Sunday, March 1, 2015

Apathy or Hope

In 2012, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to New York City for the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women. This annual event stems from a summit held in Beijing in the late 90s. At that summit, world leaders identified several platforms that highlighted the challenges faced by women and children around the world. In 2012, the focus was rural women, and I was asked to attend as a representative of Women of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America). I was completely unsure what to expect. Throughout my time at the UN, I listened more than I spoke. I heard stories from women who know poverty in a way that I certainly don't. I heard from women who have studied and implemented programs, but I also heard from women who have LIVED it in the most remote parts of this globe. To say it was humbling is to say that winter in North Dakota is chilly.

One of the women with whom I was able to visit as a part of a small group was Leymah Gbowee who later was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize as recognition for her efforts on behalf of women and children in Liberia. Leymah, a Lutheran mother of 6, helped bring peace to her country in the midst of its civil war. She is a champion of education, children, and the church.

During our discussion, she talked about the educational opportunities for kids in Liberia, specifically girls. She said that girls in Liberia are very distinctly divided into two economic groups which, in turn, affect their access to school, health care, and even sexual safety. One of the things Leymah and her friends have tried to do is provide access to school for the most impoverished girls of Liberia. She spoke about how excited girls would be to be given a pencil and paper--tools to which they had no access. While her stories were inspiring, I couldn't help but wonder where that excitement and optimism had gone among children in our own country.

After several minutes, I finally decided I needed to ask the question: why do children in America seem so apathetic? They are handed opportunities from every direction, but those opportunities are ignored by the kids who need them worst. I will never forget Leymah's response (or her piercing look as she spoke): the children are not apathetic. They have lost hope. No child chooses to turn away from an opportunity for a better life. Those children have been taught that their hopes are irrelevant, so it is easier--safer--to give up and appear apathetic.

Those words echo in my head when I look at a student who doesn't seem to care. Poverty takes away that most basic element of hope as Jensen pointed out in the "Hope Building" section of the chapter. So what do we do about it? I think our words need to be consistent, strong, and clear from preschool through graduation: you can do this. One of the notes I wrote to myself while I read this portion of the book: don't become a teacher if you can't stand repeating yourself. Repetition is the only thing that combat the helplessness that Jensen mentions. And I think much of the repetition has to be personal. He lists several strategies that "build hope" on page 116; however, many are group or classroom based. When we just do these "blanket" responses, it is too easy for the marginalized kid to think, "That doesn't apply to me." What is wrong with identifying the kids who need us most? Isn't that our job? These kids can't afford our political correctness. Because if we are timid, they just become a kid that we see as apathetic and cycle continues.

And the message needs to be clear from a very early age. I can plainly see that most hopefulness is lost by the time kids are in high school. We have to figure out a way to influence kids sooner--to make the message clear when kids are younger.

Monday, February 2, 2015

How are we doing?

How is the Rugby Public School District doing with responding to the needs of its impoverished kids?

I think it is difficult to discern whether we do something for specific students or for all students. When our district chooses to enact a new policy or approach, we may have a target in mind, but I think our goal is to impact all students, not just a few. While some policies are designed with a specific subgroup in mind (e.g. attendance incentive policy), that decision still impacts more than just a few. It impacts all. Does it matter if our decisions affect a few or many? Of course it does. Our effectiveness is diminished if all we do is respond to the needs of a few.

But the other side of this begs us to examine what is being done for our most "at-risk" students--particularly those who are at significant risk of dropping out. And to this, I don't think we are doing enough; however, I think there are two ways of looking at the problem. First, are we merely admiring the problem without ever moving toward any solution? Second, do we have what we need to address the issues? The answers to these two questions are crucial because they really represent two completely different issues. Or do they?

If we merely admire the problem without really ever making any real headway into solving it, we could be stuck forever. At some point we have to move forward to something. Anything. No one solution will work for all kids, but we have to begin somewhere. If we try an idea and it doesn't work, it only fails if we learn nothing from it. So we make adjustments and move forward. Do something different. Think creatively.

But the real issue here is whether or not we have what we need to address the problem of poverty. If we speak in terms of community and school resources, I think we are lagging behind other schools in more populated areas. So instead, we have to find the creative solution. We need to try something--anything--then adjust as needed. (Sound familiar? Do you see how this is linked?) Our lack of resources is most noticeable when we consider Jensen's factor: support the whole child. Without adequate community resources and access to healthcare, both physical and emotional, we ignore a major issue associated with poverty. But I think the resources are there, we just need to make them more effective partners in the school system or the school system has to be more effective at partnering with the resources.

For example, public health departments can do a great deal to educate young people about birth control, communicable diseases, vaccines, and child health. But without a partnership between the two agencies, nothing will change. We need (actually the kids need) the bureaucracy to be diminished. This takes a concerted effort, a real change, and creativity. All the policies and programs in the world can't change anything if we are still willing to be dismissive. "I don't know what I can do to change this" has to be replaced with "We still haven't figured out the right cocktail of solutions, but we are learning."

Monday, January 5, 2015

What do we do next?

I am watching a train wreck in progress, and I cannot do anything to stop it. The wreck is in ultra-slow motion; in fact, it has been developing for years. I can see what is likely to happen, yet there is nothing I can do. I am watching three students fail. Fail to the point that they will likely drop out before their senior years. All three are children of poverty. All three have been given numerous opportunities to "turn things around" over the course of years, but all three seem powerless to turn away from the wreckage. As I read the book, I see these faces in my mind's eye. I have never had any of these students in my own classroom, but they are the children I see when I read about all the facets of poverty.

I think our district is beginning to understand the crucial importance of addressing its understanding of and response to poverty. I think there are several teachers who are waiting for the next steps to help them do what they cannot do alone or in isolation: help the kids who do not or cannot respond to other offers for help. We are hungry for solutions for the three. But we are lost. At least I am.

When I read this book, I see the successes of other districts with much larger problems than ours, and I wonder what we are doing wrong. But I am beginning to think that we are doing many things right, for if we are reaching 268 kids with only three students failing to the point of dropping out, we are clearly doing something right. But what about the three? I feel as though they need something--desperately--that we cannot offer.

Look at it this way: from the list of resources to provide on pages 72 and 73, I count only four that our district can offer every day. Other resources are be available periodically, while other are not available at all through the district. That isn't an excuse, but it is our reality. So what can we do within our reality?

That's what I haven't figured out yet. None of us who discuss these things on a regular basis have figured that out yet. But I maintain the hope that we are getting closer. We have to.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Culture of Poverty

I admit that I have never known poverty in its most intimate sense. I have never known need. But I do understand how the culture of a family is created. I come from a family that has always valued education and entrepreneurship. My great-great grandfather helped found a college in Minnesota shortly after immigrating to the United States from Norway, and one of my grandmothers attended that college years later, graduating in 1929. Even as the eldest daughter! The other examples are numerous and significant; all have contributed to a culture in my family.

Understanding this also helps me understand that an opposite culture is equally powerful. And in making sense of this, I also realize that poverty is not a problem to be fixed but a culture to be understood. The challenges of poverty are not overcome with band-aid programs in the school, community, or government but through a cultural and social shift in how we respond to those challenges.

I have two significant take-aways from the first two chapters in Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen: first, the impact of poverty on language development; second, the importance of education in breaking the cycle of poverty. As a language arts teacher, I have read about how poverty affects language development in children and how that impact can last for years, even a lifetime. Indeed, I can see the effects of poverty in a child's ability to read and write even in their last years of high school. Unfortunately, addressing that effectively in the classroom during the time I have to interact with those kids is incredibly difficult. I want to help those kids, but knowing how to do so is a challenge. Right not I try to encourage kids to come in for extra support during writing assignments; I offer as much assistance as I can during the writing process via electronic and face-to-face dialogue; and I make allowances for the students who simply may not be able to write at the level that is expected. I don't know how fair or correct any of that is, but it is what my gut tells me is right right now. I honestly hope I learn some other ways to manage my response to these students and their unique challenges as I read the book and listen to discussions.

Education seems to be the most logical and impactful way to break the cycle of poverty. When I consider the stories of people two or three generations older than I, I hear this point often. Many people who lived during the Depression seemed to see education as the ticket out of poverty, and they taught their children the importance of school and learning. What is different now? Is there no hope when living in the darkness of poverty? Is there no understanding of or little belief in what an education can do?

My friend knew poverty as a child growing up outside of Rugby in the 1950s and 60s. His mother and father, however, also knew the value of an education and drilled that knowledge into their children. Of the three children, one is now a retired federal judge and another was the president of a private university for twenty years. What I truly don't understand yet is how the culture of one family can be like this while the culture of another family can be so suspicious or seemingly unaccepting of education and its benefits. What can I do as teacher to help kids realize the power of education?

Changing the culture of poverty is a tremendous task but one we must tackle if we want to help each kid succeed.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Learning or just doing?

I just finished an experiment with formative assessment in my comp class. I have had students read 1984 for several years now. I have always struggled to find effective ways to have students show their thinking while reading. I ask them to journal; they take quizzes; they complete an extension project that allows them to show their creativity; they lead discussion. Over the years it has become clear that no one method works for all nor does the variety reach all. So I keep trying to hit as many as I can with something that speaks to their strengths. 

One of the major components of this class is being able to communicate what you are thinking after reading a text. Two things come out of this: knowledge of the text and connections to current society or personal life. I think this type of writing is becoming quite common in post-secondary education, and former students tell me that doing a lot of this is helpful for them. With that in mind, I think it is crucial that students do the same while reading the novel. Often, I asked kids to journal but wouldn't tell them when I was collecting a them. I found that the journals didn't really reflect great thinking--only that kids put something on paper no matter if it was good or bad. I knew I needed to do something different. 

So after reading the book on formative assessment, I tried to incorporate those ideas into this class's requirement. I assigned journals at the beginning of the book with the explanation that each student needed to complete 10 journals by the end of the book. (It comes out to about 2 or 3 each week we are studying the text.) I asked kids to use a type of journaling we have been using all year, blog, or simply ask questions then attempt to answer them given what they know as almost high school graduates. The format was flexible. The quality of the journals was not. Right away I explained that I wouldn't allow them to write journals that were of poor quality. If the kids didn't write a journal that I believed they were capable of producing, they had to try again. When kids turned in weak journals, I pointed out what made it weak. I asked for clarification. I made suggestions. I didn't re-teach material; I just made kids accountable for the quality of work they produced. 

I also kept track of how many quality journals I had received from each student on the board. It was public, but again--accountability for learning. How did it work? Well, I think. Was it perfect? No. Some didn't finish 10 journals. Some never wrote much of quality. But when I asked them to come in so I could help them be more successful, NO ONE took me up on my offer.

Some kids want to learn and their journals reflected that. They asked phenomenal questions. They thought about things I never had. I love those moments that I learn from kids! But some did the minimum to get by. Some never took this as an opportunity. They may not have seen the value, but isn't that why I am paid to be the expert in the room? Somebody decided that I must know a little bit about college writing, so that is why I teach the class. The kids don't really get to decide that. 

I guess what I learned from the class and my experiment with these journals is that checking for their understanding of the material via formative assessment ONLY works if students see the value in what they are doing. If they don't, it doesn't matter how great a lesson, assessment, or activity is--the students won't put in the time. And this realization has been plaguing me all throughout this school year. I can do everything "right" in the classroom, but it is still up to the students if they want to learn or not. I cannot, in the end, do it for them. Nor would I.

But I will continue to teach with the learners in mind. If I don't, I will spend an extraordinary amount of time on students who can't, don't , or won't see the value of what is taught in the classroom.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Formative Assessment

I have been experimenting with different types of formative assessment throughout the year. Some have worked well, and others have flopped. So far, there aren't many patterns for either category. With the assessment for this month's class, I knew I wanted to check students' analysis of argument texts. We have practiced text analysis throughout the year, so I fully expected that this assessment would show continued improvement and development. Wow. So wrong.

I handed out two essays about a related topic and asked kids to answer three or four questions about each text and four questions that prompted them to compare the texts--both in content and mode. This kind of analysis isn't new to them. When I read through their answers, however, I found their depth of analysis to be disappointing, at best. Most wrote single sentence answers that focused primarily on whether or not they "liked" the text. This was, of course, not what I had hoped to see.

But here is the real shocker: when I talked with the kids about their responses, I asked if they genuinely forgot how to analyze and synthesize two texts. They responded that they had not forgotten; they had merely decided that they didn't think the assignment mattered. We proceeded to have a good discussion about that. I learned that they believed that analysis wasn't going to impact their upcoming paper for me, so they didn't spend the time doing what they perceived as busy work. When I explained WHY I asked them to do what I did, they realized that maybe I was right. Yet, at that point I chose not to have them do the assessment over because that would have been busy work. I do this kind of analysis several times throughout the semester. By now, I know who gets it, who still struggles, and who does the bare minimum. But I continue to require this because I believe it is essential to keep reading complex texts and analyze them accordingly--a daily task in college.

Lesson learned? The why is just as crucial as the how and the what. I know this, but clearly I need to provide the rationale EVERY time. The assessment, no matter how good, won't tell you anything if all the parts aren't firing correctly. Great assessment design has to be deliberate. If it isn't, the assessment won't tell you anything, or worse, it will tell you erroneous information.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Open Minds

Standards-based grading sounds like a great idea.  I love that my students and my own children would be given feedback about what they can and cannot do.  That's valuable information for anyone.  Knowing this, I truly cannot decide if it would be best to jump into the world of SBG with both feet or wade in slowly.

With anything new, there is much to be gained from a whole-hearted, all-at-once dive.  It demonstrates a commitment that simply cannot be replicated in a slower approach.  The dive, however, has pitfalls, which is why change is often analyzed to death before it is even attempted.  The incessant "what ifs" are paralyzing--so much so that we may never do anything--and stagnation sets in with its own numbness.

So what do we do?  First, I think we have to figure out what our goal is.  What are we really after?  Are we pursuing strong student achievement?  Are we pursuing positive school culture?  Are we pursuing success beyond our doors?  One would think that the answer to all of these things would be, "YES!" but without a sense of what we want, we will never know where to go.  I often tell my writing students that drafting without an outline or at least a list of what they want to accomplish is a bit like taking a trip without a map or GPS.  It can be fun, but it can also be disastrous.

Here's what I see...
1. We have, in core subject areas, examined the new CCSS.  We have prioritized what is important to us.
2. We are now developing our assessments.  This is proving to be an incredibly slow process for us in ELA because it is so complex and proficiency isn't a checkbox.
3. Once those assessments are developed and used for a period of time, then I think our next logical step will be SBG.  To make the shift prior to that is a bit like putting the cart before the horse: we are still operating with traditional assessments designed under a traditional grading system.  To mix traditional assessments with a different reporting system wouldn't necessarily translate effectively.  However, if we wait until we know what our assessments can tell us, then we can begin to figure out how to report that to parents and students.

I have a tendency to be a jump-in-feet-first kind of person but not here.  I think real change has to be methodical and calculated because this involves so many other groups besides us professionals in the school building.  Transitions are never easy, and I believe this transition may be one of the most complex I have faced in my career so far.  Maneuvering in the midst of the transition, as we are now, really isn't fun, but I think there are so many in the profession who see the value of a whole new paradigm.  It will be exciting to see what we can do!