by Stefanie Whitney
I remember the day I unearthed my father’s report cards from a cardboard box in my parent’s basement. I was old enough to have felt failure in school but not wise enough to anticipate my dad’s reaction to us stumbling upon evidence of his formative years. I felt relief and recognized common ground. Maybe some of my math struggles were actually genetic? Dad did not share my feelings. As I waved his dusty cards in the air, his discontent was as palpable as my relief.
We all have stories that bolster our belief systems.
I cannot recall how old I was when my mom first described herself as not very “school smart.” I do recall, however, how firmly she believed in this story regardless of how fervently I disagreed. Her proof? Report cards. Flimsy little pieces of paper that manage to fortify entire perceptions of self.
I could tell countless stories about both of my parents’ experiences as learners. About the lasting impression grades made on them. How their experiences in school influenced my own, and how learning was often reduced to letters on a crumpled piece of paper. I feel compelled to proclaim, unequivocally, that my parents are and were wise, compassionate, intelligent, and inspiring folk. I was supported, encouraged, and challenged throughout my childhood, teenage, and college years. My parents were also deeply impacted by a grading system; so much depends upon…. I’d like to sit down with William Carlos Williams and compare notes.
And while my parents’ stories are not mine to share, I do have one story of my own to offer. This story stands out among many, in part, because it represents the lasting imprint of a lifetime of being graded.
From November 28, 2016 through the end of January 2017, I took a leave of absence from my position as a high school English teacher. I left the classroom so I could return home and spend time with my mom during what we believed would be her last Christmas. We had big plans: a 45th wedding anniversary celebration (December 10), a Christmas Eve pajama party, baking all the cookies, wrapping the tree in mom’s favorite white lights, and sharing space with one another as often and as long as we could.
On Wednesday, November 30, 2016, seizures changed the landscape of that leave.
Mom remained with us for two weeks. Within those two weeks, I was an untrained hospice nurse, a grieving daughter, and a student trying not to fail in a system I had been conditioned to prioritize. I was in week 7 of a 9 week course for the Educational Leadership program in which I had enrolled eight months prior.
We had only two more weeks. During this time, I stayed awake at night with my dad, sister, and husband to hold our breaths when mom’s labored. By day, I helped take care, entreating moments of lucidity--when mom would return behind her smiling eyes. In spare moments when she slept, I wrote papers, read textbooks, and tried to prepare for a test that required rote memorization.
Finally, admitting I needed help, I reached out to my professor and asked for more time to take an online multiple choice exam on which I needed an 85% to pass the course. I could try three times before being marked a failure. Because my parents lived too far out in the country, no Verizon wifi booster could procure a strong enough connection to take the exam at home. To this, my professor offered the idea of “coffee shops with internet access.” So, when mom was resting, my husband and I drove 15 miles to the local Perkins in the midst of an early December snowstorm. After internet drops interrupted and consequently eliminated rounds one and two, this was my third and final opportunity. We sat in a side booth, me wearing headphones to drown out the noise of stranded motorists, as spotty wifi and shock carried me through a “successful” third attempt.
Now, I just had to write two short essays to be finished with this class. And I had done the math. I asked my professor to allow me to forgo those essays, and I’d take the 'B'. We knew the time was nearing. I no longer had the mental bandwidth to write any more about the effectiveness of data used in peer-reviewed papers. I had done enough. My professor, however, had not done the math. According to his calculations, I would need to write at least one more essay to earn a 'B'.
Consequently, in between helping plan my mom’s funeral and going through boxes of pictures, I wrote a paper.
I submitted the essay one day later than the brief extension given to me. One day late because, on the due date, I was attending my mom’s funeral. I apologized for my delay and awaited his response. It came 48 hours later: “I did the math wrong; you didn’t actually need the paper.”
I have to tell you: I don’t know this professor’s stories. I don’t know why he felt bound to an “accountability” system that felt so dehumanizing. I do know he was not a bad person; he had a kind smile, apologized when he floundered with technology, and cared about his content.
I also have to tell you that there are questions I still ask myself. Could I have dropped this course and taken it later? Yes. Of course, I had that option--at the cost of retaking a class without my peer group and graduating a semester later. I’m not sure whether it was any one of these factors or a strong fear of failure that most encouraged me to power through. What if mom left while I was away? I carried that worry with me every moment I was away from home and ceaselessly called to check in.
Still today, this story is hard for me to tell. In part, because I feel like I made poor decisions. I should have had the wherewithal to stand up for myself, to recognize no grade was worth the personal cost. How was I so distracted by an arbitrary grading system during one of the most difficult times of my life? A system I no longer believed in, yet somehow was still bound by.
I offer this story as the most stubborn data point in my personal belief system. For so many reasons beyond the obvious, this story does not center a person who benefited from a successful grading system. At 39 years old, I struggled to self-advocate with the most understandable reasons against an enduring and flawed system; yet, I expect teenagers to have the capacity to self-advocate against this same system?
I also tell this story because we are emerging (albeit very, very slowly) from a collectively painful time in our world; one that, for many, resulted in both personal and professional hardships.
In this moment, a quote by Sarah Wilson, author of This One Wild and Precious Life, takes up space in my mind:
“Life has been fundamentally interrupted and all of us here have been given the most glorious opportunity to take an inventory of it. We now have a choice--collectively and individually. We can go back to our old ways. Or we can move forward into something wild, mature, and humanized.”
My fundamental interruption occurred five years ago. Whether five years, five months, or five minutes, this idea of a more humanized world speaks to the disrupted part of my conscience and heart.
Humanized. Human-centered. This concept seems so logical. But I have to ask:
If we are not centering humans, then what are we centering?
I have been asked a time or two for data to back up systemic shifts that I have come to champion. I understand why this question is asked, as we use satellite data--a term used by Safir and Dugan in Street Data: A Next Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation--often in education. Grades, graduation rates, attendance, anonymous surveys--these all fit into the category of satellite data. Useful, for sure, as this data points us in a direction. But what does the satellite data we most study tell us about what we most value?
I offer this: satellite data is not human-centered data.
Human-centered. A term I recently heard used by Cornelius Minor, educator, author, and equitable literacy reformer, as he described the concept of equitable grading:
“I am always striving for grading policies that are human-centered. And if they are human-centered, they are by nature anti-racist, they are by nature anti-ableist, they are by nature anti-homophobic or anti-classist….When I think about any anti-racist grading policy, or any grading policy that is human-centered, it really sees the human first. And by seeing the human first, it is a grading policy that centers growth over random measures of compliance.”
I have come to believe the data that most moves us to change might actually be our own: our own stories, fears, failures, and self-perceptions. Owning them, dusting off the moldy shame, sharing them with others, and finding common ground and humanity in one another’s stories. These approaches to storytelling and story listening allow us to see the human first. To be seen first as a human.
We all have stories. Stories that bolster our belief systems.
Our stories are the data that we most lean on when staring down a challenging situation.
Regarding stories, in her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown references the work of neurologist and novelist Robert Burton:
“Our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns….Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them...even with a half story in our minds, ‘we earn a dopamine reward every time it helps us understand something in our world--even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.’”
I have made all kinds of assumptions about my professor and others with whom I may disagree. In fact, I’m remarkably good (relative term) at creatively filling in the gaps of so many stories. It’s faster and easier, right? To fill in the gaps with what I think I know rather than sit beside someone and find out truths. But it seems to me that being human-centered is about taking the time to understand one another’s stories rather than filling in the gaps with assumptions.
I don’t pretend this is easy; I don’t pretend to have mastered this approach. But I do offer my personal story as one reason why I stand so firmly in my beliefs.
I know you too have stories that fuel your belief systems. Perhaps you will join me in sharing your stories, and to seek out and carefully listen to the stories of others. All the while wondering:
by Jean Prokott
Until the day I retire, or die, or as luck will have it both at once, I will feel the same way about education theory and articles and professional development as I do now, which is that I find it entirely abstract without the acknowledgment that the system thwarts much of it from succeeding; that is, the hard work is put on the teachers, who have no control over the arrangement of the school day, or the Horace Mann scheme itself. I am not concerned with the amount of work, because the work is valuable and sometimes enjoyable. Rather, I am concerned about teacher morale when most things we create, in theory, work best in a fantastical (dare I say utopian) system we are not afforded.
Sir Ken Robison’s TED talk comes to mind as I consider the question: are there so many books on theory because we’re starting bottom-up rather than top-down? Why hasn’t school changed? Or, at the very least: why don’t our professional development seminars and theory texts begin: we know you’re boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past BUT…
Many communities and school boards are in the midst of discussions about Critical Race Theory (CRT), which has inspired my thoughts here, as has Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which I listened to on short walks between my online classes last winter. The book is part literary criticism, part memoir. I recommend it highly. Hong explores how Asian narratives have become a single narrative and does so in a raw, poignant, and even humorous way. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk comes to mind as well).
There are mountains of discussions we could have about CRT, but I won’t address those here. Instead, I want to discuss what obstacles arise even when we have control of our curriculum. I want to explore how intersectionality might put some of us in a box.
It’s important to note that I am writing as a cis white woman. If one were to Google “stock photo of English teacher,” my picture would probably come up. I have many blind spots that my government-issued teacher Ray Bans cannot bring to focus.
The Minnesota English standards appropriately direct teachers to use diverse texts, both teacher-chosen and student-chosen. For the most part, teachers are not directed to use specific texts, nor are they directed to read “Black authors” or “Asian authors.” The term “diverse” allows autonomy, but I am indecisive here. I love autonomy in my classroom. I attempt to bring in as many intersectional voices as possible. (The resources, or “book room” needed to do so is another article.) However, as Hong’s book made me consider, this forces teachers to say “we need an Asian story,” “we need a Black story,” “we need an Indigenous story,” or “shoot, I don’t have time for the feminist story, what do I do?” Other than to say “students, please keep in mind this is only one experience,” I’m lost. To give students access to as many absent narratives as possible, I have to, ironically, put those voices in a box and define them by the authors’ or protagonists’ identities.
This is not our “fault.” We are doing the best we can within the literature repertoire that understands kids need stories that expand their worldviews. (Unfortunately, the CRT debate has made this complicated for teachers to explain. Telling someone else’s story does not negate one’s own. Discussing one’s privilege does not mean they haven’t overcome obstacles.)
The challenge with the standards is the system, in that we rely on the one story, year after year, because of access to materials and time, and the weight of the job. As much as I am embarrassed to acknowledge this, I’ve had the thought that teaching A Raisin in the Sun ticks both the “Black” and “woman” boxes.
What then happens is we teach children the same absent narrative each year.
A wonderful resource is the Minnesota Humanities Center, which offers an abundance of stories that address the absent narrative. These resources help us fill a gaping hole. It also takes an incredible amount of time to explore every story, a rewarding, engaging, and time-consuming task. Time is always in short demand. One wonders whether we’ll have time inflation any time soon and the time economy will crash.
But if we change how school works, we might make more room to find these voices.
The teachers I know are impeccably well-read. Our professional development is diversity focused, compelling, and student-centered. But the school and “factory” has looked the same for the last 200 years, and for most of those years, they have mostly told cis white male stories. I wonder if the best way to make room for the rest of the narratives is to change up the system, which was built for white middle- and upper-class students.
I’m not entirely sure what this looks like, but we cannot dismiss it as impossible. I became a teacher so I could infiltrate and fix the problems from the inside, and I’m doing the best I can by keeping myself as well-informed as possible. I listen to National Public Radio 39 hours a day. I participate in book groups. I write for an amazing Education online magazine. I know we can’t beat the system on our own. What we can do is keep our personal bookshelves diverse when we find time to read for pleasure, and we can ask our students what they’re reading and which stories they’d like, and we can rely on our colleagues. I don't want you to apologize for not having time, because finding the best literature is a second job. My point here is to tell you I’m on your side, to tell you: we can’t beat the ocean’s current, but…
by Sweta Patel
Science teachers teach science... Math teachers teach math... We’re all familiar with teacher licensure dictating our course load.
But what if... an English teacher taught a fine arts class? Or a math-related class?
As a teacher at an alternative high school in Minnesota, the state grants us variances to take on classes outside of our licensure areas. Some might balk at this and slam an educational ethics textbook at our door.
Therese Huston, the author of Teaching What You Don’t Know, would reply: “Can you be a good teacher before you’ve mastered the subject matter? Or perhaps while you’re mastering it? I believe the answer is yes.” And I agree.
Stretching Skillsets of Both Teacher and Students
In these past two years, I became aware of a growing need for more elective options for our students. I wanted to be a part of the solution. In a Googling session, I perused a variety of high school course catalogs in search of a topic that would engage both the students and me.
This past year, I—an English teacher—was approved to teach Cell Phone Photography for a fine arts elective credit.
The next minute, fear set in. Ah, crap. What did I get myself into? I don’t even know where to begin. My own photos are often a blurry mess (and sometimes, my own finger makes an appearance). I’m such a fraud, and the students will pick up on it. I quickly spiraled down the Drain-of-Negativity-and-Anxiety. Fortunately, the “fool factor” soon set in.
In her book, Huston writes, “Content novices are often more effective learners because of the 'fool factor.' The fear of having nothing to say, or, perhaps worse yet, the fear of saying something that is contradicted… is highly motivating.” She adds, “Instructors who were happy teaching on the edge of their expertise often diffused the imposter problem by finding a way to be honest with their students about their limited knowledge.”
For a period of time prior to the first day of class, I browsed dozens of syllabi for high school and online photography classes, lesson plans, websites with project ideas, forums, and more. I decided to teach students one composition technique at a time, eventually leading to longer projects that would require combining techniques. I was highly motivated to build up knowledge so that I could confidently guide my students’ learning (and not appear the fool). For instance, to prepare for teaching the Rule of Thirds, I turned to article after article for descriptions, tips, and sample images. But I was very up front with my students as well—this was my first time teaching this class, that I was a cell phone photography novice myself…that we would have to help each other grow.
So, my students also researched and studied articles, collected and imitated examples, experimented with their cell phone camera tools, and helped each other to carry out their vision for a particular project. We spent an equal amount of time projecting our photographs, offering self-reflection, and giving each other feedback about what was or wasn’t working and why. This feedback helped to shape the choices we made as photographers.
Some might say that our school’s art teacher should have been the one to teach this class. She has the content knowledge after all. I would agree that she’s an exceptional teacher and would have created an engaging class. In fact, she was my mentor and sounding board throughout my course planning.
However, I disagree that only the art teacher is qualified to teach an art class.
Huston writes, “The obvious assumption is that students learn less from faculty who know less about the subject matter and learn more from faculty who know more. But that assumption isn’t correct. Evidence from cognitive science, organizational behavior, and optimal environments suggests that experts are not always the best teachers. If you’ve ever had a brilliant professor drone on at the chalkboard about something no one understands, then perhaps you’re not surprised.”
With search engines at our fingertips, we can build our content knowledge. A good teacher is one who can create an engaging learning environment. That’s the art of teaching. Huston feels content novices bring three strengths to the classroom:
“Being an expert can get in the way of seeing the issues from a student’s perspective. After all, when you’re the expert, you’re fascinated by the inner latticework of the issues and often can’t formulate questions that beginners will relate to…. The beauty of being a content novice is that you have an outsider’s level of excitement and curiosity… You see what’s interesting and what matters to someone who is new to the topic because you’re new to the topic, too, and you see how the topic relates to other problems and questions in everyday life.”
With the endless topic of photography before me—where library shelves are filled with volumes and volumes of thick books—I had to make choices about what aspects to cover in the 9-week class. I thought about the end goal that excited my students and me—to become better cell phone photographers. This would require learning the most popular composition techniques and practicing them. We would have to take lots and lots of pictures. I could have included lessons around the history of photography or studying famous photographers in depth. A content expert may have made that decision. But as a content novice, taking pictures was priority #1. And my students—also content novices—were inspired by the same.
“We know that teacher expectations impact student achievement. High expectations are motivating when they are realistic about how much effort and time a task requires… What’s surprising is that people who have a lot of experience and are regarded as experts are much worse at estimating the amount of time a task will take for beginners than are the beginners themselves. In fact, the experts’ predictions are worse than those of someone who has never performed the task at all.”
“Concrete explanations lead to more efficient problem-solving—if you’re teaching students how to solve a problem that you recently learned to solve yourself, research shows that you will probably provide a more basic and concrete explanation than would a content expert. As a result, your students will probably experience fewer frustrations and more successes when they sit down to work on that problem.”
As a content novice teacher of this Cell Phone Photography course, I made sure I completed every task, assignment, and project I planned to assign to my students. In doing so, I had a better understanding of how long they would take my students to do. I worked through the same challenges I knew they would encounter. This often led to breaking down longer assignments into smaller chunks, including specific brainstorming tasks, clarifying written directions, adding more examples and links to resources for help. Essentially, creating a more supportive learning environment. As students came across challenges or questions I didn’t account for, we problem solved them together. I also often asked them for feedback on the class itself and let them help shape the direction we took with our projects.
But it’s another point that Huston makes that excites me the most about teaching what you don’t know:
“It would seem, at first glance, that content experts would be in a better position to foster deep learning. They know so much more about the field than the content novice; they have a sense of the big picture; and they’ve invested a lot of their own time finding meaning in the material…. Not necessarily. Keep in mind that a deep approach to learning involves helping the student find meaning in the material from the student’s vantage point. It’s the student’s discovery of meaning, not the teacher’s that makes or breaks the deep learner. So who is better equipped to create that kind of environment of discovery?”
She and I would both argue that it’s the content novice. We say that we believe that teaching isn’t imparting knowledge into empty vessels. But if we truly believed this, there would be more widespread acceptance of content novices teaching what they don’t know. I believe the biggest strength of the content novice is our full acknowledgment that we don’t know all the ins and outs of our class topics ahead of time and that we will have to co-construct our understanding of them through outside resources - print, online, and people.
Because of this acknowledgment, content novice teachers have to think outside of the lecture box (as knowledge givers) and have more of a push to create collaborative, engaging learning environments.
Additional Application Approaches
Perhaps you’ve reached this point of the article and are left wondering, Well, we don’t all work at alternative schools. This isn’t relevant. But there can be creative scheduling moves that can be made to allow for more teachers to teach what they don’t know.
A mainstream school in our district used to schedule an “e-term.” For one full week, teachers would stop their regular classes and host different seminars that students could sign up for. A history teacher with an interest in children’s literature might offer a weeklong seminar in “Writing and Publishing Children’s Books.” A math teacher with an interest in cars might offer “Basic Car Care & Maintenance.” A Special Education teacher who coaches baseball after school could offer “Building a Workout Plan.” (At our school, we used the “e-term” as inspiration for our own “j-term” in January—here’s a copy of our course guide.)
Then perhaps, these initial, brief dips into unknown waters could lead to something longer. Our district requires 24 credits, 8.5 of which are elective. Why not offer quarter-long elective credit opportunities? Teachers could teach around a topic they have some interest in (or a topic that students are requesting), like Basket Weaving, East Indian Music & Dancing, Podcasting 101, Music Production, Tattoos & Storytelling... By graduation, imagine all of the different experiences students would leave with: one such class topic could even lead to a lifelong hobby or interest. I know I’m not considering all of the logistical issues in scheduling and staffing, but that’s purposeful. There are always reasons we can find that a new idea won’t work. The key is to find a way around all those “but we can’ts.”
Another “but we can’t” might be this: We don’t all have the time it takes to learn and develop the content for brand new, unfamiliar classes. In my case with the photography class, I did do a lot of research to develop a course plan and then again for my daily lessons.
However, I think I did that primarily out of the “fool factor” fear. Instead, I think teaching what we don’t know could lend itself very well to student-led project-based learning, where the teacher is a facilitator or guide. I could have said this to my students on day one: “This class is called Cell Phone Photography. What are some of our goals for ourselves around this topic? How do we get there?” As the teacher, my job would have been to guide students to form questions, develop a plan of action, self-reflect, and seek feedback. Perhaps the class could have generated a list of techniques they wanted to learn about, and then each student could have been responsible for teaching that technique to the rest of the class. I think when we teach what we don’t know, we can help our students learn how to learn. And that’s a skill they can carry with them well past graduation.
Lean on Community & Collaborators
Finally, as content novice teachers think about their unfamiliar topic, they should be reminded that they aren’t alone. With technology like Zoom and Google Meet, professionals are easier to access than ever. Teaching what we don’t know offers a bonus opportunity of networking with others who can serve as our mentors, or checks for our instruction. In my course, I not only had the support of our art teacher, but we also regularly conducted Google meets with a former photographer for the Post-Bulletin (our local paper). She got to know my students and we developed mini-portfolios for her constructive feedback.
She was as proud as I was over my students’ (and my own) growth in our photography composition skills over the course of nine weeks. I can now confidently say that I’m no longer just an English teacher.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
Over two years ago, in the spring of 2019, I had grand ideas of how to grade differently—of how to motivate students with an intrinsic desire to learn and grow, rather than with extrinsic letter grades and percentages. After having spent four years working in the office of Curriculum and Instruction for the Rochester Public Schools (RPS), and with plans to return to the classroom that coming fall, I wanted to take what I had learned over my four years—part of which had been a deep dive into grading practices—and implement them with flare. That plan resulted in the article "Seeing the Motivation: Filling ClassROWEs with Jagged Learners," which was first published in May 2019 and the full text of which is also embedded below..
*All additions are in this font and noted by a gray, vertical line.
How will I motivate students to focus on learning and growth, vs. letter grades?
In my brainstorming, I was reminded of what Todd Rose notes in his book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness (2015). Rose explores the jaggedness principle: the concept that on paper many individuals might all appear much the same, while in reality they’re very unique.
Lory Hough, author of the 2015 Harvard Ed article “Beyond Average” captures it this way:
Rose says, “if we ignore jaggedness, we end up treating people in one-dimensional terms”—the struggling student, the good tester. “If we want to know your intelligence, for example, we give you an IQ test that is supposed to tap a range of abilities, but then we merge that into a single score.” Imagine two young students have the same IQ score of 110—the exact same number. One has great spatial abilities but poor working memory, and the other has the exact opposite jaggedness. “If we just want to rank them, then we could say the students are more or less the same in intelligence because they have the same aggregate scores. But if we wanted to really understand who they are as individuals enough to nurture their potential, we can’t ignore the jaggedness—it is the essential information for providing them with an optimal environment and matching them with optimal strategies for success.”
But acknowledging jaggedness, in my opinion, won’t alone motivate students. However, combine this principle with a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) structure, and we might be on our way…
Create a ROWE
I first learned about ROWEs in Dan Pink’s 2009 Ted Talk, and then read about it again in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In his talk, starting around the 15 minute mark, Pink states that a ROWE is when, “people don't have schedules. They show up when they want. They don't have to be in the office at a certain time, or any time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them.” And, he goes on to note that what happens in a ROWE is that, “across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.”
To create a classroom version of a ROWE, students would have to show mastery of required skills, such as RPS's established Prioritized Learnings.
In my current school community, Dover-Eyota Public Schools, we call these 'Essential Leaning Outcomes (ELOs)'. Some schools call these 'Power Standards'. No matter the name, this is valuable work the really helps hone the focus of student learning and growth.
However, students will not need to do this on my schedule, nor by following my prescribed pathway. In a classroom ROWE, like the one I hope to create, students will be expected to meet the standards by the end of the grading period, not by some arbitrary date I choose. Likewise, students can get there via a path I map out for them, but if they want to take another route, I’ll welcome that. And, should they hit construction or a dead end, they can reroute themselves (with my help, should they need it) until they meet the required destination.
Last week, a student of mine from 2019-2020 reached out to me to inquire about a letter of recommendation. While a letter was the reason for her setting up a Zoom call with me, during our time together she shared with me that it was this flexibility—this acknowledgement that learning doesn't always happen 'on schedule'—that saved her in the spring of 2020 when we suddenly shifted to online learning. Numerous times throughout the video chat, she thanked me for grading this way.
I recently came upon a statistic that surprised me: “the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual” (Eisenberg, 2014). When this set of facts is combined with the common belief that 65% of learners are more dominantly visual (vs. auditory or kinesthetic), even despite recent controversy on learning styles, it’s hard to argue that—no matter the statistics—going visual with information can literally help us see more fully the material we’re trying to process.
Since 2019, I have also been reminded often of how important visuals are for our English language learners, especially when students are involved with creating those visuals.
Advertisers lean into the power of visuals, so why shouldn't teachers? Essentially, we are 'selling' skills, a love of learning, and content...
So, in my quest for an answer to how I might motivate students without traditional letter grades, but yet still track progress that allows for jagged learning in a ROWE structured classroom, I found myself wondering the following:
One way I can see to capture each student’s (jagged) success visually, comes from a 2017 FIRST conference I attended. One of the speakers, Myron Dueck, illustrated a point in Todd Rose’s book by showing radar charts of various football players. He noted that while one player might be strongest in one or two areas, other players are strong in others; but, together the team fills out most, if not all, of the radar’s surface area. Additionally, Dueck highlighted that as a player works on his skills, he’s not going to be strong in every area from the start—some strengths just take longer to build than others.
Similarly, students can take their learning and go visual with it by using a radar chart structure!
Putting it All Together
With all this in mind, I mocked up a structure that I am thinking about using with my students when I return to the classroom in the fall. Maybe something like this will work with your students, too.
| Part 1 |
Each assignment will be rooted in one or more Prioritized Learnings. For one of the courses I will be teaching, American Literature & Composition, these are:
Additionally, on all assignments where students will receive formalized instructor feedback, I plan to use a 3 point feedback scale. For me, three points make sense because it tightly aligns with our Proficiency Scales (but, should my PLC or building opt for a different breakdown, I’ll adjust). Currently, I am thinking it might break down this way:
Perhaps the most complicated piece of this whole shift was figuring out how to explain it to students and parents. I suspected that many would need to understand why the shift was occurring and that most would want to know the logistics of how it would work and what they would see when it came to student report cards, transcripts, and online student information systems (SIS) like Skyward, JMC, Gradelink, Infinite Campus, etc.
As it turned out, while there were a few parents and students who were initially frustrated, ultimately everyone was either ambivalent (rare) or fully onboard (more common) about the change. Those who were the most hesitant to join us on this journey: students who had done well in the past because they knew how to navigate a traditional school system and now found themselves disquieted by this new one, and those who wanted to know what the minimum requirement was to get an ‘A’.
by Andy Johnsrud
The past 18 months of teaching have played out like the crazy “teacher dreams” many of us know too well. But rather than showing up in our subconscious in the month of August, we lived it! We all lived through what felt like a circus funhouse version of distance-hybrid-make-crap-up-as-you-dance-under-a-spotlight version of school. The weirdness of the past 18 months also provided a sustained and sometimes brutal assessment of some of the most basic things I think I know and do as a teacher.
We all struggled and got to see some things about our students and ourselves. Sometimes that view could be truly harsh as it revealed my judgment, lack of control, feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes that view was so very tender and revealed care, connection, empathy, and compassion with my fellow human beings of all ages. Many times this sustained focus kicked my bum and left me so far past vulnerable that I didn’t always know if I had what it takes to do this job. Note: none of these feelings were new--magnified and intensified, yes...but not new.
The struggle and challenge of these past months can be wonderfully fertile soil for me to grow, both personally and professionally. This is certainly not to be read as, “got things figured out now. Check that off my list.” This is the heart of our shared humanity and of being a teacher.
For me, acts of simple honesty to oneself and letting go of what we don’t control can help open a space. In that space we may be able to bring our most open and authentic care to one’s self. This is actually for the direct benefit of one’s students and their well-being beyond school, as well as for YOU.
STOP TO REFLECT
S for STOP
Adult Nervous System IS the Interverntion
A healthy mind-body system can be thought of as having both awareness and hope. Getting to that hope requires action on my part. This is not something we find in pedagogy nor plans nor assessment. My own growth has been helped by daily mindful practices, including meditation.
Pause for a moment to think of someone (teacher, parent, et al.) who had a profound impact for the better. What are two-three words that describe this person? It may be that those descriptors include terms that denote connection, limits, empathy, love and other traits. More than anything I believe that children, as humans (!), learn between the words and academics. They learn through the feeling and presence of the adults in their lives. This is another great hope--and a tremendous responsibility. My nervous system matters in “regular times” or “pandemic times”--the way I show up matters and can be a gift or a detriment to my students and my classes. This takes awareness and provides hope. There is something I can do for myself that will benefit others.
Patricia Jennings' research shows us what we intuitively know and hear: we actually TEACH better when we take care of our own nervous systems. Anyone who has ever taught knows that when one kid is hyper or "off" or whatever, there's a domino effect in the class.
Most of us are self-aware enough to know that that's true of our own regulation as well! These both clearly affect the class. A well-regulated adult nervous system IS the intervention. Simple. Not magic. Not easy. Not instant. It requires work over time. Many people do this through mindfulness or meditation.
Survival of the Nurtured
The psychologist and Pepperdine professor Louis Cozolino studies the social nature and adaptability of the human brain. He has famously said that, “[w]e are not the survival of the fittest. We are the survival of the nurtured.”
Many of us know the misleading claim that Darwin’s ideas can be reduced to “survival of the fittest.” This is contrary to what I know as a teacher. Teaching, learning, and nurturing are not a zero-sum game. Rather, Cozolino reminds us that as we modern humans change and adapt we need social connection. These connections are at the heart of what it is to be a good teacher, parent, person.
A number of good teachers teach about the importance of caregivers taking good care of self first. The notion of “survival of the nurtured” can reframe our work (and self-care!) as something we owe to our students for our benefit and their benefit. The former is an act of caring for children because it gives foundation for the latter. If the “bottom line” or “go-to” is always change/alter/fix, we risk missing a key opportunity for giving our kids what they truly need on a most basic human level.
Paradox is the Name of the Game
We do lots to try to help kids cope and learn about life. Raising resilient kids who think for themselves is a paradox. We know kids have to struggle, and hurt, and fall down, and make mistakes because they are human and this is how humans seem to learn best in the real world. This is how we instinctively know kids need to make mistakes and need us to offer the time and space, within limits, to figure things out for themselves.
The petri dish of 18 really weird months of unexpected conditions gave us a chance to see how we might recast and reconsider what it is we really do daily as teachers. This is a window, an opportunity to look at what I can really offer students as people. Experience has taught me that showing up for my students directly and unguardedly is what I have to offer my students. This is SO hard because we don’t want kids to suffer any more than possible--especially when the world turns upside down. But when I do this I can start to share emotional regulation and offer calm and secure relationships to my kids. This connection and relationships are basic human needs. Just like we preach to our kids, adults need time and practice to develop skills, too. Mindfulness is a tool for basic awareness. Mindfulness can bring greater awareness to my conditions and reactions AND my students’ conditions and reactions.
Control: That's a Funny Dream
It can be painfully clear that we have very little if any control over our students’ lives outside the schoolhouse doors. The weirdness of the past 18 months has put an exclamation point on that for us: thank you very little COVID-19! I think it has also exposed some of the “theatre” of school: all the things we well-intentioned adult-teacher-types are going to “do” to “fix” kids to “learn” them what they need. Now don’t get me wrong, systems, pedagogy, and curricular design are wonderful tools--just maybe not the magic fixes we quietly look for given the desperate conditions some of our kids and families face. Throughout my teaching career, our responses have been driven nearly singularly by notions and ideas of improvement plans, curricular design, and top-down initiatives. These are all fine...but, Maslow before Bloom is a cliche saying for very real and valid reasons.
Every school year, on the last day on the academic calendar, the staff of the Dover-Eyota School District gather in the cafeteria at the secondary building to celebrate the work that has been done over the course of the academic year. This year, cupcakes were served and ice cream dished out, as were many awards for years of service, retirees, and more. One person always recognized is the Dover-Eyota Education Association teacher of the year : this year, that is the secondary band instructor, Ryan Anderson.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you today. I want to start with a question. How many of you actually know something about Social Emotional Learning within the classroom?
I was wondering what that was before I took a class this fall. If I could put it into one sentence or two, maybe a question, I would have to start with: “How does it feel to be in the classroom? How does it feel to learn? Are we recognizing the feelings of each other?” If I had to put that into why social emotional learning is important, it would be because it is the magic that gets us to the next level. And, recognizing people as individuals in unique circumstances--we aren’t all going to the same place, but us recognizing that we all have potential, understanding how our students feel in the classroom, is equally important as them passing a quiz or test. Right now, if we think about how we feel… Well, it has been such a crazy year.
I don’t think I really belong as Teacher of the Year, when you consider how everyone else has been able to do such amazing things. I want to recognize a couple people that could never get educator of the year. I want to start with Carrie Frank. Carrie Frank is our Food & Nutrition Director. I’ve been absolutely amazed at what she has been able to do this year. If somehow she was asked to feed our entire school district, she would gather as many spoons and pots as needed and get her staff together, and they’d find the resources and make it happen. She put together an absolutely unbelievable Christmas Dinner. Because Carrie cares about how people feel and you can’t learn when you’re hungry. It just doesn’t work as well. And, she cares about all of our students. She had this gigantic Christmas ham, which I still have some leftovers in our freezer. I swear to God it was at least 24 pounds. And it was really good. Really good. And she had potatoes, she had string beans, she had rolls, she had dessert...she had everything.
I asked her, “Carrie, what do you need help with?” You know what she said?
“Sign up and take some food.”
That’s all she asked. Just take. She is saying, You’re important. Our students are important. We need to eat. It’s all going to be okay. And she was a superhero. It would have been so much easier if we had put on a Covidproof, bulletproof vest and taken all the shots to our emotions and peeled it off and thrown it away when we were done, but that’s not the case, because we are human. Carrie is superhuman.
I’ll tell you who else I really think deserves some recognition because he is superhuman. It is Steve Herrick: Steve, the custodian. Steve is also the most popular person in the whole dang school district. When Steve comes by lunch, the sixth graders chant and pound the tables, “Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve;” because, Steve already gets Social Emotional lLearning. Because he asks kids their name, and then he purposely forgets it and gives them a nickname. My kids have the nicknames “Larry Bird” and “Harvard” because my son is tall and blonde and my daughter wears a Harvard sweatshirt. Because they already had this rapport. He remembers them. He jokes with them. He shares that it’s “Smiling Wednesday.” Steve matters. Steve’s important. Everyone is important. Look around the room: we’re all important.
I want to tell you a story. In fall of 2019, my friend Dan asked me to go skydiving, and skydiving is the type of thing where I’ve always wanted to say I did it, but didn’t really get that excited about falling out of an airplane because that’s pretty scary to me. I’m not afraid of heights, I like roller coasters, I love a good thrill like that, but jumping out of a plane is pretty scary.
But Dan called, so I said, “Let me check the calendar.”
Nothing was on the calendar at home, so I checked with my wife, and she said, “Do it.”
I thought to myself, You know, okay. I guess so.
In the meantime, before I called Dan back, I get a call from Lane Powell, who runs TriState Marching Band Association: it’s all marching band judges that go all over the country. He said, “Ryan, how would you like to judge the Iowa State Marching Band Competitions?”
I said, “Oh, that’d be awesome. What’s the gig pay?”
And he said, “$350.”
Dan had just gotten off the phone with me and said the cost [to skydive] was $350.
So now I had absolutely zero excuse. The calendar is open. I’m going to have the cash in hand. We’re going to go skydiving.
So, we put this on the calendar, a Sunday morning at 10:00. I’m nervous as all heck. Anyway, Skydive Place calls Dan up on Saturday and says, “Hey, we’re overbooked, we’re wondering if we can bump you to another weekend.”
Dan calls me, and I said, “If they can’t get us in, I’m not coming man. I’ve committed, I’ve already lost two nights of sleep, we’re doing this thing.”
So, Dan calls them back and says, “We’ve gotta take this if we’re going to do this.”
They say, “Fine, we’ll get you in.”
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.