Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What and Why We SHOULD Teach

It's time to give it up. I'm abandoning it whole-heartedly. Here and now. I'm leaving it behind forever.

What am I talking about?

As long as I've been a teacher, I've been trying to be something that I should never have been: dispassionately objective. Now, most people who know me personally would probably laugh at the idea that I've ever pretended to be that. I speak out often. I engage people with politics. And I've sometimes acted with a chip on my shoulder.

But ever since I began teaching, at some level of my consciousness, I've held onto this naive belief (with increasingly less and less vigor) that I should attempt to be a technician of teaching - that my ultimate purpose should be to learn the latest and greatest techniques to help students learn sets of skills and facts that could ultimately be quantified. And, importantly, in doing so, I should not allow students to know my beliefs and opinions - or, at the very least, I should not allow them to influence their thinking.

Well, that chapter in my life is over. I'm declaring it dead here and now. Goodbye teacher technician. There is no right place in the world for you.

Why am I doing this? Why kill the part of myself that so many teachers point to when asked what makes them good at what they do?

You see, I have this strong opinion about the world in which we live.

It's fucked up.

I don't cuss often in this space. And I don't use fucked lightly here. I thought about its use long and hard.

How would a reader take it? Lightly, as means of keeping her engaged? Or heavily, as a deep expression of my sorrow and pain at what I observe?

It's meant to be heavy.

Nearly thirty-two years into my life, I've come to hold one opinion more strongly than all others. And that is this: Much of modern society deals in death and dehumanization. We are slowly (but with increasing rapidity) destroying our earth and ourselves, a superficial division between a single system of life.

Although it should be clear to anyone who's paying attention in the richest country on earth, it is perhaps not as obvious as it might be to those who live on humanity's margins.

Those of us who drive fancy cars and live in gated communities with pools, the time for golf, and private masseuses are often not confronted directly with the ravages that our global monoculture of consumption has afflicted on our planet and species.

As a straight, white, "educated," wealthy, healthy, male living in the richest country in the history of the world; I attribute that I have mainly been confronted with this reality to two things: 1) I have been privileged enough to travel to many "poor" countries, and 2) I have worked nearly a decade in some of our country's "poorest" neighborhoods. (I put poor in quotations because I mean to highlight the idea that material wealth is not what everybody means when they use the words rich and poor.)

And in a way, these experiences have been my true privilege in life: to see outside the cultural lens with which I was raised in order to understand others.

That which drives the cycle of consumption and destruction can be attributed to the same root problem that drive many social problems, including the many isms that social justice education seeks to redress.

That root problem is that our modern world's cosmology believes each of us to be individuals whose primary purpose is to compete against one another in order to achieve what we've defined as success. In that pursuit, while we may do well racking up material goods or money (our imaginary system of "wealth" that leads to the long-term destruction of life), we have become isolated, alienated, and completely disconnected from both our earth and one another in so many different ways.

In other words, we have forgotten how to love.

The fundamental anchors that moor our systems of modern education promote this loveless drive for success.

In the name of life, we must change our cosmology, the story we tell ourselves about reality, immediately. Seen through this lens, education takes on a new sense of urgency. And it is not the urgency we commonly associate with getting kids to pass tests.

As my thinking about learning and community matures, I've abandoned almost entirely the precepts that have guided schooling in our country over the last two centuries or so.

Systems have a tendency to create humans in the image of those who run them. Public schools are no different. Most of us who attended public schools internalized their basic structures and practices. As a result, we find it difficult to imagine what alternative might exist in their absence.

When I discuss current practices in public schools with others, I often find myself returning to a fundamental truth a great many of us seem to have forgotten. And that is this: Science estimates that modern humans have inhabited the earth for approximately 200,000 years. So, for 200 millennia, humans have found ways to learn, participated in culture and various types of societies, and found ways to humanize themselves and one another. It has only been for a tiny fraction of that time that the modern school has attempted to "aid" in that learning, or humanization. 1/1000th of that time. For the other 199,700 years, humans somehow found powerful ways of learning and being without our schools.

The modern school, while often well-intentioned, is far from ideal. It long ago abandoned the quest for wisdom, and has replaced it with the banking system of education described by Paulo Freire focused on filling students with information and skills. It has become a very two-dimensional system of education that promotes the idea among both students and staff that the earth, knowledge, and others should be objectivized in the quest for "success."

Through various practices, we foster a culture of competition rather than collaboration. We have debate rather than dialogue teams, high-stakes tests rather than authentic formative assessments, persuasive rather than reflective writing, lists of standards to be mastered, a focus on winning rather than learning in school sports, etc...

I do not mean to imply that debate or sports do not offer an individual value. I do mean to say that used in this way, they mostly foster isolation and promote the idea that success (and what we should strive for) comes as a result of working against rather than with others.

So I'm sorry. I can do this no longer. I will not continue to be a silent bystander who acts as an accomplice in the destruction of the world.

From this point forward, I will be very clear that I have a bias as an educator.

Educators, if we are to be more than indoctrinators, must imbue love. And here, I don't mean what our culture imagines love to be: romantic, weak, sappy, and mostly powerless.

I mean real love. The kind that makes clear that all of us are in this reality together. We are not here to compete, dominate, or have more than anyone or anything else.

Some would, and have, snickered at this notion as idealistic. They believe it is a lame and ignorant vision for our future disconnected from reality. I believe that perspective wholly denies the extent of the human potential, of life's desire for deep and authentic community. I believe that perspective to be ignorant of the power we have to change, and largely borne of the trauma and cultural pathology that accompanies the worship of competition, economic efficiency, and perfection.

So that is what and why I will teach. It is what and why we should all teach. I've come to believe that if there is such a thing as truth, it is this; it is love. And I'm not going to feel bad or unprofessional for being direct about that bias. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Engaging Those Who Disagree Through Love and Vocation

The board room was packed, and the tension was palpable. Scores of teachers and community members had turned out to tell the board not to sign a contract with Teach for America.

When it was my turn to speak, I was angry. I was angry and frustrated. I tried to look into the eyes of the people behind the suits who I was speaking to, but it was difficult.

There was the school board, who seemed to mostly go along with whatever the superintendent wanted. There was the superintendent, who I believed made most of her decisions based on a desire to secure a job at the state’s education department. And then there was the district’s communications director. He always wore his pristine suit wherever he went and had recently told our local NPR affiliate that the district was interested in a partnership with TFA because it was difficult to find traditionally certificated teachers for vacancies they were trying to fill. I didn’t believe him.

When I spoke to them, I must have sounded venomous. Because I did not teach in the district considering the contract, I felt free to express my anger openly. On a few occasions I raised my voice, and I came close to explicitly calling the communications director a liar.

When it was over, the crowd clapped for what I had said, and I felt a sense of pride. When the board voted unanimously to approve the contract with TFA, despite every person in the room speaking against the decision to do so, the crowd made a collective groan of frustration and anger and left the room in unison, despite that the meeting was not over. The room went from being over capacity to being nearly empty in a matter of a minute.

Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, points out that very often, when we engage in political discourse, especially when we are arguing with someone who has a different point of view, we are actually not attempting to communicate with them. What we’re actually trying to do is communicate with the people around us who agree with us.

I think that’s exactly what I was doing when I gave my mostly angry speech at that board meeting. While I thought I was trying to express the kinds of words and emotions that would help the board members and superintendent understand the error in their ways, what I was really doing was showing my solidarity with the crowd.

What must the superintendent have thought of my speech? Or the communications director? I imagine that if they’d talked about it afterward, which I doubt they did, they would have mentioned how little I understood about the workings of the district, or the need to fill vital teaching vacancies. Whether they would be right in their lamentations is besides the point. I suspect they would have felt them authentically.

It strikes me that there are two places from which those of us in public education (and really any line of work or profession) draw motivation: 1) from a sense of vocation, calling, or need to do good work in the world; and 2) from a desire for success - money, reputation, and power.

It also strikes me that in our professional lives, all of us are motivated by both of these to one degree or another. There are moments when we’re more motivated by vocation than by success and vice versa. And there are those of us who draw more deeply on a regular basis from one of the motivations than from the other.

On the other hand, I also find that I draw on two different motivators when it comes to affecting positive change in my community: 1) frustration and/or anger and 2) love.

When I spoke before that school board, I was manifesting frustration and anger. I did that because I had found a way to dehumanize my audience by imagining that they participate in the work of public education solely out of a desire for personal success. In doing so, I allowed myself to wish them ill will, and, as a result, I don’t think they heard anything I had to say.

When attacked by others, it is the rare person who is able to put their ego aside and truly listen to what is being said. More often, when we feel threat, we close our ears and look for ways to prove the speaker wrong.

This is why we must be cognizant of how we seek to affect change and how our actions actually impact those around us. If our primary goal is to rally our base, then yelling and being angry can do that. But I’ve found that the negatives tend to outweigh the positives.

After that board meeting was over, the crowd regrouped in the parking lot even more angry than before and began talking about strategies to unseat the board members on election day.

When we get to this point as a community, we’ve resigned ourselves to no longer engaging the other side. We allow ourselves to take a shortcut, like thinking about how to get rid of a board member, and avoid the harder work of engaging those who disagree with us.

Why should we seek to engage those who disagree with us? Because when we do, we allow them their humanity. In doing so, we allow ourselves our humanity. And in that act of humanization, we must remember that we should listen at least as much as we speak.

Affecting positive change through love is deeper and more challenging work. It requires discipline, patience, and resolve. But its fruits are abundant.

When we yell and scream at those who disagree with us in the battle for saving the public in public education, we lose energy and hope fast. In fact, I’d say the yelling and screaming are already a sign of desperation. This method almost entirely fails to engage the other side.

John Lewis, the US House of Representatives Member who played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement, talks about being trained to make eye contact with those police who would beat him for marching in the movement. The goal was to force the aggressor to confront the humanity of their victim. But the same is true for those of us under attack. A true act of love requires remembering the humanity of the aggressor.

We who defend public education believe it has the potential to be an incubator for a strong civil society that does not go to war for profit, destroy the natural environment, or set material wealth as the determining factor of a person’s value. When we confront the forces who believe in high-stakes testing and ranking students to determine which jobs or colleges they should matriculate into, we must do so with love as our intention.

This does not mean that we should be less urgent or demanding in our actions. But it does mean that our tone should be different.

Had I addressed the school board that day with the intention of love and humanization, I would not have raised my voice, felt an increase in my stress level, or found it difficult to make eye contact with my audience. I would have spoken more smoothly, with more confidence, less stress, and more intelligence. My remarks would have been more difficult to write off as those of an angry, ignorant teacher.

Rather, I would have forced them to come face to face with the humanity of both myself and my students. A part of them, no matter how deeply it might be buried, that is motivated by a desire to live out their vocation and their humanity would have been touched. Were I to see one of them again, at perhaps the grocery store, it would have been far less awkward to start a conversation. And I, holding the confidence that I’d spoken my truth in a way that acknowledged both my own and their humanity, would have found it far easier to engage them in meaningful dialogue.

We should not imagine that any of us have the right to make our system of public education in our own image. But rather acknowledge that a meaningful way of educating our children will come out of this deep dialogue in our local communities.

A pre-requisite of this dialogue, however, must be that we engage with it as educators by vocation rather than educators seeking personal success. Only then can we have a dialogue that manifests love, restores our humanity, and takes us closer to restoring the public in public education. This is part of what we fight for.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

High-Stakes End of Course Exams Harm Students in Washington State

In the state of Washington, high school students who want a diploma this year must pass four exit exams known as end of course exams (EOCs). However, three bills were heard before the House Education Committee in Olympia last week that would decouple these exams from graduation requirements. As a national board certified teacher from a low-income school, I and fifteen students felt compelled to go down to Olympia on February 3 to speak in favor of one of these bills, HB 1363. We were all from the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (ACE) on the Tyee Campus of SeaTac in the Highline School District, and a majority of our students speak English as a second language. Inspiringly, four students were even brave enough to testify before the House Education Committee in favor of HB 1363. (You can watch the testimony in the House Education Committee on tvw.org from Feb. 3 around 25:00.)

The most powerful testimony came from the most heroic human I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. Violeta is a senior at our school who lives in her own apartment with her daughter. She works a job after school, and has nevertheless earned a 3.6 GPA in her four years at ACE. Even though she received an A in Biology, she hasn’t passed the Biology EOC, which will be the only thing that might hold her back from graduation this year. She pointed out that few, if any, of the legislators in Olympia likely had to take an exit exam for their high school diploma. 

However, some representatives, like Chad Magendanz (R-Issaquah), ask how the state would ensure that students take the EOCs seriously if we don’t tie them to a graduation requirement. Rep. Magendanz seems to be unaware of one of the most highly respected assessments in the US, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It is so respected precisely because it’s not high-stakes and teachers are never told in specifics what’s going to be on it. NAEP is used as barometer for how students in all fifty states fair in comparison to one another. And this is one of the ways that assessment can be used responsibly. 

To be sure, among professionals who study and implement standardized testing, there is profound agreement around the issue of making them high-stakes in nature: it’s a bad idea. What’s worse is that it’s clear that they exacerbate inequities in a public education system already chock full of them. Bruce D. Baker, professor of education at Rutgers, makes this point in a recent column published by Valerie Strauss on her Washington Post Blog, The Answer Sheet. A study in 2013 by Kevin Lang and Olesya Baker at Boston University found that increases in high-stakes exit exams are linked to higher incarceration rates. John Papay, Richard Murnane, and John Willet at Harvard found that high-stakes exit exams stopped low-income urban students in Massachusetts from graduating at disproportionately high rates. Multiple studies have found questions on these tests to harbor racial bias. In other words, a majority of questions asked are repeatedly answered correctly at higher rates by Caucasian students than by African-American or Latino students.

Furthermore, when a majority of students at a school speak a language other than English at home, we have a hard time knowing for sure whether the tests are actually measuring what they purport to measure, or if they’re measuring a student’s English language ability or cultural knowledge. 

I remember proctoring a test a few years ago during which students who’d recently arrived from the Dominican Republic could not explain why the main character in a reading passage would live in someone’s yard, and subsequently answered most of the questions associated with the passage incorrectly. It was because they didn’t know that, in the United States, Rover is nearly always a dog’s name. However, the test didn’t consider that that might be an issue.

When students from ACE met with my legislator, Senator Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), she rightly asked if there wasn’t a collection of evidence (COE) course offered, which the legislature created years ago as a means of offering students who couldn’t find success on the tests another way to meet the requirement. 

When Senator Nelson asked about the COE, students spoke at length about how, at our school, the COE class has been a terribly disorganized once-a-week class, sometimes lasting as long as three hours, where, for the Biology COE, teachers are essentially doing an hour of test prep covering biological concepts that are normally taught in class over the period of a month or more, and then students get online to take a test without help. 

Worse, because our district was unable to find the money to include the COE in the regular school day schedule, teachers in their first few years of teaching were asked to give up their after-school time (normally used for grading, planning, and making parent contact) to teach an additional class that often lasted two or three hours. Because the Biology COE is in its first year, and nobody has ever taught it before, teachers felt compelled to give up whole weekends trying to make the COE course meaningful for students who often weren’t even able to show up due to after school jobs. This is one sure way to speed up the burnout rate so many teachers already give into before they even get to year five as an educator. The issue was so concerning that nine students and five staff members went before our school board in December in hopes they might find a way to better support us.

While the COE classes are a good idea in theory, our circumstances speak to a larger problem with the EOC/COE requirement in our state: we’re not equipping our schools with the resources they would need were they to truly prepare all students to achieve success on these tests. 

Still, many argue that colleges have been, for some time, complaining of the low level of skills that students enter with. They continue to suggest that these high-stakes EOCs and/or COEs are one way of hedging that phenomenon. 

Wayne Au, a professor of education who studies high-stakes testing at the University of Washington at Bothell, has repeatedly harped on the fact that tests have historically been used by the state to deny people living on the margins of our society from finding ways to assimilate and become a stronger part of the fabric of our culture – going back to the eugenics movement. Many professors of assessment will tell you that, despite studying standardized, high-stakes tests for years, they’re still not convinced they can say with certainty what they’re actually measuring. However, we do know that scores on them are strongly linked to the zip code the student lives in and the educational attainment of their parents. 

Delinking the EOCs from graduation requirements would not mean that teachers could not still make them an integral part of a student’s grade. Their score on the EOC might, for example, comprise a certain percentage of the overall grade in that teacher’s class. But teachers know that one-time high-stakes measures of learning are damaging to students, not least because all assessments are human constructs and likely have at least some flaws. In professional development courses across the country, teachers learn that ongoing, multiple assessments of student performance are a far more reasonable way to assign a grade and determine whether a student is ready to move on. 

Is it important to ensure that students graduate high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to join the work force or enter college? Absolutely. Are high-stakes tests a part of that solution? Absolutely NOT. 

Rather, lawmakers should spend their time finding ways to lower class sizes in schools where it’s already difficult for students to learn and teachers to teach. They should also seriously consider bills like HB 1541, which would address issues of equity by ensuring better access to cultural competency training for school-based staff.

It is wildly inappropriate for lawmakers to stick to their guns on an issue for which there is so much evidence suggesting the possible harm of high-stakes tests. Are we, as a state, comfortable denying students like Violeta access to participating in the economy in more meaningful ways because she’s a few points short of achieving an arbitrary cut score on a Biology test that has been poorly implemented? I say Hell No.

Leaving these requirements in place could mean thousands of students who've earned all of their credits this June have to simply wait until the next time a test is offered before they can work with a high school diploma.

Truth and urgency emanate from this argument like heat off the sun for those of us who teach and learn in low-income schools of color around Washington. So I urge students and families from around the state to take yourselves down to Olympia and pack legislators’ offices on this issue – particularly the office of the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island), who told a group of students from Tyee last week that there is no support for eliminating the EOCs as graduation requirements in the Senate – despite that Senator John McCoy (D-Tulalip) put forth just such a bill.


Join students from Tyee, who are planning on returning to Olympia on February 16 with upwards of thirty students to lobby legislators around this important civil rights issue. Contact your legislators, in person if possible, and see if you can’t clear some of the clouds down in Olympia, and hope the Senate might see some of the blinding light the rest of us deal with on a daily basis.