Two Books All (White) English Teachers Should Read

The events in Charlottesville, VA have rightly begun crucially important discussions about politics, race, and racism in the classroom. I am still thinking through my own thoughts about this topic, though I am (and have been) firmly of the opinion that responsible discussion of political issues absolutely must be taken up in English classes. A strong democracy depends upon it.

One useful suggestion I can offer right now is that all teachers, especially white teachers, read the following two books, which I reviewed in the March 2017 in English Journal. (NCTE has granted these review FREE ACCESS to all.) Teachers will find in these books extremely valuable information about teaching language more completely and about developing not just non-racists classrooms, but anti-racist classrooms.

  1. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African
    American Literacy Vershawn Ashanti Young, Rusty Barrett, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera, and Kim Brian Lovejoy. Teachers College, 2014.
  2. Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education Ali Michael. Teachers College, 2015.

Thank you for reading and for acting on these important issues. English teachers have a significant responsibility in the USA. Ignorance is rising, and we must rise to defeat it. I welcome additional suggestions for reading and more in the comments below.

Letter from the SUNY Deans of Education to the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York

My fellow and sister Deans of Education in the SUNY system sent the following letter in response to the SUNY Charter Schools Institute’s plans to permit teachers with virtually no qualifications to be appointed as “certified” teachers.

See below the letter for links to the regulation change and a public comment link where you can register your own thoughts about this damaging plan.

 

July 27, 2017

 

Members of the Board of Trustees

The State University of New York

State University Plaza

Albany New York 12246

Dear Colleagues:

We, the Deans and Directors of Education Programs in the State University of New York (SUNY) system, write to strenuously object to the SUNY Charter Schools Institute’s recent action to virtually eliminate teacher certification requirements for charter school teachers.  We call on the SUNY Charter Schools Institute to rescind the proposal and for Chancellor Zimpher and the entire Board of Trustees to speak out against these changes and take action to repeal them. This extreme measure essentially proposes to address the lack of qualified teachers in some charter schools by certifying unqualified teachers, and thus it has negative consequences for all teachers and the education profession across New York State.

The regulation change allows anyone with a bachelor’s degree to earn state teacher certification without broad and rich intellectual stimulation from education faculty, without taking appropriate coursework or completing an adequate number of field experience hours, without demonstrating adequate content knowledge, without student teaching, and without demonstrating the ability to teach effectively according to any standardized measure.

The regulation is proposed as a corrective to the difficulty of hiring highly-qualified teachers in SUNY-operated charter schools.  However, every child in New York State deserves a highly-qualified teacher, which means every teacher should earn certification through an accredited, rigorous teacher education program. It is entirely inappropriate to lower the standards for teachers because charter schools are finding it difficult to hire certified teachers, and is entirely unfair to the students in their charge. Creating a cadre of underqualified teachers is misguided, shortsighted, and harmful to the state’s children as well as to the profession of teaching.

It is particularly disconcerting that this lowering of standards for the state’s teachers is brought forth by the very institution that recently adopted TeachNY, a highly-rigorous and expansive set of policies for teacher education programs. These resolutions were widely and carefully considered statements of the importance and complexity of teaching, and of the necessity of rigorous, comprehensive, and accountable teacher preparation.  This misguided alteration proposed by the SUNY Charter Schools Institute flies in the face of the Board of Trustees’ resolutions on teacher preparation, ignoring their efforts to advance the profession in consistency, rigor, and transparency.

If SUNY and its leadership truly believe in the principles of TeachNY, they cannot undercut professional teacher certification by opening a “backdoor” to unqualified teachers. Teacher certification regulations can always benefit from continuous improvement, but creating a far less rigorous “backdoor” pathway for one special interest is dangerous and unacceptable.

We, the Deans and Directors of Education in SUNY, respectfully call upon our Chancellor, members of the Board of Trustees, and the SUNY Charter Schools Institute to speak out against and reject this inappropriate and extremely damaging proposed regulation.

Sincerely,

The Deans and Directors of SUNY Education Programs

Robert Bangert-Drowns Jan Bowers Nancy Brown
University at Albany SUNY Oneonta SUNY College at Old Westbury
Walter J. Conley Stephen Danna Christine Givner
SUNY Potsdam SUNY Plattsburgh – Queensbury SUNY Fredonia
Thomas Hernandez Andrea LaChance Ken Lindblom
SUNY Brockport SUNY Cortland Stony Brook University
Natalie Lukas Pamela Michel Candace Mulcahy
SUTEC SUNY Oswego Binghamton University
Wendy Paterson Michael S. Rosenberg Suzanne Rosenblith
Buffalo State College SUNY New Paltz University of Buffalo
Anjoo Sikka

SUNY Geneseo

Nathan E. Gonyea

Empire State College

Denise Simard

SUNY Plattsburgh

For More Information:

The public comment period ends on September 9
Comments can be submitted to
Ralph A. Rossi II, SUNY Charter Schools Institute, 41 State Street, Suite 700, Albany, New York 12207, (518) 455-4250
They can be submitted via e-mail to charters@suny.edu

Submit via hard copy and e-mail.

The SUNY charter school proposal is available at the following link:
http://www.newyorkcharters.org/wp-content/uploads/102263_1.pdf

The public comment notice is posted in the July 26 NYS Register at the following link. It begins at the bottom of page 23.
https://docs.dos.ny.gov/info/register/2017/july26/Rule%20Making.pdf

 

 

 

The First Year of Edukention

It was just about a year ago when I decided my 2016 New Year’s resolution would be to start a blog. It was a no-brainer what it would be about-education and teacher education–and edukention seemed to be a pretty honest name for what I planned to do: express my own opinions on whatever aspects of my profession I felt like in the moment.

I began my blog in early January 2016 with the first post about a nasty part of education that has always bothered me. This remained my most-read post until recently. But I followed up quickly with a post about how lucky I was when I first started teaching. (In 1988!)

I kind of lost focus in the middle of the year, but I picked it up again in October 2016. In November, I wrote a post on the futility of grading objectively, which became my most-read post by far. 

It’s been a pleasure to write this blog because it’s helped me clarify some of my own ideas. It’s also helped me better understand a genre I frequently assign my students to compose, and I made some friends (via Twitter and Facebook) along the way. I have no real evidence that my blog has contributed anything to anyone except myself, but some have expressed gratitude for some of the posts, which is truly icing on the cake.

Blog Statistics

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about blogging is the tracking. I don’t mean any of this to brag (my blog remains an incredibly modest effort), but rather to show how cool a blog can be and what fun it can be to put one’s ideas out there.  Here are some fun stats I’ve gotten from WordPress:

In 2016, my blog got 4733 views from 3478 visitors:

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December was my biggest month for views, after last January. This is due primarily to the one blog post.

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WordPress also logs the countries of your visitors, which is really fun. Most of my views (about 4500) came from the US. But I also received hundreds of views from visitors in over 40 countries. And one of my posts, one on liking my students, was translated into Norwegian and reblogged there!

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My most-read blog post was published on December 8, 2016, and it has received over 1000 views. My second most-read, Tips for Managing the Grading Grind, received less than half that number of views.

Regarding my most-read post, even though I published it on Dec 8, something happened on December 16, as the graph below shows. Someone shared it somewhere, where a bunch of people read it at once.

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Another thing WordPress does that is pretty cool is track shares of the post on Facebook, LinkedIn, and some other sources.  Here is the tracking for that popular post:

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That’s a lot of shares (for me) on Facebook. My closest to that for Managing the Grading Grind is only 65.

Final Thoughts and Looking Forward to a New Year

I have enjoyed my blogging, and I have every intention of continuing it in 2017. I think it’s going to be quite a year for educators, and I am certainly going to want a platform to express my views and try to keep some clarity. 

I think blogging is fun and valuable. I will continue to encourage (obligate) my students to blog. I think a free exchange of ideas is important. I will try to read more blogs, too, and to comment on more of them. I will also continue to participate in professional discussion on Twitter. I’m not ready to dive into Pinterest or Snapchat, and LinkedIn is still primarily a place for resumes for me. 

If you’re following my blog, reading it now or then, or sharing it with others: Thank you!

Happy New Year, and good luck to all of us in 2017.

Sincerely, Ken

 

 

To Ed Policy-Makers: Take the Danza Challenge

Since before the Common Core State Standards were just a flicker in David Coleman’s eyes, education reformers with no experience as public school teachers have been trying–within increasing success–to impose their ideas onto public schools.

Many working educators, particularly teachers who work constantly with students, wonder how those without any experience doing the job could possibly do a good job of creating 3D man near red question markcurriculum or education policy. Think about it: all military leaders have been through basic training; all union leaders have been “on the line;” all bishops have been priests; all principals have been teachers. There’s a symmetry of experience here that makes sense.

Elected officials are not expected to be experts in everything; but, they are expected to surround themselves with experts who will lead efforts in their areas of expertise and advise the elected official on the matter. But on education for too many years and under democratic and republican administrations, education leadership (especially education reform) has lacked any genuine expertise.

An Unlikely Model: Tony Danza

A few years ago I was given the opportunity to meet with Tony Danza who had recently published a book about his year-long experience teaching in a high-needs district in Philadelphia. The meeting never happened, as the actor had a fall on his roller-blades a few days before and wound up in the hospital. But the meeting gave me the impetus todanza-book read his book, which I confess is not something I’d have probably done otherwise. (There was also a television show, which received some very harsh criticism, and some criticism that praised his efforts, even though they failed to make good TV or to show good teaching.) I thought he book, however, was actually a very thoughtful and endearing read–and I’m not the only one.

Danza taught a tenth-grade English class for a full year under the tutelage of a fully-certified teacher, and during that year he experienced many of the challenges that classroom teachers face. He saw the extreme impact of poverty, encountered gang issues, hard-nosed apathy from students, being out of his depth, and utter exhaustion. And he taught only one class each day!

After a few months the cameras left, as the director and producers found the show was not going to be entertaining enough, but to his great credit, Danza remained for the full year, out of the spotlight and in the real classroom. His book is full of missteps and the “wisdom” he offers is a bit quaint for experienced teachers; but, it is pretty amazing to watch a bright, confident, accomplished person really experience the job of teaching and come completely around on how hard it is and how much expertise it takes. When Danza named his book, it expressed the fact that he now understands the enormous amount of stamina, intelligence, patience, and energy being a good teacher requires. As a result, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had has my respect as an educator.

To hear him give a brief discussion of his experience, check out Mr. Danza’s video about his year teaching.

All Education Leaders Without Real Teaching Experience Should Take The Danza Challenge

I realize that not all education leaders have the time to take a full year from their other work to teach. But, should education leaders–particularly those who are paid with public dollars or who have significant impact on those public dollars–be permitted to shape education without having experienced it as a professional educator? No, of course not.

To address this deficiency in many ed leaders’ backgrounds, I propose The Danza Challenge: Find an ordinary, probably high-needs public school (not a charter school), select a class to teach, and under the tutelage of a certified, professional teacher, teach for at least six weeks. No special treatment, no research assistance, no publicity, no special classes or help. One teacher, one class, one certified teacher. Go! 

Is six weeks asking too much from people who are going to shape education nationally? I don’t think so. If Tony Danza–an actor with no political ambitions–did a full year, they can do six weeks.

Why Take The Danza Challenge?

The Danza Challenge would offer the following benefits:

  • Education leaders would experience a real-world classroom, bringing them insight into the daily workload and challenges real teachers face.
  • They would understand the kind of exhaustion that comes from teaching. It’s not like on television and in movies. It is grueling work.
  • They would appreciate the advanced level of intelligence and expertise it takes to teach a room full of students effectively, particularly when that room full of students includes a dramatically wide range of student abilities and backgrounds.
  • They would get a better sense of the awesome responsibility real teachers have. Education reform in the board room is one thing. Actually seeing the living, breathing young students–looking into their faces, seeing their eyes as you implement pedagogical strategies and make decisions about cutting or funding services–is something completely different.
  • They would learn much more about the real challenges real students face. It’s not just about behaving well in class or getting the “best” teacher. Students’ needs are vast and complicated.
  • They would earn a modicum of respect from teachers. In six weeks, it would be just a modicum, but that’s a good start.

Earning Humility

Six weeks in the classroom will not give anyone the legitimate experience to claim that they have been a teacher. It’s not enough time. So no one should think of what I’m calling “The Danza Challenge” as a way that non-teachers can suddenly start claiming they are teachers. Instead, the hope here is that education leaders with no experience as teachers will begin to empathize with real teachers. Education leaders should come to understand the awesome task that is teaching, and ultimately education leadership should develop a strong dose of something that’s been missing: Humility.

Education leaders, particularly education reformers, have not been listening enough to real teachers, those in the trenches doing the actual work of education. Anyone who is 17-footsteps-clipart-free-cliparts-that-you-can-download-to-you-oxmeuy-clipartgoing to have influence on education policy or practice should walk in the shoes of real educators for at least six weeks. At that point, we can hope those leaders understand what they do not know and they should develop a disposition to run all their ideas past real educators for substantial feedback and probably very deep revision.

The Danza Challenge won’t solve all the problems in education policy, but asking education policy-makers to walk in the shoes of real teachers may be a few steps in the right direction.

(How) Should We Count Effort in Students’ Grades on Writing?

I’m sure most teachers have experienced this: You watch some students struggle and struggle to write well. They revise and rewrite. They come for extra help. They work with a writing tutor. But, short of having someone else actually do some of the writing for them, their final products are only so-so.

And then other students with very little exertion of effort can produce a good or even excellent piece of writing that scores high on the rubric. Do we simply file this under “Life Isn’t Fair,” and move on, or is this more of a dilemma?

What is Effort?

Effort goes by many names: sweat-equity, determination, perseverance, grit, work-ethic. To reach one’s true potential, it’s imperative that one expend one’s full effort in a task. In a 2014 Research in the Teaching of English article, Asao B. Inoue calls it “labor failure” when a student underperforms on a writing assignment due to lack of effort. 

“[L]abor-failure,” Inoue says, “is often associated with not achieving or demonstrating a defined degree of effort, quantity of written products, and/or amount of time spent on an weightliftingactivity such as reading or drafting. . . Labor-failure is associated with noncognitive dimensions such as conscientiousness, persistence, and motivation.” (339)

An ability, a willingness, even a disposition toward expending effort is a good thing. Few adults would disagree.

Oddly enough, some students disagree. I remember an enlightening conversation I had with an extremely intelligent, accomplished young student when I was in my first couple of years of teaching. Sydney was talking to me about the comments we teachers put on students’ report cards along with their grades. (This was in the very early 90s, and we had a scan-tron system that allowed us to choose from about 40 different comments, such as Student shows excellent potential or Student is frequently late to class.) Sydney told me bluntly that the “smart kids” considered the comment Student works hard in class to be an insult. She said it was equivalent to saying the student wasn’t really succeeding, but at least the student was trying. I countered that often I assign a grade of A and I also comment that the student works hard in class. Sarah was unimpressed. She said, “That’s just as bad. You’re saying the only way the student did well in class was by having to work really hard.” Huh?

This was extremely telling. It wasn’t enough for “the smart kids” to be getting As. Those As had to come from natural ability, not hard work. I was polite to Syndey–who went on to an Ivy League college and I’m sure a fantastically successful career–but I found her attitude utterly loathsome. Doesn’t effort matter? Shouldn’t determination, work ethic, sweat be admired?

Clearly not all students believe this. Maryellen Wiemer cites a study in her 2012 blog for The Teaching Professor in which 120 undergraduates were asked how much effort should count in a writing assignment’s grade. They said effort should count for 39%.

Even still, is the amount of effort expended really relevant to the quality of a piece of writing?

The Value of Writing Quality

Ultimately, writing is what writing does. And no matter how hard one works on a piece of writing, what it does is all that matters in terms of its success. In the world outside school, no one really cares how much the writer has worked. The quality of the piece of writing itself is all that counts. At least until the writer achieves celebrity acclaim, a complication few of us will ever have to worry about.1_diamonds-girls-best-friend

Students deserve an honest assessment of the quality of their pieces of writing, and they need such an assessment to have an accurate sense of how effective they are as writers in general. Putting too much emphasis on effort could give students an inflated sense of their strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t being nice: This is setting students up for failure.

So what’s a teacher to do?

Putting Effort in Its Place

Teachers have several dilemmas when they grade. I’ve blogged recently about deliberately avoiding objectivity and about retaining humility when one responds to writing. I think determining how and when to include Effort as a criterion is another judgment a teacher has to make each time s/he assigns writing.

Here are some of the guidelines I use as I decide how and when to count Effort:

  • The younger the student, the more important it is to include effort as part of the grade. We need to assess and count students’ effort, so they expend the best efforts they can and learn to derive pleasure from working hard and achieving higher-level success from that effort.
  • The more advanced and more unfamiliar the genre of writing is to the student, the more emphasis should be placed on Effort. Students will take more risks and try harder if they know their trying will be counted more than the quality of their finished product.
  • The older the student and the more specialized they become in the genre being assigned, the less Effort should count, even to the point of not counting at all.
  • At the beginning of a school year or a semester, Effort should count more than it does toward the end of the class, when the students are more comfortable with the genre(s) and the teachers’ grading. The steepness of the change should depend on the maturity and writing experience of the students in the class.
  • Just as we suspend judgment in some aspects of writing process (brainstorming, for example), we should also suspend judgment of quality in some writing assignments. When that happens is the purview of the teacher and needs to be made on a case-by-case basis for each assignment. As Inoue points out, grading solely on effort can help students focus on their efforts and can also help avoid “the damaging psychological effects, such as performance-avoidance and low self-efficacy, that grading by quality can cause many students” (345).download
  • There may be occasions when effort should count differently for different students in the same class. It depends on what experience and tolerance for risk-taking the student brings to the assignment.
  • When a student’s effort is being considered as part of a grade, the student should be told. It’s important that students know that their effort has real value and is thus worth grade “credit.” Students also need to know what the quality level of their finished writing is.

How to Solve This Dilemma? Student Learning!

Like all dilemmas in teaching, there is a clear compass: student learning. Do what will increase your students’ learning best. Use grading Effort as a dial you can turn from 0-100 to employ the appropriate degree to get the best learning results in each writing assignment in each class for each student. Making these decisions effectively is what professional teachers do, and it’s what makes us experts.