Monthly Archives: February 2013

Please put your curriculum away and get out a scantron

It is the time of year when the optimism of January and the sugar rush of Valentines Day is behind us and we teachers spend more and more time thinking about standardized tests. Today I read a nice reflection by a 20 year classroom teacher who categorizes “the good, the bad and the ugly” of standardized testing.  She wrote:

As a veteran teacher with more than 20 years of teaching experience in Missouri and Florida, I say with confidence, my fellow teachers and I are not afraid of evaluation based in part on our students’ performance. Our purpose is to ensure that our students are successful in school and life. However, we object to the thought that students’ performance on a single test alone is a valid measure of what they have learned or how well we have taught them. As teachers, we are more worried about the impact of standardized testing on our students than on ourselves.

That last bit really stayed with me because much of the backlash teachers who speak out against testing receive is this line of “Oh you just don’t want to be evaluated.” However, most of us in education dismiss this claim. Go ahead, evaluate us but please be fair. Here are my suggestions for surviving a flawed testing system:

  • Empower your students to be successful: In Texas, our state exams are tied to promotion and ultimately graduation. We teachers cannot afford to be flippant or dismissive of an exam that will dramatically impact our students’ futures. What has worked for me is to block off a nice chunk of time (2 – 4 weeks) and specifically teach my exam’s objectives as well as test taking strategies. Through carefully tracking of progress via objective mastery I am able to pin point where my students need more in-depth review as well as where I can cut corners and skip content.
  • Use the Sexy Six: Looking for a quick, catchy and extrememly effective multiple choice test taking strategy to teach your kids? The Sexy Six work for me – check it out.
  • Advocate for Change: I am hopeful about quality of the assessments coming out of the Common Core exam writing consortiums (Smarter Balanced and PARCC) however, because I live in Texas, I cannot look forward to aligning with these next generation tests any time soon (But someday! Texas isn’t going to hold out on adopting the Common Core forever! I am optimistic!). I think teachers can play a key role in calling for helpful standardized testing. This might look like boycotting unaligned and extraneous exams as is happening now in Seattle or it might look like me writing a letter to my state senator and asking for legislation to allow districts in Texas to opt into Smarter Balanced or PARCC (Fellow Texans – who’s with me?!?!)

Awesome Blog: “The Edge of Ed”

Edge of Ed

Have you ever thought how amazing it would be if you could go to graduate school and spend day after day reading and thinking about the convoluted would of education? Imagine the depth of perspective you, as a former teacher, could bring to academic discussion! Imagine all of the insights and connections you would make between what you studied and what you experienced as a teacher! Karen Pezzetti and Katie Kirchgasler are living the dream AND writing about it in a blog. Their writing is thoughtful, provocative and grounded in their experience as veteran educators – check out the Edge of Ed!

Guest Blogger: Celebrating Black History Month

Anna Almore is an inspiring educator who works in teacher development here in South Texas. In addition to being a thoughtful person and friend, Anna is doing exciting work here encouraging teachers to reflect deeply on their vision for their classrooms. I saw an early version of this post in a regional newsletter and thought it was one of the best things I have read on teaching Black History Month. Enjoy the read and thank you Anna!

In 1926, historian, philosopher, and scholar Carter G. Woodson declared the second week of February as “Negro History Week.” With the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass falling in that second week, it was only appropriate to celebrate a history systematically left out of curriculum and national consciousness would occur when the nation was celebrating the lives of two freedom fighters. Woodson’s original intent was that this week would no longer need to exist when Black History was justly represented in the story of America.

93 years later, I am pushed to consider two questions: Why does Black History month still matter and why does Black History month matter down here in the Rio Grande Valley?

To me, Black History month is one way we as a nation can commit to the study and celebration of a history of change. A history of freedom, equality, and justice denied. A history of oppression and opportunity. A history of contradictions and compromise. A history of the pursuit of the American dream. A history of this American dream deferred. This history seems to embody the American spirit and power that Margaret Meade famously stated in these words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This story of change is what compels me to study and celebrate Black History down here on the Mexico-US border. Our community has much to celebrate—increased graduation rates, the opening of new early college academies, drop in unemployment rates—but we are still in need of change. With 91% of the population in the RGV identifying as Hispanic, there is only a 12% likelihood of earning a college degree six years out of high school according to our most recent Census data. This compounded with the plight of the Colonias, aggressive patrolling on the border, a heated immigration debate, a widening gap between the “haves” and “have nots”, and policies that deny medical and essential care to the elderly, disabled, and disadvantaged—the pain of our community is real.  This pain is what connects me to Black History, and it’s the promise and hope embodied in this history that makes me study it. The lessons of leadership, community, and love are as relevant today as they were then.

What makes celebrating Black History difficult is that we must embrace and walk through the pain in order to squeeze out the universal lessons of Black history. This process of self-scrutiny, national-analysis, and historic-criticism requires us to deal with the complicated issues of race, class, trauma, hatred, and violence. How does an educator, especially one that does not share the racial background of his or her students, go about doing this? The first step, like any painful path, is having the courage to admit and name the truth of trials and victories of Black history. Once we can honestly do this, the rest comes more naturally.

Once you admit the reality and relevance of Black history, then we must turn to ownership. Why do you care about Black history and what is your point of entry into this particular narrative and tradition? Consider this list:

  • Your decision to join the legacy of education in America
  • The potential of Brown v. Board of Education
  • The power of youth embodied by the Freedom Riders and Sit-In organizers of the South
  • Your belief in MLK’s dream
  • A commitment to earning the title of “Ally” to communities in need
  • The story of Allies who sacrificed their privilege to empower others
  • Your deep friendship with and connection to Black people here, in your schools, or at home
  • A fierce patriotism and desire to see the American dream realized
  • The music, culture, stories, and values of Black people
  • The universalism of this story
  • Your faith and its power to move mountains
  • Last but not least, maybe you are celebrating Black History Month because you are the living example of Black History, a testament to why the fight and struggle was necessary, a person who’s traditions are steeped with justice, equity, and love—you are a Black person living in America today

Whatever your reason is, the next piece of the equation is courage—mustering the courage to share this tradition through your content, stories or media with students. In doing this, it’s imperative to name here that you will without a doubt open up a world of dialogue in your classroom that will undoubtedly be good for kids but also certainly difficult. Here is some advice I’ve compiled recently and over the years to navigate these sometimes awkward, full of mistakes and misteps, but totally worth it conversations:

  1.  Don’t get weird about it: if a student says something inappropriate, recognize that it often comes from a lack of knowledge or what they have seen in the media. Address it immediately, unemotionally, and follow up with a one-on-one conference. If a consequence is necessary, use it. If other students can redirect the conversation—let them.
  2. Use words wisely: Preemptively permit students to use the words “Black” and “African-American.” Redirect kids who use the word “racism” incorrectly by sharing the definition. Have your Webster’s dictionary readily available to shut that conversation down.
    1. From my favorite high school English teacher on the planet: “And, let me acknowledge that some of you are inevitably wondering or doubting yourself about the acceptable language here for talking about race, so let me give you two options: ‘black or African American’ Now, you might find other language used, even by people writing about Brooks during her own early years that uses language that was common or acceptable then but that is considered anywhere from archaic to offense today (see me if you need or want to check on examples), so to eliminate any doubt, I’m telling you to say black or African American. And, let me also be clear that you should not say these words with a whisper or drop in your voice, because even if doing so is a result of your own uncertainty about using the correct terminology, the act of doing it seems offensive, as if it is wrong to identify as or say the word black.”
    2. Add these questions to your bank:
      1. How do you know that to be true?
      2. What are other people’s opinion?
      3. How does this connect to the history of the Valley?
      4. Are you trying to say…?
      5. Is that based on fact or from a stereotype?
      6. Where are you getting this opinion from—TV, media, film, internet, music?
    3. Embrace what you don’t know: if your students ask a question that you don’t know the answer to, embrace the phrase “I don’t know but that is a great question.” Encourage students to research their questions or commit to writing down their questions and doing your own.
    4. Encourage connections: help your students find similarity and overlap in the stories of Black Americans. Show your students how you SEE yourself in this history and they will follow!
    5. Commit to consistency: reducing BHM to one day, one quick conversation reduces the potential impact and perpetuates the idea that you can celebrate and commemorate a legacy of an entire people in one day
    6. Acknowledge reality: there are not a lot of Black people in the Valley and that’s why talking about matters. It’s also why your students experience may be limited to TV, film, the news, and internet. Be sure to name that.
    7. Keep stereotype at the forefront of your mind: share the definition of stereotype and address instances of stereotype objectively, immediately, and with love. Constantly ask, how might what we are saying add to or take away from stereotypes? Commit to destabilizing your students’ stereotypes.
    8. Commit to keeping the conversation going: don’t let February 28 be the cut off for great, deep conversations! Keep the momentum going and honor the legacy of Black people, Carter G. Woodson, and others by not letting it die the last day of February.
    9. Check out this book:

How are you celebrating Black History Month? Leave your suggestions and ideas in the comments section!

“The opposite of love”

At the hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; it is now the Civil Rights Museum and a life-changing place to visit

This past weekend I was in Memphis with the America Achieves Fellowship and was unprepared for the power of visiting the Lorraine Hotel – the site of Dr. King’s assassination.  When I walked on the grounds and saw the hotel, all of the images I have seen in history books and in documentaries sprang up. I was overwhelmed with the senselessness of killing and the seeming power of hate.


I had to awkwardly shuffle over to the side of the group and collect myself before moving on. Upon entering the museum, I had a really hard time looking at the in-depth displays about the killer and various conspiracy theories. I passed quickly through that area down to a room honoring others the museum has recognized for achievement in civil rights. One of the honorees is holocaust survivor and the author of Night Eli Wiesel and at the museum there was an exhibit showing a clip from one of his more famous speeches. “The opposite of love is not hate,” said Wiesel, “it is indifference.” This quote made me think about the educational struggle playing out in Memphis today.

At the conference we spent a large chunk of our time learning about and reflecting on the forthcoming merger of two school districts in the Memphis area. Essentially  the economically and prevalently black Memphis City Schools is now set to merge with the more well-off, predominately white suburban school district Shelby County Schools. As you might imagine, this modern-day desegregation effort is complex and fraught with tension. Even where people seem to truly be trying to do what is “best for kids” they are also eleminating jobs, schools and benefits in some of the most economically fragile areas of the city.

I was struck by how easy it is to have good intentions and yet wreck havoc on a historically marginalized community. But, if we are believe Wiesel, is it actually better to try to act in the face of injustice and fail miserably than to stand by and do nothing? Unfortunately, the ramifications of failure at the district or state level – even when well intentioned – can be staggering, and are often most hurtful to those who were completely de-vested of power. At the same time, those who made the harmful decisions are unaffected; their children go to great schools and they receive awards for their leadership.

So what to do? Much of the danger of inadvertent harm is removed when we act along side of others as opposed to over them or outside of them. One of the most engaged and caring actions people can do is to teach. Transferring knowledge from one person to another is such an empathetic, personal action that, using a reverse of Wiesels definition, teaching is truly an act of love. Add active love into the protective empathy of living with in a community and really knowing your students, their families, and their interests and you are less likely to inflict unintended harm. How much more likely are you to truly “do the right thing” if the student you are making decisions for is your own child? or your niece? or your best friend’s daughter?

Memphis was a good reminder that life is short, we must love (not simply live) to the best of our ability each day. Each Sunday, my minister always ends each sermon with a benediction that includes the reminder that “the world is too dangerous for anything but love.”

OK now that the touchy-feely post of the week is done, watch for more practical posts and ideas in the remainder of the week. And a classroom tour! Seriously! It is coming . . .

I purchased this print at a neat store/music venue called the Center for Souther Folklore. Her name is Laura Dukes and she was a well-known Beale street blues artists in the 1950s. Such a compelling image . . .

Warriors and Worriers

There is a great article today in the New York Times called “Why can some kids handle pressure while others fall apart?” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (authors of the great book NutureShock). The article describes new research that shows people carry genetic markers that tip their stress reactions towards one of two possibilities: Warrior or Worrier. Essentially, thanks to both helpful chemical reactions in the brain, the warrior reaction focuses and performs under stress whereas the worrier reaction, again due to chemical makeup, inhibits and even paralyzes.  About half of all people have a balanced combination of the two reactions but the other half favor either warrior or worrier reactions. The authors point out that human survival over the ages has depended on both types of overreactions – those who would fight under dismal odds and those who would put the breaks on when everyone starts jumping off the cliff.

Enter modern education and standardized, high-stakes testing. Researchers found warriors get an edge when they sit down to test and worriers underperform at an average of one whole grade level (from an A to a B, B to a C, and so on) than what they are capable of under non-stressful circumstances. I found this a hard pill to swallow. What the research is saying is that some of our students are born less able to test – it is in their very genes! The good news is, all is not lost for our worrier students. Bronson and Merryman write:

So while the single-shot stakes of a standardized exam is particularly ill suited for Worrier genotypes, this doesn’t mean that they should be shielded from all challenge. In fact, shielding them could be the worst response, depriving them of the chance to acclimate to recurring stressors. Johnson explains this as a form of stress inoculation: You tax them without overwhelming them. “And then allow for sufficient recovery,” he continued. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.

With planning and intervention, all students can be coached to overcome what turns out to be a genetic disposition to stressing out under pressure. What was most interesting about the article however was the authors take on standardized testing as a form of competition. Being a worrier is actually an evolved trait preserved in our genetic code over time because it is useful; risk aversion can keep you alive. However, unlike in other forms of competition, in standardized testing there is no upshot for underperforming:

Taking a standardized test is a competition in which the only thing anyone cares about is the final score. No one says, “I didn’t do that well, but it was still worth doing, because I learned so much math from all the months of studying.” Nobody has ever come out of an SAT test saying, “Well, I won’t get into the college I wanted, but that’s O.K. because I made a lot of new friends at the Kaplan center.” Standardized tests lack the side benefits of competing that normally buffer children’s anxiety. When you sign your child up for the swim team, he may really want to finish first, but there are many other reasons to be in the pool, even if he finishes last.

The same conclusions largely extend to academic grades. How can we create a classroom environment where our students can learn to deal with stress and compete in healthy ways that allow them to grow and become more resilient? Here are my ideas:

  • Play group games: Working collaboratively in teams to compete against classmates can be tremendously motivating. In my classroom I use one very simple game (check it out here) that frequently brings my classes to a screaming, chaotic – but invested! – all out brawl. Because the game is played in teams the pressure is off specific individuals. At the same time it is kind of stressful but in a fun, low-stakes way.
  • Teach test-anxiety coping methods: Use visualization, breathing exersies, and true-to-life practice. See here for details
  • Show students their progress: Use tracking systems to show students how they have learned over time. Although this is easiest to do with multiple choice style exams it is also extremely effective with an unchanging rubric; this way, students can compare their performance on the same rubric in February to their performance in May. Tracking student growth also allows you to give targeted feedback on specific ways for students to improve. It is also empowering for students because they see a clear path forward. A trackable grade isn’t an unchanging stamp but instead it is feedback on their performance at a specific point in time.
  • Show students this research: Empower students to self-identify as “warrior” or “worrier” and then make a plan for how to compensate for their areas of weakness as well as maximize their strengths.

What ideas do you have?

Are you wearing red tomorrow?

I have been following the Seattle teacher’s boycott of a district standardized test called the MAP but was a little confused about what exactly they are trying to accomplish. Articles with headlines like “Seattle’s Boycotting Teachers Start Crusade Against Standardized Testing” make me think it is time to buckle up and prepare for the revolution. As I dug deeper I found this really helpful article in Ed Week that clarified a couple of facts: 1) the teachers are not boycotting a state exam but a district exam and 2) their main concern is the exam, called the MAP, is not aligned to the state standards they are required to teach.  The teachers were warned that if they do not administer the MAP they will be placed on a 10 day leave without pay; a threat which changed none of their minds. Want to hear from someone on the other side? The CEO of the company that produces the MAP exam wrote an OP-ED laying out his argument for the validity of the exam.

I am not sure wether or not this boycott qualifies as a “crusade” however these teachers are certainly attracting attention and gaining support. The NEA, AFT, and Chicago Teachers Union recently released a statement of support for the Seattle teachers. Want to jump on the bandwagon? The Seattle Teachers’ Association calls for those sympathetic to the Seattle teachers to show our support by wearing red to school tomorrow.

Are you wearing red tomorrow? I think I just might . . .

Hope and Truth

“Truth without hope is failure; but hope without truth is fantasy.”

Mike Johnston, Colorado State Senator, Education Reformer, & Great Person

Recently, I have been thinking about the tension that comes from teaching in what is clearly a broken system. It is so easy to focus on those problems that seem to cripple our progress because they are real, in-our-faces obstacles. There came a point in my career when I had to chose to continue to love teaching. It wasn’t a natural feeling or a made-for-a-cheese-ball-TV-drama-about-teaching moment. I remember thinking: “OK, a lot about my situation sucks and is hard. But regardless of what the future holds for me, today I am a teacher and the children who have been put in my care deserve to spend an hour with someone who is grateful to be there.” It is amazing how effective “faking it till you make it” can be.

I met Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston three years ago at NBC’s Education Nation and heard him say the quote above this past fall. This quote works well to describe the relationship between our faith in our students’ abilities and the data we collect on their academic performance (ex. “I know my students have what it takes pass this AP test but right now only 8% would score higher than 5/9 points on the DBQ.”). As teachers, the importance of constantly maintaining hope but then doggedly fleshing out the detailed truth or reality for our students – and sharing it with them – is often difficult and exhausting. It means giving and grading meaningful assessments regularly (daily?) as well as communicating current reality and a plan for progress in the same breath.

So if you had a crappy January, here is a virtual hug. It will be hard but February will be better and March will be even better. This week on The Sacred Profession look for a new classroom tour (yeah!), a book review, tips for celebrating Black History Month, and a first-hand report on what is happening in the Memphis education world – woot!