me thinking about modifications we offer our students. Teachers are great at modifying things to support and scaffold for students. But do we just modify for them all the time? Wouldn’t it be better if they learned how to modify things for themselves?

I can modify in boot camp because I have experience with the different exercises. Along the way I’ve been taught ways to modify certain ones. I watch others in the class to see how they’re doing something in a variety of ways. And I listen to my body. There are clear expectations, “just keep moving” but I have some flexibility.

Do our students know how to modify? If an activity or lesson or project is not challenging them or is too challenging, do they have any idea what to do? I don’t think so. At least not most of the time. I think. most of the time, students only know to do what they’re told. Even if that isn’t working for them. Even if it’s hurting them or not making them stronger.

Teachers differentiate. I think that’s a good thing. Just like the crowd at boot camp kids are all individuals and need different things. One size does not fit all. But differentiating can be time consuming if the teacher is always in charge of it.

Next year I’ll be teaching third graders. I’m thinking about how I can help them make their own decisions about differentiating or modifying. How I can help them listen to themselves to see when a lesson or activity isn’t meeting them where they are. How I can support them in knowing what to do when that happens. How I can give them more independence in their own learning.

Assume Positive Intentions

Positive

Thank you, Kevin Hodgson!

 

I think it’s possible I’ve used this title for post(s) before. I’m too lazy and too rushed to check right now. But it’s an idea that is important to me and that I come back to again and again. This time a couple of blog posts got me going with it.

First, Laura Blankenship wrote, Doing the Best They Can. Laura has worked in higher education and in K-12 so she has an interesting perspective. Her post caught me early on when she wrote:

Back when I was reading a lot of professors’ blogs, there was nothing that would make me quit reading faster than if they spent too much time complaining about students.

I don’t think this is just a professor thing, but I have noticed it on Facebook a lot. I recognize that I get frustrated with my students and I think that’s completely normal. I try to limit sharing my frustration to my husband and some close friends/colleagues at school. Too often my frustration is, I think, more about me than it is about my students. So I don’t want to loudly proclaim that frustration. It’s unfair to my students and not helpful for my mindset.

Laura goes on to write:

There’s an assumption sometimes that students do things almost out of spite.  Or even if it’s not spite, they’re being lazy or disrespectful.

She’s talking about college students but I see this with elementary teachers all the time. I am completely convinced that students do not do things to make us angry or to push our buttons. They might do things to get our attention, but if that’s true we should think about what that means. Children are young. They are not aware of what they are doing, much less why they are doing it. As the adults, we have to be the ones to step back and think about what is happening and what WE can do.

Teacher Tom wrote a post, Mean Girls and Aggressive Boys, that fit so well with Laura’s. Teacher Tom is a pre-school teacher, at the opposite end of the educational spectrum from college students. So reading these two posts close together was powerful for me. Tom and Laura make very similar arguments.

Tom writes about the way we label young children and the problems with that:

Our job as important adults in children’s lives is to help them understand what their behaviors mean, not to label them. And we don’t do that by treating them as we would aggressive, violent adults, but rather by engaging in rational conversation, by honestly discussing our own opinions and values, by helping them come to an understanding of how their behaviors might be perceived by others, by pointing out the difference between cartoons and real life.

We label children because we make assumptions about their behavior. We assume children can control things but aren’t, rather than thinking carefully about whether our expectations are reasonable and why a child might do what they are doing.

Assume positive intentions. Doing so means the work to move forward begins from a place of care (I’m reading Nel Noddings and she’s got me thinking) rather than a place of frustration. It isn’t easy to assume positive intentions but it is worth the effort.

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap

from Alexander Harbich’s flickr

 

For Star Wars Day (may the fourth be with you) I followed my geekiness down a different path. I spent the evening at the Newseum for ASCD’s Whole Child Symposium. The topic for this one was the engagement gap. There is much thinking (and possibly writing) to do about the discussion from this event, but for the moment I’m focused on the topic. The engagement gap.

It used to be that we focused on the achievement gap and we (mostly) walked away from that term due to the belief that it does not accurately describe the problem. Well, that it seems to point its finger in the wrong direction, at least.

So now we have the engagement gap. I’m not totally sold on this term either. First of all, should kids be engaged in school regardless of what school is offering them? If not, then what does an engagement gap mean? Are we to assume that students with higher test scores, higher graduation rates, higher rates of acceptances to college, etc. are more engaged? How are we defining the engagement gap? Who is responsible for students’ engagement in school?

One of the panelists tonight mentioned the opportunity gap. Again, I’m not ready to bite. Are schools the reason students do or don’t have opportunities? I don’t think so. I think that’s a far wider societal issue.

I think the gap is more about culture. We’ve identified a gap between one group of students and another group of students. The gap is visible due to the measures noted above; test scores, graduation rates, college attendance, and such. All of which are significantly impacted by what school is. In fact, using those measures results from what school is. Currently school best serves white, middle class students. (That is a generalization, of course, but I believe it’s true far more often than we want to accept.) So we find a gap between those students well served by school and those not.

As a society, we’ve decided lots of reading is important. Visiting museums or historical sites is good for kids. Having an extensive vocabulary is critical. For our young learners, knowing nursery rhymes and fairy tales is a foundational skill. There are different canons continuing up the ages, mostly made up off literature written by dead white men. There’s a list of famous people over the years kids should know. It tends to be overwhelmingly western and white and male.

If kids lack those things then we feel they are unprepared for school and they often are less successful. Because of how school works. These same students, the ones without the above experiences or skills, may speak three or more languages. They may know how to get all around their area on public transportation. They may be able to do a whole host of traditional dances from their family’s country. They may know the ins and outs of some government agencies or local organizations. They may be able to cook full meals.

The gap is all about what kids lack. But our focus on the gap and on the missing experiences and skills means we’re blind to what is not missing, to what is there. We’ve placed value on certain things and completely devalued others. If we reevaluated our definition of achievement (to return to the initial phrase) we might realize how much all our students bring to the table. We could take those experiences and skills, from the ones school currently desires to the ones no one is even noticing, and use them as building blocks for our students’ future achievement. The path might not look the way it does now, but it might be trod by far more children.

Genuine Appreciation

Teaching kindergartners means I feel appreciated on a daily basis. Each morning at least one student walks in with a drawing or sticker or piece of candy or something else for me. A couple of weeks ago one of my girls brought me an emoji toy from McDonalds. I hung it on my lanyard and have had countless conversations with students at every grade level because of it. Another girl brought me an emoji slap bracelet to match. Kinders appreciate people all the time.

Happy Teachers' Day 2016!

Google Doodle

 

I think that’s my issue with Teacher Appreciation Week (and Mothers’ Day, to be honest). It’s not that I need to be explicitly appreciated every day (no matter what my husband might think). It’s that I think appreciation for a special week or special day isn’t terribly genuine. I won’t ignore Mothers’ Day for my mom and I’m sure it won’t be ignored in my house for me. But it won’t be an exceptionally big deal either. I hope I show my mom how much I appreciate her throughout the year. Just as my students do for me. And my daughters do.

I like the goodies we get during Teacher Appreciation Week. Yesterday it was breakfast. Today it was a lovely reusable bag. Tomorrow it will be lunch. It’s nice. It’s a treat. And I’m taking this week to thank teachers who have and/or do help me in so many different ways. It’s nice to have a reminder to do that. But, in many ways, I’d rather not have Teacher Appreciation Week.

I’d rather we share our appreciation in the moment we feel it. My students draw pictures for me because they feel a desire to do so, not because someone has deemed this the week for such. That’s my model.

When a teacher stays late to sit with a child whose parents didn’t pick them up, share your appreciation. When a teacher works to get a grant to improve something for their school or students, share your appreciation. When a teacher arranges conference after conference to partner with families, share your appreciation. When a teacher coordinates evening events for families or for teachers, events to build community in a school, share your appreciation.

Say thank you when you feel that feeling. Don’t save it for a special week. Don’t save it just for teachers, either.