by Phil Olson
Each fall, former students, seniors who are a week or a month into their last year of high school, show up at my door. They try for some small talk, while their eyes communicate that they know I know about the Ask that’s coming. It’s awkward and sweet, and I say yes, telling them it will be my pleasure. And it is.
In recent years, college recommendations are increasingly accomplished via one platform, the Common App, a non-profit organization that represents 900 institutions of higher education.
The application’s commonness allows students to complete one application for undergraduate college admission, instead of completing separate applications for each school. The platform also manages teacher recommendations, which consists primarily of letters of recommendation and a series of comparative ratings.
As far as an unpaid, part-time jobs go, completing college application recommendations is a good one. Let me explain.
First, I enjoy writing recommendation letters because I must pause to reflect on my experiences with students who are about to be done with high school. I think about the work we did together (in fact, I like to revisit and quote their essays!), the things I learned about their personal stories, and I marvel at the truly remarkable process of maturation that unfolds in dramatic, double-time fashion during high school.
Because I teach the spectrum of grade levels, I get to know my students first as kids and later as young adults. I like how the recommendation process caps our time together, and I find it meaningful to have played a positive role, sometimes small and sometimes substantial, in helping students prepare for and take next steps. I also get earnest thank you notes whose words do their intended job of making me feel useful and appreciated, and sometimes students show up to tell me when they’ve been accepted to schools and to talk through plans--often including the fact that they need additional recommendation letters for this scholarship and that. I get to help with those too.
A second, meaningful feature of the recommendation dynamic has made me a better educator, an improvement fueled by the ratings chart below. Give it a close read before we move on.
I have mixed feelings about rating recommendees in relation to student peers, but I continue to appreciate almost all of the categories, as they capture attributes that really matter—for success in high school, college, and life. The thing is that, years back, I realized I was rating students with regard to categories they were not aware of. Sure, these are things that matter to educators, but I can confirm they are not obvious to students who have absorbed messages about the defining nature of GPAs and standardized test scores. To be more blunt, students are confused about what matters, as evidenced by how surprised mine are when I share the chart with them.
Since teachers are evaluating students on the criteria above, it makes sense for us to establish them as "studenting" targets in our classrooms—targets that need to be discussed early and often.
A couple of criticisms:
Okay, “academic achievement” is challengingly broad and inclusive, and rating “intellectual promise” is a toughie, but I like to ponder the promise I see in my students. The student who writes poetry or plays chess beautifully? That’s promising. The student who is passionate about saving the planet, dismantling patriarchy, or understanding physics . . . promising!
The five criteria, with some overlap, that I find most meaningful:
Like many area teachers I am in the midst of ultra-busy weeks as I bring first semester classes to a close, while simultaneously preparing to transition to the second half of the year. This time in the academic calendar is always fraught, with extra helpings of grading (and some grade-grubbing) and planning, as well as a never-quiet Outlook inbox. This year, though, it’s fraught² (An exponent because many of us must wrap and restart in distance-learning mode. **Deep breath, focusing on a long exhale with healing self-talk: Phew... Everything will be okay.**)
As my students and I start second semester, we’ll wait on talk about percentages or papers; instead we’ll use the ratings chart to discuss authentic, effective studenting, which is even more important in distance-learning mode. Then they’ll reflect, in writing, on how they rate themselves for semester 1 before specifying targets for where they want to grow in semester 2.
They will write recommendations for themselves.
by Stefanie Whitney
I hear myself using the phrase “messy middle” quite frequently of late. This meander seeks to make sense of what the term “messy middle” even means.
In my mind’s eye, I imagine the messy middle as a place where one is suspended in an ocean between two shores–both shores well beyond reach. Solid ground no longer underfoot, it’s incumbent upon me to make decisions that will, once again, lead me to a steady, grounded place.
Some moments I have experienced this uncomfortable feeling in the classroom and community have been when I have turned over the reins of control and held my breath in wonder about what my fellow humans will do with them. What will they do with the foundation I have built? What will my role look like now? Will they need me? What if a mess is made of the beautiful ground I crafted? What holds? What falls apart? And what was my role in both outcomes?
We cannot possibly know how all of this (envision widespread hands, palms up, gesturing at our world) is going to turn out, which is a bone chilling reality for anyone who appreciates a semblance of control. A reality that seems all the more staggering as each month passes in this extended twilight zone in which we all exist. (Though, I’d argue that messy middles occur whether we are in the middle of a global pandemic or not.)
From here, my mind wanders to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” particularly this stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
I am always admittedly stalled by Yeats' use of the word “loosed” twice, placed so closely together. In a little search for an improvement that I’m certain Yeats would appreciate, I arrived at Merriam Webster’s definition of loosed:
Loosed: (1) to cause a projectile to be driven forward with force (2) to find emotional release for (3) to set free as from slavery or confinement
Misters Merriam and Webster are speaking my language. For the purposes of this essay, please focus on the latter two definitions. Because of them, I will leave Yeats’ word choices alone. Also, if I may continue being so bold, it seems clear to me that Yeats was stuck in the messy middle of something, and he leaned on language to help make sense of it. The messy middle. Here we are. The middle of the school year, in the middle of a global pandemic, in the middle of hope for progress.
Observing myself and others during this sustained time of discomfort, I am starting to believe that the messy middle really indicates that moment when logic and structure disappear and emotions begin to creep into the fray. Of course, it makes sense to feel like things are starting to fall apart. That the center is not holding.
I find myself considering: Who built the center? And why is it their axis we seek to latch onto?
In fact, what if this discomfort isn't indicative of a “falling apart” at all?
What if we are active participants in the collision of our outdated systems and our ever-evolving value systems? And what if the result of this “turning and turning” is the suggestion that logic and structure do not hold without an awareness and grounding in values and emotions? Maybe the feeling of a messy middle simply indicates we are now entering a phase that cannot hold upon the foundation and structures of the past, without an approach that requires us to tread water while we look around, feel things more deeply, and root ourselves in updated, albeit still developing, value systems.
Safir and Dugan, in Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation, address this type of uncertainty:
The idea of throwing yourself into a change process with no known outcome and just a line of inquiry may feel uncomfortable and revolutionary all at once--a blast of fresh air on the stale econometric framework, which assumes we can data-fy and plan our way into new results. By contrast, emergence calls on us to slow down, listen deeply to those at the margins, bring folks to the table to reimagine the landscape with us, and move in partnership to build a new reality. It is a liberatory change model, freeing us from the fantasy of control while pushing us to maximize our influence in service of equity and antiracism.”
“...fantasy of control….” – “...the centre cannot hold….”
If we are finding that our old norms, our old systems are not working right now, then perhaps we need to investigate what those systems are built upon. If our souls are unsettled and we feel the bottom dropping out, then maybe our old systems are crashing head-on into our developing values; we are trying to hold our old systems up against an evolving human experience. It’s uncomfortable because that system felt safe and I knew my role, but I see more clearly all those not meant for that old system. They do not belong in it. So we don’t belong here, either. Change is crucial, and hard.
A bit about belonging
Brene Brown’s latest work, Atlas of the Heart, aims to help us identify and name experiences and emotions in order to gain power of “understanding, meaning, and choice.” While delving into the experience of belonging, Brown interviewed 8th graders about what it feels like to belong in a place. In their words:
Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you.
Brown juxtaposes the definition of “belonging” against the definition of “fitting in,” which they describe as:
Being somewhere where you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
Brown further explains,
Because we can feel belonging only if we have the courage to share our most authentic selves with people, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our self-acceptance.
Which begs the questions:
Heart is sea,
(1) Belonging to myself–getting square with my values (for me, compassion and curiosity).
For an exercise on isolating your core values, check out Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead value activity.
(2) A sense of belonging within my communities.
It’s not lost on me that I have the privilege to seek out agency in most of my experiences. Do our students have this same privilege? All of our students, I mean? Social and emotional learning is an educational hot button right now, and rightfully so. The more language I have as an adult to work through my discomfort, my emotions, and get clear on my values, the more agency I have when working for equilibrium. As an educator, how can I build systems in my spaces that allow all of us to get grounded in our values, to belong in this community?
The Students’ Take
Inevitably, the responses of all 43 students, grades 8-12, revealed themes surrounding relationships, trust, and belonging. Feedback is an action, often a system at play. As an English teacher with limited time, logic centered my feedback, even if emotions (pride, frustration, excitement, passion) bolstered my feedback process. Students also acknowledged the existence of emotions at the heart of their feedback experience. All of the students spoke of how feedback, their teacher, or the classroom environment, made them feel.
Rarely did students talk about grades as the sole reason feedback is helpful, but all students discussed the need to have a relationship with the teacher or person giving feedback and a need to feel a sense of identity and belonging in the class. Some even spoke of the need for passion–from the teacher regarding their quest for students to learn and within the student for the subject area or topic. In short, students want to feel like they belong, like they are seen, and that their voices matter.
I’m struck by how students spoke of values and emotions, yet as adults we often find ourselves rumbling about external systems.
Of course, in this sustained discomfort, we are apt to fight harder to reach one shore or the other; some form of solid ground. But what are we hoping to accomplish with all the splashing, thrashing, and death grips on past systems that don’t serve everyone? What if we normalize the kind of discomfort that bends toward progress, inclusion, and shared humanity?
Maybe the next best step is to calmly look inside at what is causing the turbulence, ground ourselves in our values, and then confidently and slowly start moving in a direction that aligns our value systems with the external systems that demand our attention? In that slow motion, one shore starts to loom larger. We can belong to our messy selves, and we can move with those folk who want us among them exactly as we are.
Stefanie Whitney, EdD, works with the Curriculum and Instruction team in Rochester Public Schools (RPS). She's also been an English teacher, an AVID instructor, and both a high school and a middle school instructional coach in RPS.
Being more accessible to our colleagues, students, and parents certainly has its advantages. We can instantly help a student with a question, quickly let a parent know the status of the classroom, or have a great professional learning community with colleagues across the district, city, state, or nation. Of course, that student may want an answer at 11:00 pm, that parent may be trying to send an instant message during class and wonder why they don’t hear back, and “just one quick ten-minute meeting with administration over Zoom” may happen twice an hour.
- the number of meetings employees are expected to attend have ballooned dramatically over the last ten years
- “3% to 5% of employees” make up “20%-35% of the value-add” of meetings
- the more “in-demand” an individual employee was as a collaborator, the more damaging the situation became for that employee, and in-turn for those they were trying to help
Of course, in a school, the most in-demand employees are teachers, administrators, counselors, psychologists…all of whom are finding that the world of instant communication has opened up certain flood-gates.
In my own practice, and in my own data, I can tell you that communication is important (I am sure you’re shocked). I have long been in the habit of sending FERPA safe emails to every parent with updates every Friday via a mail-merge setup. When communication was personalized and consistent, I found a 20% positive change in the grades and skill attainment that my students had in my classes. Just from communicating with their parents. I did a similar experiment in sending e-mails to my students, and found similar results.
So, communication is vital—and detrimental—to the surprise of no-one.
The Break Down of Implications...
- This can be the time you are teaching, so you don’t have to constantly be worried about missing a communication that just popped in
- This can be during your preparation time
- As an administrator, this can be something that is purposefully managed for the benefit of all
- Asking parents or students what that rate of communication might be is always a great place to start
- Finding out what you can safely communicate, and making sure that parents and students want that communication, is also a great idea
- Personalization of communication is one way that we can make sure that our parents and students feel that they are being seen and heard as a human and by a human
- Uninterrupted doesn’t mean that you can’t rotate around, offer rapid feedback, or spur imagination
- Uninterrupted also doesn’t mean a quiet, claustrophobic room
- Uninterrupted means that no new demands for time or attention are placed upon the student during that time, which may be a luxury not afforded at home
I am sure there are many implications to these studies that I haven’t had time to parse, yet. If you have further insights, please feel free to share them with us.
At our alternative school, students often report low motivation because they’re already so behind in credits. At a certain point, many assume a ‘why should I even bother’ mentality. To help create hope, while also maintaining the integrity of our academic standards, we are currently experimenting with an in-school, non-computer-based credit recovery system.
This year, we squeezed in an extra period into our school day (a 7th hour). During this time, we are offering “credit recovery labs” in the four core areas—English, math, science, and social studies. Students who had failed a previous English class, for example, can enroll in the English Lab.
When they first enter a lab:
- students learn about the process they will follow to recover credit in that content area
- the lab teachers identify the class the student failed, at what percentage, and then read through feedback and recommendations provided by the original classroom teacher
- The lab teacher and the student, together, form a credit recovery plan based on the students’ interests and missed standards.
Once the plan is fulfilled, students can move into another needed lab. Students do not have to remain in the lab the entire quarter: they only have to remain long enough to accomplish mutually agreed upon goals.
As we move forward with this experiment, we’re hoping to develop a more efficient system to identify missed standards. This will require that all content area teachers come together and identify prioritized learning standards for each class, quarter by quarter. If a student were to fail a course during a certain quarter, with established learning standards, lab teachers would be able to more quickly work with the original classroom teacher to identify the gaps.
This is our shared mission: to help students recover credit in a meaningful, purposeful way (with academic integrity) that creates hope and lowers our dropout rate.
Sweta Patel is an English teacher at the Rochester Alternative Learning Center in Southern, Minnesota. She also teaches Cell Phone Photography, Personal Finance, and a motivational class for seniors (co-taught with a community college). She feels lucky to work at a small, alternative school that encourages creativity and innovation.