Thinking Out Loud: What if Universities Harnessed the Power of K-12 Teachers?

Student bodies at universities are more diverse than ever. Students who fill lecture halls increasingly come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and have a variety of learning needs. Even so, many universities decline to question the idea that a Ph.D. from an ivy and a book publication somehow makes a person qualified to lead a class, and continue many harmful practices that marginalize vulnerable students.

Universities around the U.S. could address high drop-out rates by tapping into the pedagogical expertise of innovative secondary educators and educational coaches who have been helping “diverse” students for years. However, I’m guessing that the following might function as barriers to progress:

  • The low-status of teachers and teaching
  • The belief that content knowledge is more important than an understanding of how learning works and an understanding of how to motivate learners
  • The belief that a book publication is the best indicator that someone has content knowledge
  • A failure to critically examine the ways in which professors (who predominantly come from privileged backgrounds) might need assistance in understanding, connecting with, and generally meeting the needs of students with less privileged backgrounds
  • A willingness to blame adolescents, iphones, and secondary educators for dropout rates and lack of student engagement

On a related note:

Dear Professors: Stop Lecturing. Now.

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Wish List: “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

I regret that I haven’t had the chance to teach Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a labyrinthine text rich in political, historical and social meaning. During a graduate seminar, I co-planned and delivered a unit on Conrad’s novella – but I don’t need to tell you that a graduate seminar and high school classroom have a few differences.

Here is a rough outline of a process that would need to take place over a few weeks, and not a few days. This basic outline would need to change according to my students’ needs:

Teaching tool: Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Edition, 2005)

  1. I have a unit on postcolonial theory that I would teach first so that students are familiar with this concept.
  2. Closely read and analyze the novella. Students generate text-based questions (as well as larger questions) that we attempt to answer in class. We’d keep a running list of questions on a board, and try to make connections to postcolonial theory.
  3. Students read and discuss a series of excerpts from letters and articles by figures like Henry Morton Stanley, Roger Casement and King Leopold in order to enhance their understanding of the novella’s context.
  4. We could then pair segments of the novel side-by-side with letters and articles to compare and contrast.
  5. Students then raise – and discuss – a host of new questions about the implications of Conrad’s vision of Africa; about representations of Congolese natives and European middlemen; and ultimately about the logic of empire that is revealed through Heart of Darkness.

If you’ve taught this novella, I’d love to hear your ideas: How did it go? How did you make this text accessible for your students?

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Application Season is Here & “Undermatching” is Still a Problem

I teach at a rural secondary school where more than half of the students qualify for a free or reduced lunch. My students are like those at every other school: They’re caring, hard-working, and want bright futures for themselves.  Many of them excel in sports, lead community efforts, earn high scores on the SAT. Like thousands of other students from low-income districts around the U.S., however, the majority will be submitting applications to attend community colleges and state schools that are close to home — if they choose to further their education at all.

This problem is called undermatching, a phenomenon in which high-achieving, but low-income students like mine decline to apply to competitive and “elite” colleges. The social implications of undermatching are potentially dire. Students who opt to enroll in two-year colleges tend to be less likely to graduate than their four-year college going peers; those who enroll in community colleges part-time fare even worse. Furthermore, if students living in underserved communities aren’t able to get their foot in the ivy door, they will be missing out on access to important connections and opportunities that may be their best tickets to upward social mobility. Prestigious universities will continue to function as sites where class privilege is reproduced because they will primarily serve those who already have advantageous backgrounds.

What’s the Cause?

Part of this problem could rest with educators like me who haven’t done enough to connect the dots for students, and convince them of the possibilities that are open. I encouraged a few promising students  to look beyond the nearest state school with little luck this year. I shared links to newspaper articles, and college websites. I talked about application fee waivers, and showed them how they might actually save money if they got into an elite college. Amherst College, for example, boasts that all students will graduate debt-free. What kept them from applying? One very understandable explanation is that they wanted to be closer to loved ones. I also suspect that these students weren’t convinced that I was correct about their potential as applicants, or entirely convinced that attendance at an elite institution would be worth the cost of moving far away, or surrounding themselves with students whose families can afford to fork out $50k annually for tuition, room, and board.

I can’t say that I entirely blame them for their skepticism. While I’m interested in ensuring that my students look to attend colleges that truly excite them, I worry that if educators focus exclusively on funneling more low-income students into elite colleges, they will ultimately do a disservice to the students and communities that they serve by perpetuating the classist notion that “elite” colleges are truly where the “smart” people do, and should, go.

Before we address disparities in enrollment at elite colleges then, we need to re-examine our own beliefs about  “mediocre” versus “elite” colleges. If students like mine are attending less-than-prestigious universities in droves and graduating with as much ambition as any other student — then why would anyone view their degrees as average, or the colleges that they attend as mediocre? Likewise, if we know that SAT scores are more of an accurate measure of family income than of academic aptitude, and if we know that admission to an ivy league may be less the result of individual uniqueness than of carefully manufactured resumes, then why do we still look at those enrolled in ivies with awe?

As Columbia University Sociologist Shamus Khan correctly notes, “talents are costly to develop.” That is, the achievements that impress university recruiters like starting a business, producing a documentary, or perfecting an instrument through years of lessons, are out of reach for many students who may lack the time, resources, or connections to pull off before their senior year. Some students simply need opportunities for do-overs and more time for personal growth. Unfortunately, our current education system is rather unforgiving to those who deviate from linear growth trajectories. Students are expected to understand the value of school, earn good grades, not get in trouble, network with teachers (and not annoy teachers), participate in extracurriculars, and develop unique interests — all before the age of 17, regardless of their personal circumstances.

Where do we go from here?

One solution is to do nothing at all. There are those who question the merits of an ivy league education, and argue that it’s entirely possible to access various privileges associated with attendance at an ivy league without being enrolled in such an “elite” institution. Guillaume Dumas, for example, gained access to lecture halls, parties, and conferences hosted by elite schools by masquerading as an enrolled student and working part-time. Dumas is now a successful entrepreneur and questions the value of a degree.

The problem is that the odds of replicating Dumas’ impressive antics are quite slim; Dumas relied on deceptive practices that would make many of my students squirm, and he exhibited a kind of social ease that usually comes from those who are already enjoy a certain amount of privilege — ease that many of my students would need to learn through a greater diversity of social and cultural experiences. Dumas felt comfortable conversing with well-known professors, networking on campuses, and working low-end jobs. He had enough money to commute around the country, and it seems clear that he didn’t have dependents to support. What Dumas ultimately proves is that a degree may not be necessary for those who are already able to move fluidly through privileged spaces.

What should teachers do if they have students could benefit from legitimate access to professors (and writing centers and career counselors) at an elite institution? A starting point is to communicate the specific intellectual, cultural, and social value of elite universities while also acknowledging the class biases that are built into the structure of the university and its admissions processes. Teachers can also take responsibility for creating opportunities for students to showcase their leadership and research skills that will pique the interest of college admissions officers. For example, my English department created short-term, peer-tutoring positions last year when we realized that some of our middle school students needed help with discussion skills; we’re also hoping to put students in charge of our literacy initiative efforts so that students have the chance to collaborate with librarians and community members.

Teachers can also share responsibility with guidance counselors for inspiring students to apply to elite colleges. Perhaps teachers should consider inviting college representatives and alums into their classrooms if they want to change college admission patterns. After all students need to hear about possibilities from multiple voices; they need teachers who can recognize their potential and steer them towards befitting opportunities. Students can then choose a path that’s most in-line with their needs and values.

For my students not attending elite universities this year, I’m not too anxious. Some of my students attending two-year colleges will transfer successfully to four-year universities. I know that they’ll be fine — particularly those who are adept at networking, and who have already demonstrated the ability generate tremendous strength in the face of obstacles. Still, I suspect that some of their lives may be more difficult because of the choices that they’ve made. A diploma from an elite college could make it easier for them to be groomed as leaders, not just employees, in their chosen fields. A diploma from a highly-selective college could make their lives easier, because others would look at their degrees and immediately recognize the outstanding potential that they possess.

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What enrollment in an online class has taught me about online learning

  1. There’s lots of incentive to phone it in: In a regular face-to-face class, the instructor needs to show up. And do something. If the instructor isn’t physically there, the students know that something is wrong. They can, and will, advocate for themselves. The same is not true of online classroom where the instructor can check who has logged on or added to the discussion — but where students can’t do the same to keep the instructor in check. I am enrolled in a class where I have received zero feedback. Zero. I haven’t seen one instructor response on the discussion board. For all I know, he’s logging in on Sunday evening, glancing to see if a person posted and then typing a number into the grade book.
  2. Students need to understand their rights as students. I’m not sure what means are in place to ensure that students know when they’re receiving quality online instruction.
  3. Instructors really need to provide rubrics. Discussion boards filled with vague, non-evidence based claims are driving me up the wall. And I can’t really blame the students — some of whom are only 18 — because there are no guidelines in place for these discussions. We all lose without these rubrics, and without feedback. When we have a “discussion” about our target market, for instance, I can’t learn anything if everyone says things like “my market is really big.” Gaa!
  4. Mostly, though, it’s really frustrating when your teacher doesn’t seem responsive to you, and doesn’t seem to see you. I’ve already done copious research on online learning, so I already knew most of this stuff. Being a student has really driven home for me the annoyance that students feel when a number grade is ambiguous, when they see their teaching “holding them accountable” (why the heck  are you making someone with an MA in English write a chapter summary, seriously?), or when they suspect that their teacher isn’t present.
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When we say “collaboration,” are we talking about the same thing?

People - Pessoas by leandrosciolaI keep hearing people talking about their collaboration — on Twitter with their PLN and in Professor Learning Communities (PLCs). I’m beginning to wonder if we’re all talking about the same thing when we say “collaboration.”

After all, collaboration is hard work that goes beyond sharing ideas or glancing at each others’ work. It requires dialogue and mutual trust. I suspect that it’s not happening as often as we may think.

Why Teachers Don’t Collaborate

In their 2008 Teaching and Teacher Education article “Stages of Collaboration and the Realities of Professional Learning Communities,” Anne-Marie Dooner and Rodney Clifton suggest that PLCs may be unsuccessful if teachers enter into them unprepared for the challenges inherent in collaborative work.

McLaughlin and Talbert (2006, p. 11) note: ‘‘Lack of trust, time, and talent are the usual reasons’’; however, Hargreaves (2001) and de Lima (2001) suggest that teachers often do not understand the nature of the interdependence required in effective learning communities (Dooner & Clifton 565).

In order to truly “collaborate,” teachers need to be able to “unite on a common interest or a shared passion; in fact, meaningful collaboration stems from this initial overlapping values” (556). In theory, the shared value and passion should be educating all students and ensuring their success. However, teachers come to the table armed with diverse personalities, experiences and backgrounds — and different beliefs about pedagogy. All of these things can lead to breakdowns within a group.

Collaboration is NOT

  • Changing a practice or trying out a new strategy after reading a Twitter post. If that’s “collaboration,” then I’ve been collaborating with Michel Foucault, Paulo Freire, Carol Gilligan, and other famous people for years.
  • Pumping Twitter full of links to your blog posts (like I’m about to do with a link to this blog post).
  • Re-tweeting.
  • Following.

Collaboration is (I think)

  • Beginning: A Twitter chat that involves teachers fleshing out a problem and looking for a solution.
  • Proficient: Co-planning a lesson or unit with a fellow educator. Selecting learning goals together, and figuring out how to best help students meet those goals. This must involve respectfully challenging ideas, and making research-based decisions. It’s not collaboration if we divvy up tasks, work in separate rooms, and then everybody says “yeah, looks good.”
  • Proficient: Teaching the same lesson with different strategies. Then, coming together to discuss student outcomes, and changing instructional practiced based on the discussion and data.

Qualities of a strong group member:

  • Understands the value of collaboration.
  • Works well with diverse people, or people perceived to be “different.”
  • Doesn’t insist on working only with people that they “like.”
  • Has a growth mindset: Likes looking for ways to improve, and isn’t crushed or insulted by critique.
  • Sees potential in others.
  • Understands that collaboration is hard work, and still seeks out opportunities to collaborate.

Questions to ask schools to see if teachers really collaborate (or if they are only sharing the occasional idea):

  • What is your understanding of collaboration?
  • How do you foster collaboration among your teachers? How have teachers overcome barriers to collaboration: trust issues, personality conflicts?
  • What’s an example of a successful collaborative project at your school? What obstacles did teachers face, and how did they overcome those obstacles?
  • How do people choose their collaborative teams?
  • How do you find time to collaborate? How do you feel about the time investment involved in collaboration?
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An Argument for Sustained Silent Reading

English 12 students collaborated to create a library display with their book recommendations.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sustained Silent Reading after reading Amber Chandler’s brilliant, reflective post for Middle Web on the subject. I’ve been struggling with the question of “should I give up class time for independent reading?” for the past three years. I started out as a “reading should be homework — look how fun it is to fill out reading logs!” person who thought I was having high standards when I “held students accountable” for their independent reading. I then shifted to “students hate book logs and don’t fill them out, so let’s do book talks/other projects” instructor. Now, I’m one of those “pick your own books, talk about them informally, do a more general project that promotes literacy” teachers.

I’m also an advocate of data-driven instruction, so I’m still uncomfortable giving up precious, precious class time when I struggle to find a direct causal relationship between reading and success in English, and when research like the much cited (and contested) National Reading Panel study has cast doubt on the usefulness of SSR.

I decided to contact a few former students to ask about their experiences with reading in class, because I always wonder if they got something out of it. Or am I just kidding myself?

Here are a few quotes from former students who have since graduated (quotes used with their permission):

  • “I think the in class reading was a good warm up to get your mind focused on what was on task for the day. I learned that some of the words read and new words acquired make it easier in the real world.”
  • “I love reading and I loved having time in class… I lead a busy life outside of school! And with kids that work, I think that it was very helpful!
  • “I’m dyslexic, so reading was never my strongest point. I always found it more irritating to read because I could never get [through a] sentence without having to go back and re-read it back, I would mis-read a couple words and the story made no sense. I would have to read out loud numerous times to finally understand a section of a book. So reading in class scared me, but I didn’t want to admit that so in past classes, I rebelled. I do indeed feel as though [in class reading] helped me. I really enjoyed reading in class. I never had a lot of time at home to read and just could not focus while outside of school. In class reading was hard at first but with time became better.

These quotes (and notes from students who were appreciate of the opportunity to discover books, and my own observations from a limited data set) are far from conclusive, I know. As a teacher and human, though, it’s pretty darn hard for me to prioritize a National Reading Panel study over these voices. It’s also difficult for me to discount my own observations, particularly when I know that the NRP study had its flaws.

In her Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy article “Becoming the Reading Mentors Our Adolescents Deserve: Developing a Successful Sustained Silent Reading Program,” Valarie Lee points out a few limits of the study:

For instance, research studies not used by the NRP indicate that reading gains due to voluntary reading programs are more likely when gains are measured after more than seven months. Some studies in the national report include those with duration of as little as one month of voluntary reading. Furthermore, the NRP did not choose motivation and engagement as an area of focus for the meta-analysis. Several reports, including Reading Next — A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006), advocate for voluntary reading time because of the link to student motivation (210).

A few observations on the benefits of SSR

Here are a few things that I’ve noticed about Sustained Silent Reading in my own classroom:

  • It contributes to a positive atmosphere because students find it relaxing to start class reading a book that they enjoy. This can be a selling point if you have students with stressful home (or school) lives.
  • It allows students to direct (part of) the curriculum. Students get really excited when they find a great book, and then get to spend a few minutes talking about that book. I don’t need to “hold them accountable” for reading, because they tend to love doing it.
  • It seems to be the best bet for turning non-readers into bibliophiles. If you’ve met non-readers (as in “I hate reading” + angry face) who began to love books because of the homework or project that you assigned, then please share. I hate giving up class time, too, and would love a solution for those future book lovers who currently see no point reading that doesn’t require me to use class time.
  • It ensures that all students are reading. A problem that I’ve encountered when assigning reading as homework: The students who already love reading do their homework and enjoy it. However, most students have TONS of other homework (and paid work), and tend to not prioritize reading. It becomes a burden and a task for many students.

A Possible Solution to the Not-Enough-Time Problem

The problem of not having enough time in the school day is a real one. We’re setting up a false dichotomy, though, if we limit ourselves to the following: Include SSR and not have enough time for instruction or not include SSR and deny students reading time. Student literacy isn’t just an English issue or responsibility, and thus it doesn’t make sense to assume that SSR should occur in English classes only. What would happen if all teachers bought into a reading program and divided up SSR days? That is, what if English offered 15 minutes on Mondays, Social Studies took Tuesdays, Science on Wednesdays, and so on… What would happen if students saw all of their teachers reading, and were in the habit of having informal discussions about books with these instructors? What impact on literacy would this have on our schools?

Ideas for making SSR Data-Driven

  • Use reading assessments like the Scholastic Reading Inventory to consistently monitor student progress throughout the year. Teachers can compare data and work collaboratively to overcome challenges.
  • Teacher reflections: What do teachers see as potential challenges or areas for improvement? What successes have they seen in the classroom? What obstacles in implementation have they faced?
  • Student reflections: Ask students to write about their own reading habits at the start of the school year. Collect these writing samples, and then repeat at the end of the year. Allow students to compare these reflections, then ask students to decide for themselves if they’ve grown as readers.

A Few Remaining Questions

  • What is the impact of SSR on long-term reading habits and attitudes toward reading? I wonder if there will be any long-term effects on their families and communities.
  • What is the relationship between SSR and attitude towards school?

A disclaimer: I don’t believe that SSR would work for all students. I’d argue that SSR isn’t necessary if…

  • Students enjoy a supportive reading environment at home with model readers.
  • Students already enjoy reading or have some intrinsic motivation to read.
  • Students prefer reading at home, and aren’t so burdened with work, sports, and extracurriculars that they have enough time to read at home.

I have some students who don’t enjoy the above criteria, and I’m not ready to take away their opportunities to read. For me then, the question isn’t “to SSR or not SSR?” but rather “how can we get smarter about implementing a Sustained Silent Reading program?”

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I love “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Here’s why I’d rather not teach it:

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is a foundational text in the American canon that attempts to deal with the complex issues of race and discrimination in the United States. Set in the Great Depression, this novel takes us to Maycomb, a fictional Alabama town where community members are wary of difference and where legal justice remains out of reach for men like Tom Robinson, a black man who is convicted of raping a white woman despite ample evidence of his innocence. While Lee’s novel succeeds in revealing many of the mechanisms by which discriminatory beliefs and attitudes are formed and perpetuated, the novel is also limited and limiting.

On Representations of Class

When we talk about Mockingbird, our discussions tend to skip over class and focus exclusively on race. This is something that some students — say, those living in low-income, rural areas — might pick up on. As one former student with whom I worked during a student teaching assignments wrote in an editorial:

“….everybody talks about the Cunninghams because they are poor and can’t afford for their kid to eat sometimes. People might not like that and might think that it is rude that had to be in the book when it could have just been left out. Also maybe some people who read this book might not have a lot of money and the book makes it sound like it is the [poor people’s] fault for being poor and they don’t try to do anything about it.”

The Cunninghams maintain much more dignity than the Ewells who live in a dump (literally); the father is an alcoholic and is too lazy to keep a job; the children are uneducated and routinely go to school only on the first day of the year. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the Ewells are caricatures; they are ridiculous characters and objects of scorn in the novel.

On the subject of race and discrimination

Black characters remain on the margins of the novel while white, middle-class individuals are offered up as the novel’s heroes. Black characters remain on the periphery of the novel and, paradoxically, have little influence on the plot.

Calpurnia, for example, holds a subservient position in the Finch household and seems to enjoy her role. It is not too much of a stretch to say that she is a “safe,” non-threatening representation of blackness, and one that is hardly representative of the lived experiences of African American women in the 1930s south. Tom Robinson is the man whose trial is at the center of the novel. However, our knowledge of him is largely mediated through white characters. We do hear Tom’s voice in Chapter 19 when he goes on the stand to testify. From that encounter we learn that Tom is exceedingly polite and that, like other members of the black community, is appreciative of Atticus’s labors. And that’s about it.

Students might be tempted to identify Calpurnia and Tom Robinson as positive figures because of their safeness; it’s quite possible that teachers will unintentionally perpetuate the white liberal fantasy that disenfranchised people of color are waiting for white (educated) Americans to rescue them from disempowerment.

Alternatives to To Kill a Mockingbird

  • Are there any engaging novels or short stories authored by African American men or women dealing with racial discrimination? Yes.
  • Instead of conducting a standard novel study, students can analyze excerpts of the text with the goal of critically analyzing and evaluating representations of race and class.
  • Closely analyze Tom Robinson’s trial, and then draw connections between Mockingbird and contemporary events. Provide the following guiding question: Is it possible for everyone to receive a fair trial?
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