Teacher Vulnerability: 3 Big Changes for Teachers in the ESSA Era

“So what does this mean? Two of the biggest potential change levers of NCLB were never fully utilized. Whatever lens we use to look back on the No Child Left Behind and judge its relative success or failure, it’s important to consider not just what the law attempted to prescribe but how that was actually carried out in local schools, districts and states.”  — From an Education Writers Association blog post

This blog post is an extension of the one linked above, and an exploration of what the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will look like in the classroom in the context of a post-No Child Left Behind education system.

ESSA has been given both praise and criticism by educators, policymakers, and parents alike, but across the board, the tone of discussion is fairly optimistic; this is primarily because ESSA has given much of the control that NCLB had back to the states and districts. Specifically speaking, states and districts control whether or not they use standards, what those standards will be, measures of student and school achievement, and have much more flexibility as far as how much funding states and districts receive and where it is spent on.

This kind of state and district control is widely regarded as a rare opportunity to totally change what has been considered a problematic system. It allows districts to improve low income schools and close the achievement gap in a way that rejects the one-size-fits-all policies in NCLB while still holding states, districts, and schools accountable.

This optimism, however, must be met in equal measure with action. While NCLB was not perfect by any means, it did offer support for low income families and students of color in low income schools — like the tutoring and transfer policies listed in the quote above — but schools failed to take advantage of the programs or they were presented to the families in a bias way.

The same will happen with the freedom offered in ESSA if we are not careful; if we don’t take this opportunity that has been offered and work hard to use it to transform the way we run our schools and the way we work to close the achievement gap, we will spend the next 10 years failing our students and blaming poor education reform.

It is the teacher’s responsibility, in the classroom, to know the programs that are in place to help their disadvantaged or underserved students. If a student needs specific help or resources, the teacher will be the first connection to getting the funding or the program the students needs.

So what does ESSA mean for teachers in the classroom?

  1. Teacher Responsibility: Knowing what programs are available, knowing the systems in place under current education policies to help underserved students, knowing the best way to help your students by using the resources available to you. You can’t offer your students the best if you don’t know what’s out there.
  2. Teacher Flexibility: Because so much more freedom has been given to states and districts, teachers have an unprecedented opportunity to transform K-12 education in the United States, whether that be through NextGen or digital learning, project based assessments or Standards Based Grading, this is the time for teachers to take risks with the latest and greatest teaching techniques. This means being brave and vulnerable, something teachers under NCLB rarely had the opportunity to do. Take advantage of these opportunities, learn from your mistakes, and press on.
  3. Teacher Advocacy: Though ESSA makes considerable improvements for underserved students, teachers must continue to be their #1 advocates. You are the connection between the student and their family and all the resources that are put in place to help them; it is your responsibility to see the need and make those connections, otherwise low income students will continue to fall through the cracks and the achievement gap will continue to widen.

While the freedom granted to states and districts under ESSA is encouraging, policies are only as strong as the educators who implement them.

In the ESSA-era, educators must be brave, bold, and vulnerable, and work to truly transform our current system into one that works for all students, regardless of zip code or school district.

Advertisements

The Privilege Walk in the Classroom

[MORNING PAGES 4/14/16]

For those who do not know, the Privilege Walk is an exercise designed to help people better understand what their privilege looks like, and how much their privilege separates them from others.

If I were to participate in the privilege walk, I would definitely land near the front. I recognize that I have so many privileges that make living my life easier and safer. If I were participating as a student in a classroom, I would feel uncomfortable; looking behind me and seeing my peers wouldn’t sit right with me. But that’s the point of the activity — to provide a visual of the privileges that others have to overcome that you do not. I would also be angry, perhaps, at the people that would be in front of me — it would feel like a hierarchal chain, which, in some ways, is what this activity represents — the hierarchy of power based on privilege in the U.S.

As a teacher, would I use this activity in my classroom? As valuable and important as I think this activity is, I don’t think I could ask my students to participate in it. Not because it is uncomfortable — the best kind of learning happens outside our comfort zones. And not because I don’t think they could handle the information or that they would react badly to it — I confidently feel that having that honest conversation would be not only possible, but productive, invaluable. But I couldn’t ask my students to do it. It requires them to reveal very personal information about themselves; how much money their family makes, if they feel embarrassed at school, their sexuality, their gender identity, and so much more. I would never want to unintentionally out a student, or make a student the target of scrutiny based on family income. It’s a tough thing, because I want my students to understand the different privileges they have or the obstacles they must overcome, and I want to ask them to be vulnerable, but I feel as though this activity is asking too much of high school students.

The adults in this video are just that — adults. They have maybe left dangerous situations of their youth or have come into contact with their privilege (or lack thereof) in the real world. Asking high school students to do this is a very different situation.

I want students to be vulnerable, but on their own terms.

Advocacy Action Plan:a work in progress

As I’m putting together the final pieces of my Advocacy Action Plan, I’m spending a lot of time in really negative spaces online, particularly websites for anti-lgbtq organizations, and even several organizations that are specifically against queer and trans teachers; as a preservice teacher who identifies as bisexual, some of the things these organizations believe and perpetuate are really discouraging. It’s hard for me to understand that people believe I am a lesser teacher or even dangerous influence on their children because of my sexuality.

And the more I researched, the more discouraged I became.

Legally, myself and my fellow queer educators can be fired in 29 states, while trans educators are left unprotected in 32 — just on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

With this amount of workplace discrimination alive and well, it occurred to me that in order to keep my job, I may also have to keep my sexual orientation a secret — something I haven’t had to do since high school.

I sit now in a place of severe shock. Discouraged as I am, I know all of this will not always be true. I know it is possible for a few dedicated individuals to act as a catalyst for a life-changing movement — and I invite you to be a small part of that right here right now, in less than one minute.

 

The 1 Minute Advocate: 32 of the 45 Republican senators in Congress voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would protect LGBT workers from workplace discrimination. While you are welcome to tweet them all (full list here), I’ve provided the most high profile of the group:  @tedcruz @RandPaul, @BobbyJindal, @LindseyGrahamSC, @ChuckGrassley, @ScottWalker. Your job is to tweet them with the hashtag #TeachwithPride, either crafting your own tweet or using the template below:

“@_______ LGBTQ teachers should be protected by #ENDA. #TeachOurKidsTolerance by proving you believe the same. #TeachwithPride”

 

Every person has the right to be protected against discrimination; every teacher has the right to feel respected in their own classrooms. This is why I support #ENDA and LGBTQ teachers in classrooms across the United States. Workers have the right to safety in the workplace, and teachers have the right to #TeachwithPride. Change starts here, with us, showing that support.

Happy Tweeting!

One Book: The Importance of Being a Teacher Reader

[MORNING PAGES 4/13/16]

Reading; As an English major, I do a lot of it. And I love it, and I’ve always loved it. There is a specific moment, however, that took me from passing interest to a lifelong pursuit, one moment that set me off chasing after books all my life — and it was the moment I took To Kill a Mockingbird into my hands.

And I suppose I less “took it into my hands” and was more thrust toward it by one of the most amazing and influential teachers I’ve ever met. She had our entire class read the novel my freshman year of high school, but rather than just reading, we also wrote about and discussed the novel. It was the first time I felt like I was allowed to think something about the things I read, and not only that, but share those things with my classmates, with the people other than myself. It was the first time I felt my ideas about literature had merit, that I could think things about To Kill a Mockingbird that no one ever had, or that were important or relevant.

This is how I want my students to feel about what we read. I want them to invest in the novels they pick up, and develop ideas about them. I want them to fall in love with literature the way I  did, of course, and I know not all of them will. But I also know that there is one book out there for everyone, one book that they will pick up to read over and over again — one book that will make them wonder “Maybe there are more…”

Ultimately, students will not be comfortable in the role of Student Reader if you don’t show them what being a reader looks like. It is so important for teachers to read as much as they ask their students to read, and read what their students are reading. Being a teacher reader is every bit as important as being a teacher writer.

Preservice Teaching Experiences in the Classroom

[MORNING PAGES 4.7.16]

Though I’ve only been in the classroom for a year (and when I am in the classroom it is someone else’s, and only one or two classes per week), a lot of fond memories come to mind when I try to think of my favorite moment thus far.

The one that immediately comes to mind was very recent; it occurred while one of my very good friends taught his first ever lesson to a classroom of 6th graders at Conrad Ball Middle School. His lesson involved an activity that gave me a lot of time to walk around, see how students were doing, and help them if they needed it.

So as students began writing their hook, claim, evidence, and reasoning, I began to walk around and see who needed some guidance. One student in particular was struggling with the difference between hook and claim; he was a very logically-minded student, and the idea of something semi-creative like a hook was harder for him to grasp. This was especially frustrating for him, because he is considered one of the brightest students in the class.

I sat down next to him; he didn’t notice because he had his face in his hands, visibly upset. He jumped when I said his name, not noticing I had been there, and that broke the tension he was feeling — we both laughed.

Then we got to work. I mostly joked with him about the article they were writing on, speaking casually and (seemingly) without direction. My goal was for him to loosen up a little bit and be able to understand that a hook is no pressure, and can even be fun.

He eventually got there, writing a hook he was proud of and finishing the rest of his paragraph. It was one of the first true teaching moments I had, where a student was struggling and I was able to use what I had learned to help.

Slam Poetry and Teaching: the importance of maintaining the student mindset

Outside of becoming an educator, one of the things I love to do is slam poetry. I write poetry for a lot of the same reasons I blog about education and write about literature — to put myself in a different mindset. I spend a lot of time thinking like a preservice teacher, a student, a woman, an employee, etc., which also means I spend a lot of time in the present, in my privilege, not necessarily remembering what my life used to be like or where it might be going.

I write poetry to put myself back in the state of mind I was in when things were hard, or just different. I write poetry to remind myself that I wasn’t always who I am, that I came from somewhere, that I, too, was born knowing nothing and worked my ass off to get where I am. I write poetry to humble myself. To remind myself. To get out of my own head so I can better understand other people.

So, the following is a kind of letter to the kids I went to middle school with, with a better knowledge of who I was then, and who they were, too. It’s also a kind of list of things I wish I could’ve said, or the way I wish I would’ve handled things back then. A reflection, a memory, a wish: it is all of these and more.

 

Just Enough

I know I’m not the prettiest girl on the playground.
I know I have teeth that sit in my mouth like too many kids at a lunchroom table,
as uncomfortable as I am when there are not enough places to sit.

I know I stand too tall,
my knees purpling from the desks they spend so much time squashed underneath;
But my mother always says I’m an oak tree,
and everyone knows the tallest branches see the most sunlight,
and those aren’t bruises on my knees
but the knots on the trees that mark hard times lived through,
the way people’s scars do.

I know I talk too much,
my words tumbling over each other like so many waves on a beach;
some people lose their footing in its riptide.
My mother says there will be people who learn to swim,
who listen like they’ve never seen the ocean
and all my water words will be like fresh air to them.

I know I sing too loud when I have headphones in,
and I’m too old to be so afraid of the dark,
and maybe shouldn’t wear the same scooby doo t-shirt everyday,
and no one has ever asked me to the school dance;

But I also know that I love to sing too loud,
and the glow-in-the-dark stars glued to my wall are not only super cool,

but also make the light behind my eyes glow green like forest sunshine or spaceships,
and my best friend gave me that scooby-doo t-shirt right before she moved away,
and who says you need a date to go to a dance, anyway?

So maybe I am not too much,
too this or too that.
Maybe I am made of the same stuff as the mountains,
as the treetops and the oceans;
maybe I am that big, that important.

Maybe you are, too.

Maybe instead of too much, we are all just enough.

Poverty, Advocacy, and Education: Two Organizations Working to Close the Achievement Gap

As I work through my Teacher As Advocate badge, I’m forced to consider more carefully and closely what I believe about education policy and how it operates in the classroom — which is, of course, exactly why I chose to work on this badge.

 

As I’ve worked through level 1 and 2 of this badge, I’ve found myself focusing on poverty in education, how low-income students and students of color face disproportionate dropout rates, teacher turnover, lack of quality resources, and barriers to higher education. Though I’ve found a lot of statistics recognizing the problems, I had yet to find many organizations focusing on these issues comprehensively and specifically.

So I’ve chosen to explore two organizations focused on helping low income students and students of color, Teach for America and The Education Trust. I’ll go through both organizations’ missions, impacts, actions, and programs and work through which approaches work the best, the focus of each organization, and if they’re programs are really working.

First, Teach for America. Though I’ve heard of it before, I had never done much research. According to their website, their mission is “to enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.” They list three strategies to achieve this mission: ENLIST diverse and promising educators to teach in low income schools, DEVELOP teacher training programs that equip said teachers with what they need, and MOBILIZE their teachers by encouraging them in their careers after their two years with TFA.

Next, The Education Trust. This is an organization I hadn’t heard about until I started my research, but one I quickly fell in love with. On their website they site their goal Our goal as being “to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement that consign far too many young people — especially those from low-income families or who are black, Latino, or American Indian — to lives on the margins of the American mainstream.” They work in both K-12 and higher education, and focus on both changing practices within the classroom based on extensive collected data and research as well as changing problematic policy and legislation, all to the purpose of closing the achievement gap.

Overall, I would say The Education Trust is more comprehensive and holistic than Teach for America when it comes to closing the achievement gap for students living in poverty and students of color. While The Education Trust focuses on many the many factors that contribute to the achievement gap — biased policy, less funding/resources based on zipcode, teacher turnover, lack of new techniques in low income schools — TFA is hyper-focused on teacher responsibility. TFA does, however, include teacher diversity as a focus, while Education Trust does not; TFA has different “community initiatives” where they encourage the inclusion of diversity in the teacher workforce, which is wildly important and often ignored. Though over 40% of students in the U.S. are students of color, only 7% of teachers are black, and less than 2% identify as Asian American, while nearly 80% are white. TFA uses its community initiatives to even out those numbers, and cites the importance of students having role models that share their backgrounds.

TFA, however, doesn’t really focus on long-term change in their communities; their teachers only teach for two years, meaning that students experience many different teachers in and out of their classrooms, and the lasting affects or long-term goals they’ve created cannot be supported by the mentors they began their journey with. The Education Trust focuses more on long term improvement of low income communities, believing that only concentrated and sustained effort can close the achievement gap once and for all.

The most important takeaway from my research was that both organizations are doing incredible work in the education field, and that there is still so much to do if we want to close the achievement gap anytime soon.

Low income students and students of color deserve and need our attention if they are going to succeed in a system that was built against them. If we’re going to close the achievement gap and really help students in poverty succeed, we must encourage diversity and quality in education, as well as fight policies that don’t support comprehensive support and — most importantly — be powerful advocates for all of our students.

Teacher Kindness: How to Deal with Bullies

[MORNING PAGES 4.5.16]

The number one way to prevent bullying is to create safe spaces. If students feel like you’ve created a space just for them in your classroom, a space where they can practice empathy and kindness and vulnerability, there won’t be any bullying in your classroom. Kids don’t become bullies when they feel safe and cared for. And though kids outside your classroom may bully one of your students, if you’ve created that safe space, they will always feel able to talk to you or their peers about it.

So, how do you create that kind of classroom environment?

Start with you. Let the students in your classroom know that you care, care about them beyond academics and school and just about them as people, by investing in their lives. Help them every way you can in the classroom, ask them about their lives outside the classroom, pay attention, give precise praise, let them problem solve on their own. If they feel cared for, the effort they put it will match the effort you are putting in.

If you’re trying to care for all your students, how do you deal with a bully?

This is tricky, but I try to remember something I learned from an amazing teacher in Loveland this year: always start by finding the root of the problem. Before you even think about punishment, figure out why that student is doing what they’re doing. It could be problems at home, problems with one specific student, or they don’t understand the content of your class so they feel the need to lash out at others to regain control.

When it comes to dealing with bullies, there’s something every teacher has and can use effectively: Kindness.

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

Talking with Antero Garcia about Teacher Advocacy

This week I had the opportunity to sit down with Antero Garcia, an assistant professor in English at Colorado State University and highly regarded expert in Teacher Advocacy. His blog, The American Crawl, is definitely worth reading if you’re interested in all things education. Though we only talked for a few minutes, Antero changed the way I thought about my own education and why being a teacher advocate is so important.

Because our time was so short, I only got the chance to ask Antero one question: What do you think about the No Child Left Behind Act, and how does it compare to the Every Student Succeeds Act (signed by the Obama Administration just months ago)? And, of course, how does all of this relate to teacher advocacy?

He talked about the failures and holes of NCLB — too much testing, too much federal government control, not enough student/teacher input — and how ESSA plugs many of those holes, though it’s obviously not perfect; there is still standardized testing, though not quite as much, and the control has shifted from the federal to the state level, where it will then disperse to the districts.

Then he brought up something I had never considered. We, meaning my generation of teachers, grew up entirely immersed in NCLB; we don’t know any other way of learning, because NCLB is all we’ve experienced. That being said, we know NCLB is deeply flawed — it’s not conducive to student learning, which is why it has been rewritten as ESSA. This means that we as teachers have to consider: the way we learned in K-12 is not necessarily the best way to learn. How do we create a learning environment that helps both students and teachers succeed if we’ve never seen one in action before?

By becoming teacher advocates.

It is more important than ever for my generation of teachers to learn all there is about education, new techniques and tools and ideas from teachers and learners all over the country, because we have to be the ultimate experimenters, and build a classroom environment to teach in that is perhaps drastically different than the ones we learned in.

Overall, what I gained from my discussion with Antero was the importance of teacher advocacy, specifically for this next generation of teachers. As a teacher advocate, I hope to gain all the tools and ideas I can to help my students learn to their highest potential.

Technology in Schools: A Wedge in the Achievement Gap

[MORNING PAGES 3.31.16]

I’ve struggled with the question of technology in the classroom for awhile: whether it helps or hinders students, whether it’s a device or a distraction, whether or not it’s actually adding anything to the lesson, and (most importantly) how it affects low income students.

Technology, though it can be a great tool in classrooms that can afford it, has become a wedge in the achievement gap, widening it beyond outdated textbooks and old desks; students who don’t have access to high-level technology in high school or lower are significantly less prepared for college than students who have been using it their whole lives. The current job market today is growing exponentially because of jobs in technology and computer science; when low income schools are left out of the technology boom, they are left out of an entire job market, the entirely new economy that we’re building.

It’s a difficult problem. We don’t want to take tech away from the kids who are fortunate enough to have it, but we don’t have the resources to get it to the kids who don’t.

I, of course, don’t have a simple solution — no one does. It’s not a simple problem. The best case scenario would be to find funding for technology in low income schools, which is of course much easier said than done.

It’s a problem I don’t have a lot of suggestions for, but one that we definitely must begin seriously addressing if we are serious about giving all students an equal opportunity to learn.