Category: Life in Schools

A Parent’s Reflection on School Letter Grades

Last week, I made the argument that North Carolina’s decision to assign letter grades to individual schools based on nothing more than test scores on final exams was a form of institutional racism that harms communities of poverty and strips support away from the public school system.  I was writing as an advocate for public schools and poor communities — two causes that I feel are under attack by our state’s super conservative legislature.

But I’m not JUST an advocate for public schools and poor communities any more.  I am also the parent of a second grade daughter who attends a public school.  So crappy choices made by our legislators hurt MY kid.  This issue is personal.

My daughter’s school is nothing short of a remarkable place.  EVERY time that I stop by, I feel a sense of happiness from everyone that I meet.  Students smile and skip and laugh and joke with each other and with their teachers.  Teachers are relaxed and joyful, invested in each other and in their students.  Provocative questions are being asked and answered, positive messages are being shared in conversations and in school-wide displays, and programs that concentrate on developing the whole child — from daily Spanish instruction for every student to rich music and art experiences that are valued equally alongside more traditional content-specific subjects — are a priority.

The community overwhelmingly supports my daughter’s school.  Thousands of parents and children turn out for after school events — whether they be teacher talent shows, campus beautification projects, or annual 5K run walks — to work, to play and to celebrate with one another.  Each of these events is a reminder that our school isn’t just a place of learning — it’s a place to belong.  Lots of schools like to talk about being a family.  My daughter’s school actually FEELS like a family.

#simpletruthchat

But they were rated a C — which means something akin to “decidedly average” — by the State of North Carolina last week.  And that has me worried.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m not worried about the current quality of the education that my daughter’s getting.  I’ve seen the impact that the people in her building have had on her.  She is LOVED by darn near everyone and she knows it.  She is learning the kinds of academic and social skills that I want her to learn in a place where learning really IS seen as a joyful act worthy of celebration.   She has role models to look up to who challenge her to be better than who she is — and I am convinced that those role models see her as something much more than just a test score.

What I am worried about is the consequences that a C rating will have on the choices that her teachers make.

My guess is that it has been a stressful beginning of the school year for everyone at my daughter’s school.  In a district that takes a lot of pride from having top “performing” students (read: really high test scores), being rated a C is guaranteed to leave everyone rattled and questioning their practices.  There have probably been some serious conversations about changes that have to be made to get those test scores up for next year — and there is probably external pressure coming from folks in the district office to find solutions so that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”

And there’s NO doubt that those “solutions” are going to strip away some of what makes my daughter’s school such an unique place.  Questions will probably be asked about the value of daily Spanish instruction in a building with low test scores.  Wouldn’t that time or those dollars be better spent on another reading interventionist?  There will probably be more benchmark testing and more students pulled out of specials or out of the regular classroom in order to make sure that they are “progressing enough” to “produce better results” on next year’s end of grade exams.

Her teachers — particularly those with the lowest test scores — are less likely to run with moments of inspiration in the classroom.  After all, student curiosity is messy and time consuming.  Increasing test scores depends on efficiency and focus.  Worse yet, her teachers are more likely to see kids like my daughter — who ISN’T a strong reader — as a frustrating liability instead of as a quirky ball of happy energy.  Why would you celebrate uniqueness when standardized outcomes are the only outcomes valued by the people governing your schools?

There’s even a good chance that these changes — increased stress and pressure, fewer opportunities to celebrate curiosity, shifts away from valuing the whole child to valuing the parts of a child that actually impact a school’s “measurable results” — will drive some of the best teachers away from my daughter’s school. Once you’ve had the chance to work in a place where joyful learning is a priority, it’s hard to see that priority erased in favor of chasing higher test scores.

My only hope is that the teachers of my daughter’s school will realize just HOW important — and HOW valued — their work really is.

There is NOTHING “decidedly average” about the learning space that they have created.  Children feel loved, parents feel welcomed, and students are learning WAY more than a single C rating based on nothing more than standardized tests could ever possibly communicate.  In my book — filled with experiences as a teacher and a professional developer in probably close to 100 schools in dozens of states and several different countries — they are a solid A.  I’d work there in a minute.

But more importantly, I’d send my daughter there for the rest of her school career without any reservation, convinced that she’d be a better person as a result of the care and attention of the teachers that she had a chance to learn from.

#trudatchat

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Related Radical Reads:

Are School Letter Grades a Form of Institutional Racism?

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

Learning > Schooling

 

After __________, What’s Our Role in Promoting Peace?

Having spent the better part of the day yesterday glued to the television set and poking through news feeds reading about the mass shooting of police officers in Dallas — one man’s twisted response to the videotaped deaths of both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — I thought about titling this piece, “After Dallas, What’s Our Role in Promoting Peace?”

But Dallas is just the latest in a long line of violent events in an America where income inequality, divisiveness and injustice have become the new normal — and just like the equally troubling stories of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and #ferguson and Freddie Gray, Dallas and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile will slide from our collective consciousness just as soon as another tragedy happens.

Need proof?  Then consider the fact that the one-year anniversary of the Charleston Church Massacre happened just a few weeks back.  Remember that?  Seems like forever ago, doesn’t it?  Who am I kidding: The Pulse Nightclub Shooting happened less than a MONTH ago, but as a nation, we’ve moved on with one big collective yawn.

What frightens me most is that we’ve become so desensitized to the endless cycle of violence against marginalized groups that we barely even acknowledge events that DON’T involve shootings anymore — think School Resource Officer Ben Fields tossing an African American student all around her high school classroom for being disruptive or police officer David Casebolt turning into Kung-Fu Panda to break up a pool party that had grown too large in McKinney, Texas.

So filling in the blank in my blog post’s title seems kind of pointless.  After all, we are BOUND to have a new tragedy on our hands next week, right?

#sheeshchat

What’s NOT pointless is thinking about the role that educators can play in promoting peace in our country.  Here are three suggestions:

Facilitate Classroom Conversations about Injustice in America:  One of the things that drives me nuts about teachers and schools is that in the name of “protecting our kids,” we avoid conversations about the turmoil surrounding them.  That’s flawed thinking, y’all.  Instead, we should be helping our students to process what they are seeing and feeling in structured classroom conversations.

Doing so gives students an outlet to express their feelings, exposure to multiple viewpoints, and opportunities to better understand the role that tolerance plays in a healthy society.  More importantly, doing so gives students chances to develop the kind of critical thinking and reasoning skills necessary to work through conflict and disagreement productively.

Teach Your Students to Spot Bias in the News Sources:  In our click-first/ask questions later world, bias is easily amplified by cable news outlets who know that controversy sells, by fringe websites catering to either the extreme left or extreme right and by crazy relatives posting hateful memes in our Facebook streams.  Instant access to MORE information — something that we often celebrate in #edtech conversations — doesn’t always mean access to BETTER information.

For educators interested in teaching students to think critically, though, every example of bias in new media sources that is amplified has real value.

So the next time you see popular news sources turning conversations about race and class in America into never-ending streams of angry shouting matches or fringe websites that lean far to the right or far to the left, turn them into teachable moments.  Challenge your students to identify the bias in the source you have selected and respond to it.  Can they spot the loaded words and phrases that give away the speaker’s point of view?  Can they articulate the points that the speaker is choosing to ignore?

The simple truth is that the “news sources” that surround us must be questioned carefully.  Do your students know how to do that?

Call Out Intolerance Over and Over Again:  I think what troubles me the most about the America that we currently live in is that elected officials — and people running for elected office — regularly spew intolerant thoughts and spread intolerant ideas.  Tapping into fears about people who are different, they push notions that immigrants or refugees or people with different sexual identities or preferences are threats to our safety. Light on evidence and heavy on hyperbole, Mexicans become criminals and rapists,  Muslims become radical Islamic terrorists, and transgender citizens become perverts who want to shower with our daughters.

Can we really be surprised that we live in a divided nation when the people who we have chosen to represent us have very limited definitions of who “us” really is and stand ready to denigrate or demean or insult anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into those definitions?

What does that mean for classroom teachers?  It means we need to use the intolerant statements made by people running for elected office as teachable moments, too.  Ask the kids in your classroom to examine those kinds of blanket statements to determine whether they are true or false, to question the evidence used to support intolerant claims and to think about the impact that narrow-minded words have on members of targeted groups.  Equality suffers when intolerance goes unquestioned — particularly when that intolerance is being spread by the people who want to represent us.

Long story short:  Promoting peace in America isn’t going to be easy.  Until our elected officials are willing to recognize that our economic and social policies have created an entire country of haves and have nots, we are bound to have more moments of senseless violence that rips us apart.

But teachers can play an active and important role in strengthening our fractured nation by engaging kids in conversations about justice, teaching students to question their news sources, and calling out intolerance in the comments made by elected officials.  Doing so might just help to ensure that tomorrow’s citizens are better prepared to participate in a diverse, democratic society than today’s appear to be.

#truth

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Related Radical Reads:

#charlestonchurchshooting

#ferguson

Are Our Schools Safe Places for Kids Who Are Different?

Are You Standing Up for Tolerance?

 

 

Simple Truth: Kids Want to Be Noticed.

Back at the end of April, I decided to spend a few minutes each day writing positive notes to the parents of every student on my learning team.  It was a simple idea, driven by the stark reality that the only time parents ever heard from me was when their child had dropped the ball academically or socially.  My goal:  To make sure that the parents of my students knew that their kids were valued.

So I sat down during my lunch period and wrote to two students per day for just over two months to get through my entire middle school roster.  

What I learned first was that the notes I was writing were having as much of an impact on me as they were on my students and their parents.  Intentionally writing about the positives that I saw in students meant that I was always looking for those positives — and spotting positives put me in a different frame of mind every day.

More importantly, consistently spotting positives tempered my reaction when students made poor choices in class.  It’s easier to coach a kid that you believe in than it is one that you’ve grown frustrated with — and believing in kids is easier when you are writing about their successes every single day.

What really blew me away, though, was the reaction that my students had to the letters that I was writing.

They knew that if I handed them an envelope, it was a positive letter celebrating their strengths — and almost without fail, they opened it immediately to see what I had written.  I loved watching their reactions.  They’d start with serious looks on their faces, not quite sure what to expect.  Then, they’d inevitably sit a little taller, put their cards back in the envelope, and smile.

Wanting to know more about the impact that positive notes had on my students, I had them answer a simple question for me in Socrative last week:  Should Mr. Ferriter continue writing to his students next year?  Did you appreciate receiving your letter?  Why/Why Not?

What I learned from their responses was SUPER instructive.  Many students talked about enjoying the anticipation that came along with waiting to receive their notes from me.  They knew that I was going to celebrate something that I’d seen in them and they couldn’t wait to find out what that “something” was going to be.  They also totally dug their parents’ reactions to their letters.    “We had a whole family meeting about my letter!” one boy wrote.  “Mine ended up on Facebook,” said another.  “I don’t even know what my mom did with it,” said a third.  “It’s probably in that box of special things she keeps about me.”

But the message shared over and over again was that my kids just appreciated being noticed.  Read some of these comments:

It was nice to know that the teachers actually pay attention to you and notice you. This shows that the teacher appreciates everyone and not just a few students. I really appreciated the letter because I knew Mr. Ferriter cared when I got it.

I apprecated getting my letter because I don’t ever get bad reports from school, I just rarely get anything. This helps my parents and I hear something from school other than numbers and gives a more personal aspect to that.

Its nice for the kids and their parents to receive something almost like a reward for being a good student. Sometimes, the only students who get “recognized” for good things are the kids who normally do bad things whereas its expected from the other kids.

I really did appreciate it because usually you never know where you stand with a teacher and it gives you a kind’ve confudent boost.

I felt appreciated when he wrote the letter to me. And it made me feel proud about myself that I’ve been working hard in science this year and have been paying attention in science class.

I think you should definitely keep doing these because sometimes I don’t always feel like I am doing the best or even that I am noticed in class, but this definitely reassured me that I am doing good and hopefully it will help brighten other kids and let them know you appreciate our effort and work. 🙂

That was an eye opener for me, y’all.

I knew that making every child feel noticed was an uphill battle — particularly in a middle school where I serve 100+ students in 55-minute class periods every single day.  But I never realized just how much feeling noticed mattered to my kids.  To hear student after student talk about how good it felt to realize that I was noticing all that was unique about them was the evidence that I needed to prove that the time I spent writing this year was more than worthwhile.

My only change for next year:  I’m going to start writing during the first quarter!  With luck, I’ll be able to write to every kid at least twice before the year ends.

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Related Radical Reads:

When Was the Last Time You Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

This is Why I Teach:  They Make Cards

This is Why I Teach:  Individual Moments Matter

 

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

Most of Radical Nation knows that I am the proud father of a beautiful, funny, curious girl named Reece.  I love darn near everything about her — the sweet notes that she’s taken to leaving on my nightstand, her excitement about riding bikes or learning to hit a baseball, the fact that Who Was history biographies are her favorite things to read, the constant questions that she’s asking in an attempt to understand the world around her.  “Tell me something about science Dad,” or “Tell me something about our Presidents” are the most common conversation starters in our home.

Need proof that she’s something special?  A recent homework assignment asked her to generate a survey question to ask others that had three potential responses.  The example on the classroom handout was, “What color eyes do you have – Blue, Brown or Green?” Reece’s question:  “Who was your favorite person in history — Clara Barton, Einstein or Picasso?”

#loveher

But she came home from school broken the other day.

She’d gotten her progress report for the fourth quarter and it was full of low scores for things like her ability to sound out letters and to fluently read text.  She was also in a panic over her weekly spelling test — which she always struggles on because letter sounds really aren’t her strength.  “Dad, I’m dumb.  Everyone else is smarter than me — they don’t have any ones on their progress reports — and my friends say they are better than I am because I have ones on my report card and they have lots of fours and I don’t have any fours,” she said while crying her way through her bedtime routine.

Her tears tore me up.  I felt like I had failed her somehow by not finding a way to help her master her reading and spelling just as fast as her classmates even though I know that reading is a developmental skill that takes some kids longer to master than others; I was angry that progress reports had turned into an “I’m better than you are” competition in her social group; and I was panicked about the realization that my daughter was falling behind academically simply because I know what “falling behind” can mean for her long term future.

Mostly, though, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness that anxiety over grades — which continue to define everything about the work that we do in traditional schools — has creeped into the back of my daughter’s  joyful, unpredictable mind.  Instead of seeing the scores on her progress report as nothing more than evidence that we can use to spot areas where she needs more practice and polishing, she sees them — like most students and parents who have spent their lives being ranked and sorted by the public school system — as a judgment of her self-worth as person.  In her mind, her progress report is proof positive that she’s “not as good” as her peers.

And she’s only six years old.

#sheesh

Now don’t get me wrong:  I don’t hold my daughter’s school, teacher, or classmates accountable for any of this.  Progress reports are required by our system and grades are “just how we’ve always done things” in education.  What’s more, there’s nothing inaccurate about the marks that Reece has earned.  She really does struggle with letter sounds, she really hasn’t gotten as far down the road to being a reader as her peers, and she really is still spelling phonetically.  If I were filling out her progress report, she would have earned the exact same marks.

But it leaves me even more committed to the notion that the kind of feedback that we provide to students in our classrooms needs to change.

Students — especially those who struggle to master expected outcomes — should be gathering and recording evidence of the progress that they are making on a daily and weekly basis.  More importantly, they should be actively comparing their own progress against examples of mastery and setting individual goals for continued improvement.  Finally, they should have as strong an understanding of what they’ve mastered as they do of the skills that they are struggling with.  Evidence of learning has to mean something more than “here’s what you haven’t learned yet.”

If that kind of ongoing student-involved assessment were the norm in our classrooms, progress reports would be a source of celebration and continued reflection — instead of embarrassment and shame — for kids like Reece.

#trudatchat

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Related Radical Reads:

Welcoming the Newest Radical

My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten!

New Feedback Activity: Not Yet/You Bet Lists

This is Why I Teach: Watching Kids Learn

Over the last few days in class, my students have been working on an activity designed to introduce them to the similarities and differences between elements, mixtures and compounds.  It’s pretty dry stuff, to be honest — and the chances are that no matter how successful you’ve been in your life, you probably couldn’t tell me much about the concepts that my kids are expected to master before the end of our matter unit.

That’s the worst part of teaching a subject like science.  

While sixth graders are naturally curious about the world around them and FULL of wonder questions worth studying, much of what we are required to teach — and what our students are required to learn — are handfuls of isolated concepts and vocabulary words that will be forgotten before we even begin our next unit.

But something happened today to remind me that teaching is remarkable even on the days when it can feel like a complete and total grind.

It started when a boy I’ll call Mike* — one of the happiest kids on our learning team — rolled into my room during our school-wide enrichment period.  I could tell that something was bothering him because he didn’t even say hello to me.  He just sat down behind a computer, opened up our elements, compounds and mixtures task, and stared at the screen.  He was stuck on the second task:  Brainstorm a list of three metaphors for elements, compounds and mixtures.  Explain the strengths and the weaknesses of your metaphors.

I wasn’t surprised that Mike was stuck.  Thinking metaphorically is a complicated task for many kids.  But I knew that being stuck was driving Mike — a confident, capable student used to succeeding at darn near everything — completely NUTS.  I could see him wrestling with his own ideas, with his confidence, and with what to do next.  Asking a question would be a vulnerable act for a kid not used to feeling vulnerable in school.  But NOT asking a question would mean earning a poor grade, something that Mike couldn’t handle either.

A few minutes later, he called me over for help.  “Mr. Ferriter,” he asked, “I’m having trouble figuring out how to come up with a metaphor for a science concept.  I’m not sure I know what you mean.  Can you help me?”

Together, he and I reviewed what metaphors were.  Then, we looked at several of the sample metaphors that other students had already generated for the class.  I could see Mike’s confidence building moment by moment — and knew that he’d “gotten it” a few minutes later when I asked him whether a Lego set would best represent a homogeneous or heterogeneous mixture.  “Heterogeneous!” he answered correctly with a sense of both amazement and relief in his voice!

Mike spent the rest of the day brainstorming metaphors — and it was so much fun to watch.  When he found a good one, he’d come up and quiz ME:  “So how about this one, Mr. Ferriter:  How is a screwdriver like an element?” or “Why is a raindrop in a thunderstorm a BAD metaphor for a mixture?”

My favorite moment:  Finding several new metaphors written in Mike’s handwriting on our classroom brainstorming list at the end of the day.  “Mike — have you been writing on my board?” I asked.  His answer:  A HUGE smile that warmed every corner of my heart.

Stew in that story for a minute, would you?  Can you see the beauty in it? 

I had the chance to help a boy who was wrestling with his self-confidence today.  I had the chance to prove to him that he COULD work through a challenging task and succeed no matter how hard it seemed.  I had the chance to witness the moment where the concept clicked AND the pure joy that came along with learning something new.  I had the chance to see him refining his understandings through repeated practice and playing with ideas in a way that he hadn’t ever played with them before.

THOSE are the moments that I live for, all y’all.  

I don’t teach because I’m passionate about compounds, mixtures and elements.  I don’t teach because I’m convinced that every kid has to leave our schools with a strong understanding of the chemical and physical properties of matter.  I don’t teach because I believe that mastery of scientific concepts is essential for success in tomorrow’s world.

I teach because there’s nothing like watching kids learn something new and knowing that you played some small role in helping them to get there.

#truDATchat

#whyIteach

 

*Blogger’s Note: Not his real name.

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Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach: The #SugarKills Gang

This is Why I Teach: They Care Enough to Make Cards

This is Why I Teach: Individual Moments Matter