by Phil Olson & Nick Truxal
District-Wide Thoughts from Nick Truxal
Why the Focus on Feedback?
Work to redefine progress reporting and grading has been happening for far longer than I’ve been in education. With that said, there are some real attempts at change happening world-wide for the first time I can recall. There are currently pushes for:
Plus, the tools available to educators have been evolving to enable these approaches as well: there are larger comment areas in student information systems, there are now ways to weight newer assignments more than older assignments via the use of decaying averages, and there are tools like Mastery Transcript that attempt to focus purely on skills and students’ evidence of each of those skills.
I’ve worked with our elementary and middle schools in Dover-Eyota, Minnesota to move towards a feedback-only grading system focused on feedback around key skills, areas of growth, and illustrations of excellence. Upon our first parent survey—which admittedly had fewer responses than we would want to make lasting judgments—we were told that this system was preferable and that they would love some additional information as well, including ways parents can work with their students on areas of growth while at home.
With all the great work happening in our district, I wish I had discovered Sarah Zerwin, first—before we had begun this process. Her work is applicable to all grade levels and content areas, and it explains how to smoothly transition a community that can’t imagine life without letter grades into one that, instead, focuses on learning versus points and percentages. Her work, once digested, makes such approaches to grading and reporting seem obvious.
The simplest way to describe Zerwin’s thesis, at least to me, is that we can engage students through robust and meaningful activities, which helps create deep thinking and lifelong learning. Points, on the other hand, distract from learning: thus, the play on words that is Zerwin’s 2020 publication, Point-less.
Classroom Application for Any Grade-level or Course Area
In exploring Zerwin’s nine specific learning goals for an English classroom, we made a more general template that can be applied to any grade level and content area. The focus is simple—if we don’t have purposeful goals, we won't have meaningful activities to reach those goals.
Before diving in, a reminder that the single most important part of this work—at least to us—is to make sure we bring everyone along with us. That work starts with conversations with students about grading, reporting, and what is important to them. We need to be sure that parents don’t feel left out, that administrators have our backs, and that local colleges and universities support anything that drops points or grades from the picture. Zerwin further discusses ways to accomplish these things in our podcast (the 6.22.21 episode) with her as well as in her book.
Back to our generalized goals (these have been adjusted to target approximately a third grade reading level, thus the shift to “I can” language); of course, tweak and adjust these as needed for your own work, and at the direction of your conversations with your students.
While, Zerwin’s work in Point-less is relevant to all educators, it perhaps is most directed to English Teachers; the subtitle of the book, after all, is An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading. In fact, I first learned about Zerwin from one of my colleagues, Phil Olson, a long-time English teacher in a nearby district who read the book and immediately tried some of Zerwin’s ideas. So, I invited him to participate in our podcast discussion with her (the 6.22.21 episode) and asked him to share a reflection about how things went in regards to implementing her ideas in his own classroom.
Classroom-Specific Thoughts from Phil Olson
Classroom Application for English
The 2020-2021 academic year was tough on students and educators. From technology overload to personal wellness, the effects of the pandemic hit schools hard. Still, we education professionals pushed through, and we now have another year in the books. Before we get too far into summer mode, though, let’s do a little more assessment:
What grade would you give your performance as a teacher or administrator this past year? An A, B, C, D, or an F?
Before you answer, consider that your grade must accurately encompass all of your efforts to teach and lead, including the ways you managed controllables and responded to uncontrollables. Keep in mind that your performance is also compared to that of your colleagues. Were you a top-tier, A-level educator all year, or did your performance flag at points? Perhaps, just for this one year, we should consider assessing ourselves on a Pass-Fail basis: that’s easier. Or, instead of a single letter, maybe we should discuss our performances with descriptors, as in “this was not my best year” or “I rose to most challenges.”
Cyphers as Restorative Circles
Ian, you make our minds jump to places we weren’t anticipating. In this particular moment, we jump to a fabulous teacher in a nearby district, Sweta Patel, who has been doing work with restorative circles. She has found fabulous success—said this year in particular has been amazing, which seems to be in large part because of the ability to have individual conversations with students through new uses in technology. It seems like another example of a different way to involve students, make sure they are heard, and have hard conversations. My assumption is that, if we do that, hip hop will emerge as a key vehicle.
I think about it in a couple ways. One way is - yeah, you can do restorative work, and if it is done authentically and there are hip hop voices within that space, that will naturally come to the surface. I also think that, when you talk about chapter six, which talks in depth about interacting in cypers--Isn’t a cypher itself a restorative circle? I think they are.
This idea of creating circles in school environments so youth can process conflict with each other, come to some sort of resolution, reach restitution—the cypher has always been that. Much like the circle has been as well. There are connections to Paulo Freire and all the work that has been done circularly in Brazil. That’s where all the critical consciousness ideas come from—all situated in circles. I am thinking of African drum circles. Circles themselves have cross-cultural meaning as communicative spaces. If I’m not incorrect, circles are pulled from a lot of inuit populations and culture. Again, hip hop is a version of the restorative circle in so many ways, and that is a beautiful thing.
Having the Bigger Conversations
The examples in your book, such as students making a mix tape around police brutality, with them you mention resolving conflict. We have the internal things we may be dealing with, then we have the large external things that may be happening. Was the choice of the police brutality example in your book about speaking to a larger audience, or is there something about grappling with those large world issues that makes students feel like they are trusted to have bigger conversations?
Youth decided on that topic, that concept, and all the songs on that album—very much because that was what was happening around them at that time. Effective group counseling work is able to grapple with the impacts of the larger context and the worlds in which youth live in and how that impacts them and can pivot to those when it needs to.
I can come into a group and say, “We’re only going to talk about your self doubt in your math class.” I could make a group narrow, and there is some evidence that can still be effective even if you’re very prescriptive with the direction. But, at the high school level, in particular, I love facilitating groups where youth decide on the direction of the group. That is very process oriented. That is what happened here.
There were a ton of shootings. A lot of death of a lot of youth—black and brown boys and girls. It was all over the media. This was at a time that the media was hyper focused on it. It was everywhere. Youth were saying, “We need to talk about this,” “We need to talk about this: did you see this case happen?” so naturally. As we talked about each and created songs around each and their feelings around each, this project came together.
I think it is hard to separate that out from what youth are experiencing in school. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens—that we say: this student didn’t do their homework, they were struggling at home to finish it, and they must not feel competent at math. But what if it is just that when the student is at home and they go to pull out the book, they are thinking about the world around them? And then they are bringing that to school and they walk through a metal detector and see police officers at school. If you live in this hyper vigilant kind of world and you feel like you are being watched and seen as threatening, how can you focus on anything else?
Naturally, this stuff came to the surface. I don’t think you can parse out one’s reaction to a specific situation in school, whether that be relationally or with regards to academic content, and not think about the larger context. Youth took it there because that is where it needed to go. That is the value of this kind of work.
We loved the story about going to a school and students coming in wearing sneakers being forced to change into the school uniform. Are you familiar with the poem, “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound?
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Pound said he was trying to capture a moment that something external became something internal. In grappling with the larger issues, well, you aren’t isolated from them. You are showing that they interweave.
They aren’t binary, right? We can’t just deal with one and then deal with the other, they don’t work that way.
In terms of those externals and internals are “zones of control.” Something internal, I can control to a certain extent: something local to me, I hope I can control to a certain extent. The wider mindset of the world, it would be great if I can influence it, but probably less influence than with something local. Is there power in these activities because of the feelings of helplessness around certain topics?
Yeah, in a myriad of ways. If I express something that I am expressing as external, and a bunch of people around me are like, “Hey, I felt that also,” that is universality. That, in and of itself, helpful in realizing, okay, this isn’t a “me thing.”
By the way, when you are fifteen, everything’s a me thing. News flash—when you are thirty-two, it still feels that way. That’s life. Everything feels like it’s us. To disconnect oneself from that—to say, I’m not alone in feeling this—is great in terms of control. In terms of realizing that I don’t need to bear the burden of this myself. This is something that the world is feeling, that my peers are also feeling.
There’s another—expressing it out into the world to potentially impact or effect change—is that advocacy work that is also very helpful. Letting youth know that there are ways they can advocate from a place of deep personal knowledge and experience affect positive change on the world. That is one way of taking control. Even if it's not changing the whole thing, but being able to produce this mixtape and share it and let other people hear how you feel: it depersonalizes it because you’ve had this experience and you’ve talked about it with your peers, and you realize that it isn’t only you, but then you’re owning it to the world as this thing outside of me. You're telling the world, “Hey, this is something that’s going on.”
That is the ultimate way of realizing that it's not you. Trying to hold the world accountable. What’s beautiful about hip hop is that the entire process is ideal counseling: ideal counseling is realizing universality, transferring what you’ve learned inside a session to outside a session. Mixtapes as a cultural medium offers the ability to discuss, to create a cohesive product with your peers, and a distribution plan so the world hears what you need to share. Hip hop offers this pathway for realization. Regaining control by saying, “this is you all, it isn’t me.”
I’m going to read one more comment from our poet in residence, Jean Prokott. (A plug for Jean--go buy The Birthday Effect and The Second Longest Day of the Year.) Prokott noted: “Just to comment on how amazing this professional development would be. Since I am in English, I always wonder how STEM teachers would address this. Notes on using hip hop as statistics, counting beats to per minute, etc., are so wonderfully applicable, something other books on pedagogy fail to do. This isn’t theory, it’s practice.”
I love it. That is really nice to hear. I think a hard task with books is to be practical. That’s something mentors of mine have modeled so well for me: how to keep one foot in schools and one foot in the academy, in such a way that you’re able to bridge theory and practice. To reimagine how we think about the work and applying it. That is an incredibly important modeling that I am trying to uphold in my career because I don’t want to become the classic stuffy old guy in an ivory tower. That balance has been on my mind a lot lately.
We love drawing lines in the sand in this world. Like counseling is here but education is here. As a school counselor, I’m like, then where do I go?
Well, Ian. You can be with us.
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
Third Eye Education recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ian Levy, both for this podcast episode as well as for this interview where we discuss his new book Hip Hop and Spoken Word Therapy in School Counseling: Developing Culturally Responsive Approaches. What we found most enjoyable was how applicable the book is to all areas of education. For the podcast, we focused on ways hip hop can be leveraged as a tool in the classroom and in the counselor’s office.
For this article—a transcribed interview and the first of a two-part series—Levy and our team focus on the empowerment of students through the creation of space.
We’d like to focus on chapter four and chapter six, if that's okay?
Yeah, absolutely. The office creation and then the cypher chapter. Yeah totally. Those would be great.
A Safe Space: physical & dialogical
Perfect. A question from Jean Prokott, our poet in residence: Could creating space translate to classrooms and to broader educational use in some way? What obstacles prevent that from happening?
When I think about creating space, I think about the ambiguous, hard to find emotional space, and then the physical space. I think about both spaces. The physical space is more the focus of chapter four, in particular. It boils down to: Why do we create spaces based on an assumption of what feels comfortable for youth rather than saying, “Hey, what kind of space do you want to come into every day?”
It is a very simple idea, but a powerful one. This came from years of experiences being in schools—we come in those few weeks before school starts and we get our room set up and we plan really hard. That is really wonderful and we get a lot of great work done in that time. But I don’t think it always involves youth voices. It is based on our assumptions, but not that next step of, “Hey, what do you want to do? How do you want to design that space?”
When I looked at the literature, there wasn’t a lot on that. When you look at differences culturally--What does it mean to create a space that is inclusive and intersectional?—that didn’t really exist at all. I found a multicultural checklist that was like: put some posters on the wall of different cultures. That was as close as it came, which was so far off the mark. So, there was this pivot to say, “Hey, I’m just going to go into school and work with the youth to define what it is that a space needs to look and feel like for them to want to talk about their emotions within that space.”
When I started thinking about where that happens in hip hop—the studio has always been that. Rappers explain studios as spaces for personal transformation: as comfortable environments where they can engage in this emotional labor. Those spaces are usually—dim lighting, comfortable seating, being able to sit with other people and process things out loud: very lounge-like. It is interesting because the little bit of literature about asking youth, even after the fact, those things came up: dim lighting, couch—all the things the studio has already been doing. There’s evidence that those are helpful, but no one has connected those things and said, “Let me take some young people and say, ‘Why don’t you help me create a space?’”
The other reason is more dialogical. What skills do educators have or lack that allow or don’t allow emotions to come to surface? If a space is a safe space, a lot of the time we conflate a space where there is no tension to be what we need. A space where we ignore the difficult stuff isn’t the answer. A radically uncomfortable space isn’t the answer, either. But I know from group processes that this storming phase of group work—that groups have to be in—this place of discomfort is needed to get to a place of cohesion. We need to be able to facilitate dialogues in a space that youth have decided is the space for them to feel comfortable. Then, conversations need to occur in that space: emotions can come up, difficult conversations can occur. Get us to a place of cohesion.
What is so impressive about chapter four in particular, but the book in general, is that any doubts you have--for example, “I could give students the voice and the opportunity to shape the room, but that’s going to take time, and that’s time that I could be spending instructing. I could be helping with skills around my content...”--you’ve gone on to show that: student voice is the skill. Their participation is helping grow their skills faster and be more productive.
What skills stood out to you in terms of the things students developed as they went through this process with you?
There are skills that students developed and skills that students had. I learned a lot about the skills that students had that I might not have seen before.
Students were putting the microphone in a specific place so that there would be some ability to have privacy. If I put the mic in a specific way, one where I am facing all the other students, then all eyes are on me while I’m sharing. But, if I’m facing this corner wall nook, I’m away from everything else. So students knew how to create a pocket of security within a room.
",,,they started to think about this ability to showcase empathy and wanting to uplift others..."
But also, this act of sharing and being heard within the studio, students valued it on a personal level, but then they started to think about this ability to showcase empathy and wanting to uplift others; which is something hip hop says, “each one teach one.” Youth saying, “Hey, this space is really great for us. We could use this space for freshmen when they come next year.” Youth were starting to think about how the studio itself was not just a space for them to process or work through whatever they needed to, but then [how it] could become this large component of school culture and could shift policy and practices within the school to make it more safe and inclusive for all students that come into the school building.
There was self-advocacy, the ability for youth to look out for each other—to showcase empathy and compassion for their peers, and to show they have this knowledge already.
I’ve had schools that have tried so hard to create a nice transition program for youth that are coming into the school building. While students working inside the studio figured out a more appropriate and valuable process within a couple weeks. When we relinquish power, everything happens, because youth already have a lot of the skills that we think they need to develop. Maybe they can be refined, and built upon, and explored in new ways, but the core of those behaviors exist within youth already, and that is very humanistic. We just need to create the conditions for those to then shine and be cultivated further.
Creating Bridges & Fostering Connections
You spoke about collaboration. Another question from our poet in residence, Jean: Have you noticed that creating space at school translates to creating space in the wider community? How can students owning their space exist outside of the school building?
I think that this kind of a space invites parts of youth that historically have been relegated to only exist outside of the building to come into the building. I might love hip hop, and love the cypher, but I’ve got to go do that somewhere else. Maybe I even cut school to go to a cypher or go hang out with my friends and rap. Because those forms of who I am are not welcomed in that school. So now we say—you can enter this space; which not only upholds part of who youth are outside of school, but it also naturally creates bridges to foster connections.
I’ve had parents come for parent meetings and see a studio in the corner of the office and be like, “Hey, you know I make beats,” and then offer to do workshops outside of school. I’ve had DJs reach out who are in the local community that heard student’s songs on Soundcloud somehow, and say, “Hey, I was a student in the Bronx, too. I wish we had this when I was in school. Let me come and do some work with your students.” The community will come. “If you build it they will come” [Field of Dreams].
If you create the confines for this to occur. If you validate and appreciate the skills—that youth and community, youth and families have, the assets they have—and you allow them to exist within the school, then all of the ones that exist around it—the ancillary partners, collaborators, stakeholders—they’ll come. They will flock towards the school. I’ve heard time and again from parents and others that came into the school, “I wish we had this when I was in school.”
This is again in the Bronx, where a lot of my research is done. Parents that were saying that were the same age as the students I work with in the 70s and 80s. They resonated with the culture in a huge way and loved seeing it in the school. The community was ready for it. We just weren’t ready for it. The school, the education system weren’t ready for it. So once you open that door, it’s all going to come in as long as you’re authentically engaging in it. How do you do this from an authentic place? I think those connections form and youth are upheld and their communities are upheld when you invite hip hop to exist within the school.
Opening Doors to Inherent Community Builders
The book is really good at talking about realness and authenticity--and helping the reader to understand what that means.
Part of what you are talking about also connects to something coming up. We will be having a discussion with Lazerbeak & Ilan Blanck on the podcast: they are teaching us how to build community. In having those conversations, we realized we don’t teach our students how to build the community they are desperate for. At every age level, they want to know how to belong to one, and we don’t teach them how to create one.
The work you did empowering students--showing them how to collaborate--you were teaching them how to create a community. Was that intentional? A happy byproduct? Would you have any advice to help other schools in being more purposeful in teaching young people to create communities?
Again, I would return to something I was saying before, which is that the hip hop community understands in a very deep and personal way how to create community. I don’t think it is teaching youth to create community as it's calling on the power and potential of hip hop to foster community.
When the Bronx was literally burning and falling apart, rival gang leaders said, “We’re not going to do this any more. Let’s form communities.” They came together in the midst of the chaos that surrounded it to chart a path forward and process. That is the origin of hip hop.
I like to think sometimes of the studio work as a microcosm of that much larger process. School isn’t an inviting place: it's kind of all falling apart. I’ve worked with a lot of young people who were traditionally struggling, or at risk, or however the school wanted to frame them (even though that’s a deficit way of framing our youth); then the youth came together to create community—to make sense of all of the chaos that is surrounding them. It wasn’t super intentional to form community. The intention was: let’s make a mixtape—let’s make a studio. Through doing something that was inherently connected to hip hop, through creating some physical product connected to hip culture, that community formed.
Facilitating as a group counselor, [I] naturally processed things and worked through tensions to build cohesion. I operated with a group counseling mindset, which naturally is about fostering community.
Again, I cannot understate that youth are hungry for connection: they’re hungry for community building. Yet, there are never—or seldom—authentic ways for community to be fostered. We’re asking youth to build community inside a sterile classroom where they’ve never learned real things about each other and they don’t know their teacher very well. That kind of environment doesn’t pull on the innate community building skills and tactics that youth have been given as a result of identifying with hip hop. When you allow hip hop to come in, a community is built. It is overly simplistic, but it is inherent, so it will happen whether or not intentional about it. It’s a cool thing.
Next week, you can look forward to part two of our interview with Ian Levy.
A taste of what to expect: it opens with the statement, "One of the nice things about talking to you is that you make my mind jump to places that I wasn’t anticipating."
Excited? We are...
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
by Dr. Louise Waters
Education innovation is beset by seemingly intransigent, although opposing, forces. The first is well known to any change agent. It is “Can’t Because.” We can’t do x, y, z because we tried it before and it didn’t work. We can’t because our children / families aren’t ready for it. We can’t because our context is unique. We can’t because our school is under-resourced. Etc. Etc. Etc.
A less obvious barrier is the true believers “Can and Must”:
Lasting innovation borrows from both. It is the “Can If” orientation described by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden in their book, A Beautiful Constraint. As I have experienced it, those with a “Can If” orientation view change as a Rubik's Cube with three dimensions: Strategic, Human, and Execution. Like the colored cubes embedded in the larger Rubik’s Cube, the components of each dimension are continually changing, providing new opportunities and constraints. All must be managed and aligned for innovation to lead to permanent institutional change.
The Strategic dimension incorporates the need - the call to action and a compelling vision to address it. Taken together these energize passion and purpose. It also includes the strategy to identify the barriers and assets already in place and the path to leveraging them. These constraints and opportunities are embedded in both the Human dimension - how to get buy-in, alignment and momentum from stakeholders - and the Execution dimension - how to make sure that each step of the strategy actually works and moves the system closer to achieving the vision.
Let me make this concrete. In the 1990s I became principal at a Bay Area Elementary School, the school two of my children had attended. One was a strong traditional learner and one struggled with severe dyslexia. Neither had been well served by the systems it had in place. The school was extremely diverse with no dominant ethnic group and situated in a working, middle-class community. The families were heavily immigrant or recent arrivals to the suburbs and were supportive but not demanding of their safe, welcoming, physically attractive school. The staff was complacent with the achievement level and with gaps attributed to language, culture, income and family structure. The likelihood that it would or could change to truly meet the needs of children like either of mine seemed low. If I came in as the knight in shining armor with all the answers for school improvement, I was going to be dismissed with Who are you to tell us how to do our job? or Yes, but our kids come from families who don’t prepare them for success! But if I entered trying to win their approval and agreeing with their complacency and prior beliefs, I would be complicit in maintaining the status quo.
However, I also came into school-site leadership after eight years as a professor of urban education and a school reform coach in low-income Black and Brown schools in nearby Oakland. I knew we could do better and the achievement gaps I had observed here were not inevitable. I had also seen how assessment and data could be used as entry points for fundamental change. And I knew from both research and practice that the traditional assessment, grading and retention system negatively impacted all students and had devastating effects on students with IEPs and low-income students of color. It was a key element of the systemic racisms embedded in American schooling. Like most aspects of systemic racism, it was taken for granted and largely invisible, simply “normal,” to people who had risen through it - here and at schools across the country.
Armed with data and the knowledge garnered from years of supporting schools in changing their outcomes by changing their assessment and grading processes, I had a vision for using this entry point to transform my new school. However, as a parent I knew the staff was highly seasoned, one of the most traditional in the district. It would be easy to trigger backlash and resistance. My goal: to move them from what would surely have been “We Can’t Because” to a more open “We Can If” that would allow us to align on a path to greater impact and equity. I knew this would mean a fundamental disruption in teaching and learning.
The strategy I began evolving then, so many years ago, I have come to term Disruptive Incrementalism. Disruptive Incrementalism is a contrarian theory of change. In accepted practice, particularly in the world of “Can and Must” believers, a visionary leader is hired and / or a long, blue-sky design process engages a large group of stakeholders to create a vision. Once leadership and vision are in place, implementation plans are created. Often implementation is delegated to a small, select staff with little transparency and engagement and often a very short timeline. Disruptive Incrementalism turns this process on its head: First build trust with outstanding execution and early wins with a good-enough, equity-oriented vision. Then collaboratively iterate, tailor to the local context, and deepen the equity vision.
Disruptive Incrementalism and Human Change
A veteran staff has seen innovations come and go, often poorly implemented, disruptive and time consuming, and seldom sustained over time. They have little reason to get on board. Trust is built through doing, not talking: getting early wins and being responsive. Here is the strategy for change in the human dimension:
In working with the staff at my school, this meant building an easy consensus that the hated elementary grading system had to change. It included a narrative K report card, an effort-based 1-2 card, and traditional letter grades at 3rd through 5th. A clear pain point. Second was shrinking the change. Initially this initiative was not about mastery grading, portfolios, the language arts program, homework, etc. It was simply designing a new K-5 report card for better alignment, greater transparency for families, and more equity across grades and classrooms. Obtaining district permission was a huge trust-building first step. Calling out equity as a piece of the initial good-enough vision set the stage to later deepen the discussion of equity. And finally, there were bright spots to build on. The kindergarten team used a variety of performance assessment tools, a number of teachers had writing portfolios, and so on. My job was to highlight these and why they worked - building internal models rather than simply holding up easily dismissed external exemplars.
The next steps involved generating buy in via authentic engagement. This meant bringing those pioneer teachers together and exposing them to the relevant research and to their own classroom inquiry, building a design team focused on implementation not on vision. Each of them had a long history of pushing their own practice. Now they were working as a team encouraging each other and prototyping new grading practices, something I later came to call collaborative innovation. As they began fleshing out a new system and were provided the time and autonomy to experiment, others wanted to join - a process of demand pull.
By the end of the year, the pioneer group had the skeleton of a new report card and a plan for building the grading systems to support it. Presented at a full-faculty meeting, everyone was invited to join in extensive, paid, summer work. Those who did not choose to come committed to abiding by whatever the group had put in place, knowing that it was a pilot that would be iterated over the following year and subsequent summer. This second more inclusive stage I have come to call collaborative iteration. We can make this work if we…..Over those first two years the fluid teams - sometimes by grade and sometimes focused on content areas or specific populations like special education or English Learners, expanded their sense of accountability from their own students to all students. In later years as the report card and assessment system, and the design team, grew to include all elementary schools in the district, the sense of responsibility also expanded. Teachers began to feel responsible for all students in the district.
Disruptive Incrementalism and Execution
Attending to the human dimension of change means building trust and hope. Can staff trust that they will have a voice, that you will deliver, that there will be results? Much of the way you build trust and hope this is through how well you execute:
As I mentioned, my first big win was gaining permission to pilot a new report card in a district seen as highly centralized. The fact that I personally led the work and had visible support from top district administrators both validated and empowered teachers. The involvement of “Can’t Becausers” and “Can and Musters” meant issues of implementation were addressed all along the way. To address concerns, increase participation, reduce overwhelm and shorten timelines, different teachers prototyped different pieces of the system needed for the new report card to be successful. Some created mastery exemplars for grade-level performance in math, reading and writing. Some designed electronic lesson plan templates. Others thought through what a grade book would look like under mastery grading and how this type of report card would fit in with traditional practices like the GPA honor roll (eliminated) and parent conferences (became student led conferences). Still others worked on parent communication. Feedback from parents, students and teachers identified best practices as well as execution disconnects that could be addressed immediately before the next report card. Substantive issues were put in the parking lot for summer iteration. Problems were surfaced and addressed, champions emerged, and trust was built that nothing was set in stone.
Disruptive Incrementalism: A Strategy for Systemic Change
Many strategic guidelines are detailed above:
A word about goal and vision iteration. This is the contrarian aspect of Disruptive Incrementalism. Don’t invest time and political capital on a blue-sky vision and lofty goals - both of which will probably not be reached in the near term. Instead, start with something that has wide support and is concrete and achievable in the near term - but that is aligned to the long-term goal and vision. In doing the actual work, staff will expand their understanding of the issues and their belief that deeper change is possible. In designing a new report card you have to address what is the role of effort, of achievement, of mastery, of improvement - and how does this play out with a student far below grade level, an emerging speaker of English, etc etc. With strong facilitation, these questions drive people to the research and to classroom cycles of inquiry. If this is done in a learning, not punitive or lecturing, way and if that inquiry is public and inclusive (we called it “The Committee of Whoever Comes”), fundamental change can happen.
With strong facilitation, the measurable, systemic, equity goals can be teased out and called out and understanding builds. Over 7 years we built a district-wide K-5 developmental, standards-based report card utilizing authentic assessment and supporting an academic program that aimed to meet every student where they were. A critical element was a comprehensive formative data system for all schools. A wrap-around extended day program with multi-layer tutoring provided intervention and included 4 primary language academies to build primary language literacy. By the end of the first year, teachers were able to articulate a clear, measurable goal: All children would grow at least one year in reading, writing and math and students below grade level would grow at least a year and a half. After tracking data for three years an additional goal emerged for students entering the school with no English proficiency: grade-level achievement after four years. While few staff would have believed this possible at the beginning, most came to see that if data showed a significant number of students could meet these markers, it should be possible for all. That same data system, one which codified and tracked formative data, allowed for the close monitoring of these goals. In fact, individual data for each of the 900 students lined the wall of the faculty conference room for ready use in staff meetings. These goals and this comprehensive vision, especially when they became district wide, could have sparked rebellion and been shot down before change got started. Approached with collaboration, iteration and demand pull - the processes of Disruptive Incrementalism, changes few would have foreseen did happen.
Two final corollaries of Disruptive Incrementalism are important to note if the goal of education reform is systemic change that sustains over time. These are:
Education change strategy seems to swing from researched-based fidelity to creative autonomy and back again. Disruptive Incrementalism has the opportunity to bridge these predictable poles. Neither autonomy nor fidelity are good in-and-of themselves. Rather they are means to an end. You cannot have equitable access and outcomes across teachers and classrooms, or across schools, without common standards along with consistent expectations and practices that allow alignment. The lack of these is an underpinning of systemic racism that allows the best teachers, practices, and programs to go to the students with the strongest advocates and most privilege. Consistency is also necessary for teachers to collaborate. If teachers cannot share data or curriculum, they have little concrete to collaborate about and little reason to identify best practices.
At the same time a system that is lock step does not allow teachers and schools to contextualize for specific communities and students. It also does not allow them to bring their own passion and tap into the passion and creativity of their students. Impact and equity need both. In the report card project, common standards, rubrics and exemplars supported consistency and high expectations but allowed teachers the latitude to build, borrow or iterate their content. For instance, the development of schoolwide, K-5, student-led conferences equitably supported student agency and grading transparency. However, the exact structure and artifacts of a given teacher’s SLCs invited creativity.
By starting small, under promising and over delivering, and calling the full range of school voices into the iterative design process, the so-called report card work attracted little attention beyond the boundaries of the school. The number of advocates increased, coming to include parents and students themselves. And their understanding deepened. By the time more fundamental changes were part of the vision, what could have been major issues, like the end of letter grades and the honor roll, brought inquiries not protests. And the trust that had been built meant that when true problems arose, like the incompatibility of the district’s online grade book and the new report card, teachers became problem solvers not saboteurs. The practice of summer collaborative iteration was in place and, though frustrated, teachers were willing to do work arounds until then. The spread to other schools was viral - teacher to teacher with pioneers from other campuses asking to join the summer work. The actual district-wide move to a new report card was uneventful. No concerns rose to the level of a complaint to the Board, let alone a public outcry. And the district-wide extended day program was celebrated.
This, then, is Disruptive Incrementalism. It has an end goal of disruptive, systemic change. However, the process is incremental, building the understanding of complex change, trust in implementation, and buy in from a range of stakeholders. It takes into account the three faces of change: strategic, human, and execution. And it leverages the cautions of the “Can’t Becausers” and the passions of the “Can and Musters” to move systems. I returned to my school 10 years, two principals and many teachers later. A new teacher gave me a tour pointing out school highlights, not knowing my role in any of them. Most were products of the “report card” work now institutionalized. 20 years later my granddaughter moved into the district to start kindergarten. The comprehensive extended day program, designed to support meeting students where they are, was still a touted feature of every elementary school in the district. I do not know how many of the deeper shifts have lasted, becoming invisible as they, too, just became part of “Who we are and how we do things.” That, too. is Disruptive Incrementalism, where invisibility and longevity may be the ultimate markers of success.
strategies for balancing voices and minimizing cultural-bias
by Third Eye Education, consolidated by Heather M. F. Lyke
I am addicted to podcasts. There is something about cramming learning into my commute, pairing it with laundry, and adding it as a workout buddy that fits my hectic lifestyle. Even when life slows down, I enjoy learning while listening in the bathtub, while swinging in my hammock, or while taking a scenic drive.
It is because of my podcast addiction that I recently learned a few new strategies for balancing voices, and in-turn minimizing cultural-biases, when collaborating with colleagues or facilitating student discussions.
Turn and Learn
Catching up on old episodes of Unlocking Us, I listened to Brené Brown’s talk with Dax Sheppard and Tim Ferriss. This is the part of the conversation that perked my ears:
“People’s expectations and understanding of things are so different:” now, isn’t that pure truth. Yet, in leadership roles and as classroom instructors it’s often easy to inadvertently allow halos to form and for bandwagons to take over. Not only does this enhance only certain voices, but it also can minimize the variety of perspectives that are brought to the table.
For instance, sticking with the element of time noted above. My husband has a degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Minnesota. He has shared stories about his sophomore year Ojibwe Language class—during which he was often the first student in the room. For my husband, a cis-gendered white male from a middle class family with European heritage who was raised by parents who often noted “if you’re not early, you’re late,” being on time was par for the course. Had you asked the sophomore version of him what was going on, he’d have likely said, “everyone else is late,” “they’re not respecting the professor,” or “I thought that if you’re not early you’re late.”
That said, had you asked is fellow classmates—most of whom were idigenous—to write down on a sticky note about the importance of being “on time,” you’d have seen a wide swath of answers:
Now, if the professor flips his sticky note first, people may wish they’d changed their response (bandwagon). If there is a classmate that many respect who flips first, others may wish they’d shared a similar response (halo). However, by flipping all sticky notes at the same time all voices get put on the table and, as in this instance, different cultural beliefs come to light.
The thing about listening to podcasts is that it’s passive. I hit play and I take in new learning. Sure, I have autonomy over what podcast I listen to, which episodes I download, and what I may opt to fast-forward past—but it’s still passive. If we’re not careful, meetings and classroom instruction can become passive, too.
Last week, our Third Eye Education collective came together for our April session. During our time together, John Alberts of Austin Public Schools shared a new-to-him strategy that he had learned from the IDEAL Center: we all tried it. Like Brené Brown’s Turn and Learn, this approach balances voices in a way that helps disrupt some dominant cultural norms.
Here is the process Alberts took us through:
There is some magic in what may seem like a simple rotation of ideas and share alouds: each woven in intentionally by the IDEAL center in the way it was shared with Alberts and his team:
Additionally, to assist in the above process and purpose, the IDEAL Center has at its foundation these shared norms (which are always evolving, according to a recent communications with their team):
Of course, depending on where you are in your journey with racism, cultural understanding, and appropriation, understanding why structures such as the Turn and Learn and Sharing Circles help (especially if the intentionality of these strategies are rooted in awareness) break down the dominant white-culture norms that tend to permeate many organizations across our nation.
To increase one’s awareness of how white supremacy exists in our communities and organizations, often without individuals even knowing it, is broken down in Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture” article from Dismantling Racism, which was shared by Shavana Talbert, the Statewide Culturally Responsive Practices Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Wisconsin RtI Center. Understanding the imbalance is one of the first steps to creating balance. How might these characteristics show up within you? Your organization?
When it comes to those norms from the IDEAL Center, my personal favorite is the second half of the last one: “what’s learned here leaves here.” Perhaps that’s why I love podcasts so much: there is power in sharing one’s learning and at its root, that’s what podcasting does. Podcasters share their knowledge, while in turn their listeners can share new learning with others. Unlike podcasting, however, Turn and Learn and Sharing Circles are less passive and less presumptive: they create a place for active engagement that leaves room for authentic individuality. (Maybe this is why we at Third Eye are so anxious to try out Clubhouse some day, as it’s a refined version of podcasting: it removes the passivity and presumptiveness. Anyone want to toss us an invite? Let us learn from you!)
Ideas by Audrey Betcher, compiled by Nick Truxal
“I wake up each day hoping for a failure, because with a failure, I learn. With success, I move on.”
This is a fitting quote to begin with, as I don’t remember where I heard it. As a writer, not crediting my sources is absolutely terrible. (Shouldn’t I just not use it, then?)
Yet, that is the point—there is more to learn from sharing the quote (failure to cite) than from not sharing the quote (which would have been a success citation-wise). Audrey Betcher shares in her podcast “Building Stronger Communities,” available March 26, 2021 on Third Eye’s podcast, that failure has been important for growing a community willing to tackle difficult situations. For those unfamiliar, Audrey Betcher is the library director for Rochester Public Libraries, and has been for twenty years. In that time, she has led her organization to receive the prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Services award for “significant and exceptional contributions” to her community.
To achieve this recognition, some of the difficult conversations Betcher needed to facilitate included the exact same types of questions schools are faced with daily.
In order to answer these questions, though, she needed to create an environment that celebrated risk taking, openness, collaboration, and indeed, failure.
One of the many things Betcher did in order to help build the capacity of her community to be collaborative, open, and willing to take risks was to celebrate each of these traits. She did so by inventing the following three awards.
1 | The Collaboration Award
An award that celebrates not the outcome of a collaboration but rather the quality of collaboration that occurred.
2 | The Cliffjumper Award
This award is a celebration of taking risks. Though this tilts towards the successful, it certainly is a great set-up for our third award.
3 | The Heroic Failure Award
“Where we just totally fail, but yay! The things that come out of the heroic failure award morph into something so much better than we could ever imagine,” Betcher stated in our podcast conversation.
More specifically—focusing on education, there are a few applications to be made. First, of course, is having something akin to these awards in our school or in our own classrooms. Next, however, is the application to Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, which may include tools such as “My Favorite No” or “The Robert Frost Technique.”
There is a lot of research available that demonstrates the failures of a growth mindset, and if we want to learn and grow from failure, we must keep these in mind as well. The primary issue with the growth mindset has been in terms of a focus on outcomes rather than a focus on process. Dweck, the leading voice on growth mindset, has spoken many times on this trouble spot, which she sums it up in her article for The Atlantic by saying, “The whole idea of growth-mindset praise is to focus on the learning process. When you focus on effort, [you have to] show how effort created learning progress or success.”
As educators, it’s often important to remember that we must make room for failure, appreciate it, even celebrate it to grow. Keeping that in mind, let’s lean into this failed quote one more time:
“I wake up each day hoping for a failure, because with a failure, I learn. With success, I move on.”
If we wrap failure in awards, community, collaboration, openness, and a growth mindset together, our students and staff will all be “hoping for a failure,” according to a source uncited.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.