In This Issue:
1. A school addresses racially disparate discipline referrals
2. Using students’ errors as teachable moments
3. Pandemic-inspired classroom practices that should continue
4. Advice on dealing with too much homework
5. Evaluating candidates’ résumés during a hiring process
6. Improving students’ “user experience” through course design
7. Short item: Online Beethoven resources
Quotes of the Week
“If we want to interrupt cycles of trauma, if we want to disrupt inequitable social and racial arrangements, we cannot put that weight on those whom the system disadvantages the most.”
Jerome Bennett (see item #1)
“People only change after they’ve felt understood.”
David Brooks in “Wisdom Isn’t What You Think It Is” in The New York Times,
April 15, 2021
“Remote learning has found many teachers eager to know what’s going on behind those small squares of students on their screens.”
Samantha Pack (see item #3)
“In faculty hiring, you are gauging candidates’ knowledge, skills, and training, but you’re also seeking an intellectual capacity and a set of ideas that will help (and yes, challenge) you.”
David Perlmutter (see item #5)
“Mistakes are a natural part of learning, but students cannot develop into critical thinkers if they regularly freeze out of fear of making a mistake.”
Colin Seale (see item #2)
“There is tremendous empathy to be gained from learning why someone sees something different than you do.”
Colin Seale (ibid.)
“Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.”
Colin Seale (on his website)
1. A School Addresses Racially Disparate Discipline Referrals
In this article in Principal Leadership, equity consultant Jerome Bennett and educators Jake Giessman and Jane Hubley describe how a school followed up when its leaders realized that there were three times more discipline referrals for African-American male students as for other students. Some key facts about this middle school in Portland, Maine:
The school’s leaders convened three focus groups to explore stakeholders’ perceptions. The first group, composed of faculty and staff (all white), concluded that any discipline disparities were explained by cultural misunderstandings between white staff and black students. The other two groups, composed of students of color, bluntly stated that the root cause was racial bias.
- The staff was mostly white.
- Half the students were white.
- A quarter were black, almost entirely first- and second-generation refugees and asylum-seekers from across the African continent.
Administrators had to decide which interpretation to endorse. Fearing adult backlash if they went with the students’ view, the school’s leaders overruled some dissenting voices (including Bennett and Hubley), embraced the first focus group’s interpretation, and got to work designing an intervention to bridge cultural differences. For three months, Hubley (the school’s social worker) had a series of meetings with an existing affinity/support group of male students of color (called the Gentlemen), and together they crafted a statement of behavioral values that captured students’ culture and aspirations. The hope was that this would be more culturally responsive than the school’s existing expectations. Here’s what the “Gentlemen’s Code” included:
Posters and presentations familiarized the school community with the Gentlemen’s Code.
- I am a gentleman.
- I fight for what is fair and right.
- I own up to my mistakes and learn from them.
- I lead by example and take care of those I lead.
- I am kind… I am helpful… and I give my best in everything that I do.
- I always show up for my fellow Gentlemen because we are family.
- We are Gentlemen.
- We support each other when we are not feeling the best.
- We help each together stay focused and put in the extra work to get good grades.
- We don’t fight with each other.
- We know how to have fun.
- Because we are Gentlemen.
After three months, administrators conducted follow-up interviews and looked at discipline data. The students who had worked on the code were proud of what they had produced and felt good about their group. Teachers were uncertain how to use the code in their interactions with students of color, but had a slightly more-positive and more-nuanced perception of those students. However, there was only a slight decrease in discipline referrals for black male students. “In sum,” conclude Bennett, Giessman, and Hubley, “the impact seemed minimal.” Here’s how each of them described the situation:
• Hubley – “I never liked the idea of a Gentlemen’s Code,” she says. “[It] felt scripted to me, not authentic… I felt pressure, though, to define the work of the gentlemen.” She hoped it would help adults in the school understand the group and its purpose. “However,” she continues, “we knew that they would never really get it.” The boys – and their sister group, the Fierce Girls – believed the school was not committed to addressing racial bias. “The culture put these boys and girls at a disadvantage from the beginning,” Hubley says. “They knew it, felt it, and reacted to it. They navigated it, knowing and feeling its harm to their beings.” She felt her obligation to the boys was to give them space to be with each other.
• Giessman – As the school’s (white) assistant principal with major responsibility for discipline, Giessman says he felt “caught between a faculty’s – and my own – racialized notion of a safe and orderly school and a moral imperative to disrupt that. Where Hubley has sought to protect the gentlemen from the school, I have sought to raise the gentlemen’s standing in the school through videos, photographs, and presentations about them. I have been marketing the gentlemen to white people in hopes that this would move white people’s consciousnesses… That I would gravitate toward this marketing strategy highlights both the deeply embedded negative social attitudes about students of color and my own fear of engaging in the real work. The real work would have been, as the gentlemen told us, for the adults to investigate and remediate their own biases.”
Shortly after the school’s unsuccessful effort to leverage the Gentlemen’s Code, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other people of color prompted a deeper reckoning. “The decision to avoid directly confronting bias for fear of white backlash,” says Giessman, “was cowardly. I should not have placed the burden of intervention on the gentlemen or their families. If the gentlemen were to do the labor of articulating their values, the staff and faculty should have been taking on even greater and more-urgent labors of reflection and antiracist action. Perhaps more importantly, I should have been risking my standing among the faculty to model and lead that work.”
• Bennett – Serving as a part-time equity consultant to the school, Bennett (who is African-American) says that implicit biases against people of color, deeply rooted in the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and a century of opportunity gaps, are “ingrained in our subconscious and manifest in our actions. Despite all the good that schools and the people who work in them do, the fact is that schools perpetuate cycles of racial trauma. To eliminate discipline disparities, a school staff and faculty would need to truly understand the nuances of systemic racism and implicit bias and how they lead to differential treatment. They would then need to rebuild their schools as antiracist institutions.”
Bennett believes there were two missed opportunities in the school’s handling of this situation. First, the Gentlemen’s Code was developed “without an accompanying change process for adults.” The code opened male students of color to more scrutiny by teachers, and some of them used it to chastise students for not adhering to their professed values. But most adults in the school didn’t refer to the code because they were not sure how to use it.
Second, Bennett believes the gentlemen already held the values articulated in the code. “The real action,” he says, “would have been to consider how the school could learn from the code and incorporate those values into schoolwide policy, practice, and norms.” For starters, the value of owning up to mistakes and learning from them could be a starting point for addressing how implicit bias resulted in disparate discipline referrals. “Equity work requires everyone to think and act differently,” Bennett concludes. “If we want to interrupt cycles of trauma, if we want to disrupt inequitable social and racial arrangements, we cannot put that weight on those whom the system disadvantages the most.”
The school got the message, launching required and voluntary equity trainings and reading groups and engaging all stakeholders in rewriting school behavioral expectations to apply to adults as well as students. In addition, a restorative practices coordinator was hired to receive, investigate, and mediate race-related complaints. Further, students can now request a specific adult or peer “ally” to join them in disciplinary meetings with teachers or administrators. Finally, the school’s assistant principal “is trying to raise his consciousness and take responsibility for his central role in either perpetuating or eliminating discipline disparities.”
“None of this is easy or comfortable,” conclude Bennett, Giessman, and Hubley, “but it’s time to honor what the gentlemen were telling us from the start: white adults in the school have serious work to do.”
“The Gentlemen’s Code” by Jerome Bennett, Jake Giessman, and Jane Hubley in Principal Leadership, April 2021 (Vol. 21, #8, p. 40-45); Giessman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Using Students’ Errors as Teachable Moments
In this Cult of Pedagogy article, Colin Seale (math teacher turned lawyer and writer) describes an interaction between his son and a kindergarten teacher during a Zoom class earlier this school year. The teacher asked students to suggest words beginning with each letter of the alphabet. When they got to the letter I, one student called out, “Iguana.” “Great work!” said the teacher. “Who else has a word that starts with our letter?” After a few moments of silence, Seale’s son unmuted and, with a huge smile on his face, said, “Lizard!” The teacher looked at him, smiled, and said, “I’m sorry, that’s not right. Does anyone else have a word that works?”
Observing his son, Seale was an unhappy dad. “I looked at him and saw the joy stripped from his eyes,” he says. “There are some serious pedagogical issues with what happened here.” He believes this was a golden opportunity to pause and figure out what was behind the error:
By moving on so quickly, the teacher didn’t teach the whole class some important skills – and Seale’s son missed the chance to explain what he was thinking, sharpen his reasoning skills, and learn how to support claims with evidence.
- The boy could have been thinking of the second letter in lizard.
- He could have been associating lizards with iguanas, not with their initial letter.
- He could have been confused by the fact that in the Ariel typestyle being used for online instruction, an uppercase i is identical to a lowercase L.
Students’ errors can be teachable moments, says Seale: “Mistakes are a natural part of learning, but students cannot develop into critical thinkers if they regularly freeze out of fear of making a mistake.” He himself was a student with “a lot of behavior challenges,” says Seale, “but it turned out these were the result of not being challenged. It was only later in life, when I attended law school, that I was taught the kind of critical thinking I needed when I was younger, the kind of thinking that would have kept me challenged.”
Critical thinking should not be treated as a “luxury good,” he says, reserved for the most advanced students, which assumes that other kids aren’t capable. “I view critical thinking as THE pathway to making equity real at the classroom level,” says Seale, “by giving students the opportunity to lead, innovate, and break the things that must be broken as a core part of their educational experience. This is not possible in a world where students are afraid of getting the wrong answer.”
Seale has become an advocate of making mistake analysis a regular part of K-12 classroom teaching. He suggests four strategies:
• Anticipate “good” mistakes. Teachers know from experience the errors students are likely to make – for example, being tripped up when adding fractions with unlike denominators. The key is understanding why the error is made and doing a better job giving students an effective strategy for avoiding the mistake.
• Grapple with good mistakes in real time. For example, in response to this question, “Who would you argue is most responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X?” a student says, “John F. Kennedy.” At first blush, the answer seems totally off base (Kennedy was killed in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965), but rather than moving on, the teacher might probe:
It turns out that what the student had in mind was the fact that Malcolm X’s controversial “chickens coming home to roost” statement after Kennedy’s death was a turning point in growing tensions between Malcolm X the leadership of the Nation of Islam, which is widely believed to have led to his murder.
- JFK? Interesting. What makes you say that?
- Why might some of your classmates disagree with you?
- JFK was assassinated before Malcolm X. Help me understand why you believe he’s responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X.
• Ask students to create their own “good” errors. “When we have students anticipate the most predictable mistakes that might be made on a task,” says Seale, “we’re moving well beyond that lower level of test-taking skills and instead, getting students to think like test-makers, coming up with viable (but incorrect) options on a multiple-choice test.” Seale liked to ask his own students to think of the kind of wrong response that would trip up “Joe Schmo,” the average person who always falls for the trick answer.
• What’s the best wrong answer? Students rise to the challenge of distinguishing between incorrect responses that have an important difference and making judgments about their relative merits – for example, two essays where one has structural problems and the other is full of spelling and grammatical errors.
“To be clear,” concludes Seale, “I am not advocating for a world with no wrong answers. I am advocating for a world where children (and adults) are less obsessed with being right and much more focused on the process of understanding what it means to be right… There is tremendous empathy to be gained from learning why someone sees something different than you do.”
“The Magic of Mistakes: 4 Ways to Boost Critical Thinking with Mistake Analysis” by Colin Seale in Cult of Pedagogy, April 18, 2021; Seale’s recent book is Thinking Like a Lawyer: A Framework for Teaching Critical Thinking to All Students (Prufrock Press, 2020).
3. Pandemic-Inspired Classroom Practices That Should Continue
In this Edutopia article, California English teacher Samantha Pack says there may be a silver lining from this challenging year: a set of insights and ideas that can, when schools return to normal, improve instruction and increase student agency:
• A living agenda – Instead of writing the daily schedule and assignments on the board, Pack has been creating a digital agenda for the unit that includes an outline of the day’s lesson, the rationale for each activity, relevant hyperlinks, and homework. This constantly updated agenda, which provides access to all unit materials, lets students see how the unit is progressing, provides talking points for teacher-student conferences, and supports self-paced learning. With this agenda at their fingertips, students shouldn’t have any, “Wait, what did we do today?” moments at home.
• Orchestrating back-channel engagement – The way the chat function has been used in remote instruction – soliciting quick feedback, checking for understanding, engaging quieter students, doing one-on-one check-ins, and a space for “parking lot” ideas – can definitely be incorporated in regular classes. This can be done with high-tech tools like Mentimeter and Google Docs, or low-tech whiteboards and chart paper, providing nonverbal channels to get more students engaged with the content.
• Mindful breaks – “Remote learning has made breaks nonnegotiable,” says Pack, “and there’s no reason why we should abandon those benefits…” During longer blocks of in-person instruction, breaks are a must, with student input on when they take place. Pack recommends not taking breaks in the first 20 minutes of a class, and giving students accountability tasks to complete before and after breaks. Pauses in instruction are also good for teachers – to check work for misunderstandings, figure out student groupings, reflect on the lesson so far, and model screen-free mindfulness.
• Splitting whole-group discussions in half – Zoom classes have made it possible for teachers to have two simultaneous discussions, which gives each student more air-time and takes conversations to a deeper level. Pack suggests modifying this process with in-person classes by assigning half the class a quiet independent task (perhaps using headphones to avoid being distracted) while the other half has a discussion, then flipping the groups.
• Soliciting student feedback – “Remote learning has found many teachers eager to know what’s going on behind those small squares of students on their screens,” says Pack. Many teachers have used polls and surveys to check in with students on pacing, learning modalities, and homework load – and to get a sense of their morale and mental health. This practice certainly should continue with in-person instruction, she says, fostering mutual understanding and student voice and choice.
“Enduring Practices from Remote Learning” by Samantha Pack in Edutopia, April 2, 2021
4. Advice on Dealing with Too Much Homework
In their weekly “Homeroom” column in The Atlantic, teachers Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer answer a question from a parent who is distraught that her ninth-grade son is spending 5-6 hours every weeknight on homework, “and that’s on top of spending most of the weekend writing essays or studying for tests.” The school’s stated policy limits core subject teachers to 30 minutes of homework a night, electives to an hour a week, so that’s clearly not being followed. The kid is getting six hours of sleep and is “beyond exhausted.”
Freireich and Platzer reply that, handled well, homework can support instruction in four important ways:
“Unfortunately,” they say, “many schools assign homework for its own sake, in amounts that are out of proportion to these basic functions – a problem that seems to have gotten worse over the past 20 years.” Another factor is the belief that lots of homework is a marker of a “good” school.
- Having students do work that prepares them for interactive classroom discussions;
- Getting students to internalize skills and knowledge through independent practice;
- Providing teachers with data on how well students have mastered what’s been taught;
- Helping students get better at planning, organizing, and completing their work.
The problem in this boy’s case may be that teachers are underestimating how much time their assignments will take and not coordinating with each other. Freireich and Platzer suggest that the student tell his teachers that assignments are taking him well past the school’s parameters. He might draw a line at the point in a set of math homework problems that he reached after 30 minutes, move on to his other subject assignments and do the same with them, and communicate his stop-points to teachers the next day. “That way,” say Freireich and Platzer, “he will be able to spread his time more evenly among classes, and his teachers will get a better sense of how long their homework is taking… Most teachers would prefer to recalibrate our students’ workload than find ourselves responsible for keeping them up late.”
If a respectful discussion with teachers doesn’t improve the situation, Freireich and Platzer suggest contacting the school’s leaders. “Hopefully,” they say, “this will prompt a larger conversation within the school about the reasons to assign homework in the first place – and the reasons not to.”
“The Worsening Homework Problem” by Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer in The Atlantic, April 13, 2021; the authors answer questions about kids’ education issues each Tuesday at email@example.com.
5. Evaluating Candidates’ Résumés During a Hiring Process
In this Chronicle of Higher Education article, David Perlmutter (Texas Tech University) offers advice on reading job applicants’ résumés. Although written for a university audience, these pointers are equally helpful in K-12 job searches.
• Rank how well applicants meet the must-have and preferred criteria. This is an area where subjectivity and favoritism have been a problem in the past, so it’s a good idea to create a matrix and objectively score relevant experience and qualifications.
• Use the résumé to get insights on the candidate’s priorities. Jobs held, teaching positions, and volunteer work are highly informative.
• Gauge candidates’ learning curve and career momentum. In addition to employment history, are there degrees, awards, or other recognition that tell a story of progress, goals, and aspirations?
• Look for synergies with your program. The goal, says Perlmutter, is to “connect the dots between the person – whom you may have yet to meet and don’t know anything about – and the ambitions you have for this position. Look for keywords, phrases, areas, and concepts that resonate.” For example, has the candidate shown interest in the type of student population served by your school?
• Look for examples of nimble thought and practice. Perlmutter says that in the wake of the pandemic, all organizations see the importance of flexibility and resilience: “Obviously, we want to hire people who have demonstrated their agility in these dark days.” Specifically, what does the résumé say about how the candidate handled the shift to virtual instruction in the spring of 2020?
• Read the résumé to generate follow-up questions. “In faculty hiring,” says Perlmutter, “you are gauging candidates’ knowledge, skills, and training, but you’re also seeking an intellectual capacity and a set of ideas that will help (and yes, challenge) you.”
• Keep the résumé in perspective. “Learn from the document,” concludes Perlmutter; “don’t be hypnotized by it.” The point is to make “fairness, humanity, decency, efficiency, and integrity the meta-goals of the hiring process.”
“How to Read a Job Candidate’s CV” by David Perlmutter in The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 16, 2021 (Vol. 67, #16, pp. 46-48); Perlmutter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Improving Students’ “User Experience” Through Course Design
In this Global Online Academy (GOA) article, instructional designer Amanda Burch suggests seven design concepts for crafting a curriculum unit plan, whether online or in-person. “An effectively designed learning experience not only increases usability,” she says, “but may also provoke emotion and delight in your learners – which can positively affect learning and strengthens perceptions of your instruction or of your institution or school.” Here are the concepts, with Burch’s questions and comments for each (see the article link below for a graphic):
• Contrast – Are important elements visually distinguished in your design? For example, are hyperlinks clearly different from the rest of a text, so learners immediately recognize that they are clickable?
• Gestalt – Does your design group common elements together and have clearly defined sections? Our brains want to see part-whole relationships, says Burch, which is why it’s important to chunk information, use breaks, headers, and different colors, and show how content sections relate to the overall unit.
• Balance – Are elements equally weighted? This involves using size, spacing, color, style, contrast, and density to show the co-equal relationship between similarly important content elements.
• Hierarchy – Does your design show the relative importance of the elements? Headings and a numerical sequence are the best ways to demonstrate which ideas are most important, and the logical flow from one to another.
• Scale – Does your design use size and shape to convey relevance? The type size of headers, page layout, and use of sidebars helps learners see the relative importance of different sections.
• Dominance – Are single “focus elements” used across your design to draw attention? A repeating design (for example, a grid) can show the overall organization and how the elements fit in.
• Unity – Does your design create harmony among the elements? The key elements are color and consistent use of typestyles, structure, and language.
“From User Experience to Learner Experience: Seven Key Concepts in Effective Online Learning Design” by Amanda Burch in Global Online Academy, April 15, 2021
7. Short Item:
Online Beethoven Resources – Beethoven, Independent Man is a collection of eight illustrated biographical stories weaving together the story of the composer’s life and music. The site includes a “Search and Discover” section where students can find out more about Beethoven.
“Free Teacher Resource Brings Beethoven to Life for Students of All Ages” by Nancy and Randall Faber in Principal Leadership, April 2021 (Vol. 21, #8, p. 8)
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