Saturday, January 20, 2018

Is It Getting Better?

I write mostly about my experiences in our inner city school. I purposefully stay away from the teacher experience for several reasons. First, while I’m still very much a teacher, I’m no longer a classroom teacher. And secondly, it’s next to impossible to write all the contextual pieces that are needed to really understand what it means to teach in our environment. Sometimes what I write is misinterpreted-it’s easy to misinterpret when a reader unknowingly places their often white, middle class values about school, and teaching and learning on my school context. It’s not a stretch to say my school is on a different planet from most edu-blogosphere and edu-twitter users’ schools. So I worry about how my teachers will be perceived if I write about their experiences.

This week, in response to my last post, Matt Mineau asked about the teacher experience at our school, and then again in a google hangout we held a few days ago, he asked, “Is it getting better?” So, as long as you, the reader, agree to direct any of your frustration about teaching and learning at my school, at me, and not at my teachers, I’ll give sharing their experiences a shot.

You know that game, Two Truths and a Lie? It’s the first descriptor that comes to mind in trying to answer Matt’s question of “Is it getting better?” So let’s play the game:
  • It’s getting better all the time
  • Students are learning
  • We’ve never been this good, and we’re still a million miles from where we need to be.
Which are the truths and which is the lie?

Before I answer, let me try and paint a picture of what it is to teach in this environment. Most teachers have classes of 25-32 students. Not terrible, and not great either. Teachers teach five 54 minute periods per day, they have one 54 minute period off, and one 40 minute lunch period. I’ve worked hard to ensure that almost every teacher is only teaching two different courses and not three. Mostly, teachers are broken down into teaching 9th grade only, 9/10, and 11/12. First period starts at 8:00 AM. The doors open for students at 7:30 AM to come in and have a free breakfast. 100% of our students receive free breakfast and lunch. We’re not a neighborhood school, so students come to us from all over the city. There aren’t any school busses for students, so everyone takes public transportation to get to school. We have students who arrive at school with plenty of time to eat and be ready for first period, and we have plenty of students who leave their homes between 6:00 AM and 6:30 AM and the bus drops them off at school between 8:15-8:30. That is absolutely the earliest they can get to school, and they miss most of first period every day. There are seven required graduation tests in the state of Ohio. The tests aren’t terrible. They are assessing learning and application of learning. They are similar in style and scope to the MCAS in Massachusetts and the Regents in New York.

60% of entering 9th graders every single year, read and do math below a 5th grade level. At a meeting for my own first grade son this week, I learned that he scored a 168 on the NWEA, MAP Reading Assessment. I have a group of 9th graders scoring between 185-195. That means they are reading at or around a second grade level-as 9th graders. Just take that in again. My first grade son, who is an emerging reader, is just a little behind a to-large group of my 9th grade students.

Most students have lost someone to violence. Most students live in single parent homes. Most students live with their mother or grandmother. I have several amazing fathers engaged in our school-but most students don’t engage academically with their fathers.

Our students come to school hungry. They come to school cold. They arrive angry. Many exhibit the signs of PTSD-and receive no counseling services. A large group need glasses and don’t have them. A percentage of that group needs glasses, don’t have them and have no idea they need glasses. Picture your own high school or middle school. How many students wear glasses and/or have braces? I think I have two students with braces. And dozens of students who cannot see the front of the classroom because they don’t have access to glasses.

If you came to my school and asked one question- “What vegetable do you like to eat?” The most common answer would be-ranch dressing. There’s a supermarket, and it’s a good one, across the street from my school. But there aren’t supermarkets in any of my students’ actual neighborhoods. Think of the implications of that-there is no access to fresh fruits and vegetables for virtually all of my students. Students start eating hot cheetos, doritos, and soda on their way to school. That’s breakfast, lunch and often dinner. Or McDonalds-McDonalds is common for breakfast and dinner too. Students who never eat anything healthy are grumpy. They get tired easily, and they exist in a perpetual state of hangriness. Students have headaches all day. They are dehydrated, malnourished, and perpetually tired. And then they go to class and my teachers have to figure out how to engage them.

This week, my American History teacher was teaching about Federalism. My World History teacher, Nationalism. In Biology, it was Genetics. And in Physical Science it was Force. In Algebra, it was graphing functions. Pop Quiz: How would you teach Federalism to students reading at a 2nd grade level? A fourth grade level? And if that question feels too abstract, how about this one. How would you teach your elementary aged child to drive a car? It’s the same type of question. How do you teach someone with huge gaps in their knowledge and experiences? How do you teach someone Functions who hasn’t yet learned how to divide? How do you teach Genetics to someone who hasn’t learned cause and effect? How do you teach Nationalism to someone who has never left Cleveland, and doesn’t know that Europe isn’t a country? There are lots of difficult jobs out there. I’m not in the competition game-but it’s hard to convince me there is a more difficult job than teaching in the inner city.

How would you teach students who are hungry, and angry, with gaps in their knowledge, PTSD, and reading many years below grade level? The skills most of us have as teachers only work sometimes in this environment. And there’s a whole other set of skills that you don’t know you need, and have to learn to survive, that are vital to teaching and learning in this community.

When I’m hiring teachers, one of my standard lines is, “We teach kids, not content.” Your love of Shakespeare, or moles in Chemistry isn’t useful in this environment. What’s required is relentless and unconditional care for the kids. We have to like them. We have to believe in them more than they believe in themselves. We have to care deeply about them as people, and not how they relate to or don’t relate to Romeo and Juliet. And it’s so hard. There aren’t words to describe how hard it is. Expert teachers in suburban communities can fail as inner city teachers. The standard set of teaching skills are non-transferable in this environment. Our students curse at our teachers out of anger sometimes, but mostly out of fear. Are you ready to be told “Fuck You” on a regular basis? Sometimes fuck you means what it sounds like. But often it means, I’m lost. I don’t get it. I’m scared. I’m angry. I’m hurt. But every time, it still sounds like fuck you in the way we usually hear it. And it hurts every single time. No matter what the students’ intent.

Our students experience school in a constant state of desperation. Please don’t find out I don’t understand. Our students fear so deeply that despite your best efforts as a teacher, you also won’t be able to help them learn. So maybe it’s better not to try. Our students yell at our teachers. Our students hide in plain sight. They put earbuds in, crank up the music and say with every fiber of their being, “I dare you to get me to care. I dare you to try and teach me.” The notion of readiness to learn is non-existent in our classrooms. School is for sure a place students come to be safe. It’s a place to get warm. It’s a place to get food. And it’s absolutely a place to be compliant. But a place to learn? Not really.

So that’s the context. See why it’s hard to write about it?

Back to two truths and a lie. Did you figure out which were true and which was the lie?

Truth #1

We’ve never been this good, and we’re still a million miles from where we need to be

We’re talking about student learning more than we ever have before. We used to have conversations about safety, and discipline, and law and order, and discipline, and bad parenting, and discipline, and then we’d talk more about discipline. Now, it’s mostly about student learning. We are the best version of ourselves that we’ve ever been. For years, I had as many long-term subs as I did certified teachers. So it was a roll of the dice when walking into a classroom if you would see students engaged in any kind of meaningful task or not. We have chromebooks for everyone now. Teachers are using google classroom, nearpod, and other tools to engage students in the content. We have tools, we have structures, and we have systems in place to have the highest level of engagement we’ve ever experienced.

Truth #2
It’s getting better all the time

We have the best set of teachers our students have ever had. Every year, we add something new and positive to our academic program. My teachers are immersed in the difficult learning of incorporating literacy skills across the curriculum. It’s hard work. And most of them are killing it. Remember before I listed some of the topics students were covering last week? Federalism, Nationalism, Genetics, and Force. Now add to those already difficult topics, teachers incorporating instructional tools and strategies so students can specifically grow their very low literacy skills. High school teachers don’t think of themselves as reading teachers. And our teachers don’t either. But they’ve taken on the challenge of incorporating literacy everywhere possible. My PE teacher has students reading articles and using graphic organizers as part of the learning in her class. We’ve never approached anything like that before and it’s vital to support our students in the manner in which they need and deserve.

The Lie

Students are Learning
Students are compliant. Students are engaged in tasks and activities. Students are doing more relevant work than ever before. But I can’t yet prove that they are learning. Is every class in every high school about learning? I wish the answer was yes, but it’s not. It’s my seventh year as the principal of our school, and I can’t say definitively that all students are learning. Does that make me a bad principal? Maybe. Does it mean I have terrible teachers? It could. But I would challenge anyone reading this to come to our school and do it differently and better. It’s so damn hard.

Back to Federalism, Nationalism, Genetics, and Force. There are so many better ways to teach those topics than what we are using. PBL, Design Thinking, Genius Hour, and on and on and on. But our students have no idea what learning looks like. For them, school has always been an exercise in compliance. Not only do we have to teach students to read, but we have to teach them to learn. For most of us, if we decided to run a marathon, we’d have to train for it. I’d die if I had to run a marathon tomorrow. If we want to play in a band, we have to learn the instrument and practice, and then practice some more. But everyone just assumes that students know how to learn, just because they showed up at school. Our students don’t know how. And the absence of knowing how to learn, means the absence and evidence of actual learning.

Currently, I’m teaching my teachers to differentiate content, process, or product in their classrooms. They don’t know how to differentiate? They do, at your schools. What they don’t know how to do is teach Federalism, Nationalism, Genetics, Force and Graphing Functions to the couple of students who are at or above grade level, to the 10 students who are a 5th-8th grade level, and to the 15-20 students who are well below a 5th grade level, all at the same time-while also teaching literacy skills, and trying to teach students to be learners. Do you know how to do that? If you do, please come help. I’m teaching every day. And my teachers are learning it. Slowly. And they are incorporating it into their classes while learning it themselves-and that’s not easy to do.

Learning is the last mountain to climb. Are we getting better? Yes. Is it enough? No. It’s not close. If you have any thoughts on how to do this differently, or better, please come on over. We all want to do better for our students. And our students need us to be better at a faster rate than we can possibly improve in reality. Their lives at actually at stake. And so we press on.

Until next week...

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