Monday, February 19, 2018

Next Steps

Dear Reader,

Thanks in advance for reading this post. Here’s some context for your consideration. In writing this piece, I’m not looking for answers or solutions from you. I’ve been a teacher or administrator in inner city schools for twenty plus years, and I often don’t know what to do. I’m not expecting you to have answers to my questions, my wondering or my musings. Although if you do, I’m happy to hear them-I could use all the help I can get. My purpose for writing this post, and all future posts is simply to bring awareness to the edu-blogosphere that schools like ours exist, and our students have names, and stories, and hopes, and dreams. I love reading about so many amazing educators, doing phenomenal work with outrageously creative and wonderful students, at tremendous schools. AND, I want you to know about our school too. Most principals and teachers in inner city schools aren’t on twitter, but there are so many schools like mine in cities across America, serving thousands of students in underrepresented communities. The purpose of this post is simply to say we are here, and we are dealing with tough problems, without any clear solutions. And if you think about these stories for even a minute beyond reading the post, or if you share it, or tell someone about it, then my students, my teachers, and our community isn’t invisible in that moment. And I can’t ask for more than that. Thank you for reading.


Dear Team,

Welcome back! I hope you all had a relaxing, and well-deserved long weekend. February is always hard for me to maintain my focus on all the work that still needs to be done. But the reality is, there remains a tremendous amount of work to do, and not nearly enough time to get it all done. Usually I use this space to remind you about our countdown to the Ohio State Tests (32 days), and how our focus must be on teaching and learning and teaching bell to bell. This week, I’d like to draw your attention elsewhere.

For the most part, our school has returned to normal after the tragedy of losing someone many of us cared about. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to say it. Our school has returned to the predictability of our routine. I have not. I haven’t grieved; not really. I’ve cried a little, a couple of times-most recently when watching the heartbroken mother in Florida cry out in anguish and anger, about our leaders’ inability to take any steps forward around gun laws. But I haven’t really taken the time, or had the opportunity to just be sad. To be honest, I think the opportunity has passed me by. I think my sadness is slowly turning into anger-not unmanageable, crazy anger. But the slow burn kind of anger that if channeled correctly, turns into action.

The normalcy of our school is actually an implicit agreement that not-good-enough-school is in fact good enough. And it isn’t. It just isn’t. I was so pleased that students who no longer attend our school wanted to come back to us to grieve last week, because they know we are a place of care. And I was able to get them one counseling session. And while one is better than none, it’s not close to being enough. Some of our current students have had two counseling sessions. A handful have had three. And it’s still not enough. And yet we must move forward. The state tests are coming, and that’s where our focus has to be, instead of being on the reality of so many of our students dealing daily with trauma that has occurred in their lives. And I’m angry and more than a little sad that the expectation is that our focus ought to be on moving forward, instead of dealing with traumatized teens. But I also understand the reality-the tests are coming, and there isn't any such thing as passing or being excused from the exam due to trauma.

Some of you know, I attended a principal meeting last week. Some of the meetings I have to attend are terrible, but this one wasn’t. The focus: How do we know that students are actually learning what our teachers intend for them to learn? And it’s the right topic. Our students have incredible gaps in their knowledge. There’s so much they don’t know. They don’t read well. They don’t always think, and problem solve well. They write so poorly. And the first required graduation state test is 32 days away. As I’ve said to many of you, three weeks ago, I was working with our math department. And we were looking at a math standard about graphing functions that applied to both Algebra and Geometry. We used the Achieve The Core website to map the standard backwards, all the way to first grade. It wasn’t until we got to second grade that we were absolutely sure that 100% of our students could meet that standard. There are so many gaps, and misunderstandings and topics students simply haven’t learned along the way. And we have to address them all. So discussing how we know whether or not students are learning is a right topic for a meeting. One of my colleagues-a great principal-presented. She talked about the new system she and her teachers have begun to implement to check for student understanding. And it can work. And it might already be working at her school. I listened to the presentation, and while I understood the rightness of it, it also made me terribly sad.

Our students know so little, so we want to break everything down into the smallest possible parts to teach them. But in breaking it down, we take away what it actually is. When we learn to drive a car, we have to know all the different parts, or at least the parts we see and touch as the driver. But we would never, ever learn to drive a car by just practicing pressing the gas pedal. And then just practicing to use the brake. And never, ever getting to put it all together on the road. As a principal of a school full of students with low skills, I understand the power of breaking topics down into manageable parts. But as a dad, I would be so unhappy and angry if my child’s school said they were breaking everything down into small parts to assess to ensure students are learning for the test instead of doing cool projects to learn. We don’t talk about it much-but how come my own children get to plant gardens, and do service projects using pottery, and do so many other cool learning activities, while the black and brown kids in the inner city have to break down their learning into the smallest pieces to make sure they pass the state tests and many never get to do most of those cool projects?

We have to get our kids to pass the tests. And what’s the cost of only getting our kids to pass the tests? If they don’t pass, they are doomed to a life of poverty, without any chance of any job they would ever willingly choose to have. And if they do pass, and they haven’t learned about self-efficacy, and action, and power, and voice, and engagement and so much more, then what can they do with the high school diploma they have earned for passing the tests? It’s an impossible dilemma, without any easy solutions.

It's easy to get lost in the details of the tests. It’s easy to get lost in the standards and the verbs, and the tools and the strategies. But the world is moving rapidly around us, and the truth is-just passing the Ohio State Tests isn't enough to be ready for the world our students will enter. And wow, it sure is a tough world right now. #MeToo, #Blacklivesmatter, school shootings and so much more to wrap our minds around.

We are under such incredible pressure to get our kids to be proficient as measured by the state test. Value add, Performance Index, School Report Cards, and Graduation Rates all depend on our students' passing the test. And that's before we get to the reality that for our students', their diplomas, and for some, their lives are on the line.

But there has to be more to school in general, and our school specifically, than just preparing students for tests. I don't want to just say we want students to be thinkers, problem solvers, and makers. I believe in the power of actually teaching students to apply the skills of thinking, problem solving, and making-not in class, but in their community. I'm reading and watching teenagers with voice and agency speak truth to power from a Florida high school, aiming their anger and desire for action at Washington DC, and I want to discuss with all of you, how we teach our students to have their own voices be heard. How do we teach our students to use words as weapons instead of weapons as weapons? How do we teach them that words are power and action is strength? There won't be anything on the state exams about these topics, but aren't these topics at least equally important if not more so than what will actually be on the tests?

We sat together last week as a staff and talked about whether or not there is a specific policy governing what you should do with your students in your classroom if an active shooter tries to get into the room. I hate that we had to take time to hold that conversation. But we did. And we should have. But let's also take the time to discuss whatever the opposite of that conversation ought to be. If we, the voting populace, and our elected officials are unwilling to have meaningful conversations to ensure our safety in school, then how do we empower our students to make the changes we are unwilling to make? Wouldn't that be a worthwhile conversation? And if students can actually make meaningful changes, doesn't that mean they could also pass the state tests?

It's Black History Month and our students ought to know so much more about their own heritage. Here’s a link to young adult author, Jason Reynolds' twitter page. He has shared one black woman's story each day this month, using the hashtag #OfCourseABlackWomanDid. I'm embarrassed to say that each and every day this month, the woman and her accomplishments have been entirely new learning for me. And I think it's fair to say, that if it's new learning for me, it would be new learning for virtually all our students. None of these people will be covered on the state tests, and all are worth our students knowing and us knowing, and engaging in meaningful time in class around their accomplishments. The pressure of the tests get in the way of this incredibly important learning. Our students already cannot find themselves in the courses we teach. These short stories of women of courage, strength and achievement do more to grow our students’ capacities as empowered learners than anything we do to prepare them for the state exams.

We will talk this week about how we know if students have learned what we've intended them to learn. But we should also talk about how we teach students with huge gaps in their knowledge, and massive holes in their understanding where context ought to be, how to start with a problem and end with an audience. The tennis example I've been using for months has value. You know the one-the whole staff is playing in a tennis tournament at the end of the year. Some of us have played before, others haven’t at all, and we have every skill level in between. But we’re all playing in the tournament at the end of the year. And we’re all practicing together, on the same court, at the same time. And I have to teach all of you. There are obvious parallels to our classrooms with some students who are at or above grade level, but also students who are far, far below grade level, with another large group in between. And we have to get them all to proficiency, even though some students absolutely won’t get there this year. Just like some of you wouldn’t win the tennis tournament this year-but you could in the future. If we were actually playing tennis after school as a staff, and I only ever let you hit a forehand, or hold the ball, or only practice your serve, and we never, ever, get to actually play tennis-it means I'm doing it wrong. If we break things down into such small parts, that our students can never see the whole, and never understand how the part fits with their world, even though the whole won't be on the test, then it means we're doing it wrong.

Teaching and leading in the inner city is as close to impossible as there could possibly be. The world is changing and school is not. The world is happening, at a million miles per hour, and our kids don't know it. We have to figure out how to help our students have choices and opportunities in the world, AND we have to get them the skills and knowledge to pass the graduation tests. And it's so difficult.

I believe in this teams' ability to both get our students to proficient and connect our students with the world. We err on the side of focusing on tests because of the pressures we are under. We do need to get our students to pass seven state exams. And we need to get them ready for the world. These often feel like competing interests-at least to me. Are they always competing? Can we get students to proficiency and help them to formulate solid opinions as to whether or not they do or don’t want to be a part of a national student walk out around gun control? Or get them to proficiency and help our students to know if they want to take their own actions about their own set of experiences as youth in the inner city? I don't know. But I think if anyone can, it's you. And I sure would like to talk about it.

The state tests are coming. And the world is happening. And our students must be aware of both. I'm here to support you as best I can. Just ask. Let's talk about it together.

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