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.
When stuck in a situation (or a series of situations, to be honest) that is disquieting, it can be easy to dwell on the on the negative. When drowning in a glass that’s half empty, it’s hard to acknowledge that it’s also half full.
Which is why here we lean on Amit Sood, who we’ve collaborated with before, to highlight (1) a way we can reengage students and (2) a way we can reengage ourselves.
1 | Reengage Students with Voice
Want to help someone feel good? Let them speak
Do you know what is common between dark chocolate, surprises, gambling, winning the house in bingo, and meeting people who agree with us? Each of these experiences causes a surge of a chemical dopamine in our brain’s reward network. That surge feels uplifting, sometimes intensely so.
Another activity that increases dopamine in our reward system is talking about the self (saying the word “I”). “I do this,” “I do that,” “This is how I feel,” “I like this,” “I don’t like that,” and so on. Research shows when we talk about ourselves, our reward network activates, and we feel happy.
No wonder 40% of speech and 80% of social media content is people talking about themselves.
When you choose to listen to others mindfully, even if you cannot solve their concerns, you are helping them. This is because when they inform you, their brain’s pleasure center activates. People would even give up a monetary gain in favor of the joy of sharing information. At least that’s what the research shows.
So, a simple way to connect with others and make them happy is to sit back, relax, and enjoy hearing them speak — about themselves. Try this today with someone who may have missed an engaged sympathetic ear for a long time.
Listening to others with complete presence is such a simple way of spreading happiness. No wonder we have two ears for each mouth!
- I felt this book was challenging because…
- I think this rubric wasn’t fair because…
- I turned this assignment in late because…
It doesn’t mean we can’t still push deeply into content:
- I felt this book was challenging because…might lead to ➡ and here are three examples from the text that highlight my point!
- I think this assignment too hard because… might lead to ➡ I still don’t understand how to use math mountain—can I use another way to get the answer?
- I turned this assignment in late because… might lead to ➡ I don’t understand how this applies to the field I’m planning to go into. Does it apply? Can you show me?
2 | Reengage Ourselves with Antidotes
Give no one the power to affect your health
Hera was the wife and sister of Zeus, the sky and thunder god in ancient Greek religion. Hera was known for her jealousy and vengeance, which came partly as a reaction to Zeus’ infidelity.
The difficulties Hera faced weren’t unique to her life or her times. Many of us face difficult interpersonal situations that awaken a different Hera within us — the Hera of Hatred, Envy, Revenge and Anger (the kind that produces violent rage). Research shows this HERA predisposes us to a multitude of medical conditions.
Just as a physical body fighting an external infectious agent becomes inflamed and injured, and a country at war finds it difficult to keep its citizens peaceful, when we intend to hurt others — either because they hurt us or because we feel hatred or envy — we hurt ourselves.
Research shows a mind fighting itself or others predisposes the physical body to cardiovascular disease, cancer, infections, inflammation, dementia, and even premature death. In one of my workshops on forgiveness, a participant got up in the middle and said, “I can’t give my ex the power to increase my risk of dementia. That’s a good enough reason to forgive him, as much as I hate to do that.”
The other reason HERA damages our system is that once we are mired in the habit of getting angry, feeling hatred, harboring envy, or seeking revenge with one person, we deploy these missiles to the rest of the world. We paint the world with our negativity and seek out reasons to validate our inner negative feelings. These feelings start defining our life’s course.
Locked in the HERA prison, we start despising the world, jeopardizing our peace.
HERA often sneaks in from an unguarded corner of the mind when you aren’t watching. It then multiplies, like a newly hatched virus against which you have no immunity. Carefully guard your mind — not just its living room, but also its attic, basement and backyard — from any elements of HERA, and sweep it clean when you find them hatching.
Crowd your space with the antidotes — gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. Transform your negative thoughts, so they surrender to these higher values.
When you convert your hatred into compassion, envy into inspiration, revenge into forgiveness, and anger into acceptance, you’ll save yourself and the people you love from much suffering.
I’m going to lose my prep hour to sub for a teacher out quarantining…might shift to:
- …but this way at least I can meet the students who I’ll have in class next year. (gratitude)
- …I hope he doesn’t actually end up getting Covid. (compassion)
- …yet I’m not going to make do with the lack of sub notes considering he likely had to leave on short notice. (forgiveness)
I can’t believe she used that racial slur…might be followed by:
- …at least I have a strong relationship with her and we can talk about this. (gratitude)
- …it hurts me to think she may be others who thinks that okay. (compassion)
- …but I’m going forgive this instance of poor word choice now that we have discussed it and start fresh with her tomorrow. (forgiveness)
That email I just received really cut to the quick…might be followed by:
- …yet, at least I know they’re engaged and passionate about this. (gratitude)
- …I wonder what’s troubling them that they felt the need to be so curt and condescending (compassion)
- …I’m going to share this with my principal to loop her in, and then just delete this so I can move forward. (forgiveness)
Since reading is such an essential skill, it’s not surprising that the questions I receive most in my role as Teaching and Learning Director for Dover-Eyota schools revolve around reading.
- How can I help my child read more?
- Do you have books suggestions for my reluctant reader?
- My grandkid seems to be reading below grade-level: how do I get him up to speed?
- My niece once loved reading, but now never picks up a book—is there a holiday gift I could get her to help her reengage?
Simply put, there is a lot of passion out there for helping our youth become strong readers.
Plus, ‘tis the season of holiday sales, gift giving, vacation days, and new year’s resolutions…
Combine these truths, and this becomes a perfect time for finding and sharing books, for having extra time to enjoy literature, and for setting new reading goals.
Here are three sets of ideas:
Model It --
According to Scholastic (2019), a powerful predictor of kids’ reading frequency is having a parent [or other adult] who personally reads aloud to/with the child 5-7 days a week. Commonly, this is something we do with younger children, but recent studies have shown that even middle-school-aged youth love to be read to.
Read around your child.
Show the children in your life that you, too, are a reader. “Children who see adults reading and enjoying it,” according to Pearson Education (2021), “are much more likely to want to read themselves.” Maria Russo and Pamela Paul, authors of How to Raise a Reader, note that “when I’m sitting there on my couch, reading a book, and my kids are doing their own thing, I like to think, I’m parenting right now—they can see me reading this book”—conversely, if “right after dinner, the first thing you do is scroll through your phone, open up your laptop, or watch TV, kids are likely to take note.”
Audiobooks support literacy skills in ways that physical books sometimes can’t. The web resource Reading Rockets (2003) shares that audiobooks model strong interpretive reading, make difficult vocabulary words or dialects more accessible, and enhance listening skills among other things.
Tip: there are a lot of ways to access free audiobooks. Visit the website LibriVox or try the app Libby (you just need a public library card!).
Remove Barriers --
Pearson Education (2021) shares a few tips: at home, have books on accessible shelves and coffee tables; when traveling, toss a few books in the car or suitcase; and when headed to an appointment, have a book at the ready should there be time spent in the waiting room. Personally, I’m currently reading 4 books: an audiobook, a bedside-table book, a living-room book, and one waiting-in-line book (which I actually access electronically on my phone).
From nonfiction to fiction, from poetry to graphic novels, from magazines to thick novels, from comic strips to junk-mail…anything with text is an opportunity to build vocabulary, to increase interest, and grow reading stamina. Additionally, each genre has its own unique trends when it comes to plot structures, character development, and literary techniques: reading widely exposes one to all the trends, making it easier to navigate future works of the same genre.
Look past levels.
Once a reader is able to decode basic words, according to the School Library Journal (2020), which is typically around first grade, students should be encouraged to “read a wide range of texts…they should read easy books to things that kick their butt. The variation of difficulty does matter.” Simpler texts can build fluency, enjoyment, and stamina; while a text outside of one’s comfort level can introduce a reader to new vocabulary and increase understanding of what skills they’ve yet to master.
Encourage Interests --
Reading teachers and authors Karen Szymusiak and Franki Sibberson (2007) share the tip that adults should “…talk about the books they [the students] are reading” by having conversations rooted in “open-ended questions they can use in discussing their reading.” They suggest questions that fit each of three layers:
- questions about the self -- How are you like the character of Rory?
- questions about the text -- You said it was set in Texas: how do you know? Can you show me where it says that in the book?
- questions about the world -- What you read reminds me of what we saw at the grocery store yesterday. How is the puppy in a vest that you just read about like the one we saw with the women getting milk?).
Reading a book series, going on author binges, rereading a favorite book—these sometimes get bad reps. Yet, they are integral to creating lifelong readers. Author Devon Corneal shared on Read Brightly (2021) that rereading helps learners develop strong word recognition, notice patterns, enhance fluency, strengthen comprehension, and foster confidence. Similarly, a reader who is hooked on a series deepens their connections with characters, increases comprehension, spends more time reading, and quickens the process of finding what book to read next, according to Edutopia (2016): likewise, reading multiple books by the same author can have similar impacts.
Make literacy a reward. Make going to the library, visiting the bookmobile, or browsing at a bookstore a regular and joyful event. Combine reading with what your learner enjoys. For me, that was lunch with my father at Wong’s in downtown Rochester after spending a summer morning with my mom at the library. For my third-grade niece and nephew, it’s being allowed time to read uninterrupted in their small, end-of-bunkbed nooks they created with their father last year—simple plywood nests filled with blankets, pillows, and a few favorite reads. Lifelong reading is fostered by the memories of contentment we nurture now.
What extracurriclar activities have you participated in?
But for our seniors? They usually name classes or activities they participated in at some point during their time at our school:
- I volunteered with the Foods class at Channel One and helped stock and organize food items.
- I took the music class with Mrs. B. Does that count?
- I played in the staff versus student basketball game.
- Remember that Service Day we did last year? I volunteered at the Senior Care Center.
- I took the Youth Build class and we went to ReStore to volunteer.
I believe there is a population within all of our schools that doesn’t have access to these types of ‘extracurricular activities’ due to any number of factors, including financial constraints, transportation barriers, or needing to work after school.
And yet time spent in these activities often leads to feeling a sense of community and teamwork, learning a skill that may become a lifelong hobby, or even developing a sense of what career path we’d like to pursue.
The Duiring-the-School-Day Solution
During advisory time, students spend an hour deepening their relationship with each other and their advisor. Advisors also use a part of this time to have one-on-one conversations with each advisee, following a set of weekly questions created by our social workers. Past topics include: goal-setting, healthy relationships, coping with stress, and self-talk.
During academic help time, we give students a built-in pause during the school week and use this time to re-teach concepts and help students one-on-one with assignments. This helps to prevent the end-of-the-quarter mad rush that often happens to catch up on the past 8 weeks’ worth of learning.
- Batik Pillows and Paper Making
- Cooking Competitions
- Social Justice Leadership Team
- Rock Climbing
- Introduction to 3D Printing
- Guitar Lessons
- The Art of Henna
Prior to Each Rotation
- Teachers decide what seminars they’ll offer during the upcoming rotation (for the duration of four Wednesdays).
- We update the course guide (via Google Slides).
- During advisory, students use the course guide to complete a paper schedule. (Our students meet in advisory for 15 minutes each day and for 1 hour on Wednesdays.)
- Advisors officially register students on the registration document (via a Google Sheet) by class year (this rotates - sometimes seniors are first, then juniors, and so on).
- Students follow their Wednesday schedule for the next four Wednesdays. And the process repeats.
Rotations & Collaborations
For example, for our Chess Seminar, we’re partnering with the Rochester Chess Club. One of their chess instructors comes out to teach our students, and they only have to commit to four Wednesdays at a time.
Implement With Purpose
But there’s even a greater reason for more schools to jump in:
When I was younger, I took piano lessons, and this led me to introducing music into my daughter’s life. My husband played cricket and badminton, and he continues to play now as an adult as part of his fitness routine. My 9-year old daughter takes art and dance lessons, and through these, has developed dreams of selling her art one day and making it on the high school dance team. So many of us have these stories.
We’re hoping that through our Student-Centered Wednesdays, our students will generate similar stories of their own. A particular seminar just might change the trajectory of their life.
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.
Not long ago, I needed a quote about education to jumpstart a journal for my philosophy students. And, like a student I'd jokingly **tsk tsk**, instead of observing my environment, I Googled "quotes about education," which led me to Pygmalion playwright George Bernard Shaw's: "You have learned something. That always feels at first as though you have lost something." It sounded familiar. I glanced up, and there it was in the wallpaper, written in Georgia font with colorful floral flourishes surrounding it. It'd followed me from classroom to classroom since 2009, when Georgia was still an acceptable font choice.
If I sit with the quote, it takes different forms. To learn something is to lose naivete. Naivete might be synonymous with innocence, or childhood, or even nostalgia, which makes the loss heartbreaking. Shaw is suggesting the antithesis of ignorance is bliss. Instead, he says knowledge is worth loss. And/or he's saying loss is not loss. And/or: anti-intellectualism is bad. And/or: have you seen Pleasantville?
There was a time in history when teachers of yore were very excited about worksheets, how they would help students become stronger readers. (I like to think of this conversation: "No, no, see--I'll leave blanks and the students have to fill them in.") There are times when worksheets are great--the blanks are a metaphor for loss, I mean--but I think consensus is that worksheets should never do the heavy lifting. We know now students learn better when they are creating and questioning and writing their own worksheets. Research does not reach an endpoint. We do not say okay, we won research! That's a wrap! Everyone go home! We learn, ∞. This is social science and hard science in harmony. Think of how dull the field of education would be if we ever reached a finish line.
And there are the words "at first that feels like you've lost something." But you didn't actually lose, did you.
The first line of the comic reads "you are not going to believe what I am going to tell you." In the following panels, Inman offers facts that help readers judge the "barometer" of their reactions. In the first example, he considers what most of us are taught: George Washington had wooden teeth. We begin on common ground. Then, he offers a new fact: George Washington not only had wooden teeth, but in 2005, the National Museum of Dentistry confirmed his dentures also included "horse and donkey teeth." (Inman calls it a "petting zoo of nightmares.") He asks us to consider the amount of "friction" we encounter after learning this. Generally, a reader would think wow that's nasty, but it wouldn't impact what they think of Washington. The final fact Inman offers: Washington's dentures may have been made from the teeth of slaves. This fact causes the most friction, and we must consider why. This knowledge stings: a founding father crossing the Delaware, a hero, did terrible things.
Inman explains our friction by means of science: "the part of the brain that responds to a physical threat also responds to an intellectual one." If something we've stood by in the classroom is challenged, we react in the same way we would to an alligator holding a knife or an administrator sending a vague email to meet him in his office. Our core practices are a house, and a challenge to them knocks the entire house down, implying we no longer have any practices. Thus, our amygdalas tell us to defend it. But wisdom says: build a new house. It's okay. (Inman offers solutions in the form of a pinky toe.)
There's a lot at stake if you change your mind. You have to admit you were once wrong. At the start of the pandemic, scientists said masks weren't needed, and then they said we definitely needed masks. While some took that to mean scientists knew nothing about Covid because they changed their mind, most of us took it to mean they were doing their jobs, and it was saving our lives. That new knowledge meant Covid was more serious than we thought, which was scary. That stung. It'd be easier to say the scientists were wrong.
 Some points I need to add about George Bernard Shaw that mild research has brought to light. Firstly and tragically, he supported eugenics, which brings a whole new take on his work; namely, does it deserve our time? Is the art separate from the artist? (There is a lot to say about this and always will be: should the canonical art of a person who supported absolutely vile ideas still be discussed? Does it matter that it was over a century ago? He was horribly, disgustingly, racist. For the sake of my reflection, I will take the quote aside from his sins, because of what it led to in my own understanding. If we were to explore the ethics of art further, regarding Shaw, this would invite the question: should we stop watching My Fair Lady, since it was inspired by Pygmalion? My personal response is no, but it needs a really, really, really long footnote before viewing, hence this sentence I am literally typing right now.) Now that we don't like him, I'll add salt to the wound: Shaw was an anti-vaxxer. Vehemently. He said vaccines were witchcraft and attempted murder. See, again, this entire footnote. If anything, I've "learned something" in that Shaw held terrible and dangerous beliefs, and I've "lost" because the quote leaves a disgusting taste in my mouth, in spite of the reflections it has led me to. See also: all of history.
Much less important, is that in every picture of him, Shaw looks like he's about to offer you a sarsaparilla. Next, Shaw is responsible for the adage "youth is wasted on the young," which of course it is, as well as "those who can, do; those who can't teach," which actually makes him a Third Eye antagonist/supervillain. I will lean into this irony. Another quote: "Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it." I don't know what this means, but it feels wrong.
Shaw died in 1950, at the age of 94: while trimming a tree, he fell off a ladder. Lots to note here as well, (considering he should've died of by the irony of smallpox), but most importantly, if you reach the age of 94 it's okay to hire a tree guy.
 Couldn't find any skeletons, but he lost a bunch of money in an "unsuccessful wood-carving venture," according to Biography.
 After my mild research on Wallace Stevens, while I am happy to report there is no evidence he supported eugenics or opposed vaccines, his biography is not flawless. If you Google "Wallace Stevens--racist?" It's less return than "Ezra Pound--racist?" and "T.S. Eliot--racist?" but it's still a return, as The New Yorker notes: "He was no better than most white men of his class in point of casual racism and anti-Semitism..." I've lost something to learn this. My house is damaged. I rebuild. Or add a footnote to my tattoo until I run out of arm.
In addition to writing poems, Stevens practiced law. This, we'll forgive him for. His biography on Poets.org offers: "in the evenings, Stevens continued to spend his days behind a desk at the office, and led a quiet, uneventful life." Ouch. This explains the blackbird watching.
Jean Prokott is an English teacher in the Rochester Public Schools. She is also the author of the book The Second Longest Day of the Year which won the Howling Bird Press Book Prize, author of the chapbook The Birthday Effect, a recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Award, and has both poetry and nonfiction published in numerous journals. Learn more about Prokott online or connect via email.
One day, after several spirited classes, in which school was starting to feel pre-pandemic normal, in part because I could see smiles in student’s eyes above their masks. I was congratulating myself for a great morning as I headed to the restroom where a quick check in the mirror necessitated a double take: right in the back of my carefully parted hair there was a Alfalfa spike, and it took some water to tame, so it had been there advertising my silliness all day, like the inflatable “air dancers” at car lots. I swallowed my pride and obsessively checked to be sure my buttons and zippers held the rest of me in place.
The next day, a less literal oversight occurred as I engaged my AP Lit class in an analysis of a provocative short story, Graham Greene’s “The Destructors.” (Quick synopsis: a group of young gangsters in post-World War II London destroys a thing of beauty. Utterly.) As we unpacked the piece, first in small groups and then as a whole class, our spotlight focused on one of the main characters, a boy called “T.” I pointed to a piece of textual evidence in which T behaves with kindness and empathy, which seems to run against the grain of his destructiveness. A student raised a hand.
Another blindspot! I’ve taught that story a dozen times, and I still missed something, not because I hadn't looked, but because I had--again and again; I’d looked so often that my view had become fixed, despite the fact that it was incomplete.
Dueck’s new book, like Grading Smarter, Not Harder before it, offers a wealth of research and classroom tested strategies for engaging students where they’re at and honoring their perspectives. Here are a few quotes from the book to chew on before we get into specifics:
- John Hattie, who wrote the foreword, argues, “Assessment is something we have done to students rather than with them” (ix).
- “Inviting students into the realm of assessment is linked to increased motivation, confidence, self-regulation, and performance” (6).
- “We need more testing but less grading” (89).
- “Why are so many individual educators, schools, or entire districts married to a percentage system when in the end they intend to report on one of five levels?” (123)
For students, these communication tools proactively circumvent embarrassing and deflating blind spots, and they provide empowering information to help students track their progress toward targets.
Some of his findings, summarized:
- Difficulty is desirable, especially when building long-term learning (81).
- Students learn more from an hour of testing than an hour of studying (84).
- Teachers and students need to distinguish between performance and learning, then lean into the latter (85).
- Immediate feedback may boost immediate performance but undermine lasting learning (86).
- Feedback too often provokes emotional reactions; we need to make sure it inspires cognitive ones (87).
- Grade inflation results when we confuse performance with learning (87).
- Event-based gradebooks are unreliable; grades must be standards-based (91).
- Students can and should track their own learning (92-99).
- Teachers need not grade homework (95).
- Pretesting may be more effective than retesting (98).
Yes, there are challenges there, and Dueck backs them with logic, personal experience, and recent, compelling research. Most importantly, he explains how to improve assessment practices: he includes classroom-ready materials for both elementary and secondary settings; he offers a detailed amplification of how to create and employ rubrics that function as learning tools by focusing on communication, as opposed to evaluation; and he makes and a persuasive argument for why and how we must revise grading practices to include student self-reporting and to escape from the imprecision. The tools he offers are substantial, timely, and actionable.
with Myron Dueck & Phil Olson | 9.14.21
Dueck triumphantly returns to Third Eye, this time joined by teacher Phil Olson, to discuss his new book and giving students voice.