by Jean Prokott
Until the day I retire, or die, or as luck will have it both at once, I will feel the same way about education theory and articles and professional development as I do now, which is that I find it entirely abstract without the acknowledgment that the system thwarts much of it from succeeding; that is, the hard work is put on the teachers, who have no control over the arrangement of the school day, or the Horace Mann scheme itself. I am not concerned with the amount of work, because the work is valuable and sometimes enjoyable. Rather, I am concerned about teacher morale when most things we create, in theory, work best in a fantastical (dare I say utopian) system we are not afforded.
Sir Ken Robison’s TED talk comes to mind as I consider the question: are there so many books on theory because we’re starting bottom-up rather than top-down? Why hasn’t school changed? Or, at the very least: why don’t our professional development seminars and theory texts begin: we know you’re boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past BUT…
Many communities and school boards are in the midst of discussions about Critical Race Theory (CRT), which has inspired my thoughts here, as has Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which I listened to on short walks between my online classes last winter. The book is part literary criticism, part memoir. I recommend it highly. Hong explores how Asian narratives have become a single narrative and does so in a raw, poignant, and even humorous way. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk comes to mind as well).
There are mountains of discussions we could have about CRT, but I won’t address those here. Instead, I want to discuss what obstacles arise even when we have control of our curriculum. I want to explore how intersectionality might put some of us in a box.
It’s important to note that I am writing as a cis white woman. If one were to Google “stock photo of English teacher,” my picture would probably come up. I have many blind spots that my government-issued teacher Ray Bans cannot bring to focus.
The Minnesota English standards appropriately direct teachers to use diverse texts, both teacher-chosen and student-chosen. For the most part, teachers are not directed to use specific texts, nor are they directed to read “Black authors” or “Asian authors.” The term “diverse” allows autonomy, but I am indecisive here. I love autonomy in my classroom. I attempt to bring in as many intersectional voices as possible. (The resources, or “book room” needed to do so is another article.) However, as Hong’s book made me consider, this forces teachers to say “we need an Asian story,” “we need a Black story,” “we need an Indigenous story,” or “shoot, I don’t have time for the feminist story, what do I do?” Other than to say “students, please keep in mind this is only one experience,” I’m lost. To give students access to as many absent narratives as possible, I have to, ironically, put those voices in a box and define them by the authors’ or protagonists’ identities.
This is not our “fault.” We are doing the best we can within the literature repertoire that understands kids need stories that expand their worldviews. (Unfortunately, the CRT debate has made this complicated for teachers to explain. Telling someone else’s story does not negate one’s own. Discussing one’s privilege does not mean they haven’t overcome obstacles.)
The challenge with the standards is the system, in that we rely on the one story, year after year, because of access to materials and time, and the weight of the job. As much as I am embarrassed to acknowledge this, I’ve had the thought that teaching A Raisin in the Sun ticks both the “Black” and “woman” boxes.
What then happens is we teach children the same absent narrative each year.
A wonderful resource is the Minnesota Humanities Center, which offers an abundance of stories that address the absent narrative. These resources help us fill a gaping hole. It also takes an incredible amount of time to explore every story, a rewarding, engaging, and time-consuming task. Time is always in short demand. One wonders whether we’ll have time inflation any time soon and the time economy will crash.
But if we change how school works, we might make more room to find these voices.
The teachers I know are impeccably well-read. Our professional development is diversity focused, compelling, and student-centered. But the school and “factory” has looked the same for the last 200 years, and for most of those years, they have mostly told cis white male stories. I wonder if the best way to make room for the rest of the narratives is to change up the system, which was built for white middle- and upper-class students.
I’m not entirely sure what this looks like, but we cannot dismiss it as impossible. I became a teacher so I could infiltrate and fix the problems from the inside, and I’m doing the best I can by keeping myself as well-informed as possible. I listen to National Public Radio 39 hours a day. I participate in book groups. I write for an amazing Education online magazine. I know we can’t beat the system on our own. What we can do is keep our personal bookshelves diverse when we find time to read for pleasure, and we can ask our students what they’re reading and which stories they’d like, and we can rely on our colleagues. I don't want you to apologize for not having time, because finding the best literature is a second job. My point here is to tell you I’m on your side, to tell you: we can’t beat the ocean’s current, but…
by James (Jim) Thompson, consolidated by Stefanie Whitney
Towards the end of my 20th and final year of being an elementary principal, my Superintendent of Schools, Dave DeLoria, was also the guy with whom I played in a rock band in the mid ‘60s (our band was The Morticians). Dave was the lead guitar player and would often say something after a certain song: “Our plan for that song was good in theory but somehow didn’t work out when we played it... Somethin’ ain’t right...”
It was also during that 20th year of my career that Dave would say, “Jimmy, how come we don’t have more state funding for teachers coaching teachers? That would really make an impact… somethin’ ain’t right that we can’t make that happen more.”
Dave’s question touched on a topic I had been thinking about for quite some time.
In my humble opinion, I believe there are two essential questions that require our responsiveness as educators:
This article takes a deep dive into this second question. I channel Dave DeLoria in my candid response to how we’re doing:
“Somethin’ ain’t right…Somethin’ ain’t right.”
First, let’s take a look at the current reality of responding to the question:
How are we improving our practice to more significantly impact learning for each and every child?
The following include current common approaches to improving our practice:
Let’s talk more about each approach to professional development.
Traditional Teacher Evaluation Systems
[Disclaimer: I was an elementary principal for 20 years.]
In my first year as principal, I had to conduct over 80 ‘observations’; plus, address all disciplinary issues, coordinate all curriculum implementation, and facilitate all staff development for a school with over 700 students and over 100 staff reporting ‘directly to me.’ (This experience is akin to being a secondary educator, often responsible for building relationships with, facilitating differentiated learning for, and providing feedback and assessment on work from over 150 students. In all directions, educators are overwhelmed with responsibility regarding continuous, impactful learning.)
I really loved my kids and really loved my staff. So much so that when it was time to do a post- observation conference with a teacher, I made coffee or tea for them, I gave them a warm welcome and thanks, I worked hard to affirm their great work with kids and offer some ‘stretchers’ to advance learning. And regardless of the care with which I took in providing post-observation feedback, inevitably, at the end of most of those post-observation conferences, the teacher smiled, shook my hand, and said something like: “Whew, glad that’s over until next year.” (Leaving me with a Neil Simon “Same Time, Next Year” feel.) Darn if I never heard a teacher say, “Gee, this was so beneficial I’d like to do a few more of these this year.”
I knew then, as I know now…that somethin’ ain’t right with this process. In fact, in 1998, I wrote an article for the School Administrators Association of NY Schools’ Journal (SAANYS) entitled “Supervision of Instruction: The Long and Winding Road from the ‘Kodak Moment’ to Collegiality.”
I began that article with a report card asking such questions as:
Twenty-three years ago, I gave myself failing grades in all three categories.
In New York State, the process to supervise instruction done by principals and administrators is called the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). Several years ago, superintendents from Monroe County, NY were asked: “What was the one state mandate they would like to repeal?” Their unanimous response: “Repeal APPR.” A sign that perhaps the answers to these 3 important questions indicate no real improvement.
Doug Reeves, in an article in the February issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership acknowledges this:
“I have never seen anyone evaluated into better performance.”
A Closer Look at Professional Development with Little or No Follow-Up Coaching
Often, professional development occurs through ‘one and done’ workshops.
Back in the winter of 2003, I taught a graduate course on Staff Development. In this class of 30, the majority of participants were directors of staff development. I asked each participant to make a list of all professional development they have endeavored in the last decade and then to put three stars next to each professional development event that included follow-up coaching, two stars for each event that did not include follow-up coaching but did include time to share practice with other colleagues in the days and weeks after the event, and zero stars if there was essentially no follow up coaching nor support with collaboration after the initial event.
In this activity, well beyond 90% of the events had NO STARS, indicating no follow up coaching, and little or no chance for reflection or sharing afterwards among staff members. Further, participants acknowledged that much of the actual professional development was in the form of a workshop. This was true in the 1990s and remains true today.
Jim Knight writes in the February 2021 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership,
“In my experience, it takes about three days to forget most of what we learned in a workshop.”
A Closer Look at Professional Development by Way of "Insert Big Name Speaker Here"
During my many years in education, I have experienced a lot of “big names” giving an opening day address. Folks were flown in from the West Coast, some were even flown in from abroad, some were funny, some were serious, and some looked like the cast of Baywatch (I specifically remember folks asking how the presenter ‘got such a great tan’) .
And a few—a few—were inspiring.
Doug Reeves addresses this approach to professional development:
“...it would be impossible to find evidence that three-hour workshops or 90 minute keynotes, on their own, however popular and entertaining, result in learning or changes in professional practice.”
One year a speaker from the Midwest was brought into my district as a keynote speaker. He spoke for three hours in the morning and several hours in the afternoon. I saw the invoice for the presentation: $8000, plus expenses.
Folks kept asking me during his presentation, “Who is this guy and who made the decision to bring him in?”
In a 2013 synthesis of research on professional learning, Allison Gulamhussein concluded that,
“most professional development today is ineffective. It neither changes teacher practice nor improves student learning” (p. 3).
When we look at how we are still conducting most professional development in 2021, it is hard to deny that, “Somethin’ ain’t right…Somethin’ ain’t right.”
Watch for future articles on these topics in the coming months!
Teach What You Don’t Know
by Sweta Patel
Science teachers teach science... Math teachers teach math... We’re all familiar with teacher licensure dictating our course load.
But what if... an English teacher taught a fine arts class? Or a math-related class?
As a teacher at an alternative high school in Minnesota, the state grants us variances to take on classes outside of our licensure areas. Some might balk at this and slam an educational ethics textbook at our door.
Therese Huston, the author of Teaching What You Don’t Know, would reply: “Can you be a good teacher before you’ve mastered the subject matter? Or perhaps while you’re mastering it? I believe the answer is yes.” And I agree.
Stretching Skillsets of Both Teacher and Students
In these past two years, I became aware of a growing need for more elective options for our students. I wanted to be a part of the solution. In a Googling session, I perused a variety of high school course catalogs in search of a topic that would engage both the students and me.
This past year, I—an English teacher—was approved to teach Cell Phone Photography for a fine arts elective credit.
The next minute, fear set in. Ah, crap. What did I get myself into? I don’t even know where to begin. My own photos are often a blurry mess (and sometimes, my own finger makes an appearance). I’m such a fraud, and the students will pick up on it. I quickly spiraled down the Drain-of-Negativity-and-Anxiety. Fortunately, the “fool factor” soon set in.
In her book, Huston writes, “Content novices are often more effective learners because of the 'fool factor.' The fear of having nothing to say, or, perhaps worse yet, the fear of saying something that is contradicted… is highly motivating.” She adds, “Instructors who were happy teaching on the edge of their expertise often diffused the imposter problem by finding a way to be honest with their students about their limited knowledge.”
For a period of time prior to the first day of class, I browsed dozens of syllabi for high school and online photography classes, lesson plans, websites with project ideas, forums, and more. I decided to teach students one composition technique at a time, eventually leading to longer projects that would require combining techniques. I was highly motivated to build up knowledge so that I could confidently guide my students’ learning (and not appear the fool). For instance, to prepare for teaching the Rule of Thirds, I turned to article after article for descriptions, tips, and sample images. But I was very up front with my students as well—this was my first time teaching this class, that I was a cell phone photography novice myself…that we would have to help each other grow.
So, my students also researched and studied articles, collected and imitated examples, experimented with their cell phone camera tools, and helped each other to carry out their vision for a particular project. We spent an equal amount of time projecting our photographs, offering self-reflection, and giving each other feedback about what was or wasn’t working and why. This feedback helped to shape the choices we made as photographers.
Some might say that our school’s art teacher should have been the one to teach this class. She has the content knowledge after all. I would agree that she’s an exceptional teacher and would have created an engaging class. In fact, she was my mentor and sounding board throughout my course planning.
However, I disagree that only the art teacher is qualified to teach an art class.
Huston writes, “The obvious assumption is that students learn less from faculty who know less about the subject matter and learn more from faculty who know more. But that assumption isn’t correct. Evidence from cognitive science, organizational behavior, and optimal environments suggests that experts are not always the best teachers. If you’ve ever had a brilliant professor drone on at the chalkboard about something no one understands, then perhaps you’re not surprised.”
With search engines at our fingertips, we can build our content knowledge. A good teacher is one who can create an engaging learning environment. That’s the art of teaching. Huston feels content novices bring three strengths to the classroom:
“Being an expert can get in the way of seeing the issues from a student’s perspective. After all, when you’re the expert, you’re fascinated by the inner latticework of the issues and often can’t formulate questions that beginners will relate to…. The beauty of being a content novice is that you have an outsider’s level of excitement and curiosity… You see what’s interesting and what matters to someone who is new to the topic because you’re new to the topic, too, and you see how the topic relates to other problems and questions in everyday life.”
With the endless topic of photography before me—where library shelves are filled with volumes and volumes of thick books—I had to make choices about what aspects to cover in the 9-week class. I thought about the end goal that excited my students and me—to become better cell phone photographers. This would require learning the most popular composition techniques and practicing them. We would have to take lots and lots of pictures. I could have included lessons around the history of photography or studying famous photographers in depth. A content expert may have made that decision. But as a content novice, taking pictures was priority #1. And my students—also content novices—were inspired by the same.
“We know that teacher expectations impact student achievement. High expectations are motivating when they are realistic about how much effort and time a task requires… What’s surprising is that people who have a lot of experience and are regarded as experts are much worse at estimating the amount of time a task will take for beginners than are the beginners themselves. In fact, the experts’ predictions are worse than those of someone who has never performed the task at all.”
“Concrete explanations lead to more efficient problem-solving—if you’re teaching students how to solve a problem that you recently learned to solve yourself, research shows that you will probably provide a more basic and concrete explanation than would a content expert. As a result, your students will probably experience fewer frustrations and more successes when they sit down to work on that problem.”
As a content novice teacher of this Cell Phone Photography course, I made sure I completed every task, assignment, and project I planned to assign to my students. In doing so, I had a better understanding of how long they would take my students to do. I worked through the same challenges I knew they would encounter. This often led to breaking down longer assignments into smaller chunks, including specific brainstorming tasks, clarifying written directions, adding more examples and links to resources for help. Essentially, creating a more supportive learning environment. As students came across challenges or questions I didn’t account for, we problem solved them together. I also often asked them for feedback on the class itself and let them help shape the direction we took with our projects.
But it’s another point that Huston makes that excites me the most about teaching what you don’t know:
“It would seem, at first glance, that content experts would be in a better position to foster deep learning. They know so much more about the field than the content novice; they have a sense of the big picture; and they’ve invested a lot of their own time finding meaning in the material…. Not necessarily. Keep in mind that a deep approach to learning involves helping the student find meaning in the material from the student’s vantage point. It’s the student’s discovery of meaning, not the teacher’s that makes or breaks the deep learner. So who is better equipped to create that kind of environment of discovery?”
She and I would both argue that it’s the content novice. We say that we believe that teaching isn’t imparting knowledge into empty vessels. But if we truly believed this, there would be more widespread acceptance of content novices teaching what they don’t know. I believe the biggest strength of the content novice is our full acknowledgment that we don’t know all the ins and outs of our class topics ahead of time and that we will have to co-construct our understanding of them through outside resources - print, online, and people.
Because of this acknowledgment, content novice teachers have to think outside of the lecture box (as knowledge givers) and have more of a push to create collaborative, engaging learning environments.
Additional Application Approaches
Perhaps you’ve reached this point of the article and are left wondering, Well, we don’t all work at alternative schools. This isn’t relevant. But there can be creative scheduling moves that can be made to allow for more teachers to teach what they don’t know.
A mainstream school in our district used to schedule an “e-term.” For one full week, teachers would stop their regular classes and host different seminars that students could sign up for. A history teacher with an interest in children’s literature might offer a weeklong seminar in “Writing and Publishing Children’s Books.” A math teacher with an interest in cars might offer “Basic Car Care & Maintenance.” A Special Education teacher who coaches baseball after school could offer “Building a Workout Plan.” (At our school, we used the “e-term” as inspiration for our own “j-term” in January—here’s a copy of our course guide.)
Then perhaps, these initial, brief dips into unknown waters could lead to something longer. Our district requires 24 credits, 8.5 of which are elective. Why not offer quarter-long elective credit opportunities? Teachers could teach around a topic they have some interest in (or a topic that students are requesting), like Basket Weaving, East Indian Music & Dancing, Podcasting 101, Music Production, Tattoos & Storytelling... By graduation, imagine all of the different experiences students would leave with: one such class topic could even lead to a lifelong hobby or interest. I know I’m not considering all of the logistical issues in scheduling and staffing, but that’s purposeful. There are always reasons we can find that a new idea won’t work. The key is to find a way around all those “but we can’ts.”
Another “but we can’t” might be this: We don’t all have the time it takes to learn and develop the content for brand new, unfamiliar classes. In my case with the photography class, I did do a lot of research to develop a course plan and then again for my daily lessons.
However, I think I did that primarily out of the “fool factor” fear. Instead, I think teaching what we don’t know could lend itself very well to student-led project-based learning, where the teacher is a facilitator or guide. I could have said this to my students on day one: “This class is called Cell Phone Photography. What are some of our goals for ourselves around this topic? How do we get there?” As the teacher, my job would have been to guide students to form questions, develop a plan of action, self-reflect, and seek feedback. Perhaps the class could have generated a list of techniques they wanted to learn about, and then each student could have been responsible for teaching that technique to the rest of the class. I think when we teach what we don’t know, we can help our students learn how to learn. And that’s a skill they can carry with them well past graduation.
Lean on Community & Collaborators
Finally, as content novice teachers think about their unfamiliar topic, they should be reminded that they aren’t alone. With technology like Zoom and Google Meet, professionals are easier to access than ever. Teaching what we don’t know offers a bonus opportunity of networking with others who can serve as our mentors, or checks for our instruction. In my course, I not only had the support of our art teacher, but we also regularly conducted Google meets with a former photographer for the Post-Bulletin (our local paper). She got to know my students and we developed mini-portfolios for her constructive feedback.
She was as proud as I was over my students’ (and my own) growth in our photography composition skills over the course of nine weeks. I can now confidently say that I’m no longer just an English teacher.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
Over two years ago, in the spring of 2019, I had grand ideas of how to grade differently—of how to motivate students with an intrinsic desire to learn and grow, rather than with extrinsic letter grades and percentages. After having spent four years working in the office of Curriculum and Instruction for the Rochester Public Schools (RPS), and with plans to return to the classroom that coming fall, I wanted to take what I had learned over my four years—part of which had been a deep dive into grading practices—and implement them with flare. That plan resulted in the article "Seeing the Motivation: Filling ClassROWEs with Jagged Learners," which was first published in May 2019 and the full text of which is also embedded below..
*All additions are in this font and noted by a gray, vertical line.
How will I motivate students to focus on learning and growth, vs. letter grades?
In my brainstorming, I was reminded of what Todd Rose notes in his book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness (2015). Rose explores the jaggedness principle: the concept that on paper many individuals might all appear much the same, while in reality they’re very unique.
Lory Hough, author of the 2015 Harvard Ed article “Beyond Average” captures it this way:
Rose says, “if we ignore jaggedness, we end up treating people in one-dimensional terms”—the struggling student, the good tester. “If we want to know your intelligence, for example, we give you an IQ test that is supposed to tap a range of abilities, but then we merge that into a single score.” Imagine two young students have the same IQ score of 110—the exact same number. One has great spatial abilities but poor working memory, and the other has the exact opposite jaggedness. “If we just want to rank them, then we could say the students are more or less the same in intelligence because they have the same aggregate scores. But if we wanted to really understand who they are as individuals enough to nurture their potential, we can’t ignore the jaggedness—it is the essential information for providing them with an optimal environment and matching them with optimal strategies for success.”
But acknowledging jaggedness, in my opinion, won’t alone motivate students. However, combine this principle with a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) structure, and we might be on our way…
Create a ROWE
I first learned about ROWEs in Dan Pink’s 2009 Ted Talk, and then read about it again in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In his talk, starting around the 15 minute mark, Pink states that a ROWE is when, “people don't have schedules. They show up when they want. They don't have to be in the office at a certain time, or any time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them.” And, he goes on to note that what happens in a ROWE is that, “across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.”
To create a classroom version of a ROWE, students would have to show mastery of required skills, such as RPS's established Prioritized Learnings.
In my current school community, Dover-Eyota Public Schools, we call these 'Essential Leaning Outcomes (ELOs)'. Some schools call these 'Power Standards'. No matter the name, this is valuable work the really helps hone the focus of student learning and growth.
However, students will not need to do this on my schedule, nor by following my prescribed pathway. In a classroom ROWE, like the one I hope to create, students will be expected to meet the standards by the end of the grading period, not by some arbitrary date I choose. Likewise, students can get there via a path I map out for them, but if they want to take another route, I’ll welcome that. And, should they hit construction or a dead end, they can reroute themselves (with my help, should they need it) until they meet the required destination.
Last week, a student of mine from 2019-2020 reached out to me to inquire about a letter of recommendation. While a letter was the reason for her setting up a Zoom call with me, during our time together she shared with me that it was this flexibility—this acknowledgement that learning doesn't always happen 'on schedule'—that saved her in the spring of 2020 when we suddenly shifted to online learning. Numerous times throughout the video chat, she thanked me for grading this way.
I recently came upon a statistic that surprised me: “the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual” (Eisenberg, 2014). When this set of facts is combined with the common belief that 65% of learners are more dominantly visual (vs. auditory or kinesthetic), even despite recent controversy on learning styles, it’s hard to argue that—no matter the statistics—going visual with information can literally help us see more fully the material we’re trying to process.
Since 2019, I have also been reminded often of how important visuals are for our English language learners, especially when students are involved with creating those visuals.
Advertisers lean into the power of visuals, so why shouldn't teachers? Essentially, we are 'selling' skills, a love of learning, and content...
So, in my quest for an answer to how I might motivate students without traditional letter grades, but yet still track progress that allows for jagged learning in a ROWE structured classroom, I found myself wondering the following:
One way I can see to capture each student’s (jagged) success visually, comes from a 2017 FIRST conference I attended. One of the speakers, Myron Dueck, illustrated a point in Todd Rose’s book by showing radar charts of various football players. He noted that while one player might be strongest in one or two areas, other players are strong in others; but, together the team fills out most, if not all, of the radar’s surface area. Additionally, Dueck highlighted that as a player works on his skills, he’s not going to be strong in every area from the start—some strengths just take longer to build than others.
Similarly, students can take their learning and go visual with it by using a radar chart structure!
Putting it All Together
With all this in mind, I mocked up a structure that I am thinking about using with my students when I return to the classroom in the fall. Maybe something like this will work with your students, too.
| Part 1 |
Each assignment will be rooted in one or more Prioritized Learnings. For one of the courses I will be teaching, American Literature & Composition, these are:
Additionally, on all assignments where students will receive formalized instructor feedback, I plan to use a 3 point feedback scale. For me, three points make sense because it tightly aligns with our Proficiency Scales (but, should my PLC or building opt for a different breakdown, I’ll adjust). Currently, I am thinking it might break down this way:
Perhaps the most complicated piece of this whole shift was figuring out how to explain it to students and parents. I suspected that many would need to understand why the shift was occurring and that most would want to know the logistics of how it would work and what they would see when it came to student report cards, transcripts, and online student information systems (SIS) like Skyward, JMC, Gradelink, Infinite Campus, etc.
As it turned out, while there were a few parents and students who were initially frustrated, ultimately everyone was either ambivalent (rare) or fully onboard (more common) about the change. Those who were the most hesitant to join us on this journey: students who had done well in the past because they knew how to navigate a traditional school system and now found themselves disquieted by this new one, and those who wanted to know what the minimum requirement was to get an ‘A’.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.