Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Hidden Contract of Urban Schools

This week, I read on the TeachPaperless Blog Shelly Blake-Plock’s post entitled "Example of a Paperless Exam". I’ve been reading TeachPaperless for more than a year, and it’s one of my favorite blogs. Shelly has inspired me to significantly decrease my paper usage, but the posts I like the most are the one’s in which he describes what he’s teaching and how he’s assessing learning. I love the exam he offers in this post. It’s a great example of using content to apply skills, rather than the exams I see all the time, which are only assessing content, usually through matching, short answer and fill-in the blanks.

For me this exam exemplifies what I want teaching and learning to become in my district, and it also shines a light on all that is difficult about teaching and learning in an urban district. I work on a campus of high schools. These aren’t schools within a school; they are six distinct high schools, with their own staff, students, leadership and themes. There are about 280 teachers combined across all six schools, and I’m responsible for overseeing curriculum and instruction across the campus. Essentially, I’m a principal without a school, and my responsibility is for teaching and learning. My office is on our campus, so I’m in classrooms, working with principals and connecting with students every day.

We have a few teachers who may want to give an exam like this one, but for most teachers it isn’t something they are considering at all. But it isn’t because they don’t care about kids, or they aren’t good teachers. The context of our school community is so important to understanding the challenges of teaching and learning in city schools. Our students come to us with so much baggage. When I entered high school, I was a sponge. I just wanted to learn everything. I had experienced, good, great and mediocre teachers, but my fundamental belief in school as a positive place was clearly embedded in my psyche.

The average student in my district has had a different experience. He/She reads 3-4 years below grade level. Most ninth graders entering our schools have not experienced success in school. The textbook has been too difficult for as long as they can remember. As Hispanic students, primarily from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, they cannot find themselves in any of the curricula we teach. For the English Language Learners, school has been a confusing mix of academic vocabulary with multiple meanings, and lessons taught from the Speak English Louder School of instruction. A culture of low expectations permeates their school experiences. Students don’t think they’re going to be doctors and lawyers, they think they will be medical technicians and paralegals. Most will be the first in their family to graduate from high school; virtually all will be the first to attend college.

The Hidden Contract dominates decision-making in an urban school. In many schools, the implied contract between teacher and student is the following. You the teacher will agree to not challenge me, force me to work hard, embarrass me, or make me struggle, and I the student will not act out, disrupt the class, embarrass or challenge you in any way. This same contract exists between Principal and Teacher as well. If you the teacher do not disrupt my day, excessively ask for students to be removed from your class, push at what should and should not be taught, then I the principal will support your decisions, evaluate you positively and leave you alone. Essentially, between and among all parties; 
you leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone.

I see these contracts in action every day; passive students, sitting in teacher-directed classrooms, answering lower order questions that challenge no one. Students without pencils or paper, teachers without challenging plans, and everyone surprised if a student, a teacher, or administrator wants or expects more from a class. I understand why classrooms are this way. Students are used to failing. They don’t know what success feels like, and failure is no longer scary or painful, it’s become the norm. Teachers want to connect students with whatever passion it is that brought them to the subject they teach, but they are faced with vast gaps in students’ content knowledge, and so called basic skills are so low. Additionally, the reality of poor standardized test scores causes incredible fear. Each teacher faces incredible pressure to teach to the test to give students the best opportunity to pass and earn their high school diploma.

It is in this reality that I view the great exam that Shelly Blake-Plock offered in his blog. How do we change almost everything about the way teaching and learning occurs to bring us to a place where that exam is the norm, rather than an exam offered in some other school with someone’s else’s kids? Do I show teachers this exam to give them a clear picture of where we want to go? Or, will showing this exam to teachers offer a stark reminder of the Grand Canyon between our schools and his?

Relentlessly attacking this hidden contract is where leadership begins in urban schools. As leaders, my colleagues and I have to grab hold of the hours teachers and students are with us, within our shared walls. Every year during the hype leading up to the Superbowl, I think of leading in an urban school. Coaches must find a way to get their players to ignore the hype. They must keep players away from all the opinions, facts, and beliefs about their team and the game ahead. A Superbowl coach must ensure the players hear his voice above the cacophony of the media and the fans.

It’s the same in an urban school. We must find a way to turn the state standardized test scores, the federal calls for turnaround schools, and the local media attacks into white noise for our teachers. We must protect them, nurture them, cheer for them and create a school where failing at student engagement is okay. Until teachers feel safe to fail at engaging their students, we cannot be successful. We must lead efforts to do the same with our students. Together with our teachers, we must create an environment for our students where their past failures and current struggles are irrelevant to the learning occurring in our classrooms. Teachers must be the eye of the storm in our students’ lives. Together, we must give name, shape, and form to the dreams of the better future our students have, but are afraid to say aloud. And once those dreams are named, we must offer a roadmap to achieving them.

We have so much to overcome. But speaking from my own experience, when urban students engage, when the classroom becomes a door to connecting with the world, and students for a moment, or a period, a week, or a semester, see options and choices in their future, it is a profoundly beautiful experience. Ensuring this occurs for all our students and not just those in one classroom is the challenge I love in the work we do.

If we could find a way to get groups of students to succeed on Shelly’s exam, we would hear the hidden contract of school breaking, like a thousand mirrors crashing to the ground. But to get there, from where we are today, is an incredibly long journey.

So I’m struggling this weekend. How do I use this example exam? I need a way to make it an encouraging discussion. We need teaches to leave the discussion feeling empowered, despite our context. We need to turn the discussion away from the abstract and to the concrete, so new and veteran teachers can feel empowered to shift away from content only classrooms. We need to move beyond drill and kill, to meaningfully connecting our students to the world, and engaging them. We need to give up the standard urban classroom relationship of teacher as all knowing and student as empty vessel to be filled. I see all this and more in this one exam example. But I need to make it accessible to our teachers, so I’m still thinking.

Any suggestions?

CC Images:
Bluebell Railway Luggage by Daves Portfolio
Our Direction by B Tal
32-pl by Zephyrance

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